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A meaningful and profound experience in Chengdu

By Diogo Calado | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-09-26 17:34

A meaningful and profound experience in Chengdu

Diogo Calado [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

In the summer of 2008, I was living in Chengdu, doing an internship at a hospital affiliated to the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. At the time, Chengdu was already a developed city, with more than 12 million inhabitants. But in May that year a massive earthquake (8.0 magnitude) struck Sichuan, affecting the lives of millionsin the province, leaving more than 4.5 million homeless. During that summer, strong aftershocks could be felt and even those who had a home were afraid to live in them, preferring to sleep outside.

One night, during a walk after a dinner with Chinese friends, I noticed many people sleeping outside at various places. I asked one of my friends why they were living under those conditions. He told me that many people, particularly in the countryside, had lost their belongings during the earthquake, basically everything they had except for the clothes they were wearing. So, the people I saw probably came from the outskirts of Chengdu or from other parts of Sichuan, trying to rebuild their lives in the city. After his explanation, even though I was a foreigner who had recently arrived to China and couldn't speak the language, I wondered what I could do to help. One of the things I wondered about was if these people would have enough food to eat. What I found out later was that most of them were struggling to afford a proper meal.

Therefore, I decided to help them by giving them something healthy they probably couldn't afford to buy. And so, every night, I went outside, bought some apples and bananas and distributed them in the places where they were staying. Most of the times they were sleeping and I tried not to wake them, just placing the fruit by their side so that when they woke up in the morning they would have something to eat. But some of them would wake up, only to be surprised to see a foreigner distributing fruit. Looking back today, I must confess that it must have seemed really strange to them.

One day, several weeks after starting my mission, I went to visit a different part of the city which I didn't yet know. So I was strolling down the street when all of a sudden I noticed a man running towards me, vigorously waving his arms trying to get my attention. In the beginning, I thought it was nothing related with me but when he got next to me he seemed to know me from somewhere and, apparently, was happy to see me!

After what seemed like an eternity of exuberant hand gesturing, trying to understand each other without any success, he made me a signal asking me to wait for a while. He then started running in the opposite direction and got into a small shop a few meters after. Just a few moments later, he came out with another man wearing a suit, and both came toward me.The man wearing the suit spoke English.

He said he was the manager of the company where the other man had started working three weeks ago. He told me how pleased he was to meet me and how hardworking the other man was. They both looked really happy to see me, but I had no idea what was happening! At that instant, I just wondered why would a stranger tell me something like that and what was the relationship between me and that person? Besides, apart from the teachers and the students at the university, I didn't know any other Chinese. That is when it finally dawned on me: could that man be one of the homeless persons I distributed fruit before to?

I asked the manager and he told me that the man was originally from a small village near Wenchuan (where the earthquake was felt the hardest) and had lost everything during the disaster. At the village, the people who had survived gathered all the money they had left and gave it to the person with the highest education in town, thinking he would have the brightest chance to go to the big city, find a job and raise money to help them rebuild the village.

But the man soon discovered that the money was only enough for him to travel to Chengdu and survive a few days. Nevertheless, he worked long hours picking garbage for recycling, as well as other low paying jobs, earning just enough money to eat and, whenever he could, he would take a shower, clean his clothes, and go to job interviews. Unfortunately, it was very hard for him to find a job. Also, the amount of money he was being paid just wasn't enough. After 3 months of hardships, he had basically spent all the money and hadn't eaten for more than a week. He only had enough money to return to his hometown, but by doing so, he would loose his face, disappoint all the people in the village who had deposited their faith in him.

However, the two pieces of fruit he received that night just gave him enough strength to stay some more days in Chengdu, allowing him to apply to another job two days later and consequently, getting the vacant position. Also, as it seems, he was really suitable for that job, working harder than anyone else in the company, which very much pleased the company's owner, also granting a manager position to his boss (the man in the suit, who employed him).So, both men just wanted to thank me for the fortunate chance.

This overwhelming event came to be an experience that marked me profoundly in China.

Diogo Calado is a researcher and lecturer at Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and PhD candidate in Chinese internal medicine and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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