Monday, August 21, 2006

An Ordinary Life

I always look forward to articles from the Los Angeles Times' Ching-Ching Ni. Ni is a miniaturist in a sense — she stays away from "big" topics like China's rise and the transformation of its cities and instead focuses on the stories we seldom read about these days - "ordinary" people often left behind by China's economic miracle, whose lives when examined closely are anything but ordinary.

Her piece today is no exception.

Ni tells the story of He Tianwu, born a peasant in 1962, whose journey to survive and care for his family took him from the fields to odd jobs to one of China's wretched coal mines:
China's coal pits are the deadliest on Earth, claiming thousands of lives a year. The nation's insatiable appetite for energy has created a proliferation of illegal mines, whose authorities pay little heed to worker safety or benefits.

He didn't have time to understand that. What he needed was a paycheck. Little did he know that after living expenses and fees were deducted, he would make only a few dollars a month. The meager salary was rarely paid on time.

After the late shift on a hot July day in 1992, He's foreman asked for a volunteer to work overtime to make up for the production delay caused by a disabled coal cart pulley.

"I needed the extra money, so I said, 'I'll do it,' " He recalled.

Around midnight, He was in the pit loading coal when the steel cable that moved the carts to the surface became stuck again. As He pulled on it, it suddenly jerked into action, yanking his arm so hard that his body flew 10 feet into the air before he was slammed back down. He instantly lost consciousness.

When He awoke two days later, he was in a hospital bed. His left arm was gone, amputated from the shoulder down.

Despite the accident, He begged for his job back. In a country where potential employees are passed over for being too short or too ugly, He knew that he would have trouble finding new work as a disabled man. His boss refused, gave him $500 and told him to go.

On the crowded train home, a thief sliced open He's backpack and walked away with half the bills he had hidden there.

While He was at home recovering, a coal-mining accident claimed the life of his younger brother.

"He was only 23, never even got married," He said.

His two other brothers, both farmers-turned-miners, couldn't afford to give up the deadly trade. Falling rocks broke one brother's shinbone. A floorboard collapse crushed the other's ribs.

"Our family gave so much to China's coal mines, but we never got much in return," He said.

But there was no time to sit still. He began practicing digging dirt with one arm. Neighbors watched him fill part of a local riverbed with sand and plant corn that grew so well it became the envy of the village.

Then a flood ruined his harvest.
There's much more family tragedy here, as well as an amazing denoument — spurned by potential employers in Shanghai, turned down even by an organization aiding the disabled, He transfromed himself into a one-armed porter working on one of China's most treacherous peaks:
It takes about seven minutes to ride the cable car up Huashan; on foot, the trip can take more than 10 hours. Some passages are so steep that climbers must get on all fours and cling to a metal chain that rattles against the side of granite cliffs soaring 7,000 feet into the clouds.

For six years, He has scaled Huashan nearly every day, balancing a straw basket loaded with about 100 pounds of supplies for people at the top.

"On my first day I carried about 50 pounds and made $1.80," He said with a proud smile. "Afterward my back and legs were so sore I could hardly move. But they paid me cash right away. That's better than any job I've ever had."

What little money He made he sent home. During a visit, his younger son, He Xihai, 12 at the time, hiked up the mountain and saw how his father earned a living.

"I was on all fours and I was petrified," said He Xihai, now 17. "I asked my father, 'How do you do it?' and he said, 'One step at a time.'
Needless to say, you should go read the rest.

I've posted some of Ni's other stories here, here, and here.

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