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The girl was a top student throughout her school career, the kind math teachers called upon to demonstrate tricky problems at the blackboard. She adopted her father's love of ancient Chinese history and was an eager participant in essay-writing competitions, eliciting both praise and consternation from her teachers.
She recalls one contest, when she was just seven or eight, in which the topic was ideals. Students wrote about what career would enable them to manifest virtue to the highest degree. At first Lijun said she wanted to be a writer, but she shifted gears mid-essay and wrote about becoming an astronomer. Her teacher apparently was alarmed by her vivid descriptions of the heavens and offered a warning to her mother:
"This kid can write very good articles, but the problem is she's got so much imagination. That will be the weakness for her future if she treats the imagination as the real world." Lijun still recalls the words with laughter.
Her independent streak continued through high school. She ran afoul of her teachers by playing soccer and volleyball with boys and sporting a bold, close-cropped hairstyle made popular at the time by a star of the Chinese cinema.
She says she always felt like an outsider and dreamed of a day when she might leave her country.
"Sometimes I just thought probably I was born in the wrong place. I was just like an alien. Some teachers said to me, 'Why do you always act so different from other people?' I used to wonder that too." Lijun vividly remembers her thoughts upon seeing an airplane fly by while she was walking one night. "Its light was flashing, and I said at that time, 'I'm going to go out of this country.' I didn't think it would come true."
Avowedly apolitical, Lijun was still in high school when pro-democracy student rallies erupted in Tienanmen Square in June 1989. The government responded with deadly force, massacring hundreds. In the blood-stained aftermath, Lijun began college.
"Almost all the first year we studied nothing other than, in [the teachers'] words, 'Wash your mind.' So we 'washed our minds' every day. In every class they divided us into teams, and every team had to discuss the June 4 'matter.' "
Some of the most telling lessons at the university came from her refusal to join the Communist Youth League, which claimed the vast majority of students as members. One of her professors seemed disturbed by her reluctance to join, she says, and frequently counseled her on the issue.
"The teacher said, 'How come as a good student you didn't apply for this league?' I said, 'I'm just not interested in politics.' He said, 'Probably you have been influenced too much by capitalism. You probably have got some problems with your thoughts.' "
Lijun persevered despite the pestering. In a country where males receive two out of three college diplomas, she graduated with an economics degree. Afterward she landed a job with an American electronics company.
She was in her mid-twenties and still living with her parents when she fell in love with the man who would become the father of her child. Lijun speaks about this episode reluctantly, and fights to keep her poise as she describes it. Every word brings her closer to tears.
She says she met him at a get-together at a friend's apartment, and they hit it off right away. He lived in a different city but had frequent business in Lijun's hometown. The man began to make a habit of calling the gracious, spirited girl whenever he was in town. Soon he began to confide in her about his unhappy marriage to a much older woman. He considered the relationship with his wife to be a "partnership," not one of smoldering passion. He told Lijun he was in love with her.
She felt the same way, she says, but had serious doubts about their future.
"I was conflicted," she says. "On the one hand, I knew it wasn't right because he had a wife and a child. On the other hand, it's not right to stay in a relationship that's dead."
Her paramour raised the stakes when he told her he planned to divorce so that he and Lijun could eventually marry. But all the sweet talk abruptly changed when Lijun became pregnant. She remembers calling her boyfriend immediately after learning the results of her home pregnancy test.
"Dammit!" he growled. "It's impossible for you to keep that baby. You must face reality. It cannot work out." Lijun hung up on him.
However, the more she thought about it, the clearer she saw that abortion probably was the only way out of their bind. In order for them to have the baby without reprisals, the man would have to divorce quickly and marry Lijun at once. Then they would need consent from family planning authorities to have a child. Taking care of these complicated matters in the short time they had would have been next to impossible, Lijun says.
But the idea of an abortion struck her as both terrifying and tragic. A friend of hers had once been in similar straits, she says, and the results were not pretty.
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