Emory Report
November 28, 2005
Volume 58, Number 12


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November 28, 2005
From Iron to Steel

By Chanmi Kim

Chinese lecturer Wan-Li Ho wishes only one thing from her daughter. “I really hope she can help people,” Ho said. “I hope she doesn’t think only about having a prominent career or making a lot of money, but that she will also want to help people.”

Ho’s own life has been about caring for others, perhaps partly because she’s had her share of hardships. After several years in the Ph.D. program in religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, her husband divorced her, leaving her with a 13-year-old daughter and no child support in a country whose language and culture were still quite foreign to her.

“I was a foreigner in this country,” said Ho, a native of Taiwan. “I settled down by myself because at that time I had limited English and I really had to concentrate on my studies.”

She supported herself and her daughter throughout the doctoral program by working odd jobs here and there, including as a nanny, a Chinese tutor and a Temple teaching assistant. “I had to do everything on my own,” she said.

Ho said she cried every day after her husband left her. Then her music director at church told her one day that she was iron, and she was going through fire in order to become steel. Ho went home that day and didn’t cry for the first time since her husband left. Since then, she’s never shed a single tear (“At least,” she added with a laugh, “not over a man.”) and over the years has found that, rather than crippling her, not having a man in her life has empowered her. “I have more time and freedom to serve other people,” Ho said.

Now that she has become steel, Ho has dedicated her life outside of Emory to helping other women going through fires themselves. She volunteers at places like DeKalb County’s International Women’s House, a shelter for battered immigrant and refugee women and their children, where Ho translates for Chinese women who do not speak much English.

“I help them communicate with the director of the place where they live, with counselors during their counseling sessions, with lawyers as they go through legal papers, and with officers of immigration services,” she said. “They have very sad stories but can’t express themselves, so I write down their stories for them in English. That way, they can show their stories to counselors at the shelter, to lawyers or to immigration officers when no one is around to translate.

“It’s very meaningful to do something that can help someone around you move their life one step ahead,” Ho continued. “When I see how they move their obstacles away one by one and start a new life, all my effort pays off.”

At the same time, Ho admitted, “This kind of volunteer work is very time-consuming and emotionally draining, because I develop relationships with these women. I share their pain and anguish.”

Once, a woman from the shelter called Ho at midnight to tell her that she wanted to die and what cemetery she wished to be buried in. This woman, like many others, had grown to depend on Ho more than on their counselors because they could communicate freely with her without the language barrier. “They grow to trust me as their friend,” Ho said.

Within Emory College, Ho also is known as a loving teacher, and when the Emory Scholars Program recognized her teaching last May, then-senior Frank Martin described her as “not just an ordinary teacher or an ordinary person.”

“She is far beyond ordinary because she sees every person as significant,” Martin said in a speech honoring Ho. “When she encounters a new person, she doesn’t just see another human body; she is in the profound realization of the other’s presence and wants to understand him.”

What Ho loves about her job is that she can teach both language and religion. In addition to Chinese 101, this semester Ho is teaching “Mind and Body in China,” a very popular freshman seminar in the Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures (REALC) department.

The class explores theoretical and practical aspects of the mind/body concept in Chinese religious traditions. Students get hands-on experience with ancient Chinese practices such as Qigong (a Taoist-influenced art that fuses movement and meditation for physical and spiritual self-healing), Tai Chi, seated and moving meditation, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, spiritual practice in nature, and Taoist methods of enhancing longevity.

By semester’s end, students not only know the basics of Chinese calligraphy (from Confucian tradition) and meditation (Buddhist-influenced), but can also perform at least 24 movements of short-form Tai Chi.

“From this class,” Ho said, “they definitely get some authentic practice from Chinese traditions, and they also learn how to relate to other cultures, as well as how to really contribute to their body and mind.”

The fact that the class is for freshmen is important to Ho, not only because she loves working with first-year students but also because it “helps freshmen start their college life with healthy minds and bodies,” she said.

In addition to teaching, Ho is revising her dissertation (titled “Negotiating Ecofeminism: Religious Women and Environmental Protection (huan-bao) in Contemporary Taiwan”) for republication and has contributed to journals, magazines and books on the subjects of Taiwanese women and ecofeminism.

“By the late 1980s, economic development in Taiwan had caused an immense amount of environmental damage,” Ho said. The organizations that responded to these environmental needs had strong Buddhist ties and largely female memberships. Ho said these women felt a special responsibility for protecting the environment and respecting nature.

“They are motivated primarily by religious and social reasons, irrespective of—and perhaps largely unaware of—the politics of gender responsibilities toward nature,” she said. “As Taiwanese religious women involve themselves in the environmental protection movement, they experience new possibilities for development in terms of spiritual reform, individual lifestyle change, reorganization of human relationships, action-oriented politics, communal solidarity, effective media operations and great interreligious understanding. All these are byproducts of these women’s efforts in one social movement.”

Ho compared her research to Western ecofeminism. “Taiwanese religious women involved in huan-bao are very different from the radical ecofeminists in the West, who define the problem primarily in terms of androcentrism and hierarchical dualism,” she said. “Taiwanese religious women in grassroots movements have a unique perspective that allows them to consistently link themselves with their religio-cultural commitment and communal solidarity, including family involvement and interreligious cooperation.”

Ho’s own life is a success story. Last year she finally bought her very first house, and her daughter, Yeou-rong, is now an Emory College sophomore double-majoring in neurobiology and social behavior and Chinese. Yeou-rong is considering a career in counseling for patients suffering from deadly diseases such as AIDS.

“I think that will be great,” Ho said of her daughter’s plans. “I really hope she can help people.”