Story Time | Naked Americans, “Treats”, and Acceptance in China

Three years ago around this time, I was living in China and embarked on my first 24 hour train ride with my friend “Sky” to experience an authentic Chinese Spring Festival. It would be safe to say that I did not have the faintest idea of what those weeks would hold! I miss China and my wonderful friends there-how different my life would be if I never had met each of you. So for today, it’s story time. (And yes…this did actually happen).

“Where are we going?” I ask Sky in English, knowing her Aunt couldn’t understand.

“To take a shower.”

“But…” I paused. “Why do we have to walk across town to take one?” I knew she might think I was being difficult, but I felt it was a perfectly normal question. Culturally speaking, I already felt stretched (understatement) after the 23 hour train ride I just endured.

“There is no hot water, so my aunt will treat us to a shower outside.” she replied and hastily took off into the next room to grab her towel.

The word “treat” brought back memories of eating congealed pig’s blood (imagine that coming up in the dictionary) and chicken feet with my friend’s mom at a 5 star hotel. I had become weary of that word. I imagined myself in the town square naked, suds coming off my head, singing while pedestrians sold tickets to watch the ‘showering foreigner’.

We weaved our way around the street vendors, people, and honking taxis following Sky’s aunt and her nine-year old cousin. They made small talk about how big & ugly my shoes were (Uggs anyone?) and how the price of bananas had dropped to an all-time low in Kunming (a city I later discovered had the cheapest bananas in all of China). Who knew?

We arrived at a bathhouse of sorts that appeared relatively clean and no naked people greeted us at the door, which helped me breath. A little. I listened closely to Sky’s aunt as she talked with the girl at the reception desk, but could not discern an answer to my biggest question: would I have undress in front of hundreds of Chinese people who already stare at me when I’m fully clothed? Plus, let’s be honest, I hadn’t shaved my legs in weeks.

Sky kept telling me how nice it was of her aunt to “take us here” and “receive us so well” and what “a treat” it was. I don’t want any treats. The woman behind the reception desk led us down some stairs to a small locker room. Sky’s aunt told us to undress, put our clothes in the locker assigned to us, and go into the shower area.

I took off my thick fleece, and then went for my earrings wishing I wore more jewelry to delay the process. Could I really do this? Please God, if you were ever going to step in-now is the time. The three women stood naked waiting for me. I turned around and took all my clothes off and stuffed them in the locker.

We walked through the glass door into the shower area. No turning back.

It was packed with naked bodies; a group of women huddled in the sauna, some in the hot tub in the middle of the room, and others lathered up near the spigots. And then, they all stopped. And whispered. And stared. And thought about how huge my thighs were (I was sure of it).

God, please turn me into an Asian. You don’t even have to make me smart…promise. I just need the eyes & tiny frame. A hush fell over the room and for a moment I considered breaking into song or dance to ease the tension. We joined several other women in the sauna and discussed life in America and my perspective of China as if we were sitting in a living room drinking tea.

I excused myself and headed to the far wall to escape the eyes glancing in my direction. I started scrubbing my hair with my non-existent shampoo & scanned the room for a clock. How long have I been in here?  Then, a pregnant woman looking like she might have the baby right there on the floor of the shower room, addressed me.

“Ni keyi bang wo xi ma? Wo bu hui,” She said and pointed to her back. She wanted me to scrub her back. I stared at her with a I’m-white-and-don’t-understand-you-look, but she was on to me. She heard me talking to Sky and her aunt the the sauna.  I grabbed the pink wadded up rag and took a deep breath.

I scrubbed her back wishing I had red sparkly heels to tap together. I’d even take a shack in Kansas over standing naked (did I mention I was naked?) in front of all those women! Chinese communalism was great for society, but not when it came to showers. In ‘Merica, we take showers solo.

Slowly-ever so slowly-everyone lost interest & stopped starring. I chit-chatted with my new friend, told her to eat lots of eggs and “walk slowly”.  I reflected.  A Chinese woman addressed me like she would have any Chinese stranger that was standing next to her and asked for help. She didn’t judge me for my different skin, round eyes, and improper tones. And she didn’t seem to care that my thighs were twice the size of hers-she still wanted me to scrub her back.

