Father Was His Gentlest on Road to Orphanage

Vol. 1 No. 9

Greetings from Chinarrative!

In this issue, our single, longread investigates the lives of disabled customer services representatives who work for e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Taobao platform. The story was first published in September in Renwu, a leading nonfiction platform in China.

While the piece does contain some glowing references to the company, founder Jack Ma, and its Singles’ Day mega shopping festival, that doesn’t change the facts nor the essence of the subjects’ stories, and the piece offers rare insight into the plight of China’s disabled poor.

Father Was His Gentlest On Road to Orphanage

Liu Xiang takes the elevator at the headquarters of the Henan Disabled Persons' Federation in July 2018. Courtesy Renwu.

After some basic washing up in the morning, Liu Xiang donned a red jacket and rolled her wheelchair into the sunlit corridor.

Polio had completely distorted her spine into an “S” shape. Her bladder was also damaged. Even sitting still for an extended period was very painful. But as far as Liu Xiang was concerned, the moment she pushed through those doors and entered the computer-filled office of Taobao online customer service representatives, she was no longer the least fortunate person in the room.

Alibaba set up an online customer service operation for its Taobao website in 2010 with an eye toward providing part-time employment for university students. But soon executives noticed that the physically disabled faced an uphill challenge landing jobs and so they expanded their recruitment.

Liu Xiang’s colleagues started filing in. They were collectively known as the “special” online reps. One had suffered major burns and another could only maneuver two of his fingers. A third colleague couldn’t lift his arms and could only type by cradling his keyboard in his lap. A fourth lost his arms in an accident and typed with his feet.

Pleasantries were exchanged, followed by the sound of typing. Liu Xiang turned on her computer, logged in and clicked on a flashing window to type her opening greeting:

“How do you do, dear? Happy to be at your service.”

Human Waste

Born in Xinyang Village in Henan province, Liu Xiang contracted polio when she was 3. Her legs started shriveling like dying branches. Soon she could only wiggle on the ground by latching onto a small stool.

When she was old enough to understand speech, she once overheard an elder in the family tell her father: “Her legs are immobile. All you have to do is fill up a basin, dunk her in the water and press her head down…”

Her father didn’t take the advice, but his disgust grew by the day. Liu Xiang was followed by another girl and her mother was chronically ill. The immense pressure turned her father, who was kind by nature, into a tyrant. Liu Xiang was called a “cripple” who drew a tongue lashing for merely making a sound, saying:

I was either being beaten or scolded all the time.

The year Liu Xiang turned 9, her father decided to give her up for adoption, so he could get government approval to have another child.

On a dark night, Liu Xiang’s father carried her on his back and took her for an extended trek in the mountains. He said he was taking her somewhere that was better than home. She could even get an education there.

Liu Xiang’s father was unusually tender during the trek. Lying on her father’s back, Liu Xiang felt a sense of security she had never experienced before. Her father whispered:

Are you sleepy? If you are, go ahead and take a nap.

The “better place” turned out to be an orphanage.

After her father abandoned her, he told his fellow villagers that the “cripple” had died. After spending several months at the orphanage, she was returned to her parents when local police intervened.

Somehow Liu Xiang survived until her 16th birthday, when she left her village for the first time. Her family used their savings to buy her an electric tricycle, so she could become a cabbie in a neighboring town.

The city was another form of torture. Her fellow cabbies were mostly healthy and able men. They could help their passengers with their luggage and open doors for them—tasks that were impossible for Liu Xiang. She was frequently bullied. Some fellow cabbies tried to steal customers from her by standing next to her tricycle.

Back then there were few disabled-friendly facilities in the city. Liu Xiang had no choice but to visit the bathroom once in the morning and once in the evening. The practice took its toll on her bladder over the years, eventually leading to incontinence. She has worn adult diapers since then.

Even scam artists who staged fake accidents liked to target her. The worst case was when a repeat offender rammed into Liu Xiang’s tricycle on purpose and faked a seizure. He demanded 1,000 yuan (around $144). Liu Xiang, 16 at the time, was a greenhorn and thought she had actually injured someone. She was terrified. Thankfully, sympathetic onlookers helped talk the scam artist down. Liu Xiang eventually paid out some 500 yuan, a month of her earnings.

