A day in the life of a massage specialist who feels his way forward after suffering depression and sight loss
Li Xinchao was a 15-year-old village boy in Henan province when he lost his sight after a cataract operation. After surgery to restore his vision failed, he slipped into a deep depression and even contemplated suicide. Now 26, Li is a blind masseur in Beijing's Chaoyang district and says he is still looking for hope in his life.
Li Xinchao wakes in a dark, freezing basement, which he shares with seven other blind colleagues. He has got used to sleeping with his clothes on because it keeps him warm and saves time in the mornings.
Li has been in the capital for about a year and started his latest job in a massage center last October.
"Although I am getting familiar with this place, the most difficult thing is still finding the toilet. Every time I touch the door handle it feels like I am finally saved," he jokes.
Li skips breakfast. He has no groceries as he finds it difficult to get to the market. He only occasionally gets to eat in the morning.
Last week, Li bought a pocket radio for 180 yuan ($27), his most expensive purchase since arriving in Beijing. "Listen! Ding Junhui (a Chinese snooker player) won a championship in Britain," Li shouts excitedly as he holds the radio to his ear.
The 26-year-old says he was a good swimmer and badminton player before losing his sight. "For me, this pocket radio is the only way to know what is happening in the world. It is like an open window."
He has little other entertainment. He used to enjoy reading before going blind but books in braille are too expensive, while the only landmark he has managed to visit in 12 months is Tian'anmen Square, he says.
After reaching the massage center floor, which is run by a Beijing couple, he settles down to start his working day. Li has an average of five to eight customers each day, with treatment sessions lasting between one and two hours. He earns 16 yuan per one customer, which works out to about 2,000 yuan a month.
Li spent three years training to be a masseur at a vocational school in his hometown before starting his first job in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan.
"I earned more in Zhengzhou than I do here but the employer there didn't provide me with food and a place to live. That's too inconvenient for blind people," he says.
Li gets his first customer, an old man who is a regular at the shop. "This young man always relieves the pain in my back. Besides, he likes talking to me," says the old man, who adds Li is clever and kind.
Li says the old man's wife passed away two months ago and that he had told him he felt lonely and helpless.
"It's just like what I felt when I first couldn't see anything. I locked myself away for two months and didn't talk to anybody. I even thought of committing suicide," says the masseur.
"Everybody has dark days. Talking to others helps overcome difficulties, so I like sharing my story with customers. They also tell me many interesting things."
The shop managers begin to prepare lunch for the masseurs. Carrot, cabbage and potato are the only things on the menu. They usually also have chicken as it is cheaper than pork and beef. "The food here is not good but it is not a problem," whispers Li.
He says his dream is to one day open his own massage service center and recently he asked his friend to teach him how to use computer software designed for blind people. "It's always hard for blind people to run a business but I will try."
A man who looks drunk steps into the shop and asks for a massage. Li is assigned to him.
About an hour later, the customer begins to shout at the manager: "How did you train your masseurs? He did nothing except hurt me." The manager apologizes to the man and offers him a discount, while Li also keeps saying sorry.
Eventually, the man leaves without paying. "Generally, customers respect us but this also happens. Just my bad luck," says Li.
"Who doesn't want love and family? I really want my own but it may only be a dream,"says the young masseur.
He once fell in love with a blind masseuse when he worked in Zhengzhou but it ended badly. "I am afraid of getting married, since I would be incapable of looking after a wife and family. I don't like this feeling."
Li has a younger brother and a sister, both of whom work in a factory in Guangdong province. His parents still live in his hometown. He seldom calls home and has decided not to return for the Spring Festival in February. "The cost of traveling is too expensive. But I do miss them a lot," he says.
A woman from the United States enters the shop. While Li is massaging her, she says she studies Chinese medicine in a nearby college.
"We have foreign customers almost every day, many are overseas students," said the shop manager.
"The woman could speak Chinese and asked me something about the benefits of body massage," Li says.
"I told her I heard from the radio that US president Barack Obama visited here. Do you know how she replied? She said Obama would love my massage too.
"She told me there is no blind massage in the US. Both of us agreed it is a really good practice for blind people."
After another four customers, Li is finished for the day. He looks exhausted, although it will be another hour before he heads to bed.
On the way back to the basement, he stops and turns on his radio again to listen outside in the freezing city air. An insurance sales manager is speaking on a program about how to motivate staff.
"The earth spins without anyone's help but you have to believe that, without you, the world would stop," said the voice from the radio.
Li burst into laughter. "Maybe he is right," he said. "Just maybe."