Engineer from Shanghai becomes part of local volunteer community
By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – In 1990, Peiliang Zhang stepped off an airplane in San Francisco, Calif., after a long flight from his homeland, Shanghai, China. Having left family, friends and most belongings behind, the only things familiar were the two suitcases he carried that held clothing and bare necessities.
“I still remember thinking, ‘Where am I going from here?’” he said. An airline agent helped him purchase a ticket to Lincoln, Neb., where he was to start graduate school. Once there, he had the same question. All the other passengers scurried to the baggage claim and then left. Zhang was the only one still standing there, wondering where to go.
A police officer asked if he needed help. Zhang inquired how to find the university. The officer kindly called the school and arranged for a student from Malaysia to pick him up. Zhang ventured to the Foreign Student Office there, and was befriended by Chinese students who drove him to buy provisions.
Zhang credits Deng Xiaoping for his being able to emigrate. Deng Xiaoping became China’s top leader after Mao Zedong, and opened doors for people to learn about technological advances worldwide, Zhang said. When Mao was in power, Zhang added, people were forbidden from leaving China and were kept from listening to radio stations from outside China. Under Mao, there was no development. Trucks were made the same way for 50 years, with no upgrades. The tallest buildings when Zhang left Shanghai, were erected in the 1920s and 30s. There were no highways. Housing for ordinary citizens was very poor; small rooms with no heat.
But when Deng Xiaoping allowed people to go to U.S. to learn, Zhang’s opportunity wasn’t immediate. Before he could gain entrance to graduate school, he had to learn English and pass the GRE and TOEFL exams. By choosing to leave after the government paid for his undergraduate engineering degree, he first had to work and pay back tuition. It took three years of studying English and work until he could go.
Upon arrival, he liked that the air is clean, that his shoes didn’t get dusty outside, and that furniture didn’t turn black if the window was open like it did in Shanghai’s smog-filled city. One of the hardest parts of adjusting was the food. He said even in Chinese restaurants, food was made for Americans. But now, he said, he’s used to it and has no problem eating pizza and McDonald’s.
After one year, he transferred to Northeastern University for a work-study program where he could support himself while learning. He landed employment in Worcester after school, and has worked there since.
Friends introduced him to Yingdan Xue, and he decided it was time to settle down and start a family. The couple has lived in Shrewsbury since 1995, and has two boys.
Their kids like French fries and burgers, but also like the Chinese food Zhang makes– dumplings, fish and stir-fried vegetables. Chinese and English are spoken at home, but the boys use English more.
Zhang values having a voice in the community. He feels it’s important to get the community engaged in improvements. This belief led him start a parent group of volunteers who teach robotics to students from his son’s school. Seven students meet Zhang weekly at the Shrewsbury library to improve their skills in hopes of topping their opponent in the next competition.
Zhang goes back to China once a year. Since 1990, there’s been so much development there that he doesn’t even recognize Shanghai. Now, after living here so many years, when he returns to Shrewsbury from China he feels he’s home.
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