First Day of School: My niece Didi living with cerebral palsy in China - SupChina
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First Day of School

On the question of whether to keep the baby, my sister wavered while her husband was determined to raise his daughter, a decision that continues to strain their marriage. Six months after her birth, my niece Didi was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. 

Illustration by Frankie Huang

1.

“Prepare!”

The school’s head administrator, Ms. Zhang, a tall middle-aged woman wearing a long skirt and high heels, shouted on stage, and all third-graders stood. Over 400 of them in a sweltering assembly hall. It was the first day of the fall semester in my niece’s elementary school in Hangzhou.

“One!”

All children turned clockwise with right arms stretched out.

“Two!”

Arms straight like the hands of a clock, they flipped down the cushions of their seats.

“Three!”

They turned counterclockwise and planted themselves down.

“One-third! One-third!”

They rustled forward so that their butts covered only the front third of the seats, backs straight, shoulders aligned.

Ms. Zhang took in the panoramic view and announced the winner:

“Class Eight is the best. Class Eight will exit first when we are finished.”

As the other students sat, my eight-year-old niece Didi was still wobbling on her thin legs, trying to move herself up to the seat, her arms gripping the air for balance, her black-rimmed glasses sitting crooked on her small nose. She struggled because she has cerebral palsy, a condition characterized by muscle impairment. In her case, she has near-normal intellectual development but stiff limbs.

I was the only adult in the audience, sitting next to my niece in the front row. Didi needs a 24-hour caretaker and I was replacing her babysitter that day. I straightened her glasses and gave her a push. Relieved, she grabbed a storybook to read, giggling a little, the only noise in the hall. I found myself nervous, a little embarrassed. I’d endured China’s educational system all the way through college; obeying the authorities had become muscle memory. Eight years of living in the United States couldn’t prevent my relapse.

“Hush hush, be quiet,” I gently took the storybook away from Didi, adjusting her body to cover only the front third of the seat like everybody else. I hoped to leave a good impression on Ms. Feng, Didi’s new head teacher, who showed a willingness to meet Didi’s special needs, but was more eager to please Ms. Zhang, who stood on the podium like a commander in chief, surveilling 10 troops of little soldiers.

I’d maneuvered my niece and her stroller out of her brand-new classroom, down the spotless steps, across the white hallways, and up the small elevator to arrive at this enormous assembly hall on the third floor. On our way, hundreds of children stood in neat two-line formations led by their head teachers, marching quietly while stealing glances at my niece.

I studied those glances: curious, hesitant, fearful to draw attention to their feelings. No student or teacher greeted or helped us as we passed. Although it was nearly 100 degrees and my shirt was soaked in sweat, I felt chilly. Didi’s babysitter Huang had told me that Didi had no friends in school, and that some of her classmates’ parents had warned their children not to approach her.

“I walk like this, other people must think I’m weird,” Didi had mocked herself that morning when she moved her legs, one step by one little step, into the elevator to leave home.

“Nonsense, no one will think you’re weird! You’re most adorable!” I hugged her, chest to chest. I like this American-style hug, instantly closing the world between two individuals. When two Chinese meet, however, they usually stand at a distance and wave, nod, or smile sheepishly, evaluating the other on a set of rigid social norms. Didi: skinny, disabled, ranked second to last in class, father working in a bank. Should I be friends with her?  

If Didi’s schoolmates felt empathy for her, they didn’t show it. I figured they’d learned not to trust their individual impulses; they waited for orders. Perhaps only when the school’s “commander in chief” launches a “helping others” campaign, such as learning Lei Feng (a semi-real hero immortalized by party propaganda), would Didi’s schoolmates feel obligated to come close to her, acting out compassion by way of competition.

I pushed Didi down the lonely corridor — its walls, ceiling, and floor were all painted stark white, with no artwork or decoration — feeling that the two of us combined weighed less than a feather.

