$50 and a Dream

For two years, Chia Ning (right) did agricultural work in the Tianzhu Commune.

Chia Ning, professor of history, came to the U.S. with $50 in her pocket. Her English, due to the 30-year isolation of her English teachers, was out-of-date and slow.  (Today, she stills calls her language “Chinglish.”) She came as a newlywed, to attend graduate school at Illinois State University with her husband. “Together we brought $80,” says Chia Ning. “And we earned two master’s degrees and two Ph.Ds.”

Chia Ning (front, center) with her family.

Chia Ning was born in Beijing, China, in the 1960s. As a child, her parents, who worked in offices in the city, were sent to a labor camp on the Yangtze River in the south. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China, had instigated what is commonly known as the “Cultural Revolution” to remove capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from society. This meant moving educated people from the city to live the lives of peasants.

For three years, Chia Ning and her family lived and worked in the labor camp, doing agricultural work. There was no school, and the family was separated by gender into dorms, where 30-40 people lived in a space the size of the average Central classroom. “During labor work, you had no private place,” says Chia Ning. “You had nothing. Nothing except a board as your bed.”

After President Nixon’s visit in 1972, China began to liberalize a bit. Chia Ning’s family was allowed to return to Beijing. But soon after that, she was sent to another labor camp near the city, as part of Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement. Young people were ordered to labor camps to help build the Chinese Royal Society. “At the time, young people like me didn’t know what our future could be,” Chia Ning says. “There was no hope.”

Chia Ning outside the “dorm” for “city youth” at the labor camp.

In 1976, Mao Zedong died, and Deng Xiaoping, who had wrested power from Mao’s successor, began reform. He instituted a national examination for anyone who had lost educational opportunities during the Cultural Revolution. Chia Ning took the test and passed, which allowed her to become a student at Beijing Normal University, where she studied history. She went on to become a graduate student at Central University for Nationalities.

In this time period, China began to open to the western world, and Chia Ning began seeing Americans and Europeans in the streets. More information filtered in. “We realized a lot of development was going on in the world,” she says. “Especially as a history major, I wanted to hear different voices.” So Chia Ning and her boyfriend decided to take a major step: moving to the United States. “It was a true adventure because you didn’t know what your life would be, and you don’t have financial resources,” she says. “But it was worth it to take the adventure.”

The portrait Chia Ning took for her boyfriend.

Unfortunately, Chia Ning was not able to go, since she didn’t have a passport and was still in graduate school. Her boyfriend had to leave without her. For two years, they lived 11,000 miles apart. At the time, China and the U.S. were connected by only two telephone wires. It was a quite a task to arrange a phone call—involving letters sent back and forth to set a date and time, a search for a phone in the middle of the night and hours of waiting until the line was free.

After two years of saving every penny, her boyfriend returned to China. They married in the summer of 1983. But Chia Ning’s visa was denied. She spent six months on the paperwork, proving that she could make enough money to support herself. “On December 3, 1983, I arrived at the Chicago airport,” she says with pride.

But her struggles were just beginning. Her English was so poor that she could hardly make small talk. Her papers came back covered in red, as professors rewrote every sentence to fix the grammar. Money, too, was a big problem. Chia Ning and her husband couldn’t even afford to take the bus. Instead, they walked miles through the snow to buy groceries and lug them home. McDonald’s was too expensive—the $2 burger was a treat for special occasions.

“I’ll just leave to your imagination about the challenge,” she says. “Every minute, we had to work for food money and then study. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, daily conversation, learning about society. Every minute was a tremendous challenge.”

In the midst of graduate school in a strange country, speaking a strange and complicated language, Chia Ning needed some inspiration. She found it on a trip to Springfield with her American host family. There, she saw a statue of Abraham Lincoln chopping wood. The image sparked a motto that helped her through hard times. “He can chop the wood and go to a future,” says Chia Ning, with tears in her eyes. “Then I can wash dishes (that’s what I did at college) and keep myself going.”

Chia Ning and her husband after earning Ph.Ds.

That’s just what she did, with the support of her professors, who helped her with English, critical thinking skills, even research and citation. “They really represent the good part of our American people,” Chia Ning says.  At the end of her first semester, she submitted her first research paper and earned an A. “That first A gave me such encouragement,” she says. “It told me that I need to keep going no matter how difficult.”

After earning her master’s degree, Chia Ning went on to John Hopkins University in in Baltimore, Md., to get her Ph.D. in Chinese history. While finishing her dissertation, she saw an advertisement for Central College and applied. She started teaching at Central in the fall of 1991, the first faculty member hired to teach East Asian history.

Chia Ning and her at the Great Wall in 2000.

At Central, Chia Ning strives to teach her students about something that has transformed her life: globalization. “Global education is a key part of our future,” she says. As the U.S. grows more diverse, every American will be expected to know about other cultures, whatever their profession.

Chia Ning gives the example of a doctor who prescribes medication for a Chinese patient. But that patient takes a traditional herb remedy at home, which is very important to his peace of mind. The doctor needs to understand the significance of the herb medicine, rather than simply ignoring it. “If you don’t have those connections or know those differences between cultures, your communication will be much limited,” Chia Ning says.

“You need to realize globalization in your life. No matter what you do,” says Chia Ning. She has certainly realized it in hers.

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  • Robert J Glasgow


    8:14 pm on February 24, 2012

    I was fortunate to have Dr. Chia Ning as a teacher in 1992. I really enjoyed the discussions that she lead and the background information that she provided about China when Tiananmen Square was still fresh in our consciousness. There were varied viewpoints across the political spectrum in my class, and she always made each student feel valued. I find her ability to keep such a balance amazing after reading this biography. In addition, it is a testament to Central College that she was hired at that time and I am thrilled that she is still there.

  • Rita Davenport


    4:25 pm on February 24, 2012

    Thank you for presenting this article about Dr. Chia Ning. I enjoyed reading it. I am fortunate to work with Chia Ning’s husband, Dr. Ko-hsing Huang, on a regular basis. They are both courageous people who share this powerful story of perseverance and triumph.