An Interview with Shiangtai Tuan- Drawing on the Wisdom that Came Before

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An Interview with Shiangtai Tuan- Drawing on the Wisdom that Came Before

Interview by Gregoria Smith



“A narrow point of view may help you live another day, but you want to connect to other people.”


As early as the 1850s, Asians have come to the USA in waves. Chinese laborers came to California searching for gold, then later built the Southern Pacific’s western portion of the transcontinental railroad system.  Not until the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, however, did the USA allow large scale immigration from Asia. Many college graduates from Asia filled up positions in research institutions in the sixties. We, at Asian Focus, are fortunate to find Shiangtai Tuan who came as a graduate student to Wesleyan in Connecticut in 1962 and became a researcher in Nuclear Physics at Duke University. He shares with us what it is like to be a retiree in Durham, the challenges in a fast-changing city and his message to young Chinese students at the many universities in the Research Triangle and its environs.


GS: Mr. Tuan, we first met at the Cary Center for the performance of visiting musicians from Taiwan. I saw that you were interested in music. Thank you for giving us this interview.   

ST: My Chinese name is Tuan Shiangtai. My ancestors came from Suzhou where the N/S and E/W trains meet.  I was born in Shanghai, during the Nanjing massacre in the 2nd World War. Our parents and my 7 siblings were refugees, running away from the Japanese, who had invaded China 8 years earlier. I was lucky to leave Nanjing with my Mom, running behind trucks from Shanghai to Hongkong, to Guangzhou, all the way to Kachin. We stayed in Zuchon province until the war was over, then we went to Qingdao.

Because my father worked for the government, we fled from Qingdao to Taiwan in 1949 when the communists took over the mainland. I went to middle school for 5 years, then entered the National Taiwan University Physics Department, graduating in 1958. I served the mandatory 2-year military service. 

GS: Do you have sisters or brothers?

ST: There were 4 boys and 4 girls in our family.My eldest brother died in an airplane crash, in a flight between South China and India. My second brother I saw in Taiwan 5 years ago. The third oldest brother is in Beijing, a music professor at the Beijing Conservatory. My second sister is in Ohio. Physically, she is alright. But mentally, she’s no longer there.


GS: So sorry to hear that. How did you come to the United States?

ST: I entered the United States for a Master’s degree in Physics at Wesleyan in Connecticut. In 1960-62 I continued my graduate work at Duke where I got my Ph D in Nuclear/Theoretical Physics. In 1968- 1970 I was in Frankfurt University as a research fellow.  I came back to Duke University research with my major professor in theoretical nuclear physics; then later became a computer support until I retired in 2004.


GS: You have been in Durham since 1960. Did you ever go back to Suzhou?


ST: My family, yes, but not me:  all I knew about the place was running away from the Japanese and a hard life… I never saw the glory (of China) at all. I imagine our home was probably burned to the ground.


GS: Those early times must have been difficult for you.


ST:  There is a little-known fact about our history. The Japanese and Russian invasion started in the 18th Century. The country was in constant turmoil from war and famine. For my father’s generation,, the Japanese invasion started in 1936. 


You know, I have friends from Japan. They are wonderful people. I resent the fact that they put Tojo in the highest shrine to be worshipped.


The Russians had satellite countries in Europe, but they also had satellites in Asia. With the help of the Russians, the communists took over China but they did not get rid of the Russians until after the Korean War.


GS: So how do you feel about Russians now given that history?


ST: I look at Russians the same way I look at the Japanese. I like them individually as a people,but the Russian government, I think, in their effort to win the admiration of their own people, keeps trying to expand its territory. They try to have a strong leader, whether that is good or bad, I can’t say. I just hope that people would try to help each other for peace as opposed to war.


GS: Since you arrived in Durham, what changes have you observed?


ST: In 1962, if I was driving, I would not have a GPS. Development is a good thing for Raleigh. Lots of good things I really admire.  For instance, in retirement- lots of things going on.


GS: What kind of things? Can you name some?


ST: For example, I joined the NC Opera chorus. The company was organized by 2 professionals who got good financial backing. Every year they produce a grand opera. They hire professionals and have local chorus singers. 


GS: Which opera is your favorite?


ST: I like them all. We did La Traviata, Don Giovanni… The fact that Raleigh can support an opera company is impressive. Tickets costs $100.00, so it’s not easy to stay viable. I also belong to a theater group, the Durham Savoyards who produce a Gilbert & Sullivan performance every year.


