Wisdom and Bayonets: Chinese Scholars Reveal Longevity Secrets

Wisdom and Bayonets: Chinese Scholars Reveal Longevity Secrets

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At a celebration of his recent career award from the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) – presented on the eve of his 80th birthday – Yung-ping "Bing" Chen (shown in UMass Boston photo above) told the harrowing story of how he learned to stay calm – even under threat of bayonets.

Chen, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston’s Institute of Gerontology, was one of many Chinese or Chinese-American scholars who spoke at or were honored during GSA’s annual conference in New Orleans just before Thanksgiving.

"More than 70 years ago, I nearly got stabbed (or killed or captured) by the piercing bayonets as Japanese soldiers stormed through a farm house where I was hiding with my uncle on top of a stack of hay during the Sino-Japanese War. That was just before World War II, from 1937-41."


He recalled that when Japanese soldiers swept into his town before anyone could sound the alarm and escape. He and his uncle, who was about 20, hid in the barn, which was soon swept through by soldiers, who jammed their bayonets into the haystacks.

Chen said he was too young to understand what was happening, but his uncle was terrified enough to set his teeth chattering. The young Chen whispered that the dental clattering might give them away, and his uncle stilled his mouth with his hand.

After only a few eternal minutes, the soldiers saw that they'd struck no human fount of blood and abandoned the barn. Chen added that the incident explains his even temper: "After that happened, nothing has fazed me."

Asked what accounts for his longevity, Chen emphasized that he chooses his fights carefully and holds no grudges. “Someone asked me if I hate the Japanese,” he said. “I told him, no, I can’t blame people today for what others did in the past. That was a different group of people.”

Chen, who came to the United States in 1955, became one of the leading experts on Social Security and pensions, especially for older African Americans, Latinos and other ethnic elders in this country.

For his many contributions to understanding economic security for older Americans, Chen received the Robert Kleemeier Award, one of GSA’s few organization-wide kudos.

In accepting the award, Chen stressed that many seniors are willing to work after reaching retirement age. But U.S. pension and employment policies need to change to encourage companies to establish flexible work-hour system that would be more attractive to and less stressful for older workers.

More elder- friendly workplaces, Chen said, would ease financial pressure on Social Security, as seniors become more willing to continue working and put off tapping into the national pension program. (See Rong Xiaoqing’s full Chinese-language article on Chen at http://ny.stgloballink.com/community/201011/t20101122_1459399.html.)


Also honored at the GSA meeting – attended by almost 3,500 academics in aging from the U.S. and many other countries – was Ada Mui, a professor of Social Work at Columbia University.

Mui, coauthor of Asian American Elders in the Twenty-first Century: Key Indicators of Well-Being (Columbia University Press, 2008) received GSA’s Task Force on Minority Issues Outstanding Mentorship Award. She was praised for encouraging students from different ethnic background to become gerontologists, because she believes people from the similar cultural backgrounds can better understand the difficult life many ethnic seniors face.

For example, she said, American culture emphasizes “being independent and healthy--you can handle your life by yourself without being taken care of by your family or other people.”

She continued, “But in most Asian cultures, we focus on interdependence between generations. So within this framework, those who are not independent and active can still have a good old age.”  Rong’s Sing Tao article on Mui is at http://ny.stgloballink.com/community/201011/t20101121_1458912.html)


Also at the conference, Chinese psychologists shared stunning figures about the high levels of elder depression in China. Researchers Juan Li and J. Yu of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, conducted a survey or nearly 5,000 seniors ages 55 or older in 29 Chinese cities.

The study found that nearly 40 percent seniors showed signs of depression, and the rate went even higher among those ages 80 or older -- 45 percent.

Li concluded that elder depression is related to China's booming economy as it has brought dramatic changes to the social and family structures. Key factors for high depression rates where “the deterioration of family support” and poor health status among many elders, Li said.

Amy Chou, assistant director of social work at University of Hong Kong, explained why she and many others travel so far to participate in an American conference, especially in the Internet age. She and other scholars not only can show their findings and get educational feedback, she said.

Chou said she first heard about the concept of providing counseling to elders, who lost a spouse, at the GSA conference two years ago. Being inspired, Chou adapted a similar model and provided counseling services to 46 recently widowed seniors in Hong Kong as a pilot program.

These counseling sessions, Chou continued, were especially useful for seniors who live alone, they have showed signs of quicker recovery and being less lonely. (Link: http://ny.stgloballink.com/community/201011/t20101121_1458911.html)

This article is adapted from a series for Sign Tao Daily (New York) by Rong Xiaoqing as part of her MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship created by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Paul Kleyman contributed to this article.