How Math Set Me Free: A Journey from China to America with Dr. Pingnan Shi
This is the story of my journey from China to America, and how math set me free.
I was trapped. I grew up in a small town in China during the Cultural Revolution (CR). My dad was locked up in a make shift prison because Chairman Mao overthrew the entire Communist Party leadership in a coup. My mom and us five kids were exiled to the country side. Back then, the government told you where to live, where to go to school, where to work, and how much you are allowed to eat.
My town was a company town. The highest aspiration of my classmates and me was to work in the company because you could then live in a dorm and did not have to worry about going hungry. The company even had a clinic where you could get medical care.
Almost all of the books published before the CR were banned and destroyed. But sometimes, you could still find an old book torn in the middle without the beginning and the ending chapters. Reading banned books was forbidden with punishment up to imprisonment. But things were relatively relaxed in small towns. In those books, I saw a totally different world. People have strange long names. They eat bread with jam. They drink milk instead of tea. They can eat as much as they want. They speak nicely to children. They can go to universities which have millions of books, all kinds of books.
I wanted to go to that world. But my destiny was set. My mom told me that I could have her job when she retires. She expected me to get married and have a kid – we were only allowed to have one per couple and had to get permission from the government. She came from a much poorer background. Working in a factory was definitely a lot better than toiling in the field.
I did just OK in school, getting B’s and C’s. That was good enough for my parents. I didn’t like Math. I did not understand it and didn’t need it anyway. We boys just simply ganged together. Our parents were working and could not watch over us. We went swimming in the river and played games. I swam across the river after only four days of learning how to swim, and almost drowned during the process. After that, I was not afraid.
Many times we split into two groups and played war games. We started throwing mud at the kids on the other side. Eventually, our choice of weaponry escalated to rocks and sling shots until one or two boys got terribly injured. One of my classmates had one eye badly damaged. We would stay low for a while and start all over again. Every summer, one or two boys we know would drown in the river. We just got used to it.
One day, a colleague of my dad’s showed me a math problem, but he presented it as a puzzle. I loved solving puzzles. I took me a while to solve it and asked for more. By solving math puzzles, I learned algebra, much like the same way I learned reading so I could read a torn up, yellow colored, smelly old book.
My Math grade improved. Pretty soon I was the undisputed number one in Math in my entire grade. My teachers were shocked because they thought I was just a dumb kid. They treated me very nicely after they realized I had a talent. My other subjects started to improve as well. It was nice to be treated as a celebrity.
Fortunately for me, before I got to high school, the CR was over. During the 10 years of CR, all the colleges in China were closed. Mao wanted to purge all Western influence from higher education. Now China was under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping, who wanted a different path.
I was accepted to a college when I was 15 years old because I did well in the national college entrance exam. I didn’t have to go. But I wanted to get out of my small town and see a different world as soon as I could.
I went to a college in Xian. It used to be China’s capital for a thousand years until a thousand years ago. It became famous to the West for the Terra Cotta Warriors. For the first time, I met classmates from different parts of China with different dialects. I saw my first snow fall which blanketed the whole campus. The most amazing thing is that I did not get frost bites for the first time. In the South, we did not have heating in schools. We kids always got frost bites in the winter. We thought that was just part of life.
I learned Calculus on my own because I suspected my teacher did not really understand it. I skipped so many Calculus classes that I almost got kicked out of college. Fortunately, my teacher was kind and backed me up. Being a top student and also 15 years old certainly helped.
I did not spend much time studying. Most of my time was spent in the reading room gobbling up magazines. The outside world became more colorful and vivid. I saw pictures of fancy cars, skyscrapers, tourist attractions, and pretty girls.
Soon enough, I was in my Junior year. My classmates started worrying where to go after graduation. Back then, the government assigned jobs to college graduates. We were numbers in the government’s five-year plan. The general rule is that you go back to the province you came from unless the government needs you somewhere else.
I was home sick and looking forwards to going back home. But my college wanted me to stay as a teacher because I had the highest GPA in my class. It was considered a high honor. But I just wanted to go home. I missed home cooking and my mom. Now I was trapped again.
The only way out was to go to a graduate school. I spent a whole summer preparing for the entrance exams. I applied to Chongqing University, which was one of the best universities in my province, and hoped for the best.
To my surprise, not only I was accepted to the graduate program, but the university selected me to study in Canada. It was a miracle. I did not apply to the study abroad program. I did not think I was good enough for that. But the students who applied for that program did not do well in their English exam. I was chosen as a replacement.
Once I was in Canada, I breathed freedom. I had access to any book and any newspaper. I could express my true feelings without fear of persecution. I wanted China to be like that.
On June 4th, 1989, the Chinese government sent in tanks and soldiers with assault weapons to the Tiananmen Square and crushed the peaceful student protest. The students wanted freedom and democracy. My wife and I supported them from Canada. We organized our fellow students in Vancouver to collect donations so we could send in tents and other materials. After the crack down, I was blacklisted and could not go back home until both my wife and I became Canadian citizens.
After 11 years in Canada, I found a job in Indianapolis. My wife and I built our first home in Greenwood, Indiana, and raised two children. Both of them now are in colleges. We live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. (You don’t need much to live comfortably in Indiana.) If you ever run into someone from China or India, the chances are what got them here is Math.
Dr. Pingnan Shi
Dr. Pingnan Shi is the Co-Founder and Chief Disruption Officer. Dr. Shi has a PhD in Electrical Engineering and has worked in academic research and tech industry for 26 years and holds 15 patents. He currently serves on the board of the Beyond Me Initiative and is leading the Amplify Blockchain Initiative launching in the summer and Amplify Youth Program launching in the fall. His passion is helping the next generation of young leaders with financial literacy, math skills, and leadership training so they can become successful entrepreneurs.