A Chinese Scholar Dreamed of Coming to America. And Then She Vanished.
The new documentary “Finding Yingying,” which was to premiere at SXSW, tells the story of Yingying Zhang, a promising Chinese international student who disappeared.
The documentary Finding Yingying follows the harrowing journey of an ordinary Chinese family who dared to do what many ordinary families do: take on a significant financial burden to give their child a chance at a better future. The Zhang family were supportive when their ambitious yet gregarious daughter, Yingying Zhang, decided to pursue a PhD in ecology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Still, they were sad to see her suddenly go off to a faraway place where she knew no one and would be living alone for the first time in her life.
During her PhD program, Yingying kept a detailed diary. The film shows images from the diary as director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi—who was studying filmmaking as an international student in Illinois at the same time as Yingying, and had even graduated from the same college in China, but didn’t know her personally—reads the text. Yingying made friends with other Chinese international students in her program, particularly the more experienced Guangfou, who she happily conducted fieldwork in Nebraska with. Still, she was lonely, and struck by a U.S. culture that was much less communal, less family- and group-oriented than the one she was used to in her village back home.
In one diary entry, Yingying writes about getting lost on a cold, rainy Champaign afternoon, unable to get directions from passersby. She goes into a laundromat for warmth, and the only person to notice her distress is an “elderly black lady” who comes up to her, asking if she needs help. The woman goes outside with Yingying to explain the directions, and Yingying thanks her profusely. “You’re welcome, baby,” the woman says. “No worries, baby,” she repeats. Yingying writes in her diary, “I’m still a baby!” and is struck by the kindness of one person who is able to see and respond helpfully and non-judgmentally to her vulnerability.
Unfortunately, that sense of community care doesn’t follow Yingying. Six weeks into her program, she disappears. Shi, who met the Zhang family as a volunteer translator during their search for their daughter in the U.S., was able to obtain rare intimate access into the daily emotional turmoil of a family desperately hoping their missing child is still alive. But Finding Yingying isn’t the typical missing girl story. Just as striking as the film’s proximity to the family’s pain is its attention to the American reality that made (spoiler if you never heard about the story) Yingying’s abduction and subsequent sexual assault and murder possible.
Yingying’s last text messages showed that she was on her way to meet a broker in order to sign the lease for a new apartment. She never made it there. Instead, she missed her second bus, and was picked up by Brendt Christensen, a University of Illinois graduate with a masters in physics. Christiansen, who was 27 at the time, was impersonating an off-duty police officer, driving around on the hunt for a victim. Yingying was his second attempt of the day—the first, a student named Emily Hogan, had refused to get in his car that morning and reported him to the police. The film never explores what happened with that report, or why police near a college campus wouldn’t become immediately concerned that there is a man driving around impersonating them in order to get people into his car.
Weeks after Yingying’s reported disappearance, the FBI was able to use security footage to identify Christensen’s car as the one that picked up Yingying from the bus stop. Christensen went in for questioning, but denied that he abducted Yingying, and said he dropped her off on a corner when she became distressed after he took a wrong turn. Later, Christensen’s girlfriend (he was in an open marriage), Terra Bullis, volunteered to help the FBI pin Christensen to the crime. Bullis wore a wire while attending a ceremony held by Yingying’s family, with Christensen. He told her the march and subsequent concert honoring Yingying was both “for [him].” Christensen even admitted that he was the murderer, typing out “It was me” and “She’s gone. Forever” on the iPhone Notes app. At the concert right after his confession, Bullis had to continue to sit with and comfort Christensen as Yingying’s boyfriend Xiaolin sang Yingying’s favorite songs, expressing hope that she was still alive.
But Finding Yingying isn’t a true crime story, so it doesn’t exploit the gruesome details of Yingying’s murder to titillate or horrify the viewer. Instead, Shi takes an interest in the kind of societal mechanisms that make humane crime prevention impossible in the U.S., and, on the other hand, make the speedy prosecution of these violent crimes fairly simple in China. On one hand, the more ethically rigid (yet still typically inhumane, in practice) criminal justice system in the U.S. paradoxically makes premeditated crimes easier to commit, particularly if you’re a white man who is able to exercise an air of authority to a vulnerable person.
As Bullis wore her wire, Christensen told her that two young women sitting in front of them at the concert would be good victims—“the right type” to target for more murders. And in footage of a session with the University of Illinois counselor months before Yingying’s murder, Christensen admits to having gone deep into serial killer forums, and even having bought items to prep for a murder. He tells the counselor that while he has no specific targets, he has “a type in mind.” You start to wonder if this type was racialized—an international student, a lost-looking young woman in a lonely town. Hogan, who testified for the prosecution at the trial in July 2019, is a white blonde American woman who reacted strongly enough to Christensen’s attempt to pick her up to make you think that he may have revised his “type” on the fly that day.
Yingying’s aunt and boyfriend Xiaolin both say in the film that they’re shocked she got into a car with a stranger, but Xiaolin reflects that she must have felt desperate to get to her appointment, which she was already late for, and willing to believe in a mythology of American goodness. She probably also believed he was an off-duty police officer, and didn’t know to ask for his badge or realize that picking up a stranger would’ve been strange conduct for an off-duty policeman in a city. Watching the film, I kept thinking about an economic and cultural reality that Shi herself brings up: American universities depend on the full tuition of Chinese nationals to fund their programs and elaborate campuses. And these students don’t all come from rich families, but rather, are often the only hope for their hard-working parents who may have taken out loans to finance their education. These students’ situations may already be precarious, their existences in the U.S. already having required a degree of risk.
Yingying’s parents aren’t poor by any means, but their home back in China could be described as firmly middle class, with no frills, fancy devices, or expensive furnishings. Yingying’s childhood bedroom has a desk, bed, and simple decorations, with a world map taped to the wall. That Yingying and other students may arrive at Urbana-Champaign without receiving robust social support and services from the campus administration—while their parents are handing huge sums of cash to the school they don’t necessarily have—strikes me as an incredible injustice. Surely, those with an urge to kill will sometimes find ways to do it that could never be prevented without extreme and unjust measures. But it still seems that, across the U.S., our universities, even though they are technically non-profits, are exploiting students while leaving them unprotected. International students are often expected to succeed without the tools to navigate life in a foreign city, socially and systemically deprived—whether because of administrative incompetence, xenophobia, or both—of a campus community that is vested with a sense of mutual responsibility.
Thankfully, when Yingying did disappear, many students—especially other Chinese international students—supported the Zhangs as they remained in the U.S. for months looking for their daughter. And Bullis, Christensen’s former girlfriend, did not have to help with the investigation but did so anyway, and at great personal danger; in the film, she talks to Shi about her feelings of responsibility and kinship to Yingying’s family, who she didn’t even know. Still, in its simplicity and attentiveness, Finding Yingying speaks to the failure of institutions in the U.S. to support the needs of both citizens and residents, while simultaneously profiting off of them.
I imagine that, in a more ideal world, even Christensen might have been helped if the university took the concerns he expressed to his counselor more seriously and had put in place a non-punitive rehabilitation protocol for students who admit that they are thinking of bringing harm to the community. It seems the lesson to all of us is that authorities and administrations won’t protect us as long as it’s not in their financial interest. It’s up to us.