Telling some of the stories of how Ms. Buck became who she was is the part I love most. I referred to her life as richly-lived and it was - not because of the cards she was dealt, but because of how she played them. At first glance, her life may seem like the perfect hand. Pictures of her reveal a pretty child who became a beautiful woman. Accolades of her writing indicate intelligence even greater than her physical beauty. Hearing a bit about her background suggests an exotic life, filled with inspiring experiences. But those gifts are only half the story. It may seem that she was dealt all aces; she wasn't.
The blond curls and blue eyes that seem so lovely to western eyes were a mixed blessing to a little girl growing up in China. Most of the children with whom she came in contact had never seen anyone who looked like her. To them, she seemed not beautiful, but strange, even fearsome. Their only experience of eyes like hers was Chinese theater, where the monsters and beasts all had pale eyes. Inevitably, they teased her, saying she had wild beast eyes. Her mother told her it was different in America, that this was a country where people were not judged by the color of their skin (or eyes). Imagine Pearl's disappointment when she went to a girl's college in Virginia. Despite her appearance, she was more Chinese than America and, again, she was deemed different and referred to as that "dreadful girl from China". Her only birth child was born with a genetic disease that kept her from developing mentally. Her first marriage ended in divorce, a sign of failure in the early thirties, a stigma. When Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, some of the most prominent male authors scoffed, one famous poet even saying, "If she can win, anyone one."
Any of these things could have turned her into a bitter, cynical person, someone who perceived the world as cruel and unfeeling. Instead, she became a humanitarian. She knew injustice and refused to accept it. She bore no ill will for the teasing she'd experienced in her childhood; she loved the people of China and spent her life trying to bridge the perceived differences that separate East from West. She won over the college classmates who didn't understand her unusual background and was president of her class by the time she was a junior. About her child, whom most people of that time (Carol was born in 1920) would have hidden away, she wrote a book, sharing her anguish and paving the way for all of us to understand that people who are differently-abled have a right to a full life and, indeed, have their own gifts to offer. After her failed marriage, she dared to love again, to re-marry, and to adopt a number of children, creating the big family she'd always dreamed of. When presented with a child who was considered unadoptable because he was bi-racial, she founded her own adoption agency, Welcome House, which eventually morphed into Pearl S. Buck International. And I can't resist telling you her response to the poet who questioned her right to the Nobel Prize: "Well, I didn't nominate myself and I didn't vote for myself and if Mr. **** isn't happy about it, he can take it up with the King of Sweden." I love that! No name-calling, but no backing down.
So ... what made Pearl S. Buck who she was? I think you'd have to say it was attitude. Instead of bitterness, she cultivated empathy. Instead of judgment, she sought understanding. Instead of vengeance, she chose love. Negatives became positives. She played her cards well.