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'People didn't really like me': Despite new-found fame, geography whiz Max Zeng says he didn't always fit in

SINGAPORE — When asked to describe his boyhood, Mr Max Zeng, who has shot to social media fame for the expansive geography knowledge he displayed on a British quiz show, said that he had few friends, and preferred time spent alone to read and explore subjects he was interested in. 

Mr Max Zeng, a 22-year-old Singaporean student who helped his team from Imperial College London win British television quiz show University Challenge.
Mr Max Zeng, a 22-year-old Singaporean student who helped his team from Imperial College London win British television quiz show University Challenge.
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  • Mr Maximilian Zeng, 22, has been dubbed a "walking atlas" for his vast geography knowledge on the television quiz show University Challenge
  • The third-year biochemistry student tells TODAY he spent most of his time reading and exploring subjects he was interested in
  • He added that since his team won the quiz final, he hasn't received the same level of attention in Britain as he has in Singapore

SINGAPORE — When asked to describe his boyhood, Mr Max Zeng, who has shot to social media fame for the expansive geography knowledge he displayed on a British quiz show, said that he had few friends, and preferred time spent alone to read and explore subjects he was interested in. 

Speaking to TODAY from London via Zoom on Sunday (April 10) afternoon, he said: "I will say that as a teenager in general, I was a bit of a boisterous weirdo. I did have friend groups throughout school, though. 

"At the end of things, I didn't know when to keep my mouth shut. I was very opinionated on things that I have since changed my mind on," said Mr Zeng, 22, whose full name is Maximilian Zeng. 

My mother just assumed it was some random quiz tournament I was going through and she didn't really know what it was. She didn't anticipate the publicity at all.
Mr Max Zeng

The Singaporean third-year biochemistry undergraduate from Imperial College London has been dubbed a "walking atlas" for his vast geography knowledge on the television quiz show University Challenge, an institution in Britain after it first aired in 1962. 

His team from the university staged a late comeback to defeat the University of Reading by 10 points in the final, which was aired by broadcaster BBC on Monday (April 4) night in Britain. 

Dressed in a plain T-shirt and black, rectangle-framed glasses  similar to the way he dressed throughout the television quiz  Mr Zeng, who had grown out a short goatee since the quiz was broadcast, looked mature for his 22 years. 

Describing his schooldays, the Henry Park Primary School and Hwa Chong Institution alumni said: "I didn't really go out, outside of school to eat or whatever. I'll just go home and go back to school." 

Instead, he spent most of his time reading and exploring subjects he was interested in, which were topics like geopolitics, history, anthropology and comparative linguistics. 

But as he did not have many people around him who shared his interests, he preferred to keep to himself. 

"I don't really have a desire to be more sociable, so I just read whatever I was interested in because there was nothing else to do," he said. 

When he first learned that his team had won the competition, he told a group of friends and his mother. 

He said: "My mother just assumed it was some random quiz tournament I was going through and she didn't really know what it was. She didn't anticipate the publicity at all." 

He also had friends from university who "messaged him every time an episode aired".  

Mr Zeng added that his parents were very understanding towards him, and allowed him to pursue his interests as a boy. 

"Sometimes, during (my secondary school) holidays, I could just not leave the house entirely, for like 10 to 20 days. My parents were alright with it," he said. 

He added that since his team won the quiz final, he hasn't received the same level of attention in Britain as he has in Singapore. "My high school's parent support group wants me to give a talk. These are people I haven't seen for ages," he said, referring to Hwa Chong. 

Mr Zeng said that he plans on pursuing a masters in engineering after he has completed his undergraduate degree. 

"I did a very biotechnology-heavy third year in University and I'm doing synthetic biology and protein engineering for my final year dissertation, and I am interested in getting into chemical engineering possibly with a focus on biotechnology and pharmaceuticals," he said. 

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