I will call her Wei (pronounced 'way'; it is not her real name). She had just earned her doctorate with distinction.
As the youngest professor with a good command of English, Wei was my assigned "handler." A Western guest lecturer in China is always assigned a handler, not to spy on you, but to make sure you get to your meetings and don't get hit by a car. After several days of lecturing, they insist you do some sightseeing. That is how we ended up strolling through a bamboo garden.
By now she knew I understood Chinese customs. This allowed me to ask a personal question. Wei came from a region of the countryside that was desperately poor. So how did she succeed in becoming a doctoral entomologist? Since so many in China have lived in hardship, they rarely speak of it among themselves. But I was a person from outside who would soon leave.
Wei described the very poor village where she grew up. Her parents were farmers. She had two older brothers. During sowing and harvest times, her brothers stayed home to work the fields. She was always sent to school. Even when all three attended school, when they returned home, she was sent into the house to study while there was still daylight to read. Her brothers would work in the fields until dark.
Without the study time, they never had a chance to succeed in school. Her brothers failed the junior high test that determines if you can go to high school. Her brothers eventually got married and had children, but they had very poor jobs. They got up at 3:00am in the morning and peddled bicycle carts a long distance to a wholesale market to buy fruit, and peddled back to sell it and make just enough money to keep food on the table.
But because of her hard study and determination, she passed the middle school and the all-important high school leaving exam with very high scores, and continued up the ranks through the university to become a scholar. And while Chinese professors are paid the poorest of all developing country professors, it is dramatically more than anyone could ever make in the countryside.
"Are your parents still farming?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, "but their health is not good from their life of hard work. I can support them in retirement now."
"And your brothers' children; will they be needing tuition to go to high school eventually?"
"Yes, but I will be able to take care of that too now."
"That must be difficult?" I asked.
"Very," she said, looking away.
In Chinese society, it is the older brother's duty to take care of parents when they grow old. But here, it was she—the younger sister or "mei-mei"—who had risen by education to become the one who would not only care for the parents, but also support her nieces' and nephews' education. The loss of face that her older brothers would have to endure made this all the more difficult.
Wei recognized that there were hundreds of thousands of other students in the countryside who had studied just as hard as she had, but never had a chance to leave the countryside. Opportunities to succeed were limited. She was not where she was merely because she worked hard.
With tears welling up, she said, "I am so....lucky."
Her English was superb. Her wet eyes were looking around for another word.
"Fortunate?" I offered.
"Yes, I am so...fortunate," but that still did not express the meaning she was looking for.
I knew the word she was looking for, but probably did not have the background to understand. She felt "blessed."
That was over a decade ago. I recently revisited that university and asked a colleague about her.
Wei had an opportunity to take a university position in New Zealand, then married another professor and has several children. She now has abundant resources to care for her retired parents, and her nieces' and nephews' education too.
She is living the Chinese students' dream: your chance to get ahead—study!