South Charlotte

China trip reveals family's medical dynasty

Rachel Cheng Uri, 15, and her sister Marissa, 12, both students at Country Day School, went on a family trip in fall 2008 that meant missing two weeks of classes. Their mother, Iris Cheng, 48, took them out of school for a special family reunion, one that involved traveling to China.

The girls and their mother accompanied Iris' father, Homer Cheng, 84, to his birthplace in Guang Zhou, southern China, to, as Iris put it, "experience his roots with him."

"The girls got to see my father's village," said Iris. "They really saw the authentic China."

The trip reinforced for both girls how fortunate they are to have the freedoms and opportunities of their American life.

"We saw where my great-grandfather had lived," said Rachel. "People were living in cardboard boxes with nothing but a table and a photo of Mao Zedong."

Both girls experienced culture shock in the market, where they saw delicacies like cockroaches on a stick.

"But China was also much more industrialized and Americanized than we'd anticipated," said Marissa. "Even in the small villages, we'd see McDonald's and Coke."

What most struck both girls, however, was the contrast between their grandfather's humble roots and his successful trajectory in America.

"It's amazing that 'Gong Gong' (what the girls call their grandfather) started with so little and carved out such a good life for himself in the U.S.," said Rachel.

That life includes earning a medical degree, having a successful career as a pathologist in Lima, Ohio, and raising three U.S.-born children who all followed in his footsteps to become doctors.

Iris is a faculty physician of internal medicine at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte; her sister, Susan, is a radiation oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio; and Iris' brother, Rex, is an anesthesiologist at UCLA.

Homer Cheng credits his own father, Holt Cheng, with not only introducing him to medicine, but actually founding the medical school that educated him.

"My father was a revolutionary," Homer Cheng said. "He founded the Guang Hau ("Glorious China") Medical School to teach young Chinese Western medicine."

To understand the significance of Cheng's father's contribution, one has to appreciate the historical context of his life and the political and social climate of the China he left and to which he returned. He received a medical license from the state of California in 1904, the first Chinese citizen to do so, but he chose to return to China because he wanted to take back control of medicine in his country from Westerners.

The medical school he founded in 1908 was the first to be built and run by Chinese for Chinese, but teaching the principles of Western medicine. It was also the first co-ed medical school in China - a good thing, since that is where Homer Cheng, who attended the school in the 1950s, met his wife.

Homer Cheng left China in 1957, escaping to Hong Kong and moving to the United States in 1959 as a political refugee.

"Communism was rampant in China at that time," Homer recalls. "It was very anti-intellectual and I felt persecuted, so I fled."

Unlike his father, Homer did not return to China, choosing instead to practice medicine in the United States.

But in 2008, he received an invitation to return to his birthplace for the 100th anniversary of the founding of his father's medical school.

Homer decided to invite his three children and his three oldest grandchildren - Rachel, Marissa and their cousin, Austin - to accompany him, along with other members of his extended family. The trip turned into a family reunion and celebration of his father's legacy, one that exceeded everyone's expectations.

"When the Chinese celebrate, they go big," said Iris.

The medical school anniversary was a party with several days of celebration, including medical conferences, banquet feasts, dance performances, honors and speeches and thousands of grateful alumnae in attendance. The hoopla was enjoyed Homer Cheng, who particularly relished the fact the celebration was multigenerational.

Marissa and Rachel never met their great-grandfather, but they now have a much deeper appreciation for his roots and his contribution to his homeland.

"It is so cool that our family is a part of something so important," said Rachel.