Cecilia Birge — Anti-Asian racism during the Pandemic — Growing-up in Chinese Labor Camp — Student on Tiananmen Square protests

Stanislas Berteloot
Aug 28 · 21 min read
Cecilia Birge
Cecilia Birge
Cecilia Birge

Listen to Back in America

While President Trump has been calling the Coronavirus the Chinese virus and while the US is facing unprecedented protests against police violence and racial discrimination, Back in America is examining how these events have affected the Chinese Community.

In this episode, I speak with Cecilia Birge a former Montgomery, NJ mayor, a form bond analyst on Wall Street, now a head coach and a member of the Princeton High School Speech and Debate Team.
Cecilia shares her experience organizing fundraising with the Chinese community to help local first responders.
For us, she revisits her childhood in Chineses labor camps. As a student in Bejing during the Tiananmen Protests, she talks of her fear at the time and the turmoil in the city.
Today America is her home and the way she talks about this country and understands it help us see America in a different light.

Transcript

Barak Obama 0:00
If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

Jon 0:14
Welcome to back in America, the podcast.

Stanislas Berteloot 0:23
Welcome to back in America, the podcast why explore the American’s identity, culture, and values. In this episode, I look at the experience of an American of Chinese origin and how the current pandemic has impacted her life. My guest is a former mayor from Montgomery, New Jersey. She grew up in a Chinese prison camp and was a student in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests. President Trump is trying very hard to blame his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic on the Chinese. In turn, anti-Asian racist action had raised to about 100 reported cases per day in February, according to Congresswoman Judy Chu.

Donal Trump 1:28
COVID COVID to be specific COVID-19 that name gets further and further away from China as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus. By the way, it’s a disease without question has more names than any disease in history. I can name ‘Kung-Flu’ I can name 19 different versions.

Stanislas Berteloot 2:06
Hi, Cecilia, welcome to back in America.

Cecilia Birge 2:09
Hello. Thank you for having me.

Stanislas Berteloot 2:12
So Cecilia, back in March, you were instrumental in launching several fundraising to help first responder here in Princeton, in their effort to fight against the COVID pandemic. I wonder if you could tell us what motivated you to run these campaigns?

Cecilia Birge 2:30
Well, first of all, it actually wasn’t me. It was the entire Chinese community, led by a group of, we call it the organizing committee, which is a group of 10 people or so. This happened probably around February or so. When Coronavirus first hit China in late December and early January. Many of the Chinese residents in Princeton and frankly in all of the world experienced that remotely. And many, many of them participated in fundraising donations to back home to their relatives to their colleges, and so on and so forth. Nobody expected Coronavirus to hit America so heavily and so abruptly. And nobody certainly expected that our government responded in such a slow fashion. So as it gradually moved inland towards us, and Princeton, unfortunately, is one of the first places that had Coronavirus in New Jersey. People got really worried. And as the government was formulating its ideas, gradually, the next piece of news we heard was, we didn’t have enough PPEs. And so as you can imagine, as someone who just went through this experience remotely and now seeing it happening in our own community, people got really anxious and people wanted to do something and so that When these 10 people jumped in and got the community organized and quickly came up with a plan and execute executed

Stan 4:07
PPE?

Cecilia Birge 4:09
Personal protective equipment which is, which includes goggles, masks their different kinds of masks. And this is something I’ve learned a lot that way as well. I’d never imagined that there could be so many specifications, different classifications and certifications and approvals that could go into masks, medical gals, face shields, anything that you can imagine that protect, protect our first responders that include policemen, em as, and of course, our doctors and nurses and everybody in the hospitals.

Stanislas Berteloot 4:41
So would you say that because the virus originated first in China, the Chinese community was particularly concerned about this pandemic?

Cecilia Birge 4:51
Absolutely. And also, don’t forget this is also at least you know, I have been, I’ve been in this country for 30 years. I don’t have a strong connection with China anymore. But many residents in Princeton still have that strong connection. And many of them actually witness the SARS some years ago. So this is not only the second time around by the time you hit America, it’s third time around. So in a way they are they know what kind of speed to expect for our government to handle this kind of thing to keep it up to keep it under control. And we were not doing that at the time.

Stanislas Berteloot 5:27
And how much did you raise them together?

