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Disabled in China

Posted by on April 21, 2012

Hello Readers! I hope you enjoyed my time in Hong Kong last week. Any questions about that?


Good. Let’s move on.

Okay, so this week, we go back to the mainland; back to Zhuhai.

Living there, I got to go a little deeper with some of my experiences. And on one morning in my neighborhood, I was caught off-guard by one of my neighbors…

Now chances are, you’ve got two arms, two legs, and are an overall able-bodied individual. Yet we often focus on the aches and pains of our bodies rather than basking in the capabilities of our physique, don’t we?

Hmm, so it seems there’s a need to relearn, to work to maintain an attitude of gratitude which dwindles without tending. It’s like having to say “I love you”. It doesn’t cut it when Mr. Smith says of Mrs. Smith, “What?! I already told her that I loved her once. Why does she keep forgetting?”

Perhaps we do “forget” to stay grateful or just simply run out of fuel to keep that perspective and so need a recharge. Perhaps a healthy outlook on life, like a healthy body, isn’t something attained, but maintained. So for some maintenance, here’s my encounter with a man in China who got my perspective to flip: rather than focusing on what I lack, I was inspired to recognize all that I can offer.

One morning, I was walking the side streets of Zhuhai—the narrow, mainly pedestrian alleyways where mom and pop restaurants, small retailers, and street vendors set up shop. I happened upon a small crowd on a corner. Like so many of life’s finds this one occurred right out of the blue, as fresh as the present.

Through the crowd of about 25, I made out the centerpiece: a thin man of 35-ish, dressed in a white tank top and dark slacks standing over a half-dozen, spread out, large red sheets of paper. Oversized, hand-written Chinese characters were artistically and neatly drawn on the sheets in thick black ink. He was evidently the artist. The problem was, these hand-written characters were created by someone without arms:

“Whoa” I thought, taken aback. I’d never seen an amputee so revealed. Maybe he was trying to play up his handicap for more cash; maybe it was lack of shame. But there he was with armless shoulders and scar tissue. Lord knows how he lost them.

My immediate thoughts went to, “What would it be like to have no arms? How horrible life would be!” Crazy how automatic these thoughts were. I’d like to say it was a form of sympathy, but it wasn’t. It was pure dread—dread of having to stare life in the face without arms. How easy it is to confuse sympathy with dread! It makes sense, then, that my next motive was to stomp out this fear by thinking, “Quick, where can I give him money?!”

But hold on there, cowboy.

This wasn’t a man looking for something-for-nothings, though he absolutely could have. He wanted to earn; he wanted to create; he wanted to do. And the money he did receive was compensation for something he offered to others. Soon, my eyes drifted down to the appendages still remaining on his narrow frame:

The whole process was fascinating to watch. He nudged his seat pad into place with his foot and hunched down upon it. Though many people were watching, none helped. This guy was fine on his own. He clamped the paper to a cardboard backing with his nimble toes, then grabbed the paintbrush between big and second toe, dipped it in the ink can, and went to work. After each few characters he’d have to realign: stand up, kick his seat over, and hunch back down. He amped up the ambiance of this performance by playing a dramatic song on repeat, a ballad sung by a woman.

Check out the footage:

For myself, and I’m betting for others who watched, pity quickly turned to inspiration, and we gave money because of the latter. He seemed more a creator with a handicap than a handicapped man who happened to create. He was somber, focused, concentrated.

At some point in his past, this person decided to live rather than simply exist. It’s a wonderful place to be when one sees all they are capable of, and it’s powerfully evident when one with such a blatant disability has this realization. He’s a model for all who experience challenges and taught me that the human spirit and the drive to express can overcome so much. The question I have for you, Reader, is: if armlessness can’t stop the painter, what’s ever stopping all of us from expressing ourselves?

Here’s to flexing the muscles we can; to using our legs, if we haven’t any arms.

Have a terrific week,


p.s. This wasn’t the only disabled person I’d feature my year in China. I interviewed a disabled homeless women and her husband who carried her around town to collect alms. With the help of a translator, I was able to learn a lot about their life and life in China. Though I won’t get to squeeze them in on this blog, they’ll be in my book and ebook coming out later this year.

One Response to Disabled in China

  1. matt

    Reminds me of what we saw in Vietnam when we lived there.