“Teenage angst” had a different meaning for UC Berkeley junior Victoria Hu in high school.
Most describe it as the insecurities and anxieties of adolescence. But Victoria describes teenage angst in reactive terms — a way to cope with the unthinkable when she was 16, a method to internalize the anger, confusion and sadness over her father’s disappearance.
While peers stressed about AP tests and college applications, Victoria confronted a potential future without her father. He wasn’t dead, but he was gone in other ways — absent from the dinner table and from her family’s life, trapped in legal limbo in China.
In 2008, Victoria’s father, Dr. Zhicheng Hu, a Chinese-American scientist who worked on automobile emissions, left for China in what he thought would be a short business trip. But when a former associate accused him of stealing trade secrets, he was arrested and imprisoned by the local police. He was released 17 months later, cleared of all charges without trial.
However, Dr. Hu still remains in China, living as a caged citizen. While there is no official record restricting him from leaving the country, he has been stopped every time he tries to return home.
It has been five years since the family has been together, and it’s uncertain when — or if — her father will come home.
But Victoria, a political economy major, said she will keep fighting for her father’s freedom. Back then, Victoria didn’t understand the situation, and it’s only marginally clearer to her today. But her former teenage angst has been replaced with a drive to bring her father home, by any means necessary.
“I learned pretty quickly that you choose how you act and what emotional state you will be in,” Victoria said. “I wanted to give my family emotional support. I wanted to step up to the plate and help the situation, instead of keeping the negative feelings to myself.”
Victoria now freely shares her once intensely personal, internalized struggle with the world, using social media to convey her story in hopes of inciting change. It was a bottom-up approach she tried after her mother’s letters to American politicians, asking for diplomatic interventions, remained unanswered.
“My younger brother has been forced to grow up without a father for the past four years,” she wrote on the onlinepetition posted over a year ago. “My mother spent all of her energy trying to bring my father home, and the stress has had a devastating effect on her health.”
The petition now has more than 60,000 signatures. A Facebook page entitled “Free Dr. Hu” has more than 20,000 likes.
Despite the support, little has changed. But that doesn’t discourage Victoria. When the Chinese government blocked the online petition, she wrote, “Let’s keep sailing strong!”
“My general philosophy is that failure is temporary if you’re still alive,” Victoria said. “There are people who have got it a lot worse — they’re in war or fighting. My dad isn’t dead.”
UC Berkeley lecturer Crystal Chang, who researches government and business relations in China, said that Dr. Hu’s situation illustrates that “the rule of the law is not clear in China.”
“Even if there are rules, they’re not always applied consistently, which means individuals can get caught in the ambiguities or the bureaucratic red tape,” Chang said.
Victoria said she recognizes that change will not be immediate and continues with her life as a normal college student. She is busy with her schoolwork, works at a start-up that produces online comics and draws when she can. Last semester, she drew editorial cartoons for The Daily Californian.
“Victoria is very kind, upbeat and generous. When I first met her, I never thought she would be going through something like this because she’s so positive,” said Wenqing Yan, her friend. “But she does have these moments when she does show it is always a weight on her heart.”
Her mother, Hong Li, said she is continually amazed by her daughter’s efforts. The shy 16-year-old her mother remembers has been replaced with a proactive and extroverted girl.
“When this is all over, I want to eventually sit down and thank her, because I really don’t know what made her like that,” Li said. “I can’t summarize how much she’s done besides that she tried her best and she figured it out. It’s really amazing.”
Currently, Victoria is doing what she can: keeping with her social media and trying to learn more about Chinese government and business, which she says actually makes the situation seem more complicated. But other things are clearer to Victoria, things that her formerly “angsty” self might not have understood.
“I’ve learned that everyone has a story they’re not sharing,” Victoria said. “You don’t know what they’re going through, so you shouldn’t be too harsh on them.”
And she’s even able to laugh a bit about her situation, too.
“I’m no suffering artist,” she said, with a smile. “I’ll be okay.”
Contact Sophie Ho at email@example.com.