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.


     Wilma emerged early on as a caretaker and organizer.  She was a hard worker in my class and was very helpful to me in every way she could be.  She married younger than most of her classmates and soon had a baby daughter.  Her job in a hotel was boring, dull, and beneath her capabilities, but she stuck with it because it was close to her home and allowed her more time with her daughter.

     Money always worried Wilma.  She grew more and more worried over the years.  She had a quality of struggle and resignation to a difficult life.  The stress of a newer China in the 1990’s where one’s sales commissions decided one’s salary was one trigger for her husband going into a deep depression.  During the dark days of his depression, strong Wilma held everything together until he slowly recovered.

     She was used to being the strong decision-maker in the family, which caused tension when her husband became stronger.  As China’s economy advanced, he started his own company and was reasonably successful.  Meanwhile, Wilma floundered from job to job without really following a career path.  Once her husband was earning decent money, she took a job that wasn’t too challenging, but was relatively pleasant and secure.

     Retirement age is much earlier in China than in the U.S.  Although she’s at least a decade away from retirement age, Wilma, at 40, is already looking forward to retirement and a quiet life that includes travel and a bigger apartment.  She lost the fight with her husband when he wanted to pay out $30,000 to buy a car, but now she admits that she enjoys driving out with him to a pretty park near the river in the outskirts of the city.  After living cramped in a very tiny apartment all these years, she dreams of owning one of the new, spacious apartments being constructed there amid fountains and gardens.

     Almost every night, she and her husband walk up the old stone stairs of a high hill near their home.  Their relationship is still warm and loving.  But, even if her husband earns big money in the future, she will still worry about money.  Her frugal approach to life is forever engrained.

     She has eased up on her teenaged daughter who finds academics very burdensome.  She has been practical enough to steer her daughter into drawing so that she could get into an arts high school.

     A lifetime of worrying has aged Wilma prematurely.  And certain physical problems are emerging.  But she has been able to relax her tight grip on herself enough to enter a certain state of almost contentment.

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