The Big 5-0
Three friends reflect on their milestone birthdays
By Jessica Laskey
In one of his many teachings, Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote of aging, “At fifty, I knew the will of heaven.”
Evette Tsang, Grace Liu and Tian Li Wu thought a lot about this insight as the three friends—who all hail from different parts of mainland China and settled in Sacramento—approached their 50th birthdays.
“At 50, we know our mission in life,” explains Liu, who moved from Jinan, Sacramento’s sister city in eastern China, to the U.S. in 1996. “We’ve completed one chapter and can move onto the next.”
While these women share a common cultural background—they were all born toward the end of China’s notorious Cultural Revolution (launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, then chairman of the Communist Party of China) and immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s—their life stories are unique.
Tsang, who turned 50 in January, grew up in a small village in central China and landed in America in 1995 as a visiting economics scholar at Harvard. She subsequently met her husband, had two kids and embarked on a 20-year career as an insurance saleswoman.
Liu turned 50 in February and has enjoyed a consulting career that’s taken her all over the world, as has her work as president of the Jinan-Sacramento Sister Cities Corporation, which hosts cultural exchanges between Sacramento and her hometown.
Wu¬—who turned 50 in April—hails from Sichuan, where she earned a degree in Chinese medicine. After attending a medical expo in Pittsburgh in 1991, she decided to stay in the U.S. to further her education and earned a master’s in Chinese medicine from the Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences in Oakland. She’s since had two kids and now runs a successful business, Tian Chao Herbs & Acupuncture, in Midtown.
“I’m very grateful to have both parts of my experience—in China and in America,” says Wu. “We can pick and choose the best parts of each culture to pass along to the next generation.”
When Tsang, Liu and Wu met almost 15 years ago—both Tsang and Liu went to Wu for acupuncture—they formed a close-knit friendship that also includes several other women, ranging in age from 49 to 71, who immigrated from China and now live all over the region. These women have seen each other through cancer, divorces, widowhood and careers, and have helped each other reconcile their two cultures.
“I feel like I’ve lived two lives in one lifetime,” Liu says. “When I first got here, I was plunked into the culture and felt like I had to assimilate to be ‘mainstream.’ I finally realized that I define what mainstream is—I’m bilingual, I pay taxes, I contribute to my community.”
Wu finds it particularly troubling that it’s often forgotten that immigrants are accomplished people in their own cultures when they arrive in America, noting that she and her friends were highly educated before they came to the U.S. to start new lives.
“We had to start from the bottom,” Tsang agrees. “We were starting with a new language, new names. I feel very lucky to have this second life, but it was a struggle.”
As the women enter their sixth decade, they’re reflecting on where they’ve come from and where the next half century might take them. Wu’s mission is to bring healing to the population and act as a bridge between Eastern and Western practices.
Tsang is focusing on her family. She helped start a Chinese language program at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School, where both of her children attend, to encourage them to be proud of their cultural heritage.
Liu is intent on enjoying the next chapter of her life as a more independent and carefree woman—feeling empowered to do and wear what she wants without worrying about what others think.
All three women also share a goal of bettering their community, so to celebrate their birthdays they’re raising funds for three community organizations that are close to their hearts: Jinan-Sacramento Sister Cities Corporation, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital (where Wu’s child was once treated) and Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences.
“By living in two cultures, you see that there is no superior culture, just different perspectives,” Liu says. “We can all do different things, but if you do what fits you while striving for personal growth and helping your community, you’ll blossom.”
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.