Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Philanthropist Koo's Eight Rules of Advice to Chinese-Americans

Dynamic philanthropist Roz Koo is originally from Shanghai, but moved to California in 1947. While initially she was at a loss about how to take care of herself, she soon discovered she not only could navigate daily issues, but enjoyed making her own decisions. (see post one). She returned to China just after the Cultural Revolution, and was so disheartened that she promised herself she would stay away from that unrecognizable place. (see post two,) Instead, when new leadership came to China, she started building a bridge and extending her helping hands. She restored her old school to its former glory, and began funding the education of students.  She was the brainchild of the Spring Bud program in China, which funded the education of a thousand young girls from the poorest provinces. Meanwhile, back on the home front, she built low-income housing and a senior center in California. (see posts threefourfive.)
After listening to Roz share some of her stories, I asked what advice she would give to other Chinese-Americans who are adapting to their new home. What she gave me was a list I keep on my wall--to remind myself to try to be like this too.
1. You have every right to be a citizen here.

2. Don’t pull back. Don’t try to do your own thing. You got to go out and get involved in different ways. You have to understand American psychology. If you don’t go out into the community, you won’t know. I think if you want to belong—and we have the right to be part of this community—and how do we become part of this community? By being there.
3. Besides your work, you should check out what’s going on in the community. Otherwise, how do you help China besides having a job? You donate a couple of bucks?
4. The important thing is to VOTE.
5. Get to know your city council. I knew them before they became city council members. Once you get to know each other, it’s okay.
6. Do not vacillate. Go forward.
7. If you’re going to do something, do it bold.
8. When you feel treated unjustly, do not get angry. Keep your humor and keep pushing for what is right. 


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

China is a Major Contender in the World, But...

Philanthropist Roz Koo has been living in the U.S. for 67 years. Yet, she has watched her birth country of China change from an occupied war-zone to a Mao-inspired revolution to an economic giant.  (see earlier posts onetwothreefourfive). 
I asked her if she has any worries about China today.
“The Communists took away religion. Took away philosophy. They did not put back anything in its place. The young people have nothing. What do they believe in now?
"I think China, economically, has become a major contender in the world. But...
“One major, major flaw is the lack of the rule of law. As long as the (rule of the) Communist party is over the courts system, you will never be able to do anything unless the party wishes you to do it.
“I don't worry about (sic) the current generation. It’s the future generation. I see the unequal distribution of wealth—like U.S. it’s the same. But more. It’s ten times worse in China. The wealthy is so wealthy. The poor is so poor.
"So, for the poor people, what chance is there?  To me it is education. It has to be. Not to build schools, but to invest in individuals and their ability to think. People can’t take that away from you. In time, perhaps their children and their children’s children will benefit from the legacy of education."
As for the relationship with the U.S.?
"It will continue to go on. There’s no other way. One minute you’re friendly. One minute you’re not so friendly.  But, hey, you cannot do without each other. Let’s face it.”
(...to be continued. Next--and final--post with Roz: Philanthropist Koo's Eight Rules of Advice to Chinese-Americans.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What Goes Around Comes Around

Philanthropist Roz Koo came to the U.S. from Shanghai in 1947. (See post one). She spent a lifetime working in the corporate world. When she retired, she turned her organizational talents to building non-profits. She built a senior center for low-income residents of S.F., and an activity center in San Mateo. She also worked on projects with China, helping to restore McTyeire school in Shanghai to its former glory, helping young students stay in school, and working in conjunction with the China All Women's Federation and the 1990 Institute to send the poorest of the poor through elementary school. They identified 1000 girls, because "If you educate a woman, you educate an entire generation." (See posts twothreefour.)
“First time I went to see the girls," said Roz. "They burst out crying. They didn’t know what to do."
"Then the next time I went, they said, ‘Nainai,--They called me Nainai (Grandmother)-- They said, 'Nainai, what happens when we graduate from elementary school?'”
So Roz found more funding to send these girls onto middle school.
  “Then when they went to middle school, they asked, ‘Do we get to go to high school?’” Again Roz returned to her donors.
“I was an idiot to start this.” Roz laughed. “Later on I just couldn’t not do it. They were depending on us.”
On top of academics, Roz insisted that they all do community service.  “The schools thought, 'What do you want to do this for?' In China, you always take care of your relatives. That’s your duty. But there’s no concept of a civic duty to help the community.”
Roz turned the idea of civic duty into a contest. She gave out prizes of a hundred dollars to those who came up with the best project. One girl decided her community project would be to clean up her street. 
“She started with her side of the street. Everyone laughed at her saying, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ But everyday she went out and cleaned her side of the street.  The neighbor across the street decided she would do a little cleaning up on her side. Pretty soon the whole street was very clean.”
While community service for the middle school girls was optional, Roz required the senior high school students to do a community service project and file a report if they wanted to be considered for college.
The first group of graduates finished college in 2014. “Each kid, I gave them two chances to take college. You fail one time, you try another time.” At the same time, she offered them two tracks—an academic track and a vocational track. The vocational students are trained in health care, computer science and nursery-school education. Of the original 1000 girls, 172 went on to get college degrees. 
After these women graduated, Roz asked them to return to their village and give back. “People majoring in education, I gave them a stipend to make them a teaching fellow to go back to their hometown to teach. I wanted them to re-connect.  Then the medical ones--they have to have five years in school--so I give them one year to go back. Then they are free to do whatever they want.”
While the Spring Bud Program is technically finished—and Roz physically can’t make the trip to China anymore—flowers have already begun to bloom. Recently one of her graduates identified an issue that needed attention. She went to teach pre-school and noticed that the students—150 of them—were all undernourished. She turned to Roz for help.
“The central government –as a way to stimulate the economy—had decided to build preschools. But it’s the hardware, nothing else. No food. No toys. No heat. It’s typical. They rely on the locals to do whatever. The locals are still very, very poor.
“Next week I’ll go raise money to heat up the classrooms. It’s six degrees below zero inside the classrooms.  So how can the students go to school?”
In addition Roz has agreed to provide breakfast to the students for a year, to build an on-site kitchen for next year.  Who is designing this kitchen? One of her graduates in architecture. Who is measuring the children’s health improvement? One of her graduates in medicine.
Said Roz with a smile, “What goes around comes around.”

