A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with David Ho, M.D.

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BILL MOYERS: Well, let's start with where we are today in the world. Give me a sense of the research you're doing right now. What are you working on?

DR. DAVID HO: The major project that I'm focused on is to develop HIV vaccine to prevent the further spread of HIV. That's my biggest project. I think, for most of the research groups, there would be consensus that vaccine research has to be the most important thing we do today.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me something about the extent of the epidemic of HIV that the world is facing in the 21st century.

DR. DAVID HO: Well, HIV has already infected, cumulatively, over 60 million individuals worldwide. Right now it is killing approximately 20 plus million and about 42 million people are living with viral infection. We know that each day this epidemic continues to grow at a rate of about 14,000 new cases per day. It's astonishing.

BILL MOYERS: Are we making any progress?

DR. DAVID HO: Progress has been made. We've been confronting this epidemic, this virus for about 20 years. We now have a great deal of understanding of the basic properties of this virus. And this has translated importantly into a number of drugs that are useful therapeutically.

And in developed countries these medications could help control the virus and prolong the quality of life and the length of life.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any hope for a continent like Africa where it appears to be ravaging out of control?

DR. DAVID HO: There's always hope -- through science and scientific investigation. There's hope that ultimately we could come up with a vaccine to halt the spread of this infection in sub-Saharan Africa. But that's not an easy task and it's some years away so, for the foreseeable future, there's no question but that Africa will be devastated by this epidemic. Perhaps a whole generation could be lost to the epidemic. Of the 42 million people living with HIV, at least three quarters of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. In those African countries, the patients do not have access to the kind of therapies we have in the U.S. and Europe, and therefore they're condemned to die, and it is typically a slow and miserable death.

BILL MOYERS: Is it a stretch to say that this is comparable to the black plague that swept across Europe?

DR. DAVID HO: I think there's no doubt that the HIV epidemic is the plague of our millennium. We are already dealing with huge numbers of people infected and the projections for the coming decade are that somewhere between one and 200 million individuals might come down with this lethal infection. In addition, the second wave of the epidemic is spreading into Asia where half of the population resides so there's no doubt that the problem will get worse. Projections suggest that over the coming decade in India and China we could have perhaps 40 million infections by 2010.

BILL MOYERS: India and China together, 40 million. Are you doing any work in the country of your origin?

DR. DAVID HO: Oh, absolutely. For several years we've been working on the ground trying to take our vaccine effort over there to do a collaborative project with the Chinese scientists. We were tested in the field in China and we've been training people, building infrastructure, laboratories and clinics.

It's very gratifying to be able to come to this country from Taiwan, acquire my expertise and now be able to take it back and have it be useful to the Chinese government.

BILL MOYERS: How far back do your roots go in China?

DR. DAVID HO: A few generations on my father's side. I've been to our hometown in the Jungshi (PH) province, which is in the south, just north of the Canton (PH) province.

Though I was born in Taiwan, I never had the opportunity return to visit. The first time I was able to go was in 1978. That was the only time I met my paternal grandmother. So we are able to trace several generations there. Interestingly, my father's from this village in Kosh Shinghi and Jungshi, and just about everyone in the village has the same surname, Ho. (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: What was it like to see your paternal grandmother, to be there?

DR. DAVID HO: I only knew her through some descriptions given by my father. In fact, he never had a photo of her until the years after Nixon toured China and helped to open it up. It was quite an exciting experience for me because I'd never met my grandmother - I didn't even know what she looked like.

Oddly enough, we could not communicate with one another because she only spoke a local dialect, not Mandarin. I could only speak the Taiwan dialect and Mandarin, so we had a lot of trouble communicating. It was mostly through body language. It was just a fascinating trip for me in 1978.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me your Chinese name and what it means.

DR. DAVID HO: My Chinese name is Ho Dae He (PH). Ho is the surname. I'm not sure it has any particular meaning. But Dae He is probably as simple as it could be in terms of Chinese writing. Dae means big and He means one.

And so simply put it's the big one. But my father would like to say he chose the name because it means the great one. (LAUGHTER) Now, my friends and my relatives used to kid me because Dae He is written with essentially four strokes. As easy as it could be in Chinese. They told me that my father chose that name because he was afraid I wouldn't be able to write. (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: What did he think when your face was on the cover of Time Magazine?

DR. DAVID HO: Well, you know, for parents it's probably the greatest thing since sliced bread. You know, now that I'm a parent, I feel that way about any accomplishment by one of my kids. So they were of course really excited and proud, and I'm actually seeing them so happy and proud. You know, I couldn't help but enjoy it with them. But for me, if it were just myself, it would be a different reaction.

BILL MOYERS: I'd like to think that when your father saw you on the cover of Time Magazine he thought, "I named him appropriately. He's fulfilled my expectations."

