A Birthday Wish

The one thing I think most travellers would agree on is that visiting different countries makes you appreciate the life you have. Whenever I travel in poorer countries I am so grateful that I grew up in a safe, secure, home with loving parents. I am thankful that I always had enough to eat and clean clothes to wear and I know that I was lucky to be born in a country where healthcare and education are free.

During the last few weeks in China I’ve learnt a lot about how close to poverty so many of its people live and how something as simple as an illness can tip even a middle-class family into debt. I heard a story the other day about a 30-year-old woman diagnosed with breast cancer who believed it would be better if she died rather than be a burden to her family who had to pay her medical bills. Can you imagine being my age and thinking you’d be better off dead? I can’t. I also can’t imagine having to give up my beautiful baby, not because he was born different and not “perfect” (the most common reason why children with disabilities are abandoned in China) but because I couldn’t afford to pay for the operations he needs for his cleft palate or heart operation. But that’s the sad reality of some of the children I spent two weeks with when I volunteered at Starfish Foster Home in Xian (more of that in a later post).

Right now I’m volunteering at a deaf school in Kaifeng. Most of the children at the school can hear on some scale, thanks to hearing aids they have been provided with, but the majority could not even talk when they first arrived. They had spent the first few years of their lives scared and frustrated, unable to communicate with those around them. One woman brought her son to the school as a last resort, against the wishes of her husband who didn’t believe it would work. They had been told by doctors that he would never hear, unless he had an expensive operation which they couldn’t afford. After three years at the school he can now speak, lip read and hear to a certain extent.

Most of the 70 children at the school come from poor families. More than half of them board there as they live too far away to travel every day. The monthly fees per child should be 138 pounds, most families can’t even afford to pay half. And yet headteacher Zhang Hong and her staff carry on tirelessly. The teachers are all young and enthusiastic, even though they struggle with the frighteningly low wages. 

Always smiling.

The school, which has been rated as the best of the province’s 56 deaf schools in terms of its teaching, is very basic. The children eat their dinner in shifts as they only have six tables; their dorm is just a room of bunk beds, with no toys and some of the classrooms are currently out of use as the ceilings have fallen in and there is no money to fix them. 

Basic bedrooms.
Dinner in shifts.
Bath time for 40 boarders must be interesting.

And yet, despite all of this, the children are some of the happiest I have ever seen. They are always smiling and laughing. Due to the fact that I’m one of the first volunteers to have visited the school they are besides themselves with excitement when they see me crossing the playground. Sitting in on their lessons it is clear to see that they love learning. They are enthusiastic and fun and I could honestly sit and watch them all day.

Ever managed to get a group small children to look in the same direction at the same time? No, me neither.

The other day I asked Zhang Hong what her ‘wish list’ would be for the school. She said she would think about it and let me know and the next day she sat down with a list. I was a bit worried that it might include lots of fancy, expensive, equipment, but this is what she said she would like:

10 tables
100 chairs
9 blackboards
Curtains for six classrooms
That list alone makes me want to help her.

So this brings me to my birthday wish. Every year people ask me what I’d like for my birthday and every year I rack my brain. I have a reputation in my family of being difficult to buy for (on the basis that I once or twice returned a gift). But the problem is I usually can’t think of anything I want or need. This year, more than ever, I really don’t need anything. I have just had the most incredible nine months – my birthday present to myself – and the memories will last forever. So what I’m proposing is that if anybody had been planning on buying me a gift or sending a card for my 30th that they instead consider making a donation to the school.  And I know if I was reading this I’d probably be thinking “she’s just been on a nine month jolly so it’s a bit rich expecting a present as well”. Which is totally true and is why I’m not expecting anything. So if you’re totally skint and you’ve got bills to pay and babies to feed, then honestly don’t worry about it. But if you would like to donate a couple of pounds then I’d really appreciate it and I know these little guys would too.

We’ve got ourselves a beauty queen on the front row.
I promise that this is a matey hug, rather than a headlock.

(Anyone who would like to make a donation can email me at emilyann.elliott@gmail.com or DM me on Facebook and I’ll let you know the best way to go about it.)

Em xx