I was accepted.

Have you ever lived in a culture different from your own? What challenges did you face?

Red Light Outreach | Bringing Hope to Chinese Prostitutes

Today’s post is by Shannon Wilson, a co-founder of The Red Light Outreach—a ministry in a major Chinese city to women trapped in prostitution.  I met Shannon when I lived in China and I am good friends with many of the women involved. Today, Shannon shares her story of her first encounter with the rampant prostitution in China and what she and others in her city are doing to bring Hope. You can read more about their ministry  and learn how to get involved at

I remember the first time I turned the corner to walk down her street so vividly. Darkness enveloped me to the point of leaving me gasping for breath. My eyes immediately filled with tears, I was so shocked by the brokenness of it all. I was so taken aback by the oppression, the dozens of women sitting on plastic stools outside what looked like mini garage doors. The street was filthy, with trash on the sidewalks, stray dogs wandering around and dozens of men walking in and out of these garage doors. Prostitution in Asia is a multi-billion dollar industry. You wouldn’t know it, hanging out with the women who are trapped in the shops on every street corner. Most shops are eerily dirty and dark, with yellowed walls from all the cigarette smoke and broken down facilities from the frequency of being used. We continued to walk down the street, crying out to the Redeemer of all things to redeem this filthy alley, to redeem the brokenness of the people who were blankly staring at us as we walked by. As we walked by we passed one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in the five years I’ve lived here. She was sitting alone, and we approached her and made small talk. She seemed hesitant to talk to us, looking around to see if anyone was watching her. Since then I’ve learned she’s anything but shy; she’s extremely feisty and can be fierce when customers come around.

She is one of an estimated 80,000 prostituted women in our average city of 12 million people. Her story is the same as many of the women we’ve met: she’s married, has a child and moved to the city out of the poverty stricken countryside in hopes of providing a better life for her family. Somewhere along the lines she was lured into prostitution. One time we met a woman on her first day on the job. She spoke candidly and with skepticism that the work would be worth the money promised her. She didn’t want to be there; she wanted to return to her family in the countryside but was fearful of what would happen if she left the brothel. Another time we met a girl who said she was eighteen but didn’t look a day over fifteen. She had been taken from her home province up north and brought here to be sold dozens of times a day. Every time we stopped by to say hi to her she would shamefully tug at her inappropriately short dress, trying to hide her “occupation” from us.

In January 2010 when God began to move

our hearts for these women we instinctively knew the best thing we could do for these women was to pray. We’ve spent countless hours walking the streets of red light districts praying for freedom from oppression, begging God to break the chains locking the women into this industry and worshiping the Creator of the broken people we so long to bring hope and new life to. As we worship God in these areas there is such immense, tangible power brought into this darkness. We’ve literally had women run out of brothels as we sing about the love and freedom of Jesus, asking to be our friends and offering to bring us into the brothel and introduce us to the 8-10 women working with them. When we invite Jesus to move and have His way in these places, we meet pimps who oversee hundreds of women prostituted in one single club, who then invite us to come back to hang out with the women. When we read scripture over the alleyways, God gives us opportunities to share the hope of the gospel with women, pimps and customers, sometimes all in one day!

When I think about 80,000 women outside my door selling their bodies daily for money, I am easily overwhelmed. There’s nothing I can do, an American entrepreneur, to help all 80,000 women. But I believe in a God who knows them by name and whose heart grieves for them to know True love and True peace. In response to a vision God has given us, we have opened an American style bakery in hopes of one day having a storefront where we can hire women out of the sex industry and provide honest employment for them. The bakery would not only provide them with opportunities to learn basic business skills, but would also allow women a safe environment to heal and learn how to have healthy relationships with one another and with people in society. We dream about having a safe house to provide safe living accommodations for women who previously lived in abusive brothels. With HIV and sexually transmitted diseases spreading rampantly across Asia, we desire to provide them with the medical care their bodies will need. We continue to pray for opportunities to love these women, the same way Jesus loves us.

