“Don’t pray, you might leave.” I always remember this poignant comment! Adam (Wu Zixiang 武子祥) was a handicapped young man we often eagerly visited in his home in a small Yunnan town. At the end of the visit, I used to say a prayer of blessing for him. He often really enjoyed our conversations and did not want it to end so soon. So when I made the remark about “Let’s pray,” he liked to instantly respond, “You always leave after you pray, so don’t, yet!”
Have you seen a wheelchair on unpaved mountain trails? In 1999, one of our medical mission team members, Mary Leung, was mountain climbing with local kids of the town. She was surprised to meet Adam in a wheelchair on the difficult unpaved mountain trails, lovingly pushed by young teenagers. They had insisted on bringing him up the mountains to enjoy the lovely scenery. I would have been surprised also! That was the beginning of a long-term friendship with Adam.
A severe paralytic disease at one and a half years. The family story is that, when Adam was one and a half years old, a doctor gave him wrong medicines for an illness, resulting in paralysis. In our medical team’s view, it could have been polio, which was then still present in villages around the world. Whatever the reason, the wasting and paralysis in both legs and the right hand created an arduous childhood journey for Adam.
A painful childhood. There were no modern devices to help Adam in childhood. He often had to crawl around on hands and knees, even when the rooms and floors were wet and cold. It was a difficult, exhausting and often painful period of life.
When Adam was around six years of age, his father built a home-made mobile chair, more like a pram or stroller, for him to be pushed around, especially when he was outdoors. His younger brother helped push him to school in this pram. There he sat on a low stool in the front of the classroom to see his teachers better as they taught.
When Adam was 17, his grandfather finally saved up enough money to buy him a more conventional wheelchair, which allowed him more flexibility to move around. At home, however, he often still liked to sit on a stool which he scooted around whenever he needed to reach for things or change locations.
What amazing things can a kind teacher do? Adam had a kind teacher who encouraged him, lent him books from her own library, and sometimes even provided him food. Kindness was truly powerful in touching Adam’s life, inspiring him for his entire life journey!
We loved seeing enthusiastic kids surrounding him. For the medical mission team, it was heartwarming to see Adam often surrounded by children at his home, listening to his every word as he taught from his wheelchair. Obviously well respected and admired, he was often literally the center of attraction, including for our medical team. And it seemed he was always smiling and friendly, in spite of his clearly stressful living circumstances.
A rare person at ease with English chats. In his small town, Adam seemed to be the only person we knew who was comfortable speaking English with foreigners. Villages and small towns at the time rarely saw a foreigner. While walking casually around town, we attracted quite a bit of attention ourselves, especially since we might have Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and other Asians on our teams.
English teachers shy for a reason. Even the public school English teachers often were shy about chatting in English. At that time, many teachers often taught English to their school kids through memorization of phrases and sentences, but the teachers themselves had rarely met or spoken to foreigners face to face.
In small towns lacking specialized teachers, the athletics or even Chinese language teacher might be co-opted to do double duty to teach English. So there was quite a variety of English language skills and backgrounds.
To me, it’s like learning Arabic on language tape, versus meeting a real Arabic-speaking person face to face. It can be quite intimidating. But Adam handled this language challenge well, to our pleasant surprise!
Talking to yourself might sound strange, but hey, it was a great strategy. Since there were no others around him to practice English, Adam would talk to himself, and even make up English stories to tell to himself.
He listened to language tapes and watched rare English television programs. Essentially, he was self-taught and self-practiced, even though it might be peculiar to others! Curiosity and love of learning were the passionate motivations that kept him going.
Don’t let lack of academic credentials block the way! Adam had no university credentials, but he had enthusiasm, experience and growing numbers of students. From teaching a few children in his home, his program grew quickly to two classes of 70 children each during summer breaks.
His teaching program became steadily more and more like a school. He applied for an official school license, but it was not approved because of his lack of credentials.
However, when officials came to review the program, they were extremely impressed, and later granted him a special license to operate a school under his name. An honor and achievement from hard work and perseverance!
Lovely, charming small town of Luquan. Our medical team considered Adam’s hometown truly charming. Located in the mountains near Kunming, Yunnan, Luquan town is officially a Yi-Miao tribal minority county, and we were privileged to serve there for years. The people were warm and welcoming in a rather idyllic setting. We had many friends, especially among the children, and we often went mountain climbing with them.
Unpaved farm roads as a metaphor for Adam’s life journey. Particularly in our beginning years, most of the town was farmland, which made for pretty, very scenic views. Many of its smaller roads, however, were unpaved and difficult to navigate, especially when using a wheelchair!
The neat little foot paths among the farm plots were often narrower than one’s foot! It was a marvel to see farmers easily walk and even run along these paths, amazingly not even getting their feet dirty or wet. When we tried that, we often fell into the farm plots, ending up amusingly with our feet covered in mud! Definitely not wheelchair- or handicap-friendly roads.
Forgetting painful memories. Many people have childhood memories they would rather not remember. For Adam, there were very painful experiences growing up. Many times he was laughed at because of his condition.
But Adam preferred to remember tender moments of love, such as when his mother spent a lot of money buying a precious Chinese-English dictionary for him, which he has kept as a prized possession to this day.
Wait, how did Adam transcend his paralysis?…To be continued in Part 2….