Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Red Shoes

By Xiangbin Teng

My red shoes cost me ninety dollars. I can’t afford more expensive shoes as a graduate student. My Chinese friend Shawn bought a pair of black shoes after he quit graduate school and found a job in Wall Street, four hundred dollars a pair. We used to take the train back to Newport after long days in our labors. A lot of Chinese people live in Newport and wear fancy shoes. They speak Chinese or English with a heavy accent. Their shoes are all black and very shiny. Shawn became one of them.

Shawn talks less since he started working. His boss doesn’t need a talkative worker. Shawn is good at math and gets work done quickly. Companies on Wall Street need people like him. I learned math in college, most of the math required for my research. I have to learn more to solve the research problem I’m working on though I am not young any more. I am a little tired, and the color of my red shoes is fading. I forget some of the formulas, and I am not patient to read every step of the computations. Shawn suggests I quit school. Maybe it is time to change my shoes.

Shawn tells me he is going to buy a BMW car and a house in Flushing, a place like a town out of China in the 1990s. The food is good there, and a lot of girls will wait for him to buy them dinner and be ready to step into his car. Money means a lot in our culture, or in all cultures. Shawn made his own choice. He is tired of being a puppy wagging his tail in front of teachers and professors. He got worn down by famous universities, good scores, and parents’ expectations. Shawn is not the only Chinese student who suffers from this. The only way to run away is to wear the black shoes.

People ask me if I’ve wanted to do science all my life. I don’t really have an answer. I had to study hard and get a degree to live a good life in China. I happened to find science interesting, and then I stuck to it. I came to America because there was a professor I wanted to work with, and the money the Americans pay me is enough for my red shoes. I don’t want too much. Sometimes I feel frustrated and want to quit because science is hard. I accomplish little, but I just like to do science at least for a while. And I can wear whatever I like in my laboratory. Shawn has to wear black shoes.

I know I probably won’t make a discovery that changes the world, but I am brave enough to dream even if I know I might fail. So I won’t give up years of studying for money and a car. I won’t surrender to pressure from our culture or American culture. I’ll keep wearing my red shoes.


Xiangbin Teng, whose English name is “Shawn,” received his Ph.D. from New York University. He is currently a postdoc studying the brain and sound at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. He grew up in a small town in China and later moved to Shanghai, then Beijing, then New York. He likes to tell people that they ride camels to school in his hometown. Not everyone knows he is joking. He is glad to still be doing (and enjoying) his research.