Welcome to Chapter 2 of The Eye of the Storm, which is Liu Haoran’s book that was published in November 2017 in commemoration of his 20th birthday! Chapter 2 focuses on the turning point of Liu Hao Ran’s life – when he left his hometown of Pingdingshan, Henan Province to Beijing at the age of 12 to attend the Beijing Dance Academy.
To give you some background to understand why Liu Haoran’s family decided to let him go to boarding school at such a young age, here’s some information on the school itself.
The Beijing Dance Academy is a prestigious performing arts school that has both a university campus and a secondary school (middle/high school) branch. You might recognize the name of the school, as their prominent alumni includes Zhang Ziyi (graduate of the secondary school and then attended the Central Academy of Drama), Victoria Song (graduate of both the secondary school and earned her bachelor’s degree there), Zhang Huiwen (our Lin Xi in Nirvana in Fire 2, who attended the school for college, Huang Xuan (bachelor’s degree), and many more.
The point being that just getting accepted into the school is regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like Haoran, who is from a working class family in a relatively small city (especially since a Beijing hukou – residency status – came with the admission). But…it had a cost.
This chapter is particularly interesting because you can see the hand that fate (and his own choices) had in bringing him to the path he is on today.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter Two – Dandelion
During my studies, I learned about my position in life, about myself. The wind that blew past me in this part of life took me far away from my hometown. I’m like a dandelion seed that floated to an unfamiliar land.
Wanted To Take A Shortcut, But Instead Took A Different Road
My dad was a military man. From the time that I was little, he would tell me, “When you get older, I’ll take you to visit Tiananmen (in Beijing).”
Ever since, Beijing was a place that I knew I had to visit one day, but I never thought that I would end up in this city in the way that I did. It was foreign to me at first, and then became more and more familiar, and now it’s a part of me that you can’t cut away.
As a child, I slouched a bit when I walked. Every time my mom saw me slouching, she’d clap my back. Later, to help me with my posture, she enrolled me into ballroom dancing class. When I was in the sixth grade, teachers from the Beijing Dance Academy came to our class to recruit. At the time, my dance teacher was the one to register me (for an audition), and I easily passed the preliminary round.
When I was notified that I got a callback audition, it was already winter break. At the time, our thought was, “We can go to Beijing for a trip!”. So we just saw it as a chance to go on vacation and tour Beijing. It had never occurred to us that I’d pass the next round.
At the time, my entire family had ulterior motives when it came to me getting admitted into the Beijing Dance Academy. Before the test, we had only heard the recruiter say, “If you are admitted, your hukou will be transferred to the school’s, so when it’s time for the college entrance exams (gao kao), you’ll be able to take it as a student with Beijing residency status.”
Our thought process was simple: if admitted, I could take the major-specific performing arts classes along with the regular courses, and then get a tutor to make up for anything that I wasn’t learning. When it came time for the gao kao, I would be able to enroll as a Bejing student, which meant the path would be easier. Even though it (Beijing Dance Academy) is a performing arts school and the focus is on Social Sciences classes, you should still be able to take Natural Sciences courses.
“Study hard at the performing arts school, and six years later take the gao kao in Beijing and you’ll be set!”
At the time, I had an uncle who was a professor at a Beijing university*, who taught financial management and also led PhD students. So our family was blindly optimistic and thought that as long as I studied hard, I could try and get into my uncle’s school eventually, and get a doctorate degree.
*T/N: Based on what he’s implied elsewhere, Haoran’s uncle was teaching at Peking University then, which is one of the top 2 schools in China.
That’s how my fate with Beijing began. Originally, I thought I had discovered a secret shortcut in this world, and avoid having to take the road that everyone else was on. But from the first day that I entered the school (Beijing Dance Academy), I found that the way things developed was significantly different from what I had thought.
Wanted to Quit On the First Day of School
The Beijing Dance Academy’s secondary school branch starts its semester pretty late. So, before I moved, I actually went attended sixth grade for a bit in my hometown. At that time, mid-term exams were taking place. The entire grade had 12 classes, and each class had about sixty, seventy people. I ranked #28 in the grade.
Since the middle school in my hometown was our top ranked school locally, my grades could be considered to be pretty decent. So when I was getting ready to move to Beijing, I asked to remain registered at my (hometown) school to to keep my place there, at least for a bit.
