PAW Tracks

For Tibor Baranski Jr. ’80, coming to Princeton was one part of a remarkable journey. Baranski, whose family emigrated from Hungary, developed a love of Asian languages and cultures as a teen. He immersed himself in both at college, and since graduation has lived and worked in Asia.

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Coming to Princeton was just one part of a remarkable journey for Tibor Baranski Jr., Class of 1980, whose family emigrated from Hungary in the late 1950s. He spoke with PAW at Reunions last May.

Baranski: I was born in 1958 as a first-generation immigrant from Hungary after the Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet occupation. My older brother, who was a retina doctor, was born in Hungary; I was born actually on the road. My parents were – after they left Hungary in 1956 – in a refugee camp in Rome, Italy, for close to a year. And as a result, I freeloaded across the Atlantic and was born in Toronto, Canada, where we lived for four years [before] we moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1962.

My mother, Katalin, who passed away four years ago, received a visa to enter the United States. She was training to be a medical doctor in Hungary, but owing to the Communist-Stalinist period, was thrown out of the university but had very strong foundations in biochemical pharmacology [and] biochemistry. So the visa for us to enter the United States was issued to my mother, and I recall the very short paper, back in typical ’50s style, that said, “Very important person. Urgently needed by the United States government to do research in biochemical pharmacology, i.e. biochemistry.” And so she [spent] her whole life was a professor of biochemistry at the University of Buffalo. My father, my brother, and I (my sister was not yet born), on the visa form were listed as “attachments,” so as you attach a piece of paper, we were attachments. And so we came to the United States, as I believe, in the summer of 1962. So as you can gather from the description, we truly started from zero. No friends, no family. Everything had to be produced from our own ability. But the phenomenal thing about this country, the United States, which my father, who is turning 93 next month calls “our adoptive country,” is that it really gives opportunity to people who study hard and work hard, to become something. I attended a school run by the, or founded by the, Piarist order of priests. The Piarists focus on education, as do the Jesuits, with a twist, the twist being that they predominantly [focus] on the teaching of gifted children from economically poor or disadvantaged families.

Among the benefits of the Calasanctius School in Buffalo was an expansive foreign-language program.

Baranski: The Asian languages were all taught by native speakers, and the selection was Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and Hebrew. I had a tremendous interest, for some reason, in learning both Japanese and Chinese. I started to learn Chinese in September 1969 at Calasanctius in Buffalo, N.Y. I recall one day coming home, as I was 11 years old at the time, and my father had asked me, “Young man, I understand that you have chosen Chinese instead of Latin or Greek. Why?” I explained to him that I thought it was a very ancient civilization [as an] old country [with a] long history and a lot of traditions and people, and so it was a very important country that merited study. So my father looked at me and said, “That’s fine, but please do take it seriously, and don’t quit after a few months.” So here we are in 1969 to now 46 years later. I took it quite seriously.

My mother was, as I mentioned earlier, a professor of biochemical pharmacology at the University of Buffalo since 1962. One of her colleagues next to the department of biochemistry at the university was in the department of physics, a Chinese lady from Taiwan, who became very close with my mother and our family, whose name was Susan Ting. I had already been studying Chinese for two years at Calasanctius, and by 1971, I had [achieved] reasonable proficiency. I had always wanted to go to a place where the natives spoke Chinese, but for the reasons I stated earlier, mainland was obviously not possible. The Cultural Revolution [made it] a state of civil war essentially, and so the obvious choice was to go to Taiwan, which I did. Susan Ting, who was a young assistant professor at the University of Buffalo at the time, contacted her father, Professor K.H. Ting, and arranged for me to be able to live with Professor Ting. At the time, our diplomatic relations were still with the Republic of China, the Nationalist government, which obviously after 1949 has been in Taiwan. Professor Ting, Susan’s father, graciously agreed to act as my guardian. And because of his graciousness to do so, the Embassy of the Republic of China in Washington D.C. issued me a student visa at the ripe-old age of 13. Old Professor Ting was 63, 50 years older than me, and he treated me like his own grandson, for which I am forever grateful. I owe him far beyond what can be described in words.

Baranski spent two school years in Taiwan – one when he was 13, and another in what would have been his senior year of high school. He returned to the United States for college.

Baranski: I matriculated at Princeton in September ’75. Professor [Frederick] Mote, Professor [Marion] Levy, and all the professors were phenomenal. Some of the best years of my life were at Princeton. They embraced me. They gave an opportunity to a young man – I was 17 at the time when I matriculated to Princeton – to study hard and to reach the full potential, the foundations of which I was already doing in Taiwan. I was honored and blessed by being taught by some of the premier scholars in Sinology during the ’70s. I am very proud and honored to be a part of that tradition. Having joined as a member of the EAS Advisory Council last fall and having been here a month ago to try to [give] input on that, I hope to continue to support the tradition of East Asian research.

Our thanks to Tibor Baranski for sharing his story with PAW. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode, and the music is licensed from FirstCom Music.