An American Tale: From Beijing to Minot
MAFB captain takes legal path to create better life for self and others
MINOT AIR FORCE BASE – Beijing is a long way from Minot, North Dakota – 5,931 miles to be exact.
With a population of nearly 22 million, the massive super city is located on the northern tip of the North China Plain and is the country’s second most populous city. Beijing’s rich history dates back thousands of years and is considered by many to be the epicenter of politics within China.
Beijing is also the birthplace of Capt. Stephanie Huang, a lawyer, who works at the 5th Bomb Wing legal office, Minot Air Force Base.
The daughter of Edgar Huang and Lily Sun, Stephanie was born Jan. 27, 1991. Prior to Huang’s birth, her father earned his first master’s degree and was a college professor at the Beijing Institute of International Relations, where he taught photojournalism. He also worked as a calligrapher and journalist. It was during this time that China began to experience a political upheaval so powerful it sent shockwaves around the globe.
Tiananmen Square Massacre
Many people know of the Tiananmen Square uprising because of a famous Associated Press photo taken by Jeff Widener, which shows an unidentified man standing in protest in front of a column of Chinese military tanks. To Chinese citizens, there is much more to the uprising than this particular photo.
It was three weeks of vigils, marches and protests. Three weeks, in May 1989, when young Chinese nationals gathered in droves to protest what they believed were repressive Chinese Communist Party actions. Three weeks leading to the death of at least 300, possibly thousands, during the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Documenting the protests was a young, aspiring photojournalist: Edgar Huang. While Huang was among the crowds during the duration of the protests, he was talked out of going to Tiananmen Square by his wife.
“I was not at Tiananmen Square on the night of the massacre,” Huang said. “Stephanie’s mother requested that I stay home, since the central government had issued a serious warning about going to Tiananmen Square that night. I listened to my wife.”
Following the protests, students remained in solidarity and defiance of the Chinese government and went on hunger strikes and held banners that contained Huang’s calligraphy. One of the banners that was hung on a wall led to trouble for the Huang family.
“I could not deny that was my handwriting, so I took the consequence,” said Huang.
In China at the time, it was common practice for every citizen to have a personal dossier created by a company on behalf of the Chinese government, a university, or wherever the citizen worked. The individual had no way of knowing what was in the dossier.
“I knew that my university had notified me that a ‘serious warning’ had been placed in my dossier,” explained Huang. “With that serious warning, I should not have expected to get promoted at my university, and if I decided to leave, I could not expect that other universities would hire me. So I decided to leave the country. I did not want my newly-born daughter to live in that kind of environment.”
It was at this moment that Huang applied for a journalism scholarship to the University of California, San Diego, located in La Jolla, California. Huang knew his family needed to leave China and he felt the scholarship was their only chance. He was accepted into the academic program and moved his family to the U.S. While Huang would arrive in California before his family, he was nervous the Chinese authorities would seize his film, which contained photos of the protests surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre. The responsibility of getting the film into the U.S. fell on Lily. She managed to evade authorities by placing the negatives in her luggage and delivering the film to her husband on American soil.
A New Beginning
Stephanie was just three years old when her family arrived in La Jolla, California. Because of her father’s passion for academics and the pursuit of a professorship, the family would move several times, to Bloomington, Indiana, then to DeKalb, Illinois, and then to Largo, Florida, before finally settling down in Carmel, Indiana.
In the early 1990s, Edgar Huang taught Graduate Record Examinations and Tests of English as a Foreign Language course in China, so transitioning to speaking English in America was an easy process.
“I started to learn English in school in Shanghai when I was in fourth grade. Outside of school, I listened, via shortwave channel, to Voice of America, a radio station that almost no Americans know about since it is not allowed by law to air in the United States,” Huang said. The broadcasts were banned in the United States as domestic propaganda until 2013.
“I was very intrigued by English 900, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and news stories, which were so different from what I heard from Chinese media, especially during the student movement in 1989,” Huang said.
The love of academics was passed on to Stephanie, who was accepted to and began pursuing her undergraduate degree at Rice University in Houston, Texas, after graduating from high school.
“I do come from a somewhat stereotypical Asian family, where my father told me I could do anything so long as I could support myself and so long as I enjoyed it. He still pushed me more toward the doctor, lawyer, or engineer route,” Stephanie Huang said. “So I spent most of my time in high school and college doing anything but those things so he could get used to the disappointment and eventually be okay with it.”
During her freshman year at Rice, Stephanie Huang first discovered the issue of human trafficking. It became her passion. She concentrated on human rights as a method of study, but as she explained, “human trafficking gave me focus.” Her father continued pushing her to apply for law school because he felt it would help her get a “real” job, given her particular majors in college.
While completing an internship in Ecuador during the summer before her senior year, she found out her friend, named Michelle, also studying at Rice, was doing an internship in Ecuador. At the end of their internships, they decided to travel to a portion of the Amazon jungle accessible on the eastern part of Ecuador. Stephanie Huang learned Michelle planned on applying for law school and it interested her. Michelle explained that lawyers had an opportunity to work on human rights abuse issues, which Huang hadn’t thought of before.
“So, it was there, on a motorized canoe in the middle of a river in the Amazon jungle, that I decided I would try out this law school thing,” she said. “If I took the law school admission test and then got accepted into law school, I’d go for it and see what I could do to direct my career toward human rights.”
Following her graduation from Rice with an undergraduate degree in Hispanic Studies and Policy Studies, with a minor in Global Health Technologies, Huang applied for two law schools – the University of Texas School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center. She enrolled at the University of Houston Law Center and immediately got to work. Her goal was to work with non-profit groups to help victims of human trafficking who were facing legal issues. She applied for an internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston and was selected for the program.
“The internship was the best thing I could have done during law school, because it exposed me to a career that is probably most fitting for my personality and values – prosecution,” she said. “However, it’s not just prosecution for prosecution’s sake. It was the concept of ‘prosecutorial discretion’ that really swayed me. I learned that by watching some of the best work on the Tencha case, which is one of the largest human trafficking rings to get prosecuted in U.S. history.”
Joining the Air Force
Not only was Huang thrilled with the work she did at the USAO, it was there that she had a chance encounter with Col. Mitchel Neurock, who was working as an Air Force Reserve judge advocate. Neurock was one of her supervisors and encouraged her to join the U.S. Air Force.
“I’m glad he did, because I’m very happy now to be part of the Air Force,” she said.
Having been at Minot Air Force Base since April, Capt. Huang admits she’s still trying to wrap her arms around military life, as well as being an attorney. While the lifestyle isn’t easy, she says she is making progress.
“I’m a newly minted attorney starting my first real job here,” Huang said. “Here’s how someone else phrased it to me: ‘Military lawyers have two professions – the legal profession and the profession of arms.’ For us, it should be equally important to be both a good officer and a good attorney. For me, I am learning both at the same time and I am trying to do a good job, but it is a challenge. However, I am slowly but surely starting to get the hang of things, so my short-term goal is to keep on keeping on.”
Her advice for anyone seeking new opportunities:
“Don’t be afraid to break the mold and try things you may be interested in. To be honest, breaking the mold for me has mostly resulted in situations that have challenged me and forced me to adapt to new environments and lifestyles. However, I don’t think I’ll have regrets about not taking a chance when I still had the opportunity to do so!”