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Who I am and what’s PEA?

I always find it difficult to introduce myself on occasions, not because I have nothing to say. It’s because I don’t know how to organize titbits of my life into an interesting, coherent body of text without resorting to the use of labels and tags. These short, conveniently used, and often alluring bytes of information travel at an unimaginable speed across screens that either stand on desks or sleep in people’s pockets. On a bright Sunday morning you might run into a news headline that read “10 Reasons for Liberals to Be Thankful This Year.” Some of them come out shorter as acronyms. “We are DAB, not DUMB.” A disabled man exclaims when he is treated like a two-year-old.

Consequently, the world in which we live is being divided into a million semi-closed categories, to each of which a label is attached. Once established, such classification in turn will reinforce the group’s identity and change their cognition and behaviour to better suit the adopted descriptions of that label. All looks great except that a new identity thus formed may be a bigoted, superficial one, ignoring a thousand other traits this group may have or develop, limiting the discovery of their potential as versatile players, and leaving the group stranded in “us versus them” struggle.

So, the following account of my life is sorted by more of a short subtitle than a self-assigned label. Okay, let’s begin. Who am I? I’m —

A Lone Learner

I was born and raised in the capital city of the westmost region, that big tail part you’d see on a typical China Map. According to my mother, I didn’t give her too much pain. I even sucked her breast gently as if in fear that I might cause her pain. But later I did anyway. Like any new and excited mother, she expected me to grow up like other kids born in China of the 1980s: go to kindergarten at age three and then to school at seven; graduate from high school at 18, move on to college, find a secure job, have a family. With a stroke of fate all her expectations turned into a heartbroken reality. Three months after my birth I came down with a series of neurological conditions called cerebral palsy. Soon my fingers were clenched inward so tightly that the palms began to bleed. My arms became two twisted iron bars, my legs a pair of scissors, and my body as stiff as a Korean chopstick. The doctors who saw me agreed that I wouldn’t be able to speak, smile, or even recognize my parents. They suggested them to send me away and go on to have another healthy child. Fortunately (and unfortunately in some ways), my parents opted for a road not taken and prepared to face the unknown. That included massaging my rock-like muscles, spending hours each day feeding me, looking for TCM remedies in the most unexpected small towns (Some worked wonders for me), and losing sleep for a month because my spasms kept me awake. Education was something beyond the realm of their reasoning, but nevertheless they read stories to me unsure whether I could understand a word.

1986

All these early interventions took tremendous time and effort, but what change would they possibly make? This question never bothered my parents. They just did those things for the benefit of their child. They didn’t know that I would learn to speak at age three, begin to walk independently at 12, and write this essay at 34.

One day after I turned six, I said to my father: “Dad, I’m afraid to be seven.”

“Why?” asked father.

“Because I can’t still hold pens, I worry I can’t be a student in school.”

By then I had already learned Chinese phonetics, a few hundred Chinese characters, and simple arithmetic with the cassettes and books my mother bought me. But my worry was not completely groundless. The headmaster of the local primary school only agreed to take me in as an “auditor”, the kind of attendance ineligible for full registered student status, after my mother begged him to test my intelligence. I was given a seat in some grade two class but was asked not to do homework or take tests. For a seven-year-old who craved for school, this treatment was nothing compared to sitting in a large classroom with other 30 children. The head teacher of that class was an old lady. She was kind and strict, and she knew what I needed. Arrangements were soon made so that I sat with a lovely boy who honoured his duty to help me turn pages. When she found I was shy answering questions in class, she praised me for group recitals and my writings – Yes, she asked me to do homework despite my auditor status.

Alas, good things never last long. A few months later, she retired. In her place came a young and ambitious teacher who, like most teachers in China, cared a lot about the test scores of her whole class. As a result, I was moved to the back of the room to sit with the naughty and noisy boys. I was even forced to “contribute” my textbooks to officially registered students. Again, this meant nothing for an eight-year-old. My parents, however, decided to pull me out of school in consideration of these unfair treatments and my extremely weak immune system. After a tearful leaving-school party, I found myself on a journey of self-learning.

The top of a sewing machine, an old chair, a battered window, and a clay-built wall outside the window that forever blocked the sunlight were my earliest study companions. Later joined the computer and much later, the Internet. The last two proved most useful as I went through the primary and junior school curricula in about four years with two tutors, whom I visited once a week for Q&A and homework review. Technically, this was not the kind of home-schooling practiced in the West. For one thing, there was no home-schooling support available in any form. For another, I still couldn’t take the national self-learners’ exams even if I moved on to the college level since no system was established to provide all the accommodations I needed to take the exams.

Of course, I didn’t become aware of these restrictions at the time. I was only a lone and happy learner, taking delight in a Chinese literary piece, a mathematical rule, and anything that I could comprehend or I thought I could. Learning was my hobby, the only thing of which I could take control with my mind. Soon, at age 16, I delved into one particular school discipline that would change my life (and my ego, too) for good.

That was when I came across a website called “Hong En Online” in Chinese. There I found an English forum called Canuck’s Comments (CC). Pages after pages of 100% English posts and the shining red stars issued to many of them intrigued me. Some posts were written by the moderator himself, and he was at the time a Canadian ESL teacher in Beijing. After a few days of “diving”, I made my first contribution – a short bio telling everyone how I lived with cerebral palsy and how much I liked learning English. I knew I had made tons of grammatical mistakes. I remember one place where I wrote: “My brain was broke”. I wondered how many stars I could get. “One or two, at most,” I thought sheepishly. “I just hope they can understand what I wrote!”

