Big Fish, Small Pond Or What?

Life is an endless journey often packed with unclear decisions. Will it all work out? Will I be happy? You can never know until you try. The most important part is to do your best and be who you are.

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Very recently, I was standing at a difficult crossroad. To the left, was a path that would bring me to Hong Kong. To the right, the city of Guangzhou was waiting.

What awaited me in Hong Kong was a cosmopolitan lifestyle of fast cars, exorbitant rent, posh friends, a myriad of shopping and entertainment. Plus, of course, an elite school for my children.

Guangzhou, on the other hand, although also a colossal tier-one city with many similar options, is inferior to Hong Kong in terms of what it can offer an expat family.

After many months of deliberation and prairie-dogging it (a term I was given affectionately by my best friend), I chose Guangzhou, to the utter shock of my fancy friends in Hong Kong. They could not fathom why anyone in their right mind would do this.

Why? I have been big fish and small fish before and both scenarios have taught me lessons on how to thrive. Each comes with its own special set of challenges and it all constantly changes, depending on each area and stage of your life.

Accepting the choice
Relative deprivation for my children is why I chose to be in Guangzhou, for now. Elite schools in fancy neighborhoods are not automatically better. After my children did their entrance exams, the Hong Kong school called us to talk. In all seriousness, they told us that although the school had to accept us, based on our nationality, we would have to work very hard to “bridge the very large gap.”

The way I see it, people can try to imitate you, but they cannot duplicate you. And the more they try, the more stupid they look.

It left a rather sour taste in our mouths. With that, we looked into a school in Guangzhou, reputed to be the best international school in the whole of China. The campus, while well-maintained, was dated, relatively small and nowhere near as fancy as what we are used to seeing.

The moment we got there, we were told that there was space for only one child, not three. I would have to spilt them up and send my younger two children to other schools in Guangzhou or keep them in Dongguan.

Not one to take no for an answer, I applied anyway. To our delight, they aced the tests and the school decided they would accommodate all three of them.

Granted, it was two very different education systems. One was old-school: very academic, with only written exams, and the other was all about creative learning with written, verbal and interactive tests.

Take an average student at Harvard who earns mediocre points compared to her straight-A classmates. She would be struggling and made to feel inferior. Little would she know that against the rest of the world, she would likely still be in the 99th percentile. It would be such a waste if she quit because she felt unsuccessful! Better to have gone to a non-elite institution—to have been a big fish in a little pond—than have all dreams and confidence crushed.

As for me, I started as a small fish, but had the honor of becoming a big fish in Dongguan, or so I have been repeatedly told. People are often shocked when I show them accounting numbers from “Feel The Beat.” I did good, but, success did not come easy. I worked very hard and literally put in blood, sweat and tears to achieve all that I did. There was a lot behind the scenes that people did not see.

So what’s the key to succeeding? Differentiation. I am me. The way I see it, people can try to imitate you, but they cannot duplicate you. And the more they try, the more stupid they look. I found a niche market and made it my own. I made myself the big fish and any big fish leaves her mark.

I was not satisfied with just running a studio and teaching ordinary classes. I recruited dozens of instructors and espoused a leadership development for all. I love setting standards, being a mentor and having the responsibilities of failure or success riding on my shoulders. Pressure forces me to get up everyday and be great. Things are expected of me and there was no such thing as a lazy day. That’s right, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Now that I am in Guangzhou, I have to start all over. I am the small fish again, but I enjoy the freedom of not doing as much and keeping a low profile. I get time to do the things I enjoy, like playing the piano and finally just lazing around. I go out without make-up and sometimes even without brushing my hair. I get to focus on my well-being and also that of my family.

Maybe I will strive to be a big fish again, or maybe I won’t. Maybe I will walk towards another path. Life is a journey and we never know what awaits us just around the river bend.

I hope you also get the chance to be both a big fish and small fish… then all over again. It is this cycle of perspectives that increases our development and shapes us into who we are.

One thing’s for sure, Dongguan, you have not seen the last of me.