I’ve been back in Hong Kong for over a week after my trip to Guangzhou, China. But, I’ve delayed updating my blog. My experiences, both incredible and disturbingly painful, have been so raw and emotion-laden that I’ve hesitated to write about them, lest I write something that I later might regret. But, after talking them over with several friends and family members, I now feel ready to relate them to you. I’ll use the sandwich technique to organize my remarks. Therefore, I’ll share positive, then negative, then positive experiences with you. I do this deliberately with the hope that those who read about how I was treated in China remember that not all people in China would treat me this way. While some of the following paragraphs are deeply troubling, others recount some wonderful aspects of China.
Welcome to the Garden Hotel!
I stayed at the Garden Hotel in Guangzhou, China. What a lovely place it is. The American Consulate had booked me an executive room. That meant that I was on a special floor where there was a restaurant that served free, delicious breakfasts and happy hour finger food. They even gave those interested free beer. For me, the unsalted butter, like in Europe, the passable pastries, the first fried potatoes I’ve had since coming to Asia, and the orange juice were just what I needed.
The air conditioning in the hotel room worked very well, I’m happy to say! Although very hard by Western standards, my bed was comfortable compared to others I’ve slept on in China. And, the bed was a double in the American sense of the word. That is the first double bed I’ve seen in China! So, I could stretch out and sleep or watch television. My first night in the hotel, I watched Oprah Winfrey and The Simpson’s. What a pleasure it was to hear those American accents! And, to relate to people who think like me was a rare treat, indeed!
The staff in the Garden Hotel were very professional and polite. They even offered me their arms instead of dragging me around after I showed them how to guide me! What a relief that was!
Sometimes culture shock is Neverending
I must also take this opportunity to praise the American Consulate staff. Darcy Zotter, the Public Affairs Officer, who met me at the train station, took me out to dinner on Sunday night, arranged our meetings with Chinese officials on Monday and Tuesday morning, and generally made us feel so welcome! Jeff Rosen, General Counsel for the National Council on Disability in the U.S. impressed me as a very bright individual. His sign language interpreter, Pamela, was professional, very funny, and reassuringly warm as well.
I’m afraid that I haven’t developed the talent of understanding how Chinese people think and display their emotions yet. In meetings about disability-related issues on Monday and Tuesday, Jeff Rosen, Darcy, and I exchanged ideas with the director of a sheltered workshop for people with intellectual disabilities and representatives from the Guangdong Disabled Persons Federation. Although I am reluctant to adopt the all-too-common role of an American coming into foreign countries and lecturing about how things are in the States and, consequently, should be changed in the country in question, I am dismayed by some of the policies and attitudes that I’ve noticed related to disability in China. Perhaps I will write more about these policy-wide aspects after my return to the United States.
You have to take the Good with the Bad
I will now relate four separate incidents that happened to me while I was in Guangzhou which disturb me on so many levels. On Sunday night, Darcy graciously invited me out to dinner with her near the Garden Hotel. She wanted to take me to one of her favorite restaurants in Guangzhou, and I was happy to dine with her. Because the doorways are so narrow in much of China, Darcy initially filled the doorway when asking for a table. The wait staff recognized Darcy and welcomed her into the restaurant. Once they saw that I was accompanying her, however, they told Darcy that all of the 80 empty seats in the restaurant were reserved. This first instance didn’t bother me too much. I was able to laugh it off, since I’ve been prohibited from bringing my dog to restaurants in the States before. However, the unfortunate story continues.
This next incident I’m going to relate troubled me more, but I should remind myself that what I was asking of the staff in question is unheard of in China. On Monday night Jeff and Pamela wanted to go walking. They planned to walk to the Pearl River – a two-hour walk, at least. I wanted to go to the local Friendship Store to buy souvenirs for my friends and family. Friendship Stores are set up in many cities for foreign guests of China. One can buy Chinese art, handicrafts, and other kinds of mementos. I had been to three different Friendship Stores in various Chinese cities during other trips to the PRC. So, I knew what to expect. I hoped to purchase some jewelry there. Jeff and Pamela had agreed to drop me off at the Friendship Store, since they had to pass it on their walk to the river. When the sales staff learned that my friends would not accompany me in the store, they refused to take me shopping alone. Their justification in English was, “It’s too big of a responsibility.” As a Westerner who is used to the protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was sickened by this callous dismissal of me. But, being in China, I knew that I had very few rights and left the store without protest.
When talking about this specific incident with my blind friends from China, I now understand two salient points. 1. Chinese with visible disabilities rarely venture out of their homes. When they do, people stare at them so intently that they feel ashamed of who they are. The environment is not set up for their needs. 2. When Chinese with disabilities do leave their homes, they invariably have a able-bodied helper. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule. But, it is obvious from the treatment that I received that exceptions are quite rare.
Incident Number Three happened on Tuesday afternoon. Darcy took me in a taxi to the Guangzhou School for the Blind. The first taxi had a flat tire. So, we attempted to get into another cab. As I slid to the other side of the back seat to allow Darcy to get in, I heard the taxi driver protesting loudly, saying, “No, no, no, no!”. I thought to myself, “He’s not talking to me is he? He must be explaining to Darcy that my bag should go somewhere else in the car.” Then, Darcy told me to get out of the car. The taxi driver refused to take me. Darcy translated his Chinese into English. He said that he’d never heard of taking a blind person in his taxi cab. I was absolutely shocked by this! I was a paying customer. Why would he refuse me?