(...to be continued. Next: China is Major Contender in the World) 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Roz Builds Hope

Philanthropist Roz Koo moved from Shanghai to Oakland, California in 1947, where she started out at Mills College. When her parents called her to join them in Taiwan, she decided she'd rather stay in California, would rather go to U.C. Berkeley, and would even like to choose her own husband. She worked in several secretarial jobs until she found her niche in an architectural firm. In 1977 she returned to China for the first time in thirty years, and was so distraught by what she saw that she vowed never to return again. However, two years later when leader Deng Xiao Ping came into office with a mission to connect to the west, Roz raised her hand. Her goal was to restore her old school to its former school. (see posts onetwothree).  
Back in San Francisco, Roz became involved in lots of projects.
1) She built low-income senior housing for the elderly.  She thought it would be easy—she had all the architects and engineers at her disposal. It was a nightmare, which had lowlights that included a lady on Russian Hill saying, “Why don’t you go back to Chinatown?”
“If people say that to you, you feel so angry you don’t want to do anything. But that’s the reverse of what you should do. Always keep your humor.” 
Roz persisted through 11 public hearings, two court appearances, nine project extensions and a re-build when the extensions went past four years. In the end they had 70 low-cost units which attracted 4,000 applicants. 
2) She then went on to found an activity center for a thousand seniors. 
3) Meanwhile, in 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened. Roz joined forces with three other people to found the 1990 Institute to help lift up the Chinese people, as well as build a broader understanding between China and America.  
 In 1992 at a reunion of McTyeire in Shanghai, Principal Zheng approached Roz about joining another project. The All China Women’s Federation had started something called The Hope Project to keep students in school. Students were dropping out because of lack of funds. Her principal suggested sending money to someone in the central government. Roz was not convinced of the efficiency of doing that. So, she decided to help in her own way and launched a pilot project with 86 girls from Jiangxi province. “These are the drop-outs after junior high school. They had no money. I wanted to educate the women. I think you have to have college. If you educate a woman you educate a whole generation.” 
Roz added that people with a college education in China have the bonus of geographical freedom--while everyone else is bound to stay in the village they were born in. 
I asked how she managed to get any funding. These days all people hear about is how wealthy and strong China is. How did she gain a sympathetic ear, much less helpful donors? 
“I show them the truly impoverished areas,” she said. “They go with me. The donors see for themselves.”
After the success of the Hope program, Roz decided to try to help even more girls. In 2000, in conjunction with the All-China Women’s Federation and 1990 Institute, Roz launched the Spring Bud Program, identifying 1000 at-risk girls from 44 villages in Shaanxi province. She raised money to pay for their tuition, board, clothing, and school supplies. She promised all these girls that she would ensure they all graduated from elementary school.
I asked where she got her sense of caring--for the elderly, the impoverished, the children.
“I always had a sense of justice. When I was a kid, I told my mom, “I’m going into the countryside to help the poor.” My mother could hardly keep a straight face. She said, “Who asked you? What can you do? You don’t even pick up things.”  I said, “That’s not important. When the time comes, I’ll know.”

(...to be continued. Next: What Goes Around Comes Around.)   

