After Losing Her Son to a Chicago Shooting, She Tries to Move On
Editor’s note: On Nov. 9, 2021, Li Rong’s 24-year-old son Dennis Zheng Shaoxiong was fatally shot on a crosswalk near the University of Chicago. The 18-year-old suspect took Zheng’s phone and laptop, which he sold for just $100 before he was arrested the next day. The tragedy stirred an uproar in China, making many parents question if the U.S. remains a safe place for their children to study abroad.
Whenever she recalls her late son, Li Rong’s eyes light up and her speech flows more freely, as if she is “counting pearls,” savoring each memory.
For more than a decade, she has dealt with the ups and downs of being a single parent. What stays with her are those tiny jewels of memory hidden in the mundane.
She had brought up her son well single-handedly. Once, when her son was daydreaming, she pointed to a bench by the side of the road to catch his attention and taught him the concepts of length and width. At the supermarket, she taught him to do sums at the checkout. At home, they opened a world map together and studied geography.
Her son ended up becoming the child that any parent would dream of having. He went from doing simple sums at grocery stores as a child in Leshan, a city in the southwestern Sichuan province, to eventually becoming a graduate student in advanced statistics in the U.S.
Last year, Li travelled abroad for the first time at the age of 57, but it was not a trip she had ever hoped to make. She went to Chicago to attend a candlelight vigil in remembrance of her son, who died in a shooting in the city at the age of 24.
Since the tragic death of her son, Li has kept herself productive in Leshan to stay positive in life. She practises yoga and the piano, while attending a school for senior citizens. She lives by a quote from the French writer Romain Rolland: “There is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is, and to love it.”
The following is her story, as recounted to The Paper.
A precocious child
It’s been a year since Tongtong (Zheng’s nickname as a boy) died, and not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed him.
Since his death, I’ve been spending my days playing the piano he used to love, and reading the books he’d read and the notes he’d taken. When I eat, I use the same chopsticks and spoons he once used. At the end of the day, I tell him where I went and what I did. When I go to sleep, I say good night to him in my head.
Whenever I’m reminded of him, I can clutch these jewels tight and relive a story of him. I am a very fortunate mother who has many fond memories.
I was 33 when I became pregnant with him and working as a hospital accountant. The following year, I divorced his father and gained full custody. I told myself at that time that I needed to be strong to keep a roof over our heads.
Whether it was calligraphy, piano, drawing, taekwondo, or street dancing, whatever Tongtong was interested in, I’d find a way to pay for his lessons.
He was a precocious child who was able to cook, clean up, and look after himself from a young age. One summer, I came home from work to find him playing the piano with his back drenched in sweat. When I asked why he hadn’t turned on the air conditioner, he said it was too expensive to run and the fan would also blow his sheet music away. He resorted to a wet towel to wipe off his sweat.
On the weekends, I would drive him on my motorbike to different after-school classes. While he was in class, I would read a book while waiting for him outside. He was always the last student to leave, as he volunteered to help put the desks and chairs away after class.
A stellar student
Tongtong graduated third out of all primary school students in the city and was subsequently granted a full scholarship to study at the Leshan Foreign Language School on the condition that he live on campus. I was worried that he would develop bad habits there, so I chose a day school for him instead.
The day school was a 40-minute drive from home by motorbike. To give him more rest time in the morning, I rented a place down the street for him. Every evening, I’d rush home from work to cook for him, and rush back to work the next day.
At middle school, Tongtong started to become popular among his peers with his excellent grades, beautiful handwriting, and talent. Other students would call him “chief” or “study god,” a slang term that describes academically high-performing students.
Once, a classmate said he’d give five yuan to whoever helped him take his schoolbag from the classroom after the boys finished playing on the playground. Tongtong volunteered to help him and get the money. The next day, the teacher praised that classmate for donating money to the class, which left him completely dumbfounded. He only realized later that my son had donated it in his name.
In his second year of middle school, Tongtong went on a trip to Paris as a student representative. This was his first time abroad. He brought back gifts for every teacher and classmate. He also bought perfume for me and my friends. I still have them to this day.
Many girls at his school liked him and would give him gifts. I told him to appreciate such attention. I even bought him a copy of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by J.W. von Goethe, hoping it’d teach him that having feelings for someone in teenage years is normal, so long as he wouldn’t neglect his studies.