We know God is working in our city and using Red Light Outreach to bring hope and new life to the streets of this place. These are His people and He longs to redeem their stories. We are currently praying for initial funding for the bakery and for a safe house, as well as a team of 8-10 people who will come work with us full-time in hopes of seeing our city transformed by the power of the gospel of Jesus. Will you pray with us? Will you join us?

Site:   Contact: [email protected]

Please leave your comments at the bottom to encourage Shannon and others involved! Share this post with your friends! Do anything you can to raise awareness!

“Big Face” & Following Jesus | A Guest Post from Natalie Han

Today’s post is from my dear friend Natalie. She currently works as a post-doctorate at Stanford University in the radiology department. She happens to be the smartest person I know (and I know a lot of smart people) and I had the privilege of wading through her intellectual arguments against God and introducing her to Jesus Christ. Today, she writes an incredible piece on the idea of boasting in our weaknesses, so that Christ may be made strong from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. If you missed either part of her story you can read about her here and here.

I accomplished what I only dreamed of as a child.

When my professor walked out of the classroom in which I just presented my PhD dissertation and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Han” I could not contain my excitement (I acted poised until he left-then I cheered, jumped up and down with my friends, took 100 pictures, and eventually cried).  Everything I’d ever thought of accomplishing, came with his words. I  received my PhD in America and had job offers to Harvard & Stanford.

Chinese culture has a lot to do with “face”, as our society is based on the shame/honor dichotomy. Big house, good jobs, kids’ school performances, all bring “big face”, while anything embarrassing will make us lose face. We try to rise to the top, to out perform others, and do anything we can (right or wrong) to make ourselves & especially our families have face.

Before I knew Jesus, I didn’t care what it took for me to accomplish my dreams-all that mattered was my ‘big face’. I was prideful and living for myself. If you saw me then, you would think I was very happy & smart, but underneath appearances I lived in the dark.  My life was a mess, I was lost and totally didn’t know what is right and what is wrong. As long as I had good grades, came to the US, have publications, other things behind the scenes seemed to be not that important. After all, big faces are all that mattered. That was how people judge you. I arrived in America, accomplished my childhood dream and gave my parents ‘big face’, but the darkness still lingered.

The world has not changed, but I found Hope and ironically weakness. Five years ago, on Halloween, instead of dressing up like a sexy girl (we think all Americans dress too sexy on Halloween) to attend a consume party, an American girl Ruthie was crying with me and witnessing how I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. Indeed, I was weak, I was broken, I was hopeless, I was sinful, I knew that I could not continue one more day without this hope and new life she has been sharing with me over the past two months. Of course, I didn’t have time to read the whole Bible, but I knew this Jesus she spoke of could forgive my sins. He could give me a new life when I accepted him, I could live differently. Ridiculous sounding from my communist party background, but I felt the peace and healing that I have never experienced before, overflowing in my trembling body in a little white car outside of Starbucks on 21st Avenue. This was real. This was not like I filling up a form and paying for the communist party membership fee. I felt the peace knowing Jesus has forgiven all my sins and my life is in his control. I was fragile (and admitted it for probably the first time in my life) but trusted God that this new life will go differently forevermore. For the first time, I couldn’t ‘fix’ my weakness or forgive my sins myself-I needed a Savior.

I like to joke with Ruthie that she “ruined my life” because after I accepted Christ as my Savior, I felt weaker than every before-because I wasn’t relying on my own abilities or seeking to bring praise to myself. My life would look so different if I had not met Jesus…

Truth is that I’m not perfect, the way I do things, things I say are not all constructive, ask my friends you will find out more how many times I’m “bengkui”, meaning “totally falling into pieces” over the past five years. But God never fails. God promised us to complete the work in us (Phil.1:6). We are not finished yet.

The Bible says Paul boasts in his weaknesses, so that Christ may be shown strong.  How different from what I grew up believing! But even after my accepting Jesus, I still try to hide my weakness and pretend to be a “good” Christian, because of my Chinese gene wishing to have “big” face. What a lie! If we could gain to go to heaven by what we do, Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:21).

