The John Jung Letters:
Two Chinese American Boys And Their White MentorsTwo Chinese American Boys And Their White Mentors
Adolescent peers, especially those of the same ethnic background, have major impact on the psychological development of each other. But when peers of one’s own ethnic group are not available, what alternative resources assume this role? The present account illustrates how much older white people functioned as mentors for two young sons of Chinese laundrymen, each coincidentally having the same name, John Jung. They grew up in cultural isolation in two different generations, one in North Dakota, and the other in Georgia. I used their written correspondences to determine the influence of white mentors on the social development of these ethnically isolated boys. In one case, I examined letters written in the 1920s by the North Dakota boy to his fourth grade teacher after she moved from his hometown and in the other case I studied letters that white adults in my Georgia hometown wrote in the early 1950s to me, the John Jung in Georgia, after I moved to San Francisco when I was 15.
Devils Lake, North Dakota: Letters From John Jung (1929-1936)
John Jung may have been the only Chinese child in Devils Lake, North Dakota in 1928. According to the 1920 U. S. census schedule there were only 12 Chinese in Devils Lake, all men working mainly in restaurants. Born in China, John came to live with his father who ran a laundry while his mother remained in China.
What is known about John Jung’s life comes almost entirely from the more than 20 letters that he wrote to his fourth grade teacher, Fanny Boulden, from 1929-1936. The year after John was her student, she married and moved with her husband to a farm in Grand Forks County, North Dakota. A few years John himself moved to Bismarck, North Dakoka, where he continued his schooling and worked with his father who now ran a cafe. During these years, John and his teacher maintained correspondence with letters.
Although none of her letters to him have been found, some inferences about their content can be made from what John wrote in his letters. The seven years of correspondence reveal how a strong and lasting mentoring friendship developed, one that was a positive and powerful influence on John’s personal growth.John’s letters provide a window into how he saw the mainly white world of North Dakota. John reflected on life in the United States and described his daily activities and experiences in the American educational system. His tone was mostly reverential and polite.
His first letter, dated June 29, 1929, was written in the awkward prose of an immigrant ill-at-ease with English:
Dear Miss Boulden.I regret to inform you that I as good-by to you that day, then I am very sorry and sad. Because forever without good teacher to help me as after today, for long time ago… O thanks for you are kindness, In spite of my foolish foolies and naughty, carefully to show me the anytime, I felt glad in the joy of my heart, you keeps me from carelss, and gives me unterstand all I have.
In closing, John implored her to write him when she had time:
”if you are leisure to send me a letter tell what place are you going on if you are so kind as to grant me this favour, I shall be happy very soon.”
Your friend, Jung
Over the next 18 months, John wrote six letters to his teacher, These early letters are a combination of apologies for not writing more often, progress reports on his school work, and repeated expressions of gratitude for her teaching.
However, his intellectual growth in less than two years was quite evident in a letter dated March 22, 1931. By then John had discovered the New York Times, which he described as “a professor’s newspaper, which is liked by the first classes people.” He boldly wrote, “I think that will broaden your mind and conception of things wonderfully”… and noted that “Reading good books or mazanes(sic) is to improve the mind.” He ended with a moral tone, “Men without knowledge is like the flower without gragrance (sic)!” Yours truly, John Jung. IIn a postscript, he added that the New York Times had an essay contest called, OUR NAVY DAY, which inspired him to enter a similar essay contest for junior high school students in Bismarck where he won Second Price (sic), leading him to boast, “This is the advantage from reading good paper.”
In one letter, John’s sensitivities to racism emerged. Outraged by his French teacher, he wrote that she was not fair or “anti-different-peoples” in her treatment of students." He reported that his anger led him to write a complaint of letter to the principal.In January 1932, John returned to China for approximately eight months to visit his mother, and during this period the growing hostilities between Japan and China galvanized John’s patriotism. He wrote about wanting to return to China later to fight the Japanese, and even enlisted in the Chinese army. However, he returned to North Dakota to resume school.
