Wear pink glasses
“When you possess light within, you see it externally.” -Anaïs Nin
She walked with a pronounced limp, shifting her weight to roll one hip forward; it appeared that one side of her was shorter than the other—and both were quite short to begin with. She wore gray pants with old sweaters, big buttons up the front, a simple style borne of a quiet necessity and a disregard of sorts. Her body was, after all, simply a necessary mode of transport for her considerable brain. Her shoes were orthopedic, black, square blocks of footwear as if to prove that point.
People who strode past her in airports never took note of her. She was just a small Chinese grandma to them. She was tiny, old, twisted to one side. When she read—and it was often—she wore old man glasses from the 50s, big and bulky and black-framed.
Little would anyone know by those chance encounters that she had gotten her PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1951, that she was the first woman on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, that she was president of the most prestigious university in China.
We traveled together for a month one year, just the two of us. She was quiet, reserved, smart, and with a pixie smile at times. We spent that month together, staying in hotels across the country, bearing together the joys of incessant travel, delays, unlikely and sometimes ill-informed Chinese meals graciously provided by our hosts in an attempt to make her feel at home. What came out of all those days on the road was an unlikely intergenerational and cross-cultural friendship: I was 28 at the time; she was over 70.
Xie Xide (She-uh She-duh) had been invited to the U.S. as one of 40 Distinguished Scholars brought here by the Fulbright Program to celebrate their 40th anniversary; having studied Chinese, I was her escort. This little woman was an unassuming powerhouse, a real force of nature, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her.
We had a lot of time to talk, waiting for flights, enduring long hotel stays. She told me her story, a little at a time. I filled in the gaps with my own research later, those parts she wouldn’t tell because of modesty.
When the Japanese occupied Peking in July 1937, her family fled south first to Wuhan, then Changsha, and finally ended up in Guiyang, Guizhou Province in the fall of 1938. During their flight, she contracted tuberculosis in her hip joint. Put in a cast, she was hospitalized for three years and spent another year at home recuperating. While bedridden, she read widely and taught herself English, calculus and physics.
By the time I met her, she had become the president of Fudan University in Shanghai, the Harvard of that country. With over 15 honorary doctorates from around the world, Madame Xie was indeed the first woman on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and played a key role in the development of solid state physics in China. “Yes,” she said quietly with a smile, “I was the first token woman on the Central Committee.”
During that month of travel, we rarely stayed in one place very long—she was booked to present lectures across the country so we kept moving, place to place daily—except for New Orleans, where we spent a long weekend. The president of a local university had arranged for us to be hosted by the Fairmont Hotel, a distinguished old landmark there. We checked in, the hotel staff evidently alerted to her status—they couldn’t do enough for her. Me? Chopped liver. “Call me,” I whispered to her as they whisked her away to her suite with her one small, old suitcase.
“Patti?” a small voice on the phone said. “Are you unpacked yet?” “Yes, you?” I asked. “You must come down here,” she said excitedly. “I have never seen anything like this! It is really far too extravagant for me,” she said. “And there is a large table full of food that I can’t possibly eat! Come join me and we’ll have a party!”
The door was ajar when I got to her room. As I pushed it open, I could see her—just barely—ensconced on what looked like a throne way across the gilded room, her legs dangling below her like a character in a Faulkner novel, not able to reach the floor. They had housed her in what was a 1,300-square-foot Rococo suite, dripping with reds and golds and velvet. She sat next to the largest fruit, cheese, and wine spread I had ever seen in my life. “Look!” she said. “I don’t eat cheese, so you’ll have to eat all of this!” The thought of dairy hospitality was wonderful; however, many Chinese people are lactose intolerant; hotel executives and meeting planners, take note. She also didn’t drink, so the burden of sampling the wine on our glorious behalf also fell to me. We partied quietly for hours, talking. It was in that unlikely setting that she told me about her life during the Cultural Revolution. Like many scientists and intellectuals in China, she suffered banishment during that period of political turmoil (1966-1976).
“I was locked inside the Low Temperature Laboratory for nine months,” she said. “My husband was also under house arrest in his own Institute, so our son—who was ten at the time—had to take care of himself.” After her release from house arrest, she was forced to clean the lavatory of the physics building and sweep the corridors. “I also had to work in the university's Semiconductor Factory, polishing silicon wafers.” She was finally allowed to do some teaching in 1972.
Five years later, she founded the Modern Physics Research Institute, obtaining funding for the establishment of modern research laboratories in surface physics. She revived physics in China by aiding hundreds of young physicists to find opportunities to train abroad; she co-authored a textbook in Chinese, "Semiconductor Physics," important for the training of solid state physicists there. A member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, she was also a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Third World Academy of Sciences in Italy, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
We had a glorious few days in New Orleans, playing like children, freed from our responsibility of being important adults giving speeches (her giving, me listening). And of all the things that New Orleans brought to us—great garlic mashed potatoes, strolls in the French Quarter, fantastic Zydeco music—the thing I most remember is the Woolworth’s dime store. She had been complaining that her big old man glasses wouldn’t stay up on her nose. “Come on,” I said to her, “let’s go look at eyeglasses.”
We made our way to the reading glasses; I twirled the display rack. “Look at all these glasses!” I exclaimed. “Try some on!” She was shy to do so, but finally reached up for yet another pair of old man glasses, with stern and important looking black frames. “How about these instead?” I suggested, holding up a lovely pair of faintly pink colored frames. “They would look wonderful with your hair.” “Oh, no,” she smiled, protesting. “I couldn’t!”
“Just try them—no one is looking,” I countered.
And so she did, shyly slipping them onto her
face and looking up into the mirror. I walked away to give her some room. “I’ll
be back in a minute,” I said. “I need to find some tissues and the new
Economist magazine.” As I walked away, I could see her looking out of the
corner of her eye at herself in those lovely pink frames, touching them gently,
turning her head from side to side, and smiling ever so slightly. She looked
beautiful, like a light was shining from inside her.
“I couldn’t!” she said when I returned and asked if she was going to buy them. “I need to look serious! I couldn’t look serious in pink glasses!” Instead, she bought the old man glasses. As we left that twirling stand of lenses, I saw her reach back to touch the pink ones again. Soon after, we left New Orleans and continued our trek. When she was leaving the U.S. at the end of our journey, I wrote her a letter explaining what the trip had meant to me and enclosed the letter in a small gift.
I would loved to have seen her sweet smile when she opened that box on the plane to find those pink glasses, a touchstone of our time together.
For years, I’ve planned to contact her, get back in touch, remind her of our fun together, those glasses, that large suite, All That Cheese. Yes! I should write her a letter, send along some photos from our month-long journey, remind her of our fun.
Yesterday, I wrote that letter and finally looked her up—surely she had retired from Fudan University by now, but I could always send a letter there for her. It would be so wonderful to reconnect -- traveling with her was an extraordinary moment in my life.
She died in 2000.
Write the letter today, not tomorrow. Reconnect now.
permission to wear pink glasses.
Or give someone else the pink glasses they can’t
give themselves permission to wear. They will wear them, no doubt, when they are alone; perhaps it will make them smile and look at themselves differently.
They will wear them, no doubt, when they are alone; perhaps it will make them smile and look at themselves differently.