Interview with Elaine Bien Mei '61, P'95

On April 16, 2012, Elaine Bien Mei '61, P'95 spoke to Jocelyn Richards '12 about her family's long connection to Brown- including her grandfather, Zue Sun Bien class of 1912 (also known as Bian Baimei), the first Chinese graduate of Brown.

Q:        Your grandfather was one of the first Chinese students to attend Brown. How did he end up in Providence back then?

EM:     My grandfather was the class of 1912 and came to the U.S. on a special scholarship. He went to Ithaca, New York first and learned English then came to Brown. According to an article published in the Providence Journal in 1911, he came to Providence with his wife after living one year in Ithaca. He had inquired about Brown, and when he learned of its standards and the fact that no Chinese students were here, he looked upon it favorably as a place where he should study for his life or work as a teacher.

Q:        I read that he wanted to be a teacher when he went back to China to help China modernize and become a great world power. But he ended up becoming a bank branch manager instead, is that right?

EM:      Yes, he also was instrumental in setting up the banking system and became a branch manager for the Bank of China. But I don’t think he ended up being a banker just to make money. I think in his mind he was helping China.

Q:        You had a number of relatives come through Brown throughout the past century. Can you briefly describe when they came or what their experiences were like?

EM:     It started out with my grandfather, class of 1912. Then I had an uncle whose undergraduate degree was from Brown, and he was not far from 1912—it may have been 1914 or 1915. Then came my father and his twin brother, who got their undergraduate degrees in 1928 and then went on to graduate school here in Chemistry. I think it was the 1930s when they got their PhDs. In 1938 my aunt graduated from Pembroke in English Literature. And then there was a gap and I was the next one—class of 1961. My sister also came to Brown and was the class of 1969. Our daughter also came and was the class of 1995. So those are the Biens who came to Brown.

Q:        Did most of your relatives stay in the U.S. after attending Brown or did they return to China?

EM:     My grandfather went back, as I mentioned. My uncle Richard went to MIT for graduate school and joined the International Communist Party while he was still at MIT. That was in the teens, during the Russian Revolution. Then he went back to China and stayed in China.

            And then the next were my uncle and my father. One of the articles, “Brown in China”, mentioned that Shanghai University was a Baptist school in Shanghai, and it had some loose affiliation with Brown, which was also Baptist at that time. My father and uncle had gone to Shanghai University and graduated there before coming here. They had to attend undergraduate school again, so they got their degrees in 1928 and then went on to graduate school here. And then they both went back to China and were academics there. They didn’t join the Communist Party.

Q:        How long did they stay in China after graduation?

EM:     They stayed and all throughout the Second World War they moved around a lot. After the Japanese surrendered, my uncle, my father’s twin brother, had always been in Wuchang, and my father was the one who traveled all over the place. We went to Shanghai, where my father taught at Shanghai University. And the interesting thing there was that it was post-Second World War China and there were no textbooks—absolutely no books! So my father, who was teaching Thermodynamics at the time, had to do it from memory! And he wrote to one of his old lab partners, who was a very good friend and said look, I have to teach Thermodynamics from memory, can you send me something? So his friend, who was a professor at Yale, sent him their used, unwanted texts, which my father was able to use to teach. I think it was good that he was able to make all of these connections.

Q:        It sounds like a lot had changed by the time you came to Brown. How was your experience different from those who came before you?

EM:     I was the only Asian student my Freshman year, and then my Sophomore year, a new person came in, she was Chinese but had come from Massachusetts. I don’t know whether she grew up here or not.

            Life on campus was very different then from what it is now. For example, we had maid service in the dormitory. Every week we had linen service, we got a pillowcase and sheet so we would change our sheets and launder them every week. There was a cleaning lady who came to clean our rooms. And then we were on an honor system and had to be back in the dormitory by 10:00 pm every night, and if we expected to be out, whether we were going to the library or something, we would have to sign out, and say that when we were coming back. We were on our honor to do all of this.

Q:        Do you remember if your friends at Brown took an interest in your background and time growing up in China?

EM:     Yes, they also thought that I was an aberration because first of all, I was tall. They were amazed because they expected that someone Chinese would be very tiny. Well, I wasn’t –I was quite a bit taller than a lot of my American dorm mates. In fact my sophomore roommate, someone asked her, “Don’t you feel awkward and big?” and she said “Why?” and they asked, “Well, isn’t you roommate Chinese?” and she said “Yeah”. “Isn’t she very small?” “No”. It was just their impression. The other thing was that, maybe I was completely insensitive but I don’t think I felt any discrimination on campus or any slight as my grandfather had felt, as mentioned in that article from the Providence Journal.

Q:        Did you try to maintain traditional Chinese culture in your home in the U.S.?

EM:     Well, that was the thing. We didn’t, because first of all, both my parents were quite westernized. My father was trained in the United States, and my mother was the product of another bank manager from the Bank of China, and she was quite liberated from her generation. She went to university; she wanted to become a librarian. Her father thought that was not a very good thing to do, she should get married. So what did she do? She ran away from home. She ran away from home to study library science so she could be a librarian. So yes, I had very strong-willed parents. And when we came I think they more or less made a conscious decision to try to speak Chinese to us. I maintained my Chinese but both my sisters pretty much lost their Chinese. Both of my parents spoke English and if they just didn’t feel like speaking Chinese they didn’t have to. So we did not maintain the Chinese culture as much as we should have. And that is a regret I think.