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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Loving Others' Rejects

An elderly Chinese couple can always find room in their shack, and their hearts, for another castaway child -- 42 of them in 17 years.

July 27, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

ANDING, China — Chen Shangyi makes a living as a scavenger. He prides himself on having a good nose for unusual finds. So when he saw a crowd clustered around a white bundle at the local train station one day while he was hunting for empty soda cans and soy sauce bottles, he couldn't resist taking a peek.

It was a baby, wrapped in a thin sheet.

"Everybody was just looking. Nobody would do anything," recalled Chen, who was 65, already retirement age, on that bitterly cold, snowy day 17 years ago.

"When I took her home, she was frozen stiff. My wife and I wrapped her in a burlap bag.... We started a fire. We fed her soup and put some old clothes on her. A while later, she started to wiggle." Chen named her Ling Ling.

Today, the sturdy 82-year-old with deep lines on his sun-baked face still makes a living as a scavenger in this remote Chinese town of 460,000 people on the edge of the Gobi Desert. And he is still bringing home children -- 42 in all, at last count.

Many were abandoned because they had been born with some form of physical disability. Over the years, Chen has developed such a reputation as a keeper of castaway kids that even the local officials send them his way. They know Chen would not reject any youngster, no matter what imperfections the child had.

"Nobody else wants them because they are afraid of trouble," said Chen's 81-year-old wife, Zhang Lanying. "They think these children are dirty. But I pity them. They are human beings."

As the most populous nation, China is home to the largest disabled population in the world: about 60 million. Despite a 14-year-old anti-discrimination law that guarantees equal rights, society's attitude toward the disabled has been slow to change. Disabled access in public places is rare. Employment prospects are grim.

In recent years they have made up only about 5% of the general population, but mentally and physically disabled people account for about one-third of the unemployed, and their living conditions are worse than those of able Chinese.

For some Chinese parents, the prospect of watching their disabled children experience a lifetime of stigma is too terrible to bear. According to recent media reports, Beijing police took in more than 400 children abandoned in the Chinese capital alone last year, about 80% of them born with physical deformities, organ abnormalities or mental impairment.

"I'd say 99% of the children here were abandoned because they were born with severe disability," said Shi Guihua, a staff worker at a welfare center in a Beijing surburb that pays foster families to take care of about 600 children. "Many of them were left on hospital benches by parents who can't afford to treat them."

Towns such as Anding, in northwestern China's impoverished Gansu province, don't have such welfare centers, which are funded by the state and corporate donors.

Local officials say they send castaway children to Chen because they have no other way of caring for them. A new orphanage sits empty -- it takes too much money to operate it.

Instead, the officials pay Chen and Zhang to do the work for them: less than $80 per month for the eight children the couple now care for.

That meager sum, plus the little cash Chen earns picking trash and all the love the couple can muster, has been enough to save a number of children from certain death.

Chen, who has only a first-grade education, worked as a laborer for years. After the economic reforms of the late 1970s, he started peddling tea drinks at the train station and collected garbage on the side.

After becoming a full-time parent, he gave up the tea business.

His first wife left him long before that, taking their two children, who are now in their 60s. He married Zhang more than 50 years ago. They have no children of their own. But they say they have cherished every one of the youngsters who have come into their three-room brick shack across the street from the train station.

Their oldest now is 12-year-old Yuan Yuan. She was born with a lump on her skull the size of a peach. Someone had left her in the yard of the municipal building. No one wanted anything do with this scary-looking child, probably then a year old.

Chen took her home.

Chen and Zhang finally saved enough money to pay for an operation three years ago to remove the growth and allow Yuan Yuan to live a more normal life. It cost about $80. Like the other children, she calls Chen and Zhang Grandpa and Grandma, or yeye and nainai.

"We love our grandparents. They work so hard for us," said Yuan Yuan, who during a lunch break from school helps out washing the dishes, pouring hot water into thermoses and bringing chairs for yeye and nainai. "I don't miss my parents," Yuan Yuan said. "They are so cruel. They left us because they knew we were sick."

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