immigrants angela
Image: Pete Stone

NAME Angela Vetanen (with Collin and Baby Claire)
BORN ON November 1, 1975
BORN IN Hunan, China
WORKS AS Stay-at-Home Mom
LIVES IN Beaverton
NATURALIZED ON April 24, 2008

I LEARNED ABOUT Falun Gong [a Chinese self-improvement practice] in my third year at the technical school in Hengyang, my hometown in Hunan, China. Falun Gong’s exercises are similar to tai chi or yoga. It emphasizes the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance in daily life.

In 1996 I moved to Shenzhen near Hong Kong and found a job at a factory. Every day, I went to the city park to practice. We’d meet at dawn or in the afternoon, sometimes 40 of us, and we’d spread mats on the ground, do our movements for an hour, and meditate for another hour. When you’re finished, your body feels very light. Your mind feels clear.

In July 1999, Jiang Zemin [the secretary general of the Communist Party] banned Falun Gong and started a crackdown on practitioners. One day the police were waiting for us at the park. They ordered us to leave; those who did not were arrested.

Soon after that, the police came to my apartment and found my Falun Gong books and music tapes hidden under my bed. I was detained for a night at the police station, but I didn’t know there was a security camera in my cell. They caught me practicing and gave me a choice: If I agreed to leave Falun Gong, I could stay in Shenzhen and keep my job. But I said no. I was fired and ordered to return to Hengyang.

After I moved home, my father heard on Voice of America that over 100 practitioners of Falun Gong had died in prisons and labor camps. I thought I should do something, so I went to Beijing. Many were protesting in Tiananmen Square, but I stayed in my hotel room and started writing a letter to the National People’s Congress, saying Falun Gong was good. I took a break, and as I was practicing my movements, I looked outside and saw a man watching me from the roof. I started to pack, but before I could leave, two police officers unlocked the door to my room and found the letter.

At the Beijing police station they put me on a train to a detention center. I was locked in a cell with seven other Falun Gong practitioners. After 20 days, my parents paid 7,000 yuan—10 months of my mom’s salary—for my release. They were forced to promise that I wouldn’t go to Beijing and that I wouldn’t practice Falun Gong.

Since I didn’t have a job, I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I usually went to [a religious social-networking site], and one day I read a post by a man named Mark Vetanen, a programmer from Beaverton, who was writing about his experiences at a Buddhist monastery in America. This made me very curious—I didn’t even know there were Buddhists in America! So I e-mailed him, and he e-mailed back.

We wrote to each other once a week, then two or three times a week, then every day. We had webcams, and I remember how strange it was seeing him prepare dinner and here, it was morning. We talked about many things. We discussed our thoughts, we shared our dreams, and eventually I fell in love. One day, Mark said he wanted to bring me to America, as his wife. I said, “Sure.”

A few months later, I met him at the airport in Shenzhen, and we took the train to Hengyang. We were married the next day. There was no ceremony. We just filled out paperwork at the registration office, paid $200, and that was it. My family celebrated at a restaurant where there was karaoke. I sang Mark a Chinese love song. Mark sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It was the only song on the list he knew.

Many Falun Gong practitioners cannot leave China because they are blacklisted, but for some reason, I was able to get a passport. But I still needed a visa to enter the United States. After Mark returned to Oregon, he sent in the application, but then 9/11 happened and two years passed. But one day I received a letter from Gordon Smith saying that my visa was ready at the United States Embassy. A few weeks later, I left China.

I learned English at Portland Community College. I worked at the deli counter at Fred Meyer and on an assembly line at the Epson factory. But now that I have a baby and a little boy, I stay at home. I’m happy. My life, it’s peaceful. I have freedom to practice Falun Gong, sometimes in Waterfront Park with friends. I’d like to go back to Hengyang so my parents can meet their grandchildren, but I’m afraid that if I go to China, I’ll be put in jail. Collin, my 2-year-old son, doesn’t understand why he can’t ever visit them. He calls them Wai Gong and Wai Pong, the grandma and grandpa who live in the telephone.