Merle Woo was born on 24 October 1941 to a Chinese father, Richard Woo, and a Korean mother, Helene Chang Woo. Helene Chang was born in Los Angeles, where her father worked as a ginseng salesman and traveling Methodist minister. The Changs immigrated to Shanghai, China, when Helene was little, but at ten she was sent back alone to the United States to live in an orphanage run by white missionary women. She ran away from the orphanage at sixteen to start her own life. After an abusive first husband, she married Richard Woo. A paper son (entering the United States on false documents), Richard Woo emigrated from southern China. He worked two full-time jobs most of his life.
To give their daughter a better education, Richard and Helene Woo sent Merle to Catholic schools, which they thought were better than public schools, although neither of them was Catholic. Merle Woo earned her B.A. in English from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1965. She married while in college and later had two children (Emily and Paul). Pursuing an M.A. in English literature at SFSU, Woo witnessed firsthand the 1968–69 Third World Student Strikes at SFSU and was radicalized. She admits to being a beneficiary of such campus activism, for the establishment of ethnic studies, the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and affirmative action helped her get jobs. After finishing her M.A. in 1969, she started to teach in the Educational Opportunity Program at SFSU. During her years in the EOP, Woo attempted to make English learning more relevant to her students of color and began to incorporate Third World literature into her teaching. In 1977, Woo was offered a part-time lec-