Torment Fatal to Dancer Caught Between Two Cultures, Geng Nian Mei Found Her Spirit Singing

China. The word was a lump in the throat, a wistful memory, a seemingly impossible dream.

For five years, Geng Nian Mei, 33, had straddled two worlds, her body in America and her soul in China.

On Sunday morning, the gulf between two continents opened even farther and swallowed her up.

One of Ohio Ballet's most talented dancers was dead. She jumped off the balcony of her 10th-floor West Akron apartment, hours before she was to leave for a trip to her homeland.

China. The country Qian-Ping Guo had left behind to discover a brighter future in America had finally claimed his wife.

"If she had not come to America this would not have happened," says Guo, 33, Mei's husband and longtime dance partner.

He had brought her here in 1991 with so much hope. He knew his wife was a fabulous dancer. He knew that ballet was her love. He believed her talent would blossom in America.

And for a while, it all worked. Mei grew as an artist during her two years as a dancer with the Eugene Ballet in Oregon.

"She was a consummate artist," recalls managing director Riley Grannan. "She had extraordinary classical technique. But that combined with her humanity made her a tremendous dancer."

Grannan also praises Mei's artistic generosity.

"You don't see too many soloists, after they dance, staying around and watching others," he says. "She'd tell the others, 'That was good,' and then tell them why."

In Eugene, Mei and Guo danced the leads in such classics as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. But they also danced in the modernist Mantoda.

"They were wonderful," sighs Grannan. "They were aggressive, powerful, incredible."

They were in their second year with Ohio Ballet. "They were high-quality dancers," says general manager Howard Parr.

Mei met her future husband at ballet school in China when they were both 11. They were soul mates, bonded by a passion for dance. Long before they became life partners in 1989, they were dance partners.

Her desire to learn American modern dance and his ambitions for both of them brought them to the United States. What they had not counted on was the isolation.

They had no friends, no family in the United States. All the money they had was what they earned. They both struggled to learn English. Their grueling schedules did not permit them to participate in the Chinese community in Akron. And slowly, the longing in Mei's heart grew.

China. The word became an ache in her heart.

There were other pressures. Her knees hurt from the battering her body took. She lost weight from working so hard. The pressure kept building.

"She said, 'This is America. It's competitive. I must lose weight,' " Guo recalls.

Two years ago, Mei had a miscarriage. Guo wanted a baby badly. Sometimes, Mei would say she wanted a baby, too. Sometimes she would say she wanted ballet.

The couple earned about $490 a week each with Ohio Ballet. But Mei was worrying about the time when youth would abandon them and they would no longer be able to dance.

The beginning of the end came last December, when the couple went back to China for the first time since 1991.

She was fine at first. But Mei found that China had changed while she was away, and she became uneasy. She was also terribly tired. She stayed in bed for 20 days.

After they returned to the United States in January, her homesickness for China grew. She felt too weak and weary to dance. She stayed in bed for hours.

One Sunday in January, she passed out. At the hospital, they said her heart rate was very slow. Guo says the doctor said this was a common problem for dancers.

When she was released from the hospital, she repeatedly told Guo she hated him. She said she wanted to return to China. Every day, she would listen to the same Chinese songs over and over again.

Guo says she started making attempts on her life. Several times, she rushed to the apartment balcony to jump. Several times, he stopped her. She took a leave of absence from Ohio Ballet.

Soon, he asked for a leave, too.

"I couldn't work in that way," he says. "I was 100 percent worried she would do stupid things. I'm not just her husband. I am responsible to take care of her. We don't have friends here. I brought her here."

Jane Startzman, Ohio Ballet's artistic administrator and once a dancer in the company, tried to help. She spoke to May Chen, a counselor at the International Institute in Akron. Chen said she would be happy to counsel Guo. But Guo and Chen never spoke; he says Mei refused help.

Chen says immigrants from mainland China have a harder time adjusting to life in America than other Asian immigrants.

"They've come from a culturally and politically oppressive atmosphere. And there is a pressure to succeed," she says. "They were professionals. They needed to preserve the image of competent and functional people."

Finally, the couple agreed that Mei should go to China for awhile and return when she felt better. Guo asked Ohio Ballet to extend his leave until April because he was still unsure of his wife's health. The company refused.

Guo says he and Mei were "let go" by the company. General manager Parr says the couple told the company they were not returning.

In any case, the severing of ties hurt Mei.

"She said, 'I don't have a job in China. I don't have a job here. Nobody loves me, the company or my husband,' " Guo recalls.

On Saturday afternoon, the day before she was to return to China, Guo held his wife and told her he loved her deeply. That night, he made her dumplings, a Chinese tradition of wishing someone good luck on their voyage.

But Mei was restless. She decided to sleep in the living room. As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, Guo woke up every half-hour to check on his wife. At one point, he thought he heard his wife singing.

At about 6:30 a.m. Sunday, he still heard her moving around. When he woke up again at 6:50 a.m., she was gone. He searched the apartment. Then, slowly, he moved toward the balcony.

Ten floors below, the police had already gathered. Guo snatched up some of his wife's clothes and ran down, not seeing the suicide note sitting on the coffee table. The note is now at the Summit County coroner's office. An official ruling on the death has not yet been made.

The future that once burned so brightly for Guo is gone. He says he plans to return to China and stay for some time. And for now, he second-guesses his every move.

"I think I did something wrong. Maybe I didn't do enough. She said she hated me. I still know I loved her. I never loved anybody else. I always gave her an open heart."

For a few minutes he is silent. Then he says quietly, "She died too early, too young. She had a good life. And she didn't know it."

Akron Beacon Journal
February 27, 1996