The city of Shenyang in northeast China is bustling and signs of growth, from skyscrapers mid-construction to massive advertisements for housing or new cars, are everywhere. In many ways it is a city filled with potential and dreams.
This week one family here is remembering that not long ago it embodied both. But with the death of "our child," as Lingzi Lu's uncle called her, both are gone forever.
Lu, 23, died on Monday in the Boston bombings. She was the only child of working class parents. From an early age she showed great promise, earning a spot at the region's top middle and high schools before attending Beijing's Institute of Technology. From there, she became a graduate student in mathematics and statistics at Boston University, and like so many in Boston on Monday she went to the marathon's finish line to watch the racers with a friend.
Her family in China did not immediately hear of the attack, but very quickly word circulated online both in the U.S. and in China that she was missing. In the early hours of Wednesday morning her uncle, Lu Xiang, received a telephone call from a friend.
"It was still the middle of the night," he said. "He said he found her name on the missing list. I thought, 'It couldn't be our child, impossible.'"
But later that morning, Lu Xiang said, his brother received a phone call from the U.S. consulate in Shenyang confirming her death. The grim news was followed that day by a phone call from U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke who personally expressed his condolences.
Outside the apartment building where Lingzi grew up, her uncle remembered her as the child who brought a smile to everyone's face.
"She grew up in my arms and on my shoulders," he recalled. "The first time she said the word 'uncle' my heart melted."
Lingzi Lu's story is emblematic of a certain swath of Chinese families. The Lu family lives in a basic compound. Today, the sun is shining but it is still cold in this city so close to the border with North Korea. The government shut off the heat as of April 1 and tenants in the building where the Lus live wear coats both inside and outside. Bundled grandmothers chat on benches outside. Elderly men shuffle down the street. Several buildings show their age. Paint peels away from once sharp corners and what does remain is a faded to a pinkish-orange.
It was in this town that the little girl who made her family smile showed such academic promise. From an early age, her family did everything they could to support her. China is rife with parents who will spend thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, on efforts to secure their child a place at a university or college in the U.S. The Lu family had no such means. Her uncle said she achieved every single success on her own merit, winning awards and scholarships along the way. Perhaps the biggest was her opportunity to go to graduate school at Boston University.
It was not the first time she had studied abroad, having spent a semester in California at UC Riverside where she perfected her English. From Boston, she called or Skyped with her parents regularly, filling them in on everyday details of a life that must have seemed a world away. But they had little fear because Lingzi Lu had always been, according to her adoring uncle, "a brave and independent girl" about whom they never worried.
With her degree after graduation she might have found a good job in the U.S. or returned home to China to be closer to her parents and both sets of grandparents. But now that will never be.
"All the dreams we had, all the goals we had, they are all gone," he said. "This has torn our world apart. We are still not able to accept this."
As of Thursday, the family had still not informed the grandparents of Linzgi Lu's death. Again and again they told us they just don't think her grandparents can bear the loss.
And even though her name had been released by her own school and had been published in the local press, her uncle said he held out hope her grandparents would not come across it. They were still holding onto hope that perhaps there was a mistake and the young woman would soon call them to say she was ok. One day, they might ask when she was going to call to check in. But for now her father and mother and uncle held onto her name, as if it was all they had left.