07: Donghong Sun
chemistry educator

photos by Emily Kimura

Donghong Sun is a Chemistry educator at the high school and college level. She has presented at the 2015 Association for Science Teacher Education, the 250th American Chemical Society National Meeting, and led numerous chemistry workshops sponsored by STEMteachersNYC at the Teachers College of Columbia University. She is the Chair-elect on the STEMteachersNYC Board of Directors, and a member of theAmerican Modeling Teachers AssociationAmerican Chemical Society, and American Association of Chemistry Teachers.

Emily Kimura is a student at Barnard College and a violinist at the Manhattan School of Music.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on September 25, 2016, in Donghong's Manhattan apartment. Emily Kimura photographed and witnessed the conversation.

SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.


DONGHONG: I was born during the cultural revolution in China. My mom and dad were sent to the countryside to be reeducated by farmers. Even though they already graduated college, they were sent to really rural places to do hard labor. Chairman Mao thought that was the best thing for these youngsters.


[both laugh]


DONGHONG: They had me when they were there, so the first eight years of my life were in pretty harsh conditions. I ran around in the field of the school with other kids, other teachers, their kids, and farmer's kids. So it really felt free. But since both my parents came from well-educated families, I never felt that by being a girl, I was short of anything intellectually or ability-wise. When the Communist Party established the New China in 1949, they really promoted gender equality. So I didn't have an idea of gender inequality at all. Throughout my education we always talked about how in the Old China, women were so devalued and abused, but in New China women really stand up. But looking back, of course, it's over 2,000 years of history, so a lot of discriminating ideas were still there even though the government was saying that women should have equal rights and equal opportunities. My mom went to college. Actually my dad's mom back in the early 1900s actually went to college.


SOPHIA: That's crazy!


DONGHONG: At the time, girls were supposed to stay home, learn how to sew and cook, and eventually get married and learn how to serve a man. My grandmother unfortunately didn't get to finish her degree because she met my grandpa and they got married and she got pregnant so she started having children, and at that time there was no effective birth control, so she just kept popping out babies! And it was during the war! The Japanese invaded China in the 1930s all the way through World War II, and she had almost all her babies through those ten years. She had ten babies total, I think. 

My mom also went to college. She really wanted to study physics because of her dad, who was a physicist. She and my dad met in the Beijing University physics department. In the rural countryside where I grew up, there were not many food resources, so when my mom was pregnant with me, there weren’t many protein sources at all. All she ate was lots of carbs and no milk. At the time, free trade was forbidden, so the farmers just could not sell their stuff to non-farmers. So my dad...I forgot what he used to exchange, but he got eggs from the farmers, who all raised chicken in their yards, so my mom could have some eggs! [laughs]

My dad’s mom back in the early 1900s actually went to college.


SOPHIA: Did you feel those pervading discriminatory ideologies in your life in any way?


DONGHONG: Not in my family, but overall, women were holding same kinds of jobs and getting paid the same salary levels as men, because those salary levels were actually determined by the government, not like in the US where they're private institutions. So it was pretty fixed, and there was really no gender difference. But women were still mostly expected to do most of the housework, take care of the elderly, take care of the kids…so in a sense women got more work to do. They need to perform the same as men at work, but they have the extra burden of taking care of family. And culturally, I think women are still less valued in very traditional Chinese kinds of mindsets. Recently I just read something really disturbing about human trafficking. Women, sometimes actually college students, were kidnapped and sold to really poor areas, because in those areas, men won't have any other way to get married because they're so poor. So the only way they actually get their wives is buying them from these human traffickers. And [the women] were trapped, basically, because the transportation is almost none, so they couldn't escape, and then their communication with the outside world was completely cut off, and even worse, this one particular case I was reading, her family actually located her, and they went over and tried to get her back, but when they got there, she was already married to this man and she already had a child, so her brother and sister thought it was better for her to stay there, without knowing that the women could actually be bought and then sold again. So she was sold again to another man. And sold again. She started to have mental problems because she was abused, and was eventually sold to two brothers as a sex slave. So this kind of thing is still happening. It's two extremes: I was really empowered as a girl growing up, but on the other extreme, women are still being sold as slaves.


