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Johnson Chou: From Physics to Piano

Brandon Eckles

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you can hear the silent Marsh Chapel fill with the sweet sounds of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1. It is a piece that demands a talented pianist. While he sits behind the piano, Johnson Chou controls the instrument with no sheet music in sight. He is calm and relaxed, but his posture resembles structure from past experiences. As all 10 of his fingers softly connect to the piano, his focus on the keys is calculated.

Every time Chou gets to play his favorite instrument he is happy because he finally has the luxury of indulging in this entertainment. It was nearly 7,800 miles that separated him from this piano playing pleasure–yet it was place that was quite familiar.

In September, Chou set foot on the Springfield College campus to start a new chapter in his life. The Taiwan native had been studying at one China’s best engineering colleges, Beihaung University. At Beihaung, he was a Nuclear Engineering/Physics double major. This combination requires severe focus. Chou had to develop this competitive drive academically to flow with the rest of the population.

“In China, the educational style is one where you don’t have time to think. You are just studying and absorbing information. I took 40 hours a week of class and still studied 5-10 hours a night,” said Chou about his workload.

Taking that much class can burn you out on a subject and make you lose sight of what you really want to do. Chou’s curiosity began to wander as he began to feel the stress of China’s education system. The stress is mental, but it is just as much emotional.

“In China, I lost my curiosity. I don’t have the desire to learn new things because all the knowledge makes me tired and stressed,” Chou explained.

Deb Alm, the director of Springfield College’s International Center, understands the educational system in Asia.

“The educational pipeline in Taiwan and China is so stressful because it is all based on a score. They don’t look at the whole person,” said Alm.

Chou has had the opportunity to learn in three different countries. He grew up in Taiwan and attended school up until he was 15 there. When he was 15, he went to China to finish three years of high school. He came to the United States after studying at Beihaung University for two years. Each one of these places has a different expectation of their students. In Taiwan, he was able to learn a base of knowledge from core subjects like math and English to creative subjects like dancing and painting. In China, in his time in his time at Beihaung he pursued nuclear engineering and physics.

“In China, it is training, not education.” Chou explained. “ Everyone is a computer.”

Alm also confirmed this style.

“In some Asian countries, you go where there are spaces to be filled, not to explore,” she said.

Chou’s experience at Beihaung gave him no time for personal entertainment. He would go to class, then study. His weekends weren’t filled with hanging out with friends or going to the mall, which he loved to do while he grew up in Taiwan. Every moment of his days was consumed by the constant pressure to be an engineering genius and to succeed. No one ever asked what he wanted. Even his most simple pleasures suffered in the process to becoming that “genius” China wants. Everyone has his or her breaking point and for Chou he always had an inner curiosity.

“You feel like everyone must be a genius. No matter how smart you are, you just feel like a normal person.  It is difficult for me to feel comfortable in China,” Chou said.

He finally wanted to go experience the world. Chou has the unique ability to self learn. He has a wise curiosity of the places around him. Not only did the educational stress influence him to pursue a better life in the United States, but also there were environmental forces at play. The air pollution in Beijing is the worst in the world. It is a blinding layer of dirty fog that masks the city. Chou compared it to 19th century London. He said that even looking across the street was difficult because of the overwhelming pollution. Finally, his parents gave him a choice.

“My parents told me that I don’t have to be here. You can go anywhere to continue training yourself they said.”

This was when Chou chose his path to the United States. He has always been interested in this country for several reasons. He is enamored by the idea that you can learn on your own and are free to be interested, not forced to collect information. His family also provided him with the strength to guide this move to America because this was not the first time someone made this journey.

“Since my father studied abroad, my thinking is more like the American style.” Chou explained about his interest in new things and other cultures.

Not only did his father also come to America, but he also was at Springfield College a mere 20 years prior to his son’s arrival. Around the age of 30, Chia Hao Chou, or Joe, came to Springfield to pursue a master’s degree in Health Sciences. In the time he spent here, he adopted that Americanized way of thinking and brought it back to Taiwan to educate his son who was just ready to be born.

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Johnson’s father Joe Chou (second row, second from the left) on his high school basketball team in the 1970s

“The learning surroundings in Springfield College cultivated my thoughts.  The greatest influence on me when I was in Springfield was the study atmosphere in the campus and how well-knit it was, “ Joe reflected.

From an early age, Joe encouraged Johnson to have a full sense of learning. Their family is curious and value learning about different cultures. It was ingrained in Johnson from a young age.

Johnson Chou is not your normal international student. He has a unique advantage from others that attend Springfield College. The fact that he is a legacy of this place puts him in a new category as a student. His father’s influence is what brought him to the United States.

