I was born into a tungsten miner’s family in southern China. Being the offspring of self-subsistencing farmers, my parents had relatively little education. As a matter of fact, they had no more than 7 years of schooling between them. Not surprisingly, their earning capacity was severely limited. My mother had to work extremely hard as a dress-maker at home to supplement the family income, while looking after five kids at the same time. With a meager income and a big family to support, my parents had for most of their lives struggled to keep their heads above the water. Indeed, as far as I could remember, my family had to make do without many common items that are readily available today, not alone luxuries.
When I was 16 (one year before my high school graduation), my father died of miner’s lung disease. I had the option of following my father’s footsteps and became a tungsten miner myself. However, my mother did not want to see me going through the pains and sufferings a miner’s lung disease had brought to my father. Indeed, I am forever indebted to my mom for her insisting on my completing high school against the opinions of my relatives and friends.
Coming out of high school, I went to countryside to undergo re-education. I stayed in a collective farm where about 20 young people like myself also came to work as farmers. We made earth bricks, plant crops and built a place where we called home. In later 1977, we learnt that an open exam for colleges and universities would be held during the year. At the time, there was no electricity in our self-built home, whose windows were covered with black plastics that were retrieved from chemical fertilizer bags. After a day’s exhausting work, I would try to study as mush as possible under a diesel flame (the only lighting available). With the cold wind blowing through the plastic window covers, the diesel flame generated floating black smokes that covered one’s nose and caused tears coming out of one’s eyes constantly. Despite all these misgivings, I became one of the only two students (out of more than 100) in my school year, who passed the national university entrance exam in 1977.
In 1981, when I was near the end of my undergraduate course, I decided to pursue further education. At the time, a Chinese Ministry of Education Scholarship was available for doing postgraduate study overseas. By sheer perseverance and good fortune, I somehow managed to come through the open exam with flying colors, and received the scholarship that profoundly changed the direction of my career as well as my life.