I moved to the States from China in ’89, right after I started seventh grade. In the past 20 years, I’ve had countless people comment to me how “smart” they think Chinese people are. I’m not sure if they really think that way, or they’re just patronizing me. Every time, I give them the same spill, it’s almost like reciting a script.
You see, in China (and most other Asian countries) you start competing in school from first grade. At the end of elementary school, you take a very difficult placement test to get in the magnet middle school. Only the kids who get in a magnet middle school have a shot at getting in a magnet high school, and that’s after they pass another difficult placement test. At the end of high school, students will take another test to get in a magnet college. For every one student that gets in, thousands don’t. The brightest students get to study abroad in a country like the US, which is the ultimate goal of this long and painful process of elimination. So the Chinese you meet here are the cream of the crop. Yes, you can say all the nerdy Chinese you meet here are smart, but I can also show you millions of big buff ones back home who are not.
I still remember the end of my elementary years. My school days were from 6am – 6pm. After I got home it was a brief dinner and then I studied until I went to bed. Everyday. Winter and summer breaks were short, also burdened with homework. During the final preparation for the middle school entry exam, I studied so hard the corners of my text book pages became translucent. I took every practice exam I could get my hands on, multiple times. I remember once I went to bed without being able to solve a math problem. I dreamed about it and solved it. I sprung off the bed and quickly wrote down the answers. I honestly didn’t know why I was so desperate to get in that magnet middle school. Maybe it had something to do with the constant reminder from my grandma “If you don’t get in this school, you’ll end up being a janitor.” My grandma had ways of mentally torturing a 12 year old.
The entry exam consisted of three tests: Chinese(100pts), math(100pts), and science(50pts) for a total of 250 points. The magnet middle school I applied for required a minimum of 247 points. I scored 247. I remember at the celebration party, my relatives and family friends gave me looks of approval. My father reminded me that this was only the beginning of an even tougher road.
Two months into the first semester in middle school I came to the U.S. to visit my mother. I ended up staying permanently. How could I not? School here was a cakewalk. Everyday was a vacation to me. I didn’t have to come to school at 6am to clean up the class room, there were janitors doing that. (Maybe they didn’t pass their middle school placement test, I used to think). The school bus, recess time, little homework, friendly teachers, field trips etc. Kids here were different. They seemed… happy and not stressed. America was heaven, no wonder why people wanted to come here.
My mother used to tell me that I got lucky, that I took a shortcut to the US. She said I had to study extra hard like my peers back in China. I tried to do that. But over time, I realized that I had no incentive. There was no need to be in the top of the class. There were no entry exams to get in high school, not even to enter college. There were no relatives or family friends that I had to impress. I didn’t learn anything new in math until I was a junior in high school; I was coasting off what I had learned in China.
I was being complacent and I was totally OK with it. It felt good just to be a kid. I even felt I deserved it. Although at times I thought of my friends back home who were going through the toughest time of their lives trying to get in the college of their dreams. It made me feel guilty. The guilt quickly went away as soon as I turned on MTV or video games.
Thanks to the internet, I regained my competitive spirit. In 1995 I got my first web design intern job. I had a strong urge to impress my manager and other interns in the office. If I didn’t do well, according to my mother “You’ll get fired, and you won’t be employed again.” I quickly realized I really loved this web design thing. Internet may get HUGE one day! And HUGE it became.
Then I got married and had kids. Life became comfortably routine. For a couple of years, I didn’t learn anything new at all. I felt even though my skills weren’t exactly up to date anymore, they were “adequate enough” to do my job. One thing about being complacent is that you give yourself excuses and sometimes you can even fool yourself. Deep down, I knew I had enough free time to learn new things if I didn’t watch TV or play games. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was being lazy. As one gets deeper into this thing called “life,” responsibilities creep up, and the urge to learn new things gets dimmer.
I started reading web design/programming blogs in the early 00s. I found many quality ones, and others through them. What I was amazed about them wasn’t just the good content, but also the bloggers who wrote them. Most of them were like me, having a full time job, married with kids. It was a wake up call for me. I really didn’t have any excuses to slack anymore.
Looking back at the times when I studied or worked hard towards something, whether it was the middle school entry exam, or the dotcom era skill-ups, I almost see the source of it was desperation. I have to ask myself, or anyone out there, why should desperation be the driving force out of complacency? As I get older, there isn’t a clear incentive. There are no more exams or the need to prove myself to anyone.
I’ve been productive for quite sometime now. Everyday, I learn something new on the web, via blogs, twitter, coworkers or readers like you. My driving force now is my passion for web design. It’s more than a 9 to 5 job. Whenever I sense that complacency is creeping up, I think of the summer of 89 when I was 12 years old, studying for that exam.
I’m curious about how other people fight complacency.
Below is the final question on my middle school entry math exam. Go at it.