The day that I arrived at the Beijing Dance Academy, after filling out several applications and forms for registration, my parents started chatting with the teacher about changing my major when it came time for the gaokao. The teacher directly said, “No, that’s not possible. Our school is a performing arts school, so you will only be able to declare in performing arts-related majors for college.”
How do I explain this? Even if I wanted to apply for Peking University, I would only be able to apply for their performing arts majors. Which would mean the dreams I had about studying finance, about being a lawyer, an engineer – they would no longer have anything to do with me.
When we heard this, my family was distraught. I remember that we all had a lost expression as we came out of the teacher’s office, and we stood there for quite a while, unable to say anything. Then my dad said, “Let’s forget about it then. Let’s go back.” So we headed back to the teacher’s office to apply for withdrawal from the school.
When the teacher saw us return, he was surprised, and was even more so when he heard our reason. He strongly suggested we reconsider, citing the fact that the Beijing Dance Academy is one of the best performing arts schools in the country, and if I really quit, I would be the first in the entire history of the school to voluntarily withdraw. Because normally, performing arts students who get into this school would never want to leave. I would be the first to not care, and on the very first day of school at that.
The teacher told us to mull it over for a bit before we made a decision.
Later, my uncle came to the school to pick us up and took us to the train station so we could head home. On the way, he and my parents were engaged in a deep conversation about the problem. He felt that this path (performing arts) wasn’t a bad choice at all, and pointed out that every year there were many who applied for the Beijing Dance Academy, but they only took about twenty to thirty students annually.
The fact that I was accepted meant that the teachers saw talent and potential in me. My uncle also said something that I didn’t understand then, but after my parents heard it, they made a decision.
He said something like this: “I’ve seen too many students who’ve tried to walk the academic path. Bury your head studying for the gaokao, get into college, obtain your master’s, your doctorate. After graduation, they look for a job or remain at school as a teacher. But this road isn’t an easy one. It isn’t as bright as those on the outside think.
“Sometimes when I’m at school, I’ll think, is there only one way for us to live? We didn’t have a choice before, partly due to circumstance, partly due to our natural selves. But now a road has appeared that’s completely different from what we had planned for him, and you know what? It might not be worse than the one we had in mind. Why not give it a shot?”
I don’t really remember how things progressed after that, but this is what happened: the car had almost arrived at the train station, but there was a sudden U-turn, and I was taken back to the school.
My dad said, “Study here for a semester. We will make sure you still have a spot at the school back home. After a semester, if you really don’t like it, you can transfer back.”
My family thought very simply then – they believed I’d always have a backup plan. When I first started school (back in elementary school), I was younger than most of my classmates. So even if I spent a year or a semester in Beijing and then transferred back home to re-do sixth grade, I wouldn’t be behind age-wise.
I had a choice then to try out a road that was less taken. If this ended up being a wrong choice, then I could start over. But…my parents forgot to factor in one thing: my personality.
I am one of those extremely stubborn people who is like an arrow that will never turn back. When I play games, I am determined to play until I have passed all the levels. When I start on a path, I will keep walking until the end.
When it was decided that I stay in Beijing for school, it changed the winds of fate. I landed on a road that I had never thought I would be taking, and when I first got to that unfamiliar place, I was very uneasy. I was like a seed who suddenly found myself in foreign soil, and would grow in a way that was against what I wanted.
But slowly, as the strong winds blew around me, I developed roots in this soil. I had wanted to work in finance, or become an engineer, to learn science or math. But fate often has other plans for you, and will have you walk a very different road.
Unable to Adjust
After remaining in Beijing, I slowly had to learn to live on my own. Back home, even though my family was quite strict, I still often had time to play with friends and do my own activities, like playing basketball, going to the bookstore. But at the Beijing Dance Academy, we were required to live in dorms provided by the school. So when I first started there, my biggest dilemma was: Aside from going to class, what do I do with the extra time?
At the time, I was like an introverted ugly little duckling who suddenly landed in a pond of swans. Maybe I’m not ugly, but my classmates at the Beijing Dance Academy were groomed to be performing arts students since they were little. It’s something that wouldn’t be obvious at my old school, but when you gather these students together at a specialized school, it’ll become very clear.
Each of them had about eighteen different talents, and walked with presence. They could casually lift their leg all the way up to their head. But most importantly, they were all very sure of their direction – that they wanted to major in the performing arts. On the other hand, I was someone who was blown by a huge gust of wind into this crowd of aliens, so I couldn’t find a way to fit in.
I was not good in the performance* classes at first. I was young, and not very tall. Even if I wanted to be just like the other creatures there and give off that same aura, it seemed hopeless. Kids are very sensitive, and I keenly felt how different I was from the others.
