BERKELEY, Calif. – Chen Lixing is a sociologist who gained a university teaching post in Japan when she was 42, having overcome such barriers as age, gender and nationality.
She is now at the University of California, Berkeley, conducting a one-year comparative study on international small and midsize enterprises. She lives in Berkeley with her 15-year-old daughter, Yixing, and 6-year-old son, Yisi.
Her Chinese husband, an academic at a Japanese university, remained behind at their home in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture.
“Here (at the university), race, nationality, gender and age are not questioned,” she said. “(All you) need is a degree, achievements in research and (the ability) to speak English.”
Chen, a professor of sociology at Nihon Fukushi University in Handa, Aichi Prefecture, said people who attend Japanese academic society meetings speak only Japanese in debates.
She is one of 1,212 foreign scholars in Japan. They account for around 2 percent of some 59,000 national, public and private university teachers in the country, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
“I think more foreign researchers would come (to academic meetings in Japan) if English were used,” she said, likening Japanese to “ayu” (sweet fish). “They live with a circle of peers of the same ethnicity in limpid streams.”
Born in the northeastern Chinese city of Zhangchun in 1953, Chen suffered during the Cultural Revolution. She was not allowed to attend school and was denounced as the daughter of an “antirevolutionary” father, who was a senior official in the Chinese Nationalist Party.
For about 10 years, Chen lived in Inner Mongolia, where she was forced to plant corn.
She schooled herself and was 25 when she was admitted to China’s Northeastern Teachers University. She won a scholarship from the Chinese government upon graduation and studied sociology in the graduate school at Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Chen had planned to teach at a Chinese university but faced an unexpected turning point in June 1989. In disbelief, she watched repeated television broadcasts of the People’s Liberation Army crushing the student democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Recalling the nightmare of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, she feared persecution if she returned to China.
She could not make any progress toward completing her doctoral dissertation. But Hiroshi Komai, 62, her advising professor, encouraged her and she eventually finished writing it and graduated.
Chen had already given birth to her daughter by the time she was through with her graduate studies. She married her husband, who was also a student from China then working for a Japanese company, around the time their daughter was born.
Having decided to stay in Japan, the couple looked for an apartment but were turned down simply because of their nationality, according the Chen. Finally, they got a room in her husband’s company dormitory.
She sent her resume to about 20 Japanese universities and research institutes in an effort to land a job. She was not even offered an interview, she said, because of her nationality, gender and age — she was 37.
A professor with which she was acquainted eventually helped her land a research job at a U.N. regional development center in Nagoya.
The job involved conducting joint research with Japanese universities on topics including multinational enterprises.
This provided her with opportunities to visit China and the Philippines.
She was hired as an assistant professor in 1995 by Nihon Fukushi University, with which she had ties through her U.N. work. With her teaching job on track, she decided to have her parents come to Japan.
The couple also opted to live in Suzuka, located near their workplaces. They were unable, however, to obtain a bank loan because they did not have permanent resident status.
The couple saved 20 million yen, bought a plot of land and finally obtained a bank loan in 1999, putting up the land and the new house to be built as collateral. The family subsequently became permanent residents.
Chen Lixing has mixed feelings about China. She suffered many hardships during the Cultural Revolution and saw the Tiananmen tragedy unfold on television.
On the other hand, she was able to study in Japan on a government scholarship that allowed her to pursue a happy, academic life in freedom.
She feels a debt of gratitude to the Chinese government for helping her study with taxpayers’ money at a time when the country was poor. “I would like to return the favor to China in the future,” she said.
The couple shed tears when the Chinese team was defeated in the 2002 World Cup soccer finals. Yixing and Yisi meanwhile rooted enthusiastically for Japan.
“Our children were born in Japan, so it may be their homeland,” she said. “But China is still my motherland.”
Chen is due to return to Japan in August. She is mulling a new challenge: “I may try to give my lectures and hold discussions in English.”