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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Young and dreaming

Background: L’Arche is an international organization for people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together and learn from each other. Huiling is a similar organization in China that provides services from group homes to supported working places for people with intellectual disabilities. Because of my dream of founding the first L’Arche community in China, I was recommended by L’Arche International to visit Huiling, to learn more about the living situations of people with intellectual disabilities in China and try to establish friendship between the two organizations. All names below are made up for privacy reasons. “I am from L’Arche.” “What is L’Arche?” “An international organization for people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together and learn from each other. It provides homes, warm homes, for people with intellectual disabilities. It was founded in France. Now it has communities in 46 countries. I worked there.” “International? Wow. You worked there? You must be an expert in this field then. Maybe you can help me out. Does … what’s it called? L’Arche, does L’Arche have any idea how to stop my daughter from doing this?” Her daughter, Dandan, once again, pulled off her underwear in front of me. Honestly, Dandan’s behaviors weren't surprising — I have many friends with severe autism who tend to do the same thing when they are nervous or when they have unmet needs. “My daughter does it every time when she wants to go out. She hates staying at home.” “Then why don’t you let her go out?” “It is too much trouble. She doesn’t like being looked at and you know, when she gets nervous, she takes off all her clothes and tears them up in public. She is hopeless. Sometimes I just start crying. Why the hell does this happen to me?” “Actually, Dandan has taught me how to accept my vulnerability in the past week, so please don’t be hopeless about her.” “You are too kind. Thanks for saying that, but sometimes even I, her mother, cannot see any value in her. She contributes nothing to society.” Ah, here we go. We think differently. In China, an atheist country, a person’s value comes from his or her contributions to the society. But for my friends at Notre Dame, a person’s value comes from God. It is not the difference between Huiling and L’Arche, it is the difference between two cultures. On a separate occasion, the volunteer at “Hope Group,” a drawing workshop for kids with intellectual disabilities, was kindly introducing the kids to me. “This is Tingting, she has autism. That little boy, Panpan, in the corner, doesn’t have autism, just learning disabilities. This girl over here, Fangfang, has Down Syndrome … ” “And she is a wonderful painter.” I couldn't stay silent anymore so I rudely interrupted her. “Eh, yeah, she likes painting.” She looked at me with confusion. I continued. “And Panpan is amazing at blending different colors. Tingting is an awesome listener.” “Ah, yeah, they do have different talents. Anyways, the disability level of kids in this workshop is pretty high compared to those in other workshops. Most of them are really slow in learning things. They may need a month to learn to do things that we can learn to do in five minutes. Be patient with them,” she said. Suddenly, Panpan stood up and nudged me. He looked into my eyes and said very slowly, “Yeah it is difficult for the kids here to learn to do certain things. They usually pay so much more effort than normal people do.” He paused for several seconds. “Actually, I am one of them.” Then he gave me the most genuine smile I had ever seen in my life. It struck me. I didn’t know how to deal with his bravery and confidence. I was such a coward. On my first night, I asked, “Excuse me, Sister Zhang, where ... where can I get hot water? I am desperate for a shower." “Oh, there is no hot water here. No worry, you will get used to it. Cold water is good for your health.” “Oh … OK. And … how do I flush the toilet?” In many places in China, you don’t sit on the toilet, you squat down and do whatever you need to do. “See that big container over there? You get some water and flush everything down yourself.” “Oh … OK, cool!” That night, in a little room over 90 degrees, sweaty and tired, I had a long conversation with Sister Zhang, a Christian nun who had served in Huiling and lived in this little room for four years. “How do you deal with all this every day?” “Deal with what?” “Deal with … you know, the shower, the toilet, no air conditioning … ” “Oh, I am happy here. I stay with those kids with intellectual disabilities every day. I am poor but they enrich my life from within.” I was happy we were able to communicate on such a high spiritual level. “Yeah, sometimes when I see those kids with intellectual disabilities and their passion for life, their happiness for simply waking up everyday, I just think, what reasons do I have not to love my own life?” “Exactly. You are staying here for a week right? I will pray for you that you can experience that divine joy of being poor ‘outside’ and being ‘rich’ inside.” She seemed very understanding and peaceful, so I decided to impress her more with my ‘deep thoughts.’ “People with intellectual disabilities help me see who I really am because they don’t see all those labels on me, Notre Dame student, Chinese, high GPA. … They see me as I am.” “At the very beginning you felt sad, right?” “Yeah, I felt like I was so normal, so … worthless.” “But despite that, they still love you, don’t they?” “Yeah, they trust me and love me, unconditionally.” “Love you unconditionally, as you really are. Who does that remind you of?” “You mean … God?” She was finally smiling. “Do you still feel sorry for yourself that you have to flush the toilet on your own?” “Thank you, Sister.” “I understand you come from L’Arche, and you want to found the first L’Arche in China?” “Yeah, but I just realized that it is so hard, getting money, dealing with the government, everything.” “You want to establish a sign of joy and peace for our society and change society’s view on people with intellectual disabilities, not just to keep people with intellectual disabilities fed and clothed, right?” “Yeah.” Suddenly, the electricity in her little room went off. In complete darkness, I heard her gentle laugher. “Wow, thank you God, this is just what I want, because now I want to light her heart up with the following words. Yuan, if you are serious about changing the world, be the change you want to see.” She could not see my face, but I was smiling. Later, I looked at a full cup of cheap coffee I had just bought from McDonalds. This was the first time I drank coffee in 20 days. Coffee is a luxurious thing in rural parts of China. I drank it up quickly, like I had been in a desert for three days. I was celebrating my reunion with coffee, something so essential and common in Notre Dame. Pathetic yet extremely enlightening. If I learn to celebrate every small bit of life, in the end, maybe I will learn to celebrate life itself.

Rebecca Feng is a junior studying English literature and accounting. She can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.