My Early Education
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
When I was growing up in China, I attended preschool and mostly lived with my father's family in his birthplace of Guangzhou. (I spent the summers with my mother's family in a neighboring city.) During the school year, I lived in a minimally furnished apartment building with my grandmother (my father's mother) and my step-grandfather, a man whom she married shortly after her first husband died in 1984.
Guangzhou is one of the largest cities in China. The British used to call it Canton, hence coining the term Cantonese, an adjective referring to the people, the language, and all other things related to the city. The Cantonese dialect of the Chinese language sounds as different from the official national language, Mandarin Chinese, as French differs from Spanish. Everybody in my family knew how to speak Mandarin, but we were much more comfortable talking to each other in Cantonese. In contrast to the up-and-coming city of Zhongshan where my mother's family lived, Guangzhou is a metropolis rich in history and culture and is home to several notable universities.
My parents met while they were attending college at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the government shut down most universities throughout China for over a decade. In 1977, after Mao's death, universities reopened and resumed their rigorous admissions procedures. Unlike in America, the sole determiner of college admissions in China is an annual national college entrance examination called the gaokao. Teenagers spend countless hours memorizing facts from textbooks, solving practice problems, and taking mock exams in the hopes of maximizing their scores on the one crucial exam that will determine their post-high-school fate. The competition was especially fierce in 1977 since a whole generation of youth had been denied opportunities to attend college in the preceding decade and were all competing for one year's worth of university spots. That year, 5.7 million people took the national college entrance examination and competed for 270,000 spots in universities throughout the country. My parents both excelled and earned spots in the prestigious first post-revolution class at Sun Yat-Sen University.
Thus, it's somewhat fitting that Guangzhou was where my own education began. I started attending preschool when I was two and a half years old. When I first moved to America, I was surprised that preschool here consisted of taking naps and fitting colored blocks into matching holes. In contrast, preschool in China was a serious experience in early learning, not simply an extension of daycare. During school hours, I actually remembered sitting in desks within the classroom, with everyone facing forward towards our teacher. There I learned to interact with other children, to do simple math, and to read and write in Chinese. I wasn't in some kind of special gifted education school; this curriculum was a regular part of the Chinese educational system. Preschool also served as daytime babysitting since most adults had to work. Kids as young as two or three often spent the entire day at preschool away from their parents and sometimes even overnight in boarding schools.
Although I liked learning during school hours, I enjoyed doing it more at home. My favorite teacher was my step-grandfather. He entered my life shortly before I started preschool. After my paternal grandfather passed away, my grandmother married this man not out of romantic love or for mid-life companionship, but simply out of pragmatic necessity because she thought that he could do a good job taking care of me. This man's office was much closer to my preschool than my grandmother's workplace was, so she found it more convenient to have him pick me up from school every day and watch over me at home while she was at work. Like many marriages in China at that time, this one was borne out of practical consideration for the family instead of the ideals of personal love.
The most significant contribution my step-grandfather made to my life was teaching me mathematics from age two until I left China at age five. He bought me colorful workbooks filled with math word problems. At the time, I did not know whether other children my age were learning the same things about math as I was, but I enjoyed spending time with him learning about basic arithmetic, fractions, and solving word problems. By age three, I could easily multiply a multiple-digit number by a single-digit number by successively recalling entries in the multiplication table. For example, I could do 23 x 3 by figuring that 3 x 3 equals 9, and 2 x 3 equals 6 so 23 x 3 equals 69.
I still vividly remember the time when he tried to teach me how to multiply two multiple-digit numbers, a somewhat more difficult feat. I am fairly sure that the first two-digit example he gave me was 22 x 22. I stared at the paper for a while and decided that the answer must be 44, reasoning that 2 x 2 was 4, and 2 x 2 again was 4, so 22 x 22 must be 44. He listened to my explanation, gave a friendly chuckle, and proceeded to teach me how to really solve a multiple-digit multiplication problem by reducing it into several simpler problems that I already knew how to solve. He demonstrated that 22 x 22 could be broken down into (22 x 2) + (22 x 20), and I realized that I knew how to solve each of these individual sub-problems. His encouraging and easy-going style of teaching worked remarkably well to boost my self-confidence and stimulate my passion for learning math at a young age.
Before my fourth birthday, thanks to my step-grandfather, I had already memorized the multiplication table and could perform basic addition and subtraction, multiplication up to three digits, and division with remainders. Sadly, I do not remember much else about this man who provided the initial impetus that contributed to my lifelong love for learning. I never saw him again once I moved out of China. My grandmother divorced him soon after my departure (probably because his mission to take care of me had been fulfilled), and he moved to somewhere in Australia. How random.