As an American growing up in in a pure white suburb of Cleveland, I never met or even saw a Chinese person until High School when I became friends with our only Chinese student. I remember how surprised I was when he just seemed like all of my other friends and enjoyed playing the same sports and games as myself. He even liked cheeseburgers too! All along I thought Chinese people only ate noodles! I was living proof that youth is the mother of ignorance. His dad was a doctor, and his mother a nurse. But we were just friends, and I was glad that we were. He told me about this Chinese guy named Confucius, who he claimed was "the smartest man in the world". I was so impressed with stories about this fellow, I decided I wanted to meet him. My friend failed to mention that this wise man died some 3,000 years ago!
This was over 30 years ago and it took me another 20 years before I would finally get to meet Confucius - in his grave and his museum in a famous China city called QuFu (pronounced (Schoo Fu) in Shandong Province. By the time I met him, I had already read all of his famous Analects and was truly puzzled how and why the world's smartest man lived in China and not my own America? But my best friend in China was quick to provide the answer "America was not even born for another 2,800 years". For that matter, neither was Abraham, Mohamed, nor Jesus Christ!
Having read the Bible, Torah, and Koran it was then that I realized that all three modern religions were modeled after the core of Confucius' teaching "Follow and live by the Golden Rule"... "Treat all others as you would want them to treat you". I was quite impressed with my philosophical discovery, and after remaining in China for another decade realized there were quite a few Chinese people living in China! Over 1.5 billion to be exact, and it seemed I was learning something new from every one that I met. Confucius certainly made his mark on China and the world. Let me tell you folks, there is a lot of accumulating wisdom in China being passed from one generation to the next.
So much so, that the biggest priority in the life of a Chinese is a good education. From the moment a child is born n China, parents focus on the academic training of their blessed gift, so a better life built upon wise and educated decisions would continue the family legacy. Their sons and daughters almost forfeit the playful childhoods we enjoy in the West as they begin a regimen of strict study by age five. By age seven, they are not only attending primary schools from Monday through Friday, but taking, music, dance, and art classes after school, and on Saturdays, math, English, and Calligraphy lessons typically await. Some even attend even more classes on Sunday. This is the norm in China.
Studying after school can go right up to bed-time at 10pm and if the result are As and Bs in school, 30 minutes a night of a favorite video game or television program could be their treasured reward. I laugh every time I even imagine such a routine being tried in America. I think only the Amish or Quakers might have the discipline to actually pull it off.
Fifteen years of this hard-core training is almost agony for most Chinese children, but is eventually accepted as their inescapable fate, unless they live in the countryside and have farm chores to do. Only they get a reprieve.The cherished goal of all this study is to graduate from a world-renown university whose diploma will testify to their acquired intelligence and open a few career doors for them in a shrinking world that grows more competitive every year. Graduating from an Ivy League school is the dream of every Chinese student and their parents who scraped, saved, and borrowed over $200,000 to make the enrollment even possible.
But guess what folks? All that learning that accumulated over the years did not produce even an ounce of wisdom - only intelligence. The wisdom of a university grad will only grow over time depending on how they choose to use all that intelligence.
Last week I met China's best and brightest students at Columbia University in New York, a handful of which had been my own students back in China. Watching them finally achieve their primary goal in life was not only gratifying, but gave me hope for the world. While American, British, German, Dutch, French and Canadian students had carried the burden of our planet on their shoulders for the last two centuries, the Chinese have proven themselves quite capable of picking up the slack in these troubling and worrisome times.
They fear not the future and are even excited about the challenges they face. Yu Fan a graduate from the very poor Anhui Province in Eastern China has already been courted for lucrative employment in wealthy Shanghai, home to China's stock market. Her nature is a serene calm, but she has the confidence to say "I know I can make a difference in this world for my family and others". I look into her eyes and just know that she will. Ben, a finance and data analysis major is torn between returning home to China or pursue one of the many Wall Street positions offered to him even in his junior year. His loyalty to his family and patriotism makes the decision for him a quick one.
Indeed the ambiance of graduation day can best be described as one of joy, relief, and anticipation. All that worked has finally paid off. Other Chinese graduating at Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cornell and other top universities in America share this collective feeling of achievement. Over the past 20 years Chinese students have grown from just 5% of international students to 23%. Surely Confucius must be smiling in his grave knowing that the seeds he planted in China centuries ago, have not only sprouted around the world, but are bearing the fruit of quality educations, and the wisdom that will save our world.
To the 30,000+ Columbia graduates of the class of 2022 I say "Well Done!" The world needs you now more than ever. Some of you will become leaders, but all of you need to be problem-solvers. Take your time, search your hearts well, and then choose your career path with all the vision and passion within you. Wisdom awaits you and will reward you well. God bless you all on a journey that began long ago with just a single step. You have made China, your parents and myself extremely proud.