From China to America: The Parallel Lives of Two Disabled Women
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2016-12-14 11:21:30

Chen Minghua and Chen Chunchun have a lot in common. They both contracted polio at a young age, were abandoned by their families, and grew up together in the same Chinese orphanage — which gave them the same family name. But in 2001, Minghua, then 11 years old, was adopted by an American family, embarking on a new life and leaving Chunchun behind.

The “sisters,” as they refer to each other, lost contact until 2011, when Minghua was offered an internship in China and visited the orphanage where Chunchun still lives. The two women have kept in touch ever since, video-calling each other frequently.

Chen Chunchun sits in bed after showering at a budget hotel in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Chunchun sits in bed after showering at a budget hotel in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chunchun is unflinching about her physical disability. “This is just me,” she says. “I can’t hide it, and I don’t want to hide it.” Her spine is bent as a result of polio, putting pressure on her organs and making it difficult to breathe.

Chunchun lives a relatively happy life in Chenzhou, a city in central China’s Hunan province. She has her own room at the orphanage, which provides her with the basic necessities for a life with dignity. However, she would rather she didn’t have to rely on others so much when going outdoors. As facilities for the disabled are uncommon in prefecture-level cities like Chenzhou, Chunchun has to ask her male friends for help getting on and off public transport.

Two years ago, Chunchun met Lei Yu, a blind masseur who would later become her partner. Lei is Chunchun’s feet; Chunchun is Lei’s eyes. Though Chunchun and Lei have not registered for a marriage license, they have abundant respect and affection for one other. “Two people in love, that’s all there is,” says Chunchun. “Many of my friends are married or divorced, but I am perfectly satisfied with the present situation.” Lei’s children call Chunchun “Mommy.”

Chen Chunchun’s partner Lei Yu carries her on a train in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Chunchun’s partner Lei Yu carries her on a train in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chunchun used to make and sell handicrafts, and more recently she’s been going out onto busy streets to sing for passersby. With Lei and other friends, she founded a team of street performers with disabilities. They travel from town to town putting on two- or three-hour shows, singing, dancing, and doing acrobatic stunts in exchange for donations from spectators. Sometimes the whole team might earn less than 1,000 yuan ($145). After subtracting costs, there is often nothing left. Chunchun, normally strong and stable, can’t help but feel demoralized when this happens.

On the other side of the world, Minghua lives a markedly different life. At the London School of Economics (LSE), she is studying for her master’s degree. Minghua feels satisfied with the campus’s accessibility features, which make her daily life safe and relatively easy.

Minghua lived in Oregon with her adoptive family — a mom, dad, and two brothers who treated her as one of their own. After living independently for years, Minghua can both take care of herself and lend a hand to others.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Minghua moved to New York to work in administration and translation. Though her job wasn’t bad, Minghua hoped to continue her education. After working for two years, she was admitted to a master’s program in the history of international relations at LSE.

Chen Minghua attempts to cross the raised threshold of a restaurant in London, June 8, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Minghua attempts to cross the raised threshold of a restaurant in London, June 8, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone


Minghua can go just about anywhere she wants in London, which has a reputation for being wheelchair-accessible. However, seemingly insignificant aspects of everyday life, such as steps in front of restaurants, are still an obstacle for her. Minghua says she feels embarrassed when she has to rely on other people to help her move, so she tends to avoid eating out.

With the help of her adoptive parents, Minghua underwent a successful orthopedic surgery after she arrived in the U.S. The operation lasted 12 hours and prevented Minghua’s spine from curving further.

Chen Minghua chats with her friend Chen Chunchun during a video call from her dorm room in London, June 7, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Minghua chats with her friend Chen Chunchun during a video call from her dorm room in London, June 7, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Although Chunchun missed out on the ideal window for surgery, Minghua has been in contact with an international medical organization inquiring about treatment plans for Chunchun. After surgery, Chunchun would be able to breathe more easily, and Minghua says it’s her dream to help her friend get the same treatment she did.

Though Chunchun and Minghua live on separate continents, the distance doesn’t separate them. Even after so many years apart, Chunchun still considers Minghua her closest friend.

Correction: Chen Minghua’s family is her adoptive family, not her foster family, and her major is history of international relations, not international politics.

(Header image: A girl braids Chen Chunchun’s hair in Chenzhou, Hunan province, May 22, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone)