A twist on the classic changing-majors story

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda ’17

Just a few months ago, Helen Wang ’17 was amongst the brave souls who dared to take organic chemistry. As the daughter of two doctors, she expected to break her chemist father’s heart this summer with the news that she was considering switching to economics. Instead, she was met with refreshing support of her new ambitions with a nurturing family dinner and a toast to her new beginning.

Unlike the other victims of organic chemistry, Wang’s career shift was actually not due to the inscrutability of molecules; perhaps this is why her father wasn’t heartbroken she wasn’t continuing the family affair with chemistry. Rather, this abandonment of childhood visions of being a doctor followed her life changing chip to China this summer. Wang spent seven weeks this past summer at various villages in rural China. These governmentally supported villages all were home to patients with Hansen’s Disease.

Hansen’s disease, formerly known as leprosy, is no longer as large of a threat because early diagnosis and treatment can prevent potential disability. However, it was once thought to be both incurable and infectious. As a result of these fallacious beliefs, many Hansen’s disease patients were shunned from their homes and quarantined to villages in the 1950’s. The stigmatization and isolation of Hansen’s disease victims has lingered in rural China. Today, villages like Sian, Jianyu, and Zinsha, which Wang visited, still are home to patients of Hansen’s disease.

Wang’s trip to these villages was organized by Global Neighbors. “The mission of Global Neighbors is to help people who are marginalized for mental or physical disabilities.” Global Neighbors said, this summer was “helping people internationally. We partnered with the NGO called Joy In Action (JIA), whose mission is to help people specifically in leprosy villages.”

Three Swatties accompanied Wang on her trip: Stephanie Wey ’16, Christina Chen ’17, and Alan Xie ’15. They worked in conjunction with some other students from China in some of the villages.

Wang, Wey, and Chen spent the most amount of time at the village of Sian. A typical day started with “observing people in hospital, who bandage up patients. Then we would go to Sunday service because a lot of the patients and volunteers were Christian. I learned a lot about faith. We would feed the villagers who were blind and deaf because they couldn’t eat their own food. The patients we were assigned to help were referred to as our ‘grandmothers or ‘grandfathers.’ We would wash our ‘grandparents’ with wet cloths, then feed them dinner at around 4. After dinner, we would play music and dance for them.”

“It was hard because they spoke Cantonese and we spoke Mandarin,” said Wang. She reflected that, “After a while, you realize you can communicate through non-verbal communication… Each of us communicated with the villagers in a unique way. Stephanie formed a connection through humor. Christina took some time to understand her grandmother who was blind and almost completely deaf through faith. I personally play the ukulele and like to sing — and so I bonded with this one villager who was a mute.”

Non-verbal communication was the topic of the project’s digital story. The digital story is a fifteen minute video that all Global Neighbors volunteers make to discuss what they gained from the trip. Wang, Chen, and Wey have chosen to make theirs together, with the thesis being that “communication doesn’t only have to be through language.”

Wang also developed a soft spot for a patient in a different village, Jianyu. “Her name was Liu Po. Po means grandmother in Cantonese. I met her because other volunteers didn’t visit her as much.” Liu Po spoke a dialect of Cantonese that no one else understood. Wang cites this as the reason why she gravitated towards her. “She also couldn’t communicate with anyone else.”

Another reason they bonded is because of their shared introversion. “She has her own house, and so she’s also introverted. I felt a sense of introverted camaraderie with her. Everyday I would look for ways to bridge this connection with her.”

One of the ways Wang did this was by drawing a portrait of Liu Po and an illustration of a fruit tree behind her house on a huge poster paper for her. “I’m not a great drawer, but I made her laugh. I also played ukulele for her even though she couldn’t understand any of the lyrics. There were a lot of afternoons where I sat with her, and I would just talk to her in English and she would talk back to me in her dialect. If you translated it, it would have been ridiculous.”

Even then, they managed to communicate. “She would often get upset and pat my leg. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I knew it was important.”

Overall, Wang reflects that she now accepts the value in not linguistically understanding the patients. “A lot of going to the villages is not about knowing their story as much as it is about being there in the moment, especially for these people who we shouldn’t define by their hard pasts. Not being able to speak the language was a blessing because it made me see them for who they were in the present.”

Eventually, Wang did learn about Liu Po’s story. As a young teenager, she was married off during a village ceremony along with around fifty other couples. “Essentially, she was a sex slave. She was sold to her husband, and had no purpose in being in the village.” Her husband developed Hansen’s disease, which is why she, her husband, and her son moved to the village of Jianyu. After her husband died, she begged the villagers to allow her to stay there, because she had nowhere else to go. “It’s hard for her because she doesn’t have the monthly stipend from the government, unlike the other patients, because she doesn’t actually have the disease.”

“She cries because she didn’t make any decisions for herself and it wasn’t her choice to come to the village, and she can’t communicate with anyone there.” Wang sighs, “Meeting her, I had a lot of thoughts about what it means to live a righteous life. I don’t really know what I could have told her differently, because it’s just the cards that she was dealt.”

Even though Liu Po and the other patients have faced extreme hardship, they have learned how to remain optimistic. “One thing I noticed is they loved to all have fun with us. Liu Po always offered me fruit. She forced me to eat these giant bowls of Chinese porridge, three eggs, and a lot of sausage- all of which are expensive for someone with no income.” Wang jokes, “Side note- I absolutely hate porridge but she forced me to scarf it down!”

Coming back, Wang finally understood through Liu Po the importance of family meals in her own Chinese household in Baltimore, MD. Liu Po, in essence, “cared for us like her own grandkids. She would always try to set me up with Alan,” her reasoning being that they were both from America and were “getting old.” Wang jokes, “at first, it came off as overstepping boundaries but it really reflects her desire to have us be happy.”

Creating family bonds is important to the villagers. “One thing that her and the other villagers have in the villages is the chance for having a true family, which is also what JIA means in Chinese. Wang confirms the importance of family on this trip, quoting her friend Wey. As she put it, they were “paid to spend the summer with grandparents we never had.” Wang recognizes “very few people have that opportunity to be in such a safe space. I never would have expected it to be such a safe space for me. I wrote down a list of axioms that I learned to follow. The core thing is really to treat the people we love with mutual respect.”

After coming home, Wang said, “I was super excited to see my parents and especially my grandparents, who raised me when I was busy as a kid.”

The trip not only affected the way she interacts with her family and friends, but also her career focus. Prior to the trip, Wang wanted to be a doctor because it was a “standardized career and path to help people, which is what I eventually want to do in some way.” The trip showed her the unconventional ways that it’s possible to positively impact other people through, for example, non verbal communication and sharing simple meals together.

“This summer made me realize that there are other ways to help people and some are not as standardized.” Wang finds these more exciting. “One thing I am interested in is developmental economics, which is how people in developing countries gain access to scarce resources.” No matter what path Wang decides to pursue, she will always have the lessons of Liu Po and the other patients with her. “If something is small, if it is of good value, then you can and should follow through with it, even if that simply means scarfing down that last bowl of Chinese porridge in order to put a smile on Liu Po’s face.”

1 Comment

  1. Great article and story on Wang. We’d like to add to your point “Hansen’s disease, formerly known as leprosy, is no longer as large of a threat because early diagnosis and treatment can prevent potential disability.”

    Unfortunately few ppl get access to early diagnosis/treatment which makes it still a threat in many countries–not just China. And many governments purposely fail to report the real number of cases. That’s why we at Hope for Hansen’s aim to tackle the issue to get these “invisible people” the treatment and hope they need! 🙂

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