My first teaching job in China was in 1988.  Over the years and with continued visits to China, my contact with my students and their families deepened into lasting friendships.  During my last visit in May of 2007 and updating for 2008, I have written a personal portrait of several of them covering the tumultuous years of change in China during which their lives took divergent paths.   Looking at these particular Chinese students gives a broader picture of the choices and decisions made by the Chinese students of  the 1980’s, who barely allowed themselves to dream of a fate different from their parents, and then surpassed their dreams with varying degrees of happiness and self-fulfillment.  The names are fictitious; the people are real.


     Judy was a very shy, rather fearful teenager when I first met her in 1989.  She was the sister of a Chinese friend who had invited me home to visit his family.  She was curious about me, but too fearful of her inadequate high-school English to say much to me.

     However, we stayed in touch over the years.  She went to a two-year college because she didn’t want to risk failing the college entrance exams.  She made the break from a dreary countryside teaching job to work for a joint venture British/Chinese cigarette company.  Her English improved and her secretarial skills were good.

     She liked the job, but her parents were fearful that she did not have the security, low level though it was, of a government job.  Her parents had been young adults in the greatly fearful days of the Cultural Revolution, and they wanted security above all else for their children.  So, like a dutiful child, she quit the job she liked and returned to the dull countryside school.

     Perhaps it was the misery at being stuck in a dead end that made her look farther.  A matchmaker suggested a Chinese man who had emigrated to New Zealand as a possible mate.  He was not rich, but wanted a Chinese wife who could speak English well.  He offered a visa and eventual citizenship in New Zealand.  She insisted on going to a four-year college as part of the marriage agreement.  They communicated by e-mail for a year or so.  He came to visit his grandmother and meet Judy face to face, and the engagement was confirmed.

     He returned to New Zealand and prepared for her arrival.  She prepared herself emotionally as best she could to leave the familiar and her family for a leap to the southernmost end of the planet.  She required a proper marriage in China, so he returned for the festivities and then they both left for New Zealand.

     I visited them in New Zealand about three years later.  They lived in a home attached to a dairy, which, in New Zealand, means a small neighborhood grocery store.  He still did not speak much English, but he and his family were very kind and welcoming to me.  Their marriage had  blossomed into a marriage of love.  Work at the dairy was long and tiresome because only he and his brother regularly staffed the seven-day-a-week store.  There were occasional robberies which scared them, but in a country without guns, people didn’t get shot.

     Although Judy was about 8 years younger than her husband, she held a dominant role.  And she was an excellent student.  The teenager who had been afraid to speak English to me now tackled weighty subjects in university English.  She graduated in accounting.

     In 2007, I met them in China briefly as they were returning from a whirlwind tour of Europe with a stopover in China.  The fearful teenager is a very attractive, confident woman now.  She and her husband still look at each other lovingly.  It’s a good marriage.  They have bought a house in Christchurch, safer than living connected to the dairy.  His family has become her family, and they make a loving, caring, supportive family unit.

     Her first job as an accountant was not a happy one, but she moved on to something better.  They are still not rich, but managing okay.  She has become a New Zealand citizen – her Chinese passport cut in two.  That hurt her, but she likes New Zealand quite a lot — the beauty, the safety, a good, clean, decent life.

     Having suffered two severe miscarriages, they applied for adoption.  And, in the summer of 2008, they welcomed a Kiwi-born Chinese son into the family.  As is traditional in Chinese families, Judy’s mother came to help her care for the baby.  But in this modern age Chinese family, the mother had to travel to a place very far away from where she could have ever imagined she’d go to care for her grandson.

     Judy’s journeys – geographical, emotional, and cultural – have been exciting to watch.  I look forward to her future.

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