First Person: 'We need to expose the bad things'
Social Welfare | First Person
Fu Shengjun grew up in a state orphanage in Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. He has since travelled to Wales and Denmark as a representative of disabled people in China. Here he talks to China Development Brief staff writer, Tina Qian, about changes in the orphanage, where he now works, and about his new life as a disability activist.
My name is Fu Shengjun. ‘Fu’ is the same character that appears in fuli yuan [‘Child Welfare Centre’,] where I grew up. It was said that my parents left me, when I was very young, at the Provincial Military Hospital [sheng junqu yiyuan, from which Fu’s first name derives]. I had been disabled by polio. I still don’t know when the tragedy happened to me and when exactly I was abandoned. Anyway, I was picked up by some warm-hearted person and sent to the Hefei Municipal Child Welfare Centre.
I suppose bending one’s knees is a piece of cake for normal people, but it is impossible for me. I ended up sitting in a wheelchair every day. In the orphanage, as a rule, the older, stronger children bully their disadvantaged peers. Since I was handicapped, I was often the target. In response, I took out some of my anger on younger kids until one day I realised it’s absolutely ridiculous for those who are stronger to bully the disadvantaged group.
The care staff treated us badly. It’s no exaggeration to say they beat and scolded us at will. Compared to the others I would count myself lucky: because I was obedient and fairly smart, I gave a rather good impression to almost all the staff, so they treated me better than the rest.
Usually children living at the Welfare Centre started school much later than the normal age. I did no schooling until I was eleven. Local schools turned me away on the grounds of my disability. When I turned eleven I was sent to a village family in Sanshitou township and was fostered there for seven or eight years until I graduated from junior high school. Every month a staff member from the Centre would come to the family with 40 or 50 yuan, my living expense for the whole month.
I can’t really say the family treated me badly. But I couldn’t help thinking that I was not equal to the family’s own children when I saw them eat eggs in the morning but never got any for myself. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that I didn’t want to eat eggs at all. The monthly money the family got from the Centre was only meant to cover my basic daily diet. I had no money to buy even basic items I needed urgently, like shoes and clothes. Even today, when I recall my life at that time I still feel bitterness. In addition, my substitute family members gave me little hope about my future, saying ‘It’s difficult for an able bodied person to find a good job let alone someone disabled like you.’ I was deeply hurt by these remarks and came to feel myself inferior to others.
At school, though, I did so well that I often won small prizes like pens and stationery. I felt contented and pleased. Strangely, I got on well with a couple of lads who the teachers though were bad students. They were good lads except that their academic performance was not as good as mine.
After graduating, I returned to the Child Welfare Centre and joined the staff here. My ex-girlfriend -- like me an orphan brought up here, but healthy -- moved away after she found a job outside. Considering the difficulties and troubles I would face if I tried to find a position outside the Centre in society, I had to give up the idea of leaving, and give up my love. We split up.
I work hard most days, sitting in front of the computer and doing filing. After work, I do some reading or watch TV in the tiny dorm room assigned to me by the Centre. Sometimes I play with the kids, but sport has never been a part of my life. When I was little, I was prone to sickness, though I have never been to hospital for treatment. If my condition got worse, the only treatment was to take medicine or use an IV drip.
A trip to Wales
One day in the early summer of 2003 Mr. Wang Tingyu, director of the Hefei Office of Save the Children UK, phoned me up to say I had been recommended as a candidate to attend a conference held in Wales, UK, on behalf of the Chinese disabled. My first reaction to the news was to feel overjoyed. But my second thought was to worry if I was qualified enough to participate. It turned out that my application was approved a few days later. My proficiency in English had probably been a major asset. In fact, I had been teaching myself English for a long time. To get a clearer picture of what the conference entailed, I looked at the website. Upon seeing a picture of the beautiful town where the conference would be held, I was full of expectations about this trip.
When I actually arrived in Swansea, where the University was located, I was shocked to find that every disabled person I met was upbeat, talkative and active in expression. Even those who were seriously handicapped danced without embarrassment. The most important thing was that nobody gave them strange looks, and the handicapped people appreciated their imperfect bodies. I really admired how at ease they were. I thought to myself: how wonderful it would be if disabled people in China, or even just in Hefei, could live this way.
