My name is Angel. I am from China. I grew up in a rural fishing village near Yangshuo, China. When I was born, my mom could not determine what was wrong with me, as I cried all the time. The doctors in China told her there was nothing they could do, so my mom brought me back home and took care of me the best she could. Growing up was really hard for me, as each month, I would break a new bone. My mom carried me carefully, but still my bones would break. My memories of growing up are hard. I cried every night going to bed from the pain of my broken bones. There was no medicine to make the pain stop. I also have a younger brother. My parents could have another child because I was a girl and was disabled.
My mom and dad treated me very differently. My mom would try to take me to our local fishing village school, but I was not registered so could not officially attend. If my mom and dad registered me in the fishing village, they would have to pay to the local government. Because I was disabled, they decided to not do this. Also, my bones were broken so often that most of the time, I had to stay home and not move so that my bone could heal. Sometimes, my mom would have to be gone for the day, so I would stay home with my dad. These days were hard for me, as my dad would not care much for me. I would not eat or ask for anything from him but just sit quietly and wait for my mom to get home. He would not bring me to school because he said I was disabled, so why go. One time, I remember, he needed help writing some Chinese characters. He asked me for help. I said, “Why don’t you ask your son. He is the one that goes to school.” I was teasing him, but in some ways, it was true. I learned how to write Chinese characters because my mom would teach me at home using my brother’s books. She was determined I would learn.
I was often teased and laughed at growing up. I was not known by my Chinese name, Chun Li, but as “the disabled one.” My world was small, as I never left my house except to go to school a few days a year. But the school was just down the cobble street road, so I really never left a very small area. The fishing village is over 500 years old, so the streets are very small. My cousins would tease me and say, “You don’t even know where Singping is.” I didn’t. It was true. I only knew my home and my family. My days were long and boring, with little to think about. I really did not know what to think about as I did not know anything about the world.
I remember being treated differently. My aunt would come to the fishing village once a year and bring new clothes to my brother and cousins. But she never brought any for me. I would cry and be very sad about this, feeling worthless, as I say in my brothers old clothes. Finally, one year, my mom got upset with my aunt and asked her, “What do you think, that Chun Li is an animal and does not need clothes?” I never had new clothes growing up. I always had my brother’s old clothes that were worn and old. I never felt pretty or looked nice. My hair was cut very short so it would be easier for my mom to care for. Often I would wear just a shirt and have a blanket around my legs that did not work. I never walked but I always dreamed about this. I always just sat and have had to be cared for all my life. I finally got my first new clothes when I was 17. I still have these to remind me of how much they mean to me.
I never felt valued as a person. I had no dreams, no goals and thought my life would be forever only in the fishing village. One of the worst days of my life was when President Clinton came to visit our fishing village in 1998. Everyone in the village was very excited to have the President of the US come to our village. Before the visit, the local government came and checked out all the houses along the cobble road where he and his family would walk. They stopped by my mom and dad’s small shop. They thought that President Clinton might stop in to buy something. When they saw me, they told my mom and dad that I had to be put away, as they did not want President Clinton to see someone so disabled. My mom said no and tried to have me included, but the local government would not listen to her. I was carried upstairs and put in a bedroom with the door closed. I sat there, crying, feeling my life was not worth living, feeling no value. I could hear the excitement as President Clinton came into our shop. Everyone was so excited, except me. I was only reminded of how disabled and worthless I was. It was a very sad day in my life.
After President Clinton visited our village, many tourists started coming to visit and see our shop. I tried to be useful and help my mom and dad make money in the shop by making slippers that I would knit. It would take me two weeks to make one pair of slippers. My first pair were really special to me, as I realized for the first time that I could actually do something with my life. I could make slippers and sell them to tourists. Each pair of slippers would sell for 20 RMB, which is about 2 USD. One day, a man named Chris Barclay come to our home to visit. He asked for me and I did not know why. I was working on my slippers. He asked my mom to tell him about me. When he heard what happened to me when President Clinton visited, he asked me if there was anything he could do for me, like help me learn something. I shared that I wanted to learn English, as I thought it would help me sell my slippers in our shop and talk with the foreigners who stopped by. I didn’t think that I would see this man again. But he came back, with books for me.
I tried to teach myself English, but it was really hard. I told Chris that I thought I would do better if I had a teacher, so he hired a tutor for me. I learned really quickly with the tutor. She would teach me for a while and then I would teach myself more. I had nothing else to do, so learning English became my new found way to pass the time. After two weeks of learning, Chris called to see how I was doing. He was so excited to see how much I learned that he said I needed to come to Yangshuo to really learn more. He asked if I would do this. I said yes. For three months I spent all my time learning English and math skills. After that, Chris asked me if I would come work at a training center he designed, Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. I said, “Why not?” I was the first person he hired. I would be the receptionist and help with the accounting and money for the hotel. My world was changing, as I was meeting many foreigners from around the world, places I had never even heard of. I realized later that Chris’s partner in building the hotel, Shelly, who was Chinese, tried to stop Chris from hiring me. She asked him to bring me back to the village because if Chris hired me, he would have to also hire my mom, as she provided all my daily care and said that people would not want to see someone so disabled as a receptionist. Chris said no, that he did not want to feed me fish every day, but wanted to teach me how to fish.
When I was 18, Chris flew my mom and I to LA for meetings with doctors to see if there was anything they could do for my brittle bone disease. I met Dr. Duke, who helped me a lot. He gave me medicine that helped my bones not break. I have only broken two bones since I took the medicine. I did not cry going to sleep from pain anymore. I was very thankful for meeting Dr. Duke. He was a very nice doctor.
