This is the second part of a four-part feature. For part 1, click here.
For siblings Livi and Ken Zheng, overachievement runs in the family. At the tender age of 16, Livi moved from Jakarta to Beijing on her own to attend the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). Ken followed a year later at age 10. Both accomplished martial artists, they followed a strict training regimen throughout their time at school. After graduating from WAB, Livi received her Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the the University of Washington and was inducted into the International Economics Honor Society. At 16, Ken became the youngest Indonesian national kickboxing champion. Last year, Livi and Ken (now 26 and 20 respectively) released their first film, Brush with Danger, with Livi directing and both siblings starring. They’re currently working on a second film as well as pursuing degrees in film – Livi at the University of Southern California and Ken at the University of Austin-Texas.
Livi, how did you broach the subject of moving to Beijing with your parents?
I went to Beijing one summer when I was still in elementary school and fell in love with the city. My parents were always fond of the idea of us studying in Beijing and US; my dad always said that China was the dragon of the East and the US was the dragon of the West. He thought that living in both countries would help us have a more international perspective. I visited a lot of schools in Beijing and talked to people at each one. It wasn’t until I sat in a class at WAB that I realized that’s where I wanted to be. When I visited, I could feel warmth and a family feeling. My parents accepted my choice because I’d done my research.
Ken, what made you want to move to Beijing with Livi?
My sister always made the suggestion, but she wanted me to make the decision. One of the things that attracted me [to WAB]was the colorful walls. I thought that the way a school presents itself reflects how the people think there; if a school dares to be different, that’s a school worth going to. My dad knew the importance of learning Mandarin; he also realized Beijing would give me a lot of opportunities for training [in martial arts]. However, I think he ultimately [let me move there]because of the trust he had in my sister in being able to take care of me.
What went through your head before moving to China?
Livi: I was one of the first students in my school in Indonesia to go abroad. A bunch of friends took me to the airport. I was happy and excited; I thought to myself, “This is a dream come true.” Reality started to hit when my aircraft called for boarding, and I realized I wouldn’t see my parents or friends more than once or twice a year – if not less.
Ken: I didn’t worry too much about leaving Indonesia. I was very excited at the prospect of going to China for many reasons; one of them was going back to my roots. I also really missed my sister. In spite of all this, to this day I still remember the moment when my parents hugged me at the airport before I left.
What was the initial period of adjustment like?
Livi: There were a lot of things I had to learn that seemed simple but weren’t. For example, to pay the electricity bill for my apartment you had to go to the bank, deposit your money, go to a special machine in the bank, then return to the [electricity meter]in my apartment. In Indonesia you can pay all your bills through an ATM, so my mom would go once a month at pay everything at once. I had to learn the hard way; once, they turned off my electricity because I forgot to pay!
Ken: At first it was hard. My Mandarin was not that good and it was really hard to get around the city. Luckily, my sister was in Beijing a year before me and could really show me the ropes. She showed me nice places to visit, how to get around the city, and of course where to find one of my favorite dishes: yangrou chuanr [lamb skewers].
In the absence of your parents, who became your support network?
Livi: My brother and I always got along; we have very similar hobbies and we understand each other’s way of thinking. When I found WAB, I also found a family. The teachers were very supportive and warm; they would visit me when I got sick. When I had to go to the emergency room, they took me to the hospital and waited for me there.
Ken: My main support was my sister. I also trained with various coaches who offered me their own guidance and advice. However, the luckiest for me was attending WAB and getting to know some really good friends, whom I now consider my extended family.
How did you combat homesickness?
Livi: I didn’t get homesick that much. I talk to my parents every day, even now. Even though we live far apart, we are very, very close.
Ken: I was definitely homesick the first couple of months, but Beijing was never the problem; I immediately saw it as my second home when I arrived. The thing that made me really sad was not being able to spend time with my mom or dad. I realized I was only a kid going to elementary school, so I called them for guidance in my everyday life.
I read that you both followed a strict regimen that included waking up every day at 5am, training for a couple of hours before going to school at 8am, training another three to four hours after school ended at 3pm, and doing homework from 7-10pm after dinner. Where did you learn such unusual self-discipline?
Livi: We’ve been used to a hard training regimen from a young age. As a kid, you sometimes resent this because once in a while, you just want a day off to hang out with friends or just not train. But you can’t; there’s a certain responsibility to being a national athlete. Now, looking back, I’m glad I went through this because the real world is so much tougher than me being disciplined enough to train every day.
Ken: It was definitely hard at times, even more so in the first couple of years when you can’t really see the results of what you’re putting in. It could be demotivating, but patience and discipline are key. If you’re consistent, the results of your work will reflect what you put into it.
How did you deal with the more practical aspects of life in Beijing, like chores?
Livi: One time, my parents came to visit us; when they entered the apartment, they were surprised by how clean and organized it was – until they figured out that we dumped everything in one room! We had a good laugh.
Ken: I wasn’t that great at chores but I wasn’t that bad either. My room ranged from moderately messy to pretty clean. Only when our parents came to visit did my room look like it was just renovated.
How would you describe your relationship before and after Beijing?
Livi: Ken and I have always been very close, but we definitely got closer. When Ken’s appendix got infected, he had to stay out of school for a few weeks and I took care of him. We learned how to communicate by discussing things like adults; we only had each other, so arguing wouldn’t solve anything.
Ken: My sister was always there for me. She took over responsibility for both my mom and dad, and I will always be grateful for that. Being the younger brother, I will always try to listen to her because she always has my best intentions at heart.
How has this period in your life shaped you?
Livi: It was a lot of sacrifice for my parents to have both of their kids away. They said when we both left that the house was very quiet and lonely. But moving to China and living by ourselves was probably one of the best things to happen to me. I was “forced by nature” to take care of things and be the tough one.
What advice do you have for teens who are considering a move like yours?
Livi: Make sure it’s what you want. Don’t move for the wrong reasons, like making a statement or wanting to have more freedom to party. Only make the move if you think it will advance your career or education. Sometimes, teenagers feel living with their parents is tough and they want to control them. But really, having parents gives balance to your life.
Ken: It’s important to know why you are moving away from home; have a clear goal so you don’t get easily distracted. Second, you must realize that some days you’ll face harder challenges and it’s important to have people who believe in you or care for you (e.g. siblings, teachers, coaches, friends).
What was it like to work together on Brush with Danger?
Livi: Working with Ken was amazing. He totally supported me in my work and vision, yet he brought me back to reality when he thought I wasn’t doing something right. Ken and I are like ying and yang; we have different strengths and weaknesses, and together we are stronger.
Ken: Being directed by my sister was really great. She is someone I aspire to and trust, so it definitely made it a lot easier being on set. Brush With Danger was my acting debut, and my sister was there to support me and be honest about how I was doing.
WAB is screening Brush with Danger as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series on Wednesday, April 29 from 6.30-8pm at the Founder’s Theater. The event is free and open to the wider community. Register online at www.wab.edu/dss.
This article originally appeared on page 66-67 of the April 2015 Issue of beijingkids. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com
Photos: Courtesy of Livi Zheng