And he never disappointed me. He got accepted by one of the most prestigious high schools in Sichuan province, making him one of only four students from Leshan to study there. Later, he was even elected school ambassador.
To make it easier to take care of him, I rented a place near the school again. During those three years, I’d hop on a two-hour bus to Chengdu after work every Friday, then take the last bus back to Leshan every Sunday. I never missed a weekend.
My son and I were very close. He’d tell me whatever was on his mind, and I’d tell him all the trouble I had at work. We shared everything.
As a mother, I believe that parents should always remember that children are not their private property, and they should help their children pursue their dreams in whatever way they can. This has been my parenting philosophy.
A young gentleman
Thanks to his academic excellency over the years, Tongtong was accepted by Hong Kong University (HKU) in 2015 to study statistics and actuarial science.
It could cost up to 300,000 yuan ($43,000) a year to live and study in Hong Kong, but I was only making a few thousand yuan a month in Leshan. I sold the home I inherited from my father and gave every penny I had to support him.
I would give him a lump sum for living expenses, and he was always responsible with the money. He said watermelons were so expensive in Hong Kong that he would just wait until he went home to eat one.
He also applied for a scholarship and made extra money through assisting professors and private tutoring. I always felt guilty for not giving him enough financial support, but he would comfort me, saying: “Mom, you’ve already given me everything you can, and for that, I’m grateful.”
In his first year at HKU, Tongtong was once again elected student ambassador, responsible for showing important guests around the campus. HKU also sponsored his trips to South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He always sent me a postcard or got me little gifts on his trip.
We would say good night to each other every day and share updates from our lives. Every time when he sent me photos, I felt so happy — almost as if I were the one studying in Hong Kong. We were so close that we would even link arms when we went for a walk.
He was a very polite child. When he came home to visit me, he would thank my friends for keeping me company while he was away. My friends adored him.
Looking back, I’m so fortunate to have spent so much time with him to be able to create all these memories.
A rising scholar
In 2019, Tongtong graduated with a first-class honors degree from HKU. He told me he wanted to continue his studies at the University of Chicago for its world-class economics programs that have produced several Nobel laureates.
To pay for tuition, I had to borrow money from family and friends, who all showed their support. As the COVID-19 pandemic started to wind down, he would join his classmates to go water skiing, rowing, and rock climbing. They would also go to piano concerts and play table tennis together.
But I was always anxious. I paid close attention to the news in Chicago, and whenever I saw something about a shooting, I’d lose sleep. He reassured me by saying that he’d installed a mobile app that showed the real-time location of city crimes, and that he never went out at night.
When another Chinese student Fan Yiran was fatally shot in the University of Chicago’s parking garage in January 2021, I was horrified. I remember they held a candlelight vigil in remembrance of him on the campus at sunset. Mourners held candles that flickered in the evening breeze while his parents squatted on the ground. It was so bleak.
I told my son: “If something like this happened to you, I wouldn’t be able to take it.” He replied: “I’d be okay. Don’t worry.”
He dreamt of being a data scientist. After graduating with a master’s degree in June 2021, he hoped to stay in the U.S. and find work in data research. Not long after, he told me that he was in a relationship — I was so happy for him.
On Nov. 7, 2021, the day of my 57th birthday, I received a bottle of perfume Tongtong had sent me just in time. I never thought it would be the last time I got a gift from him.
Three days later, I received a call from the Chinese consulate about Tongtong’s death — he was fatally shot the night before. I took a plane to Shanghai two days later for a visa interview. The parents of an HKU classmate of Tongtong’s picked me up at the airport and took me to their guesthouse.
When I took off my shoes, they noticed the holes in my socks. They immediately threw their arms around me and said, “You had it so hard.” They took me out to buy new socks and bought me a wool overcoat and scarf. One of them even accompanied me to Chicago.
A victim of gun violence
The candlelight vigil for Tongtong was held on Nov. 18, 2021. The Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was brimming with people — officials, citizens, students, and even TV crews.
I visited the spot where he was killed two or three times. On the ground lay bouquets of fresh flowers, dolls, and cards from his friends. I brought the cards back with me to China.
I packed up all of his belongings — books, glasses, a razor, an alarm clock, teacups, his clothes, and other trinkets — and brought them all back home with me. Now, every time I use them, I feel connected with him. I put on his clothes sometimes, and I’ve polished his shoes so well that I can see my reflection in them.
