I don’t often write about disability in this blog, least of all my own.
At best, the effect tends to be poison on my reader numbers. At worst, it’s self indulgence rooted in the bizarre, infantile and utterly false notion perpetuated by almost all Western media outlets that people with disabilities are some kind of ideologically linked community with an axe to grind against the fact the world isn’t built around them.
Having just spent a month backpacking through China in a wheelchair however, I thought it worth making an exception…
For the record then, I’ve used a wheelchair all my life. I can’t walk but I can climb stairs, providing someone (i.e. my girlfriend) carries the wheelchair up/down the stairs for me.
My girlfriend and I have been travelling across the world for 11 months so far, and so far it’s been remarkably straight forward. Ten countries in to the journey and there has of course been the odd fucktard at airports, a few twatty tour guides and one total cunt of a receptionist in a Japanese cat café – but that’s all par for the course when you’ve got a wheelchair.
We don’t book further ahead than other backpackers. We don’t waste time researching wheelchair access facilities before arriving somewhere. We just enjoy the ride.
There really is nothing about wheelchair backpacking that 31 years of your life spent navigating England in a wheelchair (and one in Wales) won’t prepare a person for – or so I thought…
And then I arrived in China…
Survival Of The Fittest…
The good news that I discovered on the 24 hour long train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing is that the vast majority of China’s populated areas are flat as a pancake. Not that I couldn’t do with the exercise, but when lugging a year’s worth of backpacking supplies across any foreign land I like to make a habit of avoiding steep hills where possible.
China is immensely proud of its heritage as the world’s oldest complex civilization. Over the last 6,000 years the entirety of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ has been built on and razed to the ground so many times that very few natural inclines or declines remain in the parts where people live. Most sidewalks have drop kerbs at every corner too, and the tarmac is wonderfully smooth.
As soon as we stepped off the train however, the good news stopped flowing. Carrying out even the most basic of tasks in a wheelchair in China is like competing in a demented Crystal Maze/Hunger Games crossover.
Take crossing the road, for example. Even on back streets, it is literally never not a life or death scenario.
The Chinese Highway Code states that vehicles are always given priority on the roads. In reality, right of way is given to the person least likely to sustain injury in the event of a collision. Buses take priority over cars, cars take priority over motorbikes, motorbikes take priority over bicycles, bicycles take priority over people, people take priority over feral dogs, feral dogs take priority over vermin, and so on.
It’s difficult to see where wheelchairs are supposed to fit in the Confucian natural order of Chinese road crossing etiquette. Most pedestrians adopt the mantra of safety in numbers by crossing roads in swarms, but even then, there is a hierarchical subculture. Elbows to the face and railroading in to oncoming vehicles are the main hazards to watch out for when wheelchairing across Chinese tarmac. Likewise, crushed toes and snapped ankles are what would be elbowers and railroaders have to look forward to when straying too close to my wheels.
Pushing and shoving like this is a recurring theme in China. Idioms like ‘if you snooze, you lose’ and ‘every man for himself’ are the cornerstones of Chinese social convention. Queue jumping, for example, isn’t seen as rude – the people at the back of the queue only have themselves to blame for not being at the front.
This aggressively Darwinist approach to life isn’t just restricted to a few cocky teenagers or snotty businessmen – it is utterly ingrained in every level of society. When trains arrive at train stations, it is the ticket collectors who sprint fastest to get first place in the elevator queue. In markets, it is the richest who drive the hardest bargains. On the roads, it is the biggest cars that drive most dangerously.
China literally has the most aggressive driving culture of any country I have ever been to – even more so than Brazil. At least in Brazil when you’re trying to cross a road the drivers will maintain a constant speed and direction – in China they actually speed up to increase the severity of potential injury. Drivers don’t use hand gestures or try to gain eye contact as a way of acknowledging your presence – they deliberately turn away to show they have no intention of altering their trajectory. Traffic lights are basically meaningless . No one bothers to use indicators either.
In case you think I’m making all this up, check out the Wikipedia page on ‘Rules Of The Road In China’. My favourite part is the bit that says “Except for a brief period during the Cultural Revolution when the government encouraged people to drive on the left for symbolic/ideological reasons, the convention is to drive on the right. In practice, however, driving on the left into oncoming traffic is not uncommon, nor is it stigmatized or penalised.”
It is perhaps then no wonder that road traffic accidents are the leading non-disease or age-related cause of death in China. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that the hazard is confined merely to the roads either. You know those drop kerbs I mentioned seven paragraphs ago? Well they’re not for wheelchairs, they’re for mopeds…
Mopeds aren’t really seen as vehicles in China, they’re more like glorified pedestrians. Mopeds have all the road rights that bipeds do, and so see nothing wrong with thundering along sidewalks at 40 or 50 plus miles per hour. Again, they like to speed up whenever confronted by a pedestrian blockage. In a wheelchair it is quite tricky to flatten yourself against a wall and breathe in as a moped convoy steams past.
