Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Journey To The West: Another Personal Story
This is another friend of mine. I met Mei Ling a long time ago when I was in China. She is the most genuinely confident individual I know. She has given me some great practical sister-to-sister advice. How do you look at life? Why worry about what others are thinking or doing? Decide what you want from your life experiences and take it. No apologies and don’t look back. (We also both love food, but that’s another blog.) Hers is an interesting story of the kinds of struggles families endure, and I believe sparks some interesting questions about family and education. What is a strong and stable family supposed to look like? Mei Ling was somewhat pressured to get on an academic fast track early on. Her family asked her for her opinion and resisted some of this. Mei Ling clearly remembers the experience suddenly giving her an awareness of grades and academic competitiveness. And what were her fondest memories of learning…playing poker with her grandparents, and exploring possibilities with her father during her long (45 minute) walks to high school. This is her story.
On my mother’s side, my grandmother had three children, two sons and one daughter. My father had one brother - it was a small family by Chinese standards. My grandpa on my father’s side was a manager of a pharmacy chain store. He didn’t own anything. His family lived in ChangChun, the capital of Jilin Province in northeast China. He lived in different cities, including many years in Shanghai. My grandma ran the family. She was very frugal. Based on stories I have heard about her, she could have been quite a good business woman if she had had the opportunity. She invested grandpa’s money in high risk mortgages. She would lend money to people who had bad credit, but had land. She lent the money at a very high interest rate. If people could not repay the loan, she would take their land. That’s how she accumulated land for the family. She was a wise woman. She died soon after I was born. My father had a very deep connection with his mother. I remember from time to time he would just cry, because he was thinking about her. In China, we lived in such a small space no one had any privacy. My father would tell my mother he had been dreaming about my grandmother. I remember several times he did that. All my cousins would talk about my grandmother in a very respectful and loving way. My grandpa remarried after she passed away. None of the grandchildren truly accepted it, but grandpa needed someone to take care of him.
My dad went to college. He studied automotive engineering. I think my mother graduated from high school. Her family members were basically landlords. My grandparents’ family (on my father's side) were truly landlords. At that time, their ancestors were officers in the government. They had status in the village and had money. My grandpa passed away at an early age. My grandma is a very independent and strong willed person, but everything was controlled by her mother-in-law, everything. She said she felt like “a bird in a cage.” So she ran away. When she first ran away she left her children behind. Then she ran to Shanghai. She became a street vendor; she sold cigarettes; she was a maid, anything to make money. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law, published an ad in the newspaper denouncing her. She managed to sneak back and took my elder uncle away. The story always sounded like a movie. She came back in a boat. She found my elder uncle on the beach and she took him away. She left my mom and the youngest boy behind. She could only afford to take one child at that time. She brought my uncle with her while she was street vending etc.
I was raised by my grandma. She liked to tell her story. During the Cultural Revolution, her in-laws ran into trouble because they were land owners. Her father-in-law was beaten to death. He was a nice man in the village. None of the people in the village could beat them, because he was such a nice guy. They had to hire someone (for several barrels of rice) from another village to beat him. He didn’t die immediately. My grandmother was crying at his side. It took a couple of days for him to die. When he did, my grandmother's mother-in-law had to rely on my grandma. (Isn’t it ironic?)
My mother was able to find a job as a secretary. My father was an intern in that factory. That’s how they met. They started to date and got married. When my father graduated, he was assigned a job (at that time, the government assigned him a job) in the midwestern part of China. My mother and father were separated for eight or nine years until I was seven or eight. They had a long distance relationship. I don’t remember seeing my father often. I lived with my grandma for the weekdays, and my mother would take me on the weekends. My mom wanted to raise me by herself. At two or three years old, she sent me to day care in the factory. In a month, I developed some mysterious high fever. That fever persisted for a month. My mother took me to see all kinds of doctors in the city. Nothing worked. So my grandmother said I must be afraid of something in the day care, and I must have ‘lost my soul.’ So they needed to find a way to get my soul back. I remember the ceremony of getting my soul back. I was terrified. It happened in the middle of the night, candles all around. My grandmother was burning aluminum foil, calling my name. I always remember how serious her face was. After that I recovered. Nobody wanted to send me to day care. After that I was raised by my grandmother in case my ‘soul got lost.’ I never lived long with my parents until age 14. I would spend weekends with them.
My grandmother really adored me. I was such a good student and didn't cause any trouble. At age 11, I started to read classic Chinese novels likeJourney To The West, a very popular series, almost like Harry Potter is in America. They were very entertaining. I was so young – 10 or 11 years old. I just hoped that the teacher wouldn’t assign homework. I really hated homework,
I got sick again. My grandpa, my grandma and myself would spend the afternoons playing poker. At that time, my father came every day. He tried to teach me. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall behind in my school work. He came at 7-8 am, before he went to work. He probably came back at the end of the day for a whole school year. When I went back to school, I took the final exam to see if I should move on the next grade or stay with current grade. Everyone thought I wouldn’t pass. I almost got a perfect score! The school got excited. They thought they had a genius. This is when my life became miserable. The government at that time, wanted to identify talented students at an early age to put them on a ‘fast track.’ That was Deng Xiao Ping’s vision for socialism. Then they thought, maybe she can skip another grade. I think my father asked me what I thought. Did I want to skip a grade? I said no. My father told the teachers that I should stay on the regular track. That experience built my awareness of competitiveness. Before, I don’t think I had a concept of that. I still wasn’t too serious.
