Random thoughts

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One month, three stories, one theme

January 16th, 2009 · No Comments

Joseph Needham was a biochemistry research fellow (then tutor, then fellow, then Master) at the University of Cambridge. For most of the first half of his life, Needham was engaged in establishing himself as a chemical embryologist of distinction. He then discovered China, started studying the language and the culture, and became intrigued with one question: historically, what kind of technological innovation should be attributed to the Middle Kingdom, and how did it occur that, regardless of their immense achievements, the scientific method and thought became peculiarly a western concept. He dedicated the rest of his life to answering that question.

John DeFrancis graduated from Yale University in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics. The Great Depression made his subsequent search for a job fruitless. He moved to China by chance, encouraged by a dorm-mate from a missionary family there. His objective was to learn chinese to make himself more marketable. Instead, he quickly learned to despise the career he had been training for, and developed a passion for China. By 1936 he was back at Yale, enrolled as a PhD student in the new Chinese Studies program. He ended up with a PhD in Sinology from Columbia University, and a life immersed in everything chinese (except for a few dark years ostracized at home, accused to be affiliated with communism).

Lyman Van Slyke taught Chinese history at Stanford before his retirement. His life started on a very different track, completely oblivious of Asia. He was then drafted to be on a U.S. carrier during the Korean war, and he was first exposed to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, but didn’t visit China (that was the enemy, after all). Upon his return to the United States, he decided to join the PhD program at UC Berkeley, with specialization in Chinese history. After graduating, he joined Stanford faculty. China and Chinese history play a large role in his life ever since.

Three people, three different stories, one common theme: a life that starts on a random course, however successful, and then the disruption and convergence to a passion and love for the chinese culture. A passion that can find no home outside the academic world.

Three inspiring stories… forget what you happen to have been doing when you didn’t know who you were, and focus on what you really enjoy, now that you’ve found yourself.

A few things can be as powerful as this same message repeating itself three times in the course of less than a month. First it was Joseph Needham and the book on his life. Then the eulogy of the late John DeFrancis as he passed away a few days ago. And finally, the Stanford professor as he introduced himself during the first meeting of the evening class I’m attending. As he briefly told us about his life, he struck me when he said, “my life was blessed“. My life is cursed, stuck living someone else’s career, chasing role models that feel foreign and unfulfilling, for a simple fear to chase dreams, and then regret.

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