China’s authoritarian system has a way of making me feel like I don’t matter. It churns with a powerful engine to reel individuals in, grinding away human idiosyncrasies and discarding useless parts. I’d escaped it eight years ago, finding emotional refuge in the United States. When I returned and stood in my niece’s school that day, I felt cold, irrelevant, and foreign, incapable of communicating with other parents or Ms. Feng. Somehow, the Chinese adults intimidated me. They represented the mainstream group mentality, having internalized a set of beliefs that I abandoned long ago like a willful child.

What mattered to them was what they saw at first glance — that my niece is an unfortunate child needing constant help, that her goal is to walk like a healthy person, excel in school like “normal” students, and become a functional member of society rather than a burden.

What I believe really matters — given her situation, how do we create a support system to ensure that she lives a meaningful and happy life — is simply wishful thinking. It would be labeled a Western idea that doesn’t fit in to China’s reality.

We have too many people. We are still a developing country. The Chinese have been prescribed these two answers to explain away most of China’s development problems. Take one step further and you’ll touch the sensitive nerve of their mounting nationalistic pride. Who are you to tell us what’s best for us? Don’t interfere with others’ affairs, mind your own business. China was in tatters a hundred years ago, but look how far we’ve come along!

My question is, can China’s collective strength benefit a vulnerable member of society like my niece? If not, can my home country really consider itself a strong nation?

On a warm spring day in 2011, I received a phone call from my parents, who told me that my second sister had decided to abort her seven-month unborn child. The fetus had stopped growing and a shortage of oxygen in the brain was diagnosed — it might turn out to be OK, or not. I was a senior at Beijing Language and Culture University, studying Chinese language and literature. My romantic impulses pushed me to action. I asked my family to hold off the decision and rushed to Peking Union Medical College Hospital, a top hospital in China. I stood in line overnight among hundreds of patients and scalpers to be admitted by a reputable OB/GYN doctor who specialized in pregnancy complications. I was looking for hope and comfort, but when the doctor saw me the following morning, I received a scolding.

“Seven months? That’s a human life. It’s not a question of keeping it or not, it’s a question of how to raise the child!” the female doctor yelled after glancing at my niece’s medical records I’d printed out. “However, I warn you not to interfere with other families’ affairs. Mind your own business. Next!” Out I went.

I felt belittled but was glad that the doctor shared my view to keep the baby. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but such a right should not be abused. The issue of abortion in China is personal to me.

Born the third daughter in my family, I am soberly aware that my existence is a result of my mother’s three failed attempts for a boy. In rural China 30 years ago, a woman’s will to have a boy to pass down the ancestral line for her husband’s family was so strong — it’s still strong today — that my mother risked her life dodging China’s notorious family-planning policy. The so-called one-child policy, which spanned almost four decades, has torn numerous families, caused female infanticide to surge, and prevented hundreds of millions of births — I could have been one of them. My sister’s baby could become another. I felt a strong desire to advocate for the baby’s life. But should I interfere? What would the baby’s life be like if she was born with a disability, distressing her parents while growing up in a provincial city with unchecked discrimination?

I expressed my opposition to the abortion but didn’t force my opinion on my family. I returned to my books and avoided family news from my southern hometown of Yongkang.

(Yongkang is a county-level city in Zhejiang Province known for rich entrepreneurs in the hardware business. These business owners, like my parents, were typically uneducated but hardworking, having recently moved away from their ancestral farmlands. When new wealth melds with a feudal mentality, it bears a bizarre fruit of oppression; women bear the harshest brunt of it, as they are surrounded by deeply ingrained patriarchy and sexism. When I was a teen, I made up my mind to leave all this behind.)

A few weeks later, I received another phone call from my parents, announcing that I had a niece. I was overjoyed. Only later did I discover that my sister had chosen to proceed with the abortion, but when the day came, the surgeon postponed it due to a scheduling conflict. The next day, my sister unexpectedly went into labor. My niece arrived in the world like a little rebel, weighing less than four pounds.

 

“Seven months? That’s a human life. It’s not a question of keeping it or not, it’s a question of how to raise the child!”

