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.


     In 1988, my first impression of Dennis was of a gentle and emotional young man.  No doubt his serious demeanor had a lot to do with losing his father a little before I met him.  His father had died instantly when hit by a truck on a business trip to Hong Kong.  Dennis became the man of the family and took responsibility for his mother and younger brother.

     His father’s company helped the family by giving Dennis a job after graduation.  They sent him to live and work in Hong Kong, which helped him to expand his experience and knowledge of the outside world.  But the work was not particularly satisfying for him, and he resented being treated less than equally by his colleagues.  Being shorter than most Chinese, he remained childlike in their eyes even though he was quite bright.

     He took a giant leap when, after a brief courtship, he married a mainland Chinese girl who was also working temporarily in Hong Kong.  He soon quit his job and returned to Hangzhou, China, while she returned to her job in Shenzhen and gave birth to their son.  Their marriage continued through brief visits and phone calls.

     Dennis joined a company in Hangzhou that was working in foreign trade, the buzzword of the day in a Chinese economy of the 1990’s that was trying to open up to the world.  The Hangzhou factory made arts and crafts for export.  Dennis was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, which was a hub for expanding into the European market.  His wife and son remained in Shenzhen, so he was quite alone and very lonely in a rather unwelcoming Germany.  With time, the business and Dennis began to take root.

     When the Chinese company he worked for changed direction, Dennis opted to continue in Germany as his own company.  He returned to China frequently to visit the factories that made his crafts, and, of course, to see his wife and son.  After five years of living separately, he insisted that his wife and son move to Germany.

     As children often do, the son adapted to Germany quickly, learned German easily, and became the top of his class.  His wife adjusted more slowly and not as easily, but she learned German, including reading and writing.  However, she has never been able to work in Germany in her profession as an accountant.

     Germans remain cool to immigrants, but the Chinese community in Frankfurt has been growing quite significantly.  His wife now volunteers as an accountant for a Chinese school that has been set up in Frankfurt to fulfill the immigrant parents’ wishes that their children learn reading and writing Chinese along with speaking.  And Dennis and his family had a three-story house built that is part of a duplex.  His wife was very active in the planning and construction of their home.

     Dennis speaks lovingly of the vegetable and flower gardens in his yard and takes pleasure in being a gardener.  As for his business, it is going okay, but he admits he doesn’t feel highly motivated to make it more lucrative.  Of course, Europe’s economy has not boomed like China’s.  He returns to his native China in amazement and wonder at the fast-paced changes.  But he is also troubled at what he sees.

     Having lived abroad for over ten years, he is a hybrid of Chinese and western cultures.  In Germany, the natural environment is respected and important.  Bribery and dishonesty for financial gain is minimal and socially unacceptable.  The rampant bribery and anything goes mentality in China is literally a world away.  It distresses Dennis to be cheated and lied to in his business dealings in China.  He doesn’t have the heart or the stomach for cutthroat business.  He and his wife agree that they will eventually move back to China after their son is grown.  But Dennis admits he no longer easily fits into his native land.

     I introduced Dennis to Harold many years ago because they were both philosophical and poetic.  They became good friends, and have remained so over the years.  However, they have diverged in their mental paths.  Harold encourages Dennis to work harder in business and earn as much money as he can.  China’s economy is becoming like a tree with ripe fruit there for the picking.  Why not take advantage of this opportunity?

     Dennis can understand why Harold thinks of his attitude as lackadaisical and even semi-retired, but Dennis’s mind wanders back to the peace and serenity nurturing his garden gives him.  Perhaps the person he admires most is not the newest self-made billionaire in China, but a friend in Germany who volunteers to help poverty-stricken children in Africa.  He envies this man’s sense of fulfillment in helping others.

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