'I use to catch grasshoppers and eat them'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2007, 12:00am

I grew up in the semi-rural outer suburbs of Beijing in the 1960s and 70s and was very disciplined as a child, probably because my parents' marriage wasn't very strong.

My reasoning back then was that if I did well then my parents, who worked for the People's Liberation Army, would stick together and not divorce. I suppose I felt a responsibility for their situation.

I loved studying and was good at homework but more than anything I loved to finish it because there were other things I preferred to do.

I'd read or play in the fields near home, picking reeds to make into animals.

I'd also catch grasshoppers and eat them for tea which I can't believe now. Years later, a client treated me to fried grasshoppers in Taipei and I couldn't bring myself to eat them.

I loved animals. We didn't have pets as it wasn't the norm, but if I saw a cat on the street I'd follow it. As for dogs, they were considered rabies' carriers.

I remember bringing home a little bird that had been injured. It was considered dirty but a group of friends and myself took turns to look after it although it eventually died. We gave it a burial and sung The Internationale a socialist anthem.

Word got back about it and I was reported and had to apologise for my incorrect behaviour as it was the tail end of the Cultural Revolution.

I found it comical, even then, and found it was almost fun to have done something wrong.

I wasn't very good at sport. In gymnastics, I wasn't flexible and couldn't do the splits properly. Once I tried to do a handstand against the wall of a friend's home and couldn't really do so.

My favourite teacher was Ms Bai, who taught Chinese literature. I saw her for the first time since the early 80s recently. It was very moving, she told me that I was one of the children she was most concerned about because I was a favourite of hers. There was also Mr Zhu, who taught maths. Sadly he passed away not long ago. He was strict but in a playful way. He'd say if anyone was late for class by even a minute they'd have to stand outside his office. I was always chronically late and one day I had to spend the whole day standing up.

I saw him just before he died and according to other school friends still living at home, he'd been waiting for me to come back from overseas to see him.

My history teacher was another memorable character, who had been sent down from Beijing University for re-education. He made me interested in anthropology because we studied ancient civilisations.

I went on to study English and American literature at university. I loved Charles Dickens for his clear and simple writing and vivid characters, especially David Copperfield.

On graduating, I took a job as a teacher hoping to do a PhD in physical anthropology but wasn't disciplined enough.

I realised that if I were to pursue a corporate career, English wasn't going to get me far. So I went on to do an MBA at the Wharton School in the US and ended up working for the likes of Benetton and Gucci.

But I came to realise that my interest lay in animals and that's how I became involved with saving the South China tiger which is the most endangered of the five tiger subspecies. I was fortunate in that I had a passion which I turned into a cause.

For me, it's about saving a cultural symbol from becoming extinct. The aim is to protect wild tigers and protect and restore ecosystems through saving the tiger as well as other big cats. We also rehabilitate captive tigers and reintroduce them to the wild.

There's been criticism of it but I've found throughout my life that unless you try you'll never know if you can succeed.

And I suppose that's a metaphor for schooldays - you have to give them your best shot as well.