Cecilia Birge 5:30
The total value exceeded about $62,000. We actually initially set the fundraising goal. There are two parts, we raised money. We also collected donations because we identified the needs in the community. It’s not just personal protective gear for first responders but also the most vulnerable segment of our community which is especially the kids free and reduced lunch programs in our schools. So we collected food we collected To daily essentials, we also collected money. The fundraising goal was initially set at $10,000. And we reached that goal overnight. So we quickly you know, added to that. Eventually, we raised it. We raised over $26,000 in cash in total. And then the rest of it are all donations of PPS and can food and daily essentials.

Stanislas Berteloot 6:25
Wow. So you saw you saw the entire Asian, our should I say Chinese community come together in order to help the local community fight the coronavirus, and yet, President Trump calling it the Chinese virus. How do you think that made you and other Asian people feel?

Cecilia Birge 6:51
So it’s so infuriating and frustrating in so many ways. I think That just the fact that we have to explain to you know, the leader of this country, why it’s so wrong to identify a virus based on this location and specifically link, link it to, to to a certain ethnic group and almost with the sole intention to insult someone you know, I’ve reached the point where I’m so angry and mad I don’t even I don’t have words for it really I don’t.

Stanislas Berteloot 7:31
And what do you make of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of putting the world at risk because of his lack of transparency?

Cecilia Birge 7:43
It’s another lesson learned for all of us that you these kinds of bias and prejudice and racism comes from the same place which is ignorance and for someone who deliberately to use the power of words use their positions to, you know, practice this kind of racist views and, you know, filled with bias and hatred and even that is just wrong. They don’t deserve the office that they hold. It’s an insult to all the citizens, not just the Chinese. It’s an insult to the office as well.

Stanislas Berteloot 8:23
So let’s come back to you. Cecilia Birge, you are Princeton High School head coach. You’re also a member of the Speech and Debate Team. That’s quite a stretch from your career on Wall Street where you were a bond analyst.

Cecilia Birge 8:42
I guess so. Um, I, you know, I grew up in the academics family. And I think that my I have lots of physicists and mathematicians in my house. However, they were awesome. mathematicians and physicists who are very devoted to community affairs. My grandfather was the president of Peking University. He led the effort against the Three Gorges Dam. This was back in the 80s. And I was still in China at the time as a teenager, I witnessed what he did back then against the communists.

Stanislas Berteloot 9:26
Can you tell us a bit more about this, this effort, and what it was?

Cecilia Birge 9:30
Sure. So, the Three Gorges Dam is, I believe it’s still the largest dam in the world. You know, as many people know, the Yangtze River, you know, carries a lot of heritage. And it’s a lot of people identify that with China. It’s the second-longest river in the world has lots and lots of cultural heritage along the way. It starts in Tibet. ends in Shanghai. So it cuts through China literally halfway through. And this was in the 80s and potential pain, sleep leadership, the government decided to build three courts to spin. This part was to fulfill the need for hydroelectric electricity in China, because the country was beginning to develop it needed that power. But more importantly, it was more for building a legacy for potential pain because it’s located in the province where he came from. My grandfather, being a scientist throughout his entire life believed that these things, decisions as such, should be made, should be made based on science rather than political convenience. So he led an A team of scientists, journalists, local politicians, citizens, and initiated an opposition at first They went all the way up to, I don’t know, the English translation of it. I think it’s called people’s political consulting firm. It’s almost like, it’s like in the US, we have the Senate and the Congress. This is the equivalent of the Congress. The Three Gorges Dam vote received 30, more than 30% of no votes, which is the highest no votes in the entire country. It humiliated the communist party at the time. So that’s the history of it. And now it’s been built and it has created a lot of environmental military. You know, other issues as you can imagine.

Stanislas Berteloot 11:38
So you come, you have a history of activism, I guess few people knowing you, either as a bond analyst, as a teacher, know that you grew up in labor camp in China. Can you take us back to that time if I were to ask you to close your eyes and tell us what you see and what you feel from your early memories, what would it be?

Cecilia Birge 12:08
To begin with, I always said that I have a happy childhood. And it’s not as dark as most people assume. So, but I was born in the dark ages of the modern Chinese history. I was born at the end of the cultural revolution. My mother, who grew up in America, she spent her teenage years here with my grandparents in California. I was born right when she was about to finish what he called it’s not a term in the labor camp, but basically all these intellectuals were sent down to the labor camps to be re educated because Chairman Mao thought that they were too worthy. They only know how to use their words. They don’t know how to use the tool in the country side. So let’s send millions of these intellectuals go down to get re educated so that they can appreciate what we peasants went through before we took over the country and then they would appreciate what we have been done for the new country. So that was an oversimplified version of the Cultural Revolution. And so I was right, born around then. And as soon as I was born, she was sent back down to the to the countryside. I was left at home.