Friday, March 18, 2016

Roz Becomes Bridge to the West

Philanthropist Roz Koo came to the U.S. in 1947. Her family was very westernized, as her father and uncle both had gone to Harvard, and the family lived in the international area of Shanghai. So adjusting to the U.S. culture was not as much of an issue as adjusting to being on her own. She soon found her feet, though, and became even more independent than most women of that era--choosing where to live, go to school, marry (see part one.) In 1977 she returned to China for the first time. She was so depressed by how she was treated (she was spied on the whole trip) and what she saw at her old school (a group of lifeless, unkempt people), she vowed never to return (see part two.)
But, in 1979, a new leader—Deng Xiao Ping—came to power and started a push to open ties with the west. Roz felt re-energized. She thought, “You want to open to the West? I am the West.” 
She decided she would do projects with China. The first thing she wanted to do was restore her school to the way she remembered it.  “I went to that school from first grade. I spent my youth there. Besides, I thought, ‘Who do you think you are anyway to ruin this place?‘ In 1977 (when she visited), they had 3000 students. The school was built for 500. They were all factory workers’ children, all farmers’ children. Teachers didn’t teach. Students didn’t study. They just sat there. Everything was dead. I thought, ’This cannot be.’”
Roz started by forming a McTyeire Alumnae Association. (About 50% of McTyeire Alums live overseas.) She had her office draftsman design some stationery, which she used to issue an invitation to her old principal--who had been demoted during the Cultural Revolution-- to come for a visit.
This seemingly simple gesture was not without challenges. At that time the U.S. didn’t recognize China, so there were no diplomatic relations—no consulate from which to obtain a visa. On top of that, the principal hesitated. She was old. She had heart problems. Roz persisted. “I told her to get a passport. Use our stationary as a formal invitation.”
Roz arranged several alumnae gatherings, had the woman speak on education at the Chinese Culture Center, and had the media cover all the events. When the principal returned to China she was re-installed in McTyeire as honorary principal.  She also became a strong connection for Roz.
She worked with the principal to return the school to its former glory, starting by returning it to a girls’ school. "The officials said, 'Oh, that will be a problem.' I said, ‘That’s okay. We don’t have to come. We’re happy in the United States.’ Within four years they had chased out all the boys. Then we went back and fixed it up.”
Roz never liked Xue Zheng as her principal--"She was always trying to expel me." However, she became devoted to the woman, and they managed to work together well--at least most of the time. “One time she said she needed money to buy a van. I asked what for. She said, ‘To come to the airport to pick you up.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t need that. ‘ Another time she said, ‘How about a science building?’ I said, ‘No. Your local government should build a building. If you build a building, I will raise the money to equip it.” Another time she told Roz that they had lost all forty pianos during the Cultural Revolution. Could Roz help her get some pianos? Roz agreed.
“We had our first alumnae reunion in 1986 in China. The baby grand came on stage. She wouldn’t let anyone touch it. It had a velvet cover. I said, ‘No, no, no. You have to let people play.’
She and I together, we restored the school.” Roz smiled. “I always told her, ‘It’s a good thing you didn’t expel me.’” 
(...to be continued. Next: Roz Builds Hope)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Roz Returns to Unrecognizable China

Roz Koo grew up in Shanghai in a house of such luxury she was at a loss when she was sent to college in the U.S. on her own in 1947. She soon discovered that she could not only navigate her daily existence, but she enjoyed being in control of her decisions. She decided she'd rather stay in California than return to Taiwan to live with her parents. She decided to transfer to U.C. Berkeley where she could get the education she wanted. And she decided to marry a man she had chosen. She had found her own feet in America and was doing just fine.
In 1977, though, Roz received an unexpected chance to return to China for the first time in thirty years. A friend from the S.F. Symphony called, saying they had an extra vacancy on their upcoming tour as one of the members had cancelled last-minute. Did Roz want to go? She did. She had aunts and uncles and cousins still in China, and she wanted to re-connect with her roots.
In hindsight, she said it was dumb to think it would be so easy. In 1977, China was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution. “I never paid attention to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I thought it was just one of those movements. I didn’t know it was so fierce.” 
When Roz arrived in Beijing, the tour guide said, “Wait a minute. Who are you?“
She said, “I’m an American citizen.”
He said, “No. You’re Chinese.”
Soon everyone in the rest of her group was sequestered and questioned about her: How do you know her? What is she doing here? What does she do in the U.S.? By the time Roz reached Shanghai, they had attached a “personal guide” to help her.
“He said, ‘Mrs. Koo, you have not been here for a long time. Let me help you. What would you like?’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Instinctively, Roz knew better then to ask after any of her relatives. The only one she could think to ask about was her high school principal, a woman that she had never really liked. In fact Principal Zheng had always threatened to expel Roz.
Roz’s guide promised he would arrange a meeting. “We were in Shanghai for three days and there was no word. Two hours before we were to fly to Canton to leave, he said, ‘You may go see her.’
Roz went to her old campus. The place was barely recognizable—it was overcrowded with girls---and now-- boys, too. The trees were all dying. The students just shuffled about. And a house, which used to belong to Roz’s schoolmate, was now filled with families, including that of Principal Zheng.
“She looked so bad. She was so old. Her hair was uncombed. Her eyes were blank.”
Roz said there was a strange woman sitting in the corner of the room listening to their conversation. “Of course it was a spy.”
At one point Roz and Principal Zheng walked alone down to look at the campus. “I screamed, ‘How could you let this school fall into such a state?’ The school had been the crème of the crème in China. “She said, ‘Will you be quiet?’”
Roz had no idea that her principal had been demoted and abused. “Students and teachers pushed her down, and broke her leg, and said, ‘Kill yourself. You don’t deserve to live.’” Roz had no idea that two of her relatives had committed suicide after being persecuted. “Our people are Christians, so they were really persecuted. That first trip back, none of my relatives dared to come out. Nobody dared to speak.” Roz had no idea just how miserable the Cultural Revolution had been. (She would find all this out later.) Despite her lack of knowledge, though, Roz left so disgusted with the direction of the country that she swore she would never ever return to China. She ended up returning over thirty times and raising over 1.8 million dollars to support various philanthropic projects.
(...to be continued. Next: Roz Becomes Bridge to the West)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Roz Koo--From not knowing anything to fixing everything