 

Didi often recounts details of her first month in the world, which she has heard from the adults. She puts on a grin and waves her arms while telling everyone within earshot, “Once upon a time when I was in an incubator, I was tiny like a little mouse. My father visited me every day!”

She likes to be the heroine in this legend of filial love. But what she doesn’t know is that even after she was born, there was still a lingering voice that suggested an alternative solution to terminate her life. Killing or abandoning an unhealthy female infant has been a common practice in my home region, where my ancestors have lived for at least 800 years. After I was born, my mother entertained the idea of swapping me with a boy whose parents already had two sons, but my father refused and kept me, naming me Liuyu, Left-Behind Jade.

Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening policy initiated in 1978, my parents were allowed to run a private business, supporting my sisters and I to become first-generation college graduates in our family. I was the first to go to college in Beijing and also the first to go overseas.

On the question of whether to keep the baby, my sister wavered while her husband was determined to raise his daughter, a decision that continues to strain their marriage. Six months after her birth, Didi was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Today, an estimated one million children in China suffer from cerebral palsy, most of whom live in remote and poor areas without access to modern medical facilities. Government agencies such as the China Disabled Persons’ Federation only disburse limited funds to benefit a small number of patients under six years of age. Although for-profit rehabilitation centers are burgeoning, many offer unproven and unsafe procedures. Due to a lack of social awareness and systematic support, the entire burden falls onto the child’s family. News of desperate family members drowning or choking children with cerebral palsy occasionally surface.

Luckily, my niece was born into a relatively well-to-do family on the east coast. Her parents have shown dedication in providing her with advanced medical care and financial support — so far, they have spent more than 3 million yuan (half a million dollars) on Didi’s out-of-pocket medical bills.

When Didi was three, my sister took her to Beijing to seek treatment at Deerkids, a private rehabilitation center founded by a well-connected Chinese couple whose own child had mild cerebral palsy. The center touted a quick recovery method devised by Dr. Li, a retired therapist from Peking Union Medical College Hospital, who claimed to have three decades of experience helping more than 3,000 children with cerebral palsy, including the co-founders’ daughter.

Dr. Li evaluated my niece’s condition and said that if she received therapy at Deerkids for four years, she could “become a normal child to enter society.” The center’s core product was Dr. Li’s “tendon scraping” massage technique, which was believed to ease the patient’s inner muscle spasms and facilitate brain cell regeneration. It was notoriously painful.

In the winter of 2015, I visited Deerkids once with my sister and niece. Before we entered the building, Didi began crying, knowing what awaited. As soon as we stepped in, I heard children screaming hysterically in pain. Is this place legitimate? I asked my sister. She looked weary and impatient; her face was festered with acne. My question must have reminded her of her dire situation, and she hastily replied, pouting her lips, “No pain, no gain!” Dr. Li and the parents had made an agreement. The result will justify the means.  

The first floor was a playground where dozens of children practiced crawling and walking. The second floor had training rooms where the crying originated. When it came time for Didi, I followed her into a room where she was put on a white cot. Tears surged down her face.

Dr. Li was a tall, old man with a sullen face and a pair of huge, callused hands. He started to squeeze Didi’s bones on the legs. She protested, kicking. A team of young assistants in white coats forced her down. She screamed. Dr. Li continued working out his “tendon scraping” method deep into her tender bones. She wailed and begged, spreading her bony fingers for help: “Please, I can’t take it, I can’t take it! Help me! Mama!” My sister hurried in and out of the room, trying desperately to grasp the equally difficult technique of tough love.

I was horrified. Should I stop this? Is this supposed to be good for her? Is she suffering like this every day? Dr. Li looks more like a butcher! I fought back tears and stepped outside to catch a breath. I felt a deep sense of dread, anger, and helplessness, remembering my childhood and all the cruelty I’d seen. I did what I normally do when I fall into despair: find an exit. I never went back there.

