Months passed. I went back to work hard in my college senior year. Final college exams and graduate school research filled my day. Soon the Huangshan trip dropped off my mind completely.
One day, while we were all studying, one of my roommates jumped up waving that day's Youth Daily. "Dandan, you are in today's newspaper!" she exclaimed excitedly. "Oh yeah right. I'm in the newspaper. Stop picking on me." I said absentmindedly, continuing with my study. "Look for yourself if you don't believe me," she passed me the newspaper. My other roommates all stopped what they were doing and crowded around me. Sure enough, there was an article about me climbing Huangshan. Apparently, the group of students from Beijing University whom we met in the mountains wrote a very sweet feature about meeting me in Huangshan. In the article, the students said climbing Huangshan was very difficult even for them, the young and healthy males. They simply couldn't imagine the hardships I must be enduring to climb the mountain. They wanted other young people to know if I could conquer Huangshan, there was no reason why they couldn't.
Well, I admitted to my roommates, that I felt so flattered and honored to be in the paper. It made me feel good and I knew it would make Mom and Dad's day.
I continued with my college finals and graduate school exams. Again, Huangshan and the article got pushed back and back in my mind.
A few months after I entered the graduate school, I received a letter from a journalist named Highland for China Daily. Highland told me he came across the Youth Daily article and wanted to know more about my life. Would I agree to do an in-person interview by him? He was a friend of one of my roommates' brother. He asked for an introduction, and asked my roommate to talk me into agreeing, if I didn't want to do the interview. I didn't need a lot of persuading actually. Again, I felt honored. I thought if my story could inspire even just one youth to strive and be the best they could be, it would be worth it. I told my roommate to tell his brother to tell Highland I was game for his interview.
The interview lasted for 3 hours! Highland asked me to tell him everything from my accident till graduate school. Before the interview, I had never had time or desire to systematically reflect on my life after the accident. I was a person to look ahead, instead of dwelling in the past. Because of that, the story I began to tell was incoherent to say the least. I mixed timelines, events, going back and forth, starting new events before finishing the one I was telling. It was a mess. Fortunately, Highland was an experienced, good journalist. He was able to guide me back to the right direction with his skillful questions.
When the feature appeared in China Daily, I was very impressed with Highland's storytelling skills. It put me in a very positive light, more than I deserved. Mom and Dad were excited and proud. They purchased multiple copies and sent the papers to their friends and colleagues. Most of all, they made sure they sent copies to his friends in the Ministry of Education who helped me to get my college admission. Their efforts and kindness were not in vane. I did make something of myself that they could all be proud of.
China Daily had the widest circulation then nationwide. After the article appeared on the paper, I received a lot of letters from the readers. One of the letters was from China Disabled Persons Association, which I had never heard of.
The association was newly founded by Deng Pufang.
Deng Pufang is the oldest son of China's former leader, Deng Xiaoping. Before the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was among the national leaders who were not afraid to disagree with Mao Zedong on many political and social issues. When the Cultural Revolution broke, Mao carried out a mass purge of senior officials who were not in his inner circle. Deng Xiaoping was one of the most notable officials being purged. He was incarcerated and tortured. As his oldest son, Deng Pufang was also tortured. He was crippled and became paralyzed from waist down.
After Cultural Revolution ended, Deng Xiaoping came back to power. Because of his family background, Deng Pufang, as a disabled person, was treated courteously everywhere he went. But he was shocked to witness how disabled average citizens were treated. He was resolved to change the culture, values, and policies regarding the disabled in China. He founded the first non-profit organization for the disabled, China Disabled Persons Association.
In their letter, they told me they were impressed by the article on China Daily. They would like to get cooperation from me to make a feature documentary film about my life. The film would show the 'real' me, not a 'glamorized' me. I would need to film scenes where I had to take off my prosthetic leg, to bare my scars, and show how I hopped around, how I swam with one leg, and how I awkwardly attempted to play sports. Would I like to meet them?
I pondered on the proposition for almost a week. I decided it would be too embarrassing. Growing up, I got my fair share of being mocked, stared at, and laughed at. Some of the names other children made up for me were unbearable. I thought I needed to put all that behind me, and move on as a person, not a disabled person.
