“There is nothing special about my life journey. I simply refused to allow that my circumstances determine my fate. There are certain goals in life that may seem insurmountable to achieve at any moment but, if we do not invest in faith and hard work, we will never know whether we can reach them. I have always wanted to be the decision maker of my own life’s journey.”
These words belong to Zhang Jing. At first glance, Jing may not appear to be any different from many other first-generation Chinese immigrants to America in search of a better life. However, a deeper look into her personal journey reveals just how fascinating and inspiring her life truly is.
Born in Beijing, China in the spring of 1953, Jing came into the world during a significant season of change: the People’s Republic of China had been founded only four years earlier and the country was experiencing rapid industrialization. Both of Jing’s parents were members of the Chinese Communist Party and also veterans of the Sino-Japanese war. Her father was among the first generation of People’s Liberation Army aircraft pilots and her mother was on the military medical staff. From early childhood, Jing had no interest in typical schoolgirls’ play and much more fascinated by her father’s military stories and uniforms. She dreamed of becoming a military surgeon.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1965. Schools nationwide were shut down. Twelve-year-old Jing was forced to stay at home with her three younger siblings who needed her care. As a child that loved her school and learning, Jing was devastated. It was during this time that her parents were severely punished by the Communist government, which sought political reform of its intellectual and more privileged citizens. Students who were “sent down” between the years of 1965 to 1968 were given a special name: “Old Three-Year Graduates.” This meant they were students that had been sent to the countryside to be re-educated by farmers. Jing was among those “Old Three-Year Graduates”.
In 1968, she was sent to a farming village in Jilin Province, where she, was required to help with difficult household and farming tasks. This was a time of incredible hardship for families across the country; food and supplies were very scarce and famine wreaked havoc upon the farmlands. Jing’s belly was almost always empty and her young, active mind was similarly hungry – desperately craving school and education.
The days on the farm dragged on, turning into months and then years. Finally, in 1971, Jing was able to leave the village to work in a factory in a nearby rural area. From 1971 to 1977, she lived the mundane life of a factory worker. In the year 1977, the college entrance examination process was restarted by the government. By now, however, Jing had lost confidence in her ability to pass the exam: she had completed only one year of middle school education, which was now ten years outdated. For Jing, taking the entrance exam was only a very distant dream.
Four years later, Jing’s family relocated to Dalian where she found a job in a local factory. Through her coworkers, Jing was introduced to a man that also worked at the factory and they were soon married. Not long after, at the age of 30, Jing became a mother.
She continued to work at the factory while also caring for her young child. Chinese cultural traditions dictate that a woman should accept her life status once she has a marriage, a job, and a baby. It is often said that “children are what binds a marriage together.” However, Jing was incredibly dissatisfied with her life. She did not want to settle for such predictable mediocrity: a life with no personal development both for herself and her daughter. She wanted to study, to explore, and to take control of her life and provide opportunities for her daughter.
Jing’s family and friends tried to discourage her from taking college classes by saying, “Forget it, don’t give up your job, think of your baby!” But Jing, looking at her daughter in her arms, felt determined to change her life. She took her child to daycare at the factory where she worked days, then paid to attend classes during nights and weekends to prepare for the exam. She said, “I am as hungry for learning as I was for food when I was starving in the countryside.” With a yearlong study and very little sleep, Jing earned admission to Dalian Foreign Language Institute with a total score of 487 out of a possible 510 points.
The factory where Jing worked refused to let her attend college, even at night, so she resigned and attended college full-time. Although her college classmates were a generation younger, it did not deter her enthusiasm for learning and her desire for success. This was her opportunity to take initiative, to make her own way, by giving up the iron rice bowl of state-owned enterprises. Jing was heading in an entirely new direction.
After graduating with a degree in English, Jing got a professional job at a foreign company doing business in China. She was among the first group of college graduates permitted to work for a foreign enterprise after China’s economic reform and opening. This allowed her to earn higher wages, live in a hotel, and travel by car with a private chauffeur. Jing had become the modern, independent Chinese woman in a professional world. As a teenager, Jing had read the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. She never dreamt that she would become an independent woman like Nora in A Doll’s House.
Jing’s newfound independence was at odds with traditional Chinese customs. It was now the second decade of Chinese economic reforms, and conflicts between new ideas and the old Chinese ways continued to split generations. These differences led to marriage disagreements and, ultimately, a divorce in 1990.
Working for a foreign company, Jing was exposed to “imported culture” earlier than those among her friends and family. They accused Jing of being too modern and offbeat, while Jing felt like a fish out of water.
Destiny decided to smile on her when one day, at a trade event, she met a university professor visiting from the United States. He was teaching in China and enjoyed the country, food, and people. He was different from the American businessmen that Jing most frequently dealt with. They were instantly drawn to one another and married in 1991.
At the time of their marriage, Jing was 38 years old. She set out on a new adventure for the second time in her life. She quit her high-paying job (with a salary 20 times the average) and flew to join her husband in America.
Even though Jing’s American husband was supportive, she wanted to prove that she could be strong partner who could stand on her own two feet. Initially, she found work in a Chinese restaurant. At the time, the minimum wage was $4 an hour, but they paid her only $1 plus tips. She soon realized that her ability to speak English (and her college degree in the subject) was not enough of an advantage, and that she needed new skills that would enable her to find a professional job.
