From Asia with Love

How undergrads from the Pacific Rim are writing about Harvard in their native languages

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Yiting Liu ’03 has become more than just a household name in China.

Written by Liu’s parents, the 2000 Chinese bestseller “Harvard Girl: Yiting Liu” carves out the child rearing techniques Liu’s parents used to shape the success of their daughter. The book describes Liu clutching ice in her hands until they turned purple and swimming long distances—tests orchestrated by her parents to improve her stamina. Liu’s parents also banned their daughter from dating to reduce distractions from her academic work.

In a way, “Harvard Girl” established a new genre of biographical books that uses one family’s personal story to convey its approach to family education in today’s China, Liu says.

Her parents’ book is not about “how to go to Harvard,” she adds, but rather how to “build character, so that in the long term, the person will have the ability to create a happy life for oneself while contributing to society.”

As of spring 2006, the book had sold 1.87 million copies and additional printings have been issued over 70 times. Predictably, “Harvard Girl” has now become Liu’s celebrity moniker.

“At the end of the day, it was my parents' book,” Liu says. “Me going to Harvard might have been the catalyst that made it possible.”

For the past five to six years, Liu’s parents—who are retired journalists—have devoted almost all of their time to responding to readers’ e-mails. Liu says that her parents find it “most gratifying” to hear about the success stories of other students, who have benefited from her parents’ feedback.

Shanghai native Meijie “MJ” Tang ’09 says she was approached by six Chinese publishers about writing a book after gaining early admission to Harvard in the fall of 2004, but rejected them all.

“They’re not interested in me, they’re interested in Harvard. I learned a lesson from [Liu],” Tang says. “It seems highly possible that her climax of life stopped when she published that book. I really don’t want my climax of life to stop when I get into Harvard. It’s too sad.”

What Tang has turned away from, however, other undergraduates have willfully pursued. With books about young Harvard-bound scholars flying off the shelves in China, South Korea, and Japan, a new brand of Ivy envy has surfaced in the orient—taking on unique forms within the three different nations.

‘NOT JUST A SCHOOL’

Books like “Harvard Girl” have caused more than just a splash in the Far East—their effects have rippled across the globe and directly influenced the climate of admissions to the College.

“All of the books written about Harvard contribute to our success in recruiting,” says Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

Fitzsimmons cites a “dramatic” increase in the number of applicants from East Asian countries, and China in particular, in the past five to ten years. He says a number of factors have contributed to higher interest in Harvard from abroad, but that “the book, ‘Harvard Girl,’ certainly did not hurt us.”

Beijing-born Yiming He ’10 says she had never heard of Harvard before Liu’s book became immensely popular in China. Though her parents did not agree with the book’s unconventional child-rearing tactics, she says the book showed her “a new way, a new path.” Otherwise, she says, she would have never even considered applying to Harvard.

Yichen Shen ’10 also says he knew very little about higher education opportunities in America and hardly anything about Harvard—until his parents picked up a copy of “Harvard Girl.”

According to Shen, China has a top-notch primary and secondary educational system, but doesn’t follow through as well in higher education.

“Harvard is not just a school,” Shen says. “It’s representative of the entire U.S. education system.”

“Harvard Girl” was published while Harvard was in the middle of a new recruitment push in China, according to Fitzsimmons. There are more people in the Far East now, who are interested in the possibility of studying aboard, he says.

And Harvard’s not the only one. Other American institutions as well as universities from Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have been recruiting significantly in Asian countries, all adding to the Admissions Office’s need to stay competitive in the region.

Shen says that during his last years of high school in Shanghai, several U.S. institutions including Harvard, Yale, University of Virginia, and Middlebury College came to recruit at his high school.

“Before [Yiting Liu], there were seldom Chinese students in Harvard,” says Haisha Chen, a high school junior at Worcester Academy, a boarding school in central Massachusetts. “After her, it shows it’s not impossible. That’s why more and more Chinese students apply.”

Orginally from Guangzhou, China, Chen arrived in Massachusetts last fall, claiming that his reason for studying abroad is to gain a coveted spot in Harvard’s class of 2012.

Chen first heard about Liu when he was in elementary school from his mother, who told him at a tender age that Harvard was one of the best universities in the world. From then on, Chen has never wavered in his determination to study at the College.

“Everything I do, I think of Harvard,” he says. In middle school, Chen’s mother used Liu as a success story to build his confidence,

Harvard Girl has spawned spin-offs in China like “Yale Girl,” but they have not fared as well commercially, according to Tang. Nonetheless, she thinks they feed into the Harvard frenzy—a trend she finds dangerous.

“If a nation of a billion people is worshipping a college, it’s not healthy,” she says. “Especially when they cannot spell the name of the college.”

Editor of the Asian Review of Books Peter A.I. Gordon ’80, who resides in Hong Kong, believes that many people’s views of Harvard are “conditioned” by the fact that Harvard’s is the most recognizable educational brand, he writes in an e-mail.

“So, on the one hand, the views are very positive,” writes Gordon, “but on the other hand, I don’t think the views are very well-informed.”

The relentless moniker of “Harvard Girl” has seemingly branded Liu for life, but also haunts the efforts of other student authors who would rather avoid the title.

Kate Wang ’07, published a book called “Confessions of an American Nerd” with her father in 2003. It compared Chinese and American education systems, and Wang says she was “offended” when audience members asked her about Liu and made comparisons to “Harvard Girl.”

“In China, it’s more adulation. The label of Harvard really gets blanketed over a lot of other things. You’re ‘that Harvard girl that wrote that book,’” Wang says. “I really think it’s harder for them to appreciate what I really wanted to get across.”

