If Horatio Alger were writing today and someone suggested that the young Chinese man, Frank He (pronounced Huh), would make a good subject for one of his stories, the author would likely say that it would be too unbelievable for a traditional rags-to-riches tale.
Frank was born in 1986 into an extremely poor family in the Dali Prefecture in the Yunnan Province in China. His isolated village in the Himalayas allowed almost no contact with the outside world. For the first five years of his life, the family lived in the one inhabitable room of an otherwise burned-out house. Even at five, Frank says, he knew he wanted something better and was determined to get it.
“The thing that changed my life,” he says, “is that when I was eight my mother took me to visit my aunt’s family in the village of Xizhou. For the first time I saw people who did not look like me and who spoke a language I did not understand. They were buying things in the village. I could tell that their life was very different from mine.
“I asked my mother who they were, and she said they were from a foreign country. ‘Where is foreign country?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘Everywhere but here.’ I wanted her to find out what they were talking about, but she said I’d have to study hard and learn English, so someday I could talk to them myself. ‘You can do it,’ she said. From that day, that was my goal. I was a poor math student, but always got 100 percent in English.”
When Frank was barely into his 20s, a businessman from the Philippines heard him talking with a friend and invited him to apply for a job as the translator for his company. “Thirty-five people showed up for that interview,” Frank says. “Many of them had studied in the U.S. and had long, impressive resumés. I had just a little scrap of paper with my name and phone number, but I got the job.”
Within 10 months, he was made general manager of the company that did $3.5 million of business a week. He traveled extensively and was happy to be working for an organization that carried out a lot of charitable activities. Doing well financially is equated with success in the Chinese culture and, at a very young age, Frank had achieved that. But he felt a very strong pull to implement ideas he had to improve educational opportunities for children in the area he had come from.
Leaving his job, he moved to Hong Kong to pursue that goal, but the Chinese government, which controls all education in the country, rebuffed him. Stung, he started his own international trading company. At age 23, he trained a staff of 20 that designed and produced ethnic clothing. Working 20-hour days, he was exhausted and unfulfilled, when he happened to see something on TV about a program in Xizhou, the town where he had visited his aunt as a child and become fascinated with the English-speaking foreigners.
Within days, he visited the Linden Centre being established by Brian and Jeanne Linden of Ellison Bay. At first, he thought his company might work with them, but almost immediately he realized that the center’s goal of preserving and sharing China’s culture and history was exactly what he had always wanted to do. He left his company and was hired by the Lindens in 2009. Today he is a board member and executive general manager of the facility that the Lindens have restored, using their life savings and proceeds from the sale of their home in Madison. It is one of China’s national heritage sites, protected like the Great Wall.
At 28, just 20 years after his first glimpse of the outside world, Frank He is living his dream, helping to preserve his country’s storied culture for his fellow citizens and those from “foreign country”- everywhere else.
Frank He will present “An American Family’s Chinese Dream in a Local Dreamer’s Eyes” at the Sturgeon Bay Library on Oct. 2, 3 – 4 pm, and at Linden Gallery in Ellison Bay on Oct. 4 at 11 am.