At the time my grandfather was hiding from the Red Guards in Peking University where he was working as a chancellor. So my grandpa raised me a little bit. My father was probably the equivalent thing in today’s in this country as a house arrest. He was considered a quote unquote, counter-revolutionary, intellectual. My my father was also educated here went to University of Michigan, medical school, and He actually was the one who introduced with Western any theology to China. But because of these affiliations, he wasn’t allowed in the operating room in China for almost 10 years. And so every day he was supposed to be home late at night. He would start the day very early, go to the hospital, have to do a loyalty dance in front of the mouse portrait. And then he was spent the whole day to reform himself by cleaning all the bathrooms. So he was the janitor in the hospital for that many years. And then maybe in the evening, he was supposed to stay in the hospital writing his confessions, reflections of what he has learned from the mouse works, the little red books that he read again again again, and then he was he was allowed to come home late at night, nine o’clock, 10 o’clock or so, and the next day would begin. In the meantime, the place where I was born, and it was a traditional Beijing style bungalow. But, you know, back then it was the affluent families had those homes. The Chinese idea was to have four generations living under one roof. All the rooms were taken by the proletariat’s.

So, my family was left in the 12 square meters small room with you know, no toilet no nothing. So, so that was the environment I grew up but of course, I remember some of this my memories are there were very many happy memories of playing, you know, with stones and sands whatever I could find on the street. There were also stories being told about me spitting you know that the court there eventually once was taken by this many proletariats in the corner became a have open-air kitchens so to speak. So people make food there and then they were brought in into the rooms and then ate with their families. So there was this granny who was supposed to be very relevant revolutionary. She always spied on my family. She always reported to the hospital, where my dad worked about what we were doing if we had visitors at all, we really didn’t have many visitors. So apparently, I was told to what when I was for one day, I disliked that granny so much that I got into her pod. She was cooking, and I spit into her pot, which obviously created invited political problems for my dad. Then he ended up doing more loyalty dances. when things got worse in the city, at the age of four in the age of six, my mom took me I went to the labor camp with my mom. Again for kids. That was a happy time I got to play in the mountains. I do have memories of us living in a shed in the middle of the field.

And the scary part was that our job was to make sure that the, the crops that was planted was not taken away by birds or other animals. So that was my mother’s job. But at night, we didn’t have any electricity. We didn’t have any running water. And the meantime was so dark and the mountain is right there and you hear these wolves, you know, hollering, and then the next morning you would hear reports from you know, we call them peasants, I guess today is farmers. They the farmers lift in the canyon, and that’s where it’s more concentrated, we lived in the field. So they would report how many chickens were taken by the wolves, how many rabbits were eaten by the fox, and so on and so forth. So, you know, as the little kids four years old or five years old. I was actually that was when I felt like, oh, are the wolves gonna take me? When am I gonna do when they come and attack me? So yeah, that’s

Stanislas Berteloot 18:13
Wow, some kind of memories you’ve got

Cecilia Birge 18:17
A different world.

Stanislas Berteloot 18:19
And then you studied in Beijing and in 1989, you participated to the Tiananmen Square protests. How were those days?

