Photo by: providedFrom left, University of Illinois spokeswoman Robin Kaler; Anna Tsai, translator from UI student affairs; Ronggao Zhang, father; Lifeng Ye, mother; Xinyang Zhang, brother; and Xiaolin Hou, boyfrend of Ms. Zhang, eat lunch last week at the Zhang home in Urbana. > > >
URBANA — After five agonizing months of hoping for answers about their missing loved one, members of Yingying Zhang's family are returning home to China, at least for a while.
"Yingying's mom is not in great health, and this has been especially stressful on her heart and psyche," said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois.
A seasoned public-relations specialist, Kaler has been the conduit for information between the suffering family involuntarily thrust into the limelight and the public since the disappearance of Ms. Zhang on June 9.
A mother of children who are contemporaries of Ms. Zhang, 26, Kaler has ridden the emotional roller coaster with the visiting scholar's immediate family and friends since their June 19 arrival here from Nanping in southeast China.
"They worry that she (Lifeng Ye, Ms. Zhang's mother) might need major medical attention at some point soon, and it would be so expensive to get it in the United States. They feel like they need to go home and address that," Kaler said.
"They certainly intend to come back when there's a milestone in the case," Kaler added.
With the latest request from the attorneys for accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen to continue his trial to October 2018 still under consideration by a federal judge, the family's hope for a resolution any time soon is fading.
The family is traveling back to China on Monday. They won't be taking Ms. Zhang's personal belongings home.
"They are just going home for a while. It's agonizing," Kaler said.
Ms. Zhang's father, Ronggao Zhang, will undoubtedly return to his truck-driving job, Kaler said. Her mother does not work outside the home. They have been married 28 years. Ms. Zhang is the older of their two children.
Kaler described Lifeng Ye as physically and emotionally fragile. Ronggao Zhang has outwardly been the stronger parent, but his demeanor suggests intense suffering.
"I think they are going to try to start adapting to life without their daughter, which is a pretty daunting prospect. That doesn't mean they are giving up on finding her and getting her home. But they need to get home and make sure Lifeng Ye is stable enough to be ready for the next round of the legal process."
Lifeng Ye did not immediately make the trip to the U.S. when the family learned on June 10 of the missing agricultural scholar's disappearance. Instead, her sister, Liqin Ye, made the trip to Champaign County with her brother-in-law and Xioalin Hou, longtime boyfriend to Ms. Zhang.
Liqin Ye returned to China on Aug. 27 after her sister and Ms. Zhang's younger brother, Xinyang Zhang, arrived Aug. 19 to help in the search.
The family was initially staying in an apartment at the Orchard Downs housing complex, where Ms. Zhang had been living since arriving in Urbana from China in late April.
On June 9, Ms. Zhang was on her way to an appointment to rent another apartment on North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana when she was picked up at a bus stop in the heart of campus, never to be seen again.
When the UI school year started, the Zhang family moved to a rental house not far from Orchard Downs, arranged for them by a local Realtor.
"Mr. Zhang will walk in the middle of the night in Orchard Downs and sit on the stoop of her apartment. None of them is able to sleep through the night. It's been a real strain on their hearts," Kaler said.
Kaler said she's been overwhelmed by the kindness of the community toward the family, especially members of the Chinese community "who have been amazing in wrapping their collective arms around them."
When the family moved to the rental house, Kaler said there were several folks at the UI prepared to help them furnish it, but "folks from the Asian community said, 'We got this covered' and came forward with plates, beds, linens."
Because family members are not fluent in English — nor can they drive — they have been helped immensely by many people. Among the heavy lifters has been Anna Tsai, an assistant in the UI Office of Student Affairs, who has translated for them from English to Chinese.
"She spends a lot of time with them, going to lawyers, the bank, the FBI, anything. She translated for them when Christensen was arrested and they were told she was presumed dead," Kaler said.
Recently, Tsai was translating during an interview with a local television reporter. Lifeng Ye told the reporter she couldn't wait to fix her daughter's favorite meal for her.
"Anna just broke down while translating and she's had to translate some really horrible things," Kaler said admiringly of her colleague.
Many of the people supporting the Zhangs are parents, Kaler observed.
"Just having that tiny glimpse of that horror is enough to scar all of us for life. Imagine that being your life and having to face it every day," she said.
And although many more people have shown the family sympathy and kindness, Kaler said she has also been horrified by some ugliness.
"One time, they went to eat lunch at a restaurant. Someone took a picture of them and posted it on social media. People were saying, 'Look at them having fun.' That people could be so heartless and ugly to a family just trying to put one foot in front of the other with the weight of the world on their shoulders and chest, it makes me so angry," Kaler said.
The family felt compelled in late August to issue a public statement about how money in a GoFundMe account has been spent. They explained that part of the more than $155,000 in donations has been spent on establishing a reward, searching for Ms. Zhang, the family's living expenses, a lawyer who set up a trust for the donations, and the cost of travel from China for the family and transportation while here.
Kaler stressed that the family is returning to China to address Lifeng Ye's health issues so that the donated money would not be spent on that.
Kaler said she enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked meal prepared by Lifeng Ye last week with the family and Tsai, as they contemplated the family's return to China. The family has also hosted UI police officers close to the case in their home.
There was a brief period when Ronggao Zhang smiled and Lifeng Ye did not cry, Kaler said, adding she did her best to hold herself together as she hugged them goodbye.
"They are the strongest people I've ever met, quiet and humble and very strongly dedicated to ensuring that Yingying is not left behind, that she would know wherever she is, that she is loved unconditionally and with their whole hearts."