Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Another chapter of China unfolds...

Today a group of NYU students and I hopped into our bus to work at an orphanage. Our work at the migrant worker school has been successful thus far, and highly satisfying. We anticipated a similar setup: kids, us, playing, teaching, helping out wherever we could.

About 10 minutes into our ride, we pick up these Chinese people who were not familiar faces. It soon became clear that they were our "guides" for the afternoon. They handed us very professional folders with PR releases that rivaled some of the top firms in NYC in terms of quality and detailed the region we were working in. A detailed schedule for the afternoon and background info on the schools was enclosed. Glossy literature showed the future of the neighborhood and the neighborhood itself was pretty typical of Shanghai: developing.

Our first stop was at a community center for adults with mental disabilities. Before we entered the building, our entourage of 3 or 4 Chinese guides was met by a small paparazzi of volunteers at the center, who snapped photos incessantly. Another small van full of outsiders pulled up, these ones being representatives from the Shanghai International Airport. It is still unclear to me why they were along for the tour...it seemed corporate in nature And yes, by this point, we realized that we were on a tour rather than volunteering.

At the center, a dozen or so "children" ranging in age from 20-50 or so(perhaps this was lost in translation) sat in orderly rows working on bead work. The staff there quickly ushered us NYUers and the Airport posse to the front, where more photos were taken and we were presented with a song by the group. It was clear that it had been rehearsed a lot and this wasn't their first time singing it. We were presented with small beaded gifts and again, more photos were taken. Five more minutes were spent showing us drawings stapled on the walls and more beaded work completed by the adults there. We were promptly escorted out and onto the shuttle for our next stop, the elementary school for the disabled.

During the ride over, everyone had their suspicions about how prepared everything seemed. I personally have heard horror stories about how the mentally handicapped are completely shunned by the Chinese government and ostracized from public life. Why was everything suddenly sunshine and flowers? Was I being too cynical?

At the school, a digital reader board read out in Chinese characters a greeting to "American friends." We entered to the school yard and rather than observing their normal recess, it paralleled the adult community center in that we were the stars of the show rather than the children. Music played overhead and the kids, none of whom seemed severely disabled, quickly dispersed into organized games. This happens at the migrant school, but some of the teachers at the school seemed taken aback when some of the NYU kids and I tried to participate in games with the kids. While helping a little boy who was struggling with jumping rope, a teacher swooped by and took the boy away and placed a jump rope diva in his place. The boy wasn't frustrated or anything, just working on his motor skills...I was rather perplexed.

The organized games continued and then the children performed a very orchestrated show, reminiscent of something you'd see in an Olympic opening ceremony. They had Shaolin uniforms, hula hoops, pom poms, the works. It was extremely clear that they knew the routine inside and out and were used to performing for outsiders. Again, the photo parade continued.

As soon as the show ended, the same kids were whisked into a classroom where they worked on crafts. Pre-colored drawings and beadwork sat on desks like cars in a showroom and they were prompted to say things to us as we walked by. We were on a parade route that didn't include most of the school and the halls were eerily quiet, especially considering that a third of the student body (which raises the question of where the rest of the kids were) just returned from recess on a beautiful spring day. The show went on.

Through a sunny corridor, we and the our tumorous posse (we kept accumulating administrators, teachers, translators, photographers, etc.) lead us to a large conference room, complete with an executive board table, fresh fruit, bottled water, brochures and high-backed chairs. I've worked in a lot of schools before, but I've never seen an entire large room set aside for guests quite like this. The headmaster picked up a microphone and a typed script and began to lead us through an elaborate Power Point presentation about how great the staff was rather than the progress that the students were making. Native Chinese speakers commented on how "cheesy" her Chinese was, full of flowery language.

The Power Point featured a video reenactment of a disabled boy who mistakenly ate dirt. His teachers, in a saintly fashion shoved their hands up his throat to get it out. The translation roughly mentioned how "the teachers hands were bloody, but it was well worth the sacrifice." (Sacrifice on behalf of the teachers was a repeated theme.) The reenactment shook up all of the Americans and we didn't know whether to attribute our discomfort to cultural miscommunication or shock at how the facility functions.

The presentation continued to highlight who the children performed for and famous locals who visited the school (not the children). The pictures of notable visitors on the playground were almost identical to the ones taken of us only a few minutes earlier. We were presented with gifts and no children were to be seen. We brought cookies to give to them, but were never given the opportunity to interact with them, creating some awkwardness at the end. After more photos, we left for class and noticed that all of students were gone. The outside, which I would imagine to be full of afternoon excitement at the schoolday's end, was void of children or parents.

I don't know what to make of it all and those brief couple of hours this afternoon keep running through my head. It's very easy to step in as a product of Western public education and say that the way they do things here is wrong and backwards, but I don't know if it's that simple. Why do tours like these exist? The school was run by the local communist party, who is notorious for not letting foreigners (or even Chinese citizens) into orphanages, so why the sudden campaign to Westerners about how great they treat the disabled? Is all of my mental frazzle just due to huge cultural clash? What is it about this experience that seems so strange? Similar stories exist with Chinese factories...has this perception of China become a PR pit stop? What is the truth behind this school?

I'm soooo confused.