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.
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
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