Inspired by my foreign counterparts, I gradually began to communicate with others and made some new friends. From the fact that many people would wave to me from far off or even come over to start up conversations it was clear that people wanted to hear my story. They found me more interesting after I made a short speech. During the last stage of the conference, I was lucky enough to be chosen, out of more than 100 representatives from over 40 countries, as one of eight people to form an informal network to keep the work of the conference going after people returned home.
After coming back, I certainly sensed that I had undergone some changes, both internally and externally. I used to be a man of few words. It’s very difficult for me to communicate with others, especially strangers. But now I am more willing to make my voice heard. What’s more, I encourage children in the Centre to speak out against things they are dissatisfied with in front of the leaders and put forward reasonable demands. Because I too was brought up here, children at the centre trust me a lot and are willing to let me know what they are feeling and thinking.
My colleagues, however, thought I was going too far. Our leaders were irritated. When protests break out among the children, the leaders want me to put the protests down instead of supporting them.
Meeting the Prince of Denmark
In September 2003, the Centre’s Director Zhang Yuxia and I were invited by the Mayor of Aalborg (in Denmark), the sister city of Hefei, for a visit. The mayor had once been to our Welfare Centre. Over a period of about a fortnight in Denmark we visited a care centre for the elderly, an activity Centre for disabled children and families with disabled members. It might be worth mentioning that, along with a crowd of other people, we once had dinner with the prince of Denmark and a short meeting after that. It’s said that not even every Danish person has such a chance.
Personally speaking, the trips to Wales and Denmark were both pleasant surprises. I hope more people can have such opportunities to go abroad for eye-opening experiences.
The Welfare Centre: past and present
The Hefei Child Welfare Centre was founded shortly after Liberation. But in my memory, there used to be only a few shabby structures surrounded with wild grass. Boys and girls would share one big bed together. The care assistants treated kids strictly and harshly. During holidays, the care assistants would keep the fruit and snacks that had been donated to the kids for themselves. The children dare not to say a word about it.
When it comes to the Centre’s hardware and facilities, everything has changed in the last eight to nine years. But I don’t think that the Centre’s ‘software’, by which I mean the mindset of the staff, from top leaders down to common care assistants, has changed at all. According to my personal experience, I should point out that all the children in the Centre suffer from a lack of both internal and external communications. Take me as an example. Even after I realised just how poor my ability to communicate really was, and that by junior middle school I was to all intents and purposes a mute, I still had few opportunities to progress, apart from watching TV and listening to radio programmes. I believe my case is very common among the children who grow up in the Welfare Centre. They have scarcely any chance to enjoy regular outings and interaction with others. Therefore, most of them are selfish and insensitive, and lack the ability to care for others.
My story has attracted a lot of curiosity from reporters. They rush in to interview me and learn more about the lives of children in the Welfare Centre. I have found myself in a really awkward situation. The leaders in the Welfare Centre, my bosses, have set me up as a model, and want me to paint a rosy picture of everything here. But I dislike the hypocritical propaganda so much. I don’t know how to answer the questions the journalists put forward. On the one hand, it’s torture for me to say things that are not true; on the other hand, it’s rude for me to respond to reporters with silence. In my opinion, there are both positive and negative things to be said about the Centre. We need to expose the bad things so that they can be improved. Fortunately, my life has become quieter again after a stressful period.
A newborn network
With the support of the Hefei office of Save the Children UK we, the disabled youths of Hefei, established late last year a Disabled Youth Network Committee, a self-organised mutual aid group. I was one of the seven members of the committee. According to my suggestion in a recent meeting, it has been decided to accept a few more college students from the Association of Disabled Students of Anhui University, in consideration of the fact that they are mature and capable. Still, some members of the committee are too young to take on much responsibility. Right now we are seeking to register as a real NGO with the local Civil Affairs Bureau.
It has been in the process of getting involved with more activities that I’ve realised I still have a lot of things to learn. Maybe more capacity building will be necessary in the coming stage.