Even the verse “when you are weak, you are strong” was hanging on my wall for years, but I still struggle to apply it. One of my weaknesses is I cannot take other people’s negative comments about me, no matter truths or lies. I hide. Though I’m not the person that I used to be, my tendency was to avoid losing face more by hiding. The spiritual journey is not a easy road-many struggles, tears, prayers it took to have even a little bit of change in each one’s life. But thanks God for His grace to change me, though I’m limping along the way, I’m not alone. I boast in my weakness in light of encouraging myself and you to boast in our weakness, stop pretending to live a perfect life, stop relying on our own strengths, embrace our weakness and let Jesus work in our lives. We should not be afraid, because “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Christ is strong and we want others to see His strength in us not get lost looking at our own “big face”.

What do you think about covering up your sins or struggles to make yourself look better? Do you find it difficult to rejoice in weaknesses?

Moving Abroad, Chicken Feet, & Life-Long Friendships

This post orginally appeared on bestselling author Beth Wiseman’s blog on Tuesday. She is one of the fiction authors I work with at Thomas Nelson & I feel incredibly blessed to know her. Today’s post is a great way to gear up for next week’s guest posts. My friend Natalie will post on Monday about strength and weakness in relation to Chinese culture & the Gospel; Wednesday you’ll hear about The Red Light Outreach-a ministry to Chinese women trapped in the sex industry-from one of the founders. Exciting week ahead!

I stepped off the plane, my head still spinning from the rough landing, as the smell of fried noodles and strong spices wafted over me; instantly taking note of what appeared to be thousands of black eyes staring at my differences. I nervously pulled my hair back behind my ears and bit my fingernails- just 14 hours ago I was sitting in the Atlanta airport speaking English. I felt as Lucy must have when she discovered Narnia. The wardrobe was behind me as I was standing in an unknown world of fascination and intrigue—one where everyone stared at me like I was a life-size doll and the words consisted of intricate pictures. I was certainly not in Kansas anymore. I arrived across the globe in what would be my new home for the next two years: China.

I moved to China to tell a primarily atheist nation about the one true God who sent His Son to die for them. I was there to be the hands and feet of Christ—in a city where brokenness and sorrow reigned because a recent earthquake buried thousands of children underneath their schools. Overwhelming does not even scratch the surface of the emotions I felt walking around my new city of 12 million. The most daunting task was to learn to communicate in their heart language.

The honeymoon phase with my new home ended rather quickly. I grew frustrated with the people staring at me on every street corner, some touching my hair and face as if I was an artifact. The general hurry of everyone in public seemed unjustified, especially when elbows would find their way into my sides or worse when I was pushed off a bus one time. Pushed! I didn’t understand why the Chinese stood in line touching each other or why people would cut me in line if I didn’t press my body against the person in front of me. And why the hurry at the train station? I have never before experienced such massive chaos and panic as the train doors opened and we were allowed to find our (assigned, mind you) seats. Grocery shopping in China on a Monday morning felt like Y2K was looming. And everywhere I went, people snapped pictures of me (without permission) and school children giggled and pointed.

The language came with great difficulty, many embarrassing moments—the word napkin and menstrual pad should not be confused, esp. in a crowded restaurant—and many tears over the frustration of the large communication barriers.  With time, I began to form deep friendships with Chinese women. The cultural barriers came down, brick by brick, as I was able to truly recognize that while they looked different, talked different, and had different customs, we were in essence the same in longing for love, acceptance, and belonging. They needed a Savior just as much as I did. My housekeeper Xiao Li and I loved to laugh and share a good meal with friends. My friend Zhou Qiu Yu and I both loved to sit up late and eat ‘snacks’ and watch a movie (however her ‘snack of choice’ was chicken feet). My friend Zhou Xin and I like to run together. Elengi and I liked to watch The Office together. One night, I invited my Chinese friends over for a sleepover. And guess what we did? Danced, sang, laughed, ate way too much candy, went to bed at 4am, and talked about boys. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Each day as I lived among the Chinese, spoke their language, and became closer friends with natives, the unfamiliar with the culture grew familiar. They laughed, desired acceptance, fought with their relatives, struggled with selfishness, loved deeply, had their hearts broken, wanted to be thinner, experienced anger, wanted more—just like us. While there will always be language & cultural barriers between me and the Chinese, my time in their midst was the most rewarding time in my life. Hard, yes. But richly blessed with friendships and experiences that forever change the way I view others.

