CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - Her stepfather was dying from pulmonary heart disease in an intensive care unit on the other side of the country and Zheng Yue had to rush to the airport to catch a flight to see him.
Zheng was nervous but outwardly calm as she strode through the airport terminal, pulling a carry-on bag and looking for her check-in counter.
The trip was important for her. She said she never really knew her biological father, who died when she was two. Her mother’s second husband was abusive, and she and her mother left him. This husband was better, and she developed genuine feelings for him as a father.
Now, she said, she was feeling the pressures of what lay ahead for her and her family, a common worry among the generation that sprang from China’s one-child policy.
“Being an only child means that down the line you’ll have to support the whole family,” she said.
Zheng hadn’t always shown such devotion to her family. By the time her mother married for the third time, Zheng was developing a rebellious streak that defined her for much of her youth.
She started cutting classes in elementary school, staying home to watch TV. In middle and high school she climbed the school wall and went to Internet cafes to play video games. She found school boring, and her grades showed it.
“I didn’t like going to school. When I went to class I’d immediately be tired, exhausted, and I didn’t like hearing them lecturing about stuff,” she said.
As an only child, her mother tried to keep her on a tight leash. She wasn’t allowed to go out alone, or have boyfriends.
In her sheltered world she developed a talent for painting and won school awards. When it came time to take the college entrance exam she tested in the fine arts category – an easy path to university in China’s rigid system.
When she picked a school, Zheng used a map to decide, choosing one that was far from her hometown of Dezhou in Shandong province – a branch of the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, 1,700 km (1,060 miles) away.
“I really wanted to break free of those fetters,” she said.
College was freedom. Classes in her major – animation – were bearable, but the others were a chore and she was soon skipping class again.
When she was a fourth year student, she landed an internship as an assistant in an interior design firm and before long she was dating the man she worked for. Five years out of college she is still with the same man.
After graduating in 2012, she spent the following year without working, living off her boyfriend.
“I wasted that year,” she said. “At that time when you’re stepping into society your dynamism that year is at its greatest, you’re daring enough to do anything.”
She eventually found work as an interior designer, often working until midnight.
Marriage and children don’t interest her given her traumatic childhood and family life. She lives with her boyfriend in the flat that he owns, and she hopes to be able to buy one of her own - a tough proposition in a country where property prices keep soaring.
“You discover that life’s pressures get bigger and bigger, whether it’s pressure from outside or the kind that comes from your parents, it’s all big pressure,” she said, with a stoic nod of the head.
She said goodbye and passed through airport security.
The next day she tapped out a WeChat message to her friends.
“My father died today at 11:37am ... more words would be meaningless.”
Editing by Philip McClellan