I was born at the western foot of the Himalayan hills, spent 6 years in rural Sichuan, 8 years in Chengdu, 4 years in New Zealand, and as of 2022, my 4th year in the UK.
Tea with my Taichi Shifu
My prefect tutees in NZ
Formal dinner with 'college family'
I am proud to have my two Shifu (Master / Mentor) in China who taught me Guqin, Tachi, and the philosophies of life. I am grateful to have my parents whom, through the stories of their hardships, taught me to have resilience and optimism.
"True optimism comes from the darkest of the darkness,
because there you need it to survive."
– my mother
Twenty years ago we were selling factory-defect textiles on the streets, and now I am a first-gen graduate from Cambridge, working with scholars and innovators who are changing the world. Such a transformation could not happen without my parents' support and, indeed, sacrifice.
My father’s family are illiterate peasants who still struggle with the idea of me living in a different time-zone. My mother’s family denied her education because of her gender and tasked her to sell factory-defect textiles on the streets of rural Sichuan to “Serve the Family”. In my family, I am the first to leave the country, the first to speak a foreign language, the first to attend university.
I am very fortunate to have inherited my mother’s love for learning. Most of my childhood memories with her were her sneaking us into philosophy and psychology lecture at local universities; or, when I go to her room in the morning to say goodbye before going to school, finding her sleeping with her glasses still on, fingers in the pages of a second-hand book. Perhaps fittingly, she traces her ancestry back to Mencius, whose mother moved three times just to find a good educational environment for her son. We met my two Shifu when I was 9, after a lecture on Buddhist philosophy she had snuck us into. Shifu is an ancient role that means “mentor and father”, and they taught me the classical arts of Guqin, Taichi, and trained me in Classical Chinese literature and philosophy. More importantly, they showed me an entirely new possibility of life: a life beyond present fights and present mirth, a life of intellectual and aesthetic pursuit.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my parents were fighting for our future. To oversimplify, my mother had earlier threatened suicide to persuade her father to give her a property in recognition of her 15 years of unpaid service to the family; now that this property was to be forcefully removed by the local government, all our relatives started eyeing on the reimbursement, wanting their share. We won eventually, and I persuaded my parents to use this newfound endowment on my education, by supporting me to go to high school in New Zealand on my own at age 14. For the first years, we had to pretend that I wasn’t in NZ, in case my relatives become jealous and resort to more vicious measures. Later, they manipulated my maternal grandfather to sue his own daughter, wishing to have their cut in the money my parents had been using to support my expensive international education. My mother has never talked to her father ever since.
I had my own fights during those first years abroad. We knew no-one in NZ, and 14-year-old me struggled to navigate an unfamiliar world in an unfamiliar language. I was denied the academic subjects of my interest, bullied for my language barriers, and ignored by my host families. Even though my hard work had led my grades to raise from Fails to A*s, the cultural shock transitioning from a traditionalist upbringing to a hyper-liberal youth culture still made it difficult to fit in. In this solitude, I turned to focus on academics, started teaching Guqin after school, and started writing daily blogs on WeChat. When I received a message from a reader that my posts would be her family’s daily dinner conversation, and that her children would be eagerly waiting for new instalments, I realised that I had created something much bigger than myself. In the end, I wrote for a consecutive 1400 days, reaching tens of thousands of readers. I realised that what’s past is all but prelude, and that I am the only true author of my future.
Through this realization, I started actively breaking conventional expectations: at age 16, I was running the largest Guqin school in NZ; later, I started my own educational firms and became my school’s first foreign student to top first language English literature. It also drove me to go beyond one discipline: I was a writer on educational issues, a translator for Classical Chinese, a team leader at Physics tournaments, as well as a three-time attendee to the Consumer Electronics Show. Eventually, my transformation in NZ brought me from a peasant’s son to a student at Cambridge to study Education, feeling it my duty to contribute to the individual empowerment of others, since I had been so luckily empowered myself.
Having moved country once before, however, did not make the second time any easier. I struggled to build true connections that I desperately needed in my first year at Cambridge. Having finally made friends in NZ in the last years of high school, I found myself trying to hold on to my connections with them, even though they are on the opposite end of the planet. This is a constant pain for international nomads like me: the more we move on, seeking what is missing, the more we are left behind, missing what we left behind.
I also struggled to balance the growing societal expectations that came with Cambridge and my personal choices and wellbeing. My traditionalist upbringing entirely disregarded personal wellbeing: we are told that to live a meaningful life of social contributions, one must embrace personal sacrifices for the greater good. This is completely opposite to the western liberalist ideals of my later education, that instead of sacrificing for the greater good, every individual has the right to personal happiness. Eventually, I decided to prioritize my personal wellbeing: I gave up my blogging career and ended the personal brand that I built from nothing, hoping that I will be forgotten, so that I may have my freedom.
It didn’t help that I signed up to the wrong degree. Coming from a multidisciplinary background, I found myself restricted to a subject I did not enjoy – Education, contrary to my expectation of empirical investigations on the effects of educational practices and policies on children's outcomes, was in fact more focused on the illusive social theories of power and discourse. I felt lost: since education had transformed my life, I had always felt it my duty to contribute to the empowerment of others like me through education; but having given up my education career in China and seen the impracticality of western educational thoughts, I felt like my life was devoid of meaning. This, adding to the financial burden and the worries of unemployment, launched me into a life crisis.
However, I slowly realized that my Cambridge experience is, just like my life as a young international student back in NZ, eventually up to myself to define. That was when I started actively redefining my degree: after a summer of independent learning on multiple alternative subjects, I persuaded my college to make an exception and allow me to switch to Psychological and Behavioural Sciences, and caught up two years of content in one year; I actively reached out to research groups in my new department, and became a quantitative research assistant; when I wanted further quantitative training, I went to attend lectures in the Computer Science department in my own time.
Towards the end of my undergraduate years, I fully redefined my Cambridge life. Outside my degree, I was co-authoring academic papers with my supervisors and organising enterprise and sports events. More importantly, I finally started figuring out what I actually want, instead of obsessing on what I should want. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed going to formal dinners, visiting art galleries, having long walks and cycle rides, and above all hanging out with my friends. Growing up I've always been reaching toward something, toward that illusory "better life". It was only natural in an environment with constant reminders of other people's class and privilege. Now I can finally live as who I am, free from the anxiety to justify. Perhaps this is what privilege really is.
The one thing that had gone missing was that old sense of purpose. The original calling for individual empowerment felt off. What do we mean by empowering individuals? To help someone "become better" along some arbitrary scales that we call success? Since then, I became skeptical and even cynical about my past selves' believes, thinking that all the missions we subscribe to might just be meaningless but comforting stories we tell ourselves to fake a control of our lives. Now, thanks to my lovely host family in London, I think I have finally found a new calling: to do cool things that make people happy. I'd like to do cool things because that's what I enjoy. I'd like to make people happy, because unlike arbitrary aspirations and intangible grand narratives, happiness is universal and real.
My journey continues, and I don't know how this calling will evolve in a year or a month. But for now, I hope that it will guide me to new adventures that shape me into a better person, and make the world slightly happier along the way :)