My family and I emigrated from Guangdong Province in 1983, when I was six years-old, and from then until my leaving for college I never once thought about China.
But during my sophomore year at Yale I did nothing but think about China. I took a two-hour Mandarin class every day, and read Chinese history books as well as the Far Eastern Economic Review and South China Morning Post. I tried to make friends with mainland Chinese, many of whom found my pro-China views and my born-again Chinese-ness annoying and grating. To prove my Chinese-ness I watched Chinese national TV’s New Year’s special and ate frozen dumplings imported from China.
I desperately wanted to visit China, and in my junior year I applied for a fellowship to study Mandarin in Beijing. When I was rejected I was demoralized and depressed for two weeks (which as a Yale English major meant an eternity of brooding and poetry writing) before I thought of another possibility: why not volunteer as an English teacher in China?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A Yale classmate from Beijing told me that he might know someone who could help, and that was enough to make me hop on a Christmas Day plane to Beijing. I slept in an underground motel, and the next day my classmate took me to Peking University High School to meet Vice Principal Wang Zheng.
Ten years later, again with no job and no place to stay, I was flying to Shenzhen to see Wang Zheng. When I arrived in Shenzhen, he told me about his reforms, and I was impressed. He then asked me to advise his students who wanted to study in the United States.
I worked as the China correspondent for the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education from 2001-2, and so I knew about Chinese students going abroad. But it was mainly for graduate study, and back then it was difficult for Chinese to secure student visas. Starting around 2004-5, a series of trends converged together to launch a tidal wave of Chinese students going abroad: The United States’ relaxing of student visa requirements for Chinese students, the increasing internationalization of US universities, the fast-growing middle-class in China, and China’s increasing prominence on the world stage. Each year, tens of thousands of Chinese students were matriculating as undergraduates at American universities, and a lucrative industry had developed to help these students apply.
I also taught students how to play Texas Hold’em poker, and taught a class on neuroscience. I encouraged students to read East of Eden and Anna Karenina. I organized a screening of ‘Mulholland Drive,’and throughout I sat blushing and sweating (for whatever reason, I’d forgotten that David Lynch movies had sex scenes) as the students sat calm and transfixed.
Spending time with Shenzhen Middle School students,and seeing how happy they were,I was reluctant to encourage them to go abroad. I remembered growing up in Toronto, and how my classmates bullied me because my father cut my hair and my mother bought my clothes at bargain outlets, and because I was socially awkward and had a stutter. I lived a lonely alienated life in Toronto, and that’s why I worked so hard to escape. But at Yale I was even more lonely and alienated, and that’s why I was so desperate to go to China.
I was impressed with the openness of Shenzhen Middle School students, but didn’t think they had thought long and hard about the rigor and challenge of studying and living in the United States. I told Wang Zheng I was impressed by the creativity and originality of the students, who busied themselves organizing fund-raisers and Model United Nations conferences. US universities complained that Chinese students lacked co-operation and reading skills, so I said that I’d create activities—a coffeehouse and an English magazine—that would help teach students co-operation skills, and I hoped to hire graduates from top US schools to teach reading seminars. I also wanted to build a website and an English library, and renovate classrooms to facilitate and encourage debate and discussion. I was told to write a blueprint.
I had packed my suitcase and was mentally prepared to return to Toronto to work on my Amazon.com ranking when I was told the school had approved my proposal. I couldn’t believe it!