“Bend, Not Break” is the story of Ping Fu, whose life spanned great cultural transformations in her native China and economic transformations in her adopted home of the U.S.
Ping’s life is one of multiple dualities:
• From an upper-class life as a child in Shanghai to despised “black blood” during the Cultural Revolution.
• From one of the privileged few to gain university admission, to being exiled to the U.S. for her writings.
• From waitress in New Mexico to founder and CEO of software company Geomagic, Inc., in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
• From factory worker to Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
From these experiences comes Ping’s outlook.
“Sometimes in life, out of the clear blue sky comes a vicious storm. We must seek out the shelter of a cave in order to survive. We might feel as though we’ll never escape the dark crevasse. But there is always hope. Just when I felt like giving up, a stranger would leave food at my threshold or a letter from Shanghai Mama would arrive. I clung to such moments of grace, no matter how small, as proof that behind every closed door, there lies an open space.”
The book is essentially two stories, one of Ping’s first 25 years in China, the balance in the U.S. The China portions of the book are the most fascinating, giving intimate details of life as she remembers it before the Chairman Mao era, the years in a crowded dormitory-turned-re-education facility during the Cultural Revolution, the halting steps toward more freedom under Deng Xiaoping.
Ping’s first eight years sound rapturous. A large house with formal gardens in Shanghai, sumptuous meals prepared by a loving mother (who was actually Ping’s aunt) and the companionship of her “brothers” and “sister.”
Because the family was prosperous, it was targeted by the revolutionaries for “re-education.” In Ping’s case, that meant removal to a former college campus to live in a single room with her younger sister, cooking in the hallways and undergoing “re-education” in the form of humiliation by the Red Guards. To atone for their ancestors’ sins, Ping and others were made to eat a stew laced with sand, animal dung, mold and wood. Torture was a public event, with Ping once being forced to watch a man quartered by horses.
The death of Mao and the arrest of “the Gang of Four” in 1976 ushered in a somewhat more lenient society. Ping was accepted into Suzhou University to study literature in 1977.
She first ran afoul of the authorities with a literary magazine she edited, then sealed her fate with a senior thesis that revealed many female infants were being put to death as their parents tried for a male child.
She was arrested, briefly jailed, then told she would have to leave the country. After making arrangements with a former colleague of her father and getting the necessary paperwork, Ping left China on Jan. 14, 1984 – a 25-year-old woman banished from her home.
Much of her story about life in the U.S. is familiar: immigrant makes good through hard work, helpful mentors and luck. More compelling is how she came to start Geomagic in 1997 in Illinois, then moved it to RTP in 2000. The details of its start-up, operation, near failure and resurrection make good reading.
Ping attributes much of her success to the dualities in her life and an early lesson from her Shanghai Papa.
“Bamboo is flexible,” he told her, “bending with wind but never breaking, capable of adaption to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back from the most difficult times.”
Kenneth S. Allen, a former reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer, is editor of Greenville Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly.