‘It was rough growing up as the foreigner’ – Fred Engst
Fred Engst was born in China in the years after the founding of the People’s Republic and grew up on a farm in northern China. His parents, Erwin Engst and Joan Hinton met there after separately coming to China in the 1940s in support of the revolution.
Despite the material hardships of those years he recalls them with both nostalgic exhilaration. ‘The Cultural Revolution was the best time of my life’ he said. He remembers a time of immense freedom and exploration when the schools closed and he and his friends went travelling around the country with the red guards.
But despite his native Chinese and years of living here there was not getting away from his white skin. He was different. He knew it and everyone else knew it too.
‘On the farm I was treated the same as other kids but when I left the farm people used to stare at me’ he told us. ‘It was rough growing up as the foreigner. We were the only foreigners here really, very few foreigners in China in those days.’ Once his mother took him to a dentist appointment in town and they attracted so many curious on-lookers that they had to be rescued by the police.
So does he feel American or Chinese? ‘Growing up In China I was always called an American but I had no idea what America was like!’ He did eventually find out when he went there many years later. But it wasn’t exactly the home coming he hoped for. ‘When I went to the US I tried to integrate but I failed….The kind of thing that people care about is very different to what I care about. In china I feel that I can have a common language, in the US I find very few people have a common language and a common heart.’
Feeling more at home in the middle kingdom, Fred returned to China a few years ago and now teaches at a college in Beijing.