My name is Jing Hu, and I was born in 1984 and raised in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, West China. The first three months of my birth were the first and last happy moment in my family. Then, in early 1985, I developed what appeared to be an inflammation in my lymph nodes. Treated improperly, it caused damage to my brain, leaving me in the gravest physical condition that any parent could ever imagine. My muscles became hyper-tense, my nails cut into my palms, and my legs twisted like a pair of scissors.
Fortunately, my parents didn’t give up on me. With massage, training, and a lavish amount of love, as well as help sought from the constantly overlooked realms of traditional Chinese medicine, I started to gain oral and communicative aptitudes at age three and to walk without support at age 12. Controllable mobility in my upper extremities, though improved over the years to a point where the muscles are no longer hard as rock, remains too little for me to do anything other than hold small objects in my hands and use my computer at a special desk designed by my father. No school accepted me. I was self-taught in almost everything a student should learn at school: math, Chinese, physics, chemistry, English. The last was my favorite subject and now is my career. Now I’m a published translator of six books and a member of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Linguists, and I have done all these from home, with my toes.
The Stage of Love
I take my last step into the pool of light. Everything seems so painfully out of focus and in constant motion. A black shadow in the shape of a camera rolls back and forth along a rattling rail. Some shining particles around the hostess’s eyes declare their proud existence while the others are shrinking to total nothingness at the slightest movement of a muscle. As quickly as I try to grab a train of thought, it slips away.
For everyone, it is a dream state. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, Set Your Way to Happiness, a popular thanksgiving show hosted by China Central Television, offers an extremely limited chance for a heartfelt expression of gratitude before a national audience.
For me, it is a lucky revisit to the past with Dickens’s ghost.
At the end of a forlorn suburb street of Urumqi, a poverty-stricken, multi-racial city in northwestern China, a woman was ploughing through the snow. She was in her late twenties, of average build, and wore a dark blue China Railway uniform. She had black permed hair, a broad jaw and little triangular eyes. What seemed most prominent about her was her protruding belly. She’d had an unusually long period of morning sickness, and the baby would be due exactly one month from now.
On each side of her stood a low clay-built wall, like the ones you often see in impoverished communities of Afghanistan. It was almost dark, but a wooden door was still visible at the end of each wall leading to a small yard. The woman turned to the left and put a basket of eggs on the snow. She fished out a key from under her belly, thrust it into the keyhole of an unnecessary lock, and with a “click” pushed open the door to her yard.
It was an evenly flat surface of cream, occasionally disturbed by pieces of metal and wood here and there. At the farthest corner lay a shed. The woman sighed. Clumsily she trudged over to what appeared to be clumps of snow, bent down to grab hold of a shovel and a broom, and then set out to work. First the pathway to the shed where she would get coal to heat her home; then the entire yard. She was such a diligent spirit, strict with everything she thought should be done, even after a full day’s work as a train attendant.
Thousands of miles apart from her parents, she was also too modest to ask for anyone’s help when her husband was away on a business trip.
The next day, I was born.
In the doctor’s office, a young couple was waiting for their turn to have their child checked. The man held the baby in his arms as if she were a piece of fragile art, but she was still whimpering and wriggling in discomfort. How could she otherwise? Look at her. She craned her head at a peculiar angle, as if in excruciating pain. Her hands curled into little hammers, waving out of the swaddle in a sort of frantic way. Her eyes rolled in and out like those of a mentally affected patient who’s having electroshock therapy.
The father looked down at his child with a grim face. He could have been good-looking, with his olive-shaped eyes and flat nose, but his unkempt hair and beard made his face grimmer.
Finally, it was their turn. By a mere look at the baby, the doctor said, “This is a severe case of cerebral palsy.” He pointed at her body and continued, “Look. Her whole body is badly affected. She may not even be able to walk, smile or recognize you later in life. As far as I know, there is no effective treatment for patients like her.”
The couple walked out of the office. Same results again.
The woman couldn’t take it anymore. She leaned on her husband’s shoulders and began to sob. “Why us? Why my baby?”
The man kept silent.
“Our baby … what are we going to do with her?” She looked a little dazed.
The man shut his eyes tight. When he opened them again, it was with a look of determination.
“What are we going to do? She’s our daughter. Take her home and take good care of her, of course!” His voice vibrated with the same resolution.
His words became the final verdict of my life—and his as well.
The terraced house was a typical brick-and-mortar building of the early 1980s. It was collectively owned, which means that China Rail, a state-owned company, held the deeds in place of its worthy workers. The young family lived on the ground floor.
The first thing you’d notice upon entering might be a pale blue cupboard on the left. At the farthest right corner sat a coal-burning stove. A black pipe stuck out from one side of the stove and took a 90-degree turn up through the adjacent wall.