There are of course footbridges and subways for pedestrians (and mopeds) to get from one side of some major intersections to the other. All of them have stairs and most have no elevator. The footbridges and subways that do have elevators tend either to be broken or only operable with a key (which is usually in the possession of a security guard at the bottom of the subway or the top of the bridge, thus rendering the elevator useless).
Normally I wouldn’t object to this given my fairly unique predicament of being a guy in a wheelchair that doesn’t mind climbing stairs, but for one simple fact…
Chinese subway and footbridge stairs (as is much of outdoor China) are covered in phlegm. Chinese people seem to have no qualms about spitting in public – huge globules of buttery sputum hawked up or expelled through the nostrils all over the pavement without any regard for its impact on the surrounding aesthetics.
Quite often footbridge and subway stairs are coated in a thin layer of half-dried piss too. As I climbed them, my jeans and hands got covered. Sometimes a downpour of rain would clean the stairs of spit and piss, meaning my jeans would only emerge from each ordeal completely wet through, but rarely was I quite so lucky.
After a while I learned to cross roads using what became known as ‘The Magneto Trick’ – blindly marching in to oncoming traffic whilst holding my palm out as if having superhuman powers to halt vehicles…
The Magneto Trick worked less than half the time, but it was a definite improvement. Still, it wasn’t enough to help me over the barriers.
Ahh yes, the barriers – another helpful feature of Chinese city design. Most main roads in China are lined with big iron fences that are impossible to climb over in the time it takes for a car to get from the horizon to the point of climbing. Not just one barrier either – usually there are barriers between the sidewalks and the roads, and then two more barriers in the central reservation.
The idea behind the barriers is to make road crossing so arduous for pedestrians that they have no choice but to use the footbridges and subways – thus allowing King Car to continue on his journey unimpeded. In many cases, I ended up instead having to take a 45 minute wheeling detour to some other road twelve blocks away, just to get to the other side of the road I originally wanted to cross.
Which brings me neatly on to mén kǎn – the wooden beams spanning the bottom of doorways in about a third of Chinese buildings…
Legend has it that mén kǎn keeps out evil spirits, who can only travel in straight lines (obviously). I like to think of myself as tolerant of all religious customs and quirks, but the insistence on maintaining this particular superstition in the 21st Century is, frankly, fucking stupid.
Getting from one side of a mén kǎn to the other requires getting out of the wheelchair, stepping over the mén kǎn, lifting the wheelchair over the mén kǎn and then getting back in to the wheelchair. Do that three or four dozen times on an average day of sightseeing and you’ll end up wanting to punch a shih tzu.
Most British or American disabled people, when they complain about accessibility, usually moan about buildings lacking very specific and probably quite expensive facilities. I don’t, especially in developing countries, because expecting privately owned businesses to fork out for equipment that they are unlikely to ever see a financial return on is quite a tall order.
But with mén kǎn you have an obstacle that has actually been created by people. Resources, time and effort have been put in to making them. It would cost less to not install mén kǎn on doors, with the only drawback being an excess of evil spirits in the house.
All of the above begs the question of how China’s own disabled people cope in a country which doesn’t seem to give a damn. I have no idea, because throughout my month long stay there I never saw any, apart from a few legless beggars rolling around on makeshift skateboards…
What about the Chinese Paralympic team who swept the board at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with more than twice the amount of medals of any other nation? How on earth do they even get to and from training? Certainly not via all the disabled access facilities specifically installed in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, because most of that has either been ripped out or paved over, like this elevator outside Beijing’s Olympic Park…
…and this toilet in Nanluoguxiang subway station…
For reasons I never got to grips with, there does seem to be extraordinary prowess afforded to blind masseurs in China…
Outside blind masseurs however, the Chinese seem committed to the belief that disabled people are unable to pull their weight, let alone economically contribute, so shouldn’t be doted on with luxuries like a lack of mén kǎn.
My girlfriend often criticises me for not using this blog to help other people with wheelchairs by writing about the practicalities of wheelchair backpacking. Well, dear reader, brace yourself as for the first time ever I dish out a nugget of wheelchair travel wisdom in the next paragraph…
If you are a Chinese terrorist looking to blow up a whole bunch of innocents in a public place, simply fill a wheelchair full of explosives. When you get to a security checkpoint or passport control, no one will bother to pat you down. Nine times out of ten they won’t ask you to take your bags off the back of the chair to put through the X-ray scanner either.
This tactic worked for Chinese Wheelchair Bomber Ji Zhongxing in July 2013, and it worked for me throughout my stay in China (granted, I wasn’t carrying any bombs). Chances are it’ll work for you too!
