In front of 32,000 people, including students, professors, staff and Stephen Spielberg, the first Chinese student to speak at Harvard’s commencement ceremony talked about getting a spider bite as a kid — or rather what happened afterwards.
When I was in middle school, a poisonous spider bit my right hand. I ran to my mom for help—but instead of taking me to a doctor, my mom set my hand on fire.
After wrapping my hand with several layers of cotton, then soaking it in wine, she put a chopstick into my mouth, and ignited the cotton. Heat quickly penetrated the cotton and began to roast my hand. The searing pain made me want to scream, but the chopstick prevented it. All I could do was watch my hand burn – one minute, then two minutes -until mom put out the fire.
That experience is burned into the mind of Harvard graduate He Jiang. Growing up in an impoverished village in Hunan province (“no cars, no telephones, no electricity, not even running water”), he fortunately excelled at school. Eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, He received a full scholarship to Harvard.
15 years after that bite, He is graduating with a degree in biochemistry. He says that he can now see the science behind his mother’s homemade remedy, but also knows less risky and less painful cures. However, he says he is troubled that despite our collective knowledge and wealth, “in far too many places, people are still essentially trying to cure a spider bite with fire.”
Harvard dares us to dream big, to aspire to change the world. Here on this Commencement Day, we are probably thinking of grand destinations and big adventures that await us. As for me, I am also thinking of the farmers in my village. My experience here reminds me how important it is for researchers to communicate our knowledge to those who need it. Because by using the science we already have, we could probably bring my village and thousands like it into the world you and I take for granted every day. And that’s an impact every one of us can make!
But the question is, will we make the effort or not?
Listen to his full speech:
Not feeling inspired enough yet? Also check out this Q&A that He Jiang did with Sixth Tone last week in which he talks about his life growing up, his parents and the differences between the Chinese and American education systems.