I’ve been on the hunt for the past couple of months for a meaningful service opportunity for my students at school to engage in the local Chengdu community. I contacted hospitals, volunteer organizations and orphanages but timing and distance seemed to always get in the way of setting a date. Finally, at my wits end I contacted a friend at the U.S. Consulate here in Chengdu and received the location of an “Old Folks Home” west of the city that would be very excited to have 11 beginning strings students play a short concert for them. Sold.
But then I thought to myself, old folks home? In China? I had visions of Grandma and Grandpa abandoned by their families (isn’t China a culture of strong filial piety?), hooked up to machines and lying on the floor of a dirty hallway. Drastic, I know. But I thought it would be best to check this place out before I permanently scar my students from performing any other service oriented concerts for the rest of their lives.
So I suckered Phil into visiting the home ahead of time with me, labeling it as an “adventure.” After negotiating with a cabbie to take us and wait for us to return (which is an instant sign of how far out of town this place is), we then negotiated buckets of rain, many u-turns and some unnamed country roads and finally found ourselves at the Hetang Huacun Elderly Home.
According to one blog I read in researching nursing home facilities in China geriatric care is a growing industry but, according to the 2008 population census in China, with more than 13% of the population over the age of 60, and a capacity of geriatric care totaling about 3 million beds, the need is rapidly growing beyond its supply.
Other factors to this problem are in play including China’s one-child policy, leaving one child to take care of two parents. Another main influence to the standard of elderly care is the great rural-urban migration of the Chinese population, which has involved over 10% of the population of China, and includes mostly young people, leaving older generations at home to take care of the children.
China has many plans for social welfare for the elderly though. These include a law allowing for parents to sue their children for neglect, as well as more training for private and government run facilities that extend benefits to seniors with and without living family members.
But I digress, the Hetang Huacun Old Folks Home was lovely. On very green grounds on a quiet plot of land the home looked similar to a quaint Chinese hotel. The head of the home welcomed Phil and I excitedly and we quickly worked out the details of the event. The residence felt very similar to a nursing home in America, with a crafts corner, mah jong tables, families visiting and old folks wondering what purpose these young people had in their visit. The only thing missing was the distinct smell of old people (which was replaced by the smell of Chinese farming – I’m not sure which one I would prefer).
On the day our students arrived the seniors were all in their chairs and watched as we awkwardly unpacked our stands and instruments. With the help of a translator we went through the formalities of thanks and welcome. The students were courageous despite being terrified (as I was when I was a kid) of “old people.” They played a short 30 minute concerts for the residents, the residents shared some song and dances with us, hands were shaken, pictures were taken and hopefully the students broadened their perspective and popped their expat bubble, even if it was for an afternoon.