LETTER FROM CHINA: Vulnerable ... not too vulnerableMy job takes me to the non-touristy parts of the countries where my NGO works. One of those places is Mashan, a small town in China with beautiful geography. Our project works to boost people with disabilities’ economic status by providing them with animal husbandry options, since these areas are pretty rural and there are few economic opportunities. The team had saved their most difficult beneficiaries for us to visit together. I must admit, I was at a major loss for what to do and felt limited by what we could provide.

We visited a family where all three of the family members had some sort of “mental disability.” The mother and her two sons have had difficulty working or running their home due to mental illness. A hospital with mental health services is about 1.5 hours away but they have not been there. One of the sons is chained up by the ankle as he has wandered away a few times and has also hit his mother.

Our local team asked me what to do, as the foreign expert—not quite! I didn’t know the whole context and whether getting him to a hospital would be helpful or if the family could even afford medication.

Our project isn’t a medical one and the staff aren’t trained to identify and refer people or monitor what happens to them unless it’s from an economic standpoint. We aim to work with vulnerable people, but not those who are too vulnerable as our economic support wouldn’t be able to make a sustainable difference if the families’ basic needs aren’t met.

So we can’t do much for these people and there are no other international NGOs in this area. The Chinese government is fairly good compared to some countries and gives the family a monthly allowance, but there are no social workers to help them plan how to spend the money to improve their conditions.

I remember my friend mentioning similar stories from Cameroon, but it sure hits you hard when you see such a difficult situation in person. It was also a bit hard for me to see our staff taking many pictures of this man. On the positive side (if there is one) it enables me to share their story with you today.

A colleague in China tells me that aid to the country is being reduced as the international community sees China as rich, but he isn’t seeing a rise in aid within China from Chinese donors, so he’s worried about the growing gap.

China is the last of three countries I’m visiting on my trip to Asia. I’m losing patience with the harder parts of my work (language barrier mainly), but trying to make it through the next week with some grace. My body language vocabulary has increased, complete with new additions of quirky sounds to get my point across.

China is… very Chinese! There’s practically nothing written in English. All the remote controls for the TV, A/C or anything else have only Chinese writing on them. All the TV channels are from China—no CNN, BBC or any English-speaking or other foreign-language channel. On the Internet I cannot access blogs, YouTube, Facebook, but strangely iTunes is allowed. A friend said that China embraces capitalism and communism at the same time, so maybe that explains it!

Some of the staff feel China has improved since the 80s and since Mao has passed on. In the 80s, if they sat down to have a meal with a foreigner like me, they would be questioned by the police the next day. Until recently, local authorities had to closely follow all NGO affairs and attend any important meetings an NGO was having, as well as tracking their phone usage. The government can no longer continue to do this so it’s changing its policies to decrease its huge monitoring responsibilities.

I’m looking forward to returning home, but after I’m back for a few months, I’m sure I’ll miss it out here. Such is the blessing and curse of an NGO worker. Always wanting one foot in and one foot out!

by Dulce Medusa