DONGHONG: Throughout my growing up, my parents always encouraged me to be hands-on and problem-solving. They always explained how things work and encouraged me to try on my own. Whenever my dad put anything together he would let me try with him. The two rooms we were living in were next to storage for grains and crops, so rats just ran wild. My mom told me that the ceiling...they had to stick many layers of newspaper together to put up as a ceiling, so rats actually ran above that at night! [pattering sounds] My mom's not afraid of these things, so I had a vivid memory that I was helping my dad catch a rat...


[both laugh]

I was really empowered as a girl growing up, but on the other extreme, women are still being sold as slaves.

DONGHONG: We had to put these drugs for rats at the corners of the room. When the rat takes the drug, they become thirsty, so they just roam around looking for water kind of dazed out, so there was one just right in the middle of the floor, and my dad told me to get the bat, and he actually like, snuck behind the rat, and stepped on the tail! So I had to fetch tools so we could...I forgot how we killed it.

I always helped my dad when he killed chickens. He cut the throat and then drained blood, and I had to stir the bowl with salty water so the blood wouldn't coagulate right away. So from very young, I was quite hands-on. When I was a little older, my mom never shied away from household objects that needed to be fixed, or said "Let's wait for your dad to come back.” If mom's home then mom takes care of it. My dad cooked, and actually my dad cooked better than my mom! [laughs] And they always did cleaning together. 


SOPHIA: Can you talk about your decision to marry as young as you did, what influenced that decision, what your thoughts about it were at the time, and how those thoughts changed as you got older?


DONGHONG: [My daughter’s dad and I] were high school classmates. We were high school sweethearts. I never thought about having more than one boyfriend, breaking up, and then marrying someone else! We started dating underground. It wasn't allowed to date in high school back in China, but there were several underground couples. One couple was kind of being too obvious and got reprimanded. We were kind of sneaky.


[both laugh]


DONGHONG: We got under the radar and didn't create any troubles. We really helped each other studying, and my grades never went down. My parents knew at the time, too, but didn't say anything. We went to the same college —he was in the math department and I was in the chemistry department. Of course there were bumpy times, because thinking back, both of us were trying to establish ourselves as individuals —I think especially me. Of course there are advantages [to being in a long-term relationship], but the disadvantage was feeling like I never had a chance to actually develop myself as my own, because my growing up was always together with him. 

We already knew that both of us would like to come to the United States for grad school, but during our first year of college, the Tiananmen Square event happened. That was 1989. So he decided to apply to grad school during his junior year, and came to Columbia Engineering school. It was a long distance relationship, but we kept up to it, spent lots of money on phone calls. I think it was almost $2 a minute, I think. He remembers better than I do 'cause it was all his money!


[both laugh]


DONGHONG: I actually got into Princeton first, but because he was there, eventually I still decided to come to Columbia. He went to the housing office and said that we needed married housing, and they said that we needed to show our marriage license. So I flew here on a red eye from China to San Francisco and spent like all day just sleeping. The second day, he said, "We need to go to city hall." I said, "Why?" He said, "We need to go to city hall to get a marriage license. Twenty four hours later, we can go back to city hall to have the ceremony, and then we have the marriage license so we can go back to housing to get our keys!"


[both laugh]


DONGHONG: I was still jet lagged, and we went down to city hall, waited in line, got married, got the license, and headed directly to Chinatown because we wanted to pick out a pair of rings. We went into one of the jewelry stores, and we said "We need a pair of wedding rings." [The man behind the counter] asked "When do you need it?" And we said "tomorrow." [laughs] The guy said "We won't have it ready for you for tomorrow, but you can borrow another pair, and then when you come back to pick up your real ones, you'll return this pair." It was really short, like thirty seconds, and we were pronounced husband and wife, kissed, took some pictures, and took everybody to Chinatown for lunch. The real reason was for the key that we needed. It never crossed either of our minds that we would not get married. One of my classmates said it was like we were in each other's blood. It was always meant to be. We went through graduate school together, and during grad school actually I had my daughter.


SOPHIA: What was that like?


DONGHONG: At the time it didn't feel too hard, but thinking back now, that was probably not the best thing?