During the brief window between the end of WWII (1945) and the beginning of the Communist takeover in China (1949), Rosalyn Koo travelled from Shanghai to Oakland, CA. It was 1947.
“At the time, there was no airplane. I came on board ship.”
Roz hoped she would be going to school in New York. She knew about New York and San Francisco, as her family was very westernized. Both her uncle and father had graduated from Harvard in 1919, 1923, respectively. This was at a time when Harvard had only a couple of thousand students, a handful of whom were Chinese. 
McTyeire Girls School--Later known as Shanghai No. 3 Girls School
When Roz was little, her father read her Shakespeare. He also enrolled her in McTyeire, an elite Methodist missionary girls’ school reserved only for the daughters of the top echelon of China. Students included the Soong sisters who later went on to become Madame Sun-Yat-Sen and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the wealthy Madame Kung. In 1938, the Japanese occupied Shanghai. Everyday, Roz had to travel past Japanese soldiers standing guard in front of the un-occupied French Concession, which was a narrow collar of land that had been conceded to the French in 1849. The Concession was also where Roz's home was. She had to get off her bike and bow to the soldier before moving on. 
"We tried not to go past them, and took the long way around to home." 
A Japanese officer came to McTyeire to teach the girls Japanese. Roz and her friends, too young to think of danger, refused to listen, instead giggling at his efforts. He often banged his sword on the desk and yelled at them in Japanese.
“We didn’t know Japanese. We didn’t know what he was talking about. We were all teenage girls, spoiled rotten.”
Roz’s family had more than most—a chauffeur who drove her around, a cook who refused to let her in the kitchen, and a maid.
1n 1947, when Roz graduated from high school, and her father and brother told her she was going to the U.S. Roz had her sights set high. But she soon discovered they had enrolled her in Mills College.
“It was a conspiracy.” She laughed. “They decided I could not be let loose to go to a co-ed school.”
Her brother brought her out. They rode in two taxis, one of which carried all of her trunks. When she arrived at her private room, though, she didn’t know what to do. “I didn’t know how to unpack all the stuff. It was a bad experience. I didn’t know how to do anything. Why should I have to know how to do anything? I wanted to do other things. Go to work and make money. Be a boss.”
In addition to this initial logistical crisis, Roz resented the unfair rules at Mill’s College. “I couldn’t go out without a male escort. I had to come back by 10 o’clock at night. I hated it.”
Most importantly, she was unimpressed with the curriculum. “Finishing school you have to behave a certain way: pour tea and make conversation. I wanted to run away from that.”
(Mills College was founded in 1852 as a seminary school for young ladies. Today, according to U.S. News and World Report, the women's college is ranked 5th best in the Western Region.)
In 1949, Roz's parents moved to Taiwan to escape the Civil War in China. They wanted her to come live with them. But, she decided to stay in California, and transferred to U.C. Berkeley where she got a degree in Economics.
In non-traditional fashion, Roz also chose her own husband. “I met him on Market street,” she said of Karlson Koo. “We were never introduced.” They were married for fifty years.
After staying home a bit to raise her two daughters, Roz worked at a number of secretarial jobs (PR Dept of United Way, Legal Dept of a trucking company, UC Berkeley’s Psychology Clinic.) She eventually joined an architectural firm in San Francisco where she worked for 18 years.. 
“I’m not an architect, but I can run anything. I said, ‘I’m very good. In six months I will fix whatever is bothering you. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll fix it.’” 
(...to be continued. Next: Roz Returns to Unrecognizable China)