I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ming Wang, Harvard & MIT (MD, magna cum laude); PhD (laser physics), CEO of Aier-USA–a healthcare venture that brings in investment from China and create American jobs–and director of the internationally known Wang Vision 3D Cataract & LASIK Center in Nashville, TN, USA.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us, Dr. Wang! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in 1960 in Hangzhou, China, a coastal city. We were a family of 4 (I have a younger brother) and we were very poor. The combined income of my parents every month was only $15. I grew up without any toys since we could not afford them. Education was everything, and it was the only way to escape poverty. I remember dad used to tell me, “Ming, if you can master mathematics, physics and chemistry, you can go anywhere in the world!”
It was in such a family that focused intensely on the importance of education, where disaster occurred. In 1966, the communist dictator in China decided that the best way to maintain its dictatorship was to keep people ignorant, and the best way to achieve that was to shut down all colleges and universities in the entire country and forcefully deport every high-school graduate to the poorest part of the country. Each of us would therefore be condemned to a life sentence of poverty and hard labor, earning only $2-3 a month for the rest of our lives. If any of us dared to try to escape and return home, we could be imprisoned. Over the 10 year duration of the Cultural Revolution (or Cultural Holocaust), the government destroyed the future for 20 million young people.
In 1974, I was 14 and had graduated from the 9th grade with straight A’s, but that made no difference when the deportation order came down to me. I was not allowed to continue my education into the 10th grade and beyond, and like 20 million others, I faced the devastating fate of deportation. In a desperate attempt to avoid that destiny, I learned to play the er-hu (Chinese violin) and practiced dancing, since those who could play music or dance well had the chance of getting into the communist song-and-dance propaganda troupe, which allowed them to stay in the city and be exempt from being sent to labor camps, since the communist government needed musicians and dancers in the city.
However, my efforts were discovered by the government, and they figured out that I was playing an instrument and dancing with an ulterior motive, i.e., not to enjoy these activities, but rather to avoid deportation, so they stopped me from continuing to play the erhu and practicing dance. Everything I did to try to avoid the labor camps failed, and my fate of a life of hard labor and poverty seemed inevitable.
In 1976, just as I was about to be sent away, the communist dictator Mao died. China quickly woke up and realized what a tragic mistake it had made in shutting down all colleges for 10 years (1966-1976). The Cultural Revolution ended and the colleges were re-opened. I remember the day my parents came home and said, “Ming, you might be able to go back to school!” I thought I would never hear those words in my lifetime!
“Really? When?” I asked.
“Maybe tomorrow!” they replied.
“Three years ago I finished 9th grade, was then kicked out of the school, and in the last 3 years I have not studied, but have only played the er-hu and learned to dance to avoid deportation. So now that I have the chance to go back to school, will I start back with the 10th grade?”
“No, higher,” Dad said.
“Yes!” he insisted.
“Why the 12th?” I inquired.
“Only 12th grade graduates are allowed to take the college entrance exam, the first such exam China has had in 10 years because of the colleges being shut down for all those years,” he explained.
“Why can’t I just start with the 10th grade, and then take the college entrance exam in 3 years, rather than killing myself trying to achieve something so impossible, especially after all the suffering I have already endured in the last 3 years? Are you now going to make me jump ahead 3 years in my education overnight? You are crazy!” I exclaimed.
In an attempt to help me understand my dad’s request, my mom said, “Ming, we are not crazy. How long did the communist government shut down colleges?”
“For 10 years, from 1966 to 1976,” I replied.
“OK, but although they have re-opened all the colleges, do you think there is any guarantee they won’t shut them down again for another 10 years?”
“I guess you are right, Mom; they can do whatever they want. There is no such thing as freedom,” I conceded.
“That is correct. Either you try to go to college this year, or you may never be able to go!”
I knew I had to do it, but jumping ahead 3 years overnight seemed an impossible task, so I was very stressed out. I asked my parents, “How can I do this?”
“We will help you,” they encouraged. They came home from work that night, and had many old exams they had borrowed. Since we were too poor to afford the cost of copying the exams, my parents found scraps of paper and wrote the questions on them by hand, then drilled me every night. I was studying 19 to 21 hours a day, which practically killed me. I did not want to return to the dark past though, so I did what I needed to do because I wanted the chance to have a future, however slim that chance was.
Miraculously, I did get into college, but then I wanted to come to America, for another opportunity…for freedom!
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story about that?
I met a visiting American professor who lent me $50. So in 1982, in my pocket were the $50 (plus enough money pulled together by relatives for a one-way airplane ticket–there was not enough to get a ticket back to China, if America did not work out!), my student visa, and a Chinese-English dictionary. I was dropped off at the National Airport in Washington DC, knowing no one in this country, hardly able to speak English, but with a big American dream in my heart.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the US? How was that experience for you?
