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We've come a long way from same shoes for all
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For a long time, Fan Qijin had believed that every person on earth should wear the same shoes. That was what he thought until his study tour in Japan 28 years ago.

When Fan first boarded a train in Tokyo in 1981 after his arrival in Japan, the then 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 the early 1980s, the infant stage of China's reform and opening-up, Chinese people were dressed predominantly in their identical gray or blue, plus the grass green rubber-soled canvas shoes.

It was no wonder that Fan felt culture shock, coming from a society where uniformity had been omnipresent for almost three decades.

Indeed, the study tour itself had been a windfall to Fan, given his "tainted" family background. He fell into the "Black Five" Category, a highly politicized term coined to describe "landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionaries, bad elements and right-wingers" in China from 1957 to 1976.

Not trusted due to his label, Fan had been frustrated in his political advancement at a time when everything in China 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, that he was finally in a job that was relevant to his college major - harbor engineering.

An opportunity came his way in the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China's reform and opening up, decided that students and scholars should be funded for overseas study.

As Fan's bureau was only assigned one place for overseas study in 1980, competition was tough. Fan passed his Japanese language and professional knowledge test, but he had to face a more complicated check of political records. "I didn't know exactly how the check was carried out," Fan said, "but I knew the process was lengthy."

In 1981 Fan joined some 250 people in state-funded study in Japan. He studied at the School of Science, the University of Tokyo. Life abroad was tough for Fan, on a state allowance - 1,000 yen (about US$4.50) a day - that could only buy a bowl and a half of noodles at a local market, far from a decent living.

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

Changing times

"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."

Over 20 years later, 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 difficult part this time was choosing gifts from Japan that did not have made-in-China tags. "It was like shopping at home, as it is hard to find stuff not made in China," Fan said.

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

About 20 years after his first trip to Japan, Fan's two sons, Fan Zhen and Fan Zhe, went off 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. Shortly after he arrived in the United States in 1998, Fan Zhe bought a second-hand Ford Festiva for US$500, something his father could never have afforded during his first trip to 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 backgrounds, be it American, Japanese or European."

Keen on the latest developments in technology and on seeing another culture, Fan Zhe was among China's earliest e-mail users in 1995. His romance with Du Ying from central China's Hubei Province was the combined result of tradition and computer technology.

The Chinese traditional matchmaking gave Fan Zhe and Du a chance to meet while the Internet instant messaging software helped them know each other better via the Internet before they got married in 2000.

Du accompanied Fan Zhe to study computer science and engineering at Notre Dame in 2001. After his graduation from Notre Dame's Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering with a doctorate in 2003, Fan Zhe worked in the States for four years. He cofounded a robotic vision company in Salt Lake City, Utah, and later worked as a senior computer engineer in Atlanta, Georgia.

Although the couple were granted US permanent resident cards, Fan Zhe and his wife returned to China in 2007 and set up their own company in Shanghai one year later.

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

"The roots of Chinese people are in China," he said. "If we don't have roots, we won't have strength and confidence." Fan Qijin, however, was not concerned about the citizenship his children or grandchildren acquired, be it American, or Canadian as in the case of his eldest son Fan Zhen.

(Shanghai Daily September 24, 2009)

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