When I re-logged in the next day, I was astonished. Four stars followed the heading of my first post. More excitingly still, the moderator, David, and his sister Mary, replied under it! They showed their empathy and encouraged me to use English more. From that day a more focused learning plan was swung into action; I used all my waking hours speaking, reading, writing, listening to, and thinking in English. Two years later, someone on the forum asked me if I was a native English speaker.

Canuck’s Comments was much more than a place I used to practice written English. It was where shared ideas and insights raised me to a level I had never imagined. I was no longer focused only inward. I began to look at the world outside my own and learned to absorb new (and sometimes dangerous) concepts such as human rights. I was still alone, but lonely I felt no more.

Me and Canuck, 2002

A hidden freelancer

I spent three more years as an ardent English learner. Then an unexpected referral by a friend’s friend pulled me into the field of translation. To be a qualified translator, you need not only language skills. Fast word processing, among other things, is required to meet often demanding deadlines. After years of medical treatments and physical therapies, I still can’t use my hands effectively. I have to control the computer with my toes. At first, it was difficult because of my tight muscles and coordination problems. But it had become easier with practice.

My first real assignment was part of the construction bidding documents in English. It was not something you would read unless you work as a road constructor/manager. The wording looked alien and hard to render into Chinese. I ploughed on anyway. For the next seven days I worked over 12 hours a day. Just when I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, I saw my life saver – some repetitions! In retrospect, I don’t think the quality of my work was up to par, but I finished the job on time. I received my first “bucket of gold”, 1,700 yuan – and one big canker in my mouth!

I became more professional as I continued to take offers. Over the past ten years, I have processed millions of words/characters, including seven books on a range of subject matters.

These personal achievements have deep-rooted ties with politics. In the new millennium, China no longer shut itself up against what the nation used to call ”foreign devils.” Its reform and opening-up strategy ushered in a phase of unprecedented development. Outbound economic and cultural activities created an acute demand for linguistic services, and there I was, armed with outstanding bilingual skills and other qualities as a translator. (You wouldn’t think I was bragging if you got the chance to read English signs in a Chinese park). To rescue my country from this crisis, all I needed were a blue leotard, a red cape, and maybe a qualifications certificate.

The first two things might be too iconic to own, but in 2016 I passed the UK’s DipTrans examination and became a member of the world-renowned Chartered Institution of Linguists. All was done from my home.

Of all the things I love about my career as a freelance translator, one is that most of my clients don’t know I have a profound disability. Working behind the screen provides me an outlet for fair treatment, defined by nothing but my own ability hidden in a disabled body.  

The Founder of PEA

I could have been anything since the day I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy: A child dumped on a filthy orphanage bed, waiting to die; a girl who couldn’t read her ABC, for her caretakers believed so; a woman who has no friends and who can’t tell a Cadillac from an Audi because she’s shut indoors for too long due to her disabilities.

Fortunately, I am none of that. The credit goes to my dear parents, who show me what love can do, and technologies, especially computers and the Internet widely used in my country. Most importantly, these forces came together in a way that allowed me to discover my potential.

For years I’ve worked alone, prowling in the world of virtual reality to make myself valuable. I succeeded, in a way, if you consider how many texts I sent out to happy clients. But I want to do more.

As I said in the beginning of this self-introduction, a label has double effects. It will define a certain group of people once it’s attached to them and then get validated by the same, regardless of its appropriateness.

In China and many places around the world, people with disabilities are considered pitiful, weak, and dull. This popular view, in turn, tends to make the disabled think in a disabled way, unconsciously most of the time. They appear to be pitiful, weak, and timid in social activities. Some might not even want to go out and join the world because of the way they are seen. I go out every day and have to face questions of whether I’m intelligent or not, even when I smile timidly at such interrogations.

This is basically where the idea of PEA started. It’s an acronym for Passion, Empathy, and Ability, three successive factors that guided me to who I have become today. I also intend it as a reflection of the Princess and the Pea, a classical story that tells of what it takes to discover one’s true self.

At first, PEA will just be a small group of friends who have found their passion in language, music, and cross-cultural communication studies. We will share our passions in these fields on WeChat and Weibo, the Chinese equivalents of Twitter, and here for visitors living outside of mainland China. We will discuss translations issues, providing feedback to each other’s work. We will open up a bilingual forum, where everyone can write their stories in English or Chinese and get corrections free of charge.

Once it gains its momentum, PEA will provide one-on-one language classes with special considerations of the needs of learners with disabilities. My experience tells me that learning a foreign language can be not only fun but empathetic as well. You’ll know what I mean when you learn the fascinating legend of King Arthurs or the beautiful structure of the Chinese character 人, or when you gain irreplaceable insights into every aspect of a civilization that’s been there for millennia half way across the globe.

This is where Ability kicks in. With the knowledge of a culture different from your own, one can do so much more than just saying “hello” or “ni hao” like a parrot. One can extend their social circles across the oceans to include peoples whose languages now one can understand. One can befriend them, make business with them, and share one’s life with them. Looking back, one can discover more about oneself, take actions, and enjoy their time as a versatile player. It’s a life enriched. Not diminished by what others think it should be.

I’ve been there. And I’m still going.

I’m Jenny, whom none or all of the labels fit.

Welcome aboard, my friend!