Nearly 20 years ago Ching-Fu was given somewhere between five months and three years to live. At that moment, she decided to do something meaningful with the rest of her life.
“We had gone to China to find a resting place for my father’s ashes,” she recalls. “I had been getting headaches for a while, but they were getting worse and worse on the trip. By the time we reached the village where my father’s relatives were, I felt so out of it, I couldn’t eat or do anything. When I look at the photos of the villages my brother took, I don’t recognise anything.”
Undergoing lifesaving surgery
Fortunately for Ching-Fu, her relatives were medics who took her to hospital, organised a CT scan that revealed an enormous brain tumour and arranged for her to be operated on that same evening.
“I really think my father was watching over me,” she says. “The surgeon was from the same village as my father, we have the same name; I was saved by that Chinese neurosurgeon.”
The severity of her case was borne upon her when her brother reassured her that, should anything happen, he would look after her daughter (then just four years old).
“I really enjoyed it and decided that was what I was going to do,” she says. She came back to the UK to qualify as a teacher and taught in China before moving on to do a Masters degree in history and the sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania in America. Then after a decade working in the UK in English language teaching, she found work in China, first teaching at the Suzhou Singapore International School in Jiangsu Province and then as a language tutor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.
“When I got my second job in China I was already 58 – if I had been 59 they wouldn’t have been able to employ me,” she says. Strict rules on the age at which foreign nationals can be employed in China meant she taught for just three years before her visa ran out.
“I would dearly loved to have stayed because the conditions were really good for doing research, but the local education authority wouldn’t issue a visa so I wasn’t able to,” she says.
Instead she returned to the UK, taking the wisdom and experience she had gained through her years of teaching, and applied for a PhD in Education. She was accepted at UCL Institute of Education in London.
“At 69 I must be the oldest student in the world – I’m sure I’m older than my tutors!” she says. “But everything is done online now and I can work from home, which works out very well for me. I believe keeping mentally active has helped me focus and get through my years as a brain tumour patient. If I had any advice for other people, I would tell them to keep busy.”
Despite still experiencing lasting effects from her surgery, Ching-Fu has plenty to look forward to. She plans to visit France, Italy and Germany to brush up on her language skills – as well as a trip to see family in Hong Kong.
“All those years ago, the Chinese neurosurgeon told me, you must not let your brain tumour get in the way of your aims. At the time I didn’t really understand what he meant – but I do now.”