Listen to Your Heart: Mago Lang shows young women the courage to break the glass ceiling

By Zheng Muen and Andy Peñafuerte III
03/04/2022

As I look out the window, I see another world. I see the future.

Another day of practicing piano has passed and Mago Lang turns her gaze at the window, entranced by the stillness and serenity of nature outside her bedroom. She wonders how it is like in Wellesley College, her next destination, where she wants to continue “thinking, writing, and speaking out with courage.”

One of the prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, Wellesley College is built to train women who will make a difference in the world. It has graduated some most influential female figures in its 147-year history, including the modern Chinese legislator and diplomat Soong Mei-ling (Class of 1917), the prolific Chinese writer Xie Wanying (also known by her pen name Bing Xin, who received her master’s degree in 1923), the first female US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Class of 1959), and former US First Lady Hilary Clinton (Class of 1969). Many of its alumnae are also trailblazers in business, sciences, humanities, arts, and public service.

For the people around Mago, she embodies the traits of women who have broken the glass ceiling. Her austere demeanor, admirable discernment, and aspirational drive show young women the courage to be who they want to be. 

 

Seeking Roots

It takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to drive to Zhoukou city from the airport in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan. Mago comes here every year during the Spring Festival to celebrate with her mother’s parents and relatives. The Zhoukou that Mago has seen since childhood is already a transformed metropolis, but her grandparents still remember the old agricultural city where their generation faced and survived hardships in imperial-era China. In Chūnjié of 2018, the then-eighth grader Mago interviewed her mother, grandparents, and relatives to know more about their family history.

The resulting documentary, Seeking Roots, spans more than a century of family history as told by three generations. She premised her short film on finding her family origins and, as she stated in her opening spiel:

If you want to know who you really are, you must know where you have come from. Only then will you know where you are going.

Her Qing Dynasty ancestors were a feudal clan who lost their lands following family tragedies and natural disasters. The Ma clan gradually recovered after one of them—the great grandfather of Mago—strove to educate his children and instilled in them the value of self-reliance. The Ma clan now has 70 members, many of whom have found success in different fields.

Mago’s documentary, which was a summative requirement for her eighth-grade Chinese Language and Literature class, has become an exemplar for the students of Feng Qiongqiong. This class activity has moved so many people to tears, especially when students present their visual records of their family’s heritage and reflect on the process of filming and interviewing their relatives. Ms. Feng herself is inspired by Mago’s “heartfelt storytelling, creative visuals, and extensive content.”

“She draws a sense of open-mindedness from her family’s legacy and their trials,” Ms. Feng adds, “and it is indeed rare for an eighth-grader to capture this essence.”

To this day, Mago still remembers the joy and fulfillment of creating the documentary, in addition to learning video filming and editing. It showed her a new way of looking at literature. She later expanded her understanding of literature in high school, especially in the Higher Level Chinese A Language & Literature class of Du Jinghui where they read, analyzed, and critiqued classic works and practiced writing in different genres. She remembers clearly a comment from Ms. Du, which came at a time when she needed it the most:

一个人就是一支队伍
Yīgè rén jiùshì yī zhī duìwǔ
A one-person team

These words, given as an evaluation for one of their assignments, comforted Mago and showed her the power of words. In her downcast moments, it was literature that enlightened her that loneliness is part of being human.

“Shi Tiesheng once stated that one of life’s three dilemmas is loneliness because ‘a person can never fully understand another,’” Mago shares, referencing one of the most influential modern Chinese novelists. “It is literature that builds me up like a team. It is my refuge, like a towering castle. It is the foundation that strengthens my beliefs in life.”

Mago is also an active member of Literature Playhouse, a campus society initiated by Keystone Director of Marketing and Communications Sabrina Liu to supplement literature classes. The club also leads students to analyze and interpret some notable works from the Chinese and western literary canon and to debate on philosophical ideas that expand the boundaries of literature for them. In 2019, Mago was elected the captain of House of Woolf, named after the modernist English author Virginia Woolf. Throughout the club’s first “literary season”—the period between 2019 and 2021 where they tackled eight classic works—she amazed club members with her perceptive commentaries, which later earned her the Best Individual award. In the episode about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, Mago wrote a striking analysis which, as Ms. Liu noted, veered from rational assessments of Gatsby’s tragic fate and instead captured a glimpse of idealism and “seized the beauty” behind the protagonist’s desperation.