Cecilia Birge 18:34
In the 80s, the economy began to grow. And it was growing very unevenly. And actually then shopping the leader at the time, announced that it was okay for some people to be rich first, which was very different compared to the socialist ideology that the country had been holding on to. But unfortunately, certain people meant those with access to higher power. So there’s the creation or the labeling of the clubs, which is, to some extent by them, my family got rehabilitated. And we’re a part of that club in many ways. children whose parents are in power, have access to everything, you know if the country is developing and needs concrete, so we could probably with somebody’s letter, and then all of a sudden everybody else got to know from certain manager, but because we have the letter from someone from higher up, that manager is going to sign up on that. So you know, all of these privileges that came along, so it was very unfair. And it was also a time when American school of thoughts begin to get into China. So the concept of equal opportunity become more and more became more and more prominent. And it was at that time who yelled bond who was a strong actor, ticket to for China to shift westwards they’re closer to America and Western European countries, which is very, very different mentality in philosophy from the traditional approach of being allies with Soviet Union and, and other countries. So he died sadly. And because the students, in particular, viewed him as a champion of free speech, of equal opportunity, and because then shoppings suppression over who yelled bunkers he got shoved away. Later in his political career. The students made a request in Tim and square, which is the, you know, it’s the center of Beijing, right in front of the Forbidden City, and the government ignores the student again, and it just got escalated to the point. I think it was April 26 1989. People’s Daily which is the official government newspaper, had an editorial and called the students margin student protest, a terrorist attack. And that’s when things erupted. It paralyzed Beijing. There was no school anymore. All of us college kids, or tenements square we occupied the square with tents. hunger strike was going on, we demanded a conversation with a government. So eventually the government did come out. It took them a long while to come at it to engage in a dialogue with a student. So here again, my grandfather by then he retired, but it’s a recognizable voice, probably one of the most recognizable academic voice. He got 10 college presidents together as a consortium and and wrote a letter a joint letter, as submitted to the central government. Asking the government to come out and speak to the students and hear their voices. Like I said they did eventually meet a wasn’t a productive meeting, that hunger strike and it’s soon after that. So arguably, if managed properly, it would have just died down right things we actually a lot of students were prepared to return to school expecting school to reopen the following September, but all of a sudden in early June you know, uniformed military trucks and whatnot descended upon Beijing occupied the major arteries and sort of cornered the students in in tenement square. And, you know, we all got the news and some people I wasn’t on the square that evening, but I was there the previous nights and whatnot. And and before you know it, you hear bullets. That night, I was at home. I did not know never in my life. Did I Imagine that guns would be pointed at students but you know I heard non stop bullets. I actually thought you know who is getting married to now and who’s getting getting married late at night that the fire works it’s nonstop how much fireworks did they did they But it wasn’t until the next morning when I got onto the street that I see students with blood you know, on their shirt on their faces and come you know, with eyes, you know, crying, bawling with eyes being red.

It was it was a disaster. So my first instinct was to protect my family. I was living with my grandparents at the time. They were you know, the either These are people had who had gone through wars. So I remember we we used every single container we could find it the house, bathtubs, you know different trays and what We filled it with water because we were afraid that water was going to cut off. The next thing was I rushed to the to the market, we just got everything we could get our hands on, especially canned food, to prepare for who knows what to come. It was three, four days of a city, one of the largest cities in the world with no government, every now and then there will be a truck of soldiers driving by and some just drop by quickly with nothing others, you know, you will hear bullets as soon as you hear bullets, everybody is on the ground. So it went on like that for three four days before finally the government came out and pronounced it a terrorist attack. So the government had to come out and put down in the meantime, and the part with Tiananmen Square was all sealed. No people are allowed to enter but gradually people were going on their bicycles around town in Beijing trying to have a peek into what’s happening in there and you see burnt trucks burn tires, you see, you know, bloody clothes left somewhere. So there are some pretty gruesome scenes around them. And up till today, nobody knows how many people died on this square. Nobody knows who’s responsible for it, although in or I should say everybody knows who should be responsible for it. And if you go to China today, the topic is heavily censored. Nobody talks about it. And that concerns me more than anything else, honestly. And it’s gonna be one of these things. Not going down in Chinese history. Well, I don’t know how, whether it’s by force or by will if a country of its people especially if it’s forced, as is the case, not to remember its history, I can imagine the impact they will it will bring upon humanity.

Stanislas Berteloot 26:12
You mentioned it early on when you started talking about Tiananmen Square and, and throughout, you know, your memories I could not avoid but think of the current protest with Black Lives Matter, especially when you said, you know, country not remembering his past and its history, the protests might not have much in common, but what do you make of the current protests in the US?

Cecilia Birge 26:41
I support it, you know, the current one is much, much more complex. And the Chinese immigrants community is divided. There is a group of people like myself, who strongly supported and i think that you know, I take Myself, for example, it’s been a process. The racial discrimination in this country has so much history and it’s so complex. And it’s it’s, and especially it’s not just black and white as it was the case in the Civil War. It wasn’t even black and white as the case as the civil rights movement anymore. It’s much more embedded into our culture in to some extent, it’s so much accepted, right? It was, I accepted the fact that a black person living right next to me is stopped more frequently by cops. Did I know about the fact? Yes. Did it shock me as it does today? No, it didn’t. So I think it’s been a process for all of us. For someone like me who’s been here for 30 years, I’ve got a lot more opportunities to hear how black folks go through life. Anything from being killed like George Floyd did because of a $20 counterfeit or because of nothing. So regardless what it is It comes from the same place again, it’s about ignorance, so, so I absolutely support it. I hope that as an country, this reminds us how important it is to talk about some very uncomfortable topics. I think part of the reason we got to where we are today, in large part is, and to some extent is the Anglo Saxon culture of sweeping that discomfort under the carpet. And let’s not talk about it so that we can have, you know, a perfect image in front of everybody. But if we want to be perfect, if allowed to strive for that perfect union, we have to face the reality. And the reality in many, many ways is black and white. As an Asian American, I think we straddle the two board, two worlds, we get some of the benefits from especially the civil rights movement. We get some of the privileges from the white community, but every now and then Like the case we talked about earlier about the Trump calling a china virus, like, especially bamboo ceiling. And all of these examples are the same kind of, you know, we suffer from the same kind of decisions made by people who are ignorant about our culture and about ourselves.

