Plastic Flags and Incense

My weekend can be summarized in three letters: KTV!

Karaoke is no joke in China. Forget that karaoke toy you had as a child – the one with the echoing mic that I’m pretty sure was limited to the Grease soundtrack. KTV is the big leagues. The large rooms are soundproofed and illuminated by motion-sensor stage lights. A raised 1950’s stage and mic beckons performers, and an automated audience grades the objective okay-ness of their croons with cheers or (more frequently) hisses. It’s a tradition for the foreign interns to give their curtain call at KTV. Unfortunately, this usually means endless renditions of “My Heart Will Go On.” Fortunately, our group mixed it up: Lana del Rey, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Adele, etc. There was even one endearingly bizarre and catchy Chinese song by a band called Chopsticks, Bro.

Bro, I learned hisses are universally understood. J

Instead of a KTV encore the next night, I accompanied Bree, one of Dorronda’s coworkers from Zhicheng Public Interest Law Firm, to the Summer Palace/Yíhéyuán. Because the Great Wall is incomparable in every way (it’s hard to top a World Wonder), I’m recommending the Summer Palace as the alternative number one “must see” sight in Beijing. It also goes for a close second in stair count; visitors can only view the main attraction by conquering the “Longevity Hill.” With ethereal landmarks such as the Hall of Benevolence & Longevity, Cloud Dispelling Hall, and Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, the experience was one of floating peacefully through history.

The tranquility continued into the work week, when I attended a meditation service for women with disabilities. Peony organized the event with a local LGBTQIA NGO, whose directors greeted us with smiles and the world’s most apathetic and adorable cat. The meditation leader quickly filled the room with calming incense and gentle tea lights. I hovered over a couch, still floating from the beauty of the Summer Palace.

But, a couple minutes into the service, my feet grounded quite jarringly. Our guide was using unmistakably ableist language to speak to the women in the group. She said she understood the women had certain difficulties, but that if they just set their mind to do something (like climbing a 20-story staircase when the elevator was out and the woman used a wheelchair), they could do it. Her statement misunderstood their difficulties – she put the onus on these women, who should learn to adapt to an able-bodied society (which they have been doing their entire lives) rather than advocating for a more accommodating and accessible society.

I don’t mean to criticize. We live in an ableist world. But this microcosm of candles and incense wafts to the larger society. Of course it is alright to emphasize strength of mind, but instead of asking persons with disabilities to toughen up and adapt, able-bodied persons (including myself) should strive to understand the experience of persons with disabilities and advocate for accommodation and acceptance so that all members of society may have an equitable experience of accessibility, employment, education, healthcare, housing, and social life.

I also had the opportunity to return to the adult school and visit the friends I’d been missing. KTV snuck up in the school, when I was asked to teach an American song, and learned a Chinese song in return. Since I knew it would be my last visit, I asked everyone about their goals for the future. I learned that most of my friends would remain at the school through adulthood. Each day, they will be tasked with making plastic Chinese flags. “Making” meant banally sliding two loops in a cloth flag through a plastic pole, and capping it with a plastic gold topper. They will not be paid for their work. One of my friends at the school is a bilingual college graduate who earned her master’s degree in economics at a foreign university.

Now she makes plastic flags.  

Where is the patriotism in that? The irony flaps listlessly in the whirring AC of the classroom.

Similar stories exist in the United States. There are so many “un” kinds of wrongs: unjust, undervaluing, unappreciative, unsettling, unequal. OPO strives to undo the “uns” implicit in the social and political reality of persons with disabilities.

At OPO (1+1), members emphasize power in numbers and inclusivity:

1+1 is < 2 = OPO brings disabled and able-bodied persons closer together;

1+1 is 2 = it is very simple and easy to accommodate others in life;

1+1 is >2 = there is power in unity, and each person has great value

1+1 is 1 = if more people (“ones”) join together, society will be stronger and more unified.

Every single person has value. OPO has already done the math.