Journey to the West — An Educational Adventure

From China, to English schools, Cambridge and Stanford.

Why am I writing this?

I am an economist by education and a finance guy by work. Therefore, isn’t it a bit sad that I was never remembered as such but mostly by all the stories I told?

After I graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business, a classmate approached me suggesting I put a talk I gave at Stanford into an article as he liked it too much. The talk of course was not about economics or finance but my experience navigating through the educational system in China, UK and then US. The experience was a painful one to me but a painfully funny one to my classmates. They loved it and so seemed the general readers from the popularity of the article I eventually wrote for the American Affairs journal. It was even mentioned by the site RealClearPolitics although it had little politics in it.

But it is OK and I have a big heart. I know I am never going to anywhere close to my hero Warren Buffett anyway: I started compounding too late, unlikely to live as long and my rate of return was too low. The only places I can match him are the love for Coke, rejection from Harvard Business School and the desire to be remembered as a teacher. So if I can share my experience in my education journey rather than in investing or economics, that works for me as well.

So here you go, my journey from China to the UK and later on going west again to California. If you are the few who can learn things simply by reading others’ mistakes, thanks for reading this and the pleasure is all mine. However, if you, like me, could only learn after making the mistakes yourself, I hope you could at least have a similarly amusing experience. Life offers plenty of challenges and we might as well enjoy them.

As background information, the education system in China consists six years of primary school, three years of middle school and finally three years of high school followed by university. Admission into middle school can be either by location or by exam if the school is selective; admission into high school is through city wide exam; and admission into university is through country wide exam.

Monday 01 September 1997, Middle School Year 1, Shijiazhuang, China

It was the first day in my middle school, not the most desirable one in the area by the way, but not the worst one neither which was my original destination. To save me from such fate, my parents offered a small donation to this new school which just opened, and I was duly offered a place (which I now realize is a solution that works almost universally). Although they might feel their money was wasted when the desired school somehow acquired the worst school later on, luckily the general price level in China back then was still low, so the amount involved was small.

As I collected my textbooks for the new term, I was amazed by the wide range of subjects there were, both in natural science and social science. One of them, had “English” written in Chinese on the cover, a word I had never came across before. “What is this thing called English” I asked my desk mate. This was fascinating, I felt like Columbus who just discovered North America.

“That is the language they speak in England, I think.” he replied.

“Really? I thought everybody spoke Chinese? Is there really another language out there?” I had just watched Star Wars Episode IV on TV that summer. Not only Skywalker, Darth Vadar, but also the aliens there spoke Chinese. Not to mention, I had never met anyone who didn’t speak Chinese in my life, and being born in a city in China, I had met or at least seen a few millions of people.

Star Wars Episode IV

“It looks like they use Pinyin as well.” I continued to comment as I flipped through a few pages of the book. It was still years away till I found out Pinyin was the romanization of the Chinese characters rather than proof that everybody on earth spoke Chinese. The shock doubled when I found out A New Hope was not made in 1997 neither but 1977.

Not being aware any of these, I gave my final verdict: “So it must be just a different dialogue they speak there but still Chinese. And it seems they make a lot of spelling mistakes, none of them makes any sense. They should label it the birds’ language” (In Chinese, the word English has the same pronunciation as birds’ language.)

And this was the beginning of my interaction with English as a language.

Score: Me: 1, English: 0

Tuesday 29 June 1999, Middle School Year 2, Shijiazhuang, China

The biggest enemy of any child in China was some neighbour’s child. That child supposedly always obeyed every single word of her parents without a slice of doubt; her life’s joy came from doing homework and doing homework only; even if you give her comic books to read, or a TV to watch, she would simply ignore them and go back to her calling: homework. And of course, she ate well, went to bed early and woke herself on time without saying.

No matter how hard you tried, she always got (much) better grades; she not only participated in competitions you did’t even realize that existed but also won them easily; she played either piano or the violin or quite possibly both; she was the head girl in her class and won numerous Student Awards every ear. Not sure about you, but I didn’t even work that hard back then which made it even worse.

So one good thing about not going to the desirable school, especially when all the other children in my middle-rise building went there, was that it gave me two years’ of armistice. After all, it was very hard to compare grades from one school to another. Although my parents rightfully suspected that the desirable school had tougher grading guidelines than my school, it was something I categorically denied, time after time.

The war started again after a city-wide exam at the end of the second year of my middle school:

“How come you only got 80%? What is the average in your class? I heard the average in the desirable school is at 85% and a large number of students got more than 90%. You know you will be competing with them in the graduation exam in a year’s time, don’t you?”

“How do I know the average for my class, mum! I am not the class tutor. How did you know the average for the desirable school anyway?”

“I know the average of every school, as a matter of fact. I think your school’s average is only 70%, that is very worrying. Would you ever be able to beat our neighbour’s child?”

“Easy, next time we move, just let me pick who our neighbours are!”

Puzhong Yao·
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