Ma­ter­nal warmth lights up little lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

China is hard for the out­sider. The best-laid plans can get lost in deep tan­gles of bu­reau­cracy and in­com­pre­hen­sion in this huge na­tion. So the sheer courage of a re­tired Aus­tralian pri­mary school teacher who has spent years nav­i­gat­ing Chi­nese bu­reau­cracy to help dis­abled chil­dren is worth some at­ten­tion.

And Linda Shum, a de­vout Chris­tian grand­mother from Gympie in Queens­land, has had a lot of at­ten­tion. She’s been in­ter­viewed for Aus­tralian newspapers, mag­a­zines and tele­vi­sion, and she has taken it all in her stride, con­cen­trat­ing ex­clu­sively, it seems, on im­prov­ing the plight of the kids who have dom­i­nated her life, in China and in Aus­tralia, for so many years. Pub­lic­ity, af­ter all, can bring do­na­tions.

Shum, now ap­proach­ing 70, first vis­ited China in 1998 with a Chris­tian group. Driven by an out­sized ma­ter­nal in­stinct, she was ap­palled by the dirt and ne­glect she wit­nessed in the state-run or­phan­age in Jiaozuo, a lesser city in the prov­ince of He­nan.

De­ter­mined to make a dif­fer­ence, she kept go­ing back to the or­phan­age, and within a few years she had set up the Chi­nese Or­phans As­sis­tance Team, which grew to en­com­pass fos­ter homes and a school.

China Baby Love is the story of Shum’s life and, on an in­ter­sect­ing line, the story of ABC jour­nal­ist Jane Hutcheon’s tan­gen­tial con­nec­tion to Shum and her al­most ob­ses­sive drive to look af­ter a pack of dis­abled kids.

These are kids with cere­bral palsy, or spina bi­fida, or cleft palates; kids who can’t walk, kids who can’t see, kids who can’t talk, kids who were left be­hind or pushed away by their par­ents, kids who are the phys­i­cal fall­out of China’s now-aban­doned one-child pol­icy.

When it was in force, the pol­icy meant most Chi­nese would-be par­ents were per­mit­ted only one child — so, nat­u­rally, they wanted a healthy, in­tel­li­gent and in­dus­tri­ous child (prefer­ably a boy). In later years this lone child would have to care for their par­ents — and prob­a­bly their grand­par­ents as well.

So chil­dren who had phys­i­cal or men­tal dif­fi­cul­ties were of­ten aban­doned, left to un­der­staffed in­sti­tutes or or­phan­ages to care for. They were of­ten tied to their beds or to pot­ty­chairs, left largely to them­selves and de­prived of phys­i­cal af­fec­tion. If they were par­tic­u­larly un­well, Hutcheon re­counts, they could be left to die alone, un­tended, in no­to­ri­ous “dy­ing rooms”.

These days, China is far bet­ter at car­ing for aban­doned and dis­abled chil­dren, and in­sti­tu­tion­alised chil­dren are mostly warm and wellfed, al­though of­ten bored: pac­ing, rock­ing, or left in front of a tele­vi­sion, and still some­times tied up — “for safety”.

Hutcheon, who is partly Chi­nese, was the ABC’s China cor­re­spon­dent at one time. She grew up in Hong Kong, she speaks Man­darin and Can­tonese, and there is a form of aban­don­ment in her fam­ily his­tory — so she ticks most of the boxes needed to ap­pre­ci­ate Shum’s mo­ti­va­tions and the ob­sta­cles she has had to over­come.

China Baby Love is a straight­for­ward ac­count of Shum’s work in China, with sym­pa­thy for her var­i­ous phys­i­cal ail­ments (can­cer, neu­ropa­thy, vi­sion and weight dif­fi­cul­ties), ad­mi­ra­tion for her sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion, and a cer­tain re­spect for her Pen­te­costal re­li­gion. Hutcheon doesn’t pro­fess to be Chris­tian but, she writes, “I’ve dis­cov­ered amaz­ing peo­ple who do in­cred­i­ble things in the name of God and Je­sus, and Linda is one of them”.

Al­though she is an ar­dent Chris­tian, Shum doesn’t pros­e­ly­tise in China, and her over­rid­ing de­sire is to help these “throw­away” chil­dren, re­gard­less of how many com­pro­mises she has to make with the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties and how much she has to hold her evan­ge­list Chris­tian­ity in check.

I in­ter­viewed her in Jiaozuo a few years ago,

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.