From where I sit - Student forced to use his noodles

March 12, 2009

On my way to the faculty dining room, I bought a copy of local newspaper Xinmin Evening News from a roadside newsstand as I waited for the traffic lights to change from red to green.

Then I saw one of my former students, Zhao Yu. He caught my eye because he is 6ft 2in and was wearing dazzlingly white sportswear.

He was standing besides his Mitsubishi sports car while two of his assistants were drumming up trade among the passing students: "Takeaway food! Takeaway food for seven yuan (72p) only! Cheap and delicious!"

I crossed the road and Zhao saw me. "Professor Hong, would you like a portion?"

"Thanks," I said, "but maybe next time."

He went back to his business, but promised to visit me after the lunchtime rush.

Sitting in the canteen, I unfolded my copy of the Evening News and came across a smiling picture of Zhao, with a caption calling him "the takeaway prince of Fudan Eastgate".

Given that Shanghai had 149,000 college students hunting for jobs last year and 158,000 this year, it is no wonder that Zhao has become something of a role model, whose success story has been picked up by the local and even the national press.

I knew that he was already a legend among his classmates, and recall chatting with him in breaks between lectures to try to get a better understanding of his generation.

Before he came to study at the School of Journalism at Fudan University, Zhao was a professional decathlete. At the age of 14, he was recruited by the Shanghai municipal track and field team, where one of his team-mates was Liu Xiang, the future superstar hurdler.

Although he was a top-class athlete, Zhao dropped out of the team when he was 17, deciding that he did not have a future as a cog in China's formidable sports machine.

During his four years as an undergraduate at Fudan, he was determined to support himself and turned down his parents' offer of financial assistance.

Instead, he took part-time jobs in McDonald's, cleaned toilets and worked as a swimming coach, an amateur model, a wedding photographer and finally a takeaway dealer.

Not only did Zhao cover his tuition fees and living expenses of about £1,550 a year, he also made a small fortune.

In 2008, he joined the unprecedented 5.59 million college students looking for jobs. Although I received many more requests than usual from students for letters of recommendation to employers and graduate schools, I did not hear from Zhao.

He used the small fortune he earned from his takeaway business to get a loan, and he now owns two successful restaurants. He has brought three of his relatives from his home town to join the booming family business.

Five years ago, China was shocked by the story of a Chinese literature graduate from Peking University who took a job as a butcher to earn a meagre living. The press and the public were appalled to see a graduate from such a prestigious university in such a lowly position.

This year, with 6.1 million college students scrambling for jobs, Zhao's story has been presented as a happy alternative to the butcher's fate.

After Zhao had dealt with the lunchtime rush, he came to see me in my office, as promised.

Proudly, he told me about his latest venture - a plan to open an upmarket lingerie shop.

"It will be a good business, I bet," he said. "And the creative part is that I will be hiring only male sales assistants."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments