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An American boy who grew up in 1950s China tells his extraordinary story to Tsinghua students

Peter Hodes holds a T-shirt given to him by his primary school classmates 60 years after he left Beijing to return to America. (Photo by Nico Gous)


Peter Hodes left China when he was nine years old, in 1959, but he still does his multiplication tables in Chinese.

“There were times when I would try to tell my parents what happened in my life, and everything in my life outside of home was in Chinese,” Hodes told Tsinghua University graduate journalism students on Nov. 5, 2019. “Luckily I could use my brother (Bill) and sister (Nancy), who are older, to more or less translate.”

Young Peter, who arrived in China at age four, was plunged into a new culture, a new language and a new political system. He said he grew up using Chinese, despite his parents’ speaking English at home in Beijing.

Peter Hodes reads from the manuscript of his memoir. (Photo by Nico Gous)

“The language barrier started in China, because my English was fine, but as everything in my life continued to happen in Chinese, my English got rusty,” he said.

Hodes, who now lives in Los Angeles, is writing a memoir of his childhood years in Beijing from 1954 to 1959. The working title is “An American Boy in China Comes to the USA.”

Hodes’ odyssey began in 1953 when Tulane University in New Orleans fired Hodes’s father, Robert, a professor of neural physiology, for his communist ties. It was the height of the anti-communist “Red Scare” in the United States, and American universities blacklisted Dr. Hodes.

The prominent scientist wanted to move abroad to continue his research. The Hodeses left the U.S. and moved to England before coming to China in 1954.

“Dad and mom were also keen to help the Chinese who had installed the Communist Party regime only five years earlier. Yes, mom and dad were staunch Communist Party internationalists,” Peter said.

“They knew that the State Department of the U.S. would revoke their U.S. passports if they violated the prohibition of going to China, but that wouldn’t stop them from uprooting the whole family and moving to the other side of the world to follow their beliefs of world peace and socialism.”

In 1949, the USSR successfully tested its first nuclear bomb and Mao Zedong became the leader of communist China. From 1950 to 1953, the U.S. troops fought against the communists of North Korea. The U.S. Congress passed the Internal Security Act in 1950 and the Communist Control Act in 1954 amid anti-communist hysteria led by Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy. American extremists charged that communists on U.S. soil, aided by “fellow travelers” in the government and military, were plotting to overthrow the government.

Peter’s parents first tried to move to the USSR, but the Soviet Union demanded they give up their U.S. citizenship. Next, they tried the Chinese embassy, which welcomed them. China was trying to reverse the “brain drain” caused by Chinese intellectuals and professionals who left the country before, during and after the 1949 revolution. The Chinese government offered the Hodeses a large house with two servants, a laboratory with assistants and graduate students, and a place for Peter and his siblings in one of the best schools in Beijing. There were only a handful of foreigners in Beijing when they arrived.

“In Beijing there were quite a few Soviet experts, but most of them had left their families in the Soviet Union, not planning to live in China long-term like my family was,” he said.

The Hodes family returned to the U.S. in 1959, during the Great Leap Forward period, and Peter felt like a fish out of water.

“I felt China was my home,” he said. “I felt Chinese in many, many deep ways.”

Back in the U.S., during his first couple days in a public school in New York City, a fourth-grade pupil walked up to him in the playground and said: “Hey, you wanna fight?”

“I was flabbergasted,” he recalls. “I had no idea what was happening. Before I could even answer, I had my teeth knocked out. I mean, not really, really bad, but bad enough that I remember it to this day.”

He was shocked to be attacked by a schoolyard bully because of his parents’ political views.

“In China there was no such thing as a physical fight.” he said. “It just didn’t happen, so that was a culture shock in a physical way.”

Hodes spoke to Global Business Journalism students in Professor Rick Dunham’s multimedia reporting course. He was accompanied by two Chinese classmates from the 1950s – one who became a Tsinghua professor and the other a television programmer. Hodes’ classmates held a special reunion marking the 60th anniversary of his departure from China. To mark the occasion, they gave their old friend a T-shirt with his childhood image on it.

Now retired from his career as a labor organizer, Hodes says he is glad to have reconnected with his Chinese friends.

“WeChat has become a big part of my life,” said Hodes.

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