Didi received treatment at Deerkids for almost a year before my sister moved her back to Zhejiang to attend regular school. My sister later told me that Deerkids had been exposed by some parents for selling their children’s stories to get donations for the co-founders’ personal gains; Dr. Li’s training method was also called into question. This PR crisis quickly subsided thanks to the co-founders’ wide network. Since its founding in 2014, Deerkids has expanded, now operating in at least seven Chinese cities.

“I have a problem with their exaggerated promise, not so much with their training method — it’s not much better in other centers,” my sister told me during a recent conversation on WeChat. “Some parents think Dr. Li has been helpful; some don’t. It’s hard for me to say. For cerebral palsy kids, as long as they receive ongoing training, they seem to make progress.”

I was careful when teasing out information from her, but she still guessed my intention to write this article. Revealing family “ugliness” in public remains a cultural taboo; exposing China’s social scars can bring political danger. My sister warned me not to write anything.

It was at Deerkids that my sister found a long-term babysitter for Didi. Huang was a 14-year-old teenage girl from rural Guangxi Province in southwest China. At the time, her younger half-brother with severe cerebral palsy was receiving treatment with Didi at Deerkids. To pay for her son’s physical therapy, Huang’s mother worked in the building as a cleaner, paying no attention to her daughter. After Huang dropped out of school, my sister hired her to care for Didi, and the two grew up like sisters (Didi calls Huang jiejie, “older sister”). Meanwhile, Huang severed her relationship with her mother (her father has been absent since her childhood), and never returned to formal schooling. The only biological family member Huang missed was her maternal grandmother, who had raised her — she passed away earlier this year, shortly after Huang turned 18.

Huang now lives with my sister’s family in Hangzhou as Didi’s 24-hour caretaker. She has become an indispensable member of my family and I’m deeply grateful for her. She is capable, smart, and fun — born in 2001, she keeps me updated on China’s newest apps, shops, and restaurants whenever I return home. We have grown close, bonding over our shared path of migration and exchanging our ideas on how to best provide care for Didi.

I’ve been worried about Didi’s growth in China. When I visited her this past summer, however, I was impressed by her progress. She can now roll up from bed in the morning, put on her shoes, and climb down to stand on the floor. Without holding onto the furniture, she can walk to the bathroom and doff her pants to use the toilet — a milestone! At mealtime, she can eat a full meal using chopsticks, scraping the bowl clean within half an hour.

Did the inhumane massage methods really work? Is she covered with psychological scars? Can the ends really justify the means?

One thing was clear — Didi demonstrated great pride and joy gaining measurable independence.

2.

“If only my placenta wasn’t rotten when I was born, my mama wouldn’t be so difficult. Please don’t blame her.”

 

I left China soon after Didi was born. I received my MFA in creative writing from New York University and stayed in the U.S. to develop my career as a writer and translator. Although I’m half a world away from my niece, I’ve always felt connected to her and responsible in some way. When I got married in St. Louis in 2016, I invited Didi to be my flower girl. Thanks to her outgoing personality and good sense of humor, she instantly became a star among my American family members, who adored her and expressed earnest wishes to help her.

My Catholic mother-in-law cited the saying, “The happiness level of a home is measured by the least fortunate member in the family.” My American aunt from San Francisco, who is a full-time caregiver for her quadriplegic husband, threw out her arms and said: “Didi is welcome to stay with us! We have good hospitals and schools here. I don’t care, she can stay with us forever. We can adopt her!”

This level of empathy and enthusiasm startled me. While my niece’s physical condition remains an obstacle to her social status in China, often concealed as a source of shame, it has helped me bond with my American family. Will Didi have a better future in America? What would be her immigration path? What about her parents?

In the summer of 2017, my husband Henry and I arranged a medical trip for Didi to receive physical therapy at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. While Chinese therapists often resort to push-the-limit methods leading to her routine crying, the American therapists evaluated her overall condition while considering her psychological state, asking about her feelings when devising personalized training methods. Didi loved this new experience.

