Thursday, April 23, 2009

Time Would Never Tell

I arrived in the US a year after the Lu Gang incident, yet it was still a frequent topic among overseas Chinese students. On November 1st, 1991, Lu Gang, a Chinese student who had just received his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Iowa, shot and killed five people on Iowa campus, including his advisor and a fellow Chinese student, and then killed himself. I remember reading about him in magazines in abhorrence and fascination—what would motivate a Chinese immigrant to pick up a gun and destroy everything he had worked for?

Yet strangely, as time went by, I began to understand him, even though I never studied his family background in detail. Yes, he was a super-competitive loner, a geek whose reason of existence had been to excel in exams in China’s education system, to measure oneself against some recognized yardstick, and to be applauded and adored by those inferior to him.

Weren’t we all like that, to a degree though?

Back in the 80s and early 90s, most Chinese students who studied overseas were academic elites. Unlike now, very few then could afford the exorbitant overseas tuition and living expenses, so we had to have good grades to test into elite universities, more good grades in universities to rank among the top of the class, and yet more good grades for TOEFL and GRE to get scholarship from foreign universities, preferably those in America.

Back then, going to America seemed the natural path for any self-respecting elite. Of the forty in my university Biology class, thirty six ended up in the US. One friend hopped to a university in Hong Kong first, then to Singapore, next to Hawaii, before finally landing in Los Angeles.

Only in America did many of us realize that the road had to continue, with no clear yardstick in view. Life as a graduate student was boring, contrary to what many had cheerfully depicted in newspapers back in China: classroom, lab, apartment; clipping coupons, shopping and cooking, saving every penny; playing cards on weekend with other Chinese, exchanging tips on getting a Green Card, discussing which professor had the most funding, which lab generated publications in the most prestigious journals, and who graduated and found jobs at top universities. Every so often someone would rail against the Americans for failing to appreciate our brilliance and somehow, seemingly so easy for them, climbing onto the top of the academic world.

For some, research was an indifferent existence one had to maintain in order to stay in America and make the family back home proud. For some others, it was the pecking order to climb on top of, out of a lifelong habit.

In that regard, I could understand Lu Gang. Academia was his only way of climbing up in America. When he flopped, he exploded at his fellow Chinese student—his rivalry—at his advisor, at the ambiguous American environment that failed him.

As time passed, overseas Chinese students’ aspiration evolved, perhaps in sync with what was happening in China. No longer getting a tenured professorship at a brand-name school counted as the only success. Biology Ph.D.’s went into consulting and law. Those in Maths and Physics went to Wall Street. Many hopped to study computer and business. Dinner conversations shifted from academic publications to salaries, stocks and real estate prices. During international calls home, my parents reminded me that wealth was now the ultimate measure of success.

I quit my Ph.D. program in Biology, wandered for a few years getting nowhere, and finally went for my MBA degree.

Sometimes I wondered if Lu Gang had gone to the US five years later, would he have been so obsessed with academic rivalry to the point of massacre? Would he have gone to Wall Street and become a millionaire, and perhaps even come back to China as a top representative for a well-known investment bank?

Time would never tell.

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