I have been teaching English to secondary-school students in
Beijing for over a year now, and I always notice how practical my
“Which university would you like to go to?” I may ask.
“I don’t know, and I’m not thinking about it right now,” the
student typically replies.
“I’ll take the national university entrance exam, and then
after I get my score I’ll decide which universities to apply
“Don’t you have any dreams?” I ask.
“Why dream?” the student will reply, shrugging his or her
I am currently teaching at Beijing Secondary School Number 4,
one of Beijing’s best schools, and my students are some of the
city’s brightest. I was educated at a good high school in Toronto
and then went on to university at Yale, so all my life I have been
surrounded by talented and diligent students. It seems to me that
the most striking difference between the best Chinese students and
the best North American students is the nature of the goals they
For the Chinese student, goals must be practical and
short-term. Pursuing these goals of guaranteed feasibility, the
Chinese student lives a steady life, sailing smoothly to success on
a sure though arduous course. For the North American student, goals
are wild, spontaneous and ultimately romantic dreams, so
outrageously distant and impossible to achieve that other people
would probably mock him for having them in the first place. But it
is the greatness of the dream, even its seeming impossibility, that
endows the young North American with passion – a passion that leads
him constantly to augment his abilities.
Chinese practicality too often leads the best and brightest
Chinese to a life of comfortable mediocrity, while Western
romanticism propels North Americans to lives of disastrous failure
or epic achievement.
I am young, but I believe my own life has so brimmed over with
stories of failure and success that I am in a position to question
the wisdom of Chinese practicality.
As a Chinese immigrant growing up in Toronto, I lived in
poverty and struggled to master English. In high school I had a
great dream: to attend Yale, one of the world’s best universities.
My parents said that I was too poor, my teachers said that I was
not bright enough. I agreed with them, yet simultaneously felt that
if I struggled, if I worked diligently, then I could make it to
Yale. The dream gave passion and meaning to my life, and motivated
me to read books that I could not at first understand, to get
involved in activities at which I was not adept, to try things that
I had never tried before.
In the end, my dream came true.
After graduating from Yale, I came here to Beijing to tell
students to have their own dreams and to follow them. I succeed
with a few students: One girl impressed me by confiding that she
wanted to be the secretary general of the United Nations one day.
But I fail with most students. I remember the one who told me, “My
dream is to have a dream someday.”
“You don’t understand the situation in China,” these teenagers
often remark. “China is poor, so we can’t think about what we
really want to do, only about what will make money.”
“But if that’s your attitude and the attitude of Chinese
society as a whole,” I reply, “then China will never produce any
great writers, any great scientists, any person who contributes
astonishing new things to society. China is filled with talented
people, but they need a romantic passion to become great. If
you’re too realistic and care only for a life of happiness and
comfort, then you’re throwing your talent away.”
“But even if we were to have dreams, our parents and our
society would never allow us to pursue our dreams; they would
insist that we be practical.”
“Every dreamer has to defy conventional society, and only a
few can really be dreamers.”
“Then I won’t be one of the few,” they reply.
But I am neither disappointed nor depressed by these failures
because, paradoxically, I know my dream is an “impossible” dream. I
want my students to want to live, to have a dream and to let it
fill them too with a passion for life – to contribute to society
and to endear themselves to their community. This is a dream, and
only dreams can make life worth struggling through to the end.
Possessed by such a dream, I will undoubtedly fail, but it will be
a happy failure. It is only by failing that one knows one is truly
(By JIANG XUEQIN – 中文版链接：你有梦想吗？)