In a letter in March, 1933 John reacted with skepticism to his teacher’s recommendation that he read Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” He expressed doubt about its validity, writing that he felt white writers about China were hypocritical. He explained that his school history book stated that signs in Shanghai parks forbade entry to Chinese and dogs, signs that he claims he had never seen during his extensive travels throughout China. Angered by this book, he had a tantrum at school and wrote: “I could hardly control my temper; I threw and tore the book in front of the teacher.”
Out of respect for Mrs. Peterson, he promised, “But I will read the “Good Earth”, however, as you said it is good! As I was raised in China, I should by now know my fatherland well. After having read it, I will make a little critic to it and tell you whether it was just or not.”
In Dec. 1934, John confessed some personal failings in a letter in which he acknowledged, “I broke my friendship with a so-called friend and gave up all my ambition of making friends and all my unholy desires of making money. This experience led to some difficult times for John, who admitted...”I would become immoral ___falling into a bad habit of drinking, gambling and fooling around in a pool hall. I did smoke once a while when I was in Devil’s Lake, but, taking your advice, I quitted (sic) smoking for almost four years.” After Mrs. Peterson offered advice about smoking and drinking in response to his confession, John replied on Jan 3, 1935:
“But I always have the feeling of danger of smoking and drinking. It is not the matter of money,
but the matter of my health. Men shall never begin a bad habit! To learn a bad habit takes
only few hours while to learn a good one takes several years … I tried quite smoking for many
times, but in vain.”
“In your instructive letter...you said, “these views are entirely personal and you are
under no compulsion to pay any attention to them if you disagree.”
He feigned disappointment in Mrs. Petersen’s disclaimer that he was free to ignore her advice.
”What kind (of) person do you think I am, Mrs. Peterson? Do you think I am a boy
who turns good advice out from me? I should say not…As you have been my teacher
and know more than I, you should correct my errors whenever you can find it .. .
From now on, please tell my faults and don’t just try to make me happy, for my future
has many days coming.”
John graduated from Bismarck High School in 1935 and secured a scholarship to attend Purdue University in Indiana and on Aug. 5, 1935, he wrote to inform Mrs. Petersen. Despite many invitations in the past several years and promises to visit the Peterson farm, John finally managed to visit them for the first and only time in mid- August on his way to attend Purdue.
0n Dec. 30, 1935, he wrote to Mrs. Peterson from Purdue informing her of his academic challenges during his first year. The level of difficulty and competition was more than he was prepared for. He confided that he was barely able to obtain B’s in many of his courses. He criticized himself,
“Since I am not working, I ought to make higher marks than ‘B.’ Well, I cannot blame anybody
but myself that I didn’t take drawing in high school, that my foundation is not much
good for engineering school and that i am too dumb or did not study hard enough.“
The story, however, does not have a happy ending. No record of what happened to John after 1936 has been found. His last letter dated December 27, 1936 gave no indication that he intended to return to China but given that he did join the Chinese army in the early 1930s, Mrs. Peterson speculated that he may have returned to fight in the Sino-Japanese War, which broke out in July 1937.
Years later, in 1984, Fanny Peterson, reflected that “his intriguing letters are a literary event, I feel. They reveal a developing personality and a young man dedicated to making it in a 'white man's world'.”
1 Photocopies of the John Jung Letters were deposited in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection at the University of North Dakota by Fanny Boulden Peterson of Larimore, North Dakota in December, 1984. The original letters were deposited by Fanny Welte (Peterson’s daughter) of Aneta, North Dakota, on November 18, 2003 in exchange for the photocopies (Acc.#84-1338). Also included was one letter to Jung from Nelson Sawvain, former Superintendent of Schools in Devils Lake, a story written by Jung after he had been in Boulden’s class for eight weeks, a biographical account about Jung written by Carol Welte, and photocopied materials from the archives at Purdue University.
Macon, Georgia: Letters To John Jung (1952-1954)Like the North Dakota John Jung, a generation later another son of a Chinese immigrant, laundryman also named John Jung, experienced a solitary childhood in Macon, Georgia. His family members were the only Chinese in the entire city during the WWII years, a time before the civil rights movement challenged and refuted the Jim Crow laws that were prevalent throughout the South for decades. There, his parents operated a laundry. When he was 15, John, like the North Dakota John, was suddenly uprooted from his hometown when his parents decided to move the family to San Francisco to provide them with contact with a Chinese community. His father make the sacrifice to stay behind alone to run the laundry to support the family in San Francisco. Overnight, John went from being totally isolated from other Chinese in Macon, to living in the midst of the largest Chinese community in the United States.
