In remembrance of an old comrade | 记一位老战友

(A note on the title: I’m not sure whether this is a legitimate usage of the word “remembrance” but at least I know that “in memory of” is for the deceased.)

After all these years I finally heard from Tianyi Bai again, albeit in an unusual way. I noticed that a new follower on my twitter might personally know me, and that one turned out to be his girlfriend.

Are we friends? I doubt so. Despite having known each other from grade 6 and attending the same school for 6 years, we rarely meet and talk with each other. Even when we talked, it was often more academic than personal. And we have lost contact after our freshman year.

I barely have a friend, and he definitely has fewer than me! (He has more girlfriends, though.)

Maybe what really linked us it that we have always been in similar positions in our middle & high school years.

We were learning the pascal programming language when we first met.

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(Good old boys. Photo by Long Xue if I remembered correctly. BTW are you going to John Hopkins?)

And a year later, we were surprised to see each other at the opening ceremony of NEYC’s middle school division. We were both in the math specialty class (which to our sorrow has ceased to exist). There were two such classes and we were not classmates, though.

Our math teacher has never taught such a bunch of naughty math class boys (yes, we only had very few girls) before, and we gave him a lot of headache. We never followed the learning method he taught us, but by the end of grade 8 we emerged to be intellectually superior, constantly scoring top scores in math exams. And in a math class that pretty much means that you are at the top.

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(A score report, from a period when two students, one from each math class, would be paired)

We were competing in maths and programming contests at that time. We both got first prize in provincial level junior division contests in informatics and mathematics by grade 7 and 8, respectively. Since then we’ve made frequent appearances on the front page of our school newspaper, and sometimes on billboards outside our school gate.

In our high school years we took somewhat different paths. I focused on informatics and he focused on mathematics. Finally he got a gold medal in CMO while my best results in NOI were two silver medals.

Actually Yao-class gave him an offer when he got that gold medal, before going to Yao-class became my goal. But he chose to study maths at Peking University.

We did have a chance to cooperate. He intended to compete for Shing-Tung Yau High School Mathematics Award (which has since been renamed) and needed an algorithm for a math problem.

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(Me and him in Sanya for the awarding ceremony)

We were not good at making noises. We were not who caught the most eyes. But we were the ones who beard the banner for NEYC class of 2012. If anyone of the students were going to do academics, that would be us.

He went to Peking University and I went to Thinghua. I heard that he ended up at ENS Paris, but otherwise we’ve lost contact after the first year.

Now I’ve got an e-mail from him.

I couldn’t say that I’m a friend of his, but I’m probably among the only ones who knows a thing or two about him personally. His family is poor. He lost his father at a young age and his mother does not even have a job. They relied on his uncle, I believe. Life is hard, and you can see that through his eyes.

He doesn’t talk much and doesn’t try to make friends. He does play Rubik’s cube (better than me) and I’ve seen him play StarCraft and Kiseki series, but those probably are all the things beyond his professional life. I think his poor life made him close-minded and feel inferior.

I might have always been whining that I did not enjoy my life, but for him, life is simply not enjoyable. Even when it comes to his (arguably) favorite thing, mathematics. He might have got more success and less frustration than me in high school science olympiads, but the road ahead only became more difficult.

He once complained to me about getting beaten constantly by his roommates who barely studied. As far as I know, he is not super clever. Perhaps no more than me. If he did achieve more, I’d say that is because he is more hardworking. But the problem with mathematics is that hard work does not always pay off. And what’s even worse for him, even if his work does pay off, he probably won’t make a lot of money.

Money really is a big thing, particularly if you don’t have it! When you don’t have it, it becomes the major consideration in your every decision. He went to ENS Paris presumably because he would be fully funded there. But his life only became more miserable – he did not know french! He doesn’t even make friends in China, how could he live there? (And here you have me who waste bulks of fund purchasing eroge! Definitely not well spent!)

Seriously, mathematics is only for those who are rich and can care less about his own life than the prosperity of human mind, or those who are just insanely clever. And you will also need a lot of determination when you are not achieving. As one who chose to do engineering, I always looked up to those who had the talent and dared to do theory.

He is talented but he is no Ramanujan, and he’s not met a Hardy. Perhaps mathematics is not the right thing for him to do. Does he still love mathematics after all these frustrations? Did he ever considered doing something else or was he even interested in anything else? I’m not sure.

He wrote in the e-mail that he does not want to work on fundamental theories anymore and intended to do statistics and something else more practically useful. His girlfriend told me that he just wanted to be teaching in a high school. What a waste. He deserved more.

Being one of the few people he can turn to, I fell obliged to give an answer. I don’t even know what to say at this point. Do I tell him to quit? I really hope that he can keep doing mathematics and give us some big results. I’ve kinda betrayed my childhood dream to be a scientist, I hope he won’t do the same. Do I tell him to continue? It may destroy him if he does not achieve. Do I tell him to be more open minded? I does not seem that he has much freedom to choose a life. Do I tell him to try to be positive and enjoy life? He does not have that luxury! Do I tell him to not worry about life and that I am willing to support him? How am I able support him in the first place?

Maybe life could have been better if we spent more time together. I could become more hardworking and motivated and he could become more open and have a better attitude by making a close friend.

I need to figure out the answer. Wish him the best.

One thought on “In remembrance of an old comrade | 记一位老战友”

  1. After reading this, I don’t know what to say and how to comment on it. I know him less than you, but still I feel sad and regret. After so many years, looking through these pictures (well, unfortunately I was not on them), I am shocked by what the years have made to us.

    Maybe this is what we called truth and reality. You may always have dreams, work hard and achieve these abilities, but nobody knows where the fate will lead us.

    Like

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