This is an odd contradiction for a land that seems utterly obsessed with surveillance. Such is the paranoia about civil unrest in China that airport-style security is the norm in subways, museums and even some shopping malls. In train stations there are guards on lookout platforms with machine guns and tear gas launchers. Most public squares aren’t even ‘public’ in the Western sense of the word either – they’re ceremonial spaces closed off to the Average Chinese Joe through fear of protests.
The Chinese security services’ apparent indifference to the threat I pose to the safety of their nation is baffling, but the Average Chinese Joe’s apparent obsession with white, Western guys in wheelchairs is even weirder…
White people of any description are of absolute fascination to the Chinese. Even able-bodied white people like my girlfriend get stared at when walking down the street. Copping an eyeful is the default reaction when confronted by a rarity. Staring just isn’t considered rude.
Throw a wheelchair and a magnificent beard in to the equation however and many Chinese people act like all their birthdays, Christmases and Chinese New Years have come at once.
It is entirely normal for Chinese people to swivel a full 180 degrees, whip out a camera and take photos of people in wheelchairs. In particular, they like to take the shot when you’re straining to conquer a hill or climb a flight of stairs. Sometimes they might ask if their friends and family can be in the photo with you too…
Whole construction sites ground to a halt as I trundled past them in China. Food actually fell out of peoples’ mouths when I entered some restaurants. Two mopeds collided in the city of Hangzhou because one rider was craning his neck in my direction instead of watching the road. Another guy in Shanghai’s People’s Park thought I’d have absolutely no problem whatsoever with him squidging my right knee between his thumb and index finger… that last example was so bamboozling at the time that the only reaction I could muster was to shove my camera in his face and take this photo…
To be fair, most Chinese people seem to be more interested in the wheelchair than me specifically. Usually you can trace their eyeline to the exact point where the rear wheels meet the ground. Given that my wheelchair costs more than the average annual wage, that’s not completely unreasonable. They seem flummoxed as to how a person could propel the chair using their arms rather than having to be pushed by someone else.
I think the attitude was summarised best in a conversation between my girlfriend and a hostel owner in the city of Pingyao. Whenever I was out of the room, the hostel owner kept asking, “Is he your fliend? Fliend? Fliend?!?”
This went on for a number of days until eventually my girlfriend responded, “No, he is my boyfriend,”
“Ahhhh…” said the hostel owner. “You velly kind.” And then the conversation ended.
Now I’m not ignorant enough to think that this train of thought is completely non-existent in the West. As an outsider, you too might assume that the benefits of our relationship are uneven (FYI, I do 95% of the cooking). But where the West and China are a million miles apart is in assuming that articulating those thoughts to my girlfriend might result in some sort of benefit. The hostel owner genuinely thought my girlfriend would regard it as a compliment.
There is a childlike innocence to Chinese wheelchair curiosity. It’s not offensive but it is exhausting. More like being a C-list celebrity than an exhibit in a freak show. It is what every Westerner faces when they set foot on Chinese soil, but amplified a hundred fold, like an episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone around you has lost their inhibitions.
A lack of consistency is perhaps the most exasperating aspect of the Chinese experience. Our train journey from Xian to Chengdu was the perfect example of this…
It all began when we noted that Xian train station’s elevator with a wheelchair sign above it needed a key to be operated. We went to the information desk to ask for assistance.
Of course the assistant behind the desk didn’t know where the key was, because employees in China seem never to know anything about the buildings they work in. But nor did he know who to ask to find out where the key might be, or indeed who to ask that might know someone else to ask.
And so for the next hour, five members of staff ran back and forth like extras from a Benny Hill sketch, until one bright spark decided to check the staff room. We got in the elevator, went up a level, along a big corridor, down a big ramp, and then our assistant pointed up a flight of stairs. I climbed the stairs whilst my girlfriend hauled the wheelchair behind me. After some polite encouragement, the assistant agreed it would be a good idea to further assist by carrying my girlfriend’s rucksack.
Along another corridor and down another flight of stairs, we made it on to the platform and boarded the train with only seconds to spare.
On the train itself there were roughly three times as many people as there were seats. Our designated seats were occupied by an actual live chicken and some burlap bags full of god knows what. And so instead we spent the next 15 hours sitting in a booth in the restaurant carriage, with my dismantled wheelchair frame occupying the seat next to me, and the wheels on the seat next to my girlfriend.
My question is this – why bother to install the elevator at Xian train station? What is the point of spending money making one step of the journey accessible when every other step isn’t?
The pace of change in China is so rapid that it’s no surprise large parts of its infrastructure haven’t been fully thought through, or that the people there don’t really seem to understand how it’s all supposed to fit together. In the last 30 years alone, the population has gone from relying on bicycles and oxen to cars and smart phones. Communism has not taught the Chinese to question how or why it has all happened, merely to recount with precision the bits they have already been told.
