Stories from Chinese Millennials – Interview with an Achiever, Part 1

Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian Cambridge.

Though I have been trying to engage Chinese students for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which they come. Recently, I’ve been conducting a number of interviews with students I’m particularly close to. None of these students are professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking. All are interested in the Bible and the Christian God and have been variously committed to Bible studies while in the United States.

Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers are so familiar – the words they speak echo the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers are truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China, the Chinese worldview, and the experiences of Chinese people will still never fully prepare me for the individuals I face. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize. Over the next couple of months I plan to share some of the interviews I’ve conducted on this blog.

For this first interview, I spent time with a young woman I’ll call Peggy. Peggy is an achiever through and through. I meet many Chinese international students who dream of coming to America and making their mark. I see few of them live up to their own expectations – not because of any lack of talent involved, but rather because of the incredible expectations they set for themselves. Peggy is one of the few students for whom it seems possible to achieve the success she dreams of. She is gifted, yes, but mostly she is willing to drag herself through all sorts of extremely unpleasant experiences in order to accomplish what she wants. She is a true risk-taker.

But often behind a success is a story of true frustration and confusion. Peggy’s life has not lacked for either. With her permission, some of her most challenging and most important life experiences are shared with you in this first half of her interview. I hope they can help you understand why the gospel speaks so boldly to the Chinese soul – and why ministry with China’s people remains a complex and challenging field, despite the rapid movement of the gospel.

How would you describe your childhood?

My childhood was actually pretty peaceful. But I also feel it was a little bit too constrained, because I grew up in a small town in central China and both of my parents were [management] for a company. So actually there were a lot of constraints all of the time. It was a very traditional and very simple environment for growing up. Throughout my eighteen years of life before I became an adult, my family only moved just once. And it was very close so it didn’t actually change anything. So I really stayed in one place for over twenty years.

Do you feel like your childhood was mostly happy?

Yeah, I was happy because my family, particularly my parents, were very much in harmony. They seldom fought and their careers were pretty settled. They paid a lot to educate me and taught me a lot of different things about studying and behavior.

That’s really special.

I should [think of it] as a very happy and very peaceful childhood. But I also felt a lot of pressure. I don’t know when it started, but there was one period when I felt very… I don’t know, I didn’t feel very satisfied with [life]. There were a lot of the things I could think about wanting [in life], but I couldn’t obtain them from my current situation. So from high school I started to want to go further.

What types of things did you feel like you couldn’t obtain?

I wanted to feel more diversity in the people I met and things I could do. You know for Chinese high school students, they just study all of the time. Even though it was very boring, it was very important. But I felt like there should be more things I could do to make myself a better person and I couldn’t get access to those things. My parents wouldn’t allow me to. It felt like just one part of you has been realized, but another part of you is forced to keep silent.

Did you live near family members?

Yes, before I went to high school, I stayed at home. But my high school was in another city, so my mother lived with me there and my father would come to visit about once a month. And sometimes she would go back [with him].

How about your grandparents or cousins? Did they live close to you or far away?

Before I was ten years old my cousins and my aunts came back for Spring Festival for several years. But because they had their own children, when they grew up they found their own jobs in another city. So now my cousins are in every part [of the country]. One is in Beijing. Two are in Shanghai. Another two in Shenzhen. They are in three different parts – in totally different cities in China. Now they have their own families and own children, so it is now the next generation. I have so many cousins!

Are you the youngest of the cousins?

Yeah, because my mother was the youngest.

Are you the only one to go overseas?

They have gone overseas for their work, but not for their education.

So you are the first?

Yeah, I am the first. 

When you were growing up, what were you taught to believe in?

I think this question is a little tough because my parents were not sure about this, too, so sometimes they told my one thing and sometimes they told me other things. But I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself.

Where did you learn that from?

Basically, from my parents. At the time I was about twelve years old, there was once a long time when my father was extremely busy with his work. During that time whenever I had dinner with my mom, we would have a very long conversation about everything. My mother taught me and would talk a lot about her childhood, which was a little depressing. First because of the big background – you know about that [referencing the Cultural Revolution]. The other thing was the family condition.

My mother was a girl and she was also the youngest and my grandparents were not rich, so my mother did not like to study, but she had some interest in other things. But her parents wouldn’t allow her to do those things and just required her to do some very simply work, like accounting or something. My mother had her own thoughts, but she couldn’t do them. So she talked to me a lot about that. I still feel like [those conversations] really impressed me a lot.

My mother always supported me all the way concerning what I wanted to do, including in the middle of my undergraduate when I tried to convince my dad to allow me to go abroad for my education. My mother helped me a lot in convincing my dad. My dad wants to protect me and doesn’t want me to take such risks or changes. He also felt very insecure at that time, so my mother helped me to convince him a lot. Which had something to do with her childhood.

So the greatest influence on me comes from my mother.

What is your happiest memory?

Let me think. I can think of many happy memories, but I can’t decide which one is the happiest.

Ok, I feel like the period after I came to Boston is actually the most impressive and important memory for me, even if I can’t say the happiest. Because whenever I recall my life, I felt like it was really important that I could go somewhere totally new and totally strange and restart my life. So I came to Boston and it was just exactly the place where I could open a new page of my life and be a new person. So I feel like the past year has been a really important experience for me. I have done many many things I could never have imagined before and have changed a lot, especially my personality.

I feel like this is the memory I am most happy about. Because I found a new part of me. That makes me feel happy.

What are some of the things you’ve experienced that are new?

The first is that I met a lot of very wonderful people, and not just on campus, but also in some more informal ways, and also a lot of other people I met through activities and events, and also through networking and case interviews and a lot of different things. On campus there are a lot of MBA students and a lot of Chinese students and they are some very interesting people. [At first] it made me wonder if meeting these people was some kind of lifestyle I could get involved in or if it was something I really liked. But later I learned to treat things in a more natural and flexible way. So I am pretty satisfied with myself in that adjustment. So I think that might be the most important thing.

I also joined a fund on campus that is managed by MBA students, but it was an accident. Last year in September, the first month I came here, I accidentally became the first MSF student to give a stock pitch [in the group of MBA students]. Later I found out that [I created] a lot of changes, because before me, the MSF students were only allowed to participate the second semester, but after me a lot of other MSF students were allowed to participate and give speeches. They also established a new position for MSF students to join the management. So I felt like there was something I could change, and it gave me a sense of pride. I felt like I actually did something here. It was something I hadn’t imagined before.