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A Family's Study Odyssey Outside China
by Chen Siwu,China Features

For a long time, Fan Qijin had held that every person on earth should wear the same shoes. That was undoubted in his mind until his study tour in Japan 28 years ago.

When Fan first boarded a train in Tokyo in 1981 shortly after his arrival in Japan, the 37-year-old was a bit shocked to see that no two pairs of shoes worn by ordinary Japanese were the same.

"The feeling was so bizarre, as what I saw in Tokyo then was totally different from my country," recalled Fan, now 65, and chief engineer of the Shanghai-based Yangtze Estuary Waterway Administration Bureau under the Ministry of Communications.

In early 1980s, the infant stage of China’s reform and opening-up, Chinese people were still dressed predominantly in their identical gray or blue, plus the grass green rubber-soled canvas shoes, dubbed "jiefang xie", meaning "liberation shoes".

It was then no wonder about the cultural shock felt by Fan, coming from a society where uniformity had been omnipresent for almost three decades.

Indeed, the study tour itself had been a “godsend” to Fan, given his “tainted” family background. He fell unfortunately into the "Black Five” Category, a highly politicized term coined for "landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionists, bad elements and right-wingers" in China from 1957 to 1976, when the decade-long "Cultural Revolution" ended.

Not trusted due to the nametag, Fan had been frustrated in his political advancement at a time everything in China was hinged on political correctness.

Upon graduation from Tianjin University in north China in 1968, Fan was assigned to a military farm in Taishan County, south China's Guangdong Province and worked as farmer for two years.

It was not until 1970 when he was transferred to the Qingdao-based No.1 Port Construction Bureau under the Ministry of Communications, and was finally in a job along the line of his college major -- harbor engineering.

An opportunity came his way in late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China’s reform and opening up, instructed that more students and scholars should be funded for overseas study to accelerate the country’s reform process.

As the bureau Fan worked for was only assigned in 1980 one place for overseas study, competition was imaginable.

Fan passed Japanese language and professional knowledge test, but he still have to face a more complicated check up of political records.

"I didn't know exactly how the check-up was carried out," Fan said, "but I knew the process was lengthy."

In 1981 Fan joined some 250 people to study in Japan with state fund. And he was to study at the School of Science, the University of Tokyo.

Life abroad was tough for Fan, as state allowance -- 1,000 yen (about 4.5 U.S. dollars) a day -- could only buy a bowl and a half of noodles at local market, far from a decent living.

“Therefore I didn't want to go shopping at all even though the stores and shopping malls in Tokyo were full of dazzling goods I've never seen back home," he said.

"More importantly, time was so valuable for our generation to learn from foreign countries," he explained. "Imagine how excited we were when being exposed to such an enormous amount of knowledge that China desperately needed during that time."

This hunger for knowledge had made Fan's life in Tokyo a simple route between university laboratory and dormitory.

"I was a 100 percent learner in Japan then," Fan said. "I didn't have much time to play and the only song I learned in Japan was Spring in Northland."

When he completed his study in 1983, all Fan wished was to bring almost every major item back to China, where durables were still a rarity in the 1980s.

"Made-in-Japan wrist watch, refrigerator, washing machine, color television set," Fan counted with his fingers.

"What really annoyed me was I didn't have enough money for such a long list then," he said.

Over 20 years later, however, a much longer list needed his scrutiny when he returned to Japan to give a lecture on China's harbor engineering in February this year.

But the difficulty part this time was choosing at Japanese stores presents for his family back in China, with no made-in-China tags.

"It was like shopping at home as it is hard to find stuff not made in China," Fan added.

What’s sarcastic was the fact that the electronic photo frame he had carefully chosen turned out to be "made in China".

"Things are very different now," Fan said. "From China's international standing to its technological progress, great changes could be seen everywhere."

In 1950, China's imports and exports amounted to a mere 1.13 billion U.S. dollars, or 0.9 percent of the world trade volume. The figure had grown in 2008, however, to about 2.56 trillion dollars or 8.86 percent, as the country is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary on Oct. 1.

"The ups and downs in my life were closely linked to the state of the entire country," said Fan.

About 20 years after his first trip to Japan, Fan’s two sons, Fan Zhen and Fan Zhe, were packed to study in the United States. This time around, there was no political check up.

"My classmates at Shanghai Jiao Tong University all saw studying abroad as a good choice," said Fan Zhe, 37.

In 1998, Fan Zhe acquired MA for mechatronics and automation at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and received a full scholarship offer from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Now, having a company of his own at Zhangjiang Hi-tech Park, Shanghai, Fan Zhe looked back at the steps he took for his U.S. study.

“You have to pass TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and GRE (Graduate Record Examination) designed by the U.S. Educational Testing Service, writing application letters to different universities for admission and arranging an appointment with the U.S. consulate for a visa interview. On every step you have to count on yourself."

Shortly after he arrived in the United States in the autumn of 1998, Fan Zhe bought a second hand Ford Festiva at a price of 500 dollars, a deal his father couldn't afford during his first trip in Japan.

"Studying abroad gives me a fuller picture of the world and more options in the future," said Fan Zhe. "I learned to fit into different background and was no longer a stranger to another culture, be it American, Japanese or European."

In 2003, Fan Zhe got his doctorate from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame, with his research on industrial applications of camera-space manipulation.

After graduation, he worked in the States for four years and married Du Ying, a Chinese graduate of computer science and engineering from Notre Dame.

Despite their U.S. citizenship, the couple returned to China in 2007 and founded their own company in Shanghai one year later.

"This is the place where we are from," Fan Zhe said, adding they foresaw an exploding growth of information technology in China with its infrastructure, research and development, as well as market potentials.

"The roots of Chinese are in China," he said. "If we don't have roots, we won't have strength and confidence."

Fan Qijin, however, was not bothered about the identities his children or grandchildren acquired, be it American, or Canadian as in the case of his eldest son Fan Zhen.

"This does not bother me at all because they are all my descendants and all returned to China for their professional career,” he said.


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