By Sylvia Yu
BEFORE my first trip to China, my Vancouverite vision of the country was of a land trapped in circa 1970 – with idyllic rice paddies, and the occasional beat-up car plodding along on dusty dirt roads.
In summer 2004, I was invited to join a research tour to several cities and villages in China. We were commissioned to document interviews with academics, as well as survivors who bore witness to the effects of biological warfare, sex slavery and other hardships inflicted by the Japanese military during World War II.
I was bracing myself for a country with spotty electricity, crude and ancient infrastructure and people in drab clothing. Little did I know that Shanghai, my first stop in the tour, and other parts of China, were much more modern than I had envisioned.
Mega malls, highways filled with cars and chic fashionistas in stilettos strutted around hipster hang-outs, much to my surprise. The vibe in the cities was decidedly electric, as if the possibilities were endless in this ‘new’ China.
Yet, when we journeyed to the countryside, my vision of China circa 1970 was eerily spot on.
In villages, I met several elderly people who had been affected by biological warfare chemicals that the Japanese military had unleashed against civilians. As a result, the infected bleeding sores on their bodies – a constant source of pain and the unbearable stench of rotting flesh – prevented them from getting married and from working.
With their families earning meagre wages of about $300 RMB per month ($50 Cdn), they could not afford proper health care after the dismantling of the commune system in the late 1970s. Their plight was heartrending; but even more tragic was that their circumstances were relatively unknown.
After spending nearly a month touring different provinces, I ended up falling in love with the Chinese people and their vibrant and diverse country.
At one point, I came across a three-year old girl forced to beg on the streets. Her name was Yang Yue. She haunted me so much that I went out to look for her over several nights. That led to a lot of contemplation and prayer, over what’s important to me – and how I want to spend my life.
I returned to China a few months later that year, this time with immigration-worthy luggage and adventure on my mind. In addition to writing and journalism gigs, I was fortunate enough to land a job that suited my passion to help the marginalized and the ‘have nots’ as a fund manager and advisor to international philanthropists.
I was facilitating on behalf of donors who wanted to invest in large-scale social change – to impact an entire region or country, and not just throw money at a short-term fix.
Through my work, I’ve developed granting strategies in China for multi-year, combined delivery of services by a mostly grassroots network working towards the same annual goals – such as reducing overall HIV prevalence rates, or empowering thousands of low-income migrant workers living in urban centres with job training.
China is experiencing one of the largest migrations in history. At least 150 million people from the countryside have moved to the cities in search of work. I had the privilege of getting to know many migrants in Beijing.
Fen Dong, a 21 year old from a small village in Yunnan province (southwestern China), helped me better understand the struggles they face in the city. Dong was working at a hair salon, earning less than 600 RMB a month ($100 Cdn).
She sacrificed more than half of her earnings to support her family. She lived in a cramped, refurbished closet in the moist basement of an old building. I was dismayed to see her living conditions.
During a trip to southern China to evaluate a project that borders Myanmar, I interviewed a young man named Ma Le. A heroin addict with HIV, he lived on a tattered mattress out in the forest. A staff member from a non-profit found him passed out from a drug overdose in the nearby sugar cane fields, and nursed him back to health. I found out later that he passed away several months after my visit.
Another former addict named Bawk, assisted by the same organization, overcame his addiction and was later referred to a divinity school in Myanmar in the fall of 2007. Now he is sharing his story and inspiring other drug users to go to the rehabilitation centre.
The contrast of the destinies of these two men is striking. One rehabilitation program helped make a difference in Bawk, so that his life could become a powerful message.
From my time travelling through China, I know there’s nothing like understanding a smidgen of God’s vast fatherly heart of love for the poor and the downtrodden – and to dream big with them, and on their behalf.
I’m becoming involved in more media campaigns to raise awareness of humanitarian work. It’s my dream to see young people from the west mobilized to help impoverished communities, in China and beyond.
Sylvia Yu is currently living and working in China.
Chen Yu Hong’s story of poverty, crushing medical debt and quiet desperation was moving. I thought of her for a long time after our meeting. While still in the countryside, Chen signed up for free vocational training through Xin Zhi Guang, a social enterprise in Beijing. She wasn’t sure if the organization was legitimate or not, and even though she was afraid it might be a prostitution/trafficking ring, she went for it anyway because she had no way to support herself.
Her husband had suddenly left her and her son and she had to find a way to support herself and to help pay for her mother’s mounting medical bills. Her mother has a terminal illness and cannot live on her own. Chen’s enormous debt to the hospital is a common story in China. Many cannot afford their inordinately high hospital bills and they end up paying these bills off for a long time like indentured slaves. I could not find one organization that helps pay off medical bills for the poor in China. This is one of my quests in the near future to find a way to help those in medical debt.