Liu Xiang’s marriage didn’t fare much better. When she was 20, a matchmaker introduced her to her husband, a man with an amputated left leg 17 years her senior. Liu Xiang never fantasized about genuine romance. “I knew what I had to offer, so I didn’t go there,” she said. The couple married 13 days after they first met.

After their wedding, Liu Xiang realized her husband was a gambling addict, even betting away their welfare payments. Liu Xiang could only raise her daughter on her meager earnings from tricycle cabbing.

At age 26, Liu Xiang gave birth to her second daughter. She had no choice but to bring her two kids to work. Her older daughter sat in her back seat while she simply tied her younger daughter to her body with a scarf.

There’s Always Worse

Just as Liu Xiang’s life was poised for a downward spiral, a friend who worked at the local disabled persons’ federation told her that there was a training center for those with disabilities at the provincial capital of Zhengzhou that prepared students for careers as Alibaba customer service reps. You could even work from home, the friend said. Liu Xiang was skeptical but decided to check it out.

Dozens of disabled workers attend a training session for aspiring Alibaba online customer service reps at a facility in Zhengzhou's Zhongmou County. Courtesy Renwu.

Wang Shaojun, the founder of the training center, was also disabled. He was diagnosed with fibula muscular atrophy when he was 17. This is a progressive illness that gradually shuts down motor function, saying:

Last year I could still cut my fingernails. This year, I can’t use my right hand to cut the fingernails on my left hand.

Wang Shaojun became a successful businessman, but there was nothing he could do about his crippling disease. He tossed and turned the night his son was born and resolved to do “something meaningful” so his son would be proud of his father when he grew up.

First, Wang Shaojun set up an online forum for the disabled. In 2008, due to his charitable efforts, he took part in the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics. In 2015, Alibaba and the disabled persons’ federation in Henan set up a program that placed the disabled in online customer service positions. Wang Shaojun realized that was right up his alley, so he built a training center on a 7.2-hectare garden he owned and started offering free tuition for disabled job seekers.

The “special” customer service reps performed similar duties to regular representatives. They mainly assisted Taobao members with tasks like how to obtain refunds to how to set up an online shop. But unbeknownst to the customer, their service rep might be typing with a single finger or his or her toes. Even though that was a challenge, it was still easier and more comfortable than other types of physical labor, so the job was popular among people with disabilities.

Life, Death of Suicide Chat Groups

Vol. 1 No. 8

Hello from Chinarrative.

Stories about suicide pose ethical dilemmas for publishers. However, we feel that the longread presented in this edition of our newsletter, which deals with the subject, is one worth sharing.

In it, we learn about the rise of online suicide pact groups in China and meet some of the people who are trying to infiltrate them to prevent needless deaths. People such as Hu Ming, who assumed the role of “pro-life counselor” shortly after his own son, Xiaotian, killed himself as part of chat group pact.

Still, some subscribers may find details in the story disturbing and so we encourage reader discretion.

Life, Death of Suicide Chat Groups

Hu Xiaotian* died on a day in May.

He had been contemplating suicide for two years. So he formed a suicide pact with two companions he met in a suicide chat group on messaging app QQ.

The group traveled to Wuhan and killed themselves by burning charcoal in a sealed room. Hu Xiaotian was a “success story” of sorts in his chat group.

His father, Hu Ming, infiltrated the chat group after his son’s suicide, becoming a “pro-life” counselor. Hu Ming tried to pull young men and women enveloped in darkness back from the brink.

For more than two months, he went from scouring for clues to his son’s suicide to intense self-blame, to trying to redeem himself by counseling members of suicide chat groups, to utter devastation after failed attempts.

In the end, Hu Ming decided he needed a break from the swamp of depression that the chat groups represented. So he deleted all his friends and media contacts on QQ. The afternoon he vanished from the messaging app, he broke down in tears at home alone.

Missing Son

Hu Ming can still clearly remember that Xiaotian left home at 5:58 p.m. on May 22. That was the last time he saw his son alive.

Hu Ming was preparing dinner in the kitchen. He noticed Xiaotian emerging from the bathroom smelling of cologne. He even kidded:

What’s a boy doing smelling so good?

Xiaotian flashed an embarrassed smiled and said he was “off to Beijing,” then left. He stayed in touch with his family during the first three days after his departure.