Have you ever experienced life among people from a different culture or background? How did it challenge your faith?

Learning Chinese | Restaurants and Unforgettable Foreigners

My Mandarin language study started off on the wrong foot, so to speak, when my teacher asked me if I had “some problem with your ear?”. Chinese is a tonal language, and well… I’m nearly tone-deaf (just listen to me sing). She insisted I couldn’t learn Chinese and suggested I try something easier like French or Spanish. My answer was “absolutely not”. I call it determination, although my husband might use a word like stubbornness. After all, in a country of 1.3 billion people certainly others suffer from tone deafness like me.

My A- in Beginning Chinese can only be attributed to my friend Natalie Zhaoying rescuing me from failure. She gave me great confidence in my ability (something she later regretted) that everywhere we went together I would practice a new sentence I’d learned, such as “Do you like American food or Chinese food” in a higher volume than our surroundings endorsed. (She still reminds me her embarrassment).

In August of 2008, I moved to China and would have told you, ”I can speak a little Chinese.”

Oh, I was wrong.

Acing Chinese tests did not even close to translate in country. I bumbled through the airport starring at the signs with a curious scowl. I was unable to read any other than the one with a picture of people running from a giant flame down the stairs or the one of a stick figure squatting over a hole in the ground. I attributed my illiteracy to a lack of sleep.

The cab driver opened his mouth to ask us where we wanted to go and out came what sounded like a string of vowels slurred together. I did not catch a single word. I spent one year of my life studying the language, but I didn’t cry just yet. I blamed my misunderstanding on jet lag.

I settled into my ‘luxurious’ apartment, started Chinese class, and began wondering if I would ever be able to understand the people surrounding me at every street corner- some touching my hair and face as if I was a life-size doll-and others pointing and elbowing their friends to look at the waiguoren foreigner. Waiguoren: that was at least one word I understood.

As I alluded to before, I am stubborn determined by nature.  I wasn’t about to give up. I said “ni hao” hello to almost every person I met on the street. I made friends with anyone who would put up with my smiling, nodding and nonsensical words. I listened to Chinese podcasts on crowded buses and on my bike rides to school.

And slowly, ever so slowly, my Chinese improved and people started to understand me. It felt magical, as if I’d entered JRR Tolkien’s the secret world of hobbits.

So there I was squatting on a stool at a local restaurant, my knees hanging over the top of the greasy table. Alone because I wanted to force myself to speak Chinese. I ordered 2 of my favorite foods: ”fish-flavored eggplant” and “empty-heart vegetable”. First step: success.

“Laobarrrr” [boss] I shouted over the Karaoke music coming from next door, raising my hand in the air to get the waitresses attention. I felt proud in learning the Chinese way of operating in a restaurant: raise your voice and yell what you want. No need for patience.

“Weishengjin,” I said, beaming I remembered the word for napkin.

She turned and looked at me and [much to my dismay] so did everyone else in the restaurant.

I looked around, considered the reason they were looking at me was probably because my Chinese was just THAT GOOD, and continued.

“Mafan ni dai wo weishengjin.” Could I trouble you to bring me some napkins?

The tiny woman’s cheeks flushed and she stated they did not have any wei-sheng-jin. Silence fell on the crowded restaurant. Each pair of eyes stayed on my nervous waiguoren self.  I knew my pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but come on…can a girl get some napkins?

Then laughter started and I grew frustrated: “Weishenme ni pian waiguoren? Ni kending you weishengjin! Zhi shi fanguan!” Why are you messing with a foreigner? You definitely have napkins! This is a restaurant!

The waitress froze and laughter erupted rising like the billowing cigarette smoke and steam from the boiling water in the middle of the tables.

It wasn’t until much later…not seconds, not hours, but days later…when my Chinese friend told me just why they were laughing. I had demanded [in a loud voice] the waitress bring me menstrual pads.

