Today's Reading

ROBERT'S LOVE FOR HIS PARENTS did not extend to the name they gave him at birth: Mo Tian,. "Tian" was a nice enough word, meaning "heaven" or "sky," but his well-meaning parents had not thought about how it could be distorted by cruel children when combined with "Mo," which can mean "nothing" or "none." His classmates christened him Mo Tian Mo Di,——No Heaven No Earth. That sometimes morphed into Wu Fa Wu Tian, which translates as Without Law or Heaven. By age seven, Robert was sick of being branded an outlaw, so he changed his name.

He chose Hailong, which means "sea dragon." Mythical sea dragons, he knew, could swim like fish and fly like birds. They were transient, mobile. Gliding on water and soaring through the air, they could propel themselves up and away from whatever challenges life threw their way. They did not disobey the law. They were simply above it.

The name proved fitting, because in the years that followed, Robert and rules did not always agree. At Southwest University in Chongqing, where he studied heat power engineering, he became enamored with American-style democracy. It was a heady time for science in China, when many researchers advocated political reform. The liberal ideas of physicist Fang Lizhi helped inspire student activism, and as students occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, similar protests sprang up around China. Robert joined a march to the mayor's office in Chongqing. In his version of events, administrators removed him from the school's honor roll in retaliation. (Fang, meanwhile, took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and was eventually shuttled out of China to the United Kingdom.)

After college Robert moved eastward to earn a master's degree, and then in 1993 he started his first PhD, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Engineering Thermophysics in Beijing. He specialized in the mechanics of boiling, spending his days happily observing the formation of bubbles in liquids, watching as tiny globules of air spread over the surface of water.

In his free time, Robert met friends for dinner, laughing over steaming vats of Mongolian hot pot, or slapped down tiles in raucous rounds of mahjong. One day at a friend's wedding he was drawn to a woman who was finishing her graduate degree. Her name was Li Ping. They fell in love and married in 1998. Soon after, Li Ping rechristened herself Carolyn, and they moved to America so that Robert could pursue a second PhD at Kansas State University.

Manhattan, Kansas, turned out to bear little resemblance to the island in New York City for which it was named. Robert marveled at how locals heeded stop signs even when no one was around. Nonetheless, puffed up with democratic ideals, Robert was full of hope for his prospects in the land of opportunity. As the number of American-born children studying science and engineering had slumped, the United States depended on a steady influx of researchers and students from other countries to power its labs. The man who knew the darkness of the mines and the voodoo of rural medicine was determined to achieve a comfortable life in America.

Robert arrived in the United States as the Chinese Communist Party was redoubling efforts to influence ethnic Chinese researchers living overseas. Many of these scholars had, like Robert, supported the Tiananmen protests from afar, by providing safe havens and funding for dissidents back in China. That worried party leaders, who expanded the organization that kept tabs on overseas scholars. But Robert was mostly unaffected by this shift. In the end, it was the academic job market that deflated his ideals.

In 2003, after finishing his PhD, he took an untenured research position in a thermodynamics lab at Florida International University in Miami. Any enjoyment he felt in practicing the skills he spent years acquiring was offset by his salary: around $40,000 a year. He and Carolyn scraped by for a while, renting a small apartment near campus. Then Carolyn got pregnant, and the apartment seemed even smaller. Their arguments turned bitter, at one point inviting a visit from the police. Around the time that Carolyn gave birth to a daughter—a small person forever linking them to the United States—the center that Robert worked for was reorganized, and he found himself out of a job.

Robert wanted a paycheck that could cover a mortgage on a real family home, and he knew that it would be hard to find another research position in thermodynamics. When he confided his troubles to his sister, Mo Yun, back in Beijing, she lined up the position at DBN. Robert knew next to nothing about agriculture, but Mo Yun's connections overrode other concerns. Her husband was DBN's CEO—a billionaire named Shao Genhuo whose business interests had earned him a spot on the Forbes China rich list.

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