Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with David Ho, M.D.
BILL MOYERS: The year you and your mother and your family came to join your father was 1965, the year the new immigration law removed the old quotas for non-European immigrants. Was your family aware of the law?
DR. DAVID HO: I knew absolutely nothing about it at that time, and even after arrival I did not know very much. I just knew that the conditions were better to allow us to come. I didn't know what that meant. To this day my father worship JFK and LBJ for what they did to have the laws changed so that his family could come. Certainly for a lot of Chinese Americans I know it's crucial, myself included.
BILL MOYERS: You learned English quickly but how were you in regular classes, how did you learn math and social sciences and the other courses we expect of students in school?
DR. DAVID HO: Well, the social sciences were more difficult. Math was a breeze because it was easy to do the simply stuff that I was confronted with upon arrival, so, I got pretty good grades in math even from the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: How long did it take you to be accepted by your peers in school?
DR. DAVID HO: I think after a year or so people realized that I was communicating better. There were classes I could excel in. It's hard to make friends when you can't communicate, but my brother and I quickly adjusted after that initial year.
BILL MOYERS: The other kids clearly saw you as different. Did you see yourself as different?
DR. DAVID HO: Oh, absolutely. I looked different from most students in the school, and I couldn't communicate as well and my background was very different, so that initial period changed me a great deal because I was a fairly active, outgoing child in Taiwan and after arriving here, I became pretty much an introvert for a number of years. I gradually came back in the years following.
BILL MOYERS: Did you keep it to yourself or did you share it at home?
DR. DAVID HO: You know, I don't recall having lots of discussion on the problems. My father is not the type who would say "Let's talk about this and solve it together." He probably just thought that with time, we would overcome the problems - and I think he was correct.
BILL MOYERS: What did you come to appreciate about America as you continued to live here? What was it that made all of this worthwhile?
<DR. DAVID HO: Well, I think it's clear that, for me, I got a great overall education in my early years, but as I moved up the academic ladder -- once I got to college and particularly beyond college -- the opportunities offered here are incomparable.
BILL MOYERS: Do they see themselves as Chinese or Americans or as Chinese Americans?
DR. DAVID HO: They see themselves as Americans no doubt. Although from time to time they run into situations where they appreciate the fact that not everybody would see them as Americans.
BILL MOYERS: Was there an "aha" moment, a critical moment of recognition when you stopped thinking of yourself as a Chinese American?
DR. DAVID HO: I would say that there's never been an "aha" moment. It's a very slow transition. I actually became a naturalized citizen in 1970, about five years after coming, but I always thought of myself as an immigrant, a foreigner to some extent, and it is really through, I think, the fact that our kids are clearly American that we are American. And, you know, I have this ambivalence. Now that I'm looking back, I've been here so long that I sometimes forget I'm an immigrant, and there are times when I am reminded that I'm an immigrant-- by our society. You know, people will come up and say, "Where are you from?" "I'm from New York." And then they say, "Well, where were you born? Where are you really from?" And then I could go into my history because I am an immigrant and then I tell them that I was born in Taiwan, came over to California when I was 12.
BILL MOYERS: The color of America is changing. The face of American is changing. It's remarkable what is happening. But there's still tension there, isn't there?
DR. DAVID HO: Sure, and some of it is self-inflicted. Some Chinese Americans segregate and feel that they're different. Obviously many people feel very differently, that we ought to integrate and speak up and get involved with the processes that make up America. We are Americans; we're just of a different heritage. Of course there's a lot of debate within the community. The Chinese American community is not a homogeneous one.
BILL MOYERS: When did you know you were gonna be a scientist?
DR. DAVID HO: That's a tough question because I have always been interested in science ever since I was a small kid. I went through middle school and high school with a great deal of interest in the sciences. I went to Cal Tech, which is a science school, but my interests within science have shifted a great deal over the years. Initially I was interested in the physical sciences, physics and so on. Then I saw that a new biology that was emerging in the early '70s and the impact that might have on the medical profession. That's why, rather late in the college years, I decided that I would go into medicine-- to pursue medical research which is obviously science.
BILL MOYERS: When you moved here, did you get an English name?
DR. DAVID HO: Yes, my brother and I were each given an English name, hence, I'm David. My father did it very simply, Dae He is D-A-E, and he just thought David was the closest thing. So that's how he chose it. And my brother is Hung Yee, and he picked Philip as something that's close to that
BILL MOYERS: And so the big one became David, the little one in the Hebrew Bible who slew Goliath. You must feel that way sometimes - like David with that stone when you confront the epidemic of HIV around the world.
DR. DAVID HO: I was involved in the HIV epidemic as a young physician, from the very beginning, from the initial identification of these cases. I was there when the mysterious cases emerged. For over a decade there was very little we could do about this viral infection, so, yes, for a long time we felt we were confronting a giant foe that was beating us every step of the way.
BILL MOYERS: What sustained you in those first ten years? I mean, you were up against something you really couldn't name, couldn't identify, had no answer to. What kept you going, you and your team, your researchers?
DR. DAVID HO: I think for many scientists it would be the same answer, an intellectual curiosity about what this thing is. Initially it was a total mystery so our first questions was, "What is the cause?" When the cause was identified as this virus we now call HIV, then the questions became how can we understand it, how can we dissect it, tease it out and know how this virus functions, how it attacks and destroys the immune system and so on and so forth?
BILL MOYERS: Recount for me how you met up with AIDS?
DR. DAVID HO: Well, I had finished my medical school and was in the process of finishing up my training in internal medicine in Los Angeles in 1980-81, and I had taken on an extra year to be the chief medical resident.
BILL MOYERS: What has your research contributed to the field?
DR. DAVID HO: I think our biggest contribution to the field - the one I feel most proud of - is the fact that we showed the world what HIV is doing in the body of an infected person. Through our study of patients, we realized that the virus infects and replicates continuously, relentlessly at extremely high levels. It's constantly churning away, producing more progeny virus which in turn infect more of these important cells in the immune system.
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