On May 25, his family sent him a message to remind him that he had a small operation scheduled for May 27 and to return in time. Xiaotian messaged back saying not to worry. A day before the surgery, Xiaotian stopped responding to messages and answering his phone. His Fitbit-like workout level on [the social media platform] WeChat dropped to zero.

Hu Xiaotian was missing.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on May 28, just as he was about to go to bed, Hu Ming received a screencap of a QQ conversation from Xiaotian’s girlfriend.

In the conversation, Xiaotian and his QQ friends were discussing ways of committing suicide. The terms that appeared in the conversation—plastic strips, charcoal bins and sleeping pills—terrified Hu Ming.

He started panicking. His wife was already sound asleep because she had to work the early shift the next day, so Hu Ming messaged a few relatives for advice. They all agreed that suicide was unlikely and that the conversation was likely a prank. Hu Ming was confident that Xiaotian would return soon.

Yet there was still no word from Xiaotian by the evening of June 2. Xiaotian’s WeChat workout ranking plummeted. Hu Ming felt something was wrong. He called the nearest police station. The next day officers confirmed that Xiaotian had taken a high-speed train to Wuhan and checked into a local hotel.

On June 4, Hu Ming and his wife rushed to Wuhan and reported the matter to local police. Hu Ming wasn’t a stranger in the central Chinese city. Hu Ming’s family was the catering contractor at a local hotel for 15 years until 2009. But walking the streets of Wuhan once more, Hu Ming and his wife felt they were treading on foreign soil. Where would they start?

After a day of fruitless searching, Hu Ming sat on the sidewalk late that night and broke down crying. “Something must have happened to him,” Hu Ming uttered to himself. A deep sense of unease nagged at Hu Ming those few days, just like the brutal June heat of Wuhan.

The suicide note of the three young men who killed themselves in the central city of Wuhan after forming a death pact online. Image from Weibo @平安黄陂

On June 8, Wuhan police notified Hu Ming that they found the bodies of three young men in a rental apartment. Also present was a basin filled with burnt wood charcoal and a suicide note saying that “no one was responsible for their deaths.” The letter was signed by three people, one of whom was Hu Xiaotian.

At a local funeral parlor in Wuhan, Hu Ming cursed and howled as he cradled his son’s icy corpse in his arms. Recalling the scene later, Hu Ming said, “My world had never felt darker.”

Hu Ming couldn’t for the life of him understand why Xiaotian wanted to die by suicide. He was financially well-off and in good health. After graduating from junior high school, he joined the family fashion business. He got along with his parents and business was good. There were no signs of tension in his yearlong relationship with girlfriend Liu Ting, despite it being long-distance.

Hu Ming asked Liu Ting for Xiaotian’s QQ account number and password. The 46-year-old started learning how to use QQ, bit by bit, in a bid to understand his late son’s inner world.

Hu Ming logged on as Hu Xiaotian. When Hu Xiaotian’s grey profile pic lit up again, quite a few of his suicide chat group buddies were spooked. Some even sent private messages to “Hu Xiaotian” asking why his suicide attempt failed.

Among Hu Xiaotian’s outstanding friend requests were several people seeking to form suicide pacts. Faced with the flurry of messages and phrases about suicide, Hu Ming was shocked, nervous and terrified. At one point, he had doubted the very existence of suicide chat groups.

Suicide chat groups are sanctuaries staking out a dark corner in the vast, danger-filled world that is the internet. Members come with their own unique baggage—some are determined to die, some hoping for a sympathetic ear and others looking to form suicide pacts. Hu Ming only belatedly found out that Hu Xiaotian had long been a chat group member before his suicide and had formed a suicide pact with two fellow members.

Hu Ming tried to trace his son’s online movements and comments before his death. In the few screencaps of conversations that he could get his hands on, Xiaotian was a major player. His son sounded like a veteran, outlining in detail the steps to dying by suicide.

The screencap of Xiaotian’s instructions were even widely circulated online as a de facto manual for suicide by charcoal burning, so much so that in their conversations with Hu Ming, some chat groups members jokingly referred to his son as a “suicide instructor” who improved the success rate of suicide pacts.

