A Molecular Biologist Goes to Lunch with an Astrologer
Chapter one of Earth Song
[This is an excerpt of Spring Cheng's memoir Earth Song. In a quest to re-enliven the lost art of Taoist myth and magic, Spring embarks on a journey to heal the trauma of colonization and patriarchy, reclaiming her birthright to live a more whole, enlivened and inter-connected life. Earth Song weaves a tapestry of love, myth, power, sexuality, culture, psychology, and philosophical commentaries. It culminates in the story of Spring and her partner Joe bridging the chasm between Chinese and western, ancient and modern cultures in their intimate, professional and creative partnership. Spring is writing her memoir in both English and Chinese simultaneously.]
In February 2008, an early spring...
At that time, my world was still running according to a normal script in the “Matrix”, the highly digitized, super-materialistic and mega-capitalistic societal machine. Like many Asian immigrants, I earned an advanced degree, a doctorate in Molecular Biology, which got me a well-paid, respectable job as a senior research scientist in a biotech company. What I didn't know was, like the character Neo in the movie, I was about to take the “red pill” and pop out of the matrix. The known script of my life was reaching its last page.
Seattle, known for its rainy winter, offers an occasional February day with a warm, early spring sun. During a lunch break, I leisurely drove my “white horse” out of the office building in the Lake Union neighborhood, an upcoming tech zone full of glimmering, modern architecture. Eager to have my lunch break with a good friend, Monica, an astrologer working at the East West Bookshop, I headed to the corner of 65th and Roosevelt Street, about three miles north.
My "white horse" was the Chinese nickname for a top-of-the-line Nissan Maxima, the first car my husband Tao bought after he got a job at Microsoft. In China, Maxima has a romantic market name, Chien Li Ma, meaning “The Thousand-Mile Horse”. Since this car is white, and White Horse is a popular term for Prince Charming, the Perfect Man, Tao and I jokingly called the car the white horse.
In 1999, nine years earlier, Tao and I met when we were both graduate students attending the University of Iowa. Tao pursued his master's degree in computer science while I studied for a Doctorate in molecular biology as well as a master’s degree in biostatistics. Tao got his dream job in Seattle after graduating with his master's degree and bought a brand-new, white Maxima to celebrate.
Tao and I grew up in China before industrialization swept through China and before material wealth exploded. When we were young, no working-class people owned a car. They commuted on bikes and buses. Our parents’ annual wages averaged a couple hundred dollars. We lived a simple and slower-paced life, unconcerned by the paucity of our material possessions compared to the developed world. Coming to the US and buying a car right out of graduate school, at that time, was a big deal, not just to us but also to our families back in China!
A year later, I also graduated with my PhD, and followed Tao to Seattle. We settled in our home near Microsoft Park in the suburbs. Tao was close to work, but every day I had to drive to the city on the freeway for my job. As a husband who dearly loved his wife, Tao gave his beloved white horse to me.
My work never burdened me, and I often indulged in long lunch breaks. I drove the "white horse" around the city of Seattle, meeting friends and eating together. I enjoy Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. In addition to reasonable prices, their food flavors compliment my Asian palate. I do not often go to Chinese restaurants, as overly-Americanized Chinese food offends my authentic Chinese stomach.
I worked for a biotech company belonging to a division of Merck, a major pharmaceutical company. Although a scientific research institution, our company bore a mysterious name: Rosetta.
The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian stele unearthed in 1799. As with all edicts of the Pharaoh of the ancient Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, the priests recorded this one in hieroglyphs. At the time the Rosetta stone was discovered, the ability to interpret hieroglyphs had been lost. Archaeologists could not decipher the Egyptian writing.
But the Rosetta Stone is unique. The same edict is written in three languages. The top 14 lines are hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt. The middle 32 lines consist of Egyptian cursive script, followed by 54 lines of ancient Greek. Using the ancient Greek, which was still understood, a physicist and a linguist used this stone tablet to decode the text and grammatical structure of the lost ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language.
