My Story: From Shanghai to B-School

By John A. Byrne October 21, 2010

Before coming to America last August as a first-year MBA student in the charter class of Johns Hopkins. Carey Business School, Zhiqiang Lin had never been outside his native China. He was well prepared for his American adventure. In trying to master the English language, he watched a lot of American TV shows on the Internet, including the Jerry Springer Show. His favorite movie: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” He infectiously laughs out loud when he admits these guilty pleasures.

Born and raised in Shanghai, Lin graduated from Shanghai University in 2008 with a degree in electrical engineering and a dream to see the world. He worked in residential real estate while researching U.S. business schools that he might want to enroll at. “I searched each and every school on the list of U.S. News and World Report,” he says. “I looked at more than 100 schools, even the University of Texas at El Paso, before deciding on Johns Hopkins.”

Lin has embraced the American experience. “I feel like I’m drinking water from a fire hose,” he says. “I have a lot of ideas and dreams. Johns Hopkins can teach me how to make my dreams come true.”

His story:

I grew up in a typical family in Shanghai. It was a middle class family. Both of my parents are workers in a country-owned factory that made fabric for clothes and drapes. We lived in a house given by the government. I’m an only child. That’s because of the one-child party. All my peers in Shanghai are only children for the same reason. The one-child policy was most enforced in big cities in the middle class, while in rural areas people might have more children.

I started learning English when I was nine in the third grade of my elementary school, Shanghai First Normal School. My mother can say some phrases in English, like “Long live Chairman Mao,” but otherwise my parents cannot speak English. They did not go to college. They spoke Shanghainese. Later I went to a private middle school, Qiyi, and that experience changed by whole life. When I graduated form elementary school, the policy changed. Before that we had to take exams to decide which school you would go to. I found out that this new private school was being established and registered for the school.

There was a lottery, and I was very lucky. I encountered the very best teachers at that school and went there for four years. My lottery number was 957. It has special meaning. In Chinese, it sounds like, ‘Only you can go.’ They took 300 students into the school and more than 1,500 students were in the lottery. So I was very lucky. I encountered a teacher there, Zhang Xun, who was very nice to me. He taught math. One day, he gave us a very hard question and asked who in the class could solve the question. A lot of students raised their hands, and I raised my hand as well. He knew that I am pretty good at math so he gave chances to the students who weren’t as good in the subject. No one could answer the question correctly. I was the last hand up when the bell rang. At that time, he had two choices. First, he could simply illustrate the answer himself because the class was ending, or he could give me the chance to answer it. He called me up and in front of the class he said, ‘my parents gave me my life, but Lin Zhigiang, you know me.’ That is a very famous Chinese saying. It’s used to describe a friendship. He was the teacher. He was 40 years old, and I was only 14 years old. He said this in a very humorous way. The class laughed and I gave the answer, 100% right. Class over.

It made me feel great confidence. That changed my life. I was born with a cleft palate. I should be shy or have self-esteem problems but I don’t. Why? That’s because of my experience in middle school. I did a very good job in the entrance exam for high school, I was number one on the exam and was able to enter the best school, Shixi High School, in the Jing’an District in downtown Shanghai.

At the end of the freshman year in Shanghai University, my English teacher, Joan (She is an older American lady. Sorry I forgot her last name), sent me an American Atlas as a gift. In that book, there is a list of American universities as well. After I received the Atlas, I came up with the idea that I wanted to study in the U.S. I still keep that book, and I hope I can meet Joan again.

Events that have changed my life? I mentioned the math class in middle school. The other event has to do with this program. Johns Hopkins has changed my life. I was admitted into the Master of Finance program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, George Washington University, and Lehigh. I was on the waiting list at Boston College. Some schools also declined me, including Georgia Tech and Washington University.

After I got admitted to Johns Hopkins, from February to April, I was struggling over these choices. I asked my colleagues, my friends, my classmates, and my professors. I even asked the friends of my father. Some of them said, ‘Oh, the MBA is not as valuable as it was before. The master’s in finance is more popular now.’ Later, I talked with my best friend. He is the same kind of person as I am. We figured out the basic situation: What kind of person am I? I am not a quant, though I am good at math. I am a person who is enthusiastic about interpersonal skills. I am the kind of person who wants to be a leader. A financial engineering program would focus on quantitative skills. They would educate you from A to Z in finance and prepare you for a career as a quant. It might be too narrow for me. The MBA program would give me training in leadership and broaden my horizon. It would enhance my interpersonal skills. With that degree, I could also enter the financial analysis area. So I chose Johns Hopkins. They tried very hard to show how great it is. I got a lot of email after I got admitted. Not every school did that.

I arrived in Baltimore nearly three weeks before the program started. I was still struggling, though. I didn’t apply for an apartment before I came here so after I arrived I searched for a lot of apartments and was told, ‘sorry, there is no apartment for you now.’ So actually Will Graves, another student in the program and my roommate, was my only choice at the time. He was very nice. He helped me move from the Mount Vernon Hotel to an apartment. I had to buy the furniture from IKEA and I put it together myself. That was my first time. We have IKEA in China, however, we don’t like that because we prefer pre-built furniture, not furniture you have to build yourself. It was kind of crazy for me. The language part is the hardest of all. I will give you an example. I went to Houlihan’s and the waitress asked me if I want a drink. I looked at the menu and saw American beer. I said American beer and then she stared at me and I stared back at her. I finished my order. I didn’t know it is a kind of beverage and that that is Budweiser and Bud Lite and a lot of other kinds. I had never had American beer. Later, we figured that out. She asked to see my ID, and I showed her my J-card (student ID card) without a picture. She still sold me alcohol.