I came to this country as a near-penniless student, and had to share a $100-a-month windowless basement apartment with two other students (we split the $100 rent three ways). Although I was poor, all I cared about was that I was now free! I learned English and American culture quickly, and I worked very hard to excel.
I faced some racial discrimination, and met professors who judged me based on the color of my skin, rather than my abilities. They did not believe that Chinese students could excel in American universities, but I studied very hard to prove them wrong. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, I had studied hard to jump ahead 3 years to get into college, but that was all for myself. Now that I was in America, I studied hard not only for myself, but also for everyone who experiences racial discrimination anywhere in the world. Through my own actions, I did the best job I could with whatever I did in order to prove that the racial discrimination these people held was wrong.
I was able to complete my doctorate degree in laser physics and completed my MD (magna cum laude) from Harvard Medical School and MIT, and became an eye surgeon. The last 36 years of my work with taking care of patients has been inspired by my appreciation of America, and my appreciation of freedom.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful to for helping make the move to America more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am thankful for the visiting American professor I mentioned earlier, Professor James McNesby, who lent me $50 and arranged a teaching assistantship for me here in America that provided $400 a month, and that was how I was able to come to this country and support myself.
So how are things going today?
Today I am the CEO of Aier-USA, a new healthcare venture that brings in investments from China and creates jobs here in America by building new eye clinics. I am particularly excited about this work, since not only will it bring a good return on investment for the Chinese investors, but more importantly, it also creates jobs for US citizens, since all the employees Aier-USA has hired are Americans. I am excited that this project is being led by an immigrant, since I always feel that I am indebted to this great country of America that has given me the freedom to study and to become a doctor, so I should give back by helping to keep America strong. I think all immigrants have that responsibility.
In Nashville, TN, I founded a world-class vision center, Wang Vision 3D Cataract & LASIK Center, where we provide the best 3D laser vision treatments for our patients who come from all around the country and the world. I have also published 9 textbooks, over 100 articles including one in the world-renowned journal “Nature”. I hold several U.S. patents, and performed the world’s first laser artificial cornea implantation. I have performed over 55,000 laser vision procedures (including on over 4,000 doctors). Additionally, the honors I have received include the Honor Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Chinese American Physicians, and last year I received Kiwanis Club’s Nashvillian of the Year Award for the work the Wang Foundation has done over the decades in helping blind orphan children from around the world.
Currently Wang Vision 3D Cataract & LASIK Center is the only center in Tennessee that performs:
– 3D SMILE and 3D LASIK (18+)
– 3D KAMRA (45+)
– 3D Forever Young Lens Surgery (50+)
– 3D Laser Cataract Surgery (60+)
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have been able to help America and the world in 3 ways:
I formed a 501c(3) non-profit charity, Wang Foundation for Sight Restoration, which to date has helped patients from over 40 states and 55 countries, with all sight restoration surgeries performed free-of-charge.
I lead Aier-USA, which brings in Chinese investments and creates healthcare jobs in America.
I founded the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Immigrant and Minority Business Group to help American companies increase our exports to countries like China, in order to keep America strong.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
Communicate our laws more effectively and clearly to the immigrants, and set a cut-off date.
All of those who were already here before that date would have a pathway to citizenship for a certain number of years, but only through education, work and paying taxes.
All of those who entered illegally after that date should not be allowed to stay.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Love your parents and listen to them. At the end of Cultural Revolution, even though the task of jumping ahead 3 years in my education overnight seemed impossible, fortunately I listened to my parents, and now I have so much to show for it today.
When opportunities come in life, don’t squander them, since they may not come again! At the end of Cultural Revolution, when the rare opportunity to get into college came, I am thankful that I did my best to capture it.
When faced with discrimination, stand up to it and do the best job you can in your own work, which will show them through your actions that discrimination is wrong. This is what I did during my education after coming to America.
The key to success in life is education. Study hard, the world is what you make of it. I worked hard in school to achieve the opportunities I have had in life.
Believing in God and fulfilling our duty to pay back the blessings we have received are what give us purpose in our lives. For me, that purpose is to help others. Because of what I have suffered in the past, I now feel I am emotionally connected to those who are currently in darkness and suffering, and I want to help them.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about our future?
This is a country that obeys the laws, laws before people.
This is a country that provides 3 of the most important yet basic things that we as human beings all search for: peace, security and fairness.
This is a country with a strong Judeo-Christian faith that encourages people to do good.
Overall, America is the greatest country on the planet today. Why? Well, the resounding proof is that while we do have an immigration problem (where everybody wants to come here), we do NOT have an emigration problem (where everybody just wants to leave here).
Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Not only is he a visionary, but he is also emotionally connected to the East (having married a Chinese wife, and he himself speaks Chinese). In today’s world, not everything from the West is the best, nor is everything from the East. It is in combining the best from both the East and the West that we will find the true gems of human nature, tradition and behavior. The future of mankind does not belong to the East or the West; it belongs to the East and the West… TOGETHER!