“I think Johnson and his father wanted to have that different experience, a more global experience,” said Brian McGuiness, the Director of recruitment at the International Center.

Johnson’s father is a very smart man. Having a role model like Joe is a support system that carries Johnson on his journey through America.

It was his father that got him to grow as a person all the way back when he was changing from Taiwan to China for school. It was his father’s idea to go to Beijing for high school. He believed that Johnson needed to go off on his own to succeed. He sprouted his son’s independence and that his why Johnson is now succeeding in the States.

“I am an open-minded parent, and my children are able to express themselves. In order to cultivate their independent personality and thinking, I sent my son to America for college studies,” said Joe. “Furthermore, he can broaden his vision and thoughts, and be responsible for himself.”

Johnson is very thankful for his father. Their relationship is built off of respect and honor. “In a very traditional way, he is respectful. Dad could call the shots and I think he would follow because he has that kind of respect for his father,” Alm explained.

“My father has big wisdom. He experienced a lot of things and he will let me know what is the best path,” explained Johnson, “He will let me try, and if I fail, he will step in.”

Joe Chou confirmed his parenting of Johnson.

“The interaction between me and my son [is] more like friends. We will share ideas and he will ask for my opinion while facing difficulties The way I educate my son is to cultivate his independent thinking so that he will be able to solve problems by himself in the future,” Joe said via email.

Currently, Johnson’s father runs the Office of Recruitment in Beijing for Springfield College. That deep connection with Springfield College shows that the Spirit, Mind and Body has no boundaries.

Alm explained that when she went to an Alumni Relations event in Taiwan, she noticed Joe was  excited for his son to come Springfield.

“I think seeing those recent alums and those deep connections made him charged up about the idea of Johnson coming here. He realized how much he loved Springfield College and he wants that for his son,” described Alm.

Joe recalled the alumni event Alm was referring to was inspired. He was so happy to give his son that chance to experience the college.

“I am proud of being one of the alumni and glad to say that my son is in the environment now. I hope he will also be proud of Springfield College in the future,” expressed Joe Chou.

Johnson is a second-generation triangle-head.

“He fits in well here and has the right mentality to succeed at Springfield,” said McGuiness. “He is not being forced to learn, so he is learning that he can control what he wants to focus on.”

These are the aspects of life that Joe Chou, Springfield College, and America offer Johnson and he is fully consumed by the change of pace in this country. “I feel more comfortable here because I do not have to study so much,” Johnson Chou said.

At Springfield, Chou is a Finance major, and he is taking 15 credits of courses. That is a layup compared to the full court press of 40 hours of class a week he experienced in Beijing, but this curriculum has challenges for Chou as well.

“I feel like this is common sense, but these students have a lot of creativity,” said Chou understanding his new business courses.

McGuiness and Alm notice the struggles for Chou though.

“In China, they spend a lot of time in classes, but he has to now create his own structure, which could be a struggle for him,” said McGuiness.

For Chou, connecting with people on Alden Street was his biggest challenge.

“I suffered a difficulty last semester because my classmates in China are all learning the same things. I had no people to talk with here,” Chou explained.

Being at Springfield College has helped Johnson rediscover what he loves.

“I experienced two different types of college. In here, it is a place to discover yourself. You can find your passion,” expressed Chou.

For Chou, that rediscovered passion is the piano. He started playing when he was 5 years old because his father and him believed in full learning.

“I stopped for three years while I studied in China, and now I play every day,” Chou said smiling. “It relieves the stress because it is quiet and nice.”

Playing piano is just a simple pleasure that everyday Americans take for granted, but students like Chou are blessed to have that freedom. He takes his time to enjoy the entertainment, but also has the focus to be great at the piano.

“The people who work in the President’s Office say they can hear the sweet piano through the walls of the chapel,” Alm described. “Johnson is quite good.”

As students like Chou come to America with a desire to discover a new way of learning, they realize there is more to school than just the books and information. There is an inner education that extends further than a major; it is an education of the full person. At Springfield College, we call that the Humanics philosophy and our population lives it every day and we send out those people to succeed in society.

Chou fits right in.

“Johnson is a curious person and wants to know those things about the world. It shows that he is ready to make some mature decisions [about his future],” Alm admitted.

He has studied engineering, physics, lived in Taiwan, crammed in China, but as of now he sits straight on the piano bench in the Marsh Chapel in Springfield, Massachusetts at peace.

His life experience has been just as sweet as the Chopin he plays from memory. His father and the American dream are to thank for that.

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