Cheng Ho is a former college athlete who attended Harvard on a football scholarship and graduated earlier this year. I first met Cheng when I went to watch Jeremy Lin at the home games during the Ivy Conference season earlier this year. Cheering from the stands, Cheng stood out with his enthusiastic (and loud) support for Harvard and humorous heckling of the opposing teams. I later discovered he was a Harvard athlete himself – and also Taiwanese American – with a unique story about his passion for sports and his journey from Taiwan to Harvard. After reading up on his previous interviews with The Crimson (here and here), Sports Illustrated (here), and The Boston Globe (here), I thought it would be fun to catch up with Cheng and interview him for TaiwaneseAmerican.org.
K: First, thank you for letting TaiwaneseAmerican.org do a spotlight on you. And congratulations on your graduation! How do you feel?
C: Both a little anxious and excited. Anxious that I’m leaving a familiar place and making a new transition to New York and entering into the work force. It’s something I haven’t experienced but it’s also exciting because I’m ready to move on and do something different. I definitely feel like I’m done as far as writing papers and doing problem sets.
K: You’re moving to New York City to start a new job. Can you tell me more about that job and what you look forward to the most?
C: I’ll be working for the National Football League which is basically my favorite sport – well, basketball is up there too. The program I’m in is a two-year rotational program and I would be on various projects depending on the needs of the organization and my interests. I’m hoping to get into the international department, specifically China. And I want to get into marketing and sales initially just to learn as much as I can. My long-term passion and project, hopefully, is doing something involving China and football.
K: Do you think you would ever go back to Taiwan?
C: Potentially, because I still have relatives there. The last time I was there was two years ago, but it is home. And the food is great. I definitely see myself going back. As for permanently living there, I don’t even know how long I’ll be living in New York right now. I’m just going day-by-day, so we’ll see.
K: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food, btw?
C: Oh man, I could go on and on. I have to say it in Chinese obviously. I love the very typical “da chang mian shen” (大腸麵線 | What’s that? ) and a lot of typical Taiwanese dishes.
K: Looking back, you made a lot of big moves in your life…You went from Taiwan to Georgia, Georgia to prep school in Connecticut and then to Harvard. What was it like to make all those big transitions in your life?
C: It’s definitely been a huge blessing – the fact that I was able to transition from Taiwan to Georgia, mostly because of my family and the people who surrounded me at each place. It’s made me who I am as a student, an athlete, and as a person. It’s also allowed me to interact with a lot of different people with different backgrounds, different cultures. The people, especially at Avon (the school I went to), were from all over the world – people from Korea, India and even Europe. I also learned a lot about culture gaps and to become more aware of other people’s thinking and perspective on the same topic. I found it very interesting and just the fact I’m able to graduate from a place like Harvard, it’s just such a blessing.
K: What do you remember the most fondly about growing up in Taiwan? Do you ever wonder what it’d be like if you stayed?
C: I have thought about it. I moved from Taiwan to Georgia when I was 13. In my 13 years in Taiwan, I was a huge basketball guy. I played basically year round. Tian Mu (天母 | What’s that? ) is the hometown where I grew up. My father worked a lot and my mother was mentally ill, so basically my sister and I had to become very independent as far as taking care of all issues – in school, outside of school. If I was still there, I would be very different I think. The reason I moved from Taiwan to Georgia was because my father passed away. At that point, I wouldn’t have had solid family support. Chances are I probably wouldn’t be alive right now. I’d probably be wandering around the streets of Taipei maybe because of the people I’d be hanging out with. I wouldn’t have much mentorship or support, so it’d be a lot different. But then again, there are a lot of different possibilities, so I try not to dwell on it. I do miss a lot of things like the easy access — I always found myself going to the basketball courts and playing pickup games and always enjoyed doing that when I was little. So I definitely miss that and a lot of my good friends there. I still stay in touch with a few, but not many of them unfortunately.
K: Speaking of family and support, a lot of young people find it challenging to communicate with their parents or older generations. How do you stay connected to your family members even though you are far away?
C: I call my mom every week over the phone just to see how she’s doing. But obviously, not being able to see each other, the conversation tends to become very similar over time. It’s always about what you’re going to do. She sends me mail sometimes and vice versa. So that’s how we stay connected.
K: Have you ever had a moment in your life you thought a decision you were about to make was a mistake or thought that you should give up on something?
C: That happens all the time! There’s always going to be a lot of challenges and obstacles in front of you. Sometimes you have to make a decision based on what the consequences will be. But the thing is, no matter what you do, once you make a decision, you can’t really look back. I think the most important thing is not having any regret because that will hold you back from making the most out of the opportunity you are making in that decision. I try to look ahead at the things I am in control of and go from there. Of course, I wouldn’t say I do it 100 percent of the time, but there are definitely times where I tell myself I’ve done everything I can and let the rest be taken care of by – you know, I do believe in the existence of a higher being – so let it be taken care of by the things that aren’t mine to control.
K: Did you ever think about giving up on anything? And how did it turn out?
C: Sure, I had a huge basketball background in Taiwan. In fact, I had the dream, like every other kid, to go to the NBA. I wanted to get a scholarship to play in college. Then down south there’s football, so I picked up the sport. Though I was playing football, I never gave up wanting to play college basketball and go pro. But then unfortunately, my height never got taller over time, whereas football became more invested in me and I became more invested in football. My sophomore year, I tore my ACL playing basketball and that was one of the most bottom stages of my life because I felt like I had to make a decision whether I wanted to stick with basketball or football. At that time it made more sense to stick with football because it would give me the most opportunity. It’s not that I gave up everything because I would still get to play a sport in college. It actually turned out to be a great decision. I didn’t play basketball and just focused on football the entire year. I was able to recover from the surgery and got a lot of interest from colleges through football. So yeah, I’ve had to give up something but not something entirely while also pursuing some other things at the same time. Sometimes you just gotta figure out ways to pursue what you want to achieve — whether you go around your obstacles or jump over it.
