Bruce Wang traded his city life in China for the wide-open spaces of West Texas.
Bruce Wang is affectionately known as the “Chinese Cowboy,” a term he coined himself.
If you talk to someone in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication and mention Wang's name, there might be a moment of searching. If you follow it up with, ‘You know, the Chinese Cowboy,' it's met with an ‘Oh, yeah!'
Wang is beloved not only for his rugged ensembles but also for his excellence in research, his insatiable curiosity and his fortitude to follow his own path.
His office has books strewn about, open to chapters about anything from dinosaurs and evolution to outer space and cows. He sits at his desk with a black suede cowboy hat atop his head. He wears a Western plaid shirt with pearl snaps and extra stitching around the pockets. His jeans are simple, the brand – Levi's. Wang's outfit is complete with genuine leather boots.
Just when you think you've got Wang figured out, he surprises you.
Instead of a horse, he parks an electric scooter.
He brings the conversation back to climate change anytime cattle comes up.
And when he speaks, you'd never know he lived anywhere but West Texas.
Wang is from Yunnan, a lush and exquisite southern province of China that borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Aside from its bustling cities, Yunnan has tall mountainous peaks, lakes of celeste blue, and rice fields so colorful they could be paper-pieced quilts from above.
As mismatched as quilt's fabric can be, Wang often felt even more at odds within the system he grew up in.
Born during China's one-child policy to parents who soon after separated, Wang was his mother's only child. Divorce was not common, and his life looked different from many of his peers.
Women struggled to obtain the same rights as men, so the fact that Wang's mother was a feminist college professor raising her son on her own made the two stand out among the landscape of polished traditional families.
Wang's mother valued education more than anything, so it made their next decision an easy one. When Wang was 15 years old, he left Yunnan for a Canadian boarding school in Wuhan. The school was designed for students wanting to attend university abroad.
“My plan was to study engineering in Germany,” Wang recalled.
However, the German program was not a good academic fit for Wang. Had he attended a public Chinese high school things might have been different, but he intentionally opted out for boarding school.
Public high schools in China have 12- to –14-hour days. While Wang's instruction at boarding school was rigorous, it was the kind of rigor he found value in.
“Public schools in China can be inhumane,” Wang said. “It's a lot of pressure at a young age and you feel like your whole life will be judged based on your time in school.”
From a young age, Wang knew he wasn't built for that. He was smart, but he also was laid back.
Wang looked at engineering programs outside of Europe and enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). He was content in the program, but Wang's parents encouraged him to transfer to a university with a bigger name after one year.
“They wanted me in a school that had an established engineering program,” Wang said.
As he began to look around, his mentor, Tracy Tindle, suggested Texas Tech.
Tindle was working as an immigration adviser at the time and had met Wang when he started at UCO.
“Bruce was like many international students in their first year abroad,” Tindle recalled. “He was nervous and had a lot of questions. But it wasn't just that Bruce was new to the school, I sensed it wasn't quite the right fit. I thought Texas Tech might suit him better.”
Tindle was making the move to Texas Tech himself, where he would serve as an assistant director in International Affairs for 10 years.
The two friends talked about what West Texas would be like.
While Tindle elucidated the beauty of campus and the rigor of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, Wang had doubts.
“While I didn't want to be in a big city, I also didn't want to be in the Bible Belt,” Wang said. “I had my sights set on someplace like Wyoming; wide open spaces and what I considered to be wide open minds.”
Wang was concerned he wouldn't fit in at Texas Tech, and he covered up the fear with a staunch prejudice about what people in West Texas were like.
“I told Tracy, ‘I ain't going to Texas,'” Wang laughed, “because that's how I thought everyone talked there.”
After some time considering his options, though, Wang found himself a Red Raider. He credits Tracy being one of the biggest reasons he transferred. Tracy was a lifeline, a friend and a mentor to Wang. He knew they would both be new to campus, and he found comfort in that.
More Than Meets the Eye
After one semester at Texas Tech, Wang realized his growing frustration had nothing to do with his choice in school after all.
“I was burned out on engineering,” he said.
Wang's classmates derived a greater satisfaction from the coursework than he did. He knew the content was difficult, but difficult things never bothered him before. It was something deeper than that.
“I wondered if college was even right for me; I considered dropping out,” Wang said.
Tindle suggested Wang visit the University Career Center and complete some career assessments.
Engineering came back nowhere on the inventory. Rather, media came up repeatedly as a top choice. Wang switched his major to general studies and declared a focus in math, integrative studies, and media strategies.