China, of course, isn’t really Communist any more – not in the Chairman Mao sense of planned economics, centralised management and huge state owned enterprises. China today is basically Capitalist thanks to the 1978 open market reforms introduced by Chairman Deng Xiaoping. The only obvious link China has to its past politics is a thoroughly Leninist grip on absolute power by the dicks in charge.
Despite being home to the world’s oldest complex society, China has only just reached that stage of its development where covering buildings in sparkly lights is considered to be a sign of advanced civilisation. Every city centre is full of Gucci, Cartier and Bulgari stores. China acts like it knows best because it knows it is, globally speaking, on the path to becoming top dog.
In Britain we once had that mindset too, at the end of the Victorian era, just before we spunked all our resources on a celebratory war with the Germans. America also had a pop at being the world’s envy after emerging from World War Two as the world’s only economic super power – then there was the Vietnam War and Watergate and Monica Lewinsky and Enron and the country lost its shiny veneer of innocence and invulnerability.
Perhaps China needs a few massive scandals of its own to give it the necessary kick up the arse. After Britain and America had the wind knocked out of their sails there were marked improvements in wheelchair access, living standards, human rights and attitudes towards the discharging of bodily fluids in public places. What’s to say the same wouldn’t happen in the Middle Kingdom too?
I put this theory to a Chinese backpacker we met in a hostel in Chengdu whose name I’ve completely forgotten, so for the purposes of this blog I’ll call him Cedric.
“The way we queue in China is not rude,” said Cedric. “There is no other way.”
“It is rude and there is another way,” I said to Cedric. “In the West we call it waiting your god damned turn.”
Cedric chuckled in a way that suggested he was baffled by the notion that he should care about my European thought processes. His reaction was completely unsurprising.
China has spent the vast bulk of the last 6,000 years as world leaders in science, medicine, philosophy and technology… things only started to go wrong when European colonists started interfering in the 17th century, and the interference only ended after the expulsion of the Japanese in World War II. China’s recent ascendancy to becoming the world’s biggest economy is, in Cedric’s eyes, a return to normality.
Western thinking is but a blink of an eye in Chinese terms. Being an Englishman, I got the feeling that Cedric still hadn’t really forgiven me for the Opium Wars either.
China has no time for cultural conquistadors like me. I have no right to spoil their fun. And why should I? Queue jumping, spitting and behaving like an all round douchebag are the few freedoms these people enjoy in an endemically corrupt country where you can’t choose your government.
And so I decided to start seeing things from Cedric’s point of view…
In Shanghai, I pressed the door close button on a pregnant woman running for an elevator. In Shenzhen, I flicked a burning cigarette end at a toddler. In Pingyao, I pushed a small dog down a flight of stairs. Actually, I did none of these things, but I wanted to.
One sin I did commit though was to stick my leg out to trip up a man who pushed past me in a queue in a café in Hangzhou. It’s not my fault that he fell flat on his face – he should have been looking where he was going.
Also, I started staring back at people. Really staring. It turned out to be quite a liberating experience. Never before have I felt licensed to gawp at other members of the human race so openly, to prejudge and discriminate. What were they thinking? How did they end up that way? What was going on behind those fat little epicanthal folds…?
What would my 20-year-old left-leaning student self think of me now? China was turning me in to a monster. My future flashed before my eyes and I saw a joyless, friendless, knuckle dragging cretin that prefixes all his sentences with “I’m not racist, but…”.
I should point out that there were some startling exceptions to the above detailed ‘Chinese approach’ on our journey – like the inexplicable abundance of wheelchair ramps in the city of Chengdu.
Also, on the overnight train from Pingyao to Xian a policeman burst in to our carriage and threw a mobile phone at my girlfriend – on the other end of the line was the policeman’s English speaking brother-in-law who wanted to know if we were OK and whether the policeman could offer any help.
Then there was the husband and wife duo in Shenzhen Station who leant us the correct coins to buy a bottle of water from a vending machine and then point blank refused to take our money when we tried to repay them in notes.
And last but not least, Yingchen, a Biology student in Hangzhou Station who selflessly gave up half an hour of her own time to help find a guard with a key for the elevator from the platform to the exit.
It’s not so much that acts of kindness like this are a rarity in China, it’s that it’s impossible to predict where the next behavioral anomaly might be coming from. That’s what makes the place so fascinating, as well as grueling.
Whether you have a wheelchair or not, vacationing in China is something everyone should do – like watching Schindler’s List or telephoning your parents on Christmas Day.
To us Westerners, China might seem a little rough around the edges. It is a country in motion. Each day is an emotional rollercoaster packed with dramatic lows and medium highs – a tantalising glimpse in to the way we might all be doing things in future – a chance to hail the New World Order.
It will be a while before my girlfriend and I have recovered enough to visit again.