Shining Far: A Tianjin Son Lives Up to His Name
This polite, soft-spoken, but not too timid 24-year-old has “mustered a lot of kung-fu” (下工夫 – xià gōngfu) during his life as a student and recently achieved something millions of Mainland Chinese young people can only dream about: acceptance to an American university’s PhD program and the knowledge that his parents are immensely proud of him.
Lest foreigners think that all privilege and advancement in China is acquired through guānxì (关系: ‘connections’) or through what might be considered other, less-than-noble means, let Guāng Yuǎn (光远) and his family serve as an example of another long-respected cultural tradition in China: meritocracy. Those who do exceptionally well in school and outshine the “cruel competition” (his words) can attain coveted opportunities.
Guāng Yuǎn’s life so far has been dedicated to his studies. He’s always felt his parents’ high expectations and has lived with strict limitations on his free time since primary school. But he finally saw some payoff when acceptance letters from not just one but two American chemical engineering PhD programs arrived this winter, both offering to waive tuition fees. His achievement required a long, disciplined effort with more weekends in the books than on the basketball court. But with his future shining far and bright before him and the proud smiles of his parents supporting him, the sacrifices feel worth it.
A Hometown Boy
Guāng Yuǎn, whose name suggests a bright and promising future (光: light, bright; 远: far), grew up in the neighbourhood where Mr. Lù fixes bikes (Mr. Lù was featured in March’s column). A lot has changed during the two decades that Guāng Yuǎn and his parents have lived here. The canal, seen from the east side of his family’s apartment, is much cleaner and lined with trees. The west side windows open onto a tree-filled, exercise equipment equipped, community “backyard,” which every morning fills with retirees practicing tàijíquán (太极拳) and other uniquely Chinese forms of exercise that foreigners often find curious. Every month sees additional parked cars clogging neighbourhood paths that were originally designed for pedestrians and bicycles. Muffled, thumping bass from a flashy, stickered sports car occasionally invades a local soundscape still punctuated daily by clear, echoing calls for cardboard and the rhythmic squeaking of the recyclables-collecting sānlúnchē (三轮车: the pickup truck of bicycles).
Retired couples, kindergarten students, and a pair of foreigners share his family’s stairwell. A migrant worker camp currently sits within spitting distance of the stairwell entrance. From his bedroom window he can see the neighbourhood boys shout through the occasional game of basketball or football (soccer). For the last several years Guāng Yuǎn has missed a lot of this because he’s only able to spend time at home between semesters. But this place holds his fondest memories, which centre on time with extended family during Spring Festival:
During that period the house is full of relatives and I can play with my cousins. Actually there are two things that impress me deeply. One is that I can get many 压岁钱 (yāsuì qián – money given to children during the Spring Festival), and I can buy my dream stuff. The other one is making dumplings, which was very interesting in my childhood. As the pace of life gets faster, making dumplings at home is more unusual and therefore it is an awesome memory.
Next Stop: The Excited States of America
Of course, these days he spends most his time looking forward to the future, which includes several years of studying and working in the USA. He’s laid out a three-step plan: first, finish his PhD in engineering, and then gain some experience and pad his resume working for a famous American engineering company. How does setting a course for all this unknown territory make him feel?
I worry about the absolutely strange environment, strange people, and strange culture that I will face after I land in the USA, which is full of challenges for me. Therefore I feel excited and nervous.
I plan to live the community outside the campus, so my roommate and neighbor might be western people. …it is the first step for me to overcome language difficulty and get involve western culture and society. These are related to many living things, like buying the stuff, communicating with native people, and getting used to western living style. …I will face similar problems in the campus. To better understand what the professors talk about, I need not only to ask questions in class but also to communicate with other students after class positively. Other than these, there are great differences with class, homework and exams between American universities and Chinese ones. Above all… culture shock and language are great challenge for me and therefore make me a little bit nervous. But I believe I can do it better as soon as possible. Maybe one day I will feel comfortable to live outside the ‘Chinese culture bubble’ in the future. Every time I think that this day is coming, I am very excited.
What about long term plans, after he’s got his degree and worked for a few years in the States?
Third step, come back to China. …China is my motherland and I love her. I will use all that I learn overseas to contribute to China’s engineering industry. I am also the only child in my family and my parents will need my care in their old age.
After I finish the PhD period, I wish I could be a professor in engineering areas like my father. I am proud of my father and his academic career.
And what kind of advice does a guy preparing to leave everything he knows for a foreign country have for Tianjin’s foreigners?
I think every foreigner who comes to China will face culture shock and language difficulty. Firstly, to overcome these, it is helpful to live in the community, positively make friends and communicate with Chinese people from different social backgrounds. And don’t limit youself at home or in the class only to recite Chinese words and doing homework. …visit Chinese families or go around Tianjin City, you will realize that many Chinese expressions bring into your brain unconsciously. Secondly, in everyday life you should talk about any topic in Chinese as possible as you can besides in language classes. Thirdly, maybe you think above-mentioned methods are a little bit boring. So watching Chinese movies with Chinese and English captions are great choice because not only can it tell more about Chinese culture but also can teach you Chinese expression.
There’s one last thing I’ve always wanted to know: When a Mainlander goes to America, are the Americans there still lǎowài (老外), or does the Mainlander become a lǎowài ?
I am a foreigner in US, but I wish one day I have the feeling just like living as a local people.