Two years ago, Hu Xiaotian turned 20. In the period since then, Hu Xiaotian had landed a girlfriend and completed a successful diet. Even though it wasn’t smooth-sailing career-wise, he had found a general direction. If Xiaotian were still alive, Hu Ming was going to help him set up his own business.

Hu Ming thought his son was a completely carefree young man. But in Hu Xiaotian’s QQ universe, Hu Ming found anxiety and sadness, which his son never revealed to his father. Nearly every comment Hu Xiaotian posted involved his girlfriend—how much he missed her, the level of anxiety and powerlessness he felt over not being able to provide her a better life.

Maybe Xiaotian had sent him signals too, only he was already a big boy, unlikely to run to his father crying for help like he did in the past.

Infiltration, Intervention

Hu Ming started doing some soul-searching. When he first joined his son’s suicide chat group, he sent out five or six cash gifts, inviting members to share their thoughts on their parents and family.

The Moon in a Dog’s Eye

Vol. 1 No. 7

Hello from Chinarrative!

In this issue, we’ll be venturing to the creative end of the nonfiction spectrum with a subtle-yet-powerful piece by China-born writer Sonia FL Leung.

Leung gives background on the piece, explaining:

It tells the story of a broken 14-year-old me surviving a night alone at a construction site in Hong Kong. With the current #MeToo movement, I’d like to add my voice and say to the girls like me who have fallen victim to rape that the incident can’t defeat us. We can grow out of the ashes of our sorrows and soar.

Also in this issue, we reconnect with Chinese teenager Jiang Bo, accompanying him and his brother as they try to navigate a path through China’s rigid education system.

The Moon in a Dog’s Eye

By Sonia FL Leung

Illustration: Charlotte Fu.

On a late September school night in the small hours, I gaze at the moonlight that slides gracefully through the rusty iron gate of our hut. Her gentle light transforms the entrance and the steps beyond it, giving them a magical glow. The tranquility allures me. The peaceful world out there beneath the moon’s gleam generates an urge in me to join her.

The rest of my family is sound asleep. Creeping down from my upper bunk bed, I unlock the gate and walk away. My slippers are stardust, carrying me away from our home. Weaving through the narrow paths of our slum, my body hurries toward a nearby construction site at Tate’s Cairn Tunnel in Diamond Hill. I need space, a quiet place where I can hear my breath.

Light from distant streetlamps and high-rises casts a nebulous luminance over the deserted construction site. Rubble, cranes, debris, and equipment lie all around in the cavernous gloom. Piles of sand and ragged holes lie here and there. A few hard hats lie around, and some long, worn-out black rubber boots have been left near the silent machines and graying dumpsters. Cigarette butts litter the bulldozed earth.

Some distance away, a car roars by and interrupts the silence. And then another car follows. The air is crisp and clear. During the day, the ravenous construction site stirs up the dust, harassing it nonstop. The site is sated now and allows the dust to float back down to the ground. The weak pulse of the dusk quivers under my feet. It wails.

Gently, I wiggle my toes in the cool earth, mingling with the dirt and kicking at it until little motes of dust blossom up around my ankles. Hues of gray, blue, and black streak the sky. Wind passes through the site in gusts. A safety vest dangling from a hook swings in the breeze. The wind slices right through my flesh to the bone, leaving an empty chill in its wake.

I peer into a dark hole, where I see that table-tennis coach. He has floundered down there since April, unable to claw out of the pit. No one can harm me now. Skipping over the holes, I climb into the cabin of the crane, go down a slope, kick at some empty cans, and wander around the site.

Then I notice that I am humming my favorite nursery rhyme:

“Lan lan de tian kong yin he li…” or, “Over the blue sky there are silvery streams, the Milky Way…”

Worries dissolve into the song. The shamefulness of being a damaged “dailukmui,” or a filthy mainland girl in Hong Kong, loosens its grip on my throat. For now, the earth, the sky, and the wind merge with the silent void of Diamond Hill. I breathe. Tender is the wind’s caress, a feathery touch upon the bare skin of my arm.

Then I walk and jog away from the ravaged earth until my legs are sore and my adrenaline has subsided. At the exit of the catchment channel, there is some grass to sit upon and regain my composure. Bushes shield me. Drawing up my knees and wrapping my arms around them, I lean back on the wall.

