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Gao Guanghua Teacher. Doctor. Soldier. Artist.

In 2016, when Gao Guanghua arrived in the U.S. after spending years as a refugee in Thailand, you were there to walk alongside him. As a community of volunteers and donors, you helped Gao find a doctor who speaks his language, gain access to subsidized senior housing, connect with new friends in the community, and more.
Gao Guanghua’s story began long before he became a refugee, and long before his path intersected with World Relief. He shared a small part of that story from his apartment near Chinatown.

Journey

Gao Guanghua - My journey to America is a long story, but I can make it brief. In China, I was a doctor. I was a soldier. I was a teacher. In 1989, June 4, the Tiananmen Square event happened, as we all know.

I went from my home to Tiananmen Square to participate. After that, I was affected in a negative way because of my participation. So eventually, I went to Thailand and I stayed there seven or eight years.

UNHCR had an office in Bangkok. I spent a lot of money applying to become a refugee. It took a lot of time and it was complicated. Eventually, they approved me as an international refugee. It was a different kind of refugee than the way we talk about it in my culture. It doesn’t mean you have to be homeless. It’s more about people being politically persecuted.

Most of the refugees from China are refugees because they are persecuted by the Chinese government. I belong to that group.

So I was approved as a refugee, and after that UNHCR took care of me very carefully and sent me to the U.S. I came here, and got some benefits from the U.S. government.

When I arrived, my caseworker found a college student—also from China—who picked me up at the airport. All my I.D. and documents are now [on file] at World Relief. I didn’t have to get a lawyer or spend any money. World Relief just actively provided me with those things. This is a brief summary of how I came to the U.S.

Medicine

I had been a doctor in Chinese medicine for ten years. So, in Thailand I could make my personal information public and open my own clinic. I also worked at a hospital and split the profits with my supervisor. But now in the U.S., not only can I not open a clinic. I cannot even be a doctor.

If I want to be a doctor again, I must have my certificate mailed here from China. Then I have to take some tests and turn it into an American certificate in order to practice legally here. In that sense, I had more freedom in Thailand than I have here. It’s like a hero who has no place to show off (laughs).

Teaching

When I was a student, it was before Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Later, I became a middle school teacher.

I taught in schools in remote areas of the countryside. Physics, chemistry, math, geography, biology, and some other courses like writing, music, physical education, and arts. Calligraphy was not an important part of what we taught.

If you went to school before the cultural revolution, you’d learn calligraphy. If you went after, you wouldn’t learn calligraphy. It disappeared.

So right now, very few people in China can write like this. People who are 80 years or older can write like this. Among people my age, 70, you might be able to find some people. Under my age, you can hardly find anyone who knows how to write like this.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy is a treasure of Chinese culture. I was seven or eight years old when I started learning calligraphy. I didn’t like it at the beginning. But the more I practiced, the more I developed an interest.

Especially in my home town in the northern part of China, people in my father’s generation could do excellent calligraphy. Each year for the Chinese new year, every home had a person who could create a banner for each side of the door. The banners had phrases or blessings with the same general idea - well wishes for people in their careers, wishes that they’d be prosperous, peaceful, and healthy. But there are a variety of ways to say it.

Now, I’m part of Chinese calligraphy organization here in Chicago. We do a lesson once a week. The people who are interested can come to learn. We’ll give you one brush and some ink for free.

It used to be $10 per lesson, but now it’s only $5. Still, very few people come to learn. Also, every Tuesday, I go to a senior center in Chicago's little Vietnam and teach Chinese calligraphy.

Explaining a Chinese Phrase

This one is a saying from Confucius, quoted by another very famous leader. In Chinese, each character represents an idea.

So, this first one on the right means the heavens. The second one means everything under heaven—many people, many nations, but they’re all human beings. The third one has many different meanings. But in this context it means to do something in order to reach a goal.

The last one represents the public. Look at the image of this last character. One stroke to the left, one stroke to the right. Below those two strokes is a symbol that means, “self.” It basically means, eight people can make a group or fellowship.

So the combined meaning of the whole phrase is: Everything under the heaven and down to the earth is done for the public. For ordinary people. It’s not determined by only one person or politician.

We can use this to describe America’s political system. But China is far away from that kind of system. And that’s the best I can explain it.

The Chinese language is very deep. Very complicated. For example, maybe you can learn English in three years, but you cannot acquire Chinese in thirty years.

Like his language, Gao Guanghua's story is deep and rich. Donate today to help others like Gao rebuild their lives in America.

Photos and interview by Jacob Mau / @Beyondsoundbites | Interpretation by Wei Wei

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