By: Edgar Lin 林俊義
Studying in the US: Transferring from Literature to Biology
After sitting in a Greyhound for 45 days, I went to Gossen College in Indiana, and decided to hunker down and study American literature. Yet after studying for a while I found I wanted to change majors. The first reason was I had a roommate who studied psychology; one day I said to him, “I really love the second chapter of Walden by Thoreau – how life and livelihood should be simple.” He answered, “Who is Thoreau?” This line shocked me. I, a foreigner, come here to study your American literature and speak of it in flying colors, yet you don’t even know the great literary authors of your own country! I was severely disappointed and began to doubt whether I should continue. Looking back now, of course, this kind of thought process was not right.
The second reason was I had also previously considered studying science while still in Taiwan. But I didn’t go to high school and so I didn’t realize that you had to take group A (STEM) classes in high school to study science later (in truth I didn’t really know what group A and group B classes even were). Furthermore, the Taiwanese education system at the time was designed to bury and suppress students’ abilities – college students now can take courses across departments, but back then you studied whatever you tested into. In the foreign languages department, I had no way to study sciences. So, once I came to the US, I began to think I might study science in the future.
The third reason was practical considerations. I had $1,200 in my possession when I came and subtracting one academic year’s tuition only left me $400. Literature brings you up to heaven, but reality brings you back down to earth. So, I thought it better to study science. Yet in my college years I hadn’t studied any math, biology, or chemistry, so how could I begin now? Later I thought of how some social critics like Steinbeck and his Grapes of Wrath or Arthur Miller and his work Death of a Salesman often treated society like an organism to be observed on the dissection table, where social phenomena could be described with a dissecting hand. I thought in this way biology and literature were related, and biology was the softest of the hard sciences, so I transferred to the Department of Biology. Though my English was quite good, I could still not understand content in class. Fortunately, I’d picked up some knacks for studying – when I didn’t understand I just read the textbook. I read one book after the other and worked myself to death until in the end I graduated on the top of the class.
In my time at Gossen I did research with an American professor every summer. I learned hard and served as his assistant (most Americans did not want to be research assistants). That professor was strange; he hardly did anything each day but come to his office for research and go home late in the evening. I did research with him the whole day too (for example, studying melanin and its chemical compounds in fruit flies) and learned a lot. He told me he had studied ecology at Indiana University, and if I was interested in ecology I should go there. At the time, the biology department at Indiana University was among the top 5 in the US, and some Nobel prize winners, such as James Dewey Watson who discovered DNA, were Indiana University graduates. He said I should go there, and after some consideration I really did, studying for a master’s in biology. That was 1967.
Serving in Africa: Realizing the Mysteries of Life
Thus, I expanded my knowledge in my master’s program and kept studying ecology up until 1970 when I began to have an unsettled feeling and reflected if I was doing the right thing. Life wasn’t just reading books, was it? I wanted to go to Africa. In Taiwan if you say you want to go to Africa, everyone will say you are crazy. That’s Taiwanese culture for you. Yet up until this day I still feel a calling to go back to Africa. Though I have been to Africa before, the calling to do something for African people has been resounding in my heart since. I went to Africa the first time in 1970. Gossen College cooperated with a church in Kenya to establish a biology department at a Kenyan professional college. The school asked for my contribution, so I agreed to go. I only found out when I got there that it was a remote place with no electricity. But the scenery was beautiful –they had a great view of Mount Kenya.
I was in Africa from 1970 to 1973. One of my children was born there, I had malaria there, and while there I also climbed the tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro. I traveled around everywhere and had deep impressions of what I saw. I hope that later when I still have strength, I can write my moving experiences and explorations of life in Africa into a novel. My travels in Africa made me feel life is a mysterious and unpredictable thing. Many academics in Taiwan don’t understand much at all, they just write papers and don’t do anything practical. Thus, even an electrical engineering Ph.D. might not know how to fix a broken fuse in their home. But in Africa, people have to build their own homes and rooves, and when there is no water, they have to come up with a way to get some, and once they have water, they need to think of a way to sanitize it so they will not get diarrhea. It’s not that there is no beer, but that the beer is hot. I saw people in another village starve to death, and I met many people who touched me – Africans, foreigners, and missionaries. These were all precious life experiences which influenced me greatly.
