Physicist Says Goodbye to Homeland

It's a new year and for many, that also means a new direction in life. The Daily Press found six families dealing with profound change as 1999 begins. Here's the last of their stories.

His face, name and history are unmistakably Chinese, but Jian-ping Chen's future is entirely American.

And now, so is he.

Chen became a naturalized American citizen Nov. 3, during a brief ceremony in Norfolk. It marked a subtle turning point for a man born 38 years ago into a culture where hard work guaranteed nothing more or less than exhaustion, and the hand of fate was attached to an arm of the reigning Communist party leader.

"Everybody has freedom and opportunity" in the United States, the Jefferson Lab physicist says, not just the person who is in the right place at the right time.

The judge who presided over the naturalization ceremony offered the group of new U.S. citizens amazing proof of that simple fact of American life: Just the day before, a former professional wrestler known as Jesse "The Body" Ventura had been elected governor of Minnesota.

Although unusual, this fact doesn't nudge at the limits of Chen's belief. Smiling, he points out that Ronald Reagan, a not-spectacular Hollywood actor whose co-star on occasion was a primate, became president.

Such wide-open possibility was not Chen's birthright.

As a boy in Shanghai, Chen scrounged for books the country had purged during the so-called "Cultural Revolution," Mao Zedong's disastrous effort to funnel citizens into a classless society in which everyone would work for the common good. Chen found people who had disobeyed the order to destroy China's written past and, in secret, pored over the stories so many times he could recite the tales to other children.

As a young man finishing high school, Chen watched as the country underwent another tumultuous change in leadership. China's position on education changed, and Chen was one of a few promising teens asked to take a college entrance exam along with many adults who had been denied education for the previous 10 years.

As an outstanding student at the University of Science and Technology of China, Chen was chosen to continue his studies in physics on American soil through a program founded by a Chinese-American Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Chen ended up at the University of Virginia, with an adviser who was just beginning to talk with colleagues and politicians about building a state-of-the-art nuclear research facility in Newport News.

Now, the bookshelves that line a wall of his office at that state-of-the-art lab - Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - sag under the weight of printed material. It's a combination of data, memos and abstract mathematical theory, the products of a life lined with hard work and studded with luck at moments when luck was the most important thing that could matter.

Becoming a U.S. citizen was different. It was Chen's choice, not luck or a decision made by a distant leader, that made it happen.

When he came to the United States in 1982, Chen planned to obey the pull of his Chinese advisers and the government's expectation that he would "go out, learn, get a Ph.D, then come back and serve the country," he says. In those days, China was "opening up," he says, "going in a very positive direction." Returning with his Ph.D. to contribute to China's future seemed right.

He may have done just that, had the events of a late spring day not occurred and changed his mind.

"A few things happened in China, especially June 4, 1989," says Chen, the date of the Tiananmen Square student massacre rolling off his tongue more easily than the year he married his wife, June, or the exact day not two months ago that he became a citizen.

The horror of Tiananmen Square made Chen reconsider his future. He thought about China's past, his three older brothers and a sister, his now-retired mother and father, all of whom remain in China. He made a decision that his best hope for personal happiness and to make a contribution to the professional world of science would be to pursue U.S. citizenship.

"I like the constitution here," says Chen. "I think 200 years ago people were really wise. If the system is not set up right, you cannot expect that everyone will behave when they are in power. You expect people to be wise and good, but that is not always the case."

At home in York County, Chen soon will be able to cast his first vote and add one more voice to the democratic symphony. His first opportunity will be a local off-year election, the kind of election most Americans ignore. He won't.

But Chen is like most American citizens when asked about President Clinton's impeachment.

"I think people should concentrate on more important things. For me, the important thing to judge him is how well he does his job as president, how well he does things of national importance, like foreign affairs and economic policies," says Chen.

Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, Chen says, "is probably very important for his family, but for other people it is not." Last week at Jefferson Lab, Chen finished collecting data in an experiment he considers a great success. He will spend much of the coming year analyzing the results. His goal, in fact the goal of most scientists at Jefferson Lab, is to identify the keys that unlock what they consider the physical world's great mysteries.

Although he doesn't consider his recent results anywhere close to the sort of singular, monumental discovery that would result in a Nobel Prize, Chen knows that the sum of research done by American scientists - some naturalized, just like himself - could result in the greatest moments of the coming century. That is something he dreamed about as a student, and something he dares, with a laugh, to admit as being well within the realm of possibility at an American research facility.

"For me," says Chen, who patiently and clearly sums up his cutting-edge work as if he were explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "you do some research, you make some contribution toward the understanding of the nature of the physical world to benefit the whole world."

Now, Chen and June, who remains a Chinese citizen for now, watch as their son Alan, 9, makes his way as a first-generation American. Chen sees how it will be beneficial for Alan to learn another language, and points out to the boy that Chinese is the natural choice.

"You are Chinese," Chen tells his son, whose thirst for adventure is slaked with computer games and Legos construction. The books his father searched for as a child, and any other book Alan wants to read, are available on his school library's bookshelves.

"I'm an American," his son answers.

Chen laughs, and finds he cannot argue the point.

"I tell my son, 'You are the only one in the family who can be president.' "