Spring Cheng was caught between two cultures.
One was the “We” culture she grew up knowing in China until age 22, when she immigrated to the United States.
And the other was the “I” culture she would become accustomed to as she assimilated into Americanism.
As part of Bellevue’s celebration of Welcoming Week, Cheng told a group of about 70 women how growing up in China, 25 years after the Republic of China dissolved, shaped her. From China’s struggle under colonial force and 100 years of war, hunger and devastation, China’s “wounded lion” rebounded to find a new source of power, as many Chinese felt their ancestors had betrayed them. This cultural shift crept its way into Cheng’s life as she pursued a science career not because it was her passion but because she was “good at fulfilling outside expectations.”
In 1995 as a molecular biology graduate student in Iowa, Cheng recalled a question from her PhD adviser that would change her life. While working in the labs, her adviser asked what she wanted to do. Her response, “Whatever labs you ask me to do,” shocked her adviser.
He responded, “Science is hard and is only worth doing if it’s something you want to do.”
But Cheng had never been asked what she wanted to do. It was the first time someone in her life was genuinely concerned over what she wanted, she said. The question haunted, yet resonated, with her and she moved to Seattle.
In her search of finding out what exactly she wanted to do with her one life, she found a passion in mountain climbing to ease her “long oppressed individualistic expression.”
Her ascents, summits and victories fed her spirit, but her “climbing self” became insatiable. She wanted more and turned her attention to other mountains outside of Washington. During this time, her family questioned her climbing.
“The activity of mountain climbing is a selfish thing to do,” she said, adding that her family wanted her to settle down.
Her competitive nature led her to seek higher mountains, specifically near the Himalayas.
Cheng all of a sudden found herself on a bus that would take weeks to get to her climbing destination. She was surrounded by the Tibetan culture, surrounded by vibrant people who lived in poor villages.
“My interest in climbing declined,” she said.
The void that she thought summits would fill was slowly being replenished by the return of the “We” culture she experienced in the Tibetan area.
Cheng would visit the villages for three years in search of that deeper connection. When she returned to Seattle, she quit her job, went to school to study Taoism and delved into the book, “I Ching,” an ancient Chinese book known as the Classic of Changes or Book of Changes.
Cheng realized she needed a balance of both “We” culture and “I” culture. She reinvented “I Ching” to be easily read by all and ended up meeting her life partner and co-founder of her organization, Resonance Path Institute.
After 10 years of searching, she realized she was starting a new story.
Having now lived in the United States for about 20 years, Cheng values both cultures and compares them to the tree of humanity. “We” culture acts as the interconnected roots at the base of a tree while “I” culture stems from that base and blossoms from each individual branch.
“Together, it is one system,” she said. “It’s all part of one. In order for life to flourish, we need to grow upwards and reach downwards.”
Cultural Conversations has just begun its seventh season after a pilot program in 2009. The next conversation will take place Oct. 31 at the Crossroads Community Center. For more information, visit the city’s website and search “Cultural Conversations.”