However, without health insurance in America, my sister had to pay the full amount for each session, which was 10 times more expensive than a Chinese therapy session. As the dollar amounts added up, so did her anxiety. While Didi was enjoying her new freedom, her mother grew increasingly agitated. Too expensive. Too little progress. The Americans are too gentle. Not rigorous enough!

One night when I was making food in the kitchen, my sister started training her daughter in the living room. Soon, I heard Didi crying. During their time staying with me, Didi was always cheerful when receiving physical therapy at the hospital (twice a week), but whenever her mother trained her at home (twice a day), she cried from pain.

“What’s wrong with you? Remember that it is you who cannot walk, not me. Have you thought about why I have to waste my time teaching you such easy business of walking? Is it fair? You not only fail to show appreciation but grow more and more disobedient!” From the kitchen, I saw my sister hit her daughter’s unstable joints repeatedly as she tried to stand straight, shaking.

I banged the spatula on the sizzling pot and stormed out of the kitchen.

“Enough is enough. If you dare hit her again, I’ll call the police. Remember, abusing a child is illegal in America!” I yanked Didi away from her mother and tugged her into my chest, her tears wetting my shirt. My sister knelt on the living room rug, her brows knit together.

Because my sister and I were never close, and because I still judged her for trying to deny her daughter’s life, I couldn’t empathize with her desperation. True, she had spent most of her adult life dealing with her daughter’s illness, missing out opportunities to advance her own career, but she had also failed to show appreciation for the gifts in her life, such as her loyal husband, bright daughter, and financial security. I had heard chilling tales of a father abandoning his wife and disabled child for a new marriage, and I would feel lucky to have an adorable daughter like my niece. But my sister seemed to only gravitate toward negativity.

My mother once told me that when she was pregnant with my second sister in 1987, to avoid drawing attention to the family planning bureau officials, she confined herself in a dark room months before and after my sister’s birth. Perhaps this has cast a shadow over my sister’s mental health. When my mother was pregnant with me two years later, she also hid inside, but after I was born, I was allowed to be carried outside, contributing to the sunny side of my personality. This theory made sense to me.

From my occasional video calls with my parents, I’d also learned about incidents involving my sister and her husband throwing books and dishes at each other over heated arguments of divorce, only staying together for the sake of their daughter, a familiar rhetoric. During these moments, Didi would recoil to a corner to do homework.

When I was growing up, my mother constantly threatened to divorce my father, only to hold together the traditional family unit for her three daughters, who were also victims of her verbal abuse. My mother had grown up in a village, subject to poverty, parental negligence, and political violence during the troubling decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Something had been made clear to me. If we don’t stop this cruelty now, it will perpetuate.

To this day, I suffer from sudden attacks of fear and self-doubt — fearing I have made mistakes and will be cast out, feeling like a fraud and doubting my worth. No therapy or professional achievement or money can fill that bottomless void.

I felt I had to defend my niece and my younger self.

In the next half-hour, in my American home, I argued with my sister at the top of my voice using our indigenous dialect which I’d begun to forget, while Didi wailed harder and harder in my arms, her tears, snot, and saliva smearing all over my shirt.

“If I’m not strict, she won’t listen. It’s the only way to improve. We are not Americans. I know that the American method is better overall, but we can’t afford it. We don’t have time to experiment, either. We have to follow one system consistently.” My sister’s voice softened, and her tears tumbled out, betraying genuine dread.

“Not under my watch. I can’t control what you do to her in China, but in this home, you are not allowed to hit a child!” I remained firm.

Later that night, Henry and I took Didi for a walk in our neighborhood near Piedmont Park. He’d missed our sibling fight, so I gave him an update. He listened carefully. I didn’t expect my American husband to fully understand my family drama with deep Chinese roots, but his willingness to listen and support sufficed. The summer night was placid; we held hands.

“If only my placenta wasn’t rotten when I was born, my mama wouldn’t be so difficult,” Didi mumbled in her stroller, trying to comfort me as we walked by a row of shaded bungalows. “Please don’t blame her.” My chest tightened at her words.