Stanislas Berteloot 29:20
So tell me in 2007, you became the first and only Asian American woman, Mayor. In New Jersey, you were the mayor of Montgomery, right? What can you tell me about daily and lifelong experiences of racism and discrimination against Asian American? For you personally, you know, were you impacted by that in your life in your experience?

Cecilia Birge 29:50
You know, like in many immigrants when I first came to America, all I thought about was I’m just gonna work hard racism doesn’t bother me, I will just hunker down, work hard and work harder. And I will make it you know, I did that I did work hard, I did work harder, and I did quote unquote, make make it right.

However, through that process, I’ve also, I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t experienced that extreme kind of racism. But

through that process, I definitely became a lot more aware and certainly recognize the racist incidents that happened to me, with or without me recognizing it, that when I was mayor in Montgomery, there were people who would come to the township committees, and monopolize the public comment, you know, timeframe, just to complain, and they are just there. They just want their own platform. And when I try to impose certain rules, just to keep the new In order, I was called a communist. Right. And before I became mayor, I was deputy mayor here. And it just happened so that the mayor at the time was my mentor and good friend is also female. So the comment from the fellow male counterpart on the township committee is now you girls can do whatever you want. Right? So, right. So there is, you know, there is, that’s the thing, if we allow those kind of discrimination, whether it’s based on race, or sex, or ethnicity, whatever it is, you know, there’s no end to this war. So some people complain, why do we have to be politically correct all the time? It’s not that we’re political. We try to be politically correct all the time. It’s because words have power. And as the coach of of our debate team at Princeton high school, I see That every day I hear that from my kids every day, they carry weight, they carry power. They can help us love and they can help us hate. And we all hope that that helps us love.

Stanislas Berteloot 32:14
Thank you. Finally, Cecilia, I would like you to tell me what is America to you?

Cecilia Birge 32:21
home!

America’s home. The reason I say I came to America. I think now that I know what America is like Obviously, I’m more American than Chinese in many ways, you know, very proud of my Chinese heritage. But because of my family’s connection to the west, I came to recognize the way I was raised was half western half Chinese, and which have to take my family thank god left it to be rather than forcing it upon me. So to some extent, I never quite fit in in the Chinese culture, especially in the Chinese school culture. Part of my family was also separated for many years because the two countries didn’t have any connections back then. So one of my uncle’s finally went back to China. After marrying my aunt, it was the first time we met in the 80s. And then he, he met me and you know, for a Chinese American who left China for so long, they really didn’t function very well. So I was the tour guide, assigned by my family to help him out to take him to different places to around the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, so we got to know each other. And at the end of the trip, he said, I think ‘this girl will be happier in America, I’m gonna bring you to America’. So that changed my life and I’m eternally grateful for that. And he spent I think that for someone like me who enjoys challenges, who enjoys doing different things in life, who tried to be as thoughtful as I can be. There’s really no better place on earth than America for me. And not to mention now that I have four kids. And especially, you know, we were talking earlier that you and I both have a high school graduate, witnessing how they have transformed from the little baby that I held on day one, when I literally touched love to the young ladies and young men that they have become, and the transformation that they have gone through, both physically, academically and socially, emotionally, and for them to be filled with so much passion and love and kindness, and have so much expectations for the world. I really can’t imagine any other country can do it better than then what we have done and our job for our generation as an educator in this country is to make sure that tradition continues.

Stanislas Berteloot 35:01
And I see, talking of kids, I see your kids coming and waking up in the kitchen behind you. And that’s quite all right. Thank you.

Cecilia Birge 35:11
Interview coronas via COVID-19 style.

Stanislas Berteloot 35:15
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, Cecilia Birge, thank you so much for your time today.

Cecilia Birge 35:21
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Back in America

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