When Ping Fu was 8 years old she was ripped from a comfortably bourgeois Shanghai home and an adoring adoptive family and sent to the Maoist “reeducation” camp where she would spend the next decade of her life. There the book-loving “pearl in the hand” (as she was known to her family) was forced to eat dirt – and worse – by her peers. She witnessed brutal murders, and at times she nearly starved. At the age of 10 she was gang-raped and almost killed. Fu says she considered suicide but then realized that she was the only caregiver of her 6-year-old sister.
Yet Fu’s memoir, Bend, Not Break, is not the stammering of a shattered adult. Instead, it is the inspiring and energetic tale of how a scared little girl learned to draw down hard on her inner resources and build on every small kindness that came her way. Fu eventually made it not only out of the camp but out of the country – all the way to New Mexico where she began learning English and also computer science, which would become her lifework.
Today, Fu is the chief executive officer of Geomagic, the US-based high-tech imaging company that she founded in 1997. Now, when she travels to China it’s to oversee Geomagic’s burgeoning market in that country. And when she sees her former enemies there it is to share a convivial meal.
Freud once famously called love and work “the cornerstones of our humanness.” Although young Fu had never heard such a maxim, her life seems to have unintentionally borne it out.
It was love, Fu writes, that enabled her to survive the brutality of camp life. She leaned heavily on the memory of the unconditional affection she had known from her adoptive mother and the Taoist wisdom taught her by her adoptive father. Sometimes she would puzzle her way out of a bad situation by asking herself what her parents would have done in that same case. She helped to sustain herself by caring for her biological sister – several years her junior – who was imprisoned with her.
But there was also a series of small kindnesses that helped to lift Fu up. An unknown benefactor sometimes slipped a little extra food in her bucket – an act that she says made her feel “a little safer” and taught her that “even under the worst of circumstances” people can “choose to be good.” An uncle who was able to visit once briefly told Fu that she was “precious” – a remark that she would “hold on to tightly” and “never let ... go.” He also left behind a copy of “Gone With the Wind” – a book that she devoured, inspired by its story of survivors living in a country where “feelings and opinions were expressed openly without fear of repercussions.”
Later Fu was given a factory job in the camp making car parts. Here, she excelled, and writes that the joy of doing good work – and being appreciated by fellow workers – gave her a feeling of “elation” and the sense that “I was a somebody at last.”
Eventually Fu made it out of the camp and into a Chinese university – only to be ejected from the country for a “crime.” Her birth father was able to arrange a spot for her at the University of New Mexico. On her own, she left for the United States without “a single spare dollar” in her pocket, only three words of English in her vocabulary, and a single distant contact in her new homeland. Her trip was almost derailed when she arrived in San Francisco and discovered that the traveler’s checks she was carrying were $5 shy of being able to buy her a plane ticket to Albuquerque. At that point a stranger stepped forward and paid the difference. Fu never saw him again but says she will never forget the lesson that he taught her: “When in doubt, always err on the side of generosity.”
Once in Albuquerque she was briefly kidnapped (yes, really) and discovered that her only contact had left the state. But again, through the kindness of
others and the joy of work Fu not only survived but flourished. In her typical way, she threw herself into waitressing – devising the shortest routes from kitchen to table and burnishing her listening and communication skills until she was the best worker on the floor.
Fu applied equal vigor to her studies. When it became clear that her math skills were at an elementary-school level, she checked books out of the public library and tutored herself incessantly until she could ace calculus.
“Bend, Not Break” makes chronological leaps back and forth throughout Fu’s life. The memoir is front-loaded with the most compelling material, but each phase of Fu’s experience is instructive, including accounts of business deals in which she was able to apply lessons learned from childhood struggles.
When it comes to the present-day sections of the book, readers with less dynamic life stories than Fu’s may take comfort in the fact that even this wunderkind finds sustaining life as a working family member and fulfilled human being to be a puzzling challenge.
But no matter what the struggle, Fu never seems to lose sight of her guiding principles: “to find joy in whatever I do” and the understanding that, even in business, “it’s all about love.” Fu’s enthusiastic pursuit of meaning and deeper purpose in every phase of her life lends her memoir powerful appeal.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.