The company I worked for sat on the leading edge in the field of biotech back then. It was founded by a former Harvard professor considered by the industry as a genius nerd. As one of the pioneers in what’s called “microarray technology” Rosetta applied chip technology to medical and pharmaceutical research, "printing" the entire genome, tens of thousands of genes in an organism, on a glass chip smaller than a thumb nail. This technology brought about a revolution in biopharmaceutical research. Before that, biologists could only measure the activity of a few genes at a time. Using these microarray chips, the amount of data available for research exploded like a tidal wave, creating a new field called bioinformatics. I worked on analyzing the big data collected for drug research ten years before “Big Data” became known in popular culture.
In the opening scene of the movie The Matrix, the main character Neo, a software engineer, stares at a computer screen flashing with computer codes and numbers. My job looked a lot like that. Except Neo is a fictional character, whereas I am a full-fleshed woman!
Stephen, the founder of Rosetta, wore glasses with green or pink rims. His deep eyes and colorful frames added a sense of fantasy, a surreal air to his presence. The first time I met him was when he interviewed me for my job. When he was talking to me, his eyes didn’t focus on my face, but stared into some black hole outside of the three-dimensional world behind me. While we were engaging in a dialogue, it appeared as though a million computations were happening in Stephen’s head. I believed he attempted to analyze me down to the atomic level. As we wrapped up the interview, he said to me with a tone of authority, “I think I know you now better than you know yourself.”
“How disrespectful to say something like that to someone you just met!” A small voice grumbled inside. But I did not allow my expression to give me away. As an immigrant, I needed the job to get a green card and a stable income. I deferred. Another one of these nerdy, self-centered scientists who always insist they know more than anyone else. I sighed inside. Clearly, Stephen had no clue about his rudeness. In the field with American academics for six years, I had become accustomed to this kind of unconscious offense from hyper-rational, insensitive science nerds.
Stephen named the company Rosetta because genes are the code language of biological evolution. His scientific ambition to decode life sat alongside a dabbling in metaphysics and spirituality – Taoism and Tai Chi. It is said that his cosmic perspective, gleaned from the Tao Te Ching, inspired his imagination to attempt putting tens of thousands of genes in the genome on a tiny glass chip. He succeeded.
The big data era was in its infancy then. The industry hailed my research group as a "special forces" in the field of bioinformatics. This special force team consisted of ten scientists, three from former Soviet Union countries including Russia and Ukraine, and seven from China. How ironic that Merck, a pharmaceutical company steeped in capitalism, hired a group of scientist elites cultivated by socialist countries to fill this high-stake role. Besides another younger female Chinese graduate student who worked as an assistant, I was the only woman scientist on this team.
To work in this elite team required knowledge and skills in two important subjects: biology and statistics. Chinese people's minds, strong in mathematics and physics, coupled with a strong cultural value on the quality of hard work, made us valuable employees. The two chief scientists on our team were Weidong and Yuejin, highly respected Chinese researchers at the time. Their names, translated as Protecting Chairman Mao, and A Great Leap, are typical names for Chinese people born around the 1950s, when fervent worshipping of Chair Mao and his ideology reached a high peak. These two scientists, poached by Stephen from the field of astronomy, both possessed a solid foundation in mathematics. After being persuaded to change careers, they picked up biology books, committed themselves to transforming into biologists, and succeeded.
In graduate school, I had been trained to become a bench scientist. But I hated it. I hated the repetitive labor of pipetting microliters of chemicals into tiny tubes. Killing lab rats and mice made me nauseous. Handling radioactive materials repulsed me. Coming to graduate school had been a means to leave China so I could explore a different way of life in America. I was not at all wedded to the subject matter. Once I made it to America, I realized in no way could I live my life killing lab rats, much less fumbling with radioactive materials that could increase the possibility of my getting cancer.
Just by a stroke of cosmic chance, the School of Public Health and Biostatistics happened to be right next door to my laboratory. Compelled by an impulse, I enrolled myself in a master's degree program in biostatistics, which turned out to give my math-minded brain a better suited outlet. I did not do any research into the career prospects for biostatistics. Anything would be better than a bench biologist. Acting on impulse when coming to big decisions has been a running theme in my life. It is both my “superpower” and the bane of my existence!
By the time I graduated, the microarray technology field had emerged. My dual education in molecular biology and now, biostatistics, made me a hot commodity in this emerging field, as very few people carried advanced degrees in both subjects. Without any effort, I was recruited into this high-paying, high-prestige special forces team.