During this sometimes bewildering transition, his emotional ties remained to Georgia and it was through letters that he maintained ties with people in Macon that were important in his life. Two teachers were faithful correspondents. Miss Rosa Taylor, the retired principal of his elementary school, who had taken a special interest in my development as far back as when he entered the first grade. She invited John to visit her occasionally after school at her nearby home. There, they would sit on her front porch and converse at length on many topics. She served in the role of one of his grandmothers in China that he never met, always patiently listening, with indulgence, to his undoubtedly childish banter.
What was important to John about this relationship was that a highly respected adult had a genuine interest in his personal growth. After he moved to California, she would often write spirited letters of encouragement. When John once confided that his high school in San Francisco was very difficult, she wrote: “I only know that you are in every way an A-1 boy and will always be a joy and a credit to everyone who has had the happy privilege of knowing you. Right you are! Show the Westerners that the “deep South” is not so benighted as we have been pictured…
A second mentor, Mr. Guyton Carr was John’s 9th grade science and homeroom teacher. A curmudgeon at heart, he was a master teacher captured and held the attention of fidgety 14-year old boys long enough to teach them the principles of physical science. In his letters, Mr. Carr was full of encouragement and praise, expressing high hopes for John’s success. When he disclosed that his new school, the prestigious Lowell High, was intensely competitive and that he was no longer making all A’s, he offered support with a dose of humor. “As far as I am concerned, something about your school has the delicate aroma of a two weeks old fish-head. Surely that school is not than much harder … Another thought just struck me… Are you a courting boy now? If the love bug has bitten you, that explains it.”
Mr. Carr treated John as a colleague or peer rather than as one of his pupils. For example, in more than one letter he described his ideas for new ways of teaching certain concepts, and then asked for John’s opinion: “Do you think I give too much homework? What methods could be used to get them to have fun doing science? Anything you can say would be very much appreciated. You would be a much better critic than practically any of the students I had last year.”
And then there were townspeople who cared about John. Mr. Shirley, the manager of an office building, was a father-surrogate to him, and a family friend who treated them respectfully and was always available to assist my father in business matters. Mr. Shirley was a prototypical Southern gentleman, the kind who tipped his straw hat and nodded to women as they walked by on the street.
His style was polite, genteel, and refined. In one letter, he wrote,
“I pass by the store daily, and it suddenly dawns on me that my fine young friends,
are 3000 miles away.” He also would comment reassuringly on how well John’s father
was doing alone in Macon. And he often noted my father “missed his family a lot.”
A second correspondent was Mr. Jessie Cooner, an elderly good ol’ boy who served as a surrogate for the grandfathers in China that John never met. He was the clerk at the small liquor store next door to the laundry. The two of them developed a deep friendship through their mutual interest in baseball, and they would spend hours discussing major league teams and players and listening to radio broadcasts of games. On Sundays, they often attended local games together under the broiling Georgia heat.
From Mr. Cooner, John would get a letter every few weeks lamenting about the local hot weather, how much he missed his companionship, and how poorly the local baseball team was playing. He liked to tease when John’s favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, was not doing well. He often mentioned his conversations with John’s father when they would sit outside their stores to cool off during the summer evenings, “I talk with your Daddy every night and of course it is about you all. He tell me every time hear here (sic) from any of you.” In several letters, his Southern racial biases would emerge, “John, your Daddy just told me that Negroes go to the same school you go to. How about that. I bet you don’t like that at all. Write me all about how they work that kind of business.”
And so it was, that when John moved across the country, this assortment of correspondents helped him adjust by expressing interest, concern, and confidence. These correspondences lasted for only for one to two years, brief compared to those of the North Dakota John Jung. Nonetheless, the affirmation and support John received were invaluable in giving him confidence in his potential.
None of the letters that John wrote to these mentors are available. John recalled that he usually rambled over many topics, as adolescents tend to do. He usually wrote about new experiences, schoolwork, tourist sights, career plans, the weather, and, of course, how much he missed his Georgia friends