On the weekends, my classmates might go out to the internet cafes to play games, or go grab a meal and catch a movie, but I just wanted to be by myself. Even if it was just reading a book, or staring into space. Sometimes I went to my uncle’s to mooch off a meal. They (my classmates) thought I was a loner, and I was in an awkward position. I wanted to fit in, but just couldn’t find a way to do so.
*T/N: Yes, this was middle school, but all Beijing Dance Academy students are required to declare a major as a special focus. Haoran chose general performance (which includes dancing, singing, improvisation, etc.)
The Beijing Dance Academy’s secondary school isn’t very large. In the beginning, we were by Xiang Mountain, which isn’t really like the rest of Beijing. There aren’t a lot of high rises there, and there will be many vendor stands on side of the road. It actually was quite similar to a part of my hometown that I wasn’t very familiar with.
After I lived at school for a while, my mom made arrangements back home and came to Beijing. She wasn’t comfortable leaving me by myself, and was worried about me. She thought I was too young, and that I wouldn’t be used to living on my own. Often, she would be unable to sleep at night as she was fretting over how I was doing.
To save money, my mom rented a room in the village near Xiang Mountain. It belonged to one of the villagers, and was quite small. You could only fit a bed, and there was only one full wall. There were no windows, so there was very little. Once you closed the door, you would be in complete darkness. I remember very well that even a room like that cost 1,200 yuan monthly.
My mom quickly settled in “the Beijing home”. She familiarized herself with the local market, and got pots and condiments. Every month, she would come for one or two weeks. When she was there, I’d go to class during the day, and then return to her side afterwards. She wanted to be with me, to make sure that when I was done with class, I could eat a home-cooked meal. To ensure that I could leave my dirty clothes with her, so that I would only have clean clothes to wear.
She split her time between Henan and Beijing, and traveled back and forth, to be by my side while I was studying.
Later, when I was entering my freshman year of high school (age 15), the school moved to a different location. Rent was even more expensive there, so the room that my mom could afford was even smaller. I remember that room – it had two levels. The dining area, kitchen, and small living area was on the lower level, and the bed was on the upper. When it was bedtime, you had to climb up the ladder to get to the bed. That’s how we lived for a few years.
In the second year of middle school (age 13), I got my first brand name sneakers. My family is just a regular working class one, and a single-income at that. They also had to pay the money for my school/dorm fees in Beijing, and give me a monthly allowance to pay for living expenses. It was a huge chunk of money, so I never asked my family for anything expensive. But when I got my new shoes, I was so happy I couldn’t fall asleep.
I never brought up the topic about transferring back home, and my parents went with it, saying, “Then just continue studying there.”
Slowly, I got used to living in Beijing, and after getting to know my classmates, I adjusted.
The Zoo in the Dorms
There was a market that sold all sorts of plants, animals, fish, and bugs near the Beijing Dance Academy. After class, we often went to visit that market. Guys are usually more interested in animals than plants, and I’m no exception. I love cats and dogs, and I had even secretly contemplated raising a snake at one point.
Because we lived in the dorms, we thought we had a place (to raise animals), so my classmates raised all sorts of pets: chinchillas, spiders, etc. were all quite normal. The scariest thing was that someone even started to raise a little pig. In just two months, the little pig became a giant pig, as it had a huge appetite and grew very fast. I remember how my classmate looked despondently at the pig and said, “I can’t afford to feed you anymore!” Ultimately, he had no choice but to return the pig to the market.
When I was a child, I had a very open personality and was quite exuberant. I was someone who only remembered happy things, and rarely held on to anything sad. My mom used to say that since I was a baby, I’d be laughing as I was sleeping. I don’t know what I’d be dreaming of, but I’d often wake up laughing.
Even though I’ve been a fast thinker since I was a kid, I’d often get into trouble a lot as well. I was smart, but also mischievous, and not very self-disciplined. For example, during elementary school, I’d learn everything very fast, and my grades were pretty good, but I was lazy.
If it was just me not listening during class, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’d often distract the other students as well when the teacher was speaking. But whenever we had tests, my grades were always 90 or above. I should have been fully capable of getting a full score, but I was always just a little careless. It’s a bit of a shame.
The classmates I had then were all very fond of playing, so I would always go along with them. During school, we’d always be together, but every time we had a test, my grades were pretty passable, hahaha. I could just study quickly before a test and get it. From elementary school, middle school, through high school, that’s how I dealt with academics – I’d catch on very fast.