When I was 12 years old, my family emigrated from a village in Fujian, China, to Hong Kong. I was in Primary 6 back then and had not had one English lesson yet. Thus I was downgraded to Primary 4 to catch up on my English. This left me feeling like a complete outsider, an utterly out-of-place teenager.

But that was when a youth center’s coach discovered me. “You’re such a talented player, Fongling.” He leaned forward, put his bony hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I can get you into the official HK Junior Table-Tennis Team.”

For a whole year he trained me hard and gained my total trust. Then one night, those same hands of his turned gaunt and groping as they tore my body and shattered my dreams.

But now the moonlight mends my body and soul. Her grace cleanses me. I pull my knees closer to my breasts, embrace them, embrace the fragile new me. The sound of my breath shrouds me, soothes me. Resting my head on my kneecaps, my eyelids are about to shut when something stops them.

A black dog stands right in front of me. Its bones poke out of its flanks. From 10 feet away it stares at me with big, bright eyes. They seem to bulge out of its skull. And when those eyes focus upon me, they turn livid.

“Do you know what I do to little girls?” say those dog eyes.

I slowly uncurl, shifting myself into a different position with my hands flat upon the ground, sitting erect, glaring back at it.

The black dog turns its head sideways, and I see the moon in its left eye.

Neither of us flinches.

The moon’s cool, sharp light beams through my mind, advising me to hold my ground, steady my gaze. She emboldens me.

Yes, I can protect myself and reclaim the sovereignty of my body. No, this dog does not belong on the ground. It belongs in the pit with the coach.

I raise my head, pull back my shoulders, straighten my spine, and intensify my glowering at the black dog. The sudden extension of my upper body and escalation of my spirit astound it. It cocks its head to the right and slides backward a bit, still glaring at me. But its muzzle lowers and the light of its eyes dims. It slinks away, craning its neck to look at me as it retreats to the direction of the pit.

I keep my posture for a few more minutes. When the dog’s tail is entirely out of my sight, I collapse upon the grass. Cool dew seeps through my skin. My sweat-drenched body shivers.

Sonia FL Leung earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the now-defunct writing program at City University of Hong Kong, the metropolis in which she resides. Her work has been published in The Shanghai Literary ReviewCha: An Asian Literary JournalLinepaper, and Afterness: Literature From the New Transnational Asia.
“The Moon in a Dog’s Eye” was first published in the Chengdu-based MaLa Literary Journal in March 2016. It’s a scene from Leung’s recently completed memoir, That Olive Tree in Our Dreams, for which she is exploring publication opportunities.

School Dropout Do-over: Part 2

This is the second of three installments by reporter Qiu Yuanting that first appeared in Southern People Weekly. Read Part 1 here. We pick this story up just as the youth has been plucked from the traditional school system following an intervention by his older brother, Jiang Wenhua. All names are pseudonyms.

A Short-Lived Freedom

After Jiang Bo provided the school with his medical certificate, they released him. In the blink of an eye, he was no longer a registered student. While everyone else shouldered their backpacks and headed to class, he could finally stay at home and just play computer games.

Jiang Wenhua gave his brother two months to relax, until Jiang Bo himself finally got bored. At the time, Jiang Wenhua, who was in college, was planning a motorcycle trip to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located more than 3,400 kilometers northwest of their hometown, Guiyang. Since Jiang Bo was lounging around at home, it made sense to invite him on the initial leg of the trip and drop him off in Chengdu, only 652 kilometers northwest and along the same route to Xinjiang.

School Dropout Do-over

Vol. 1 No. 6

Hello from Chinarrative!

In this issue, we bring you the first installment of a story by reporter Qiu Yuanting, which first appeared in Southern People Weekly. It recounts the difficulties that Chinese teenager Jiang Bo encountered—including bullying, and mental and physical abuse at the hands of teachers—as he attempted to navigate the country’s public school system.

Fortunately, his brother, Jiang Wenhua, stepped in, removing Jiang Bo from conventional education, and pushing him into a world of alternative learning.   

In this edition, we’ll also point to some recent longreads from Chinese publications that caught our eye, and highlight an emerging hub of creative writing in English at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, southern China. We’re delighted to share a brief excerpt from a creative nonfiction piece by Ren Wui (Erica), a talented writer from the student body there.

Please help us grow our community by sharing the Chinarrative Newsletter with family, friends, or colleagues.

