Each year, some 300,000 Chinese go abroad to study, and they are by far the largest contingent of foreign students to receive schooling in the United States. The sheer numbers make it inevitable that misfortune might befall a few of them overseas. Nevertheless, that cruel reality did little to mitigate grief in China over the deaths of two 16-year-old girls traveling on the Asiana Airlines flight 214 that crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on July 7. The loss of Wang Linjia and Ye Mengyuan, both from Jiangshan, Zhejiang province, came three months after a Chinese graduate student was one of three people killed by the Boston Marathon bombings when she went to the finish line to cheer on the racers. Last year, two Chinese graduate students at the University of Southern California were fatally shot off-campus.
Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was flying from Shanghai to San Francisco via South Korea, where Asiana is based. Nearly half of the passengers were Chinese, and among them were students heading to summer camps in the States, or families embarking on an American holiday. (South Korean airlines such as Asiana offer fares from China to North America via Seoul that are often cheaper than those of state-owned Chinese carriers.) A day after the crash, Chinese social-media sites were abuzz with speculation that one of the girls had been alive on the tarmac only to be run over by an emergency vehicle dispatched to the scene.
Soon after the botched landing, the Boeing 777 erupted into flames. Rescue personnel quickly engulfed the scene trying to help passengers emerging from the smoke-choked plane. Although many of the Asiana passengers escaped unharmed, with some Chinese passengers even emerging from the wreckage with their carry-on luggage, around 20 of the 307 people on board remain hospitalized.
So far, Wang and Ye are the only fatalities. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, mourning for the two girls was mixed with disgust at the on-air commentary of a South Korean TV host who implied that it was “lucky” that the fatalities were Chinese, not Korean. One Weibo user wrote: “This stupid TV host should be fired right away.”
The girls were to have taken part in a summer academic tour of California, according to a report in Zhejiang newspaper. As Chinese social media eulogized the girls, their own online profiles gave the impression of bright students who loved gymnastics, piano and traditional Chinese calligraphy. With tragic irony, Wang’s final online post on her microblog account was an affirmation of life: the single word “Go.” Befitting a girl about to study in America, the post was in English.
—With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing