I Was Rescued from a Chinese Orphanage. My Friend Wasn’t.
We were both disabled by polio, but I was adopted by Americans. Returning to China 10 years later showed how sharply our destinies had diverged.
We have kept in touch over the years, talking more and more frequently as we got older. At first, it was once or twice a year from my landline in rural Oregon. My first conversation with her was exciting because we had not talked to each other for so long. She asked me about my life in America, my adoptive parents and brothers, and my schooling. I asked her about changes in the orphanage since I’d left and about our friends who were still there. It was an exciting conversation for the both of us. As technology progressed, we began talking every few months. Now, using apps like QQ and WeChat, we sometimes message each other weekly and, at times, even daily.
A few years after I left the orphanage, Chunchun aged out of the children’s welfare complex. When she was around 15 years old, she had to move into the senior living center, where the elderly stayed. Life had been hard for her. Shortly after I left the orphanage for America, Chunchun fell severely ill with a high fever. She was around 10 or 11 years old. She stayed in the hospital for more than a year and a half, but even today, she’s not sure what made her so sick. Doctors nearly left her for dead and said any further treatment would be wasted on her. But one of the caretakers insisted they keep treating her, and she survived. During that year and a half, caretakers from our orphanage took turns going to the hospital to feed and bathe her and to change the cloth diapers she had to wear because of the inaccessibility of hospital bathrooms.
In the summer of 2011, I returned to Chenzhou to visit Chunchun. I had a month off from an internship tutoring at an English training center in the southern megacity of Guangzhou. It had been nearly a decade since I had left, and after years of wanting to forget where I had come from, I was curious. Chunchun had moved into a new welfare center, which also combined an orphanage with an old-age home. It was not far from our old orphanage, so we decided to drop by. I felt like I’d stepped back in time.
It felt like a lifetime since Chunchun and I had last seen each other. We both had grown up so much and changed in so many ways. But I still remembered her kind eyes, her resilient but frail body, and her perseverant nature. Even though we were not especially close when we were younger, time had made us closer. The bond of our history in the orphanage together had made us feel more connected than ever.
At the orphanage, caretakers and other members of the staff who still remembered me were very happy to see me. They were surprised that I had made the trip. In high school, I had raised several hundred dollars to buy Chunchun a wheelchair, and now we explored the city together. On display at the welfare center were Chunchun’s ornate pouches made of yarn and strings of colorful beads. I never could have done anything like them. Her resilience and thirst for life have been a tremendous source of strength for me.
She left a few times each year to travel around the streets of various nearby cities, singing folk songs for passersby, earning a meager sum of money. After these trips, she always returned to live in the welfare complex. She arranged this all on her own with other individuals who are disabled. During one of our chats, Chunchun told me that her dream was to own a small convenience store or shop selling handicrafts, and to have her own home.
In college, at the University of Oregon, I triple-majored in Asian Studies, Chinese, and International Affairs. I completed a graduate certificate on Disability Studies to prepare me to advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities. And earlier this year, I completed my coursework for a Master’s degree in the History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom. I expect to graduate in mid-December.
Apart from her trips around the country to sing, when she travels with her boyfriend, Lei Yu, who is blind, Chunchun still lives in the welfare center. She has had no formal education because the government does not ensure that schools provide adequate support or accessible infrastructure to students with disabilities. Her experience is similar to the experiences of many children with disabilities in China, who, as the non-profit Human Rights Watch documented in a 2013 report, are more often than not deprived of the services they are owed under Chinese law.
What needs to change for those of us with disabilities to live with health and dignity in China?
For one, the Chinese government needs to truly commit to inclusive education by drafting a plan with enough funding and training to support schools and teachers to accommodate children with all types of disabilities. This would include children in institutions or orphanages, and ensure they are adequately supported to learn in mainstream schools. China’s Ministry of Education should also provide accessible transportation so that young people with disabilities, like Chunchun, can get to school. And at the policy level, the National People’s Congress, the legislature, needs to revise the Regulations on the Education of People with Disabilities to align with the U.N. Disability Rights Treaty, to which China was a signatory in 2008. These regulations should clearly define “inclusive education” to reflect the principle that children with and without disabilities benefit from learning in the same school environment.
In addition, the government can and should run an early intervention program to address health conditions. If Chunchun could have had back surgery at the age of 11, like me, her health might be much better than it is today. These steps may be too late to help Chunchun fulfill her dream, but these changes could make all the difference to the next generation of children living with disabilities in China.
About two years ago, Chunchun started complaining of back pain. Her organs were being crushed by her curving spine, and she had a hard time keeping down the food she ate. Knowing how bent her back was, I thought she might need an operation relatively soon. Remembering my own medical history, I searched for an organization that could help Chunchun. Love Without Boundaries took her case and funded X-rays for her back, but the doctor who saw her said that surgery at this stage would be too risky. But earlier this year, when I was in London, I met the founders of the Glow Fund, an organization that provides medical treatment to people in China with serious orthopedic disabilities. Last week, after a 30-hour journey by hard-sleeper train to Yantai, in Shandong province, Chunchun was operated on by a group of orthopedic surgeons from Stanford University, to straighten part of her spine. With luck, it will ease her breathing problems and take the pressure off her organs.
This was a lucky break for her, and I’m hopeful her health will improve. But I feel sad knowing that if only Chunchun lived in a society that viewed her with dignity and respect, her life would be so very different.
The photography for this story was supported, in part, by a grant from Human Rights Watch.