Foreign face, Chinese heart

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-16 5:03:02

Abandoned at birth, Li Yizu makes Xinjiang his home

Li Yizu in Hejing county, Xinjiang in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Li Yizu

Li Yizu with his mother in Beijing in 1939. Photos: Courtesy of Li Yizu

Li Yizu on a field trip in Xinjiang in 1964. Photos: Courtesy of Li Yizu

Li Yizu is not a typical Chinese man. For a start, he doesn't look like one.

Ever since he was a child, he has been singled out for his chiseled facial features, blue eyes and blond hair.

In 1938, a year after Japan initiated its full-scale invasion of China, a Caucasian woman of unknown nationality gave birth to him in a Christian hospital in Tianjin. Then without a word, she vanished from his life. 

His foster mother, a woman from Shandong Province, raised him during the turmoil of the war and later sent him to college in Beijing in the late 1950s.

For the next 50 years, Li worked as a geologist in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, traveling through mountains and steppes to find mineral deposits.

These days, he lives with his wife in Urumqi. After retiring, Li volunteered for the Next Generation Working Committee, giving science lectures to primary and middle school students across Xinjiang.

"People often mistake me for a Tajik or a laowai. I call myself a Chinese of foreign origin. I was raised by a loving and humble Chinese mother. I have never considered myself a foreigner," Li told the Global Times.

Early memories

In a photo that Li has kept for over half a century, his foster mother, dressed in a plain traditional Chinese gown with her hair tied up in a bun, holds the baby Li Yizu in her arms in the courtyard of their Beijing home.

His parents were Christians and had him baptized at the Asbury Church in Beijing. At the time, his father was a senior manager at Columbia Pictures' China office.

"My father had the power to choose theaters for movie releases. One year, they were celebrating my grandmother's birthday. All the theater managers in North China came to the party," Li said.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, films from the US stopped coming to China and life became difficult. His family had to leave Beijing to seek sanctuary in the countryside. 

Li remembers his mother as a traditional Chinese woman with bound feet.

"She had very little education, like most Chinese women at that time. The one thing I remembered about her is how she refused to raise me to be weak. She told me that one should die standing rather than live on one's knees. It was this belief that supported her through all the turbulence in her life."

Li's father died at a young age. His mother raised him by herself through the war. When the war ended, they returned to Beijing. Li enrolled at the China University of Geosciences in 1957. In 1961, he signed up to work in Xinjiang.

"Before I got on the train, she managed to get hold of some pork and made me dumplings. This was during the Great Famine and food was scarce. She watched me eat and sent me to the train. At the time, Xinjiang was underdeveloped and distant. I was her only child. She knew life was going to be hard for her. But she never asked me to stay, not a single word."

Holding his tongue

Throughout his life, Li has repeatedly been seen as a foreigner.

Foreign tourists would come to him on the street, asking for directions in English. Taxi drivers are constantly shocked by his fluent Chinese and his profound knowledge of Chinese history.

Li said he used to be able to speak English but refused to do so ever since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

"My appearance drew some attacks at the time. Some people said I was not a Chinese and said those who study English are spies. I was so mad. I told myself that I would never speak English again."

Li was about to join the Communist Party of China in 1966. After he submitted his application, the revolution began. His work was suspended. No one would write him a recommendation letter.

"A lot of people asked me how I survived the Cultural Revolution. Maybe I was lucky. Things turned out all right."

Li eventually joined the Party in 1981.

He told the Global Times that he has never travelled to a foreign country. But it's not because he didn't have the opportunity.

His eldest cousin, Li Huaizu, was a student at Yenching University. Li Huaizu left Beijing to study in the US in 1949 and never returned. His other cousins all emigrated to the US after 1976.

Some people have offered to help him find his relatives abroad, but he politely refused.

"Maybe I was stubborn. I have spent so many years in China, in Xinjiang. There is no better place for me but here."

Going out west

Of the 330 students who graduated from Li's department in 1961, more than 70 signed up to work in Xinjiang. Like his classmates, Li said he volunteered because he wanted to serve his country.

"I remember the first time I arrived in Urumqi. I got off the train and had my first meal. It was a bowl of lamb. At that time of famine, it was the best thing I could possibly have had. I fell in love with this place immediately," he said.

Li spent most of his career searching for mineral deposits in the most desolate areas of Xinjiang. The job was strenuous and dangerous. Many of his classmates died in the field.

He met his wife through a friend and got married in 1965. They have a son and a daughter. Li said he and his wife have never quarreled in their lives.

At the age of 50, Li embarked on a trip across China on a motorbike. He traveled from Urumqi all the way to Tianjin, his birthplace.

"I believe in science, not destiny. But looking back, something seems to have guided me. I have met so many good people in my life," Li said.

After retirement, Li volunteered for a program that teaches children about science, law and life. More than 300,000 people have been to his lectures.

At his home, portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai can be seen on the wall. Li told the Global Times that he misses the old times.

"People were less materialistic back then. Children were taught to be selfless, to be dedicated to their community. I want to bring this back to today's society."

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