In one semester, a teacher usually will cover about three or four months worth of material. But during the summer when I’m home, though I’ll sometimes have a tutor, I usually just need to spend just about one or two weeks (to learn the material). The teacher can touch on certain points and I’ll get it, especially when it comes to math.
Part of that is because before each semester, I’d look over the upcoming materials – I never waited until after school started to prepare. From very early on, I learned to do things before everyone else, to prepare one step ahead. This way, you’ll learn things a little faster. It’s more efficient.
In the beginning, it was my mom who told me to use this method. But later on, it became a habit. Plus, it doesn’t take a lot of time. If you can use a week or two during the summer to look over the material for the upcoming semester, when school starts and you get to class, you won’t have any problem following the lectures, and the tests will be easier to you as well.
When I was at school in Beijing, I often heard classmates say, “There are certain types of people who are easy to hate on. 1) People who don’t gain weight no matter how much they eat, 2) People who can play games for as long as they want without damaging their eyes, and 3) People who look like they don’t put a lot of effort into studying but somehow always end up with good grades.”
Hahaha, am I being arrogant if I say I’m the type who didn’t really pay much attention in class but still had pretty good grades? Especially in math. I basically never had any issues immediately understanding the concepts in our books. I remember thinking then, is this a superpower given to me by the powers above?
So for me, studying is actually a pretty easy thing. And this habit that I developed, where I prepped for school by looking at the material in advance, will also be helpful in both my life and career in the future. As long as I’m interested, or I want to do something well, I’ll make sure I prepare. Of course, there are some things where I don’t as my laziness wins out.
If You Can’t Follow the Trends, Then Read
Because my family was pretty strict, I didn’t come into contact with technology until much later than everyone else. When I was a child, I didn’t even really watch TV very much. If I was bored, I could only read books, manga, fairy tales, classics, etc. Later, I read some foreign books as well, like The Red and the Black, The Kite Runner, and The Ferryman. Most of these were my sister’s books, so I pretty much just followed her preference of books.
Later when I started studying in boarding school, many of my classmates already began going to internet cafes to play games. They’d all go together and play games, and when they’d return to the dorms, they were incredibly hyper. I was totally behind. We didn’t have a computer at home. My sister had a laptop, but when she went to school she took it with her. I had never been to an internet cafe before then.
So when I was in my second year of middle school (age 13), classmates took me to an internet cafe for the first time. When I sat in front of the computer, I had no idea what to do, and looked around me constantly. Everyone was so engrossed in their games.
I’d scoot over and ask them what they were playing, what they were doing, because I didn’t understand any of it. My classmates already had QQ* then, and I didn’t even know how to type on a computer. And of course, once we entered the internet cafe, everyone was too busy with their own games and didn’t have the time to teach me how to use the computer. So I didn’t go very often.
*T/N: Popular instant messaging service in China
The third year of middle school (age 14) was when I first started using QQ. I wasn’t really sure how to use it. My phone’s primary purpose then was for reading novels. I’d often go on the popular sites then to read Tang Jia San Shao, Wo Ai Chi Xi Hong Shi, Chen Dong, Tian Ba Tu Dou* …I pretty much read all the popular novels.
*T/N: These are all pen names of popular web novelists. Tian Ba Tu Dou is the author of Martial Universe and Fights Break Spheres. Haoran doesn’t mention it here (probably because his casting wasn’t announced yet when his book was published), but this was also when he read Jiang Nan’s Novoland: Eagle Flag.
I’m not very fond of following chapters as they are released. When I read a book, I like to know that I can finish it in one go. Sometimes I’d also flip through older books that were well written and complete, like Wu Kong.
Now when I fly, I usually take a nap on the plane, especially if it’s an early or late flight. But if the flight is around noon or in the afternoon, I’ll find other things to do. In the beginning, when I met fans at the airport, they would give me some handmade presents, or give me candy they had bought.
I used to accept these, up until one time before a flight – I think it was after With You had aired – my team told me that they saw someone had posted on Weibo that a fan had bought me a very expensive present and was waiting at the airport to give it to me. That’s when I suddenly realized, I can no longer accept presents. If I keep accepting them, they’ll just get more and more expensive. That’s not okay.
So I posted on Weibo that I would no longer be accepting presents at the airport, but that I’d still take letters and books. That’s why at the airport now, my fans will give me a couple of books as presents, as they know I’ll only accept those. After I get on the plane, I use the time to look through the books. They usually have pretty good taste! When I don’t have a book on hand, sometimes I’ll also go to the airport bookstore to buy one for the road.
