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I Will Be Happy if I Can Say I’ve Done My Best: Eye Surgeon Dr. Ming Wang on Sight

“Sight” tells the extraordinary story of Dr. Ming Wang, from the oppressions of China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution to his move to America (where he earned an MD from Harvard and a Ph.D from MIT). It then moves to his pioneering work developing eye surgery that has restored sight to millions of children. 

In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Dr. Wang discusses what surprises him about America, why his most important patients are blind orphans, and why playing music makes him a better doctor. 

This movie is based on your memoir. Why did you want to tell your story? 

I wrote the book From Darkness to Sight mainly to recount my story as a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, surviving the Cultural Revolution in China, coming to America in 1982, and helping millions of patients restore their eyesight. I want to rekindle that story. Then an idea appeared in my head while talking with my friend [and producer] David Fischer, who said, “There's a film in this.” 

You operate primarily on children. Is that for medical reasons or some other reason?

I have dedicated a big part of my life to helping blind, orphaned children for two reasons. One, those are the folks who need the most help. I used to be in darkness myself during the Cultural Revolution in China, so I can feel their pain in trying to come out of darkness into light. So, I used to be in their situation in terms of emotionally not having a future as a kid in China. Also, when their sight is restored at an early stage, it has a bigger impact than someone who, say, is 90 years old and has more visual potential. Their eyes and brains are still developing, so they are more malleable.

The second reason is that I'm a Christian, and it was my way to answer God's calling to do what I can to use my long, hard-earned medical and physics skills with lasers to help those who need the most help, which are blind orphaned children. Honestly, these are blind orphan children forgotten by the world, and we need to help them the most.

What surprised you the most about the United States when you arrived? 

In 1982, at age 21, I arrived with $50 and a Chinese-English dictionary, knowing no one in this country. I could hardly speak English. The first thing that surprised me was that people are much more casual and comfortable here. As you can see in the movie, I arrived with a three-piece suit. My mother spent two months of her salary to buy me that three-piece suit. She said, “You're going to America. People dress very nicely there.” 

When I arrived, I looked at the campus, and the students were very casual, in t-shirts and blue jeans. So, I may be one of the poorest students, but I was probably the best dressed. To change that, I had to quickly change into more casual clothing. But by that time, I only had $10 left. So I went to a thrift shop. You could buy a pair of pants for 25 cents. What I did not know was that those clothes were ten years old, from the 60s. I came back to campus wearing bell-bottom pants and bright-colored shirts. 

The film depicts your parents very lovingly.

East and West: each has its unique attributes, each is a unique country. In the East, the emphasis is on family, scholarship, and respect for the elderly. I was brought up in a family very much focused focused on these qualities. So I'm very grateful to my parents. During the Cultural Revolution, we were very poor. Half the time, I was hungry and begging for more food, as depicted in the film. But somehow, my parents saw beyond the circumstances and believed there could be a better tomorrow for their kids. So, I have dedicated “Sight” to my parents. 

What was your first understanding of the impact of the Cultural Revolution?

I was six in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution started. I didn't understand at the time. I just saw that all these universities were shut down. All the university presidents and professors were beaten up and paraded through the streets. And my mom was sent away to one of the poorest parts of the country for two years. She was beaten up very badly because, when the Red Guard came to raid the university, she tried to defend the laboratory. 

I couldn't comprehend why people would destroy the universities and send 20 million young people away to a labor camp. But that actually helped forge my character, and the grit from going through a hard time like that helped me later in life overcome difficulties. In the movie, we see the world change through the lens of a six-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 14-year-old, as the boy has experiences and understands more.

When you could not go to school, you turned to music. Do you still play?

I picked up the Chinese violin, called the erhu, which lays vertically instead of horizontally, and learned to dance during that time. It was really not for the love of music or dance but for the sheer need to survive. If I could play an instrument and dance, I could get into a government song and dance troupe and avoid being sent to labor camp, a devastating fate.

So now it's interesting; I continue to dance and I continue to play my erhu, and people say, “Oh, Ming, it is so nice that you have these hobbies.” And my answer is that I didn't learn these as hobbies. I learned it to survive. 

That's clear in the movie, but it's also clear that it became very meaningful to you.

Not only is it relaxing and inspiring, but it's made me a better human being in terms of expanding the range of my life experience. We often say, “Oh, I'm right-brained. I'm very artistic. I'm not good at logical stuff.” And then some other people say,” I'm left-brained. I'm good with logic, but I'm not good with this artistic stuff.” I find that the best way to live is to use both sides of the brain in a complementary way, like how I approach an artistic endeavor such as ballroom dancing, which I'm very committed to -- I'm one of the top amateur dancers in international ballroom in the United States, ranked as high as number four at one time in the country. 

When approaching artistic endeavors such as ballroom dancing, I utilize my left brain, the logical part, studying the physics of movement, angular momentum and all that. But when I approach a logical project such as eye surgery, the precision, the technology, the accuracy, the laser, I apply my artistic side of the brain, the right brain. And I use both when I look at every patient, not just as a patient, not just as eyeball dimensions, but as a human being who has emotions, who has specific needs, which are different from anybody else, even with the same eye measurements.

If we do the right creative things, right brain things with left brain, and do the logical things, left brain things with right brain creativity, we will get the effect of 1 plus 1 is more than 2. 

The movie shows how you struggled when an operation did not turn out as you had hoped. What advice do you have for those who are afraid to fail?

What I've learned in life is that we need to fundamentally change the definition of happiness. We humans usually define our happiness based on whatever we think is success. Well, fifty percent of the time, we fail, so fifty percent of the time, we're not happy.

What I’ve learned is that I need to intentionally, deliberately change my definition of happiness from whether whatever I'm doing is successful to whether I have done my best. Whatever I've done, I will be happy if I can say I’ve done that.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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