At this point, I just wanted to hide and not cause any trouble. I just wanted to go home. Now, as an advocate, I understand that such thinking is a result of oppression. However, it is astonishing how quickly a previously empowered person can be stripped of her self-respect. I must admit that it has taken me several days to talk myself out of this negative way of thinking. And, the next time I visit China, I will be much more submissive in my actions, if not in my thinking.
The last anxiety-provoking event happened later that day. The English teacher from the Guangzhou School for the Blind, who I will introduce further in the next paragraph, kindly took me to the train station to catch my train back to Hong Kong. We had a lovely conversation while we waited for my train. At about 25 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave the station, Ms. Zhong took me to the ticket counter and explained how the staff could give me their arm to walk me to the train. Since Ms. Zhong did not have a ticket, she could not take me to the train. Now, I must point out that I do not speak Chinese. So, I don’t know what was said between Ms. Zhong and the ticket agents. But, I do know that they did not offer me their arms. Ms. Zhong was allowed to fill out my customs forms for me. Then, she was directed to fill out a special form so that she could help me to the train. At that point, I was really starting to worry. There were only ten minutes until my train was scheduled to depart, and Ms. Zhong and the ticket agents were still having intricate conversations which I could not understand. I prayed that God would help me out, since it seemed that the train station staff were either scared of me or repulsed by me. Then, I heard Americans talking in English! I went over to them and asked them if they would help me onto the train. Of course, they said yes, thank God. So, I talked with a lovely woman from Houston all the way back to Hong Kong. I really believe that God put her there as one of his angels to help me. I believe that God helps many people out when they most need intervention. Boy, did I need some at that moment!
It really is a small world
Coming back to more positive aspects of my trip: While in Guangzhou, I visited the local school for the blind. One of their English teachers, Ms. Zhong, gave me a tour of their school. I had the privilege of meeting students from her senior secondary and junior college classes. Four of her students even gave me a massage! Their talents came in handy for me; I really needed some stress relief at that point, as you can imagine. And, one of the students likes to sing like me. So, I sang Jesus Loves Me while the students massaged my legs and arms, and she sang a song for me when the massage was over. We also talked about life in China and the U.S. as people who are blind. I encouraged them to feel my braille watch and my BrailleNote. They showed off their considerable English abilities. I hope to have the opportunity to visit those students again, for our bond was instantaneous and strong.
Fulbright project update
One of the most exciting events of my Fulbright experience so far also happened at the Guangzhou School for the Blind last Tuesday. As some of you may know, I have been volunteering as an English tutor for the Chinese branch Hadley School for the Blind -China of the Hadley School for the Blind Hadley School for the Blind homepage over the past year. Blind, Chinese students and I link up over the internet through voice chat software. They teach me Chinese, and I help them with their English skills. One of my best students received some training at the Guangzhou School for the Blind and still lives a few hours away from the school. When he heard that I wanted to visit that school, he promised to try to come visit me. Despite the threat posed by an imminent typhoon, I met my student. Ms Zhong, the English teacher, is also shown.
Hopes for the Future
And so, in summary, I am glad that I had the opportunity to visit Guangzhou. Meeting with the students at the Guangzhou School for the Blind moved me deeply. What strength we all share, no matter what country we are from! Having the opportunity to learn from Jeff Rosen, a national advocate in the U.S. for people with disabilities, was an invaluable opportunity. And, for someone who is used to monthly hotel stays, the Garden Hotel comforted me greatly.
Experiencing such blatant discrimination, while shocking and discouraging beyond words, reminds me that things in the U.S. are quite good in comparison. Of course, comparing disability policy and practice in the United States, or other Western countries, and China is, in one sense, not appropriate. China’s disability rights laws have only recently come into existence. Those who have survived the Cultural Revolution in which so many people starved may well have a survival of the fittest orientation to life.
In response, however, I would point out that the German people were able to radically change their thinking after Hitler’s demise. If China is going to be the next economic powerhouse of the world, I would urge its government and its people to rethink how people with disabilities are treated. I feel that there is no excuse for human rights violations and discrimination.
As I express my disappointment in current practices related to disability in China, I also love its people, as a whole. While I decry some Chinese practices, I also revere its ancient civilization and its beautiful language. How easy it would be for me to harbor resentment for all people of a given country because of the treatment I received by a few of its over a billion citizens. May I model thinking patterns and behaviors that demonstrate respect for all people.
To my Chinese sisters and brothers who are discriminated against so often that they may not even realize that life can be better, I say this. Disability is to be celebrated, for we are precious in God’s sight. We are everything that our peers without disabilities are. We are beautiful and sexual people. We hold jobs, raise families, and laugh often. We are most worthy of respect, for we give it in return. We have the right to be seen in public, whether alone or in the company of others. Shop clerks, taxicab drivers, restaurant owners, and those who manage public and private transportation outlets have a legal and moral obligation to serve us in my country. Those of us in the West who have fought for our rights and have won them pour our strength and conviction into our sisters and brothers with disabilities in China!