Friends and family mourn Qian Liu, ‘a beautiful gift’ taken too soon

Last September, Qian Liu waved goodbye to parents and grandparents, friends and relatives in Beijing to embark on an exciting journey.

A talented artist with a flair for language, “Necole”, as her friends called her, aimed to polish her English skills enough to do graduate studies in Canada. After seven months at the York University English Language Institute (YUELI), her English was excellent and at least two schools – Sheridan Qian Liu visits Niagara FallsCollege and Brock University – had accepted her into post-degree programs. The exuberant 23-year-old with a passion for colour seemed to be pinning her hopes, however, on visual arts at University of Windsor. Her future looked promising and bright.

But that future and her hopes tragically died with her on April 15, when friends found her dead in her apartment – two weeks before she was due to receive her YUELI certificate, two weeks before she would fly home for the summer.

Left: Qian Liu visits Niagara Falls

At a funeral Wednesday in North York, her parents – mother Yaru Zheng and father Jianhui Liu – said a goodbye they never imagined having to say to their only, adored child, half a world away in a foreign city and a foreign culture.

Before the service, the grieving couple – accompanied by Qian’s aunt and uncle, Yawen and Yajuan Zheng – shut the door on the world to sit quietly with their daughter, who was lying in an open coffin garlanded with pink roses. When the Liu family opened the door, dozens of their daughter’s friends and classmates, as well as University and Chinese consular representatives, filed into the hushed chamber to bow and pay their respects.

The funeral service was somber and moving. Officiated by Rob Tiffin, York University vice-president of students, it featured short speeches, given in both Mandarin and English.

“She was a beautiful gift that was taken away too soon,” said Mamdouh Shoukri, York’s president & vice-chancellor. “Our hearts go out to you and the rest of your family, particularly the relatives who were unable to join us here in Canada. This terrible tragedy has had a tremendous impact on us all.”

Ligang Chen, the consul general of China in Toronto, thanked everybody who had helped comfort and attend to the needs of Qian’s parents, and to all who helped organize the funeral.

“To those of us who were her teachers,” said Don Smith, coordinator of the YUELI Pre-Graduate Preparation Program, Qian “was interested in everything, quite independent and rather courageous.” Most Chinese students choose practical courses in business, engineering and computer science, but she applied for graduate programs in fine arts, which are smaller and more difficult to get into. Qian, he said in an earlier interview, was ambitious and adventurous. Bright and determined, this daughter of professors also “achieved a very high English proficiency,” scoring higher in reading than any student he has ever seen. In his speech, Smith said that once talented and educated people like Qian cross the language barrier, they become true intellectuals and cultural ambassadors.

“Some people believe that the life of an international student studying English far from home must Qian's father Jianhui Liu and mother Yaru Zhengbe lonely and difficult,” said Smith. This was not true of Qian. “She made many friends here. She had many around her who cared very much for her,” he said. The room was filled with them.

Right: Qian’s father Jianhui Liu and mother Yaru Zheng

A heartbroken Xinying Feng, who came to Canada with Qian on the same plane, remembered an initial conversation with the girl who would become her fast friend in Canada. “The first time I met you, I asked you whether your hair was naturally curly or straight.” The two friends planned to do so many things together – go shopping for gifts for their families, see Lake Ontario. “But we never realized that date,” whispered Xinying, who ended her tribute in tears. “I will miss you. I will miss talking to you. I will miss your laughter.”

Qian’s father was the last to speak. He had sat stoically throughout, but when he stood up and turned to the audience of strangers to describe the child he never imagined losing, his composure wavered. Through tears and sobs, he described a “lovable, chubby and quiet kid” who was a “steady” student, kind and giving. Her father, a professor and researcher at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, was particularly proud that she had won an honourable mention when she joined the 50th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China. Hers was “such a vibrant life,” full of hope for the future. “How can she be gone in a flash?”

What her father had to say wouldn’t surprise Qian’s teachers at York. They had seen her curriculum vitae. A scholarship student in TV and radio broadcasting at Beijing City University, she was a debating and long-distance running champion, with a talent for designing websites and Qian's YUELI certificateposters for her class. In her second year, she listed with pride volunteering in the red flag squad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Left: Qian’s YUELI certificate

In her memory, Qian’s classmates will plant an English oak tree outside their classroom in the courtyard at Founders College. At the base of the tree, they will place a rock with a plaque – Qian (Necole) Liu 1987-2011.

They will also present the Liu family with a commemorative album filled with photos of their child on school trips to Niagara Falls and next to a Christmas tree at the Eaton Centre; filled with letters from her peers penned in Chinese on bright green, yellow and red paper; filled with copies of her assignments, clearly demonstrating her growing proficiency in English. And they have created a DVD for them featuring rolling images of Qian, her paintings and drawings.

In memory of Qian, York has created the Qian Liu Scholarship, a $5,000 award for a YUELI student entering a degree program at York who has demonstrated the highest academic standing in his or her previous studies and achieved the highest level of proficiency at YUELI.

In Qian’s father’s words, “our child, sleep in peace.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer