For the Wellesley College basketball team’s new point guard, the chemistry is right both on and off the court. During her first season, 5’7″ junior Cai Jinqing has shown a fine touch with her arcing three-pointers from the outside and a fierce, ball-stealing tenacity on D. The rest of her record is all A’s. During her first semester at the elite women’s college just west of Boston, she aced her entire course load in math, economics, art history and her major, chemistry. It’s a record that redefines the ideal of student-athlete: Until this fall Jinqing, 22, had never used English on a regular basis. Says her coach, Roxanne Dale: “She has this burning desire that perhaps is a result of what happened last spring.”
What happened was the Chinese student-and-worker rebellion that was crushed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed as army tanks and troops snuffed out the democracy movement. Jinqing, a student at Beijing University, might have been one of the casualties had her parents not persuaded her to stay home on the day of the bloodshed. During the previous weeks, she had camped out on the square, working as an announcer on the students’ public-address system and acting as guide and translator for foreign journalists. While many of her classmates were being rounded up and jailed in a brutal post-Tiananmen crackdown, Jinqing managed to flee the country. Even as she enjoys the haven of a bucolic campus half a world away, Jinqing knows her experience sets her apart. Says chemistry professor David Haines, who taught Jinqing last fall: “She’s had to make choices in her life that most students never come close to.”
The only daughter of a retired Beijing car-and-trolley repairman and a retired kindergarten teacher, Jinqing has three older brothers—Jindong, 33, Jinyong, 30, and Jinliang, 25—whose outstanding academic achievements enabled them to study in the U.S. They urged her to join them in America, but Jinqing preferred to remain in Beijing, where she was a straight-A chemistry major and, yes, a star of the basketball team.
One day last spring, Jinyong, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Boston University, recognized his sister’s voice—amplified by a loudspeaker—while watching a TV newscast of the demonstrations. He called his parents and learned that Jinqing had indeed been drawn into the democracy movement and was participating in the protests. Fearing for his sister’s safety, Jinyong enlisted the aid of officials at BU, who agreed to grant her admission. But just two days after the required forms were sent to China, Tiananmen Square exploded.
“I was so sad, very sad, and outraged too,” says Jinqing. “I was very worried about myself, about my schoolmates.” While state police scoured the capital for dissidents, Jinqing remained in hiding in her parents’ house until mid-June. Despite the turmoil in the city, her admissions papers arrived, and she even secured a U.S. visa. But she still needed clearance from the Ministry of Public Security. A sympathetic Beijing University teacher wrote a letter saying Jinqing had not been involved in the demonstrations; the ministry, in confusion and disarray, apparently failed to detect the truth. Jinqing waited anxiously for three weeks; then she boldly went to the police security bureau and walked out with her pass. Two days later, on July 5, she was on a plane for Boston.
Jinqing was prepared to enter Boston University on a $10,000 scholarship, which would have covered half the cost of tuition, room and board. But before she enrolled, she was introduced to a Wellesley alumna and sports buff, who alerted her alma mater to the hot basketball prospect newly arrived from China. Chip Case, an economics professor, basketball fan and member of the admissions committee, invited Jinqing to visit Wellesley. The tour of the campus included an impromptu stop at the college gym, where coach Dale asked Jinqing to try a few shots. Barefoot and wearing a skirt, she stepped onto the court and put three of her trademark three-pointers right on the money. Wellesley promptly offered her a full $20,000 scholarship.
As she settles in, Jinqing is determined to be just an “ordinary person.” That’s not always easy. She finds some of the on-court basketball jargon incomprehensible, and it’s sometimes hard for her to find a common ground with fellow students. “We talk about film stars, everyday common things, what kinds of pop singers they like,” she says. “The topics are not very diversified.” But Jinqing has found new friends and new subjects to explore. She’s considering switching from chemistry to economics and perhaps going to law school, with the hope of someday taking the skills she would learn back home. “I think China will change eventually and things will get better,” she says. “That’s the time I want to return.” But until then Jinqing is grateful for the chance to start over in America. “I can’t always live in the past,” she says. “I have to live life here.”
—Montgomery Brower, Stephen Sawicki in Boston