Her first job was assembling transistor radios in a Chinese forced labour factory in Nanjing. She was serving the Party, reluctantly helping millions of agricultural workers listen to Chairman Mao’s broadcasts every morning. On her first day, the barely teenage Ping Fu assembled 30 units. But she had failed to connect the volume terminal and so none of them worked. But such was her aptitude for technology that she graduated to speedometers and by the time she was 18, after serving a stint in the military, she had risen to the rank of electrical engineer.
When not working at the factory she read banned copies of Gone With the Wind as well as Pride and Prejudice. If caught with such proscribed texts she ran the risk of being executed. But, separated from her family, Ping Fu was ambivalent about survival. She’d been gang raped by the Red Army when she was only 10.
Today, Ping Fu is President and CEO of Geomagic, a company that reshapes the world, from personalising prosthetic limbs to fixing NASA spaceships. She is also one of only three ‘minority women’ running a Fortune 500 company. How she escaped China and became the embodiment of the American Dream is the subject of her new book, ‘Bend, Not Break.’ Honoured by President Obama, Ping Fu has reason to feel that ascendency into the corporate stratosphere might entitle her to feel that her life has been a triumph of resourcefulness over adversity. But, as her book illustrates, crossing cultures can be fraught, while life can sometimes be defined as much by what is left behind as what lies ahead.
Bend, Not Break is a book that tells two stories about two separate worlds. On the one hand there is the trauma of growing up during the dawn of China’s Cultural Revolution. On the other, there is the tale of how she became a leading light in the Internet revolution in the US. There is also a journey between imprisonment and freedom, from the draconian anti-capitalism of Mao’s repressive regime to the vaulting ambition of the world of technology start-ups and the dot-com bubble. Able to cope with, and survive, these extremes she is often mystified by both and as a result Ping Fu is at her most illuminating when writing about clashes of cultural identities. As she gets closer to receiving her US citizenship she realises she has never felt more Chinese. When in 1993 she finally returns from exile to be reunited with her families (she was adopted, but recognises both her Shanghai and Nanjing parents) she realises that post communist China is every bit as grotesque as it was under Mao.
A life such as Ping Fu’s would be enough to break anyone. But as her title suggests, like the bamboo of her birth country she has learned to develop an amazing capacity for bending with the wind.
Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, by Ping Fu is published by Penguin, PB, £12.99, pp276, ISBN 978-0-670-92201-7
This review first appeared in the January 2013 edition of Engineering and Technology magazine http://eandt.theiet.org/