This building haunts me. Its imposing architecture and location rend it as the focal point across the sparse college campus at Mianyang Teachers’ College. Long gray buildings no more than 10 years old with paint already cracked span the wide roads. Small trees still growing line the road leading toward it from the main gate. Inside are administrative offices for different departments as well as the school’s Communist Party office.
But that’s not why I’m haunted.
It was the beginning of the fall semester in 2017. A new school year, new routines, incoming students, returning students, new friends, old friends, new classes, same campus. After summer break, the campus again teems with life in the days before classes begin as students return from home.
One of them, sadly, decided to end her life.
She threw herself off the 9th floor of the administration building, the tallest building on campus. It happened one night, and by the next morning everything functioned as normal so much that I had no idea of her death. She had been an English major, though not one of my students. After failing a class, she was being held back to repeat her entire freshman year. In China, students move through their years in blocks, so their days are spent going to different classes with the same group of students throughout their schooling. The pressure to excel and succeed are enormous in this country with over 1.4 billion people.
I can’t recall ever meeting her, but I felt heartbreak anyway. Even a few students said, “No one really knew her.” I don’t think that’s true–they were 8 students to a room in their dormitories and 40 students in her class block–but I wonder who knew of the pain she experienced? Who noticed her, reached out to her?
Day after day I entered this building. I looked to the 9th floor, and I took a deep breath. I wanted to reach out to her and say, “You are not alone!”
At the time, the school did not permit us to discuss what happened and the Peace Corps advised us not to push anything. I did not tell this story publicly until I had closed my service and left China.
In the Spring Semester a few of my sophomores touched on the subject of suicide in a surprising and moving way in their final video project (see this post about the semester final). Suicide is unfortunately not uncommon in China, though it is a difficult subject to talk about. Whether or not they intended to reference what happened the previous semester, their film project was an important voice in the discussion and suicide prevention.
Their story was simple, yet layered with complexity: One of them, Minnie, falls into depression after a bad break-up with her boyfriend. Her friends, Sherry and Vivian, comfort and support her; however, one day Minnie decides she can’t continue, sends a cryptic text, and is ready to jump off a building. Sherry and Vivian come to her, pull her away, hold her, and support her. They say they are ready to jump together with her. Minnie says “No” and chooses to live. A montage of them watching movies, going shopping, and enjoying out door activities slowly changes Minnie’s depressed catatonic face into one that reflects joy.
Minnie says, “My girls, thanks for being here, comforting and encouraging me, accompanying me though hard times, and you are always my precious possessions, thank you, two girls.”
The bad things passed and they will live a new life, a better life together.
I’m still haunted by that building, but I have hope for me and for us all: we are not alone. There is love, there is joy in this world, and I want to thank my students for telling their story of despair, love, hope, and new life.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you are not alone. There is help.
In the US call the National Suicide Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7).
In China, call the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center 010-8295-1332 (available 24/7), or Lifeline China 400-821-1215 (10am-10pm).