K: On a lighter note, do you remember the moment you and Jeremy met each other and realized you were both Taiwanese, and athletes, and in the same year? Was it BFFs at first sight?
C: Haha, well, it was different. Freshmen year I knew of Jeremy because he was one of the stand-out athletes on the basketball team. I played relatively well my freshmen year as well, so we kind of knew each other from that. He apparently read an article about me and my background so we talked about that a little bit and ended up becoming roommates. We both are pretty social, so there are a lot of similarities between us and our personalities were pretty fitting even though I think I have a better personality than he does — but he probably wouldn’t say the same if he hears me saying this haha. We definitely clicked and I feel like I learned a lot from him in terms of his spiritual life. I think that’s something I always admired — someone being able to have the discipline and focus. Despite distractions in college, he remained very faithful and focused. Sometimes we have small bible study or gatherings and talk about distractions and stuff. Even though we’re in different sports, we experience a lot of similar things as far as race, being Chinese, playing a sport, being really distinctive about how people treat you. From that standpoint we share a lot of similarities so we’re still really connected. Of course, we also love the same food, so that’s another positive.
K: How does it feel to know that you are one of the few Asian Americans in college sports?
C: I wouldn’t say that’s how I look at it. Being able to play a sport regardless of race — I think that’s a blessing already. The fact that I’m Taiwanese American, yeah sure, I’m definitely very grateful about to be here. I’m also proud that I’m able to play the sport — a lot of my friends in high school love the sport as much as I do but weren’t able to play at this [college] level, so I think regardless of race, I’m just really fortunate and lucky to be here. I think it’s awesome that people can relate to you through race, but it’s not something I really focus on. But if it’s something that helps it, I’m open to it as well.
K: I know you’re also passionate about supporting other teams — you basically single-handedly rallied everyone to go see the men’s basketball and lacrosse teams. Why are sports and supporting teams and players so important to you?
C: Well, I wouldn’t say I single-handedly rallied everyone — I had a lot of support and help. As an athlete myself, I recognize how important it is to have that sense of community, which Harvard lacks, especially in the athletic arena. There are a lot of really good sports teams here everyone but people don’t take notice because everyone is so busy. It’s interesting though because once a group of people start wanting to pursue something, other people follow. So I thought the most important thing was to get a group of people’s attention, and then the other people will come.
As an athlete, I always felt disappointed looking into the stands seeing so many empty seats. So given the basketball and lacrosse success we had in the past year, the teams sell themselves and all I really had to do was spread the word. It’s also great because it’s building a sense of community and belonging which benefits many students and creates something people will want to come back to for the following games because it’s fun. We are changing, in a way, the social norms of sports here because there’s no such thing as “too cool” to cheer anymore — everybody’s standing up and cheering at the basketball games. When everybody’s doing it, you feel comfortable doing the same thing. It’s just a lot more fun, making friends — at times being obnoxious — but you’re supporting your teams in a very positive way. That’s what I feel it’s all about. It’s also really good because people can relieve their stress on the weekends by cheering and screaming their lungs out.
K: What other kinds of leadership do you currently, or hope to, take on?
C: Football is really one of the major reasons why I’m at this school. I was a recruited athlete, my grades were okay, my SAT score was awful. I definitely took the unusual route to get here through sports. It’s funny because in Taiwan, parents always emphasize academics as the gateway to success. Yes, it is, but at the same time, I don’t think sports can be completely eliminated because they do teach you a lot of lessons and values you would not learn in the classroom. I’m hoping to keep football and sports as part of my life, and that’s why I joined the NFL organization because in the long run, we hope to help bring the league and the sport to China for people to actually learn the sport and learn that opportunities not only come from the classroom but also through sports. Maybe in the future there would even be a scholarship for them to come to the states. Those are the things I’m hoping to take on. If there could be a professional football league in China, then that would be awesome as well.
K: What life lessons and values do you hope to never let go of as you enter the next stage of your career?
C: The reason I am here is because a lot of people have been there in my life. First and foremost, it’s the people you are surrounded with — just never forget whoever has lent a helpful hand. You can’t really live alone by yourself so there’s always someone helping you whether you know it or not. Gratitude is something very important to recognize and appreciate others for what they do for you. Also, hard work and perseverance. For people who want to take the easy route and make life easy — the bottom line is, life is not going to be easy and how you respond to things is really where the perseverance comes in. No matter what happens, you gotta be able to persevere and not easily give up. Those are the three main things I’ve learned and it’s hard to do but if you just keep it simple and focus on that then good things will happen.
THANKSGIVING UPDATE: Cheng has been keeping busy on his rotation with the Events Department at the NFL. He has been helping with events such as the NFL Experience, a Super Bowl theme park in Dallas and the NFL’s “Punt, Pass & Kick” competition for encouraging kids to lead active lifestyles. And this holiday season, Cheng is thankful for many things among which are his new job, support from his family, being able to look back at the “sixth man” experience at Harvard—and thank those who helped make it happen—and last but not least, seeing his good friend Jeremy Lin make it into the NBA.