Links to past issues are listed at the bottom of this newsletter in case you have missed any.

Until next time!

School Dropout Do-over

It’s been four years since 17-year-old Jiang Bo* parted ways with conventional education. Village snoops would probably consider him a “delinquent school dropout.”

Jiang Bo had always wondered if other people’s childhoods were carefree, pure, and happy. He knew only hardships: poor grades, scolding, and corporal punishment at the hands of teachers, classmates who bullied and ostracized him, and his parents’ rocky relationship.

In first grade, his teacher told the entire class to ignore “low-grades Jiang Bo.” His classmates duly isolated him.

In third and fourth grade, a newly appointed teacher took a disliking to him, and picked on Jiang Bo, yelling at him to “get lost.”

Because of that experience, Jiang Bo came to detest talking to the other students, saying:

Even now, I still remember that teacher’s name. I really hate him.

In sixth grade, Jiang Bo’s class was assigned the strictest teacher at the school, who was prone to thrashing students with a plastic rod in parts of their bodies not easily seen, and hurling abuse at parents.

Jiang Bo at work on a computer. Courtesy: Southern People Weekly.

As a student at the bottom of his class, Jiang Bo became a special target for this teacher. When the beatings grew fiercer, Jiang Bo would sob, admitting fault, and beg the teacher to stop.

Getting a good teacher hinged completely on luck. He felt especially grateful for his teachers in second and fifth grades. They treated everyone equally, and they were fair and good-natured.

Between 2008 and 2014, this is how Jiang Bo passed six fearful, difficult years of schooling at a public elementary school close to his home in Guiyang [the capital of southwestern province Guizhou].

Homelife was not welcoming either as Jiang Bo’s parents were constantly fighting. Sometimes they directed their anger at him and his having ever been born at all.

For many students like Jiang Bo, quitting school is often the only choice. Although, most people see the decision to leave school as risky, exposing them to discrimination.

But Jiang Bo is different because of his brother, Jiang Wenhua. Jiang Wenhua, who is ten years older, works in innovative education, which uses adaptive or unconventional tools, methods, and practices to better engage students. Under immense pressure from Jiang Wenhua, his parents agreed to let Jiang Bo withdraw.

Older Brother to the Rescue

Jiang Wenhua had to bear his own share of stress. He fought with his parents over pulling Jiang Bo out of school and ended up quarrelling with nearly all of their relatives.

As an educational professional, Jiang Wenhua knew there were ways to opt out of the education system. He had worked in public welfare projects for countryside education since his college years, and after graduating, he founded a small company specializing in innovative education.

Because of his involvement in the welfare sphere of innovative education, he had dealt with many students who were receiving an education outside of the schooling system: homeschooling, innovative micro-schools, or different kinds of vocational training.

Jiang Wenhua reels off the kinds of student who were usually homeschooled: those from Christian families, those whose families opposed educational alienation (where students are estranged, disengaged, or uninvolved in the learning process), and a small number with special education requirements, as well as high achieving top students and those who were unable to adapt to the system.

“My younger brother fully embodies that title of ‘academic bottom feeder,’’’ Jiang Wenhua said with a laugh as Jiang Bo sat on one side, nodding.

When asked: “Isn’t it a blow to your self-esteem to be labeled this way?” Jiang Bo shakes his head.

His brother answers for him:

He knows that you can’t deny that his grades are bad. But certainly that doesn’t mean that he has low IQ.

At the time, Jiang Bo had just entered middle school but was still struggling. A relative, who had pulled strings to get him admitted, told the school to “discipline him well,” so they assigned Jiang Bo to a particular class—one whose teacher had a reputation for strictness.

The teacher hit Jiang Bo on the first day of school because he had a small scuffle with a new classmate about seating. Eventually, everyone in the class had suffered punishment by way of the teacher’s steel ruler. In the wintertime, the teacher would even force students to soak their hands in ice water for five minutes until they swelled before hitting them with the steel ruler.

Hitting and kicking became the norm. At the height of one of his rages, the teacher shoved a student from the podium to the back of the classroom, knocking over a couple of tables along the way.

Jiang Bo recalled another time when a male student made a mistake in class. To punish him, the teacher had all the other boys in the class take turns at hitting the student. 

