People Soka

Retiring economics professor reflects on her life and career

By Bikash Gupta, Reporter

Hong-yi Chen is a professor of economics at SUA. She has been at Soka since its inception in 2000 and has seen SUA grow over the last two decades. This is her last semester at Soka. I sat down with her to interview her about her time at Soka, her passion, her life, and her interests.

Gupta: Does your name signify anything?

Chen: Nothing, I suppose (laughs). The name “Hong” means “wild swan” and “yi” means “coming home.” Our university has an eagle. The wildest one can go long distance. My grandfather expected that I would be the wildest swan and travel farthest in my life.

G: Is the name unique?

C: The name is not popular among girls.

G: I know tidbits about you through friends and by being in your Microeconomics class. Most non-economics students have not taken your classes. Can you tell us about your life, your childhood, your education in general?

C: Well, it is going to be a long story then (laughs). I was born in Shanghai in a middle-class family. My father was an engineer. I received a good education. I would go to the library. I liked reading books and writing. I was overall a good student, but this changed when China embarked on a cultural revolution. I was 16 at that time. The revolution overlapped with the completion of my middle school. I was sent to the countryside in a small village that borders China and Russia. The name of the village was Xinglong. For eight years, I was working in that village like an ordinary farm girl. I was chosen by the farmers to become the village’s very first teacher. I taught children whose age ranged from nine years old to 15 years old.

The village did not have any school in its two-to-three mile radius and it was difficult for villagers, and especially children, to walk this long distance across a difficult terrain. Children had to wait 10 or 12 years before they started their elementary school in a different village.

I headed the first village school there. There were many children. Now because the school was in the village itself, even children as young as six would join it. The “school” was a ramshackle mill. You could not call it a building either. It was one room, so students had to squeeze in one room. I had to teach a range of subjects that differed from math to music. Since the children also exuded different levels of expertise, I would have to divide my daytime into various slots and teach them as per their abilities.

For example, I would teach first grade for 50 minutes and then make them do homework and then teach another class for 50 minutes. This schedule lasted roughly for two years until the villagers hired another school teacher. Since the classroom was not separated, I and the second teacher would have to teach face-to-face, whereas students had to seat back-to-back. It was chaotic and we would have to yell to gain students’ attention. We would not receive the same flow of students throughout the year. For example, during harvest season, the older ones would go and help their parents in the fields and the classes would be half-empty whereas in the winter season the classes would be packed. In addition to teaching children, we also provided evening reading classes for farmers so that they could read a newspaper. This was my life for eight years until 1977. The cultural revolution ended in 1977 and I entered the university.  When I go back to that village, the villagers call me “Teacher Chen.”

G: Did you go to high school?  In university, what did you pursue?

C: No, it was all self-education for me until entering the university. I loved reading and writing. The Department of Chinese Literature admitted me. But I changed my mind mid-way. I realized that many people were illiterate and could not read and write. So I thought I would be writing for no one. Many people were under the poverty line. There were hungry people and there were homeless people. They lived miserable lives. I wanted to bring some changes. I would always ponder what went wrong for China during the revolution and its restructuring of the society. Hence, I decided to change my mind from Chinese Literature to Economics.

I was admitted to Fudan University, one of the high ranked universities in China, in 1977. I only had two years of undergraduate degree and I got bored. They were teaching socialist and Marxist economics that really did not answer my questions. So I decided to change my major to Western Modern Economics. I had to take an exam and become a master level student. In 1982, I started teaching economics at Fudan. I was pretty much satisfied with my job. China, then also, had enacted some economic reforms and hence economists like me were in high demand. I thus became an instructor for undergraduates, graduates, and young teachers from other universities. I was assigned graduate training program but unfortunately, my career came to an abrupt end in 1989 because of the Tiananmen Square movement, which was the student-led protest. I was not involved in it but a lot of students who took part in it came to me. The university perceived me as a troublemaker and I was forced to resign from the Fudan University. Then I decided to leave China and come to the U.S.A. In the States, I went to UC Berkeley and received my Ph. D degree in economics. I love my job because it is tied to a larger goal of creating a dent in the human society. After Berkeley, I accepted a position at the Fullerton California State University and taught students there.

I arrived in the United States in the Christmas of 1989. It is now almost 28 years. Though I was away from China, I made my mind to research on China. My dissertation was on China’s rural industrialization. The first year I did not go back to the country as I did not want to create any trouble for my parents and siblings. I eventually went to China in 1995 because of the dissertation. I spent a half year in China in various Chinese villages.

G: How did you collect the data?

C: It is interesting. You cannot rely on official data; they are often inflated. I had former classmates, who now worked in influential governmental positions and they supported me. They were in influential positions to tell firms to cooperate. So, I would go to these factories and they would provide me the information because I was a friend of a town leader. Also, I did not have to pay for the use of their data. I conducted my research in four provinces and the data came out to be qualitative. The article was later published in a top economics journal.

G: Can you tell us about the toughest moment and the happiest moment while growing up?

