Growing up with the “Greatest Generation”

Image source: The Asia Foundation

SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Long before Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were making headlines as the first Chinese-Americans in an American executive cabinet, Linda Tsao Yang, 83, was quietly breaking racial and gender barriers. She has been executive director of, and US ambassador to, the Asian Development Bank, California’s savings and loan commissioner and a trustee for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).

Yang attributed much of her successes to values and beliefs she formed when she first came to the US. She was one of two women and the only student of non-Caucasian descent in her class in a society where she said discrimination against minorities and women was still common.

When civil war broke out in China in 1946, the 20-year-old from Shanghai was just beginning her graduate studies at Columbia University. Most of her classmates were young veterans freshly returned from World War II.

In the months that followed, she would spend afternoons with newfound friends and classmates, peers who some would later dub America’s “Greatest Generation”. From them, she learned about places such as Boise, Idaho and Omaha, Neb. — places she had seen in passing on her train ride from San Francisco to Manhattan, but which seemed far removed from the life she led in cosmopolitan New York.

“I got a very different picture of life in the US and what I observed in New York City. Some were farmers or blue-collar workers and they really taught me about life in the US,” said Yang.

But few talked about the war they had just been through.

“I do understand they must have gone through hell in the trenches … this is the generation that Tom Brokaw said is America’s ‘Greatest Generation’. They grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, they fought the war, they came back, they lifted the US not only from the ashes of the war but also from the Great Depression … they built the country after the Second World War and really established the foundation for the next generation,” recalled Yang.

While she excelled academically, Yang attributes most of her real learning to her colleagues. “The bulk of my education came from the people I met, and the friends I made,” said Yang.

“I always encourage young students coming to the US to spend some time with their (host) communities. Participate in community affairs and make some friends outside of the Chinese groups. You will learn so much not only about the US, but also about yourself in the exchange … by extending yourself beyond the Chinese circle, you can also educate other people about China. Just as I was educated by my American classmates about what life was like in Omaha and Boise, I was teaching them about life in China as well,” she said.

After graduating from Columbia, Yang struggled to land a professional position, and says she was often discriminated against based on her race or gender. Eventually, she accepted a position at what Chase National Bank (now JPMorgan Chase & Co). She was one of two women professionals in her office.

Yang and other working professional women on Wall Street formed a small lunch group to share their experiences. “We found ourselves in the same situation in a 99.9 percent male-dominated world, and we would get together to learn from and help each other,” said Yang.

When her husband accepted a position at the University of California, Davis to help establish the school’s engineering program, Yang brought the tradition with her. She joined the University Farm Circle, a social group for faculty wives, and volunteered as treasurer. Using her economics and banking background, she held seminars on budget management and personal finance, and her reputation ultimately led to an appointment to the CalPERS board of trustees and a nomination as California’s savings and loans commissioner under former governor Jerry Brown.

As commissioner in the 1980s, Yang saw California undergo one of the worst recessions in recent history, with interest rates hovering about 21 percent. During that time, Yang recalled the stories she heard from her Columbia classmates, remembering one in particular who had bought a home in one of the first Levittowns on Long Island, aided in part by a government-subsidized down payment in return for his service as a veteran.

“I got off the train, and before I got to [my friends’] house, I saw about 500 homes that looked just like his. Very plain, very simple. But it was home for them — that really brought my interest in housing, mortgages, and what government policy can do to affect the lives of people,” said Yang.

Despite leaving her hometown behind, Yang says she retains a soft spot for Shanghai. One of her favorite projects was cleaning up the city’s Suzhou Creek.

As US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, Yang fought to gain US government approval to lend funds to clean the creek. At one of the last meetings, Yang joked that the US had “… to cast a positive vote because I was born in a house near the Suzhou Creek.” For years, the creek was littered with trash and reeked of waste from local businesses and residences.

“I was so happy to see some greenery and pedestrian walks, and to my great satisfaction … there were no cigarette butts,” said Yang when visiting the site in 2002, at the conclusion of the creek’s 12-year rehabilitation program.

Growing up in 1930 Shanghai, Yang was one of five children and the first to study abroad. Her father was a businessman, and education was highly valued in her family.

Yang currently chairs the Asian Corporate Governance Association and sits on the board of the Bank of China (Hong Kong).

In this role, and having seen the prelude and aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis as executive director of the ADB, Yang sees the current economic turmoil as an opportunity for Asian and Western economies to learn from each other. Although China is emerging from the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, Yang warned that “… China can’t feel too self-satisfied — it should still examine what was done correctly and what can still be done.”

Yang also said the current crisis sends a clear message to world leaders that no single country can set the rules anymore, and that US–China relations are more crucial than ever.

While the US demographic landscape has changed significantly since the day Yang first set foot on Columbia’s campus, she encourages young Chinese-Americans with the same message that has always guided her own life: to branch out, communicate and engage with the non-Chinese community.

“We need to communicate to the broader public about our history and our culture,” said Yang. (China Daily)

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