One of the persons the Boston Marathon bombers murdered was Lu Lingzi, a Boston University graduate student from China. From Shenyang, where her parents now mourn the loss of their only child.
So far there are two other murder victims, a child named Martin Richard, and the young woman Krystle Campbell. I’m sure that were I to learn more about them I would find plenty to mourn and comment upon, but at the moment, I find myself especially moved and struck by Lingzi’s story. No set of obituary facts can do full justice to anyone’s personality, but what we learn (here’s the NYT story) does seem to reflect a fairly common pattern, and one that illuminates a little-commented-upon facet of the contemporary American university. That important facet is the familiarizing of foreign students, Chinese ones especially, with our way of life. It is obvious why this is potentially beneficial for us with students from a nation like China. The NYT quotes a source that says “More than 194,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, far exceeding any other foreign country.” I say that’s something to be celebrated and encouraged, whatever our positions on immigration and on college admission policies.
Here at Postmodern Conservative, we’re pretty pessimistic about and critical of the contemporary American university. Sometimes we’ve even dreamed of ditching the whole disease-ridden body and starting academia anew on bargain-basement terms, so long as we still get Socrates and a coffee-shop. We can sure understand why, for example, Jonathan Richman with his rock band The Modern Lovers called upon his beloved to
Put down your cigarette, and drop out of, BU!
Lu Lingzi, however, seemed to love BU, and to flourish there. Maybe the “Closing of the American Curricula” we pomocons gripe about, along with her specialized statistics studies and likely handicapped English, kept her from studying the Great Books while at BU, but particularly those of us who are Christians can’t help but notice that, while at BU she nonetheless became interested in what we regard as the Greatest Book of All.
But let’s begin with what’s easier to talk about. From various sources, we learn that she was “bubbly,” “chatty,” “particularly smart and yet simple,” posted photos of her cooking online, loved flowers, was regarded by at least one Chinese friend as having become somewhat “Westernized,” had many Chinese student friends in Boston but perhaps also some Japanese ones, loved the rock band Nirvana, wanted to cheer on the Boston runners, and on her “on her Weibo account… extolled the virtues of American life — blueberry waffles, Godiva dark chocolate, and ice cream.”
And apparently, while she was hoping her graduate work would lead to a job in banking, perhaps with openness to jobs abroad from China, she was also on the lookout for “the one,” and her parents back home were becoming worried that they would have to find a “boyfriend” for her. Unclear if she was primarily hoping to marry Chinese, and frankly, I hope no journalist tries to learn such personal details. 23 years old, and pretty.
Here is what she recently wrote to her BU professor after learning she had passed part of a final exam:
“I am so happy to get this result! Thank you very much.”
God, it breaks my heart. In part, because one of the highlights of my time at my last university was a friendship we made with two of the grad-student-aged language-tutors there, one Japanese and one Chinese. Some of the prosaic details of her life are similar to theirs. For example, the young Chinese tutor we’ve gotten to know is certainly upbeat, even downright wacky, and unlike the Japanese one not given (as Lingzi was) to taking loving photos of well-presented food. The again, she surprised us with her pretty extensive knowledge of Western film, and not a few books, too. I was stunned to learn that she had viewed one of the most powerfully anti-communist films I know of, The Lives of Others, while in China. Granted, she’s the product of a schooling focused on English-language skill, but still. The Chinese regime is apparently more like Putin’s Russia–in being able to increasingly permit free access to ideas while still tightly limiting real participation in politics—than I had thought.
Lingzi seems to have been a less intellectual person than our own Chinese friend. That is, her top-scoring mathematical ability and her studies in statistics do nothing to change my impression of a certain charming naiveté with respect to Western culture, but perhaps also to humanities culture in general. I find it amusing and interesting, for example, that her apparently sunny personality was nonetheless drawn to Nirvana, of all pop groups. Maybe she had her dark and cloudy side also, slightly concealed. Or maybe she didn’t quite get (like not a few of his American fans also) what Kurt Cobain was about. In any case, it would have been a shame if a taste for grunge rock and Godiva chocolates was all she was going to bring back to China from America, which is the impression at least a couple of the recent news stories gave.
But the NYT revealed that a close friend said she had become “interested in Christianity” while in America, and that some facebook photos show her at a Christian retreat center, one Toah Nipi, which, as it turns out, is run by InterVaristy Christian Fellowship, the fine evangelical para-church group I served with back in my undergraduate days, and through which I met my wife. The link shows you how that center holds a Thanksgiving Weekend retreat for international students.
Many of the Chinese students at our universities, particularly at the graduate level, are in a sense insulated from the main cultural currents occurring there, in part because they’re locked into their specialized hard-sciences or mathematical tracks of study. That’s probably a good thing, since many of these currents are depressing, toxic, and thus quite unflattering to America. They’re also unable to quickly acquire the cultural feel for America that would allow them to understand the significance of certain things to us. They might not grasp, for example, why the show GIRLS seems a portentous cultural milestone to professors like our Peter Lawler or the main page’s Alan Jacobs. Or why I think the Modern Lovers are the coolest, especially when singing anti-suicide songs, or about how the modern world is not so bad.
But they’re still going to pick up on some things while here. It can’t be equations all the time. And so it is encouraging that Miss Lingzi seems to have generally enjoyed the little delights of American life, and not to have focused on its bad aspects. As Jonathan’s song put it: The modern world is not so bad, not like the students say. The American ones, that is. Whereas through the eyes of foreign students we can remind ourselves just how good things like blueberry waffles are!
But don’t let the chirpy waffle-talk that some news outlets are going to emphasize with respect to Miss Lingzi obscure the fact that to her eyes the most fascinating thing about the modern American world, even in deep-blue New England, is its Christianity.
What that might say about China’s future, and Christianity’s role within it, is worth considering also.
By saying this I do not mean to “claim” her for Christianity. But I do mean to claim that Chinese and other foreign-student encounters with America can, in addition to perhaps mitigating international conflicts in the future, give us special insight into who we are. And, into who they are.
R.I.P., Miss Lingzi.
UPDATE: Lu Lingzi’s roomate gives us a little more information here. She is apparently the one who invited her to the IVCF retreat, and says flatly that Lingzi was “not religious.” So, the above perhaps suggests she was more fascinated by Christianity than she was. Still a different Chinese student did say she that she had “become interested” in it.