I bought a cell phone by myself. It was a lot of first experiences. The American experience has changed my whole life. At Johns Hopkins, we had a lecture by a Nobel Prize Winner. It was fantastic. We went to the World Bank. I would never have imagined doing that before. And I am going to Peru for the Innovation for Humanity project, and that’s another short story. Before I came here, in May, I knew I would go to Johns Hopkins and then knew that I had a chance to go to Peru. One day I was watching a TV program and there was a documentary on a tribe in Peru that lived on the water. I talked to my mom and said I will go to that place. My mother kind of didn’t believe me. And now I’m going.

The greatest challenge I’ve ever had is not study or work. I was born with a cleft palate and it was pretty hard. When I was an infant, I had two or three surgeries. When I was 10 years old, I had to go to hospital every month for braces on my teeth. The situation in China is very different. There was a long line before you could see the doctor. It was terrible. I did the surgery five years ago, between my freshman and sophomore years, and I might take the final surgery in the future for the facial part. It corrected the shape and the function of my jaw. It was painful, not only for me, but also for my parents. I don’t even want to recall it now. In the first two months after the surgery, I could only drink liquids, such as juice, milk, or soup. I dramatically lost weight because of that. Maybe one month after the surgery, one of my best friends send me the movie “Shawshank Redemption” on a DVD. This movie really gave me strength at that time. It inspired me. After watching the movie, I felt like I was crawling to “freedom” as well. And, to tell you the truth, the line, “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” became my motto as well.

When I grew up, a lot of people teased me, especially when I was an adolescent. At that time, people care about appearance. That was my biggest challenge. However, I kind of conquered that and I’ll tell you how. I read a book about psychology and it said that some people if they have self-esteem problems might act very aggressively. So you would say that person might be over confident. That might come from my situation. The other reason is the experience I had in the middle school. I had a lot of support from the school and the teachers there. I participated in a lot of public events. I became totally confident after that.

The first thing I am grateful for is China’s great economic development in the past two decades. Because of China’s economic reform, the private schools came into existence. While most of my peers were studying in public middle schools, I went to an excellent private middle school, which benefited me a lot. Also, because of the economic development, China established and developed more colleges and universities, and these institutes admit more students. I would say that my entire generation in China has benefitted from this.

The second thing I am grateful for is the love and support of my family. My parents have supported me at each step of my life. They helped me get the best education possible. They tried their best to get me treatment for my cleft palate and lip. They taught me their philosophy about life. No matter what they’ve encountered, they have always shown courage, patience, and hope in dealing with life’s difficulties. My father once told me that a person should not be arrogant or insecure, but should be confident. My mother often says that, “If you think you can, you can.” These have become my mottoes. Without my parent’s love and support, I would not have had as happy a life as I actually have.

The third thing I am grateful for is the great kindness my classmates in the GMBA program gave me. Before I entered the program, I never ever imagined that my classmates would give me so much love. All of them are willing to share their thoughts and to help me in life and study. Bradley Walters and Bret Victor always explain the American culture and life style to me. Will Graves is the best roommate I have ever had. Aaron Landgraf invited me to join his kickball team. And Elize Huleatt introduced me to the Boston Red Sox. All of my classmates have shown me great kindness, which has helped me adapt to my American life.

The three adjectives that best describe the John Hopkins Global MBA program?

First, innovative. The course structure is innovative because it is very comprehensive. One course might be the combination of two of three courses. For example, Financial Resources is a combination of Financial Accounting, Managerial Accounting, and Corporate Finance. People & Markets are the combination of Human Resources and Marketing. The way in which Carey teaches these courses is very innovative. Now, we are using the co-teaching method, which lets two professors share their different expertise in one class. We have two projects—Innovation for Humanity and Discover to Market–that are great innovations at the business school. Both of them will give us unmatchable experiences. And both of them will try to teach us how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

The second adjective that comes to mind is humane. The education here is oriented for the good of humanity, which is also an innovation. And finally, career oriented. Every student talks with a career advisor at least once a month. And, nearly everyday, there is an information session in which a company or an entrepreneur will introduce us to a specific business area and its potential job or internship opportunities. We have a professional development class nearly once a week.

The hardest part of the MBA program is time management. There are too many group meetings. We have a lot of teams for each course, and it takes me a long time to read a case study because English isn’t my native language. Every week, there are at least two or three case studies at John Hopkins so I’m working every weekend.

What I find most surprising about America is how truly prosperous the country is, even during a recession. There are so many choices here, so many places for fast food, so many sports and sports games, so many parks and fields. I’m amazed that a lot of the fields are free to people, such as tennis courts. This is impossible in China. You have so many TV channels and so many TV shows. And, you have so many colleges and so many doctors. These things might be considered normal, here but I think they display the country’s tremendous commercial prosperity.

I see a lot of rules and principles underlying such prosperity. For example, people show respect to other people during daily life. You greet each other very often. I remember that one day, I saw one of my American friends put a jacket before he went out. I was very curious about this because that day was quite hot. I asked him why. He told me that on his t-shirt had guns on it and this might offend people so he must put a jacket on.

What should other Chinese young people know about the United States? They should know the American people. Actually, we are very alike. We share a lot of the same traits. All the differences are the result of our different environments. For example, we speak Chinese because people who speak Chinese raised us, and people in the U.S. can’t pronounce the names of many things on the menu of Chinese restaurants because they haven’t had these things before. So, if we understand this, we will be able to better understand the world. It is not hard for people from China and from the U.S. to be good friends; at least we can watch the NBA together.