[both laugh]

It never crossed either of our minds that we would not get married. One of my classmates said it was like we were in each other’s blood.

DONGHONG: But I had a great advisor, the [principal investigator] of [my grad school] group, Brian Bent. He's actually the best person in this world I've ever met. He had such an encouraging spirit, he never put restrictions on how many hours we had to work, when we needed to get there, how much work we had to do. But all the graduate students voluntarily worked as hard as we could to produce results. Unfortunately he passed away during my fourth year.


SOPHIA: That's terrible, I'm sorry.


DONGHONG: He was only 36, and probably one of the most influential people in my life. But back to marrying young and having a kid young. My advisor was really understanding, so I took work at my pace, and of course I had to get help. My mom took off her own work, and came during the first six months after I had a baby. My husband was in his fourth year when my daughter was born, and he asked his advisor to finish up his graduate work early. On the day I went into labor, I called him from my office, and said, "Uhhh I think I need to go to the doctor now. I feel like the water has been leaking all day, and maybe it is time." Guess what he said? He said, "Give me ten minutes!" It's like the baby could wait! "Give me ten minutes, I'm finishing the last sentence of my thesis, so I need to print it out. I'm going to print it out and leave the first draft in my advisor's mailbox, and then I'll go with you to the doctor's office."


[both laugh]


DONGHONG: We went to the doctor's office, I went into labor, and our daughter was born. When I was writing my thesis, the nanny situation fell through, so the last two months I made a s.o.s. call to my mom again, and she came to take care of my daughter. So my daughter and my mother have a very close relationship. It's been a blast. 

After my post-doc I got a job in a chemical company. So then the real struggle started, because we had two commuters with a young child…so there were signs back then that the marriage was in trouble. At the time we thought we resolved it, but eventually the fundamental differences between us showed up. The older we get, the more of the fundamental traits that came from your family, manifest more. Eventually living together was not an option, and we decided to live separately. Of course there were painful long periods of time, and [it was also difficult] to explain to a ten year old what's going on. But I think we limited the damage to the minimal. We are still in a very good relationship. I still really cherish all the years we were together. Those were very important parts of my life. And then we grew apart. And I took it as…it’s just naturally how it happens. Maybe there is forever. Like my parents, they're still together. We video-chat, and sometimes they start arguing, and my daughter and I are watching, and say, "They look so cute! They still argue!"


[both laugh]

Guess what he said?...’Give me ten minutes!’ It’s like the baby could wait! ‘I’m finishing the last sentence of my thesis, so I need to print it out.’”

DONGHONG: But it just didn't happen to me, and it's just the way life is. I wouldn't use the word "forgiving" because I don't think there's really anything to forgive, though I know we both got hurt during the process of separating. But looking at it as is, this is how life happens. As long as he's living a happy life…and I'm actually really enjoying life by myself. I think that's what I missed when I was young. My other friends were single for a long time and then got married and had kids late in their life —it’s just a different stage in everybody's life at different times. Since [my husband and I] grew up together, I really didn't have that period of time to develop and find myself. So after we got separated, I actually found that I now had a chance to look inside at what I want, who I am. Basically find myself, find my own voice.


SOPHIA: You've worked in high schools and colleges and have a daughter yourself, so you've had a lot of exposure to adolescent girls. Can you speak about what issues of contemporary girlhood you’ve witnessed that have been the most surprising, interesting, or important to you?


DONGHONG: My daughter and I were just having this kind of conversation yesterday. I told her about the school I'm teaching at right now, Poly Prep. We recently invited a speaker to talk to the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders about sexual assault, and the speaker mainly talked about how to be a creative bystander. But my daughter pointed out that it's probably more important to talk about, for the person being assaulted or being abused, how they need to stand up for themselves. And it's no longer limited to girls; it could be a male, because gender's non-conformative...that's the word? She reflected on her high school life. She was a day student at a boarding school. So obviously looking back, this kind of issue must have been there as well, because even though the school [campaigned against] sexual relationships or even sexual contact, she felt it would have been more productive to talk about if that happens, how you need to communicate and make sure there is consent. Back then that wasn't talked about at all. 