“Mago meets the text head-on with her gentle and compassionate soul,” Ms. Liu adds. “She can internalize what she identifies with and creatively express what she feels. She has a rich, broad, and profound inner world. In the end, what comes out is something that truly belongs to her.”

All episodes of Literature Playhouse close with a statement lifted from the featured literary work, beamed onto the big screen as theater lights go dim. Mago sits in the audience, reflecting on the glittering sentences and weeping silently in the darkness as she bathes in the beauty and power of literature.

“In Literature Playhouse,” Mago shares, “literature is more than just written words; it is like a pair of eyes that sees beyond space and time and a weapon that gives us the courage to face the unknown. It provokes and awakens us, filling our naïve, cold, and inconsolable hearts. This metaphor is not enough to express my attachment to Literature Playhouse. With the strength and truth it has inspired in me, I truly feel that I am not alone.”

 

One Woman, Two Worlds

Five years ago, Mago had a completely different life journey. She began to learn piano at the age of 5, following her father’s wish for her to become a pianist. With three years of practice, Mago proved to be a musical prodigy; she stood out as one of the best among thousands of children aspiring to enter the China Central Conservatory of Music in 2014. The prestigious institution is exceptionally selective, with an admission rate of about 10 percent.

Mago completely integrated with the piano at the music school, but it also led her to near seclusion. She was separated from the world outside by a glass window; she played melodies that only she could hear. And nothing much was different at home. A grand piano occupied two-thirds of Mago’s bedroom, and all the small space left further isolated the girl.

“The world of music is enchanting, but I was so entrenched in the piano that I felt trapped in the black and white keys and thought I had no way to get out,” Mago shares.

In her years at the conservatory, Mago had gone to different countries to join summer programs, compete at musical festivals, or perform in prestigious concert halls. She won numerous accolades in the process, but felt many of her recognitions were hollow. In the dissonance, Mago listened to what her heart had been telling her. At the age of 13, she gave up her father’s dream. She decided to enroll as a full-time student at Keystone, while keeping her piano study at the conservatory to a minimum. But this meant that she had to fill in a two-year gap in her knowledge of language and humanities-related subjects.

In her first three months at Keystone, Mago spent hours on academic coursework that others could finish in less than an hour. Every Monday, she went to the music school in south Beijing, some 34 kilometers away from Keystone. She would also continue her piano practice sessions for about four hours after school before doing her homework later in the evening. With all that was happening with Mago, her mother and teachers could not help but worry about her wellbeing. However, no one of them succeeded in convincing Mago to choose one school over the other because the teenager still considered the piano a significant part of her life. She was determined to do both despite the constraints.

As focused as she was when practicing the piano, Mago listened to teachers carefully and reviewed knowledge points, reprocessing and internalizing her teachers’ insights. Ms. Du, her Chinese Language and Literature teacher, has seen Mago’s “sensitivity to the outside world” and great attention to detail. In less than a year, Mago caught up with her classmates.

Music also flowed naturally in Mago’s exploration of other fields and informed her ways of analyzing texts and theories. Her tenth-grade Personal Project, for example, was a multi-genre album of four songs that blend Chinese and western music. The compositions, based on her Grade 8 Music lessons about electronic arrangement, speak of a strong message about racial equality. Meanwhile, her Keystone Capstone Project was inspired by the Yellow River Piano Concerto, an unorthodox musical piece that she first heard in a performance sometime during her middle school. In this project, she referenced historical publications such as the History of Chinese Music and interviewed the pianist and composer Liu Shikun to understand the relationship between politics and art, and individuals and culture.

In addition to academics, Mago has also let herself loose and explored visual arts. She impressed Ms. Du with her paintings during their eighth-grade experiential learning trip to Dunhuang. On the way back to the hotel from the Mogao Grottoes, Ms. Du saw Mago quietly sketching apsaras (or female spirits in Buddhist and Hindu mythology) that they saw on cave walls, the Gobi Desert, and even doodles of her classmates. She has also used her skills to design costumes for the Keystone Chinese production Junzi and draw posters for the student-run publication The Voice. And she has worked with her classmates Karen Zhang and Kelly Liu on an illustration book about a panda being released into the wild. Mago illustrated and wrote content for this project that promoted environmental protection and preservation of wild animals.

