The odds of Tao Li and Minghui Chen ever meeting, let alone falling in love, were as long as their traditional wedding-day noodles.
Though both were born in China, they were raised in cities three hours apart by train. And the country does have a billion people.
Call it destiny that both wound up in medical graduate school programs in Omaha.
Call it fortune that each caught the other's eye while they were in line for photo IDs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Call it magic — as does the romantically inclined Li — that a year later, he broke from his rigid study routine.
And took a walk.
In fall 2010, Tao Li realized he needed change. His American friends and professors told him there was more to life than school. He ought to get to know Omaha. Meet people.
But on a beautiful fall day, all he wanted was to get up from his seat.
In a burst of spontaneity, the doctoral student in the College of Public Health pushed aside the newspaper, leaped out of his chair and left his windowless room.
He ran into a fellow graduate student from China who asked if he was single.
Did he have someone in mind to date?
Li did. The scientist he had met in passing a year before in the ID line. They had said hello but hadn't exchanged names.
He'd seen her again recently. Just a few weeks prior, as he studied at the Sorrell building, he had heard a “very beautiful voice” ask him in Mandarin Chinese how he was doing. She looked happy to see him.
At that encounter, Li — an earnest, outgoing man — suddenly felt shy and tongue-tied. The 27-year-old with engineering and medical degrees from a prominent Shanghai university felt his brain slow to a crawl.
The woman left. Li sat for about 10 minutes.
Then he ran for her. But Minghui Chen was long gone, and Li berated himself for not acting faster.
The friend said she had someone for Li to meet: “a very beautiful, very kind and very pure girl.”
The set-up occurred at a Sunday morning Bible study.
“Today, I am here for a girl,” Li told the group.
As luck would have it, Chen was the woman Li's friend had in mind all along, though the friend hadn't known that when she arranged the meeting.
Shocked, and impressed by his bravery, Chen fell in love with Li at that moment. They talked and exchanged phone numbers. Chen, whose first name, Minghui, means “beautiful flower,” promised to call after an exam.
Li anxiously awaited. Nothing.
“Probably,” he thought, “she was not satisfied with me.”
Li called Chen and asked her out.
Chen — a doctoral student in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience — said she was buried in coursework. But she would go with him to Rick's Cafe Boatyard.
Afterward, the pair walked to the nearby Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a spot Li said was among the most beautiful in Omaha. They talked for about 20 minutes. Chen then abruptly ended the date, saying she needed to study.
“I was very nervous,” she said of her upcoming exam.
“This is a real scientist,” Li figured.
But Li wasn't without hope.
“I could tell from her eyes,” he said, “she liked me.”
Li told his parents in Guangdong about Chen. He told his unofficial mentors and friends, married UNMC doctors Audrey and Paul Paulman.
“He looked like he was in love,” Audrey said.
And Chen called her mother in Hunan Province to describe the earnest young man with glasses and a sprinkle of freckles across his face. He impressed her. He made her feel comfortable.
The two dated for the next year and a half. Chen's mother was relieved.
“The chance to meet Mr. Right is very low in the U.S.,” Chen said. “She was very worried about me.”
The University of Nebraska Medical Center long has drawn Chinese students.
Since 2005, stepped-up efforts between the institution and some in China have brought even more here.
In 2007, Li, then a medical student at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, landed in Omaha for a three-month clinical rotation that took him to Weeping Water, Neb., a Cass County town of about 1,000 people.
Li was amazed that everyone knew everyone. The warmth of Nebraskans, including Paul Paulman, the family medicine doctor and UNMC professor he shadowed, touched him. Paul's wife, Audrey, is also a family medicine specialist.
The couple became his surrogate family in Omaha. When they visited Shanghai, Li was their guide.
When Li graduated from med school two years later, he knew where he wanted to go.
He landed in Omaha in 2009 with two suitcases. Because of the Paulmans, his parents worried less about the distance and his loneliness.
“I could name somebody,” Li said, “as my friends.”
The “Doctors Paulman,” as Li endearingly refers to them, helped him find and furnish an apartment. They saw a pioneer spirit in Li.
