In his memoir, Hung (FOB in Paradise, 2014, etc.) writes of his years volunteering as an ophthalmologist among China’s Uyghurs.
Almost everyone Hung met in Xinjiang was surprised he was there. Once an important section of the Silk Road—a place of convergence for disparate peoples and empires—the land of the Uyghurs is now a provincial backwater of modern China known for containing the point on Earth farthest from any ocean. Why would Hung, a Chinese-American ophthalmologist, travel to such a place? The tales of the Silk Road transfixed Hung since childhood, and his recent retirement afforded him the freedom to finally see it. Over the course of a decade, and up against the hurdles of poor resources, folk medicine, and communist bureaucracy, Hung managed to use his medical training to improve the lives of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities of China’s Northwestern province, immersing himself in their traditional cultures along the way. Interspersed with his tales of his time in Xinjiang are bits of history about the Silk Road and accounts of Hung’s further travels in Central Asia. (The caption of one photograph: “Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 2002. On a dilapidated bus just after having my wallet stolen”) Chinese-born, Hong Kong–raised, Nebraska-educated, and Honolulu-based Hung is an endearing mix of benevolence, wryness, and curiosity, traipsing around in his Hawaiian shirts and safari jacket, attempting to bring improved eye care to total strangers. The passages about diseases and treatments prove his expertise, but the book is at its most entertaining when Hung describes the people he meets, the meals he enjoys, and the social interactions that are heavily laden with the implications of nationality, class, and ego. He is perhaps not as great a writer as he is a doctor (this is a meandering work, not at all a page-turner), but there is an appealing Marco Polo–ishness to his project: a boundless wonder for a society unlike his own, not for its differences but for the infinitely recognizable humanity at its center.
A physician’s illuminating examination of modern Xinjiang.