In June 1989, Han Zhang just wanted to go home to China, but fate had other plans.
A visiting pediatric surgeon at John Hopkins, the man who would become the father of Councilman Benny Zhang was nearing the end of a foreign exchange program and made preparations to go home. His missed his wife, his family, his life there.
But back home in his native land, political turmoil was reaching a breaking point.
The turmoil — The Tiananmen Square Massacre — had exploded into a full-blown conflict of student-led protests, outcry against political corruption and quest for democracy.
His wife Jinlan, a nurse at a Beijing hospital, tended to the wounded protesters and soldiers from the massacre, which decades later has a death toll ranging from hundreds to thousands.
As tensions escalated in China, the U.S. broke off economic relations with the beleaguered country. Han Zhang would later receive a call from the airlines informing him his return ticket to Beijing had been cancelled.
Fortunately, a last minute executive order allowed Chinese intellectuals to stay in the U.S. and Han Zhang was suddenly set on a course to become an American.
“I’m still stuck between the U.S. and China,” Han Zhang said nearly 30 years later. “China is my home, but this is my home now.”
Now, decades later, Han Zhang’s son, Williamsburg City Councilor Benming “Benny” Zhang, reflected on his father’s path to citizenship and his parents’ unintended immigration to the United States.
“There was never a set time when my parents sat my sister and myself down and told us the story,” Benny Zhang said. “It would come up in random dinner conversations or when I shadowed my father from time to time at his Brooklyn office. Rather than reminisce about their past, I think they looked forward with my sister and my upbringing.”
Han and Jinlan’s narrative is quite different from the kind of experience the councilman had faced growing up in a country that he said initially regarded him as a foreigner.
Benny Zhang, an American born in 1994, was raised in Long Island, NY. — a world away from his family’s origins.
While the future councilman would grow up middle class, his Asian background would dictate how he would be regarded in the United States.
Early in grade school, educators placed Benny Zhang in English as a second language classes — a move his parent’s felt was unnecessary for an American child.
“I think it’s pretty typical for American born Chinese that the parents would speak to you in Chinese and the kids would respond in English,” Benny Zhang said. “I remember the ESL class teacher was really sweet, although the ESL program did not help me in my education.”
‘It was dangerous to get involved in politics’
The Zhang family were darlings of the Communist Party in China since Han’s father, Zhang Zhuoyuan, assumed a policy advisor role with the party as a macro-economist.
Zhuoyuan is an academic not a military figure or politician, the councilman said. Zhuoyuan told his eldest son, Han, to never enter the country’s unpredictable politics, a message he later relayed to Councilman Zhang.
“Back in the day it was dangerous to get involved in [Chinese] politics,” Benny Zhang said. “In fact when I ran for council, when I was visiting my grandparents in China they said ‘don’t get involved in politics. It might kill you.’”
Last May, Benny Zhang, then a senior at the College of William and Mary, won a seat on City Council, taking in 1,148 votes.
“There is a lot of significance that comes with this for me, being the first Asian American elected to the Williamsburg City Council,” he said following the win. The day after the election, Benny Zhang defended his honors thesis on the first Asian American to attend William and Mary.
Unlike Benny, Han took his father’s advice and stayed out of politics. His journey started with a medical degree from Beijing Medical University in 1983, — specializing in surgery — which took him to the heights of the Chinese medical elite and eventually to the United States.
Along the way, he met Jinlan at the Beijing Children’s Hospital in 1984 and the couple married two years later.
By the late 1980s, Han had reached the upper echelons of pediatric surgery. As a young but well-respected surgeon, he was awarded a research fellowship in 1988 from the United Nations to study American methods of treating pediatric trauma.
Meanwhile, major economic changes were brewing political turmoil throughout China. Students nationwide were rocked with grief after the death of a Hu Yaobang, a former General Secretary of the Communist Party and former executive head of the party.
Young people began gathering in cities to express their desire to live in a democratic country free of corruption.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the political tumult which came afterward changed everything.
At the time of the massacre, Benny Zhang’s mother, Jinlan, was a nurse at a pediatric intensive care unit. The hospital sent doctors and nurses to Tiananmen Square to bring the injured back.
“I went to rescue the people after that,” Jinlan said in a phone interview. “Some had gunshot wounds and some [were sick] just because they didn’t eat and so lots of people had collapsed. Most of them were college students.”
Back in the U.S., the president at the time, George H.W. Bush, gave a briefing that set young Han Zhang on another path. The president penned an executive order giving express priority to Chinese students stuck in the United States after Tiananmen Square, cementing Han Zhang’s immigrant status.
Han joined a team of genetic therapy researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Jinlan came to the United States seeking political asylum in 1990, his son said.
“They offered everybody a green card,” Han said. “We wanted it because of the political chaos in China. We said we don’t know [what will happen]. We’ll take the green card and stay here and do the research.”
Han and Jinlan Zhang eventually became naturalized citizens living in New York. They made their living as health care professionals in the Chinese-American community in Brooklyn.
Looking back on it all, Benny Zhang said he owes everything to his parents efforts to make a life in the United States.
“My success is owed to my parents,” Benny Zhang said. “When they came to the country, they had nothing else but each other and to keep their heads down and work hard. Where my family got to this point today comes from that simple philosophy…They made mistakes, rebounded, and continued forward.”