- Language Tips
Ping Fu, co-founder of software company Geomagic, recently had a rollercoaster ride in the media spotlight with the release of her new book Bend Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, a memoir that documents her misery in China and rise to glory in the United States. In China she was initially seen as an example of how social environments can break or make a person. To her US readers, she was a symbol of the American Dream.
Her story soon caught the attention of myth-buster Fang Zhouzi who started to expose the inaccuracies in her account. She also aroused the suspicions of Chinese people living in the US, especially those with first hand experience of the times she described. Within days, Fu fell from being lauded as a heroine to being vilified as a liar.
Indeed, based on published reports and interviews, her stories do not agree with each other. For instance, after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services named her "Outstanding American by Choice" in 2012, Fu was interviewed by China News, and she was profiled in this interview as "a graduate student majoring in comparative literature" whose "competence in languages" led her to study computer languages. In her new book she said she could only say three words in English when she first came to the US. Other reports show that she obtained her permanent residence in the US by seeking political asylum. At that time, she probably felt she had to justify her application with persecution stories like those described in the book.
The book may have its truthful elements, but to most Chinese readers it seems that the majority of the facts have been bent too much to be believable. It is puzzling to see that some non-Chinese readers have chosen to defend her despite the lies that have been exposed. In a report about the backlash, one reader thanks Fu for her stories as she shows the American dream to be alive and well while the current culture in the US has encouraged an entitlement mentality. Another reader commented on Twitter that he suspects the Chinese government to be orchestrating negative reviews in Amazon, where the book is listed. China's "cultural revolution" (1966-76), a major era in Fu's book, was officially denounced by the Chinese government in a resolution in 1981. It is a dark page in Chinese history. Fu really did not need to use pulp fiction techniques to embellish or twist her history to make it sound more melodramatic than it really was.
Fu's narration is more of the "scar literature" that has been popular in the US. Such writing uses shallow sensationalism to dramatize personal suffering. In her interviews and writing Fu comes across as a victim of horrendous circumstances, such as gang rape by Red Guards. It is unnecessary and dishonest to fabricate, exaggerate, misrepresent or create experiences to tell a story to make herself sound greater than she really is.
If she had intended to blend fiction with her memoirs, her book would have been better labeled fiction. But even now she continues to defend her stories by trying to convince people of the authenticity of what she has written. Dave Eggers wrote What is the What a few years ago about the legendary story of Sudanese refuge Valentino Achak Deng. Eggers did not pretend he could get all the facts straight based on Deng's narration, hence the categorization of the book as a fictionalized memoir.
Fu's downfall is thought provoking. Some may consider her to be a victim of jealousy. If that is the case, Yao Ming would be attacked everyday, but he is not. Neither do people question Nien Cheng or Ningkun Wu, who both gave truthful accounts of their personal sufferings during the "cultural revolution" for an English audience. Public anger toward Fu comes from a dislike of dishonest people, and the concern that such people reinforce negative racial stereotypes. I think most people in the world have a low tolerance for dishonesty. Fu is just getting what Greg Mortensen got for bending facts in his book Three Cups of Tea.
In the past, when geographical and language barriers kept information from spreading, Fu would probably have got away with her fabrications without anybody noticing. Chinese businessman Tang Jun could probably also have safely bragged about his glories in the US as only a handful people in China knew anything about life in the outside world. However, it is increasingly difficult to make "I am big in America" or "I am big in China" claims that are untrue without public exposure. People leave digital trails that eventually lead the public to the truth.
Fu may claim that the world is 3-D, but as far as information flow goes it is still dangerously flat.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.
(China Daily 02/19/2013 page8)