“China prepared me to expect difficulties.”

Dr. Feng Li recalls his monumental move from China to the United States at age 18: a life-changing event with long-lasting impacts on his choices, opportunities and perspectives. Li's story was originally aired as part of Out of the Loop, season 5.

When I was 18, I said no to something and yes to another. I gave up my future in China. That decision has changed my life forever.

I grew up in Beijing, China. I went to one of the best high schools; I passed the college entrance exam. But I wanted to come to the United States. to study. I knew my life would be completely different there, a life of freedom, democracy and opportunities.

My mother was doing research for an American university. She moved there and invited me to live in the states with her. In 1990, I arrived in the U.S. to complete my senior year of high school in Boston, Massachusetts.

I went to one of the least desired public high schools in Boston in a neighborhood called Charles Town. It was a poor Irish neighborhood. Many high students there couldn’t read or write. There, I witnessed gun violence. I witnessed fights breaking out several times a day. There were police officers on every single floor of the school. There were frequent arrests and gangs. 

When students went to school, most did not bring books. They would sleep or do whatever they wanted. The lack of  discipline was shocking to me. 

But other things were not so shocking. China prepared me to expect difficulties. 

In China, people did not really have a second chance. 

📷 all photos by Chris French

In the larger cities, only three out of 10 high school students would go to college. If you could not go to college, your opportunities are severely limited to a blue collar job with a completely different income and social status. Competition was fierce. With very few choices and opportunities, I developed a habit of studying extremely hard. 

So I wasn’t anticipating coming to a land of paradise. I anticipated hardship and barriers, even racial discrimination. 

During my first weeks in Boston at Charles Town High School, I noticed my classmates using the F-word all the time to talk to each other. This word was obviously very useful. I tried looking it up, but it wasn’t in the English-Chinese dictionary I carried with me. I asked my classmate, he said, “Man It’s too complicated for us to explain it. Ask the English teacher.” 

So I did! I actually went to my teacher’s desk and asked her to please help me understand the meaning of this F-word. She explained it to me and to the entire class in detail. I was so embarrassed! That day, I received an education I didn’t anticipate.

There were other things at Charles Town High School in Boston that shocked me. I was shocked by the freedom to be not respectful — the freedom to not learn, to not do well. But for those who are motivated, the opportunity is there. I realized very quickly that was the beauty of America: Freedom to choose. 

I was given the opportunity to learn to study for free. I had free lunch, due to my family’s low income. I had free books. I had teachers who were kind and excited about teaching me. 

Although Charles Town was the least supported public high school in Boston, compared with China, the quality of the library, basketball gym, swimming pool, bus, free lunch — surpassed the resources and facilities I had grown up with.

Despite the school’s issues, I really flourished in this environment. The teachers supported me because I was willing to learn. They gave me books to read, talked to me in person, gave me advice. They involved me with the swim team and the track and field team. I quickly learned computer programming. Within six months, I was involved in several activities. 

My math and science were very good. I would correct my teachers from time to time. That’s when I learned about the greatness of America. My teachers showed me honesty and sincerity. I received scholarships from many universities, and after placing first in a college entrance exam, I earned a full ride to Boston University. 

I forewent the offer from Boston University to attend MIT. While there, I volunteered as a translator for a free health clinic in ChinaTown. It was my first exposure to the medical field. I was among extremely intelligent, kind, selfless people who organized a clinic with free medicine for people who were illegal immigrants. There was no discrimination, only love and passion to help. I knew then I wanted to be this kind of person.

I came to Tyler in 2009 to be part of Trinity Mother Frances. I am passionate about teaching the technicians and nurses in the GI endoscopy field. I enjoy sharing my philosophy of learning and of medicine. I enjoy having trainees shadow me. 

I often ask my students, “Why are you here? Why do you want to shadow me? Why do you want to be a doctor? What’s the meaning of life? What’s happiness?” These are fundamental philosophical questions people should ask themselves if they want to be happy and successful. Because Clarity is Power.

I believe we all have a nuclear-powered engine in our heart and mind with unlimited potential. Many don’t know such engines exist within them.

Others never find the key to open it. The key to turn this engine on is to truly find the meaning of life. I believe that learning, improvement, contribution and love are what ultimately give you happiness. Not pleasure, but true happiness. 

The book “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher, general and politician 2500 years ago, changed me. I applied its military philosophies into study. I learned many strategies to be successful. I learned to be prepared. “Know yourself; know your enemy.” You can then ask very intelligent questions. You do your homework as quickly as possible, like going into battle to see if you understand or not, when your memory is fresh. Be proactive, be prepared — not to be a passive learner. 

People who do not want to preview tend to fail.

For me, the meaning of life was discovered through unconditional love. Love others. Love patients means helping them with medicine, drawing blood in the middle of the night, dealing with human waste, losing sleep, holding their hands when they are in pain, and giving them hope when they are in despair. 

In a life of learning, improving and loving other people, everything you do becomes interesting and worthwhile. You find a way to overcome hardship. He who knows “why” can bear any “how.” When I saw how happy people were and how much difference I was making, that made me feel satisfied. 

Every day, I try to learn new things from patients and people around me, also from medical journals. I also learn from my children, who are forcing me to be a better person. I learn from hobbies like golf and ballroom dancing. 

My great hope is that I can help more people in their careers and personal lives — whether students, patients, physicians in China and people here in Tyler.

My name is Feng Li. Thank you.

Feng Li is a gastroenterologist working at the Gastroenterology Department of Christus Mother Frances Hospital and Clinic in Tyler. He performs high tech, higher risk, minimally invasive endoscopic procedures to help people.‌ ‌His‌ ‌hobbies‌ ‌are‌ ‌golf‌ ‌and‌ ‌ballroom‌ ‌dancing.‌ ‌ ‌

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