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.

LUCINDA

     Lucinda is entering her fourth decade with excitement, relishing the new financial opportunities she sees all around her.  She is at one time a tour guide, former small shop owner, and has purchased her third apartment with hopes of buying more.

     She stood out as smart and perky the first time I met her in my tour guide class in 1988.  Somehow she had acquired a wider English vocabulary and better pronunciation than her classmates and even many of the Chinese English teachers.

     Life after graduation had a somewhat rocky beginning.  Tourism leading Chinese tourists within China was limited, and her hometown was in a smallish city about one hour outside the big city of Hangzhou.  She loved her high school sweetheart, but her parents would not agree to her marrying an uneducated man.  After all, she was the first college graduate in her family and most of Fuyang, the city nearest her village.  It took her ten years to wear down the family’s resistance to marrying the man she loved.

     Her father had been one of the villagers to break away early from farming and form a company that made security gates.  They prospered and her family was one of the first in the village to build a five-story house topped off with what was once planned to become a disco at the top with floor to ceiling blue windows.  It never did become a disco, and remains empty.

     The big house did, however, provide housing for various members of the family, eventually including Lucinda, her husband, and baby daughter.  Lucinda opened up a small candy and snack shop in her parents’ home for the neighborhood children.  She told me at that time that she and her husband, who was a truck driver for his brother, would probably never have enough money to buy their own apartment.

     Times got better, the villagers prospered by opening small factories, and Lucinda began to guide tours outside China to Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.  For a short while, she set up her own tour company with a partner, but that didn’t last long.  Her sights were set on a different plan for the future.

     In 2000, she bought a small apartment in the center of Fuyang for the equivalent of $11,000.  She loved tour guiding, but didn’t consider it to ever be a way to earn significant money.  So, she took a giant leap and borrowed money to buy a used car, then got a mortgage for a bigger apartment, and then yet another mortgage on a third apartment that was just being constructed.  Mortgages are a relatively new phenomenon in China, but Lucinda saw them as useful because she could meet monthly payments, but couldn’t come up with large sums of cash to buy the second and third apartments.  Both new apartments were carefully chosen as an investment because Fuyang was growing and building everywhere.

     She admits it’s scary to owe so much money to the bank for the two mortgages, but she’s quite sure she’ll make money on the apartments.  She wishes she had even more to invest in North Korea, which is where China was economically twenty years ago.  Apparently, North Korea is the present “hot spot” for investors who want to get in there early in preparation for North Korea’s emergence into the world — sort of a last frontier for going from rags to riches.

     Her husband was working at the little store they rented in a busy marketplace in Fuyang.  They sold cigarettes, ice cream, bottled water, and other simple supplies just like thousands of other little shops.  However, they had to give up the shop in 2008 when the marketplace moved.  Her husband now works in construction and helps her brother with the security gate business.  She says he’ll never make much money, but he’s a warm, kind-hearted man who stands in awe of his wife’s cleverness.  The only thing he says he will never consent to is moving abroad to give their daughter a broader education.  While Lucinda’s vision is worldwide, his is solidly in the world he knows in China.

     Lucinda may own three apartments, but they still live in the small apartment with no shower or hot running water.  This doesn’t bother them because they’ve always lived like that.  However, in the bathroom with no hot water, there are Estee Lauder cosmetics that cost over $100 a bottle in Hong Kong.

     Not yet hung up are photos that they spent over $600 to be taken for their tenth anniversary.  Such phototaking has become big business for enterprising photographers who know how to attract the newly affluent.  The photos are mounted on heavy board and include albums starring each family member dressed and posed in a variety of settings (helpfully, most Chinese fit the same sized clothes), including to my surprise, rather risque poses of Lucinda which, she said, the photographer requested as part of the photo package deal.

     Lucinda describes her life as colorful and interesting and says I influenced her a lot because I hadn’t spent much time worrying about my future.  She adores tourguiding, now to greater distances such as Russia and Tibet, loves zipping around from errand to errand in her car, enjoys being able to give her daughter music and dance lessons, and looks forward to becoming richer and richer along with China.  She has a full social life and sends me happy photos taken on hiking and backpacking trips that she, and sometimes her husband and daughter, take with groups in China’s wilder areas.

     In 2007, when I commented on a man bent over double pulling a heavily overloaded wagon – just as I’d seen in 1988 – she said with a little laugh and dollar signs dancing in her eyes, that it’s only the clever Chinese who are getting rich.

    

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