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Barefoot Doctor to Broadcaster - 2003-01-21


Voice of America's international radio broadcasters came to the United States from many countries and cultures. Back in their native countries many of them personally experienced the dramatic events which engulfed the world in the last half of the 20th century. Yang Yang of VOA's Mandarin Service is a case in point.

As a child growing up in Tianjin, China's third largest city, Yang Yang lived through all the cataclysms of the early years of Chairman Mao's communist state – the so-called Great Leap Forward, with people smelting everything iron that they possessed in backyard furnaces, and the "natural disaster years", when food became so scarce that people resorted to eating the bark off trees.

"We didn't have enough to eat. First of all we couldn't cook in our home, we had to join a neighborhood committee. All of us had to eat together. Someone cooked for us. Of course we couldn’t have enough to eat, so we ate a lot of tree leaves, and flowers, and wild grass and sometimes when we wanted to have some meat, you know, we made some man-made meat out of wood, I can't imagine, something from a tree, they made it as a man-made meat."

Nevertheless, Yang Yang says that like most young Chinese she believed that she was helping to build a better, stronger China. So when Chairman Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s, Yang Yang, like thousands of other idealist, educated urban young people, volunteered to go to a remote village thousands of miles from her home to be "reeducated" by the peasants. What she found there, she says, were peasants living in dire poverty, ignorance and misery.

"I was sent to a small village in Shanxi province. It's a mountainous village, most of the houses there were caves, they live there. In that area there was the lack of a kind of mineral in their water, in their food, so they became swollen in their joints, many of them couldn't walk properly, they became crippled, and mental illness was very high. In that village we had about a thousand people, and you could say dozens of them were idiots."

Troubled by the primitive health and sanitary conditions, Yang Yang says she took pity on the peasants, especially on the women, and decided to help them by becoming a "barefoot doctor" – one of an army of peasants given little training and sent to serve the medical needs of the rural population. Five years later, when Yang Yang was finally allowed to leave the village and go home to Tianjin, the seventy-five women whose babies she had delivered came out with their children to see her off.

"In those places people's life is nothing. People's life is nothing, really nothing. So I was proud to say, in my hands no one died. After I became the midwife, no one died. So when I left the village almost all the mothers carried their children, standing outside, saying good-bye to me. Oh, that was really nice."

Although she wanted to study medicine, the authorities sent Yang Yang to study English at Tianjin Teacher's University. Then for ten years she taught English at the College of Finance and Economics. Despite all her efforts, she was unable to get permission to go to graduate school either at home or abroad. But gradually the situation in China changed.

"Everyone felt the change. The students who came in, they were different. They were really different. They brought in the pop music, you know, from Taiwan, from Hong Kong, or from America. They brought in, they called it, ballroom dancing to the school. Older students like me were not chosen by exams, but recommended by peasants, workers. But after '77 Deng Xiaoping said no, we have to enroll students by exams, by their quality, by academic standards. So this changed a lot. You can tell, once education is booming, I think people's mind is opening, they're starting to think, they're starting to enjoy the best of life."

In time, with much trouble, Yang Yang was able to join her husband, who had been allowed to travel to study in London. When her husband was hired by VOA’s Chinese Service in Washington, Yang Yang followed him to the United States, and eventually, to the Voice of America. She says that despite the changes China has undergone, the Voice of America has a significant role to play there, and she is glad to be a part of it.

"I wanted to tell the Chinese what was happening abroad, you know. I knew some of them were still frustrated as I was, when I was there. Frustrated that they couldn't control their fate. It's the same thing now. Though they have much more freedom, supposedly they can do whatever they can. But some people really don't have the chance. And some people don't know how to do it. Somehow they're afraid, they feel lost.”

Yang Yang, a broadcaster, reporter and editor in VOA’s Mandarin Service, says she believes Voice of America’s most important mission is to show how people live in a world where they are free to set their own goals and pursue their dreams.

English Feature #7-37090 Broadcast January 13, 2003