I knew in my heart that I was only pretending to be a scientist. I chose the path of scientific research primarily because of my parents. Both astronomers, they spent their entire careers at the Shanghai Astronomy Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I was born in the dormitory of the Sheshan Observatory, an outpost on the top of a little hill on the outskirts of Shanghai.
As a toddler, I wandered around the observatory’s giant telescopes pointing to the distant corners of the sky. I watched my mother churning numbers and calculating the orbits of stars. At that time, Chinese society operated under a strong and unquestionable Newtonian perspective, assuming the world is made of lifeless material that can be reduced to the smallest units for scientists and engineers to analyze, measure, and manipulate to fulfill man’s desires. The most symbolic manifesto is Chairman’s famous four-word slogan, Ren Ding Sheng Tian, meaning humans must conquer nature! This slogan was plastered on posters around cities and villages, and incorporated into radio programs, textbooks, and newspapers. The slogan posed a sharp contrast to another four-word phrase, Tian Ren He Yi, meaning nature and humans live in harmony with one another, the ancient Taoist perspective that Chinese culture inhabited and embodied for thousands of years.
Growing up with both societal and parental influence, I fell into science as my career path only because I could not see any possibility to explore or even consider other choices. But my heart never bought into that cold, Newtonian view of the world. To me, the natural world was alive. A forest bathed in morning mist whispered an enchanting hum. Ants talked to each other and transmitted detailed information by touching each other’s antennae. And the stars! The stars sang to me at night through their twinkling light and lifted my body into the milky way! Somewhere in my heart I knew this as a truer version of the world. But as a little girl, I had no means to argue with the dominant narrative. All I could do was to hide this more beautiful living world in my heart and observe the social belief in silence, pretending to go along with what everyone said.
My silence and reticence to speak my truth changed when I met my astrologer friend Monica. She introduced me to the field of metaphysics including its new languages, symbols, and ways to relate with the enlivened world my heart felt and knew. After spending time hanging out with Monica, I realized that although I was wearing the label "scientist", I yearned for a deeper discovery of the greater mysteries alive in my heart. My true passion lay in the metaphysical studies which are frowned upon, considered “not valid” or “wacky” by my scientist colleagues. At best, pursuing the ethereal could be a fashionable hobby as my boss Stephen did. But no self-respecting scientist could take metaphysics seriously and claim it as her primary subject. That would lead to certain career suicide!
When it was time to go to lunch with Monica, I couldn’t wait. Wearing my scientist disguise day after day exhausted me, but when I was with Monica, I could put away the mask and be myself without pretense.
To be fair, I don't dislike scientific thinking. My parents passed along great intelligence. Through my hard-earned degrees, I enjoyed developing a strong logical mind and an ability to think critically and analyze a problem. I am good at big data analysis and relish the thrill of making complex computations. What troubled me was the pretense that the Newtonian worldview is primary and the only “right” way to understand the universe. It pains me when people use this view to invalidate other, more ancient and indigenous worldviews! As when Stephen claimed that he knew me better than I knew myself, dogmatic scientists claim the worldview coming from their existing scientific knowledge can explain everything! I rejected this arrogant attitude that the scientific community held toward life.
I believed that to understand life, we needed much more than just a Newtonian, material-centric scientific paradigm. I also doubted the pharmaceutical industry, led by people with an arrogant scientific attitude could resist the greed for profit propelled by capitalism. Many signs I saw from inside suggested this industry placed the need for growing profits above the interest of human health. As a result, my conscience suffered. When a profit-driven drug industry became the primary pillar of a medical system, I saw it doing more harm to human health than good.
Of course, every scientist I met inside the industry thought they were working toward better human health. No one would intentionally choose to profit from human suffering. However, I saw the social forces of capitalism working in insidious ways, preying on the human unconscious. I saw collective greed being too hard to address when people are not in touch with their unconscious feelings and motives.
This is why science and metaphysics need each other – both are studies of the unknown. Astronomers and astrologers study stars in the sky, but their methods and intentions differ. Astronomers take themselves out of the picture and treat the stars as objects, separate from themselves. From that perspective, they gather and analyze data, apply reason and logic, and uncover deeper laws governing the universe. Whereas astrologers place themselves in the picture. They ask what if the stars, their movements and relationships, reflect who I am inside? From that perspective, astrologers use myth, intuition and introspection to discover one’s true purpose in relation to the world. I see science studying the unknown territories of the outer world, whereas metaphysical studies explore the unknown territories of the inner world, the scientist herself. They complement each other really well!