Almost immediately, things began to shift.
Wang enrolled in Lyombe Eko's media law class and was enthralled with the issues and questions posed.
“The way Eko deciphered the logic of media and how constitutional rights must be protected in the digital landscape we're living in captured my interest,” Wang said.
It was during his undergraduate years that something else piqued Wang's interest, too.
Wang says it can be daunting for international students to immerse themselves in local culture. While many opportunities are offered through the university and local organizations, it is tempting to form subgroups of those who speak your language and insulate yourself.
So, when a friend invited Wang to watch the Texas Tech Rodeo Team compete, Wang was hesitant. Not only was it a completely new experience, but it also seemed like part of the southern aesthetic he was disinterested in.
So, one could imagine Wang's surprise when he liked it.
“I was very intrigued,” Wang said. “I was impressed by the way they interacted with the animals. And just to see such large animals moving around right in front of me was amazing.”
Wang is from one of the larger cities in the Yunnan province and considered himself a ‘city-slicker' before moving to Texas. Being within an arm's length of dozens of cows was a culture shock, to be sure.
What Wang had assumed would be simple turned out to be the most enthralling thing he'd ever seen.
“The movement of the cowboys on horseback was so graceful,” he said. “And the strategy the riders had to use with the gates and barrels was really impressive.”
Maybe West Texas was more than what met the eye.
From Rancher to Researcher
After visiting the rodeo, Wang's whole personality turned into the Wild West.
Tindle took Wang to his first Cavender's over that Thanksgiving break. Not only did he start dressing like a cowboy, but he also decided to speak with a West Texan accent.
Easier said than done.
Wang began to study the dialect, shift vowel sounds and even focus on the very placement of his lips when saying certain words.
After a few months of practice, his accent became noticeable. After a few years, it became impressive.
Pleased with his progress as graduation approached, Wang felt prepared to chase his dream job: being a cowboy on a cattle ranch.
One issue, his visa would only allow him to stay for one year before having to reapply.
Wang decided he'd ranch down in Mexico or even go herd camels in the Middle East. But Tindle suggested another option.
“Why don't you consider going to graduate school?” he asked Wang.
At first, Wang was opposed to the idea. He had never loved school, so the idea of prolonging it sounded boring compared to the image in his head of riding into the sunset in his new hat and boots.
Tindle insisted that Wang could take his newfound love for ranching and turn it into something substantial with graduate studies.
Skeptical but curious, Wang investigated what that might look like. Before committing to graduate school though, he wanted to know for himself if it would be worthwhile.
He began volunteering with Lubbock Feeders, a facility on the outskirts of town.
“I figured they had plenty of guys in cowboy boots already working for them, but maybe they didn't have a guy in cowboy boots with a camera,” he said.
Wang took everything he'd learned in his media strategies program and offered to be Lubbock Feeders' one-stop -shop for all things communication and media related. As Wang made himself valuable, opportunities to get more involved at the company presented themselves.
Soon he was up on horseback and getting real ranching experience.
He was thrilled.
Then COVID-19 hit and anyone who didn't have to be there was sent home.
Partly because he had the time, and partly because he realized a master's would help him make a difference in cattle ranching – Wang applied for the Master of Arts in Mass Communication program at Texas Tech.
Wang had always been smart; he'd often just been disinterested. This time was different.
He began to form a thesis on the digital divide in the cattle industry. His research found that large facilities have the resources to implement digital and technological strategies, while smaller operations around the country struggle to adopt new technology.
Such technological interventions include detecting illnesses in cattle quicker, maximizing feed, cutting down on waste and ensuring quality nutrition.
“Lab-grown meat is an innovation that's taking the industry by storm,” Wang said. “If this takes off, it will be very hard for ranches to survive.”
Wang had completely fallen in love with a career that he saw disappearing before his eyes.
Ranchers need to be early adopters right now. They need to embrace innovation more than they might like if they want a job in 10 years, said Wang.
Last year, Wang decided to pursue a doctoral degree, his research having grown from the digital divide into observing and influencing sentiment in cattle ranching.
He is now studying if those working in agriculture are more resistant to climate-centered messaging. Not only because he finds the issue fascinating to study, but because he wants to preserve the wide-open spaces he has come to love.
“Texas Tech brought me here, but the West Texas culture kept me here,” Wang said.
And by culture, he's not merely referring to boots and hats.
“The kindness and decency of the people here is special,” he said.
In fact, Wang met his wife in the doctoral program. They got married last semester.
“My wife was born and raised in West Texas, so I think we'll be sticking around.”