Priscilla Chan, in rare interview, tells how her goals with Mark Zuckerberg are shaped by personal story

In the local Silicon Valley newspaper, The San Jose Mercury News recently did an interview with Priscilla Chan. She’s most well known for being the wife of founder & CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and she rarely gives interviews.

In this particular interview, Chan talks about how her personal story and background has helped shaped the her and Zuckerberg’s donations to schools and hospitals. I was kind of surprised to learn about Chan’s background, and just assumed she grew in a middle-to-upper-class Asian American family – since she went to Harvard, dated-and-married Zuckerberg, and also became a doctor. I was wrong:

“Wealth and power used to be foreign to Chan, the child of immigrant parents who fled Vietnam on refugee boats in the 1970s and never went to college.

While Chan was growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts, her family stressed the importance of school and hard work as the keys to a life better than the one the Chinese-Vietnamese refugees left behind.

Her Cantonese-speaking grandparents raised her and two younger sisters while her parents, Dennis and Yvonne, worked long hours at a Chinese restaurant and other jobs.

And while her parents never attended college, they wanted their daughters to do better, though it was an abstract idea rather than a road map filled with a list of specific colleges and test scores. Once, Chan told her mom she wanted to take the SATs. “What’s that?” her mom asked.”

Priscilla Chan, center, CEO of The Primary School in East Palo Alto, is pictured in consultation with an unidentified staff member. Chan, the wife of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, founded The Primary School as a way to try to combat and alleviate the effects of poverty on children. (Courtesy of Priscilla Chan)

I remember one summer when I was a mechanical engineering summer intern at a local manufacturing company, and was looking for someone or something and a person on the loading dock asked me if I was an intern. I said, yes, and he then asked me where I went to school. I said, ‘Cornell.’ He responded, “Oh, not as good as Harvard or Yale, but it’s up there. You must be rich and smart!”

Rest assured, I was not. As someone who had student loans ($17,000 then – about $25,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation), I definitely did not feel rich! So in some ways, I had fallen to the mis-perception and stereotype of Asian Americans at Ivy League and other elite universities come from fairly well-to-do backgrounds. And Chan’s case reminded me that is certainly not the case.

For a lot of Taiwanese Americans that I’m familiar with of my generation, our parents immigrated to the United States for graduate school, often attending the “Harvard” of Taiwan, National Taiwan University (my father did, though he was the first in his family to attend college) and eventually going to work in professional jobs. So when I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to see Asian Americans in non-professional jobs in big numbers, that is when I realized how much of a myth the Model Minority myth truly was.

Image courtesy of The San Jose Mercury News


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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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