Dr. Jordan Tang spent more than a half-century at OMRF, where his research played a key role in understanding and developing experimental treatments for HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease. Now an OMRF Distinguished Career Scientist and retired from the lab, Dr. Tang has been working on his memoirs.
In this excerpt, he shares the story of his journey from Taiwan to America—and Oklahoma.
Once I’d completed college and my year of mandatory military service, I was assigned to work at the Fertilizer Bureau, a branch of the provincial government of Taiwan. In the summer of 1954, I reported to the bureau, a small agency whose mission was to oversee the production and utilization of chemical fertilizers.
The bureau was housed in a one-story building. It had a large space to accommodate about 20 workers, and I received a desk at the back of the room. For the first couple of weeks I sat idle, with no assignment or idea what to do.
But, eventually, my section chief came to me and said I was to work on farmer education. Apparently, even though chemical fertilizers were available, most farmers were still using traditional fertilizers, which included human and animal wastes.
Because most farmers were illiterate at the time, I thought I’d design posters to communicate with them. I’d done a considerable amount of artwork while in college, but the bureau’s office was ill-equipped as an art studio. So, at home, I designed and painted a large poster. It showed a smiling farmer surrounded by tall, flourishing crops—all treated with chemical fertilizers.
My section chief was surprised and excited by my poster. He arranged to have 1 million copies printed and hung in villages all over Taiwan. After I created a second poster on a similar theme, he assigned me to design the cover of a fertilizer handbook.
In college, I’d studied agricultural chemistry for four years. But in three short months, I’d become the artist-in-residence for a government bureau. Indeed, my posters were perhaps the most viewed “artworks” in Taiwan at the time. Still, I harbored no illusion there was a future for me at the bureau.
For several years, I’d quietly considered going to graduate school in the United States. I imagined America was a rich land with happy people, as I saw in many American movies. The United States was at the forefront of science and technology, and many generations of Chinese students, including my father, had gone to study there. From my family’s relationships with American missionaries, I also knew American people were friendly and kind.
Indeed, while visiting our home in Taipei, an American missionary had given my siblings and me our English names. To Jiennan, my given Chinese name, she’d added Jordan. When I later started to publish scientific papers, I decided to use my English name, as I thought it would be easier to pronounce. Today, almost everyone calls me Jordan.
Wishing to study in America was a long way from actually going. For one thing, Chiang Kai-Shek’s government didn’t permit army reservists (a role I was required to fill) to leave. Fortunately, though, children of highly ranked government officials with a status similar to mine also wanted to study in America. So, the government relaxed the rule once in a while to let those people go. My brother, Donald, had left during such a lull.
Still, I wasn’t sure my academic record would qualify me for any graduate schools in the U.S. And then there was the question of what school to attend. There was no information available about American universities to which I could apply, where they were located, or even to whom I should write to ask about applying.
A friend had provided Donald with information about Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College in Stillwater, Okla. He’d applied and was admitted to graduate school to study electrical engineering. So, I decide to apply there, too. I figured my undergraduate degree might help me get into a school with “Agricultural” in its name.
It was a happy October day when I received a letter from Oklahoma A&M saying I’d been admitted to the graduate college. I’d also received a waiver for half my tuition.
Financing my trip, though, would be another matter. My short tenure and meager salary at the Fertilizer Bureau left me with virtually no savings. As a principal at a teacher’s college, my father made enough to support our family, but he had little left over. That left only the “money pool club.”
The club, or Hui, consisted of about 12 families, all of whom knew each other well. Each month, they pooled a portion of their incomes, and one family would take the money to use it however it was needed. As my departure approached, my mother arranged it so the Hui would pay for part of my trip.
In December, the government relaxed exit permit requirements. I received a passport and a student visa. From second-hand stores, I purchased a suit, my first suitcase and, because my father was worried about Oklahoma’s harsh winters, an oversized leather jacket.
On the eve of my departure, my parents gave me 300 U.S. dollars, the first foreign currency I’d ever seen. The next night, they drove me to the airport, where I boarded a two-engine, propeller-driven plane. Through a small window, I waved good-bye to my mother and father. I would not see them or Taiwan again until 1967.
The small plane had a mighty, deafening roar. It bounced through angry skies over the darkened Pacific Ocean most of the way, but we safely reached our destination—Tokyo.
It turned out there were several students on the plane who would be joining me for the next leg of my journey, a ship ride to Vancouver. The boat’s departure, though, was delayed by several days. That gave our group the chance to sightsee.
Only nine years before, American warplanes had devastated Tokyo. But no evidence of the bombing remained. The shops were full of goods, and the Japanese economy appeared robust.