I showed the letter to Mom and Dad, and asked for their thoughts. Their reaction was a big no. Dad said if I made the movie, people would forever look at me as disabled. Mom said if I bared myself on screen without my leg, I would ruin any chance I may have to find a husband. Mom's logic was this: I should give myself a chance to spend some time with a man and give him a chance to get to know me first. After we built a bond, he may be able to overlook my incomplete body and stay with me. But if a man was looking at my 'incomplete' body without a chance to get to know me first, he would not be motivated to ever meet me. This was how deep the stigma was in the society about the disabled. Mom and Dad were educated and open minded, and yet, their thinking was along the lines of being disabled was shameful. For me, I didn't care too much if strangers saw me on screen, but it would be highly embarrassing for me, if my schoolmates, friends, and neighbors saw me like that. I decided I can't do that to myself.
I wrote back with a thank you, but no, thank you. I told them I was so happy the Association was founded. Deng would be able to influence many people and decision makers in the government. The Association would be able to make so many positive changes that we sorely lacked as a society.
The Association wrote back immediately. They said they were in dire needs to find role models to help disabled youth realize their potentials. They hoped the movie would help change our culture and earn society's respect for the disabled. These people really knew where my soft spot is. To me, anything that might inspire youth was very well worth doing, and, I would not want any other kids to go through what I endured in the old culture.
I agreed to meet with them. Three people came to our campus - a young woman who was the producer and director, a young man who was the cameraman, and a teenager who was an assistant. They must have been confident they would be able to persuade me to do the movie, because the whole crew came, and they brought their equipment in their working van.
I liked the group right away. They talked no fluff or bullshit. They worked directly for Deng Pufang so there were no red tapes. They didn't need anyone's permission to do what they wanted to do. They said Deng Pufang, their president, wanted to do specific things for the disabled, not just in principle. The Association was just a few months young, and Deng was already able to change the college entrance exam policy. Not only the disabled would be able to take the exams moving forward, the exam facilities were now required to make reasonable accommodations.
I agreed to do the film. The cameraman left the room and quickly came back with his equipment. He said let's start shooting right here and right now. I liked the way they did things without apparent bureaucracy.
We shot scenes in my classroom, my dorm, my daily routine. They also shot scenes where played badminton. Because I couldn't run to catch the shuttlecock, it was not a pretty scene with some embarrassingly awkward movements on my part.
I had learned to play the Spanish guitar in college and I had my guitar in my dorm. They shot some scenes with me playing. I only remembered some simple tones. The calluses on my left fingers had all but disappeared, as I hadn't touched that guitar for quite some time. It really hurt when I played, but that was just fine with me.
We made arrangements for them to go to our house and shoot some scenes with Mom and Dad. Before they came, Mom brought out my dusty violin. I took lessons when I was an early teen, but I was never good at it. But Mom wanted to show off all the things I could do and had done.
When the film crew came to the house, they really liked to show the violin. Even though I was never good at it, and I hadn't touched it in years, I could still play with the right posture, the right finger movements on the strings, and the right way to operate the bow. They asked me to shed some tears while playing violin. They would add narratives later about finding out my citizen file was so dirty, which made things seemed so dire. But I could not get tears in my eyes and I did try hard. Eventually they had to use some eye drops. I thought it was very funny while Dad was mad. "Did you forget all those times when you locked yourself up and couldn't stop crying, as things looked so dismal?" Dad asked me. "No, I didn't forget. I'll never forget,” I said, “but I don't feel sad when remembering those dark days, because we have the last laugh. Humanity overcame evil.”
The last day of shooting was in a sports stadium. We shot scenes where I was swimming with one leg. There was a big crowd to watch. I could feel some of the familiar stares and comments that I grew up with. I did hesitate if I really wanted to do this. The crowd brought back some painful memories. Then I remembered what I said to Dad just the day before - we have the last laugh. I took off my leg, hopped all the way to the pool and jumped in. The director was very happy with the results of the first take.
I never got to see the movie. The movie was shot on motion picture films, as this was before the age of video cameras. When I left China for America, the movie was still in editing. The crew picked out a few negatives from the editing room floor, and that’s all I have. At some point my friends in Beijing wrote me that they were so surprised to see me on the movie screen. I never even thought to mention it to them. I made a mental note to ask for a copy of the movie, though I didn't have a movie projector so I couldn't really play it. At that time I was busy building a new life here in the States, and the film was a low priority. Soon, it completely fell off my radar.
As I’m writing, I've been trying to locate a copy of the film, but because China Disabled Persons Association had gone through so many incarnations and personnel changes over the years, records from the early days were basically gone. No one I knew is still there. Deng Pufang had left for other endeavors. It seemed unlikely I'll ever find the movie.