Chapter Three--California - Part 5

This book is intended for a Chinese audience and tells the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. I hope my political experiences will be useful to those in China who wish to consider different forms of governance.


My Earliest Intellectual Interests


I have always loved science and still do today. I think this is true of many Chinese in China and of Chinese Americans. Some children love dinosaurs, but my first interest was astronomy, in part fueled by John Glenn’s trip into space a few years earlier and America’s continuing space program. There were large research telescopes in nearby Griffith Park and at Mount Wilson. Further away, the world’s largest telescope was at Mount Palomar, a monster with a 200 inch lens. I saved money to buy my own telescope. Coins diligently put into a plastic, moon shaped piggy bank eventually became dollars deposited into my own savings account. But however much I saved, I never reached my goal to own my own telescope: by the time I had accumulated the money to buy one of a certain size and quality, I wanted a bigger and better one. I saved enough money to buy a telescope with a two inch lens, a three inch, a four inch, a five inch, until I lost interest in astronomy without ever owning a telescope. Like the American military’s acquisition programs, mission creep had led to failure.


I loved astronomy because it is clean and elegant and beautiful. I abandoned it because (I swear this is true) I grew to fear the infinite. The vast expanse of interstellar and intergalactic space, the billions of years that stars burn, and the millions of years it takes for even light to travel from distant galaxies boggled my intellect and also depressed me. We are so small and evanescent-inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I thought that astronomers worked all night, all the time at their telescopes, and I didn’t want to do that. It was an easy leap from aspiring to do depressing nighttime work on things far away to happy work done in sunshine on things close at hand: marine biology.


Southern California is surrounded by the life of the sea: tide pools with their starfish and sea urchins, in deeper water, fish and sea otters living in dense kelp forests in which the “trees” are huge strands of marine algae growing from the sea floor to the water’s surface. My first introduction to biology was learning about these marine organisms, and it became a lifelong interest. Given my interest in beaches, I also studied waves and their effects. I built my own wave tank to replicate the action of waves, and I came to see the beach as a dynamic place, its changing contours sculpted by the ocean’s energy. As an additional benefit, all of my research could be done in the California warmth and sunshine. I developed a lifelong love for science in general and the life sciences in particular, leading me to study biology at Stanford and then to Harvard Medical School. I would eventually serve on the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives.


Light and Darkness


Whatever else was happening in my life during those years in Southern California, I remember the sunshine. Everything was done in sunshine. Year round, we barbecued in it, exercised in it, and grew gardens in it. We didn’t just have it in summer, we expected it at Thanksgiving (in November), Christmas (in December), and Easter (in April) also. My life was filled with it and I didn’t even know how much I depended on it until much later, when I moved to darker, drearier places. I went to Harvard for medical school and hit an emotional wall in late November. I would not realize for years that it was seasonal affective disorder: short winter days put the body’s circadian rhythm, or biological clock, out of order and the result is depression which lifts with the light and warmth of spring. Places at high latitudes such as Harvard and Yale (Manchuria is at a similar latitude) have shorter winter days than Southern California. That first winter at Harvard, I met my as of yet unexplained enemy—darkness—and for three years at Yale Law School, I dreaded the late fall, knowing that depression was coming, and that it would not lift until spring. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I performed well in law school, losing the time from November to May each year. At sunny Stanford, I could do well and enjoy all the other things the school had to offer. At Harvard and Yale, I had to spend all my time studying in order to do well, my efficiency diminished by depression, and the price was losing all the experiences I could have had outside of academics. In my third year of law school, I read a newspaper article about recent research on circadian rhythms and seasonal affective disorder and its simple treatment—a dose of strong early morning light that imitates sunrise. That simple solution, and winter vacations in warm, sunny places, permitted me to live in my beloved Oregon, which is at the latitude of Harbin.

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved

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