She remembers that many parents anticipated her book to document step-by-step directions for how to raise Harvard-bound progeny, but “they were in for a surprise.”

“Ours isn’t ‘here’s how you get into Harvard’ at all,” Wang says of her book. “Each child is very different, there isn’t one way—it’s like trying the same dress on every girl.”

A ‘RIDICULOUS CULTURE’

Through publishing books about their Harvard-related experiences, NaNa Keum ’08 and Won Hee Park ’08 have achieved a higher degree of celebrity in their home country, South Korea, than most of the others.

Keum, whose previous claim to fame was being crowned the 2003 Miss Korea, has already published two books, including the autobiographical “Everyone Can Do It” and study-strategy guide “NaNa Keum’s Study Diary.”

According to Keum, who describes herself as someone “without a specially born talent but with unique passion for my dreams,” her book conveys the idea that effort is key to success through her life story.

“Some people criticized that I am too young to write a success story and those comments in turn have motivated me to make further efforts in order to develop myself,” Keum writes in an e-mail.

Won Hee Park’s book, “Nine Points for Studying, Ten Points for Determination,” sold 50,000 copies in the first ten days it hit the shelves. The author, whose mother has also written four books on admissions to Ivy League schools, has toured Korea to speak about landing a coveted spot in the College. Park declined to comment for the story.

Though Wang was directly involved in the production of her book, at least a few student-authored books in South Korea have been ghostwritten, according to Juhyun Park ’09.

Park, the officially-credited author of “The Study Revolution That Moved Harvard,” says it’s a common practice for autobiographies of Koreans, even of high-profile figures, to be written by professional writers—and she’s no exception.

She says she and her mother met with a writer for about ten interviews, read a draft copy, and then reworked with him parts they felt needed to be amended. The book, published in spring 2005, centers on her unique studying methods.

Despite some minor disagreements with the ghostwriter over content, Park says she’s satisfied with the book. And if she had the time, Park says, she would’ve written it herself: “I think I would’ve made it more interesting—right now it seems to me pretty bland.”

Seoul resident Ohkyung Kwon ’07 says that Keum and Won Hee Park’s books have also been taken with a grain of salt by at least some of the Korean reading public.

“There are students or parents who approach all these books with a certain level of cynicism,” Kwon says. “There’s a lot of adversity in part because of jealousy and in part because there is some truth,” Kwon says. But this fact hasn’t deterred South Korean publishers and producers.

Twin brothers Jae Yeon “Ryan” An ’10 and Jaewoo “Chris” An ’10, who attended a military academy in the U.S., penned “Twin Brothers Shoot for Harvard” before arriving this fall.

Production companies have also churned out documentaries and soap operas set at Harvard—even resorting to illegal filming to bypass the campus’ filming ban But this “ridiculous culture” of reverence for ‘the number one school’ has deep and wide roots, Kwon says.

He recalls catching a cab in Seoul and engaging the driver in conversation. When the subject of college came up, Kwon said he went to Harvard. The driver didn’t charge him for the ride.

OUTSIDE THE ISLAND

In Japan, the prospect of a Harvard undergraduate diploma often doesn’t command the same reverence as it does in China or South Korea, say students from the island nation.

The traditional route of tertiary achievement sees a Japanese high school student scoring high on the college entrance examination and entering the prestigious University of Tokyo. An education abroad is usually only considered at the graduate level, say Yoshitaka Yamamoto ’08 and Takuya Kitagawa ’08.

Two or three decades ago, top employers only recognized Japanese diplomas. “Especially at one of the most established corporations or government offices, people usually ran to Japanese universities—those universities prepared you better and provided better connections with other people,” Yamamoto says.

The job market and the arrival of foreign companies have made employee qualifications more flexible, and employers are recognizing that attendees of foreign colleges are equally qualified as domestic graduates.

But University of Tokyo still commands more prestige than Harvard, Yamamoto says.

Kitagawa contributed to a book with a very stark title: “Let’s Go to Harvard Rather Than University of Tokyo.”

The book, which includes excerpts from Kitagawa’s blog, examines the psychology of Japanese citizens who have studied abroad in order to encourage local students to realize that an overseas undergraduate education is a viable option.

“I’m not saying Harvard University is much better than University of Tokyo, but just suggesting the idea of considering schools outside of Japan,” he says.

Yamamoto says that Harvard is far away for Japanese students, both physically and mentally. Most Harvard alumni from Japan are famous public figures, the most notable of whom is Crown Princess of Japan Masako Owada ’85.

“Because the Crown Princess went to Harvard, people think Harvard is out of their reach, something they’re not a part of,” Yamamoto says. “They can’t imagine their children or friends going to Harvard, even trying to apply.”

However, Kitagawa feels that when he speaks to students at his alma mater, Nada High School, he is putting Harvard within a more attainable reach.

“The influence was huge on the students in my high school,” he says. “They feel, ‘If this guy can do that, maybe I can do that too.’” This year, one of Nada’s top seniors is applying to Harvard.

The onslaught of commercial attention and the bequeathing of pseudo-celebrity status are all too familiar to those who have penned Harvard-centric books in East Asian countries. Though these books tout success stories, for some, Harvard may remain an elusive—but all-consuming—goal.

“To be honest, I don’t even know if I can’t get into Harvard, what I’m going to do. Sometimes I think about it, sometimes I don’t dare to think about it,” high-school junior Haisha Chen says. “Maybe I will transfer to Harvard after a year.”

­—Staff writer Ying Wang can be reached at yingwang@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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