The international students who lived in Tongtong’s apartment building gave me a stack of cards they wrote him, in which they told stories about all the ways he had helped them.
I later learned that, when the shooting occurred, Tongtong was heading home to open the door to the laundry for a friend. That friend was wracked with guilt but eventually built up the courage to come visit me. He bowed and sobbed as he told me that Tongtong had done so much for him, helping him move and teaching him how to cook. I hugged him and told him that no one could have foreseen the accident and that I hoped one day he could let go of his guilt.
Many people also came to my hotel room in Chicago. I recall that an economics professor and Nobel laureate told me that my son was a student of his former student. He’d read some of the essays he’d written. “It was such a shame,” he said, as he held me and cried.
A month and a half later, I brought the ashes home in my backpack. Feeling his weight on my shoulders, I was reminded of how he’d sometimes sleep on my back as a small child.
On Jun. 6, 2022, which was Tongtong’s 25th birthday, I was with his ashes one last time. Three days later, we buried him. I chose a hilltop, the first spot to greet the warmth of the rising sun. His grave is embraced by lush green and the tranquility of nature. Engraved on the headstone are the words that read “a kind and remarkable man” in Chinese and “you are an angel” in English.
Many friends and family came to his funeral. In the cemetery, I played “Tennessee” from the movie “Pearl Harbor” — one of his favorite songs.
I had kept myself going through sheer willpower. But once he was properly buried, my body suddenly gave way. I developed acute pancreatitis and was hospitalized for a whole month.
In the years I was a single mom, I’d had five surgeries. I could always deal with the physical pain. I used to tell him: “I’m willing to give you everything. The only thing I want to keep is my eyes, so I can watch you grow.”
Many of his friends in Chicago had a car. If he had a car and didn’t have to walk, would it have ended differently? Whenever I have these thoughts, I blame myself so much for not having been able to protect him.
On Labor Day this year, I visited his grave. On my way down, I saw a girl going up with a bouquet of flowers. She told me she was his classmate at middle school. I showed her the way and watched her from afar, while she knelt in front and whispered to his grave.
Later, she told me that she’d had a crush on him for many years but never said anything, telling herself that she’d share her feelings with him one day when she would be a worthy match for him. But as the years went by, he travelled further and further away, and she couldn’t keep up. Since that day, she often chats with me and visits me whenever she returns to Leshan.
Many of Tongtong’s former classmates and friends have gotten in touch with me. On Mother’s Day and my birthday, they sent me perfume, flowers and make-up in his stead.
I can still feel Tongtong’s love for me, just in a different way. The people he had helped have now given me much light and warmth in my darkest hour, and in turn, I want to repay their love by helping other people in need.
If a charity invites me to share my parenting experience, I will happily do so. And whenever his friends feel lost or need someone to talk to, I try to be there for them as well.
This mindset is something I’ve been slowly honing over the past few years. I’ve had a hard life. I have neither siblings nor a husband, and my parents and my son are dead. It’s hard not to feel empty inside. All I know is that my son would want me to stay healthy and happy to lead a good life.
I try to keep busy. I’m practicing yoga and the piano, and I have signed up for dance classes to take the hobby seriously. I stay active in an online book club every day. When the weather is nice, I make tea, go for a walk, play mahjong, or go shopping with friends.
When it rains, I put on music and read a book at home. Sometimes, I clean up around the house while listening to online lectures about fine arts, or songs and poems from the ancient times.
My son thought that I had sacrificed too much for him and he longed to show me the world. In the future, I’d like to go to places that he’s never been to and show them to him.
At times, I feel envious of other people’s happy family lives. I also wonder if I won’t feel lonely or sad when I grow older and see my friends surrounded by their children and grandchildren. When you grow old, grief bubbles up. You have to embrace your loneliness and powerlessness, and hence your dependence on others.
The year he went to Hong Kong, he sent me a box of mooncakes but he didn’t have any himself because he wanted to save up. Later in Chicago, he learned how to make mooncakes for his classmates. He told me: “Mom, when I come home, I’ll make them for you.”
Reported by Zhu Ying.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Elise Mak.
(Header image: Li Rong and her son Zheng Shaoxiong. Courtesy of Li Rong)