In retrospect, Mago feels that she does not feel burdened with her masterful juggling of piano studies and academic life at Keystone because she enjoys both worlds greatly. And her creative outputs, into which she put her blood, sweat, and tears, give her a sense of accomplishment. 

 

 

Everyone Is Equal

With things going well in Mago’s life, some people may think she lives in a rosy, romantic fantasy. But she is already out of that. Now armed with a mounting passion for literature and the arts, Mago is resolute to use her talent to follow her mother’s life lesson: “Treat everyone equally, with the kindest attitude and purest heart, no matter their background.”

A year after Mago was born, her mother Mary Ma joined the Program of Happiness, a public service organization that helps impoverished mothers. As Mago grew up, she would eagerly join her mother in public service activities and trips to different places. Ms. Ma shares that Mago volunteered to help farmers sell their produce and performed piano recitals in schools to entertain and comfort the children of migrant workers. Now, Mago is a volunteer for the Genius Mom Foundation, where she sells her self-designed masks to raise money for underprivileged mothers from ethnic minorities.

Mago has also traveled abroad to participate in service opportunities. In 2019, she and her classmates immersed themselves in a local community in Tanzania for their ninth-grade Global Service trip. She was deeply moved by the attitude of local children who remained enthusiastic and happy despite living in poverty, later realizing that “service is never a one-way street” because “we gain so much from the sincere and generous hearts of children.” A year later, Mago and her mother went on a personal trip to Bhutan and saw a glaring wealth disparity and underdeveloped education that impacted many school-aged children there. Through a local foundation, Mago collaborated with the rapper and youth icon Kezang Dorji for a song that embraces Chinese and Bhutanese values and culture. Their music video has received rave reviews for its eclectic style and uplifting message that celebrates the beauty of difference and the value of community.

Struck by Woolf’s exploration of female self-consciousness and pursuit of freedom in her work A Room of One’s Own, Mago read more works by feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Their piercing words told her that anyone should not be limited by the labels—gender, social identities, or attributes—that society imposes on them. Mago’s college counselor, Bill Russo, calls her a “dynamic young woman” with maturity and poise. Lily Dickinson, Mago’s  Higher Level Psychology teacher, praises the teenager’s self-awareness and striking insights that “challenge current systems of thinking … as if to command, ‘I am the future.’”

In late 2021, Mago and her teammates joined the Youth Observation Contest and published a report about the situation of female stand-up comedians, following a social media firestorm and backlash against a controversial comedian whose punchlines strike patriarchy.

“Women’s rights do not mean that women have to be superior to men; it means women must be treated equally and have the same rights that men have traditionally and historically enjoyed,” Mago declares. “Equality is not just about gender, but also about race, wealth, and other universal rights. It all boils down to preventing labels and stereotypes because these alienate people, limit their opportunities to explore themselves, and worse, diminish their dignity.”

Many of Mago’s classmates and teachers believe she could have easily have been admitted to an Ivy League school, given her academic prowess and admirable service work. However, she does not want to be defined by the name of her school, the career she will pursue, or anyone’s expectations. For her, Wellesley College is “a place where gender does not get in the way of anything you think or do.” And, although this does not really matter, it is every bit as competitive in admissions as brand names that might be better known in China.

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More than a century ago, Virginia Woolf declared that “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous.” Ms. Liu from Literature Playhouse presented these words as a birthday wish to Mago and a reminder to the celebrator that she is as powerful, independent, and tenacious as Woolf and also unsung female figures in history. Ms. Liu also shares her graduation wishes for Mago with all members of the Class of 2022:

Take action instead of being a witness. Write, imagine, dream, and live. Ride the waves of life.

Let your words, creation, and thinking shake the reality and inspire minds and souls to create a better and brighter world. You may live a thousand kinds of lives, but only one is the best for you: being yourself. You are already the best and most wonderful gift available in this world.

 

Special thanks to Lily Dickinson, Du Jinghui, Feng Qiongqiong, Gao Siyu, Sabrina Liu, Bill Russo, Shu Birong, Zhang Jiayu, and Zuo Chunxi