C: I had to experience various struggles and difficulties while growing up. The most difficult I remember was when I nearly survived. I had contracted Ebola in the village. It was the winter of 1975. There were already 28 deaths in the villages and the radio services were informing the public about the disease. One night one of my roommates found that I was experiencing an internal bleeding. During the time of discovery, I had severe headaches and high fever. It was night and it was freezing cold outside. The villagers had one working horse cart. It was pitch dark and you could hear wolves. The nearest clinic was outside the village. When we reached there, the doctor said they did not have the equipment and recommended another clinic in a different village. The doctor warned that if I did not reach there in time, I could die. He also warned that if I attempted to go there, the freezing atmosphere would kill me. So, either way, I was going to die. I was dying and I was still young. Thankfully, we took the risk and went to the different clinic and it was all fine.

B: Did your parents know about it?

H: I did not tell them. I was put in that clinic for 15 days. I was under ventilation for two weeks. I could not tell my parents because they were far away from me and I could not reach out to them. Also, I did not want them to worry. I relied on friends. My roommate helped me for five days and then my boyfriend (my husband now) remained by my side as I recovered. I was lucky to survive.

Exciting one was when I was accepted to Fudan University.

G: Were able to meet your parents during your time in the village?

C: During that time, I could go and visit my parents every other year. But that was contingent on if I had money and if the 72 hours journey seemed inviting or not.  For example, the village to county journey was alone 40 miles by a horse cart as there were no other means of transportation. Then county to the nearby city took 15 hours by bus and then from city to Shanghai took the journey was of a day by train and all this if I did not miss any of it.

G: You came to a different education system in the U.S.A. What are the major differences you witnessed in China and the U.S.?

C: There were quite a few such as:

In China, you had to listen to [the state political] party. There was not freedom in academics. That is not the case now. There is not total freedom either. After I left for a while, they tightened the freedom after the Tiananmen movement. They have allowed a certain degree of freedom now but I fear it may be tightened again.

Another difference: independent thinking. Here, I encourage students to speak up. In China, teachers tell students not to because they may make trouble for them. Some of our students got kicked out, some got jailed, and some lost their degree after the Tiananmen protest. The state would put something in their file and no company would want to hire them. They lost their job opportunities.

Another difference applies to Asia in general, which is rote learning and memorizing. For the most part, I have seen students just memorizing concepts, models, and not really applying that knowledge in real life in many Asian countries. In the U.S., the application of knowledge is more emphasized. We have more discussions.

G: You are interested in developmental economics. But I heard from one of my friends that you are equally interested in poetry. Is that true?

C: That was when I was young (laughs). I would read and write short stories and poems. In the first year at Fudan, I won numerous poetry competitions. But I was slowly drawn to economics. Economics is all logical reasoning whereas poetry is all creative imagination. As I went to the graduate program and later received training in this field, my logical reasoning mind overpowered the creative side. But now I want to retire and rejuvenate that part of my life.

G: Are you thinking of writing an autobiography?

C: Something like that. I posted a version of it on a Chinese website and I received pretty good hits. The problem is that the Chinese publishers have no interest in publishing the material. They do not want to criticize the system. They want to appease the system. I have to turn my non-fictional writing into fiction so that it is not all truth and publishers publish it.

G: Will that book be in Chinese?

C: First it will be in Chinese, but I am also planning an English version.

G: What made you stay at Soka for nearly two decades?

C: I am not looking for money. I am interested in value creation. Put this way, I think I made a positive dent coming to Soka University. I still remember when I joined Soka in 2001; I was looking for a student body that would share my passion. However, after teaching my first class here—Principles of Economics—I was disappointed. In my first ever class at SUA, I asked students why they were in an economics class and seven out of 11 said that they were there because they could not enter other classes.

I remember one student in particular in the cafeteria. He said: “Economics is money so I am not going to take your class.” I was quite sad about how he perceived economics. I was passionate about teaching students economics but all I received initially were lukewarm responses. Shortly after that incident, I realized I have had to do a good job to inspire students to let them know that economics is not just about making money but it is also a useful tool to improve human lives. I and Ed [Feasel, also an SUA economics professor] planned the economics curriculum well and sketched what courses to offer and would put extra efforts to remind students that economics could well be a tool to live a contributive life. [In the] following years, it became one of the popular subjects at Soka. We have sent over 50 students to graduate schools by now, 15 or more have completed Ph.D. program. Now economics students are working at prestigious organizations, such as World Bank, IMF, and governments and corporations. Most importantly, most of them are working for various social NGOs in poverty reduction area, women empowerment, and disease elimination area. Some of them have dedicated their lives to researching about slums in various countries and find ways to eradicate poverty. Some students tell me that “Hongi-yi, you changed my life because I never thought I could take economics but I am taking it now.” So I think I made Soka students passionate about economics and hence contribute to the goal of serving human society. More importantly, meeting Soka students was a better highlight of my life. It made me a better person. I was touched by their passions to live contributive lives and by their empathy towards others. They enriched my life. I know some students are carrying my dream now. Last year, two students sent me a picture, both now employees at the World Bank. Behind them, the wall read: “Our dream is a world free of poverty.”

I know I would retire with no regret. Many young people carry my dream and are doing things that I am old to do now.



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