New England and China: A family’s Unexpected Connections

Ray and Mary Chin and their dog, Plato, at their home in Thetford, Vt., on March 7, 2014.
Valley News – Sarah Priestap

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Friday, March 14, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, March 15, 2014)

When Mary and Ray Chin of Thetford met in an art class at the University of Delaware in 1969, they had no idea how many connections they shared. After all, Mary was the daughter of academic New Englanders while Ray’s parents had emigrated from China and owned the laundry in town.

Mary’s mother was involved in the civil rights movement, but she expressed concern when she heard her daughter was dating a Chinese-American man. “Think of all the potential problems — he’ll just be so different from you,” she advised. “Lots of mothers are skeptical of a boy their daughter brings home. My mother was extra skeptical,” Mary says.

For several weeks, the family’s beloved housekeeper kept telling Mary’s mother, a teacher who valued education, about a wonderful young man who had been tutoring her son.

Mary: “One day Mrs. Saunders looked out the window and said to my mother ‘Mrs. Mitchel, that’s the young man I’ve been telling you about!’ And I’m sitting there, looking at my mother’s face, and she is totally blown away because here she’s been hearing these glowing reports about this awesome young man, who turns out to be Ray.”

Things smoothed over once Mary’s mother realized Ray was the prized tutor: “From then on my mother always thought Ray could do no wrong,” Mary says with a laugh.

Ray began coming over for dinner, and at the table new stories about Mary’s father’s experience in World War II surfaced. “I knew he had been a Flying Tiger (a member of the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force), but I never learned the complete story of how he was shot down, rescued, and cared for by Chinese villagers, until Ray showed up for dinner,” Mary says.

Mary and Ray 1973_VN
Ray and Mary Chin, in 1973, just after they were married.

“My father told us how he’d looked around and realized the people in the village were just like the people in his hometown in New Hampshire: good people, hardworking farmers just trying to get by on what they had, like him.”

While Mary’s father flew fighter planes to open China’s Burma Road, Ray’s mother was surviving the war in Guandong, one of the provinces that hadn’t been taken by Japanese forces.

“The Flying Tigers’ exploits are legendary in China, so it’s interesting it was in fact Mary’s father who protected my mother during the war,” Ray says.

When the Chins married in 1972 they had two celebrations: For the lofan (those who are not Chinese), they had a church wedding in Newark, Del., where the bride wore a white dress and the menu included green beans with cream of mushroom soup. A week later, for Ray’s side of the family, the couple had a Chinese ceremony at a cousin’s restaurant in the Bronx. “It was truly a banquet with a minimum 10 courses,” Mary says. “And at the Chinese wedding the bride wears a red dress, which has a totally different color symbolism. White in Chinese is death, and red in America is the scarlet letter.”

The couple moved to the Upper Valley in 1986 after Ray earned his doctorate in child psychology. He accepted a position at Dartmouth’s behavioral medicine clinic, and Mary began her career as an art teacher at Oxbow High School.

By that time, they had two small boys, aged 1 and 6, and they chose the Upper Valley because of the region’s clean air and safe environment. They settled in Lyme, where in an area with few other Asian-American children, they raised their sons to consider themselves not half Chinese or half Caucasian, but as “doubles” able to see life from the perspectives of two cultures.

As they adjusted to their new community, Ray recalls thinking: “a funny thing has happened: there aren’t that many minorities. But I’ve been treated exceedingly kind, kind of like an endangered species,” he says, laughing. “The attitude seemed to be ‘let’s take care of this fellow.’ ”

As a child psychologist, Ray provides assessment of children in schools throughout the Upper Valley, and says he has been able to bring elements of his culture into his work. Since his specialty involves mindfulness training, he teaches children tai chi and meditation. “It’s very interesting because I haven’t felt like I had to fit in,” Ray says. “And this didn’t happen right away, but it happened over time that people wanted diversity. That’s what I mean by ‘endangered species’: people really wanted to know more.”

This became clear with the University of Vermont’s Asian Studies Outreach Program, whose launch coincided with the Chins’ arrival in the Upper Valley. Mary and Ray visited China twice as part of the program’s effort to inform Vermont educators and schoolchildren about the country.

On one trip to the city of Kunming, they met a veteran, a Chinese helicopter pilot interested in the history of the Flying Tigers. The Chins told him of the time Mary’s father’s plane had engine trouble and he had been ordered to drop unused bombs on a Chinese village before he landed. Mary’s father had refused, and to prevent casualties, made a risky landing.

“And before we could finish, the man finished the story for us,” Mary says. He knew about her father’s heroism as a Flying Tiger, and even told the Chins about a Chinese film on the subject (which the Chins have not seen), The American Pilot Who Wouldn’t Drop His Bombs.

Then, the pilot’s family gave a banquet for the Chins, opening the door to their home, to their culture, and to yet another connection.