Science and technology have grown into a power that can benefit or destroy humanity. Scientists and engineers have become the “priests” of modernity, serving as intermediaries between humanity and the formidable powers released by modern technologies. Yet, without adequate self-knowledge and inner awareness, the well-educated people serving these roles can potentially unleash terrible destruction. Our society already has wide proliferations of technologies such as nuclear bombs, as well as widespread extraction and construction methods that kill biodiversity and disrupt the equilibrium of ecosystems everywhere. And now, the question of how Artificial Intelligence will impact the social fabric becomes daunting.
I believe humanity needs to form an alliance between science and metaphysics. We not only need to apply scientific thinking to understand the wonder of nature, we also need to engage the wonder carried within the human heart and soul, the inner domain of a scientist. In this way, we might gain access to a deeper wisdom allowing humanity to harness the power of science and technology towards enhancing the quality of life, instead of rendering humans as slaves to the “machine”.
Ten minutes after leaving work, I sat in the Royal Palm restaurant sipping a cup of green tea as I waited for Monica to appear. Royal Palm is a Thai restaurant opposite the East West Bookshop where Monica offered astrology readings.
At that time, sixty-fifth street, located north of the University of Washington, was largely a community of intellectuals, middle class, and former hippies, many of whom held a keen interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. The East West Bookshop specialized in books on metaphysics, body, mind, philosophy, and religion. They also sold tools for body and mind to enhance spiritual practice. Yoga clothing, mats, Buddhist incense, beads, meditation mats, essential oils, crystals, gems, everything a New Age person might want to fulfill a desire for engaging the metaphysical. The store, infused with light sandalwood incense, washed by the faint sound of sea waves over the sound system. Friendly, soft-spoken shop assistants greeted shop patrons, primarily well-off white middle class people seeking a refuge from their high-paced stressful lives.
Within a few minutes, Monica strode into the restaurant. Quite tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, Monica wore her hair so long, it hung to her waist like a waterfall. That day, she wore a large, deep blue, silky robe. As she crossed the restaurant to join me, her powerful steps swished and floated the robe away from her body into the breeze. Every time I met her, she looked to me like a shaman from the fifth century walking out of the Mayan jungle.
As usual, she hugged me tightly, kissed my cheek, and after exchanging simple greetings, we began to order. I ordered fried broccoli with crispy tofu, and Monica ordered Thai fried rice noodles. While waiting for the dishes, Monica began to talk to me about astrological transits and the corresponding events she observed.
"Recently, the temple's board of directors met when Mercury was in retrograde. Do you know how difficult it is to communicate when Mercury is in retrograde?" Monica is a member of the board of directors of the Sakya Tibetan Monastery, two miles down the road from the Thai restaurant.
Monica went on talking at length about the administrative affairs she was steeped in as well as the subtle energetics she read from them. I listened to Monica like a child snuggling next to a beloved aunty telling a dramatic story. Through her words, I peered into a world distant from my corporate job – the world of ancient temples and astrological events. The world where physical and non-physical realities meet and contact each other.
Monica and I met two years earlier, in 2006, at the Tibetan Spring Festival fair held by Sakya Monastery At that time, I had just returned from a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain, Khawa Karpo, also known as Mt Meili, on the Yunnan-Tibet Highway.
 The character for my husband’s name Tao is 涛, which means ocean wave. At the same time, Tao, in English, also means the Tao, (道 as the Chinese character), the Way, the Indigenous Chinese cosmology and mystic tradition, one of the central themes of this memoir. However, this is not a meaningless coincidence, as the Way of the Water is always seen as a metaphor for the Tao.
 The more literal translation should be human must conquer heaven. However, heaven, or 天, pronounced as Tian, has connotations very different from heaven in English. In English, the word heaven may carry a religious undertone, contrasting with “hell”. Not so in Chinese. The world heaven refers to the cosmos, the wilder and contiguous nature that connects and includes all. I believe the more appropriate translation for the character Tian here should be nature, instead of heaven.
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