As I write this post, I am seated comfortably at my hotel desk in flip-flops and a Red Wings T-shirt. The desk faces a large window (chua1ng ko3u) and my eyes are glued to it as if I’m watching a thrilling episode of Storm Stories on TV. It’s raining. And I don’t mean the cutesy kind of rain where you throw on a pair of yellow duck galoshes and head out to jump in puddles and smell the fresh rain air. This rain is biblical; it is monsoon’s cousin. The huge missiles of rain battering the window pane offset the tame indoor setting of the hotel. The rain is so unrelenting that all of OPO has been advised to work from home.
But I’m going to drown out the rain to write about yesterday. Yesterday was my favorite day in Beijing thus far. Yesterday I learned that every week, one of my coworkers visits a local school to socialize with adults with various intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Yesterday, she invited me to come along.
The school is a small building tucked behind an alley in a residential district. As I pulled back the curtain hanging at the school’s entrance, I was greeted by a chorus of “hellos” and then quickly ushered in to meet everyone. Unbeknownst to me, everyone at the school knew I would be visiting, so the week prior to my visit they had learned a couple English phrases so they could greet me and introduce themselves. I was incredibly touched by the warm reception. Each person offered a handshake or a hug while giving his or her name, and I scrambled to memorize names while introducing myself in Mandarin (I probably had a very terrible Beijing accent).
Before sitting down to chat, everyone headed outside to dance, and I had my first opportunity to learn to dance like those ayīs near my hotel . . . I learned I have much to learn. I do know that it is somehow possible to have two left feet while stepping solo. After the music ended, we returned to the school and began a Chinese lesson; students took turns teaching me Chinese words, and I was then asked to give the English equivalent. For whatever reason, the words cucumber (hua2nggua1), dragon (lo2ng), and subway (di4tie3) really stuck out to me. Our final activity was a memorization game, and it was the most challenging for me. Each person started by giving their favorite food. We then started clapping out a fast beat in which, if someone yelled out your food, you had to repeat your food and then yell out another person’s food. For everyone else, it was a simple game called “Do as I Do.” For me, it was a race to memorize words and then be able to call them out intelligibly. It was vastly entertaining for everyone to hear me have a go at Beijing food vocabulary. J
Before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to head back to OPO. I looked at the group of smiling faces and realized I really didn’t want to leave. A non-verbal woman – we shared the same favorite summer food, watermelon (xi1gua1) – reached out and took my hand, gripping it tightly with her own. She looked into my eyes and then broke into a wide smile. Another woman, who had seemed shy when I first arrived, tapped me on the shoulder and then grabbed me in a hug. I can’t really describe why certain moments in life stand out, but the actions of these two women are something I will never forget. In those couple moments, those women showed me a kindness that strengthened my resolve to advocate for disability rights.
The following description is my best attempt at putting what I experienced into words. I saw the actions of these women as a sort of raw kindness unfettered by social expectations or stereotypes. It was a kindness stripped down to its most basic form – a kindness in which a person reaches out to another person, seeing him or her as a “person” without any further categorization (race, gender, religion, ability, etc.).
I thought of the game we had just played, “Do As I Do,” and realized its applicability for human rights and disability law. These students were setting an example for everyone else, including myself. Instead of looking for differences, these women looked at me and saw similarities – they treated me like any other person. In our world, we are conditioned to see differences. As I learned while researching staring laws and customs, we do more than see. We stare at differences. OPO has taught me that it can be good for people to see differences, it’s how we expand our worldview and learn to be more accepting. But it’s another thing to treat people differently because of what we see. People with disabilities are no different from what we call the able-bodied population. In fact, these women have proven they have big hearts with little room for differences. For their lesson, I am both grateful and inspired. My yesterday taught me a proper outlook for tomorrow and beyond. I will apply these principles in my life and in my career.
Now 我们 走吧 (let’s go) on a cultural detour. This past weekend, Dorronda and I visited Beihai and Houhai Parks to witness both nature and human nature. Nature first. At Beihai Park, we ambled along stone pathways lined with willow trees and tiptoed into Xiao Xi Tian Temple to see a golden Buddha seated atop a massive stone mountain. There were also hundreds of duck boats – this gave me endless pun opportunities. Beihai Park had all its ducks in a row. See for yourself:
Human nature crooned at Houhai Park. Imagine hundreds of small bars and music venues lined up like the ducks; then imagine all of the bars with glass-fronts, pushy “salesperson/bouncers,” and flashing disco lights. The street positively shook with the sound of music and moving bodies. At one intersection, I was simultaneously confronted with MJ’s “Smooth Criminal,” PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” and a soft Chinese lullaby I wish I could name. As evening turned to night, colorful drones flickered to life and rose to dance across the sky, and street marketers advertised glowing flower crowns and cat ears. Someone sold fidget spinners; another sold hand-painted fans. It was a stunning mix of old and new. Around 10:30, we crawled up a narrow staircase and found an old jazz bar. That night, the bar featured a band whose members hailed from Japan, Italy, and New York. The drummer put Mardi Gras beads on his set to enhance the sound while the bartender offered us Blue Moon. As I sweated it out in the cramped (100-degree +) bar, I was struck by the peculiar feeling of home away from home. I have no idea if/how to upload a video of the band, so I had to settle on this grainy, monochrome picture:
Until next time, 朋友！