“Why are you cheating a foreigner? You definitely have menstrual pads! Just bring me some. This is a restaurant, for goodness sake!”

I am most certain every person in that Chinese restaurant never forgot the “foreigner screaming for menstrual pads”.  And it was only the beginning of my adventures in China. Oh I miss it!

Life As a MRS | Sunday Emails and Coffee Shops

This week started off perfectly. My friend Natalie who I wrote about here is staying with us for a week or so until she moves.  On Sunday night, we called some friends in China for the “Moon Festival” and I got to talk to my dear friend Doris. Nothing like starting off the week with a little Mandarin.

My husband is learning Greek and loving his seminary classes. He’s learned to drive slower and I’ve almost mastered the art of squeezing the toothpaste correctly. Michael remembers 1/2 the time will put the seat down; I remember 1/2 the time  to put away the groceries without shoving (or tossing) them on any shelf in the pantry or fridge that looks inviting. Sundays is our ‘clean the house day’ and my wonderful husband volunteers to do all the chores I don’t like (toilet, trash, vacuuming, dishes).  Marriage is such a beautiful gift and I cannot express how much joy living with my best friend brings every day. I want to savor these moments-because it seems like so many people forget.

I am usually devouring at least 3 books simultaneously (currently: The Homemade Life, Sunrise on the Battery, and There You’ll Find Me and I just finished Real Marriage). And I listen to sermons by Perry Noble and Andy Stanley on a weekly basis. A common thread across several marriage books and coming from those two pastors is couples need a date night. It doesn’t have to be a ‘night’ or the couple doesn’t have to have a huge budget-the point is to set aside a time for just the two of us to be together uninterrupted. You mean without my dinging/beeping/gonging iPhone?

Last Sunday, Michael and I went to Starbucks (thanks to our wonderful photographer Seth Snider) and then to Percy Warner Park to enjoy the sunshine. We walked all over the park and talked about snow cones (there was a man selling them there), tattoos, kids, life together, jobs, seminary, et cetera. We didn’t bring our phones. It was our time to just be. Together.

My iPhone is usually attached to my hand (I even email while running). Several times Michael will be in the middle of a riveting story, I will hear a ‘ding’ and cannot help but to check just who thinks I am oh-so-important. It’s really rude, I know, but also really addicting. While I am grateful to be able to reply to emails with ease and efficiency, sometimes I just need to put it out of sight and let the emails, calls, texts, Facebook messages, twitter messages, blog comments, blog subscribers go unanswered. (That’s a lot of ways someone can contact me.)  I’ve started leaving my iPhone at home when I am going somewhere with Michael because sometimes I feel like I have no self-control. Freedom.

Sunday afternoons are now set aside for dates-”Michael and Ruthie time”. We plan to explore coffee shops around Nashville-together-without phones or computers. Every Sunday we will explore Nashville and land at a new coffee shop. And afterwards go to a park (we both love the outdoors) and stroll and laugh and enjoy or, when the weather gets cooler, stay huddled inside the shop under a blanket. Nashvillians: what are your favorite coffee shops here?

My grandmother once said, “I can’t email that today. It’s Sunday” as she mistakenly thought the world-wide web hung their hats on Sundays like the postal service. I think she was on to something.

An American Dream

From the Sandstorms of Inner Mongolia to a Vanderbilt Ph.D-A Story of Genius, Triumph over the Impossible, and Perseverance

Zhaoying Han, ‘Natalie’, received her Ph.D in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University yesterday– an impressive feat in itself – but what separates her from the rest is her unmatched perseverance and determination despite the impossible odds her upbringing presented.