“Didi, listen, it’s not your fault,” I told her. “It’s absolutely not your fault. Everyone was born different; you are just different. If you can’t walk, that’s OK. Just play deaf when other people say hurtful things to you. You are perfect, and we’ll always be here for you.”

I formulated this answer with Henry’s help. He’s doing a Ph.D. at Georgia Tech with a research focus on developing assistive robots to help persons with motor impairments. He liked to cite Dr. Cassie Mitchell, a professor from his home department, who is paralyzed from the chest down but has won Paralympic medals and become a world-renowned researcher, to encourage my niece.

Henry knelt down, looked into Didi’s eyes, and told her: “Didi, we believe you can achieve anything in life if you just put your mind into it. We love you!” I translated.

My niece thought for a while with her mouth half open. At last, she whispered:

“I miss my mother before she had me. She looked so happy in her wedding photos.”

3.

What mathematician can calculate the psychological cost of China’s rise?

 

When Didi approached elementary school age, my sister was determined not to send her to a special school for disabled children in China, which reminded her of an orphanage, asylum, or prison. She moved her family to a prime location in Hangzhou, the booming capital city of our province, and enrolled Didi in a reputable public school nearby.

In the first two years, Didi ranked at the bottom of her class, distressing her previous head teacher, Mr. Dong, whose salary was compromised by lagging students. Hoping to purchase a home in Hangzhou to attract a wife and support his aging parents, the young teacher had been hosting private tutoring sessions to make extra income, a common practice for Chinese teachers, who enjoy high social status but make humble wages.

Huang told me incidents of Mr. Dong losing control during class. After a female student whom Mr. Dong had often praised dropped out of his tutoring sessions, Mr. Dong reacted with such bitterness that he began yelling at the girl in class with insults such as, “I can’t believe you don’t know the answer to this question, if you are so stupid, you’ll end up sweeping the streets and mopping the public toilets when you grow up!” stunning all the children into silence.

Verbal abuse remains an effective tool to silence a subordinate in China. It’s all for your good. You’ll understand my intention and thank me in the future! I still remember these justifications made by my elementary school math teacher who often beat female students, including me, with a giant wooden triangular ruler. I will never thank her. I had recurring nightmares of failing math exams even after I came to the United States, despite the fact that I had a nearly perfect score on the GRE Quantitative Reasoning section.

In the dictator-subordinate power structure, the subordinate is often coerced to show understanding toward the dictator, until one day the roles flip, and the subordinate becomes the dictator. This is why evaluating China’s past events is an impossibly convoluted affair. To this day, historical issues such as the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the June Fourth Movement remain unresolved, even unmentioned in mainland China.

As a result, our history appears to be running in circles (the Xi and Mao resemblance) rather than making linear progress — the Chinese language lacks tense, easily mixing the past, present, and future. Today, state-authorized terror, institution-sanctioned abuse, and domestic violence continue to haunt our lives and tear our psyche. What mathematician can calculate the psychological cost of China’s rise?

To cement the top-down power structure, the ruling party is busy aborting rebellious ideas. Terms such as “human rights,” “freedom,” and “democracy” sound increasingly grating to the Chinese whose ancestors lived through the rise-fall cycles of changing dynasties and political regimes. Many would find themselves utterly lost in a free, chaotic world like that in America. Today, as if out of a habit coded in their genes, my family members still deferentially address Xi as their “emperor,” kowtowing to his rule and thanking him for his leadership and protection.

Last semester, several parents (including my sister) reported Mr. Dong to the school, exposing him for taking bribes from parents to give preferential treatment to certain students. The parents were divided; two factions were formed; Mr. Dong’s mother arrived from the village to vouch for her son. In the end, the school reassigned Mr. Dong to teach a lower grade as a form of punishment.

When I accompanied my niece to school at the end of this summer, I was hoping to have a genuine exchange with the new head teacher. Maybe sharing my experience in the American education system could be of use to her. Perhaps my effort could help prevent unnecessary hardship for my niece. But I found myself tongue-tied and Ms. Feng unavailable. She was preoccupied in training her new students in mannerisms that would help them compete with other classes and win compliments from the head administrator. It was clear we had very different priorities.

