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.


     Louise became in my mind the quintessential Chinese person.  From the time I was assigned to her to be “taken care of” in 1988 when I taught at the tourism school, I have watched the way she dealt with life in China from young adulthood to middle age.

     Being a teacher for a government school was a respected and secure job, but had a poor salary.  Her English was better than the average English teacher there and she was a dedicated teacher.  However, she kept a stern face in the classroom and reserved her frequent open, hearty laughter for outside the classroom.

     Since I was paid only by room and board and some trips to nearby tourist sites, she accompanied me along with some young Chinese friends I’d made on several happy jaunts throughout Zhejiang Province and was always good-humored, no matter the difficulties we ran into.

     She married an uneducated man six years her senior.  It was a love match, but his lack of education and bad luck as China’s economy surged around them has kept them relatively poor.  Prosperity has passed them by as each little business enterprise he tried failed.

     Her love of teaching turned into tolerating teaching as the pure, yet deep-thinking struggling students of the 1980’s and 1990’s gave way to the self-centered spoiled “only children” born after 1979 grew to college age.  Her joy shifted to her own “only child,” a sensitive girl who was generally well-behaved and a delight.  Louise often expressed regret that the high expectations of the Chinese system of education robbed children of valuable play time.

     In 2007, Louise admitted that her dreams have faded, but she is content with her loving husband and his warm family, and her daughter’s success at school.  Still, her daughter faces another difficult year at a foreign language high school where she is competing daily with many bright students.  Such keen competition rather than lack of effort seems to be the reason her daughter’s grades have been dropping from top to average during the last few years.

     Louise worries about some of the changes in China.  The “only children” haven’t learned the group mentality and relationship problem solving skills of her own generation.  She has seen young Chinese girls smoking, dressing provocatively, and knows there are bars where drugs are taken to “enhance” their fun.  She grew up in the harsh life of the countryside and had no toys or money throughout her childhood.  Her good grades at school under the Communist system provided her with a free, good education that made her into an English teacher.  Such an education is no longer free.  In many ways, her daughter’s life hasn’t been too different from her own.  Although her daughter’s teenage years have held more physical comforts, her daughter’s only hope of a quality high school education was to be the best student in her class because only the top one could get a scholarship.

      Just as in 1988, it is still true that high school is the battleground for getting into a good university.  Once achieved, even in top universities, the university years are more relaxed and less stressful than the high school years.  So, her daughter must continue to study hard for hours every day during the next year.  Then, she will face the all-important college entrance exams.  It’s an anxious time for students and their parents.

     Louise’s laughter is still easy and frequent.  And she remains accepting of what she cannot change, but is still striving to change what she can.  It is not resignation, but perhaps flexibility, or a matter of believing in one’s fate.

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