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Living a dream

Peter Tang is too young to have experienced the raw harshness of segregation in America. Still, the MD/PhD student reflects the enduring messages and contributions by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his award-winning essay. The historic obstacles placed at the feet of African-Americans throughout history appear to be giving way as an African descendent becomes the 44th president of the United States.
MD/PhD student Peter Tang, left, presented his first place essay on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during ceremonies Jan. 15 in the Basic Science Building auditorium. Tang is joined by fellow essayists, Ahmed Mohiuddin (College of Medicine), one of two third place winners and John Korman (College of Medicine), who won second place. Not pictured is Craig Thomas (College of Medicine), who also tied for third place.

Tang’s essay was read Jan. 15 during a special ceremony at the Basic Science Building.

This Is Our Moment
by Peter Tang
MD/PhD student
One of my most vivid childhood memories belongs to the summer of 1989. I was a 5-year-old, riding a bus with my mother in the early morning hours, en route to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, China. I remember my mother’s near-fanatic insistence for getting to the embassy early. On the bus I squeezed through the standing crowd for a window to get a glimpse of the capital. I watched thousands of young people pour onto the streets around Tiananmen Square, gathering—pushed, shoved, tugged, trampled—into a mixed mass of signs and banners painted with bold, angry letters, mouths chanting for democracy; spectacle and ideas this 5-year-old did not yet comprehend. It was the first of many trips; each time I played passive company to my mother, passive observer to the happenings outside the bus window.
Then one afternoon, while leaving the embassy, tanks and soldiers replaced the crowds of people and banners. Gone was the chanting mass. As I grew up, I began to understand my mother’s urgency that first day: we were getting our visas and fleeing. My parents would never let their only son taste the bitterness of this society with which they were all-too-familiar. America was their shining beacon of prosperity and hope, and it is on American soil that they’ve determined to plant their most precious seed.
We came to this country with our suitcases, our names, and our ideas. We were not like everyone else; we did not look the same, could not speak a word of English, and had a very different culture. But one thing that we did share with America was the belief that through hard work and sacrifice we can each pursue our individual dreams and provide all the opportunities necessary for our next generation to pursue theirs as well; that in the land of opportunity an immigrant boy can achieve whatever he puts his mind to no matter the color of his skin, the differences in his beliefs, or the social class from which he arises. Holding onto this belief, my parents worked several jobs: washed dishes at restaurants, sewed shirt pockets for a nickel a piece, and attended evening English classes at the local community college. They worked to provide me with the resources for a good education, a nourishing home, and a chance to achieve more than they ever will. In America your fate is your own and hard work and sacrifice are the ultimate paths to success. I stand here today as a testament to my family’s pursuit of the American dream and as a confirmation that this nation is indeed the land of hope and opportunity.
My family’s journey is just a small footnote in the larger chapter that America is constantly writing, and in no other nation is this even a possibility. All of us owe a sincere gratitude to past generations, whose sacrifice and struggles culminated in the society we inherit today: wealthier, stronger, and freer than ever before. During this time of year we honor one of the most influential figures in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who lived, breathed, and ultimately died for a belief that has put an end to one of the gravest injustices of the last century.
Dr. King believed in a tolerant society where the color of your skin serves no barrier to your success, and that you will only be judged based on your character. He believed in our nation’s generosity in which wealth plays no factor in an individual’s ability to reach his or her full potential: to leave the ghettos, to be first in their family to go to college, even to aspire to become president. But his greatest belief was in one’s ability to make a positive impact through his or her daily actions.
One of Dr. King’s greatest influences, the Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi, once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Dr. King took this to heart as he encouraged his followers to practice non-violent activism and “civil disobedience” during the civil rights movement. While other leaders advocated more militant approaches, Dr. King believed in the sanctity of an individual’s own actions, writing “… nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time—the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.” These are the beliefs that have made America a beacon of hope and opportunity for the entire world—the reason why my family left behind the familiar to start a new life here; the reason why the son of immigrants from the humblest of origins can pursue graduate studies in some of the most advanced and revered institutions in the world.
The greatest strength of America lies within its diversity. We as a nation are a conglomerate of different cultures, different backgrounds, and different struggles. From a multitude of perspectives, we are able to question the institutions of our society to ask if we as a nation can do better. Our diversity allows us to see the forest as well as the trees. Yet with all that we have achieved thus far, Dr. King reminds us to never be content. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King emphasized that, “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Issues like the plight of inner-city public schools, the role of affirmative action in current society, and the threat to our civil liberties will all require hard work and sacrifice to rectify. And that is why we celebrate the life of Dr. King every year, to remind ourselves that we should never stop working for a better tomorrow.
We are currently living in a time of dramatic transformation. Our international status has been decimated, our dependence on other nations for resources has compromised the sovereignty of our nation, and the recent collapse of our financial institutions has forever changed the tone and urgency in which we face new problems each and every day. Yet after all this there lies a silver lining. In a few weeks we as a nation will be writing a new chapter in our history by sweeping into the White House the first minority president with a platform built on hope and change. As we watch with bated breath how this new president will rebuild our nation, Dr. King again reminds us that, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” We cannot sit as idle spectators and hope that the government will solve our problems. Each of us must continue the struggle. Each of us must become the change that we want to see occur. This is our moment.

Friday, Jan. 23, 2009

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