School days

Today is Dad’s 97th birthday. He’s not around anymore to tell us his stories but I find new ones every day. About his school days in China, for example.

China in the late 19th century didn’t have an established higher education system, but rather scattered private academies that helped train scholars to pass the imperial exam for, among other things, government posts. Into this vacuum stepped groups of Western missionaries

Education Encyclopedia, China educational system — Overview [accessed 20 Dec 2020]

The private academies taught the Confucian classics while the missionary-founded schools offered a Westernized curriculum. Dad was a product of both.

An unpromising start

He started school, age 5, at the Hsieh Tsin Middle School in Shanghai. His parents knew the missionaries who ran this private school. It was a Christian school heavy on Bible studies. Dad says all the Bible stories he knows date from that time of his life.

I wonder how much he really remembered. When Dad was in kindergarten, he was asked to memorize a story about a fox and a crow. Apparently, he kept falling asleep before he could get to the end of this very, very short story.

Dad’s beloved sister Ruth attended the same school. Their respective nursemaids would deliver the day’s lunch in a stack of insulated containers. Dad would take a nap after lunch while still at school and another one when he got home.

Sister Ruth, Dad and brother Robert at home circa 1925

His kindergarten teacher was Dad’s first love. This was why he spent 2 years in her class. To his fellow students, he claimed to be too dumb to shell his own watermelon seeds, so the girl who sat behind him in class did it for him.

I was told that I was a teacher’s pet in those days and as far as I can remember, that’s absolutely true. I still remember our grade school and kindergarten teachers fighting among themselves during recesses just for the privilege of holding me!

Donald Kao, Letter to Karen Kao, Summer 1992

A classical middle

Grandpa decided that Dad’s education was too Western. A tutor came every weekend to instruct Dad in the Chinese classics. His Confucian education didn’t land him a job with the government but it did cause Mom to fall in love with him some 20 years later.

But before Dad could meet Mom, he needed to finish high school. At the age of 15, Dad went to the Public School for Chinese. I think this must have been the equivalent of senior high school.

I was surprised to learn that Dad then enrolled in St. John’s University. This was a posh school that, at the time, styled itself as the Harvard or Yale of China. The list of notable alumni includes T.V. Soong (politician), Wellington Koo (diplomat) and Li Ping, who negotiated the return of Hong Kong on behalf of China. St. John’s attracted the sons of the progressively minded elite families of Shanghai just the McTyeire School for Girls drew their daughters.

It offered Western-oriented schooling — including virtually all classes being taught in English — that helped graduates secure top posts in international commerce and diplomacy. And beyond its practical benefits, a St. John’s degree meant a fresh, new cultural experience for students. Bulletin boards advertised classical music performances, school newspaper meetings, and softball practices.

Patricia Wen, The lost liberal arts university of China, The Boston Globe, 3 Mar 2012

If Grandpa was worried about Dad becoming too Westernized, St. John’s University made no sense. There must have been some other logic at work. Grandpa’s brother attended St. John’s before studying optometry at Columbia University in the early 1900s. Grandpa went to Tsinghua College in Beijing before he was allowed to study at MIT. Perhaps he felt that Dad might benefit from 6 months at a posh place like St. John’s.

Farmer Kao?

If so, my grandfather was a long-term strategist. Dad’s chosen field was agronomy — the study of field crop production and soil management. His plan was to cultivate lands Grandpa owned in the south of China. He chose to study at the University of Nanjing. War with Japan intervened.

The university moved west to Chongqing while Dad’s department relocated to Chengdu. He interrupted his studies to enlist in the Chinese Army in 1945. After a bout of malaria and the end of the war, Dad returned to school, this time in Nanjing, to complete his studies in 1948.

Dad after school
Dad circa 1949

With the Communist victory in 1949, my grandfather lost all his property, including the land in the south Dad had meant to farm. I could have been born a farmer’s daughter, learned how to drive a tractor and thresh rice. Instead, Dad went to Taiwan for work and then on to the United States.

I don’t know what became of the Hsieh Tsin Middle School. In 1952, the Communists closed all the missionary-led schools like St. John’s University and the McTyeire School for Girls. The University of Nanjing was reorganized and Dad’s department split off to form the Nanjing Agricultural University. By then, Dad was about to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and embark on a new American life.