One day, I met a man at Yanghsuo Mountain Retreat. He sent me text messages and asked to meet with me. I thought he was crazy and thought I was getting the texts messages by mistake. But I was wrong. He really did want to meet me. I did not think this would ever happen, that a man would be interested in me. We started dating. His family was not happy, nor was mine. They said I was disabled, that I should not marry. But after a year of dating, we decided to marry. When we went to get the marriage certificate, the local officials told my husband that he should not marry me, as I was disabled. I asked them to show me the policy that said that disabled people could not marry. They said there was no such policy, so they gave us the certificate. We loved each other and still got married. My husband is a very nice man. He is the only man I ever dated. Many people said that we would get divorced soon after our wedding because I was disabled and would be too much work. But instead of getting divorced, we grew more in love with each other. I think we make each other very happy, even though I am disabled.
One month after we got married, my dad found a brand new baby girl on the street in Yangshou. Someone did not want her. My dad brought her home and Xiao Mo and I decided to adopt her. Many people said I could not be a good mom because I am disabled, but I love my daughter very much. I want her to get a good education and help people understand that disabled people can be good people and good parents.
In the summer of 2011, I met Kathy. She was the first person to stay at Yangshou Mountain Retreat who asked me to share my story. I was sitting outside after work one day and she came up and asked me, “Will you share your story with me?” I shared my story of growing up with brittle bone disease, of not meeting Bill Clinton, of meeting Chris and of being hired to work at the hotel. Kathy shared that I needed to meet Bill Clinton. She said she would work to help me make this happen. I thought she was crazy and laughed. She said she was serious. We then laughed together. Kathy also told me about a woman named Judy Heumann who works for President Obama and that I should meet her too. I did not think it was possible, but Kathy said we should try. Kathy came back to Yangshou to meet Chris one week later to talk about this. The three of us talked also about Chris’s dream of building a school for children with disabilities like me. Still today, many children with physical disabilities don’t get to go to school. People think that if your body is not normal, something must be wrong with your brain. I hope we can make this school possible so that people in China can see that people with disabilities can be smart, not stupid.
Kathy hoped that I could come to the US for a week or so to meet Bill Clinton and Judy Heumann in the fall of 2011, but it did not work. Instead, Kathy came back to China. She invited me to go to Beijing to meet with the president of her university, President Potter. Chris said, yes, I should go, so Xiao Mo and I flew to Beijing to meet with Kathy. Kathy had us go to all the meetings she and President Potter went to. I met some very nice people who asked me to share my story. They were excited to hear about the school project. Hopefully they will help make this happen.
After being in Beijing, Kathy flew to Yangshuo with a group of people from a school in Minnesota. They invited me to come visit their school to learn about special education in the US. Kathy said she would work with me on this. She and her friend, Cheri, sat down with me and Xiao Mo to talk about goals for our time in the US. I never thought about learning about disabilities in the US. We made a plan, wrote down goals and outcomes and what we wanted to accomplish. Kathy called this an “Educational Leadership Internship.” I was not sure what I would be leading, but I decided to accept the invitation to come to the US. Xiao Mo supported my decision and we both agreed we should go.
In December, Kathy called me to tell me that Delta agreed to sponsor me and Xiao Mo. She said a man named Sandeep Bahl from Delta wanted to help support me. I was happy that now we did not need to pay for the tickets.
In January of 2012, we got our visas to fly to the US. I was very excited and nervous. The night before we left, a lady named Ada Shen met us and took us out for dinner in Beijing. She said she was a “tea buddy” of Kathy and her friend. She was really nice. She said that she is a film producer and that we should make a movie about my life. I wondered if people would really want to watch a movie about my life, but told her that was a good idea.
In the morning of Jan. 16th, Mr. Sandeep Bahl met Xiao Mo and me at the airport in Beijing. He was really nice and helped us get ready for our flight to the US. It was a long flight, but we arrived in Minneapolis on time. Kathy, her friends Cheri and Eda, and the principal from Minnetonka, Joe Wacker, met us at the airport. I was very excited but exhausted. Xiao Mo was very happy when we arrived at Joe’s house to see that his children all spoke Chinese. This is very helpful!
It is now March. I have been here for two months. I have learned so much. I have met many wonderful people, including Judy Heumann, who Kathy said I should meet last summer. I even met with the lady who is in charge of special education for all of the US, Alexa Posny. She encouraged me to write a children’s book. I liked this idea because there are no children’s books in China that have children with disabilities in them. Kathy said she would help me with this. I never thought this would ever really happen to me. Now we are working on trying to meet Bill Clinton. Kathy still thinks it is possible. She says we just have to be patient. But Kathy said she does not take no for an answer. She always says this with a smile and makes me laugh.
I am learning how to be an advocate, a word I never knew before coming to the US and to speak about the need for children with disabilities to go to school. I have learned about assistive technology for people with disabilities. I have seen people with disabilities working in public places. It is amazing! This does not happen in China. I think that my meeting with Kathy and her sitting down and asking me to share my story was “God arranged.” So many wonderful things keep happening. Even though not meeting President Clinton during his visit to my home in 1998 happened and I was very sad that day, many good things are happening now. Now my dream of helping to build a school in Yangshuo, a model school, is really coming together. I believe this is possible, and hope you do to. Thanks for reading my story.
Visit CNN.com for the iReport on Angel’s story