DR. DAVID HO: Well, I'm sure he said that too, - proudly to his friends - but he did not express that to me.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the village in Taiwan where you were born. DR. DAVID HO: My father left the mainland to teach in Taiwan, actually prior to the communist takeover of the mainland. And my mother was born in central Taiwan in a town called Tazhong (PH). They met because he was the teacher and she was the student. Old story. I was born in Tazhong, then a sleepy little town or city in central Taiwan. Today it's a pretty busy place with a few million people, and probably the third largest city in Taiwan.

The educational system in Taiwan is highly competitive, and even at the elementary level we were told that you had to excel, because if you didn't, you wouldn't get into middle school And of course everyone wanted to get into the best, or the better one's. And so starting about third or fourth grade you have school and then you have additional school or course work at night where tutors would be brought in. So it's highly competitive. And we were doing algebra in the fifth and sixth grade. I'm not sure that's necessarily healthy but we were told to focus on education.

BILL MOYERS: What were your interests then as a boy?

DR. DAVID HO: Well, I had a few role models. As a young boy, I saw my father left Taiwan to pursue higher education in the U.S. and, ultimately, became an engineer. Similarly I had, on my mother's side, an uncle who did the same. The fact that they left Taiwan to pursue higher education was valued a great deal by friends and relatives and that already told me that doing something like that -- scholarly -- was a good thing.

And then interestingly in the late '50s, so I would have been just eight or nine years old, two physicists from China, Yang and Lee, won the Nobel Prize. That was such a big development that they were glorified, they were deified. All the kids were told this is what you ought to follow. Science became a big part of what I was thinking about from then on.

BILL MOYERS: You saw yourself as wearing that white smock down there, someday in the future, right.

DR. DAVID HO: Well, I'm thinking back that I was influenced by those processes.

BILL MOYERS: You said your father left while you were still very young, why did he come?

DR. DAVID HO: Well, he determined that just teaching at the high school level - English, math and other subjects -- was not something he wanted to do long term. So he decided to take the necessary exam and apply to come to the U.S.. He actually went to multiple places -- Colorado, Utah and ultimately ended up in California and got his advanced degree from USC - the University of Southern California - in electrical engineering. When he left in 1957 he left behind my mother, myself and a younger brother and we did not see him until 1965 when the three of us came over.

He did it that way because he wanted to finish school, establish himself and become stable before moving us over. And also the climate for immigrations became much more favorable by then, and therefore we were given this golden opportunity to come over here and pursue our dreams.

Most people from Taiwan at the time felt that this is the land of opportunities. And if given the chance one should take it.

BILL MOYERS: But not many of you could come. There were strict quotas on the number of Asians and the number of Chinese who could come to this country.

DR. DAVID HO: Right. Throughout the '40s, '50s and early '60s, only those who came to pursue advanced degrees were permitted to enter the United States. It was difficult to come under other circumstances, and certainly not just immigration. We heard from my father, but not by telephone because we didn't have a telephone -- only through letters -- and he never returned for a visit. He went to the US on a slow boat and got so sick and it took so long that he didn't want to be doing that on a regular basis. So there was a period where we did not see each other for years.

BILL MOYERS: What did he tell you when he left? What did he tell your mother and-- and you and your siblings?

DR. DAVID HO: You know, I was about six at the time, so I don't really recall what he said to me. But what I learned later on from discussions with him and my mother made it clear that he felt what he was doing was the best thing for the entire family because it would open up our futures. The only instructions he left with my mother was to make sure the kids are well educated.

Looking back, I think he's really very happy that he made that move to come over here because it really broadened the opportunities for the entire family. He did it at great personal sacrifice. I've heard him over the years talk about his initial years in America trying to study and work at the same time while sending some money back home to support the family, and there was a great deal of hardship. As I have gotten older I truly appreciate the effort he made, particularly during that juncture.

BILL MOYERS: What did your father think that this country offered that he could not get in Taiwan?

DR. DAVID HO: An advanced education, the pursuit of certain things like his field, electrical engineering, and later on computer science. The opportunities for those things do not exist in Taiwan back then. And still to this day those opportunities in Taiwan do not compare to such in our country here.

Of course, he faced hardships when he got here. Just as an example, he tells us, frequently, about one job. While he was going to school he had to put eggs in cartons - you know these cartons. The white workers were bigger, they had hands that were substantially bigger. My father is a small man with very small hands and he could not keep up because he could only put two eggs in his hands at a time. He has told us about doing that job for hours and falling behind other workers because he was not as well equipped to do the job.

And to do hold that kind of job and have to study at the same time, worrying about family and being so far away and not being able to see your sons and your wife, that's hardship enough. These are things that, in the initial years, we never did talk about very much. But now that I'm older with my own family, I actually welcome the opportunities to have these sorts of discussions with him. I've tried to tell his story to my own kids.

BILL MOYERS: Are they interested in your roots?

DR. DAVID HO: Yeah, I think so. You know, they always think that I'm exaggerating or my father is exaggerating. But, comparatively speaking, they have it pretty nice compared to me who in turn had it pretty nice compared to my father.

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