Tucked into every corner of their home are the books Zhifan Dong used to read.
Her parents estimate there must be hundreds. Dong loved words: in poetry, the classics, Chinese novels, comic book series, manuals in a pinch. She dog-eared them all.
Now, they sit in the stacks where she left them, precarious paper towers in each nook. Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong can’t bear to move them. Looking around their small house in China, it’s their reminder that she was there.
Dong’s mom, Shen, remembers asking her daughter once when she was a young girl: “How many books can you read in a year?”
Dong thought about the logistics for a minute before answering. “From this bed to the roof,” she said stretching her little arms wide above her head.
Shen knows her daughter will never be under their roof again. It breaks her.
Dong, a 19-year-old international student who’d traveled to the University of Utah to study, was killed on Feb. 11 in what police say was a domestic violence homicide at a Salt Lake City motel. Her boyfriend, Haoyu Wang, has been charged with her death and is currently in jail.
The university has taken some responsibility in her loss, saying housing employees failed to respond with urgency when Dong reported that she was afraid of Wang and was concerned about what he might do next. Campus police weren’t called until almost a month after her first report; she died three days after that.
Records about her experience and her death were released by the flagship school Tuesday, about five months later. And they strongly mirror missteps made before the 2018 murder on campus of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey.
Dong’s parents say they’re trying to remember how their daughter lived — not how she died — clinging to her hopes and aspirations and favorite books (she never could pick just one).
After she’d finish another novel, her mom remembers, they would have long chats about prose, equality and the beauty of human nature.
“If we didn’t talk for two or three hours at a time, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy ourselves,” Shen recounted in a translated narrative about her daughter, shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Her daughter hadn’t declared a major yet. It seemed like it might be literature or maybe philosophy, though Dong also talked about working in technology in Silicon Valley after she graduated. She wanted to buy a big house there where she could have a garden and a small farm and have her parents join her.
According to her plans, “she would work to support her family, and her parents would take care of her babies,” Shen and Mingsheng Dong said. They used to joke about how they’d get all her books there.
Dong was their only child, born in March 2002, dying about a month shy of her 20th birthday. Her parents say they never thought the last time they’d see her was at the airport, on her way to the U.
When the grief overwhelms them, they flip through photos of her life, displayed in an album. Dong smiling, her face lit up by the candles on a birthday cake. Dong petting every dog she came across and taking her own puppy for a ride on a seesaw. Dong taking silly selfies with a lollipop or proudly wearing her Mickey Mouse ears. Pictures of her tiny hands when she first started to draw, covering their fridge in her artwork. They’ve saved all of that, too.
They remember how they didn’t know what to do with her hair when she was a toddler — managing only one small ponytail that stuck straight up from the top of her head. She was always wanting to pose for photos with her parents; they were close. In her passport picture they can tell she’s trying not to smile, which was unnatural for her. There are so many snapshots of her eating noodles, her favorite meal, and reading, of course.
They cry as she ages in the glossy images, ending on her high school graduation photos, with Dong beaming in a red kimono. For a minute, it’s like watching her grow up again.
Now, they say, they’re stuck asking: “How many dreams could have been realized? How much happiness could have been obtained? Why is reality so cruel to a kind, honest, strong, brave and optimistic person? How can people bear it? How can our family face this?”
Reflecting on Dong’s academic achievements, which they have always taken particular pride in, hurts when they think about how there won’t be more to come.
They say Dong was smart and studious. She knew many words before starting school, memorizing her children’s books. She attended the best primary school in their city and received marks that put her at the top of her class.
For middle school and high school, she attended a boarding school for the best students in China.
“Among hundreds of students, she was often ranked in the top ten and also got the highest scores,” the parents said.
Dong excelled in music, learning harmonica, hulusi (a traditional instrument from China), flute and piano. She was trying to pick up a fifth instrument, the pipa (which is like a Chinese lute), before she died.
She could draw and paint, too, often creating magical scenes, like one of ants lining up for a colorful dinner or a stag standing in the middle of a dark forest. And she knit her own sweaters and scarves, made bracelets and earrings.
She was also a master cook, becoming the president of her high school’s culinary club. Her parents still miss the smell of her homemade bread baking in the oven.
Dong realized in high school, they said, that she wanted to go to college in the United States. She applied and was accepted at the U., the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York. She told them Utah felt right to her.
After she left, she would call them every week on a video chat to check in on her cats and dogs back home; but it was really to check in on her parents, too. Sometimes, she’d tell them to go show her the garden at her grandma’s house, as well, which she helped set up, to make sure her flowers and trees were also doing OK.
Almost every time, she’d talk about books, new ones she’d bought or ones she wanted them to send her from home.
Her parents said: “To this day, we feel that she is still alive and well, still living among us, as if we were in a dream.”
For now, they’ll leave her books where they are, so they can hold onto their dream and their daughter a little longer.