September 27, 2011
I felt unusually self-conscious as we moved through the teeming streets of Shanghai this summer, wishing not to stand out as we shopped with our son, Ben, for his first apartment. Any twenty-two year old graduating college, fluent in Mandarin and securing employment plying the booming Chinese economy deserved to be the center of attention. I just did not want to fall on my face and embarrass anyone, including myself.
We were in and out of large department stores and small shops, going about our business, when Meredith suddenly made a startling observation. In our days of moving around Shanghai, we had not seen a single disabled person. There were no wheelchairs or walkers anywhere, no signs of sickness. An old man on a cane stood out. The next day came a second headline.
“Richard, have you noticed everyone staring at you?” Then she added this. “People seem to back away. Nobody offers any help, even opening a door for you.” My vision is so damaged, I had been roaming the city in my happy cocoon, noticing nothing.
As I began to pay attention, I, I did notice that no one came near me. The issue had a familiar ring. I have written that in our own country, people do not want to see the sick and disabled, that our popular culture rewards beauty and physical perfection. People look away because we spoil the view. After a while, that attitude is hard on anyone’s self-esteem.
And I thought Americans can be cold. This vast country seemed to offer a more extreme lack of connection, cold harsh judgments if not a cold shoulder. And where were the Chinese suffering souls who had to exist in a land so large and populated? We spent the remainder of our expedition talking about this subject, which made me reconsider my own feelings of isolation already in place.
When we returned to the states, I could not shut off my brain. I had developed a bad case of the creeps. The chronically ill and disabled suddenly were lepers. A few phone calls led me to Dr. Qiang Yu back in Shanghai, who teaches the mechanism of Chinese medicine at their Academy of Science. Dr. Yu quickly confirmed my observations.
“Disabled people are not respected in our culture. They stay hidden,” he explained. “They are not seen on the streets.” I described the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that all people be accommodated in public places. “I know that,” he responded. “Our facilities are not adequate. People do not pay attention. It’s a bad situation in China. They just want to make money.” I wonder how that makes the sick feel. “They are not proud of themselves.” How about ashamed?
I realize we do have it pretty easy in America. But the instincts of the Chinese may not be so different from ours. Maybe we control our worst instincts, but that t does not mean they are not there. Perhaps that just is what Americans hide.
It is not as if many of us have not experienced discrimination by the chronically healthy at home. I long have thought less of myself because I am sick. No doubt that has caused me to believe others must share that view of us as diminished. Blaming yourself for being sick is self-destructive, though it feels involuntary.
Chinese society becomes a negative role model to be sure. I resent others for doing what I freely foist on myself. They hold up a giant international mirror that reflects an imperfect and sometimes mean world. We are better than that, and people like me should appreciate that and think more of ourselves.