A familiar face, far from home
This is one of those “what are the odds?” stories.
The day after spring break, on March 29, Pei Su dropped her daughter off as usual at the Orchard Downs Preschool. As she waited outside the bathroom for 4-year-old Jessica to wash her hands, Su heard someone speaking Chinese.
That wasn’t terribly unusual, as the University of Illinois has more than 1,600 students and staff from China.
But like the Orchard Downs family housing complex, the preschool is a United Nations of graduate students, from Korea, Turkey and other far-flung countries.
And there was something familiar about this voice.
Su turned, and got the shock of her life. There stood Qinghua Dai, one of her closest friends from college. They hadn’t seen each other since they’d graduated from Huazhong Agricultural University in central China 12 years ago, but here they were, reunited at a preschool on the central Illinois prairie, thousands of miles from home.
“I saw her suddenly and thought, ‘I know you!’” Su says.
Actually, for a split second she thought it might be Dai’s double, or a sister she didn’t know about. But then she blurted out, “Is that Qinghua?”
Dai was dumbfounded. She’d been in Champaign — in the United States, even — for such a short time, just a few weeks, and was still adjusting.
“I heard her call my name. I didn’t believe someone could know my name,” Dai says.
“She just stared at me for 10 seconds and didn’t say anything,” says Su, who wondered if it was the 20 pounds she’d put on her slight frame since graduation.
But then Dai said, “Yes!”
“It was incredible, but I recognized her,” she says. “We were so excited.”
They hugged, and screamed, and the word quickly spread: Big reunion in the lobby.
“I heard all these screeches and everything, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” says preschool Director Connie Bryan.
Su had to get to work, and all during the bus ride she kept thinking, “It’s unbelievable, it’s amazing.”
She was so distracted she forgot to get off the bus and had to walk to her job from the next stop.
The two women had been next-door neighbors during college, graduating in 1998 with degrees in food science and engineering. They went their separate ways — literally, to different parts of the country — and lost touch.
Su, who grew up near Beijing, went to work for a beer company. Then her husband landed a postdoctoral position in biology in Kansas City starting in 2004. Two years later, he moved to Champaign-Urbana for a postdoc at the UI, and Su got a job as a lab manager at a university biology lab.
Dai, whose hometown is near Shanghai, went on to study microbiology in graduate school at Nanjing Agricultural University. She then worked at Changzhou University in eastern China for five years. Her husband came to the UI in December 2009 as a visiting scholar in agricultural engineering, and she and her son followed in March.
Through mutual friends, Su had learned that Dai went to graduate school, but didn’t know where. Dai knew Su had moved back to her hometown at one point, but had no idea she was in the United States.
Su’s husband had also attended college with the two women. On the day of the reunion, Su told him that she’d run into one of their old friends.
“He thought I meant from Kansas City,” she says. “Then I told him and he said, ‘No way!’”
The women, both 34, soon learned they had children nearly the same age: Jessica, 4, and Dai’s son Rui, who is 5. The children, like the mothers, were born four months apart.
The families live about a block away from each other at Orchard Downs, across the school playground. Their kids go back and forth to play, often eating dinner at the other’s house.
Being a mom in a foreign country is a constant challenge, from shopping to finding activities for the kids. The simplest childhood moments become complicated.
“I cannot sing the same English song she learned at school,” Su says of her daughter. “I cannot cook her favorite American food. Sometimes I don’t understand what she is talking about.”
So it’s been nice for the two women to have each other to lean on, Su says.
Both families will be leaving the United States by December. Dai will be returning to the university in Nanjing. Su isn’t sure of her destination; it will depend on her husband’s job.
But they’re both sure of one thing.
“This time,” Su says, “We’ll keep in touch.”
Photo: Qinghua Dai and son Rui, left, play at the Orchard Downs preschool with friends Pei Su and daughter Jessica on May 19. News-Gazette photo by Vanda Bidwell