Big Cheng was born in 1990 in Shaoyang, Hunan, she films her life and work when she embarks on a career in several Chinese leading internet companies, including Alibaba, NetEase, and Meituan, as a wheelchair user with a severe case of polio since her early childhood.
The first time meeting Big Cheng, one would easily be infected by her brilliant smiles. She is just like millions of employees, punching in when she arrives at work, sometimes overloaded with tasks at hand, always eager to put on some delicate make-up, delighted to go out on the street or off on a sightseeing tour when she is off work.
The difference is, she has to do it all in a wheelchair.
Big Cheng, who contracted polio at an early age, opened up her world when she started to share her ordinary life on vlogs, which have attracted millions of views to date.
Not to be defined as “top few” by disability After going viral on Bilibili, a Chinese equivalent of YouTube, Big Cheng started to get more media attention. But she only accepts interviews on the condition that they must not adversely affect her work and vlogging.
“I just moved here and I can’t let my new boss think that I’m goofing around. I need to lay low.” Big Cheng says with a smirk and a “shut-up” gesture.
In August 2019, Big Cheng left NetEase in Hangzhou and moved to Shanghai to work at Meituan. Though she looked a bit worn-out with everything that needed to be done for this migration, she spent all her free time at night making a video entitled “Would you regret leaving NetEase and its piggy farm of a canteen?” which attracted 343,000 views.
In China’s IT industry, NetEase has been widely known for its offer of scrumptious canteen dishes, hence the tongue-in-cheek nickname “piggy farm” first among its employees and later out into a much wider netizen community. In her vlog, Big Cheng brings the audience on a tour around the famous NetEase Staff Canteen and her workplace. Towards the end she also shared some of her advice on career development. Waves of praise followed in the comment area: “Such an outstanding lady!” “Able people can go wherever they want!” “Truly envious. I want to work in companies like this, too!”
Her life experience, one in which she drove herself right through university and postgraduate studies before she landed herself first in Alibaba and then moved to NetEase and Meituan, seems “outrageously successful.” Not so she thinks, as opposed to a popular belief that she is “one of the top few high-achievers with disabilities”.
Big Cheng is smiling no more. Now she looks quite stern: “I always think of myself as an ordinary person with disability. If I were among the ‘top few’ in this kind of life, how miserable would the rest of my lot be?” She believes that disabled people can obtain high academic degrees, make friends, go anywhere they want, and work in “high-class” companies. They are often lavishly lauded for accomplishing what is otherwise considered normal for the able-bodied to do. “Isn’t this sad?”
This why Big Cheng decided to vlog – to change how disabled people are generally thought of by changing how they think of themselves.
Fighting for life
Born in Shaoyang, Hunan, Big Cheng has led a life of struggles since she was young. At first it was the physical pain caused by polio. She underwent two surgeries, the first of which was an implantation of 24 screws and 2 rods in her sideway curved spine to prevent heart and lung complications.
The second orthopedic surgery was done in six stages spanning four months, with Kirschner wire as thick as chopsticks implanted end-to-end around the joints and the legs being stretched on traction poles every day. The excruciating pain gave her many a sleepless night. Sometimes she would put tissue paper in between her eyes and glasses so that she did not have to wipe her tears as often.
The second struggle she faced early in her life was academic the pressure pumped up by her parents’ expectations. As teachers, both her parents were unusually strict with their daughter’s academic performance, unlike most other parents who would only wish their children to be happy and healthy. “She had already lost the ability to walk, so how could she ever be able to live on her own without academic excellence?” Her mother believed that her daughter’s “physical handicap” must be made up for with extra intellectual efforts in school.
Back in those years, Big Cheng was never happy with herself. She had no idea of how to make her parents happy, either. Even now she seems quite unwilling to recall her academic career.
One reason above all to explain her unhappiness – also the biggest challenge she was facing as a student – is that she had to find a way to detach herself from other students’ hard stares. As she grew up, Big Cheng looked more different with her lanky legs. The day before the College Entrance Exams, when she was physically checking the exam center on her father’s back, she felt everyone turning to look at her.
At the university, where accessible facilities were scarce, she managed to continue with hired help. Every day her maid would carry her to classes on the back. Her physical dependence and a lot of stares from fellow students upset her. “You need to learn to be grateful,” her father said when she complained about this to him.
When she finished her studies and joined the workforce, Big Cheng came across a piece of news about a student who could not walk being carried by his classmates in turn to classes. She retweeted it not to spread some kind of “heartwarming” effect, though. “There is basically no accessibility in school and everyone has to bear the cost of that. But all that has ever been done is to trumpet the classmate friendship rather than to make a real change happen. Those students are innocent. Honestly!”
The power of sharing
By the end of 2019, Big Cheng had published 17 vlogs. The most popular ones had over 300,000 views and the least, more than 10,000 views. They cover a wide range of topics about the life of people with disabilities, such as “How to Take a Bullet Train in a Wheelchair”, “How to Go to Work in a Wheelchair”, and “A Guide to Swimmers in Wheelchairs”.
To Big Cheng’s surprise, most viewers were able bodied, not people with disabilities as she had expected. The video “How to Go to Work in a Wheelchair” attracted nearly 400,000 people and over 3,100 comments, with a lot of on-screen live commenting activity. Many viewers praised her “car racing” skills. In addition to encouragement and support, still many others showed deep-seated curiosity. The most popular topic in one of her live streaming sessions was “what’s your advice on how to get along with disabled people?”
To explain that, she used one of her own videos as an example. “I usually eat alone because I quite like to be alone. If you see a girl in her wheelchair eating alone in the canteen, don’t overthink: She has no one in her company? Poor thing! Isn’t she lonely, sad and disappointed?” The video shows Big Cheng bolting down her food. “Come off it. I’m very happy eating alone!”
“Many people feel that we are bitter, isolated and difficult to get along with. In fact, we are like everybody else and share every aspect of society – working, having a relationship and traveling.” Big Cheng believes that disabled individuals want neither discrimination nor excessive care, just like ordinary people.
Her sunny personality has won her many confiding messages from the disabled world. Some people wrote that they could not get jobs after graduation because of their disabilities; some were denied university offers; a few others had no idea of how to express themselves when they fell in love. These and a lot more comments under her vlogs seemed to have created a kaleidoscope through which a wide range of true life experiences with disability was on display.
She tried to reply to each and every one of the private messages that sought consolation, only to find them growing in numbers. This made her start to think about the next transformative move in vlogging. “In the beginning I did not aim for any social impact, nor did I wish to be a morality preacher.” According to Big Cheng, her goal was very simple: to document her life and to express herself. It is with such authenticity that her stories could easily strike a chord with the audience.
In her later videos, Big Cheng consciously integrated topics such as accessibility, self-improvement, and human rights for the disabled community. Her idol is blind director and playwright Cong Cai. “He is unquestionably a role model of people with disabilities. His excellence overshadows the otherwise pre-conceived label of disability.” She made a video of her meeting with Cai, “A Day of the Star Follower.” “Although I got some attention, I don’t think I am able to do philanthropy just yet.” Big Cheng believes that once she reaches her future life and career goals, she will dive right into philanthropic causes.
“At least for now I’m still an ‘IT migrant worker.’” Big Cheng adds, laughing, “in a wheelchair.”
Article and photographs by Zhang Ximeng
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine