A Tsinghua Student in Hong Kong

(Zhongan Online via ChineseNewsNet)  October 16, 2006.

I graduated from university in 1998, and I went on to graduate school.  I was basically a bookworm and as innocent as a high school student.  At a place like Tsinghua University, the girls were like mountain tigers who were ever so mysterious that I blushed when I saw them.  I always resorted to: "Let's deal with this after I finish graduate school."  Anyway I was getting good grades, and it would be a shame not to continue on.  I was just taking advantage of the opportunities that fell from the skies.

This was one year after Hong Kong was returned to China, and the Department of Education wanted to select a group of graduating students to study at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in order to foster exchange in educational and scientific knowledge.  Obviously, Tsinghua took up quite a few slots.  Since many of the brightest people in my department were going to the United States, I got picked for Hong Kong.  This was not a bad deal, because there were no GRE, TOEFL or full scholarships to deal with.  The school and the Ministry of Education took care of everything.  I did not have to pay a cent.  Later on, the folks at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology complained about the inefficiency and complexity of the procedures in China, but I had no clue as to what happened.

So that was how I came to Hong Kong in a daze.  The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology campus was a paradise by the side of a mountain overlooking a sea.  The modern buildings were awesome.  A fellow student said: "This was built in the middle of nowhere with money, and the materialistic conditions should satisfy us."  Later on,  I learned that this was the prettiest campus in all of Asia and I do not doubt it.

Supposedly, the Hong Kong government felt that their advantages in trade and services are being challenged by the coastal cities of China and they realized that science and technology are their competitive edges.  Therefore, they invested money to build this university and recruited the scholars.  The total amount of investment was HK$40 billion, which is the annual net profit of Microsoft Corporation.

I went through the organized tours, the professors' speeches and the English-language training.  The novelty was starting to wear down.  The routine view of the green mountain and blue seas was no longer exciting.  From this, I can infer that getting a pretty looking wife is not truly meaningful unless I want to show off. 

The professors are mostly Chinese people from Taiwan and mainland China, with very few from Hong Kong.  Most of them obtained their doctorates in North America and came here for the high salaries.  Their PhD titles are printed on their business cards forever, with Harvard and Stanford being the most popular.

The full professors can earn more than HK$1 million per year, which can buy a car a month and therefore better than at an American university.  Knowledge is worth money and it makes us look forward to our own future.  I had a meal with the professors and we spoke about the wages for mainland university professors.  They reflected: "Intellectuals are cheapened to a shameful state."  We had nothing to say, because this is not our fault.

Yet the money is not easy to earn.  Many of the professors are only in their 30's.  They have not yet gained tenure and they have only signed on contracts that go for several years.  Meanwhile, other scholars are applying to join. Therefore, the pressure is great and it is worse than working for a corporation.  Since doing one's own research is more important, the development of the students is pushed aside.  Recently, many teachers no longer talk to us in any detail.  When they see us, they don't recognize us.  The graduate students have their advisors.  But if they don't go seek out their advisors, it is for certain that the advisors won't seek them out.  While we have our freedom outside the classroom, the freedom is not satisfactory.

George Bernard Shaw said that there are two drawbacks in life.  One is when desires are not satisfied.  The other is when desires are satisfied.  This is partially true.  I live in a beautiful paradise.  I can go to the shopping mall and buy things that I don't worry about not being able to afford to pay.  I can decide to spend my time on whatever I want.  

But in the first six months, I found that things were detiorating.  The western architectural design protected my privacy to the extreme.  When I moved into the dormitory, I basically could not determine if anyone else existed.  The people in the same section had their own rooms.  They go into the rooms, they close the doors and they are isolated.  Nobody dares to knock on the doors.  When I first came, I got acquainted with a lot of people.  Then I found out that I can never find them.  It is as if they had vanished.  There must be more than 30 people living here, but I rarely see them and I hardly get to say anything to them.  We seem to be doing our research in different spaces and we are too busy to worry about other people.

Frankly speaking, for a mature researcher, this is a good environment if he has fixed goals/interests without any illusions about life and total dedication to scientific research.  But I am just a naive kid with unknowing eyes, and this is a completely different feeling.  The depression is indescribable.  I can find anyone to hang out with.  I open the window and I close it.  I kept drinking water.  I am restless.  I remember the days in Tsinghua when we visited each other.  I can take a basketball into the corridor and give a shout, and everybody will be out there.  But memories do not solve anything.  It is a trial to walk into a grown-up environment with the psychology of a child.

I have been able to get by in the educational system for many years, but now I realized that I was deceived.  I successfully got by the examinations, but in the end I did not know why I passed those examinations that are so detached from real life.  This so-called exceptional student never really existed and developed.  No class that I took could relief my distress, so why did I learn those calculus formulae?  Did I do so to earn the smile of my parents or the praise of people?

The monster who was able to win scholarships each year at Tsinghua University was like this: he does not know what he wants; he does not know what life it; he has no social contacts; he is ill at ease with girls; he knows all sorts of mathematical formulae, but he cannot solve his own problems; he can get his master/doctor degree, but he does not know what to do next.  Is this what I am looking for?  Is this what a person with a decent intelligent quotient end up as?

This problem had been present a long time ago, but it only manifested itself much too late.  I believe that this problem is shared by my fellow students.  I believe that Tsinghua has many students like me now.  When I read their naive discussions; GRE 2***, TOEFL 6**, GPA*, School Rank Top **, it seemed that their efforts over several years were about some numbers and their lives were about being able to go abroad.  I have to worry about them.  This is the major reason why I wrote this essay.  Many people do not have a genuine interest in getting into research, but they expend all their efforts to get an opportunity to do research overseas.  In their unbridled enthusiasm, they have no real plans for their lives and they have no idea what their genuine interests are.  They want to go overseas in order to go overseas.  Then that will be the beginning of their problems after they bid farewell to their families.

The Hong Kong students are very pragmatic.  Most of them will get a job after they graduate.  By the time that they are 30, they will get married, buy an apartment and try very hard to succeed in their work.  If you tell a Hong Kong person that you are 28 and studying for a doctorate, they will think that you are a loser who can't make any money.  The Hong Kong students who stay behind to get a doctorate are those who genuinely love to do research in a realistic sense.  Their seriousness should make us vacillating mainland students ashamed.