“These two countries can work together as families,” Li said, “to make the people of the world healthy.”
Chen, on the other hand, came to UNMC to look at health at its most microscopic level: to study how the tiny parts of an eye help with vision function and brain activity.
Chen had never been to America. She applied to graduate programs in Omaha and elsewhere. UNMC was the first with an offer, and in 2009, she took it.
So in that ID line, Li's face was welcome to newly arrived Chen.
She flashed a beautiful smile at him and said, “Ni hao.” Hello.
“Ni hao,” Tao replied.
“I feel very comfortable, very pleased,” Chen said about that first encounter.
“We crossed a whole ocean,” Li said, “to meet here in Omaha. It took us one year to meet again.”
When their courtship launched, Li and Chen took the Doctors Paulman to dinner.
“What are the chances they would meet each other serendipitiously?” Audrey later said.
They met each other's families via Skype.
And this February, they drove to United Parcel Service to pick up the classic gold wedding bands they had ordered for a future wedding.
Inside Li's Ford Taurus — the first car he's ever driven — Chen opened the package and saw that the rings matched her dream.
“I love it,” she told Li. “I love you, too.”
The couple figured they would get married this fall.
But they went to China this summer: Li to complete a student exchange in Taiwan, Chen to renew her visa in Guangzhou. They decided to act fast and marry in Chinese ceremonies but make the union official in Omaha.
Their families met the day before the wedding in Foshan, where Li grew up. Receptions were held several hours away in Changsha and An-hua, where Chen is from, to accommodate family members who couldn't travel.
Li's father cooked the wedding noodles, part of a traditional Chinese banquet for about 80 guests. The noodles symbolize a long and happy life together.
Red, a symbol for happiness and luck, was the predominant wedding color. The families strung big red banners with the Chinese character meaning “double happiness” in the hotel ballroom.
Li served the guests wine, per custom. Chen served tea.
Chen's mother had checked the Chinese calendar: Their wedding date, July 31, was a lucky day.
Li and Chen have two anniversaries.
This fall, they wanted to make their nuptials official in Omaha, with their surrogate family.
“Omaha is in the heart of America,” Li explained. “It's also in our hearts.”
They planned a simple courthouse wedding and told the Doctors Paulman one night at dinner.
They asked Audrey Paulman to be a witness; Li's academic adviser would be their other witness. In just 16 days, the Paulmans and Li and Chen pulled off a traditional American wedding with a minister, violin music, cake and champagne toasts.
The couple married on Sept. 23 at Cafe 110, in the Landmark Building at 13th and Farnam Streets. A minister from the Chinese Christian Church officiated. Aside from him, the celebration was all UNMC.
“Tao and Minghui are a wonderful, wonderful story,” said Paulman. “They sort of adopted UNMC, and UNMC sort of adopted them.”
The vice chancellor's daughters did Chen's makeup. The son of Li's academic adviser played Bach on the violin. Two UNMC employees snapped photos. Guests were university friends.
Li's adviser, Dr. Li-wu Chen, toasted the couple: “Two loved persons who are meant for each other, with destiny travel a thousand miles to meet.
“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times and always with the same person.”
And this from Dr. Paul Paulman: “Happy wife, happy life.”
Li and Chen linked arms and swigged champagne. They fed each other wedding cupcake. They kissed each time a guest rang a bell.
Then the Doctors Paulman surprised them with a Cinderella carriage ride through the Old Market.
“This was my dream to do with Tao,” said Chen.
Upon their return, Li was shocked (and a little horrified) to see his prized Ford Taurus covered in shaving cream Xs and Os, “Just Married” scrawled on the back windshield, streamers and plastic bottles tied to the bumper.
The Doctors Paulman told him it was part of the American wedding tradition.
Li and Chen still wear that newlywed glow.
They beam and gush and say how lucky they feel. They are grateful to their friends, family and “the very nice and kind people” at UNMC.
They see their union as symbolic of a university that has embraced them, of a city that has welcomed them, of serendipity that needed just a nudge.
“There is magic in life,” Li says, “but you need to search for it. Fight for it.”
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