(BOSTON) — Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi, the third victim to die in the Boston Marathon bombings, was the embodiment of her parents’ highest hopes, a daughter born under China’s one-child policy.
The ambitious 23-year-old was studying mathematics and statistics, and was at the marathon with friends to cheer on runners near the finish line when she was killed, according to Boston University. On her Weibo account, the Chinese version of Twitter, she extolled the virtues of American life — blueberry waffles, Godiva dark chocolate, and ice cream.
In a telephone interview with ABC News, Lu’s father described the death of their only child as a “dagger in our hearts.” Initially, the family did not want to publicly disclose the name of their daughter, but later authorized Boston University to do so.
“If you only have one kid to fall back on, the idea of losing that child would make you bereft,” said Toni Falbo, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in Chinese families. “If you have two or three kids, and one dies, you have a reason to carry on and continue with your life.
“The parents must be utterly devastated and feel helpless, even more so, because they are so far away,” she said.
Lu’s father said he is in the process of obtaining a visa so he can travel to the United States to claim his daughter’s body. He spoke of the pride he has felt in his daughter’s accomplishments.
The family is from Shenyang in northeast, one of the largest cities in China. Lu attended the prestigious Northeast Yucai School then studied at Beijing Institute of Technology, both on scholarship. The family had saved their income so their daughter could study at Boston University, where the tuition for a graduate degree in mathematical finance is a staggering $60,888.
American universities, especially the most competitive institutions — many of them in Boston — have been a growing magnet for Chinese students. Last year, 194,000 obtained visas for higher education in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education.
For Chinese parents who invest so much of their emotion and earnings in the academic success of their children, Lu’s death was not just the end of a lifelong dream, but also the family’s legacy.
“With a daughter, they would have expected [Lu] to be their caretaker,” said Falbo, who has studied the one-child policy. “That’s their Social Security.”
“Everyone is devastated by the loss of a child, but this is like pulling the rug out from under them, without any obvious sense of recovery,” Falbo said.
China’s one-child policy started in 1979, applying only to urban families, who represent the highest portion of the population.
The policy was first implemented to address overpopulation and to promote economic development, part of a “whole package of changes to amass clout and capability” in the world, according to Falbo.
“No one thinks it will be permanent — that’s a stupid idea,” she said. “Having 2.1 children is a replacement level. Two to replace the parents, and .1 if a child gets sick and dies.”
The strict law has applied only to urban areas, not in rural towns were parents typically had larger families.
“Rural people were more interested in helpers to work the farm and had more traditional values,” said Falbo. “They would more likely want a son. Urban people were persuaded to have daughters. They are more worthwhile because they stay home.”
But by the end of the 20th century, Chinese analysts began to be worried about the shrinking number of young workers and not enough children to take care of the elderly.
Some say that a phase-out of the one-child policy may be imminent.
According to a March report in Forbes magazine, the one-child rule has “disrupted Chinese society both socially and economically. On the social front, you have two generations of Chinese adults who never had the benefits of growing up in the competitive environment of siblings. In fact, they likely grew up in a pampered environment that tends to create a society of self-centered people.”
But Falbo’s research did not support the stereotypes.
“By and large these only children are not the little emperors they are made out to be,” she said. “We looked at careful methodologies and counted factors like socio-economic status, and they do pretty well and are surprisingly like everyone else.”
Parents are fined when they have a second child, and some argue that has kept the policy alive. “The local officials don’t want to lose this possible money source,” said Falbo. “But I think all the demographers and people who have done population studies say it’s time to let it go.”
Until then, cultural experts say all of a family’s focus becomes the one child.
“Life in China is very family-centered,” said Yuan Gao, director of the Asian Studies and Chinese programs at Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J.
“For [Lu’s] parents this must be a heavy hit,” said Gao, who emigrated from Shanghai in 1986 to study at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s terrible in any culture, but more so under China’s one-child policy. The blow to the family must be almost unbearable.”
“In the West, when a child is born, they pick a name like Laura or Sarah. In a Chinese family, they take great care, choosing a name with words like ‘hope’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘be prosperous’,” he said. “Those kinds of words carry the hopes and expectations of parents for the incoming child.”
Education is also paramount. Gao, who has spent 23 years at the school, said Peddie had seen a marked increase in applications from mainland China since taking the first student in 2005. As a result, he said, the selection rate for Chinese students is “much harder than Harvard.”
He said parents like Lu’s look for the freedom and creativity in education they cannot find in China.
“The living standards have changed so much, that people’s expectations are higher,” said Gao. “They look to the U.S.”
“People find ways to afford it,” he said. “They believe that if something is good for the education of children, they will sacrifice everything to do that. Parents will do almost anything to make that happen.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio