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Mapping Out Her Future

Story by Dee Ann Littlefield

She found herself in a foreign country, not understanding a word of their language. Her husband and her 8-year-old son were the only familiar faces she had for thousands of miles. She was isolated and scared, but determined for a better life.

This is how Irene Fang felt when she and her son, Chuck, left Shang Hai, China, and arrived in Belton, Texas in 1989.

Irene's husband, Benjamin Sheng, had come to the United States two years earlier on a student visa to attend University of Mary Hardin Baylor (UMHB). He'd had an uncle that had attended Baylor nearly 70 years earlier. The uncle recommended UMHB to Sheng, so he applied. He was accepted to UMHB, and the Sheng family jumped at the chance.

"In the 60s we had a cultural revolution in China that was scary and broke our dreams," Fang explains. "Our whole country went crazy and we didn't want to raise our son that way. We were so scared that a revolution would happen again, and we wanted to get our son out. That was our main reason for leaving China. But we didn't know it was going to be so hard."

Both Sheng and Fang had college degrees and good jobs in China. Sheng had a degree in Chinese history and Fang had a degree in Japanese language. She worked as a Japanese translator for 13 years in China.

"I knew Chinese and Japanese," Fang says, "but neither I nor my husband knew any English. None."

When Sheng came to Belton, he took extensive English courses at UMHB for a semester. After getting some basic English communication down, he pursued a degree in computer science. Fang and their son then joined him in this new American adventure.

"It was very hard," Fang remembers. "I didn't have friends. I didn't know any English words. I didn't have a language so I couldn't talk to anyone.

"I still remember the first time my husband introduced me to his American friends," she continues. "He told me to say 'Nice to meet you' in English. But I couldn't make my mouth form those words - even though I wanted to and I was really trying. He kept holding my hand and telling me, 'Say it.' And he would try to help me pronounce it, but I just couldn't."

Fang's son was having a similar experience at school.

"My son started school here in second grade," she recalls. "About the third day he told me he didn't want to go to school any more because he couldn't talk to anyone and it wasn't any fun. I told him we were starting over and he needed to make new friends and learn English. He said, 'Okay mom. I will try.' And from that time on, he didn't complain and he made some great friends.

"He is now a mechanical engineer for a company in Dallas," she says proudly.

With her husband in college, Fang needed to bring in some income for her family, despite her language barriers. Ten days after her arrival she got a job bussing tables at a restaurant.

"I worked six days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and only earned $300 a month," she says. "It was hard work but since I couldn't speak any English, I was very appreciative of the job. In a few months I got better at English and I got a job as a waitress and earned $1,000 per month. I was so happy. That seemed like so much then."

When her husband graduated and got a job as a geographic information system (GIS) special analyst with the Experiment Station at Blackland Agrilife Research Center and Experiment Station in Temple, Fang was able to enroll in some English and computer courses at UMHB. Other than her college courses, Fang was at home most of the time.

Sheng and Fang attended the same church as (husband's) boss, Dr. Paul Dyke. Dyke suggested to Fang that she become a volunteer at the research center through the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Earth Team volunteer program. He thought it would get Fang out of the house, as well as help her work on her English.

After volunteering for eight months, Fang was offered a part time job in January 1994. She spent half of her time on Dyke's Agrilife Research staff and half of her time on the NRCS watershed resources staff as a computer aid.

"Everyone was so kind and so very, very patient with me," Fang says. "I had never touched a computer before that. I didn't even know how to type. I was starting from zero!"

She soon got the hang of it though and began to really enjoy the work.

"I started learning software programs, which were so interesting to me," she says. "The computers were great because once I learned the software, then I didn't need to talk to people, but still could work. That was the main reason for me to learn the computer stuff. I really wanted to be able to support myself."

In 1998, Dennis Williamson, now the NRCS state soil scientist, hired Fang full time as a cartographer in the NRCS state office, headquartered in downtown Temple. She has held this position for the last 13 years.

Fang really enjoys the digital map making process and claims her coworkers are the most rewarding aspect of her job.

"They treat me very, very nice," she says. "They are so friendly, walk me through things, and are very patient.

"Also, I think I have a very good boss," she continues. "He is very encouraging. It can still be very difficult for me to understand some things and I need to take some extra time. He never pressures me and is very patient. And if I do something good, they (the NRCS) reward me. That is very encouraging for me to go on and keep doing better."

Fang is currently serving as the NRCS Asian and Pacific Islander Special Emphasis Program Manager. She feels like a lot of people, especially Asian people, don't know about NRCS and they really need someone to reach out and tell them there is an agency like this where they can be involved, either as an employee or as a producer.

"I never imagined myself with a job like this," Fang reflects. "When I got here I had no future and no hope. Now I really enjoy my life and my job.

"I am so proud of myself -- I did it!" she says, smiling.

Twenty-two years after leaving China, Irene Fang truly has found herself and the NRCS is all the better for it.

Irene Fang Irene Fang
NRCS Cartographer Irene Fang implements her computer skills with the digital map making process.
Irene Fang and son Irene Fang
Fang and her young son arrive ready to face their new adventure. Fishing is a favorite past time for Irene and her husband.