By Chang Wang and Robert Webber, contributors
The Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) Section of Immigration Law recently hosted the Second Annual “Immigrant Attorneys Among Us - Successes and Challenges of Our Colleagues Who Were Born Outside the U.S.,” a panel discussion and a continuing legal education program . Chang Wang, regular China Insight contributor, is a member of the Immigration Council at MSBA and served as a panelist at the program. The panel was moderated by Robert Webber, chair of MSBA Section of Immigration Law. Following is Webber’s conversation with Wang About his journey from Chinese graduate student to passing his Minnesota bar exam. Wang will continue his conversation about his career at Thomson Reuters and in immigration law with Webber next month.
Webber: You are a native of Beijing. Why did you decide to come to the United States to study and work?
Wang: I grew up in a scientific and technological family and community in Beijing. Both my parents are senior scientists at Chinese Academy of Sciences. I was born and raised in the Zhong-guan-cun neighborhood, the “Silicon Valley” of China – the home of thousands of high-tech companies, research institutions, and dozens of top Chinese universities and technical colleges. I attended Renmin University Middle School and High School; I then went to Beijing Film Academy for my undergraduate studies, receiving a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in filmmaking. In 1997, I went to Peking University for graduate studies, where I received an M.A. in comparative literature and cultural studies. Renmin University High School, Beijing Film Academy and Peking University are arguably three of the most liberal schools and universities in China. For nearly two years, between college and graduate school, I worked as an editor and correspondent for “Science Times,” a major Chinese newspaper. In 2000, right after I graduated from Peking University Graduate School, I came to the United States and enrolled in the art history graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
My generation is the so-called “Post-89” generation: born at the end of the “Cultural Revolution” but before the “One-Child Policy.” We grew up witnessing China’s cultural renaissance in the 1980s and had high hopes for a constitutional democracy in China - only to have our hopes crushed in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. We went to college after 1989 and were suffocated in the Post-Tiananmen “white terror” ideology purge and intellectual mediocrity. The authorities rewarded conformity and punished integrity. We had three options: shut up and accept all the lies; speak up and go to prison; or leave.
Many of us decided to leave.
Webber: Looking at your resume, it appears you had been trained in arts and literature for 10 years, awarded with three degrees, but you switched your career by attending law school. What’s the story behind this change?
Wang: I have been frequently asked about this change of career, and my answer is: “I always wanted to discuss art with lawyers, and discuss law with artists.”
But seriously, there was no one single reason. Rather, the decision was made based on the “totality of the circumstances.” There was a “preponderance of evidence” that mainstream contemporary art had departed the traditional roles in aesthetic engagement and spiritual inquiry, and had become a multi-layered for-profit business. Perhaps this led me to question the prospect of spending the rest of my life commenting on Joseph Beuys or Jeff Koons.
On the other hand, it was precisely the love of art that made me quit a career in art. You may be surprised to learn that art historians and art critics seldom “enjoy” art, because art is an object for them to study and work with. Appreciating art as a human being is a luxury they can’t afford. But now I can go to galleries and museums, look at an artwork, and enjoy every minute of it.
Webber: Why did you choose the University of Minnesota Law School for your legal education?
Wang: Like most law school applicants, I applied for a number of law schools and received several offers. As I was deciding which offer to accept, I paid visits to a number of campuses. My visit to Minneapolis played a key role in my decision-making process, but, that was in early summer…
To learn the whole story, please indulge me for a few minutes and read the opening paragraphs in my book “New Tales of the Twin Cities: The History, Law, and Culture of Minnesota,” the first Chinese language book about Minnesota, published last year by Thomson Reuters.
“It was summer, 2003, when I paid a campus visit to the University of Minnesota Law School. The sky was high, and the lakes were glassy. Minnesotans were out hiking, biking, kayaking, and walking dogs. If summer were a song, the song sang itself. The Chinese translation of “Minnesota” (明尼苏达) made perfect sense to me in the summer. The first Chinese character means bright and clear, the third character means wake or recover, and the last character means eminent, distinguished, or thorough. The translation appears to be faithful, expressive, and elegant, I said to myself.
With “bright” and “clear” in mind, I agreed. Three months later, I came back to Minneapolis as a 1L – and as the only Chinese student in the U of M Law School Class of 2006.
Book cover of Chang Wang’s book “New Tales of the Twin Cities”
What I hadn’t realized was that in Minnesota, summer was a loan that must be repaid in winter. When I again strolled around Lake Harriet during final-exam week in December, the lake had changed its face dramatically: it was now quiet and bleak. The only songs I could hear were the elegy in my heart, a curse directed at the person who had translated Minnesota as 明尼苏达, and an Edward Munch-style “scream” inside.
I spent my first winter break in Beijing, which is notorious for its Mongolian wind. Compared to Minnesota’s wind chill, however, Northern China’s winter blow is a nuisance at best. I remember being at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, applying for a student visa to re-enter the U.S., in order to continue my legal education. After examining the I-20 form that the University of Minnesota International Office had issued, the visa officer looked up at me rather sympathetically and said: “Minnesota, eh? It’s… cold.” Before I could even respond, he had stamped my application – “Approved,” as if he were worried that I might change my mind.
The most difficult part of Minnesota’s winter is neither the cold, nor the snow, nor even the wind chill – it’s the gray sky. In this regard, the first character 明 (bright and clear) of the Chinese translation is scandalously misleading. Cold is refreshing, wind clears the mind, and blizzards harden the will; but gloomy skies add nothing but depression and sorrow to never-ending Contracts lectures in the windowless classrooms of Mondale Hall and to sleepless nights in the law library. You begin to think hard, soul-searching deep thoughts. During a Minnesota winter, it seems, it is much easier to relate to Henrik Ibsen, Søren Kierkegaard, and Igmar Bergman, than to Benjamin Cardozo, Oliver Wendell Holmes, or Sandra Day O’Connor.
Webber: I am glad you survived, passed the bar exam, and became a member of the Minnesota Bar. Could you tell us of your experience with the bar exam?
Wang: I took the Minnesota Bar Exam in July 2006, passed it, and was sworn in as an “Attorney and Counselor of Law” on October 27, 2006, by the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Like many of my classmates, I took bar preparation courses. If you are very self-disciplined, the preparation course is not necessary. But if you are like me, then you probably also need a classroom full of sweating applicants, to remind you that this is serious business. One thing many of us realized after the exam – “spoiler alert” to law students – the law school courses, the bar exam preparation course, and the bar exam are three totally different things! The bar exam is just like any standardized exam: hard, but fair. If you give 40 days of serious attention to preparation, you will pass it.
Looking back, the 40 days of preparing for the bar exam, and the 40 days of preparing for the LSAT before law school, were two of my happiest times. I was focused, motivated, determined, had a clear goal and, every day I was making progress toward achieving my goal. Your fate is totally in your own hands. This is precious.
Chang Wang is chief researcher of Thomson Reuters, a member of the Immigration Council at Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA), and American Bar Association Section of International Law’s official liaison to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Robert Webber is the chair of MSBA Section of Immigration Law and the principal attorney at Webber Law Firm, LLC.