Because of my experience in Africa, from an oblivious academic I became someone who could crawl in the mud and get things done, and gradually understood the importance of practical experience. In 1973, the biology department at the college in Kenya was opened, and after recruitment was over, I returned to the US. At that time, I decided I wanted to go back to Taiwan. Reflecting on when I first left Taiwan for the States and bid Taiwan farewell thinking I would never go back, wanting to go back now, wasn’t I shooting myself in the foot? But my drive to go back to Taiwan was so strong because of the inspiration I had gathered in Africa. I simply had to go back and do something for that country.
I went home in 1975. National Taiwan University (NTU) and Tunghai University both wanted to hire me. The starting salary at NTU was 12,000TWD a month while at Tunghai it was only 7,800. I chose Tunghai. The reason was that academics was depressing in Taipei under the political conditions of the time. Intellectuals met up daily for coffee and discussed idle things but could hardly do anything. So, I decided to go to Tunghai and do my own thing.
Working Hard in Taiwan: Giving Back to the Homeland
In my first three years at Tunghai I taught, did research, and published a lot of papers. Later, I started to write articles criticizing environmental policy, ecological policy, political culture, and education. I thought about the time before I left: I did nothing but study for ten years, and now, from 1965 to 1975, I was also doing nothing but study for 10 years. I felt I was very lucky, for few people have the opportunity to study foreign literature and then come back and study science, and I was also grateful to have the opportunity for 20 years of learning. So, I kept writing articles. From 1975 through 2001, I feel I have not rested at all in these 25 years. Especially 20 years ago, if I was not lecturing, I was writing, and I had no time for sleep. I had to teach, research, and publish – the pressure was intense, but it was a great experience. I felt I should give back to Taiwan and give suggestions to the best of my knowledge. Looking back now, though I have published seven or eight books, there is a lot I have not yet written.
Reflecting on the 35 years of my life between 1965 to 2000, I have learned many things in my explorations of life and knowledge which I would like to share. I strongly feel that life is a kind of open system. A lot of people use many kinds of taboos to put restrictions on life – you can’t do this, you can’t do that. This restricts the development of latent abilities and is such a shame. Looking at life from the perspective of ecology, ecological systems are inherently open, always in contact with outside. After contact, what kind of changes and outcomes are possible? Everything is possible. The most important thing is to have the courage to do it.
Another learning from ecology is diversity – in life we must enact and foster diversity. When I was a professor at Tunghai, I thought for a time I would regret it if I was a professor my whole life. I wanted to try out many kinds of professions, just like Albert Schweitzer could fix cars and build houses, and was a musician, a doctor, and a missionary on top of being a philosopher and a school principal. Life is just like that – it is such a precious thing, and we must live it to the fullest.
It is a good thing that ecology taught me about diversity, for I now apply this concept to all details of my life. I try to eat as diverse foods as possible, changing from week to week. In ecology, diversity is the foundation for stability of an ecological system, and it is also applicable to our daily lives. Applying diversity cannot go wrong. The late professor Kuangchi Chang 張光直was an esteemed archeologist. One year I did research at Harvard and often saw him. He always called me, “Dr. Lin, let’s eat!” and brought me to the Harvard faculty club to eat. I watched as he picked the same foods each day and predicted his body faced a building crisis. Indeed, not long later, his health declined.
We are all afraid of change, afraid of trying something new. Yet ecology taught me diversity, and evolution taught me that humans inevitably change. Life’s process is ever changing. There is no way to predict the consequences of every action. We cannot perceive change as a threat, but as an opportunity which we dare to take on. Only then can we live life to the fullest. Philosophy of science taught me to always be a sceptic but not a cynic. These are two kinds of people. Skeptics take action and seek change; cynics do not know that people can change, and are incapable of change themselves, complaining through tight lips through their days. One of the most painful things in my life was talking politics to a Taiwanese professor – no matter what I said, he said it was no use, there would be no change. I asked him why he never thought of the hopeful side and spoke only of the hopeless side. Taiwanese and Chinese culture has molded a big pile of cynics – they make only sarcastic remarks and never take action. To enact life in its full power, you must take action. There is no use in speaking before you act.
Source from 501. 活出淋漓盡致的生命 林俊逸回憶錄/林俊義
Translated from 196. 活出淋漓盡致的生命(人生)/林俊義