It wasn’t hard to find our way around, as most of the signs were written in Chinese characters, which the Japanese called Kanji. A few Japanese sentences I’d learned in Taiwan also proved handy. In particular, I got a good deal of use out of “ikuradesu ka?”—How much is it?—accompanied by an extended index finger.
While growing up in war-time China, we’d been taught to hate the Japanese. They were the invaders who’d taken our land and killed our people; they were the source of all of our miseries. But when I finally came face-to-face with the people of Tokyo, I found them gentle, polite and helpful. I bore them no animosity.
Our little student group walked around Tokyo for three days. Finally, our tired legs could go no farther. We found a movie theater that was playing a seasonally-appropriate film, “White Christmas.” I slept through the entire movie.
The next day, we took a short train ride to Yokosuka harbor and boarded the Yu-san, a Taiwanese cargo ship that hauled goods between the Asian and American continents. In the wake of World War II, transpacific flights had only recently resumed, and they were prohibitively expensive. With no other form of regular commercial transportation for passengers on the route, cargo ships were eager to cash in on this emerging market.
On the Yu-san, bunk beds filled a pair of above-deck cabins, one for men, one for women. All 22 passengers were students from Taiwan, on their way to study in the U.S.
Once the ship reached the open seas, the waves began to toss it like a bouncing ball. The motion made me seasick. For two days, I remained in bed, unable to keep anything in my stomach. On the third day, I managed to get up and eat—only to promptly retch into the sea.
I was able to eat and keep food down by the fourth day. Soon, I became so hungry that I could barely await the next meal.
Because we were traveling eastward, each day on board was shorter than 24 hours. A week or so into the voyage, we all developed “boat lag” and were no longer sleepy at bedtime. Instead, we stayed up much of the night playing card games.
We celebrated the Chinese New Year halfway across the Pacific. I helped make Chinese dumplings for dinner. Then we sang, took turns telling jokes and played party games.
Thirteen days after we’d left Tokyo, we arrived in Vancouver. It was January 1955, and it marked the first time I’d set foot in North America. Still, I had no trouble finding the bus station, the launching point for the final leg of my journey.
My first view of America came through the window of a Greyhound bus, as we traveled south from Vancouver to Los Angeles, then east toward Oklahoma. From my seat, I gazed, wide-eyed, intrigued by a landscape that was alien to me. Most of the time, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing.
This was a time before interstate highways, so we drove largely on winding two-lane roads. At night, I was struck by the glowing neon signs that lined the streets of one small town after another. I wondered how it was possible to have so many glittering lights.
Early one morning, I woke when the bus paused at a traffic light in southern California. Outside, palm trees lined the streets. Red tiles covered the roofs of homes, which sat on green lawns adorned with flowers. A building proclaimed the name of the town: Riverside. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Would all of America look like this?
A day later, we reached the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Sparsely populated, with miles of open land and endless skies, this looked like a different country altogether.
As we made our way across the Texas panhandle, a man sat down next to me. He wore a big hat and a style of clothing I’d seen in American cowboy movies. He seemed jovial and spoke to me about many things, most of which I didn’t understand. He laughed a lot, and, despite the language barrier (I knew some English, but my vocabulary and conversational skills had yet to develop), I gathered that he was telling me jokes.
After a while, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a fountain pen. I was confused by why he was showing it to me. But then he opened it. And from the inside of this pen, he pulled out something I recognized from my military training: a bullet.
Surprised, I pointed at the pen and gasped, “A gun?”
“Shh!” He looked around to make sure no other passenger had heard me. In a hushed voice, he said, “You never know when you might run into a boogeyman.”
I wondered what a boogeyman was. Eventually, I decided he meant a bad guy, perhaps like the ones who wore black hats in the Westerns I’d seen.
In Oklahoma, the land grew flat, which was odd to me. Where I’d lived previously, I could always see mountains. It was, I thought, curious that the trees here had no leaves and the grass was yellow. For the first time in my life I saw snow, plowed and piled along the highway.
The bus stopped at Oklahoma City’s Union Station. Several tall buildings dwarfed the single-story structure, which was nestled in downtown. I went inside and bought a new ticket, this one to Stillwater.
While waiting, I looked for a men’s room. I found two: one marked “White,” the other labelled “Colored.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what this meant. But I decided that yellow was a color and chose accordingly. I still remember the curious looks I received while in there. It wasn’t until years later, after studying Oklahoma history, that I understood those confused gazes.
Following a short ride, I arrived in Stillwater, my final destination. My journey from Taipei had taken nearly three weeks. It had carried me halfway around the world.
I stepped off the bus. At long last, I would get to see my brother again. My graduate studies would begin. I was excited and full of anticipation for my new life in America.