Jiang Bo said that he had gotten along well with that student.

When asked whether he had hit that student, Jiang Bo answered:

There was nothing I could do, except go a little easier on him and say sorry. But you know, this was a top teacher in the province.

The only redeeming feature of that teacher was that he once stood up for Jiang Bo in a matter involving the school’s office. For that, Jiang Bo felt fleeting gratitude.

From then on, Jiang Bo said he that tried as much as possible to avoid teachers who didn’t have children of their own.

His mother was friendly and meek in her interactions with his teachers while his father was too busy with his work to bother.

His older brother, who was in college at the time, had to be both a father and brother figure to Jiang Bo, so he shouldered the responsibility of Jiang Bo’s schooling.

The teacher had a rule that students would have to write a hundred lines for each mistake made in English listening exercises. Jiang Bo’s 25 mistakes meant he had to write 2,500 lines. Unable to just stand by, Jiang Wenhua helped his brother write until they finished at 2 am.

Jiang Wenhua had a talk with the teacher, but it went nowhere. After giving it some consideration, Jiang Wenhua felt that perhaps he should put his foot down and take his younger brother out of the conventional schooling system.

Discussing withdrawal with his parents was a matter of presenting the facts and reasoning things out. With relatives and acquaintances, it was nothing more than an issue of face (keeping up of appearances).

Older relatives took turns dissuading them, but Jiang Wenhua deflected their criticisms and countered every argument by repeating, “You don’t pay for it, so it has nothing to do with you.”

For him, the hardest part of convincing his parents was not necessarily the issue of Jiang Bo’s future. In fact, that turned out to be the easiest point of attack once Jiang Wenhua laid out his brother’s grades and experiences before them.

Recollections of a Melamine Mom

Vol. 1 No. 5

Hello from Chinarrative!

Ten years ago, 300,000 babies in China fell ill with kidney problems. Around six died. The cause? Infant milk formula that had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical compound high in nitrogen.

In this issue, one “melamine mom” tells her story—and that of her son—to Irene Chan, a reporter from Initium Media, a Chinese-language publication based in Hong Kong.

Read translated excerpts of the interview with the unnamed woman below. We’re hoping to include a longer version on our soon-to-launch website. More details to follow.

Do scroll to the end, where we’ll share summaries of some recent favorite long-form reads on China.

Our Chinarrative community is growing nicely. As always, if you like what we’re doing, please take a moment to share our newsletter with friends, family, and colleagues. It would help us a lot.

Until next time!

Melamine Mom

He’s my only child, born in November 2006. He’s 11 now, a boy.

He was very healthy at birth. It was a smooth delivery at Peking University First Hospital. All his key health indicators were normal. In July 2007, I began feeding him Scient baby formula. I stopped in September 2008, when the scandal broke. By that point, he had been on it for 14 months.

He developed horrible symptoms during that period: bloody urine, white urine. He began crying nonstop three months after he started on Scient and couldn’t fall asleep. I kept detailed feeding records. A later review showed that his symptoms became very severe three months in. I had to lull him to sleep five or six times a night, ineffectively at best.

We sought treatment everywhere. We returned to Peking University First Hospital and tried the Capital Institute of Pediatrics. His urine was bloody, and his blood urea nitrogen levels were off the charts. We did not give him an ultrasound at the time. The doctors had no idea what was wrong.

Illustration: Tsengly. Courtesy of Initium Media.

We consulted many experts. All they said was to wait and see. No one knew what the problem was. The melamine scandal hadn’t broken yet. No one suspected the baby formula. So unfortunately, we kept feeding him the same formula. His daily intake was about 800 to 1,000 milliliters. A mug holds some 200 to 250 milliliters. Can you imagine his intake? My son was tiny, and this was his only source of nourishment.

Initially, I mixed breast milk with baby formula. Before Scient, I fed my son formula made by Abbott. At that time, I and the mothers around me had started paying attention to infant formula quality. Eventually, my son outgrew Abbott when he developed a more refined sense of taste. I switched to several imported brands, to no avail.

A mother I met at a local park who had moved back to Beijing from the U.S. introduced me to Scient. She said it was a foreign brand and tasted good. I tried it and agreed. I also took note of the fact that it was produced in the U.S. It was clearly advertised at the time as being 100 percent American-made, and it was more expensive than domestic brands. I decided to give it a try.

