A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Studying in America

"So I took 100 dollars with me. I began to realize the seriousness of my situation when I landed, September 6th, 1956, in the Detroit airport."

By Sam Ting

From a conversation between Bill Moyers and the physicist Sam Ting, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Physics.

SAM TING: I was born in Michigan and then returned to China a few months after I was born. My parents were rather patriotic types. At that time, the war between China and Japan had started, so they took me back. I was only four months old so I had nothing to say.

They were students, at the University of Michigan and when the Japanese attacked China, they went back. They believed they are Chinese, their destiny was in China. And so they took me back. I grew up in China during the wartime, so I really didn't go to school. But at home, my father and my mother who were both university professors always talked to me about Michael Farraday, the one who invented electricity, and James Clark Maxwell and Isaac Newton and talk about other scientists. So ever since I was young, I've heard about this name so I began to be curious. I think that if anything my parents had something to do with [making me a scientist.]

BILL MOYERS: Why did you decide to come back to the United States?

SAM TING: Two reasons. One, since I was born in Michigan, I can come back easily. And the second reason is, that at that time in the United States, you really couldn't get a better education compared with school in Taiwan at that time.

I was 20. I did not know any English at that time, very little. And also maybe I made a mistake, but I overheard from my parents that most of the students in the United States go to school on their own, so I decided to ask only 100 dollars from my parents. One hundred dollars in Taiwan was a lot of money. In United States I had no sense of value. So I took 100 dollars with me. I began to realize the seriousness of my situation when I landed ... September 6th, 1956, in the Detroit airport. So I went to the hamburger place and the hamburger cost one dollar. Then I realized this was a very serious matter.

BILL MOYERS: What did you do? You couldn't go to the University of Michigan with 100 — 99 dollars after the burger.

SAM TING: The school had given me a scholarship. Because of that I was always very grateful to the University of Michigan. So I went there. And soon they realized that maybe I'm somewhat worth their while to support. And so I went to school and they supported me. So I went to school. From entering as an undergraduate to getting my PhD took me about six years, which is considered quite fast. Most of the people take about ten or so. And during those six years I was very happy. Michigan was quite easy.

BILL MOYERS: How did America strike you in 1956? Was it overwhelming or bewildering?

SAM TING: Only for the first few days, because I don't know the language. Also, in Taiwan it's quite warm and you have summer clothes. In Michigan, winter is slightly different — it's quite cold. I remember my first winter was somewhat unpleasant because I only had tennis shoes. But after a while in Michigan I got used to it.