Meet Lilly: Pengyou Program Manager

When I was growing up, I had a “Tiger Dad.” Since my dad was the driving force behind the way I was brought up, I want to begin by sharing his story.

My dad’s dad – my grandfather (in the photo with me above) – was a three-star general in Chiang Kai Shek’s army. Grandpa joined the army at the age of 26, leaving his hometown in Guangxi Province to combat invading Japanese troops. In the late 1930’s, he eventually made it to Chongqing in Sichuan, which had become the capital of the Kuomintang nationalist government. That is where he met my grandmother.

When Mao Zedong defeated Chiang in the Chinese Civil War, my grandparents fled the mainland, taking their young family to Hong Kong, along with the few possessions they had left. My dad was eight years old when they arrived, and grew up speaking Cantonese (hence my own lack of Mandarin skills!). He never went to school, because my grandparents couldn’t afford it. Plus, he had to help take care of his two younger siblings. There was no time for lessons.

My dad in the middle, with his family in Hong Kong circa 1951.
My dad in the middle, with his family in Hong Kong circa 1951.

My dad started working at age 14 so he could earn money for the family. He worked in restaurants around Hong Kong, sharing dorms with migrant workers from Shanghai (to this day, my dad’s Shanghainese is better than his Sichuanese!) In his twenties he joined the merchant marines, sailing all over the world in container ships. One day he ended up in New York and decided to “jump ship” – and stay in the land of opportunity.

He made his way to Chicago where he met my mom (who was originally dating his best friend – I’m pretty glad that didn’t work out!). They got married and started a business together – a mom-and-pop style Chinese restaurant on the south side of Chicago (which is still there today). Much of my childhood was spent helping out at the family restaurant, 7 days a week. To this day, my organizational skills can be traced back to the busy times at the restaurant where I was working the kitchen, answering phones, taking orders, and dealing with customers – all at once.

Because my dad had such a rough and tumultuous life growing up, he wanted nothing but stability for me and my younger brother. That’s why he always pushed us to be diligent in school, and to get into good universities – and then the rest would be up to us.

And it paid off. After all, I ended up getting two degrees from MIT. And now here I am back in China, where my family story began. I came to Beijing a year ago to study Mandarin at Tsinghua University, and now I’m working at Project Pengyou.

When I saw my grandfather this summer, he told me how proud he was that I was in Beijing – and that he was glad that he had left China when he did, so that I could be here in the position I’m in now: as an American in China doing some pretty awesome things!

This post was supposed to be about me, but turned out to be more about my family’s history.  You’ll learn more about me as we go, but I figured this was a great place to start – because who I am is so deeply rooted in the journeys and obstacles that my family has faced.  This was the prologue; a new chapter awaits!

Lilly Kam

Program Manager, Project Pengyou

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Current City: Beijing, China

Photos above courtesy of Lilly Kam.