[Editor’s note: Founded in 2002, Scient was registered as a Sino-U.S. joint venture and claimed to source entirely from abroad. After the melamine scandal broke, Scient Chairman Zhang Lidian confessed that the company was actually wholly Chinese-owned and that it mixed foreign infant formula with local ingredients produced by Chinese brand Yashili’s plants in Shanxi province.]

Scient wasn’t any cheaper than the imported brands at all. A can of its premier-line baby formula cost some 200 yuan [around $30], more than the Abbott formula I used to buy. I was quite cautious. I factored in the pricing and the advertising claims of sourcing from abroad entirely.

I never had any inkling that the issue was the baby formula. This is also my biggest regret.

After the Beijing Olympics ended, news of the melamine-tainted baby formula broke. Twenty-two manufacturers were identified. I was dumbfounded. It only dawned on me then that my son’s health problems were the result of the baby formula I fed him.

I took my son for screening immediately, for an ultrasound. The diagnosis was kidney damage and stones in both kidneys. Small stones, more like small crystals, had formed in the central region of both his kidneys. I eventually learned that the crystals are worse than the stones because they easily infiltrate the organ, entering and harming the kidney’s 1 million nephrons, the basic unit of the human kidney.

A child’s kidneys are the size of beans. The nephrons are made up of renal corpuscles and tubules. The crystals block the tubules. Large and concentrated kidney stones can be removed surgically, but the smaller ones are a no-go. They also don’t pass naturally. My son had small stones in both kidneys. There wasn’t anything we could do. Soon he started developing other illnesses frequently—asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, TB, myocardial damage—which led to multiple hospitalizations. The pattern has continued to this day.

It was impossible for me to work with my child in that condition. I used to be a department head at a foreign company. I was also a senior engineer. My career prospects were quite good. But in those circumstances, I barely had time to sleep. I had no choice but to quit my job. I couldn’t keep taking time off. I felt quite hopeless at the time. I was at my wit’s end.

You asked if I sought legal recourse. I wanted to file a lawsuit, but mainland Chinese courts didn’t handle cases involving the tainted baby formula at the time.

… I demanded several hundred thousand yuan in compensation. In the end, they paid me 2,000 yuan. That’s right—only 2,000 yuan …

I was desperate at the time, shouldering everything on my own. Life was very difficult, very dark.

My son never stopped getting sick all through kindergarten. The consequences were severe every time his teachers dropped the ball in the slightest way. He quit kindergarten twice. He basically skipped first grade because he was in the hospital all the time. He took sick leave in second grade frequently, too. We were at the hospital almost every day. It takes forever to see a doctor in Beijing. You have to get in line, register, pay, then wait. Even ER cases are made to wait five or six hours. It was so hard. I just wanted to leave, to leave that place of sorrow and start afresh.

We moved to Canada in 2015, enrolling my son in school in Vancouver. I dipped into my savings and borrowed money from my family. I did not emigrate to Canada. I am not a citizen. I’m just here to take care of my son. I do not work because I can’t do so legally. All I can do is live off my savings and spend prudently. The pressure is immense …

… There are few people I can confide in. Even if I did share my son’s story, no one would believe me. They’d wonder if his kidney stones had already passed after all these years.

Yet my son keeps hurting. He’s still in a lot of pain. I don’t see any sign of improvement. His urine is still bloody, and he develops fevers frequently. He sweats a lot at night and cries for no reason. I asked him why he cries; he said he’s always in discomfort. He was diagnosed with hand-foot-and-mouth disease after attending a summer camp in July. His urine was very bloody, and his fever lasted nearly two weeks. Even the doctor was spooked. His immune system is very weak. He easily succumbs to all types of illness.

The doctors in Canada have said the gap between my son’s physical, cognitive, and behavioral patterns and the levels of a healthy child becomes more glaring with age. He’s now developing psychological and emotional problems. He has quite the temper and has trouble communicating with others. He doesn’t respond well to adversity and has shown signs of depression. The doctor thinks the situation is quite severe and has referred him to specialists for follow-up treatment.

My son is now 1.67 meters tall. He’s tall like me, but he’s very skinny. He weighs 43.5 kilograms. He’s tired all the time …

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