one day

Yesterday evening I went to a screening of 有一天 (One Day), a series of vignettes about children with learning disabilities and handicaps, their parents and struggles. The film itself features some of China’s biggest stars and the vignettes tackle some of the county’s most pressing issues, including recognition of and support for missing children (who have kidnapped, maimed, and forced into begging), blind and deaf children, and children with Aspergers, Down syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A heavy list indeed, and each case receives roughly 7 minutes.

The Shenzhen premiere was organized by the Shenzhen Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (深圳市学习困难关爱协会), the first organization of its kind in China. The guest of honor was Shenzhen Women’s a Association Chairwoman, Ma Hong, who had approved the establishment of Shenzhen LDA in 2013. Also present was the Vice Director of the Nanshan District Bureau of Education, over 100 Nanshan teachers, twenty-odd elementary student volunteers, and special guests. The screening was so successful that a second public screening was scheduled for this morning.

Just a few observations about the evening, Shenzhen LDA, and the burgeoning Shenzhen interest and participation in and passion for philanthropy.

1) The “one day” of each vignette occurred when a child acted “normally”. In fact, there was no “happy end” that was consistent with a child’s disability. So the stolen child was returned home, the deaf sang, and a blind girl painted. The case of the Down syndrome child who learned to bake bread came close, but even then the happy resolution was that the boy could traverse Beijing with bus changes alone, even though he could neither read signs, nor clearly articulate his destination. Moreover, in each case, outsiders selflessly intervened and saved the child, providing the parental care the parent–for whatever reason–could not. I found this ideological position most disturbing in the missing children section because the child was not handicapped at birth, but had been criminally maimed, begging the questions: why can’t rural parents protect their children from urban predators? and, in what moral world is predation on children the logical equivalent of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome or Aspergers, let alone one with a club foot or weak eyesight?

2) The film clearly sympathized with parents who don’t have the tools to help their children and the distress children feel when they cannot meet parental expectations. Indeed, in each case, the solution was ebetter ducation. Likewise, speakers acknowledged the stress disabilities cause in light of both the one child policy and the cultural expectation that “sons become dragons, and daughters become phoenixes” through education. And I agree with the idea that we help children through more humane pedagogy. And yet. Despite the inspiring motto: there’s no inability, only difference (没有不行,只有不同), the dream that permeated the movie and the talk was the discovery of previously obscured genius, a la Einstein. In other words, the “solution” to each “problem” was not a change in parental and social expectations, but rather more effective means to groom children to meet and exceed those expectations. So a question of emphasis: in special needs education do we start from unquestioned social goals and figure out what needs to be done to change a child, or do we understand each child as the inspiration for other social possibilities?

3) Throughout Shenzhen people are turning to philanthropy to address social needs and issues that the government is unable or unwilling to meet. Of these issues, education is one of the most vibrant areas of participation. Other areas include architecture (as a site for reimagining urbanism) and art as a site for stimulating creativity. The characters for philanthropy are 公益, literally “public benefit or welfare” which speaks to the political importance of the philanthropy movement, broadly understood and whatever one’s position on how a particular issue has been articulated.