My father stopped tutoring me. But I started working a little harder. I had the status of being a talented student. I was getting used to how teachers talked about me and I wanted to keep it that way. I was always being cautious. Since my father moved back to the city, I was a very rebellious child too. I wouldn’t conform. To my grandma, I was a perfect child. To her it was inconceivable that my parents would spank me. My grades were perfect. I never made trouble. And I knew what to say to conform to the communist way of thinking. I remember my rebelliousness in middle school when I was reading a lot and listening to my family story.
For example, in class there was a passage selected to read. It was about a landlord that lost her property. She hated the peasants who took away her property. The class had to discuss the passage. The question was, “Why does the owner of the orchard hate the peasants so much?” I gave a reason. The teacher said, “It’s not her property, it’s the people’s property. All the trees in the orchard were grown by peasants. The landlord never spent her labor.” The message was that she was basically evil and that’s why she hates. I remembered the right answer, but I never accepted that answer because I remembered my grandmother’s story. I remember discussing that with grandma. I said it was wrong to take someone’s property. My grandma scolded me. She said, “Never contradict these things in public.” One day, I played a game I made up called ‘new society versus old society.’I often played by myself. (The new society was the communist party.) I was taught that people lived much better lives in the 'new society.' I was also taught the value of being humble and modest. That’s a very Chinese way of thinking. You always have to say that other people are better than you. In my role play, I would play with those philosophies. There were two people. One person is the ‘new society.’ The other is called ‘old society.’ I couldn’t understand why the new society would say that new society is better than old society. This violates the Chinese value of modesty. So one day my grandmother caught me playing the game. I was pretending to be new society saying “Old society you are much better, I have a lot to learn from you.” I used to play with philosophies in my imaginary sense. If you are truly the best, why do you have to keep promoting yourself as the best? I think I was like 10 or 11 maximum at that time.
When I lived together with my parents, at about 14, it offered an opportunity for us to have a relationship. We had very good dinner table talk. I walked to school everyday. It took me about 45 minutes. Sometimes my father walked with me. Those 45 minute conversations were always the best part of the day for me. He would just challenge different views of life. Why you think that way? How about this? How about that? When I asked him a question, he would ask me, “What you like?" "What don’t you like?” "What are some other possibilities?" He never forced anything. He let me make decisions.
When I graduated from elementary school, I took entrance exams for middle school. I started to become more competitive in middle school and high school to be better positioned to get into college. That was self-driven. My college had a special program where they waived entrance exams for select talented students. I got into that program. It was like hell to me. It was a much more competitive environment. Which major was I going to choose? I asked my father, what major should I choose? We had several conversations. My father asked one of his friends to give me a psychological test. He and I had a one-on-one conversation. I don’t remember the conversation, but I remember the conclusion. He said, “I don’t think you are very creative.” In the scientific world you will need to identify something other people aren’t able to do. I don’t think you have that talent. You are very good at following orders. You are good if you are given an order. You can organize and execute. He thought that I could be a manager. I asked him, “what does that mean?” I knew that my mother was a manager. The problem is business was not an area respected by the Chinese at that time. It is second tier. That’s a dilemma. I picked a top university that waived my entrance exams and started a department in international trade. It seemed a very good comprise.
When I graduated, so many students were studying for TOEFL. I thought, “why don’t I take the TOEFL?” It was my competitive nature. I wanted to take it just to test myself. My major was international trade, and so English was very important. I was working at CITIBANK. All of a sudden they started hiring students who had a master degree from local programs and put them in special programs, better than us. It was just unacceptable to me. Then I said, if that’s the case, I want a master’s degree. I wanted that from America. In my mind, I wanted to get into a true MBA program. And at that time, I started to be interested in finance. Because of the exposure at Citibank, I understood part, but not all of that world. In my mind, America was the only place you could truly learn these things. I started to study for the GMAT. So that’s how I decided to go to America. I had to have a full scholarship. I applied to my top choice. They had scholarships, but by the time I applied, the funding was gone. The next year, I applied to three or four schools. I went to the school that gave me the most money. It gave me the sense of being secure. It was a full scholarship, tuition fully waived.
[She is pregnant with her son due on December 23rd.] My hope for Peter... I just want him to be happy and be healthy. I hope that he can have reasonable personal comforts, food and basic living needs. And I hope he can feel happy with what he has. I want him to be logical and practical and wise. I will guide him, provide him with different perspectives, just to stimulate his thinking. My father and I often had long conversations, he challenged my thought process.
Many teachers were shocked that I chose international trade as my major. Some of them tried to push me into biochemistry or medical school. My father said that’s nonsense. This is the time I say do not follow your teacher. Make up your own mind. I would like to have those conversations with Peter.