So, at the age of 40, Jing followed a new schooling aspiration, one that eventually led her to become a software engineer. She was told by the advisor in the applied statistics department that she needed to take courses in math and calculus in order to be admitted into their graduate program. At that time, Jing had only finished a seventh-grade mathematics education from China and that was 30 years ago. Learning calculus would be a huge challenge, but Jing was determined. Within just one year, she was able to finish all four calculus courses that she needed to enroll in the Master’s program degree in Applied Statistics.
From 1991 to 1998, Jing studied relentlessly while working full-time as a bank teller and continuing to care for her young daughter. After seven years of hard work and dedication, she graduated with the following accolades: a degree in Accounting, Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and a Master’s Degree in Statistics. She became a statistical software engineer, matriculated into the graduate program in Center for Quality and Applied Statistics full time, and ended up as a quality engineer with LPA Software.
Jing went on to join the Fortune 500 company, Xerox Corporation. She quickly realized her ignorance in computer science and returned to school once again to obtain a Master’s Degree in Information Technology. Then, at the age of 49, Jing was promoted to Senior Engineer and became the supervisor of the software testing laboratory.
Blessed with great success and a very comfortable life in America, Jing started to notice the deterioration of her health. She suffered from back pain, knee and shoulder arthritis, and cervical hyperplasia. Later, at the age of 51, Jing learned from a routine exam that she had breast cancer. She opted to have a twelve-hour surgery in order to survive. After the surgery, Jing reevaluated her life: was it worthwhile to spend two precious hours every day commuting to a nine-to-five job? She decided it was once again time to create a new phase of life.
In 2013, at the age of 60, Jing retired from her job at Xerox and reprioritized. She decided to focus on health and to start enjoying all the things that she had missed out. She started going to the gym every day, swimming laps, and practicing yoga. She took up a high protein vegetarian diet and set a goal of overall self-improvement. She recognized how important it was to have a strong physique and muscles, healthy complexion and a cheerful, positive outlook.
Within six months, there were significant changes in her body. She said, “The pain disappeared, my muscles and their strength came back, and my youth has returned.”
Retirement can often arouse feelings of loss and restlessness, for which Jing has found a number of creative solutions. A spontaneous cruise to the Bahamas and their white sandy beaches made Jing very happy, and quickly washed any worries far, far away. Once back from her trip, Jing joined a yoga fundraising activity at the Midway aircraft carrier museum deck and quickly realized that giving back to her community is something she very much enjoys.
She continues to travel to new destinations across the world, such as her trip with a friend to Peru, where she climbed to an altitude of 3650 meters, visited ancient Inca sites, and braved a visit to the Peruvian Amazon region to see the native peoples. Jing also traveled to a remote island in French Polynesia where she tried SCUBA diving for her first time. While there, she excitedly volunteered at a sea turtle sanctuary, cleaned trash off of a local beach, and helped build a small structure at a sacred native site located deep in the jungled core of Tahiti.
Jing’s daughter turned out to have a successful and beautiful life too. Due to an immigration issue that delayed her daughter’s visa, they were separated for the first three years after Jing landed in the US. Jing kept encouraging her daughter to develop her expertise, gain fluency in English, and work towards becoming an independent, respectable woman in her new country. Her daughter became a military doctor, at one time responsible for the health of over 1,000 U.S. marines on a navy ship touring the world. She is now retired from the Navy and has a successful career as an Anesthesiologist. Her husband is a surgeon, and they now have a beautiful baby girl that Jing adores being a grandmother to.
Looking at a photo from a recent family gathering, Jing, now 66, happily embraces her role as daughter, wife, mother and grandmother. Other women at this point in their lives are settled into playing mahjong with friends. Jing, however, is still pushing her boundaries: doing yoga, trying surfing, diving, hiking, and more. She says, “Look at me. If you think it’s too late to do something you want to do, you can still give it a try. Think about that.”
Long ago, when Jing was in her teens and working her first job after being sent to the farms, she went to watch a movie in the factory cafeteria. A large group of boys had gotten there first and yelled for any girls that came to go away. Many of the girls ran off, but Jing stood her ground and would not be intimidated. She mused over a line from the movie The Count of Monte Cristo: “When you desperately want to do something, no one can stop you.”
To this day, Jing still has this unstoppable drive to “do her thing.” She is not afraid to try anything new and will not allow others to discourage her. In her life, she faced many obstacles; a lost education due to the Cultural Revolution, starving in the countryside farm during brutal winters, fighting to get an education in both China and America, and finally, fighting for her life against cancer.
Jing changed her life and lived as only she decided. She says: “People have to control their own destiny and they must know what they want at any time. When you ask for fate to be fair to you, you have already lost it. ”
To quote Japanese comedian and filmmaker Kitano Takeshi: “For us, being happy means to be happy with what we do and at any age.”
While Jing was in Tahiti, she experienced sailing on an outrigger canoe for the first time. The wind was very strong and the boat was very fast. She was amazed to learn that you could move a sailboat into the direction the wind is coming from. She also learned that traditional Polynesian navigators used celestial navigation with the stars, moon and sun to set a course to specific islands and places as far away as Hawaii and south China.
Jing says: “Life is like sailing; when you are not sure what is ahead that is not a reason not to set off. Every day in life is unique. I want to live passionately, fearlessly and meaningfully.”
At the beautiful age of 67, Jing is still actively hiking, diving, and practicing yoga.
By Zhang Jing