Maybe it’s because of my lifestyle. I spend most of time on set and on planes. I don’t have a lot of time to really dedicate myself to a task. So whether it’s watching a drama or reading a book, I’d be very invested at first, but I’d forget about it as work gets busier. So at this time, short novels or dramas are more suitable for me, like the BBC show Sherlock.
When I was filming Midnight Diner, I mentioned a book called The Genius on the Left, The Lunatic On the Right – books like that. I also read a short science fiction novel a while ago that contained several short stories. You may know the author – he’s the one who wrote The Three-Body Problem.
What Did You Experience That Made You Turn Out This Way
As a child, I liked to read biographies and novels. I read the biographies that we had at home multiple times. When we received our reading material each semester, I’d read all the stories first. But I’d skip over the essays describing certain landscapes or geography – I’d wait for the teacher to go over those.
I really like to read coming-of-age stories. Maybe in the beginning, I was drawn more to the story, but later I’d discover that it was because I could see witness the full growth arc as a character becomes an adult. Through his or her experiences, you’ll discover that we all have different personalities because we are shaped and molded by our experiences, by the obstacles we encounter, and the support that we get. Everything happens for a reason.
The development of our personalities happens due to specific reasons, and I find the part that fate plays in all of it particularly fascinating. When I started acting, I discovered that my habit of reading was quite helpful. The director would also often ask us, “You need to think about the reasoning and thinking behind each character’s behavior. What has happened in your life that caused you to become the person you are today?”
The Other Possibility With Fate
Back home, we have a family friend who teaches high school seniors. Whenever I was home for break during the years I was enrolled at the Beijing Dance Academy, I’d take my school books and go look for her so that she could help tutor me. That would also typically be when high school seniors were prepping for the gaokao, so when I visited her, I’d go straight to her office. She’d spend some time tutoring me, and then would head off to class. Sometimes I’d just sit in her office and go through practice tests.
After I finished a practice test, I’d take a break and walk in the hallways of the school. Sometimes, curiosity would get ahold of me, and I’d peek into the classrooms through the windows.
The heavy, suffocating feeling was very different from performing arts schools’. The dark classroom was crammed full of students, and each table was piled with books. Everyone had their heads bowed. It’s like they were in a different world – the sounds and light from the outside world couldn’t penetrate through. As I walked through the hallways and looked through the windows, even the students who were sitting right by the window didn’t notice me. Aside from the practice tests in their hand, it’s like they didn’t care about anything else.
I would think, if I didn’t go to the Beijing Dance Academy, I would be like these hard working students. The most important things in my life would be tests, studying, practice tests, weekly tests, rankings, monthly tests, rankings…midterms, rankings, finals, rankings*. After class each day, I’d be in all sorts of tutoring courses and self study classes.
*T/N: In China, test scores and subsequent class rankings are posted for all to see. That’s why Haoran keeps emphasizing these two things.
Through the window, it’s like I was able to see myself buried behind all those books, like I could see myself working on homework until deep in the night. Pushing my bicycle as I alternated between home, supplementary courses, and school. I could imagine the fear that I’d have in my heart after each test, as I waited for the ranking to be revealed, how I’d feel the hit to my self-esteem when I didn’t perform well in my best subject of math.
And I would also think fearfully, “Maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am. If I went to high school and discovered that I don’t suit math & sciences, that no matter how hard I worked, I wouldn’t be able to reach my expectations…what do I do then?”
I accidentally walked a different path than most my age. When I first started out on this road, I had moments where I was terrified, where I was bitter and resentful. Times where I was full of self-doubt. But at that moment, as I witnessed and felt the immense pressure of the gaokao*, I suddenly felt the love of the powers that be.
It’s like what my uncle had once said. Just the opportunity to be able to make your own choices is a blessing in itself.
*T/N: Personal anecdote – I felt this part deeply and keenly. My parents and I immigrated from China right before I hit elementary school, so I, too, avoided having to deal with the terrifying pressure of the gaokao, but I’ve also seen what it’s like firsthand. We’re all from different countries, and college entrance exams work differently in each, but I’m not joking when I say the results of your gaokao can pretty much decide your destiny in China, especially for those who are from lower/middle class families. It’s pretty much your one chance to take the future by its horns (or…you know, become an entrepreneur or a celebrity).