Natalie grew up in Inner Mongolia, China in a small, no-name town called “Daban”. Her parents, having come of age during the Cultural Revolution, longed to give their daughter everything they did not have – food on the table and the ability to go to college. Common in Chinese culture, Natalie’s laolao grandmother raised her from an early age as her father worked long hours in a bank and her mom in a local hospital as a nurse. By the age of five, Natalie went to school for eight hours a day. By the 6th grade, she was in school until after nine every night only to come home and study until the wee hours of the morning. It was during this time, when Natalie began to dream about studying in America. Less than 1% of her classmates would attend college and even the idea of studying overseas seemed out of the question and almost ludicrous. But Natalie held onto this aspiration as she pedaled her bike back and forth from school through the brutal sandstorms that swept across the desert-like terrain in her hometown. The three-mile ride needed to be accomplished four times per day, as it is customary to come home for lunch and dinner. Natalie still laughs when she thinks about wrapping a scarf around her entire face to protect it from the biting sandstorms – and said,

       “I almost cannot believe I endured such opposition – my American life is so    easy –  I have a car.”

In high school, the studying even became more arduous as she prepared for the GaoKao, an aptitude test that puts the SAT to shame, to enter college.

Natalie in highschool at a Karaoke Bar

Natalie was determined to enter TsingHua University – the MIT equivalent in China – and studied for months and months in addition to her schoolwork in order to receive the score on the standardized test she needed to be one step closer to her dream.

But she didn’t get in. Her parents stepped in and pulled some strings – using guanxi relationship or connections- the most important aspect in Chinese culture- to get her into the local college: Inner Mongolia University.

But that wasn’t the end of Natalie Zhaoying Han’s American dream.

       “College was easy – I went at 16 and didn’t have to study besides an all-nighter or two before my big exams,” Natalie said. “I began to focus on studying for my graduate entrance exam.”

Natalie received perfect score on her graduate entrance exam reviving her soon-to-be-abandoned American dream . The Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing accepted Natalie for their master’s in electrical engineering program – and for three years she nearly spent every waking hour in the research lab.  At the pivotal fundraising event for CAS, Natalie’s high tolerance for alcohol-characteristic of people from Inner Mongolia-came in handy. She was given the sole responsibility to help convince the military president to continue the school’s funding. But not in the traditional way. 

       “If he drank too much at lunch, he wouldn’t be able to ask questions about our presentation in the afternoon—he’d be sleeping. So it was my job to drink him under the table,” Natalie said, laughing. She was successful.

Starting in her second year at the Academy of Science, she began studying for the GRE, TOFEL, and submitting several journal papers for publication.

Natalie applied to 30 schools around the world – and received offers from Canada, Australia, and Singapore. But none of the American schools called. Instead of losing hope, Natalie researched Vanderbilt’s program heavily and took a more proactive approach. One night, she stayed up into the middle of the night to accommodate for the 13-hour time difference to call Professor Dawant – the professor heading up the medical image analysis research. In a language foreign to her, she nervously explained her ideas for his current research project – and her proactive phone call separated her from the rest and one week later landed her an offer.


Natalie stepped off the plane in America with the feeling all her worries and problems were left in China and she had arrived. She had accomplished her childhood dream and became a legend in the tiny town in northern China. But she was at the base of an even steeper mountain – one that would take her 6 years to climb.

Natalie’s PHD defense

Yesterday, Natalie defend her Ph.D thesis with pride and officially became Dr. Natalie Zhaoying Han. The past six years for Natalie have been grueling to say the least. She endured more personally, emotionally, and academically than most will experience in a lifetime. But with those words, “Congratulations Dr. Han” she achieved what can only be described as truly her wildest dream.

As a child, I dreamed the impossible: I wanted to become a doctor in America. I was a simple girl from a countryside town in Northern China… [l]ess than 1% of my high school attended college and at times my family barely had enough food to eat. But day after day, I pedaled my bike back and forth to school through the biting sandstorms — determined to make my dream a reality. Today, my dream has become reality.” Dr. Han, Acknowledgement section of her thesis entitled, Effects of Non-Rigid Registration Algorithims on Deformation Based Morphometry.

Dr. Natalie Han received offers from Harvard and Stanford– part two of her childhood aspiration. Originally, she planned to move to Boston, but decided to take the offer from Stanford as the research position is in the radiology department and more directly applies to her Vanderbilt research.

“Coming to America didn’t fix the emptiness I had battled for so many years…” Don’t miss part two of Dr. Natalie Han’s story concerning her personal journey through opposition- why she almost gave up her PhD- and how she found faith despite her allegiance to the communist party and atheistic worldview.