I’d also imagined dynamic exchanges of summer stories among the students who’d been separated for three months. But they remained silent, perfecting their stance and posture to please their teachers. All day long, they learned how to sit (covering one-third of the seat), stand (spine straight), walk (only seeing the back of the front student’s head), turn (90 degrees), and shout slogans (in unison), training their memory muscles to obey.

In the assembly hall, after we were all seated, the head administrator Ms. Zhang showed the students a video demonstrating the history of this new campus. The formulaic narrative went something like this: With great care from the party leaders and the education bureau and generous funding from such and such companies, we built this modern, high-tech, innovative campus (that looks like a butterfly in the sky!) to educate China’s next generation of elites; our principal has a great vision, our teachers graduated from top universities, and our students have won numerous accolades in nationwide competitions…

Didi is clearly not included in the principal’s vision. I looked at her. She didn’t seem to be listening, but fiddled with her hands.

On the evening of September 1, China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, aired its annual education program First Day of School to kick off the new semester. Every Chinese grade-school student was required to watch. This year, the theme was “I Am Proud of You, Red Flag,” paying homage to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

Back home in Yongkang, I watched the program with my two nephews (sons of my eldest sister), 8 and 11 years old, whose eyes were glued to the screen. For one and a half hours, I stared at the heartfelt performances of patriotic themes, learned about China’s recent technological and scientific breakthroughs like reaching the back of the moon, and listened to stories of inspirational model members of society — including a disabled man who climbed to the top of Mount Everest! The overall narrative sounded convincing, the visual design looked less tacky than the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, and the message was crystal clear — China’s youth are rising without a question!

My eldest sister took a photo of her sons watching the program and sent it to their teachers, showing they’d been doing their homework.

After First Day of School aired this year, the program’s host, Dong Qing, briefly got into trouble. Her emotional speeches had moved millions of Chinese youth to love China and the Chinese flag, but she had chosen to have her baby in the U.S., a common practice among the Chinese elite. Online commenters were incensed by this hypocrisy, pointing out that a Chinese mother with an American child shows no loyalty to her motherland.

My niece Didi, with her dreamy personality, shows little interest in nationalistic rhetoric. She minds her own business: exercise, eat, nap, homework. The last project I did with her before I returned to the U.S. was making a poster about recycling, a hot topic in China. (Mobilizing 1.4 billion people to protect the environment is one upside of an authoritarian regime.) I helped Didi design an original 3-D poster with colored paper, dry plants, stickers, and bold fonts. When she brought the poster to school the next day, it stood out among the four dozen other submissions. It was chosen, among eight other posters, to be exhibited on the blackboard in the back of her classroom. If Didi felt happy about this small victory, she hasn’t shown it.

Liuyu Ivy Chen

Liuyu Ivy Chen is a writer and translator. In her home language Yongkanghua, there is no word for "love," the closest verb is zeidie (Mandarin: 值钿 zhí diàn): worthy of money.

4 Comments

  1. Marilyn Evans Reply

    Ivy, I enjoyed reading your paper soooo much! I cannot imagine living in a country that treats children the way China does! Those poor kids!!! You were so good to be-friend Didi,and she will be forever grateful to you. Sweet little girl–it almost makes me cry to think of all she went through.

    Thank you so much for sending this. We are looking forward to seeing you at Christmas!

    Love, Grandma

  2. Lisa A. Marrero Reply

    My daughters are from China- adopted via agencies. They are very ambivalent about being Chinese. We cannot honestly “spin” their birth story so that they feel wanted, even though many certainly did care about them before we showed up. The younger child was born with a disability, not dissimilar from your niece. She has thrived. I’m glad for what we have a s a nation yet cannot pretend we care for different people, as you put it, as well as we ought. But I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve often wondered what my younger daughter might’ve been like growing up in her country of birth. Thank you.

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