But back to girls’ struggle…A lot of my female students, I think the issue is their confidence. When it came to my class, the cloud still hangs on most girls, that [science and math] is not what girls are good at —even though a lot of my top students were girls. But for a majority of them, I don't think they had enough confidence to say, "I can do this." I think overall, society continues to have this perception that there's still "what girls are good at" and "what boys are good at." So in my class I try my best [to foster confidence and equal participation], because the way I teach is through Socratic dialogue. During the summer I taught a condensed version of [the Intro to Chem course at Columbia], fifteen weeks into six weeks. That was challenging —but I flipped the lecture. I recorded my lectures on video, and students needed to watch the video before they came to class, and then when they came to class, it was discussion time. I had discussion prompts, they got into small groups, and they have to come to a consensus and write their answers on the board, and we present to the whole class and discuss together. Still, the women in the class were not as vocal as the men. Especially during small discussions, I had to go in and sort of intervene to get women to talk. And these are women who are post-baccs. They had already worked. And they still lacked confidence to make their voice heard.


I think that’s what I missed when I was young....after we got separated, I actually found that I now had a chance to look inside at what I want, who I am. Basically find myself, find my own voice.

SOPHIA: Could you speak about your thoughts and experience about raising your daughter in an intentionally multi-cultural environment, and then also integrating her into the scientific world?


DONGHONG: My daughter's first language was actually Mandarin Chinese, because my mom was taking care of her, and the nanny was also a Chinese lady. She didn't speak English until she was two and started going to daycare center. Once she started speaking English and also all the events happening around her happened in English, it was very hard to keep her speaking Chinese, even at home. Most Chinese families actually sent their children to Chinese school when they reached school age. We went to the Chinese school just to observe how they're doing, I just thought it wasn't very effective, because teaching was just still like, telling. The teacher was telling them, and doing drills, the kids were still talking to each other in English, so it wasn't like an environment in which she could actually practice speaking Mandarin Chinese…so I taught her how. There’s also phonics in Chinese even though the characters are written differently, so I taught her phonics myself, and because at the time she was also leaning phonics in English, she learned the connection very quickly. 

But I actually decided to quit my job when she turned five and started to go into Kindergarten, because it was just too much with both commuters. That gave us a chance to go back to Beijing to visit my parents every summer just to get her in touch with the language environment. We call it “recharging." But I have to say, it's very hard because the things that she could describe to me [while she was formally learning Chinese] were things happening in school, which all happened in an English environment, so I had to feed her vocab. 

And then like, every year on Chinese New Year's Day when I go to teach, I actually put on my New Year outfit. And I would dress her up, too, and she was really proud! She was really proud to dress up in the traditional Chinese outfit and go to school. All the schools she went to actually emphasized multi-cultural [education], so during Chinese New Year they would invite students with Chinese backgrounds to talk about tradition. 

In regard to science, I guess I sort of did what my parents did to me. [She studies Environmental Biology.] I would always be probing her interest when we were out on a trip, just to keep the curiosity always there. She was really into bugs when she was young. One of my aunts actually is an Entomologist, so one summer we visited her lab, and my daughter was fascinated. My aunt actually took her into the collection room and students wouldn't even be allowed in there, so she was fascinated and she opened every drawer. So...we tried our best to keep her curiosity always there. I ask her guiding questions, try to develop her problem solving skills, and include her in lots of the things that I do.

Especially during small discussions, I had to go in and sort of intervene to get women to talk. And these are women who are post-baccs.

SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


DONGHONG: One of my TAs this past summer, she’s a post-bacc, in just a normal conversation she kept apologizing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," all the time. And I noticed that, so during a private conversation, I said "I don't need you to apologize for anything. You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't do anything that you need to apologize for!" And she said "Yeah, I do realize I always apologize." Some of my female students have developed this habit of apologizing all the time. My daughter pointed this out to me. She noticed that women around her are also constantly apologizing. So I think at least one thing, on the minimum level, what women can do for each other is remind each other what power we have. We don't need to apologize for anything. We're not less than anybody else. It does take constant [exterior] reminders for you to realize "Oh, I'm constantly doing this." That's the minimum level.

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