The road to Minneapolis for Ming Li Tchou and Pearl Lam Bergad took various unexpected detours.
By Saje Mathieu
Born in Guangzhou, China, Ming recalls how she learned her grit from her mother who encouraged her daughter to explore the world and ask bold questions along the way. Ming hails from a family of prestigious attorneys and accomplished scholars of arts and letters. World War Two interrupted Ming's plan to study law and set her on a path that eventually landed her in the Twin Cities. After meeting Dr. Mien Fa (James) Tchou, whom she wed in 1946, Ming lived in Shanghai, Vietnam; Paris; Ohio; and in East Texas before eventually coming to Minnesota in 1961. While Dr. Tchou began a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Minnesota, Ming launched her career as a medical technologist. An entrepreneur and scholar, Ming spent many years sharing her love of China with Minnesotans, as a store owner, tour operator, restaurateur, and through her work with organizations like the U.S. China People Friendship Association.
Born in Hanoi, Vietnam and raised in Hong Kong, Pearl Bergad also found her way to the United States, coming to Minnesota for undergraduate studies at Carleton College. When she began classes, Pearl embraced the wonderful gift of college seemingly unaware that as a young Chinese woman and a budding scientist, her place at Carleton challenged assumptions about her belonging on three fronts. But there, in country she still recalls as being "astonishingly flat," Pearl welcomed what college life—and Minnesota writ large—had to offer.
I had the pleasure of meeting Pearl and Ming over lunch one beautiful fall afternoon. Between sips of soup and bites of salad, the two ladies told of their experiences in Minneapolis, a city where few Chinese could be found during the 1960s. When asked about those early days, Pearl broke into her infectiously warm smile and said, "I mean it was all corn. And they fed it to animals!" In China, that corn might have been much needed sustenance for people. Minnesota's abundant landscape quickly imprinted itself on Pearl's heart and became her new home.
Pearl forged the first of many new families at Carleton with young women from New Jersey, Utah, and other parts of North America who, like her, were setting off on their own. After completing her undergraduate work, Pearl completed her Master's of Biology at the University of Minnesota, where she then enjoyed a successful 25 year career as a molecular biologist at the U's Medical School. And while Pearl and Ming each report having felt the touch of Minnesotans' generosity, they never lost sight of how immigration could also be an isolating experience for some others.
Service has always been central to both Pearl's and Ming's lives. While neither could quite remember how they first became friends, they both emphasized that their commitment to giving back solidified their bond. Early on, the two women, who share an easy, sisterly rapport apparent to anyone fortunate to know them, made it a point of wedding their philanthropy with their passion for Chinese culture. That vision brought the lifelong friends closer together and paved the way for the Chinese Heritage Foundation, created in 2004 in honor of Dr. Tchou, Ming's husband of 25 years. Pearl best captured the Foundation's philosophy: "We are not big. Our aim is not to be big but rather to do what we can do at its best." That best has included providing an endowed fellowship for Department of History graduate students working on 20th century East Asia, with a particular focus on China. The Chinese Heritage Foundation's stated mission is also to inspire a passion for Chinese art, culture, literature, music, and history. Pearl is most proud of how their work and generosity introduces students to Chinese heritage and creates opportunities for young Chinese scholars starting their careers at the University
And while Pearl and Ming share their enthusiasm with young Chinese Minnesotans, they are also very mindful of another community in need of their care: aging Chinese in Minnesota. Pearl and Ming are longstanding charter members of the Chinese Senior Citizens Society, Ming having served as the association's president for 10 years, and they understand older Chinese Americans' particular cultural needs. The women explained how Chinese elders, some of whom may not speak English, are experiencing a new form of isolation in their advancing years. With them passes important memories of life in mid-century Minnesota, tales of their travails as migrants from distant shores and stories of their successes, sometimes in the face of tremendous adversity. Pearl and Ming's Chinese Heritage Foundation works for these men and women too and encou-rages University of Minnesota students to connect with the wealth of resources in Chinese communities across Minnesota. This marriage of old-timer and newcomer, young and old, is Ming Li Tchou's and Pearl Bergad's gift back to the University of Minnesota and to the state that so generously welcomed them decades ago.