Push open the door next to the stove, and you’d see a 13 x 13 foot room. There was no sofa, TV, or any other features you’d normally find in a Chinese home today. On the right was a window, which was only a few feet away from the second-floor neighbor’s clay shed. A blue, polyester curtain usually hung over it to keep privacy. Below the window sill was a wood-panel bed big enough for at least three grown-ups.
On that bed sat a woman, with the baby girl in her lap. No older than one year of age, she still had little hammers for hands. Her feet were bent downward and crisscrossed, similar to those of a ballet dancer, only more rigid and unnatural. From time to time her body twitched as though an electric current passed through her. When this happened, her head tilted sideways to make it look like she suddenly saw something that only she could see.
But the mother was oblivious to all these movements. She held the children’s magazine Good Baby in one hand and pointed at what was in there with the other, stopping here and there as she went.
This went on for a while, and then the mother’s voice trailed away. And then the room fell into silence. The hands of a tiny clock on the wall behind her pointed to a quarter past nine. It was completely dark outside.
Just as the magazine began to slip down toward the cement floor, the child twitched violently in the mother’s lap. The woman gave a jolt. Then she resumed her position and continued to talk. Fifteen minutes to go before bedtime.
It must be out of her wildest dream that sixteen years later I taught myself the foreign language that she could not understand.
Same room. Same furniture. But this time there was a man hunching over the bed, his arms down at a 45 degree angle to his body, and his hands moving in a swift, fluent motion like that of a cook kneading dough.
Sometimes he pressed down with both his palms; other times he just smoothed it out with his long fingers.
Lying on the bed was a strange looking figure of a small girl. She could be three years old, but then again she could be five. She was face up, but her head kept turning both ways as if she were refusing an invisible offer. Both her arms were twisted in a tight knot and pinned to her chest, her right hand clenched into a fist, and her left thumb was curving toward the back of her hand in an uncomfortable way. Her legs seemed much less peculiar, but her right foot always pointed the wrong way.
Now the man sat down at the edge of the bed, placed the child’s legs upon his, and began to massage her ankles with the same dexterity. He looked at the tiny clock on the wall behind him. It was a quarter past nine. Fifteen minutes to go.
How much this private, self-taught practice could do, he had no idea. Nor could he expect, at that time, that I would begin to walk independently at age 12.
Another patch of dark clouds bore down on the new six-story, cement-cast building. It rained harder. Looking out from her second-floor bedroom window, the woman heaved a sigh. She closed her eyes, squeezed them tight and grimaced. She looked as if in unbearable pain or… perhaps in a deep, ominous thought?
A moment later, her face was relaxed, eyes opened, but the frown was still there. Then she slowly turned from the supine position to the left side and slipped her right hand under her other armpit, supporting her left elbow that now served as a jack. After a few yelps, she sat upright, stood up, and padded out to the dining table. From there she picked up a flask and dragged herself across the living room and into the study.
It was the smallest room of the three-bedroom apartment. On one side was a wall of books, most of which were published in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The other side was lined with two desks displaying a hodgepodge of electronic devices, souvenirs, and English publications. A teenage girl was reading at the smaller desk under the window. She looked up as her mother approached her with the flask.
With a seamless motion, the girl drank the water as the woman held the container for her at the right angle. Then the woman spoke in a dry voice, “We will die together.” She paused. “Don’t look at me like that. You can’t even drink by yourself. I won’t leave you alone in this world suffering. These books can’t help you.” The girl buried her head deeper into the book to hide her tears. Was it her or her mother’s hopelessness that made her cry? She looked confused.
Seventeen years later the mother lived to see that “these books” lay a path for my career as a published translator of six books and a member of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Linguists, all done in my study, with my chin, lips, and toes.
A round of applause from the remaining audience pulls me back into reality. A little dazed, I hear the host, in conclusion, asking all three of us to stand up. It’s my time to give thanks.
Considering that I’m a nervous speaker, I wrote a little poem in both languages earlier. Here under the spotlight, all I have to do is recite its Chinese version while the big screen displays the English version:
I started my earliest days
Twisted and contorted
Beaten and tormented
In the iron grip of cerebral palsy
You came to my rescue
Strong as an anchor
Ready to conquer
In the face of life’s greatest adversity.
Now here on this stage
Mom and Dad
I thank you
For all you’ve forgone to make all I can be.
Now I remember how, upon learning that my family was going to attend a national TV show, one of my American friends, a geophysicist, congratulated me:
“Let me say, that in my opinion, your life reflects the spirit of China in an important way: It has been a real struggle, like the Long March; obstacles like the civil war and economic disasters have been overcome. Every person must be given the best chance to develop to their full potential through love.”
That’s exactly what my parents bestowed upon me. Life itself is a stage of love. It encompasses the truest sentiments of humanity. It harbors compassion, commitment, and care. Most importantly, it glorifies human life by setting a way through impoverishment, turmoil, and fear.
Here on this stage, I know this is true for every human being and for the world we live in.