Cheng Ho showed up in Columbia County in 2000, a 13-year-old kid from Taiwan who didn’t understand a lick of English much less the culture of American sports.
Sixteen years later, the former star student and running back at Evans and Harvard is trying to import his American experience to his homeland. Ho’s mission is to simply change generations of ingrained Asian perception about the mutual exclusivity between sports and academics.
No big deal, right?
“This is going to sound a little crazy, but I think we’re really trying to create a new infrastructure for sport in Asia,” said Ho. “Our mission is to make sports a part of education in Asia.”
That kind of ambitious dream requires a little back story. Ho and his older sister, Tien, first came to Augusta to live with their aunt and uncle when their father died after a sudden illness and mother was hospitalized for schizophrenia.
Back in Taiwan, Ho said he was a below-average student with particularly poor math skills. That changed 180 degrees after he adapted to life in his new home. He ultimately became co-salutatorian in his class at Evans, captained the football and track teams and ended up at Harvard.
“Once I understood the language, things became naturally easy to me and things just made intuitive sense,” he said. “The workload was no comparison. On top of that, that I could participate in sports became my biggest motivation going to school and I became happy going to school because of teammates and coaches and playing games under Friday night lights. That social vehicle opened a door for me to make many friends, boosted my confidence, developed my character and taught me leadership skills and how to work with team.”
That typically American tale may not seen unusual to us, but in Taiwan that concept of sports enhancing the educational experience is unimaginable.
According to Ho’s research, roughly 55 to 60 percent of high school kids in the U.S. participate in organized sports. In Taiwan, that number is less than 3 percent. In mainland China, Ho said, “there is no number so we assume it’s less than 1 percent.”
“In the Asian cultures, there’s always been a divide in terms of attitude between athletics and academics,” Ho said. “This divide is such that people who choose to pursue academics cannot pursue sports and people who choose to pursue sports can not participate in academics. This kind of mindset has lasted for awhile. The most important values are test scores and academics and we are trying to change that attitude. We’re fighting against generations of Asian culture.”
The term “student-athlete” isn’t even comprehended in Taiwan. You’re one or the other. A student will attend school, then after school pursue additional tutoring and testing. Less than two hours a week is spent on physical education.
“Students don’t go home sometimes until 10 or 11 p.m.” Ho said. “Their whole lives are not learning how to work with people and have fun and develop social skills.”
Athletes are the opposite.
“Basically middle school students become professional athletes at that early age,” Ho said. “They are bred and trained that way, practicing two or three times a day for 6 to 7 hours. There is no offseason. Once they play sports, the team itself eats up the students life and they really have no time to do anything else but train, rest and train more. Sometimes there’s not even rest.”
Missing in that kind of culture is the development of well-balanced leaders like Ho.
“I look at my story and all these blessings and how people in Augusta helped me and gave me a ticket to go to college,” Ho said. “I’m thinking this journey is not just a story any more but it becomes a responsibility to create the right value and services to change this dynamic and culture.”
To take on that uphill battle against ingrained segregation started with trying to create a new concept. Ho founded a company named Choxue – combining the Mandarin word which sounds like “Cho,” which means “ball,” with “Xue,” meaning “study.”
“So we intend to put ball and study together as a new way of telling people that integrating sports and academics is the new way of seeking education,” Ho said.
This started as a simple project when Ho moved back to Taiwan in 2012 after graduating Harvard. While working briefly for NFL China in Beijing, he saw a former Olympic gold medalist gymnast reduced to performing on the street because he couldn’t get a job due to his illiteracy.
“That might be an extreme case, but that’s just not acceptable,” Ho said.
Ho wanted to help a young athlete the way he was helped in Augusta by sports writer Michael Carvell, who made highlight reels for Ho and helped him solicit colleges with it. That’s how Ho ended up drawing the attention of Harvard.
So Ho borrowed a camera and filmed games. His effort helped one young kid get financial aid to a boarding school and led to his founding Choxue in 2013.
Working with a few partners from his apartment, Ho’s company was featured in Business Insider in 2015 and caught the attention from some major investors whose business success was augmented by sports: Joe Tsai, the vice chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, had nearly the identical life path as Ho, ending up a lacrosse player at Yale; Richard Chang, the vice president of Costco Wholesale in Asia, played basketball at Cal-Berkeley; and Blackie Chen, a Taiwanese basketball celebrity.
Recently he’s been featured in Forbes and NBC News, under grand headlines “Harvard grad wants to fix Taiwan’s high school sports.”
Choxue, which now has 10 employees and an office, primarily focuses on networking and recruiting by broadcasting high school games in Taiwan and China to give the young athletes exposure that could lead to international athletic scholarships. Ho eventually hopes to build a database and expand the scope into training and certifying coaches, trainers and referees in the fundamentals of conditioning, nutrition and other foundational practices.
It’s a long-range idea that has many cultural hurdles to leap before achieving its potential, but Ho and his supporters believe it’s worth the effort by sparking innovation and leadership from future generations of more broadly cultivated Chinese “student-athletes.”
All because a kid found himself on the opposite side of the world and wound up blending school and sports to become one of Augusta’s “best and brightest.”
“My experience at Augusta, Ga., just changed my life and I think my motivation has always been giving back,” Ho said. “I’m just grateful to have been dropped in the middle of nowhere and that middle of nowhere was Augusta and people were unbelievably friendly and raised me up.
Everything I’m doing is connected to my past and everything happens for a reason.
“If Choxue can one day do what I hope it can do, it’s because of my experience in Augusta.”