IN 1973, Harry Sheng was working as a mechanical engineer for Sparton Corporation, a defense contractor in Jackson, Michigan, when his mother got sick back in China. Sheng was among thousands of ethnic Chinese scientists then living in the United States, the early pioneers in what would become a sizable swath of the American research force. A native of Jiangsu province and a naturalized U.S. citizen, he had left home just before Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, and he hadn’t seen his friends or relatives in China since. But now relations between the two countries were improving. In 1971, the U.S. pingpong team had toured the mainland, and the following year, President Richard Nixon had made the historic visit that restored contact between the countries’ leaders. Sheng had just started his job at Sparton, but he loved his mother dearly. He and his wife booked flights.
On Nixon’s trip, the two sides had agreed to set up exchanges in science, which, like pingpong, was seen as a way to improve ties between the United States and China. Washington hoped that rapprochement with China would destabilize the Communist-led independence forces the U.S. military was fighting in Vietnam and increase America’s leverage over the Soviet Union. For Chinese American scientists like Sheng, the thaw presented a simpler opportunity: a chance to return to their hometowns, eat their favorite foods, and hug the parents they had left behind decades earlier.