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.


     Although she was the younger sister, Anna was the more daring.  Both of them knew they did not want a traditional Chinese woman’s life and early on sought ways out of the country.

     Anna’s first try at getting out was sending a letter to my elderly parents in the U.S. offering to come and take care of them in their old age.  When my parents responded that they could not sponsor her to come to the U.S., Anna turned her attempts elsewhere.

     Her sister Carla had fallen in love with an African student studying at the agricultural school in Hangzhou.  They had a sweet and gentle love affair, but knew it could lead nowhere.  Anna met a French foreign student when I lived at a Foreign Student dorm in Hangzhou.  Anna began to hang out with foreign students and eventually also found her way into a love affair with a black African student.  She got pregnant and he gave her money for what was considered a less painful abortion through inserting pills into the uterus to induce contractions.  (The reason this was considered less painful was because the traditional abortions available for free did not include anesthesia.)  I was the only one she told prior to the abortion, and I accompanied her to the abortion clinic.  It was a day I’ll never forget.  Although supposedly the easy way to abort, she hemorrhaged the following day and had to confide her secret to her sister to seek medical care.

     The affairs with their African lovers ended soon after Anna told her parents about Carla’s boyfriend.  Carla will still refer to the gentle African as her one true love.  Anna caught the eye of a non-blood cousin through marriage living in Beijing.  Living where one wanted to was forbidden in China at that time, but Anna encouraged his love for her and made her way to live in Beijing with the family where she successfully got a job at the then huge salary of 1,000 yuan a month.  As soon as her job was secure, she arranged a similar good job for her sister, Carla.

     Anna dashed her cousin’s desire for an enduring love relationship and eventually met a British young man working in Beijing.  She truly fell in love and they were married.  This British young man had no interest in ever living in England again.  In his profession, he could find many jobs in Asia.  They lived in Malaysia when she was pregnant with their daughter, and then they lived in a foreigner’s complex in Beijing for the birth of their son.

     Ever mindful of her sister’s needs, Anna fixed Carla up with her husband’s best friend in England.  This man, however, was 15 years older and a blue-collar worker who had little interest in other cultures and people.  He had, however, taken care of his mother until her death when he was 40.  He had inherited the home in England where they had lived together, and it was time to take a wife.

     The house and living in England appealed to Carla more than the man, but he was part of the deal.  They got married and Carla moved to England.  Shortly thereafter, with two very young children, Anna discovered the husband she loved so much was having an affair with another Chinese woman.  Their marriage unraveled, and anger and resentment overwhelmed their love.  He vindictively insisted that their little daughter be sent to his elderly parents in England, while the young son remained with Anna’s parents in China.

     Anna went to live in England for the first time and visited her very unhappy daughter who was thrust into the care of stranger grandparents who spoke a foreign language to her.  Anna lived miserably with Carla and her husband, but spent her time productively studying how to be a Montessori teacher.  Eventually, she got her daughter back because the grandparents were too old and sick to raise a young child.

     Anna and her daughter returned to her parents and son in China.  There were no opportunities for her to be a Montessori teacher anywhere in China but Beijing, so she left the two children with her parents and went to find work in Beijing.  She found a German boyfriend in Beijing instead.

     She cautiously went to Berlin for a trial period to live with the boyfriend before bringing her children to Germany.  All went well – and she married her German boyfriend just before the birth of their son, her third child.

     Meanwhile, back in England, little was heard from Carla.  For whatever reasons, her husband refused to fix up the house.  He wanted his wife to be housebound and not working, so she was terribly isolated and lonely.  He accompanied her on yearly visits to China, but steadfastly refused to eat Chinese food.  His beer belly and tattoos were strange to her friends in China, but he was seen as kind and humorous by her friends.  They had decided before marriage that there would be no children and he had had a vasectomy to insure that decision.

     Anna’s life with her three children  and her German husband steadily deteriorated.  They separated.  One big cause of the friction between Anna and her husband were Anna’s new friends — born again Christians who were trying to convert her.  They succeeded both in converting her and in convincing her to remain in Germany because welfare is generous for single mothers there.

     Anna seems happy for now in her love of Jesus.  Carla seems to have settled for posting lonely poems in English and Chinese on her website.  She sticks to the Chinese version of the belief that she has made her bed and must lie in it, whatever the consequences.  She talks of hoping to help Anna and the kids financially some day.  And both sisters and Anna’s children still regularly go to see their elderly parents in Hangzhou. 

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