Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spreading Her Wings

At around lunchtime today I said good-bye to one of my best friends in Beijing.
She was at the airport, on her way to Denmark to start a two-year fellowship program sponsored by the European Union.
On the phone I could tell she was feeling excited, scared and sad all at once.

While it's not the first time she's been abroad, this is the first time she will be living overseas, a dream many here have, but few actually achieve.
A 25-year-old from Inner Mongolia, she is definitely a trailblazer in her hometown, having scored well on her gaokao or college entrance exams, and then going to Renmin University in Beijing.
After graduating, she has had the uncanny luck of meeting influential mentors along her young career. One of these mentors put her and I together and we instantly became good friends.

She is not the typical young Chinese who is materialistic or too naive; nor is she like most others who were taught to believe foreigners are enemies or a bad influence and stay away from people like me.

Instead she embraced many foreigners, eager to learn more about the real world or other opinions.

Although she was considered a star in the department of the state-owned enterprise she worked at, she refused to join the Party even though it was a lure to better promotions.

She said her parents joined when they were young, but soon after were disillusioned by the benefits and what the Party had done for the country; she herself didn't hold disdain for the Party per se, but was not blind to its inner workings

And many times when we would meet up for lunch or dinner, she would tell me interesting goings on in the office, how the company would be bogged down by bureaucracy, or how senior management made their sometimes bizarre decisions. There was also juicy gossip of older men taking advantage of young pretty women, asking them for shoulder massages as they checked their proteges' work.

But despite all the things she saw in the office, she knew there was a world beyond China that she had to explore.

She only made her first trip abroad last year -- to the United States no less -- and our mutual friend there observed she could have been a local, absorbing everything quickly and walking in a confident stride.

While I have encouraged other people the same age as her to move onto to other things or find ways to study abroad, she has done it all on her own.

When she was offered the fellowship position, she promptly accepted, a few months later quit her job and then began traveling to a few places in China, including Tibet. She met many people there who were so enamoured with the religious place that they stayed, starting businesses there like bed and breakfast inns.

Then she spent several weeks at home, her mother constantly cooking for her. In the beginning, she was happy to see her parents were so excited for her to get this overseas opportunity. But then towards the end of her stay there, she saw her mom was sad and she was also melancholic.

I reassured her, saying she'd been living away from home and in Beijing for the past nine years -- going to Europe was basically the same thing but further away. Her mother was sad that she wasn't in the same country, but that she knew this was a good chance for her to go abroad and learn more. I added that if I could come to China with my limited Mandarin, then she could live in Europe no problem with her excellent English.

It's natural to be anxious and excited starting something brand new, and, in a completely new environment too. And I have full confidence she won't hesitate spreading her wings and flying out of the cage and seeing the world that the rest of us have taken for granted.

That alone is an education in itself, an unforgettable experience I'm sure she will treasure for the rest of her life.

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