GS: What is your day like these days?


ST: I do opera, I play violin in a quartet and viola for the Duke & Durham Symphony. After the season, we’re free. Opera people, they know me, I know them.


GS: What else do you do?


ST: At my home, I paint. For the last 2 years, I have been involved with artist friends who paint. I use oil & acrylic. Let me show you some of my art work. (He uses his tablet and shows me his paintings of portraits, and scenery from his travels.)


GS: Nice. What do you enjoy most nowadays?


ST: Painting, learning to paint with a group – Hillsboro Artists Coop. Every first Friday, an art walk in Chapel Hill and in Durham.


GS: Do you write?


ST: I write for myself. I used to send articles to North Carolina Mensa’s newsletter.


GS: What did you write about?


ST: Mostly about my travels. After retirement, I traveled a few times… to the Mainland, through the Silk Road, and took the Han Tour. Guangdong has scenic places. I saw 4 major cities.


GS: What would you tell young Chinese these days?


ST: I would like them to have a wide view of life. People who have stayed in one place all their lives, often get a narrow view. Some people from China- generally, all they know about is Beijing… If you come to America, at least you should know something about this country and your own. It also helps to learn English as quickly as possible.  


A narrow point of view may help you live another day, but you want to connect to other people.


GS:  You must meet different generations of Asian Americans in your area. Do you see any intergenerational differences?


ST: First generation: they learn the language. 2nd generation: they try to be more like the locals.  3rd generation: they regret very much that their parents did not tell them about their grandfathers’ lives from before they came to the USA or the beautiful landscapes of places they come from. Try to keep the connection.

GS: Why is it important to teach our culture to the next generation?

ST: People who are born here- you’re Americans. You are lucky.  It’s wonderful and you are privileged. If you have another identity, it broadens you…You’re a part of a larger whole. 

Anybody has this longing to know what one’s great grandfather did. People have this sense of needing to

work to find their roots.


GS: How do you see the future of Chinese in America?


ST: I don’t dare to think. If anyone who has an interest in Chinese civilization or who wants to learn,

I would teach that person the Chinese language for free. If someone is interested in Chinese culture, that attracts me too.


GS: Why learn Chinese culture?

ST:  Chinese civilization has lasted for so long. Among the 4 ancient civilizations, China is the only one that uses the same writing system. The present-day Chinese written language is essentially the same as the original, with modifications.

I wish people would have a little respect for older civilizations,  because heritage is important. 

People destroying the Buddha Statues, for example, I am very sad about that. Another is Confucius’ teaching, if you take Confucius teaching seriously, society will still be a good society, no matter whether you drive cars or ride horses. A society must have something to hold it together.

GS: Do you see a relationship between the great influential thinkers?

ST: Confucius, Socrates, and Buddha lived about the same time… We should all respect our human heritage as a whole. Civilization is important. Whatever we have now comes from before.


GS: I see that you also do Calligraphy. Can you teach calligraphy?

Tang dynasty calligraphy

ST:  Yes.

GS: Many of us are thinking of the last decades of our lives. If you live in your own home, researchers say it is better to stay in community as long as you can.

ST: I totally agree. But when I get older, who is going to cook, clean, etc? How will I get around? Does this place (The Vue 64) have long term care facilities? In Durham & Raleigh there are retirement homes but they are expensive. Not sure I can afford one.

GS: What do your friends do to cope with aging?

ST:  My friend goes to a place in Durham; they have a bus to take them to concerts, invite people over for painting, etc. It could be limiting, though. All those people around in their wheel chairs…

GS: I have a friend in a community complex run by a church. They have tables for games, etc.

ST: You need a good organizer taking care of old people and doing different things with them. My group sings in retirement homes. Our Quartet plays at wedding parties professionally,  but we go to retirement homes and hospitals and play for free.

People are paid to organize local people, talk to each other, paint, go to church together. If I
cannot drive anymore, I should still be able to go out and do things.

GS:  Does the government pay for some of these services?

ST: “Meals on Wheels.”  But we don’t want to go to extremes – communist/capitalist. We are struggling in the middle. The old-time Chinese country squire will help poor people. You cannot depend on the government to do everything. In Taiwan, my brother has a maid.

GS: Let me take your picture. With or without a hat? A short video, too. (Picture taking and videotaping)

ST: I think I’ll go set up my GPS.

GS: Do you need help?

ST: I think I can do it. Going back home- I know how to do that. Thank you.


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