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We began our week in Shanghai, spent the middle of the week volunteering at various schools, and finished it off with a regular day at No. 9. And on Monday, we’ll be leaving for Yunnan—a province in the far western reaches of China. This week in particular, we’ve come into contact with so many different aspects of China that it’s difficult for me to reconcile everything that we’ve seen.

About half of our group went to Shanghai for our personal weekend. I knew before I went that Shanghai is one of the foremost cities in China—in fact, the largest city in China by population—but I was still awed by just how clean and modern it was. I guess some part of me had developed a model for Chinese cities from what I’ve seen/heard about China. As much as I hate to admit it, it basically involved smoggy yellow skylines, crowded neon street signs, and the odor of street food/cigarettes/produce—somehow other than a Western city. It’s funny how stereotypes and assumptions can sneak up on you. But the parts of Shanghai we visited—historical sites, the Bund, Nanjing Road, random malls (there are malls on literally every corner), the World Exposition Center, and of course, the subway—were better kept and more beautiful than most cities I’ve been to in America.

When we returned to Zhuhai, it was time for the 9th graders to take the Zhongkao (an examination all 9th graders in China must take in order to enter high school). The stakes are high for these students and their parents; the grade a student receives on this exam will determine whether or not a he/she can attend an academic high school, and the quality of that high school. If they don’t make the cut, they will attend a vocational high school, which will be the last of their education. Only the top 30% will be able to attend an academic high school and have the chance to attend university. And so, No. 9 was locked down for the three days of the Zhongkao (Tuesday through Thursday), and the 7th/8th graders were on break. My host sister and many other students I know were expected to attend review classes or study for finals during these days though. And so, during these three days we performed volunteer work at three different schools during the afternoon: a school for disabled children, a vocational school, and a university.

It was interesting to interact with these three very different groups of students, but I think the visit to the school for disabled children remains strongest in my memory. There seemed to be a variety of age ranges at this school (I think I saw both middle and high school aged students) but life continued as usual here during the Zhongkao. Nobody at this school would be taking it.

At some point before the bus ride there, Hsiao-mei reminded us of the status of the disabled in China and explained why she was bringing us to see them. (We called it volunteer work and the children were very happy to see us, but like all of DukeEngage, it was as much for our education as it was for theirs.) They are worth nothing to society, she emphasized. They aren’t expected to accomplish anything. During the trip itself, I thought back to our trip to the center for autistic children. The center for autistic children was essentially a single-story house which had been re-purposed into an education center. This was a proper school, but I couldn’t help but remember what the autism center’s director said. She had told us that disability and developmental disorders received very little funding and public attention in China, and I wondered if the same was true here. From Hsiao-mei’s words, I suspected it was.

China’s economy and technology has certainly made large advances in the last half-century, and from what I saw in Shanghai, it looks like a well-developed country, too. But from what we’ve seen and heard at the center for autistic children and the school for disabled children, I wonder if its sense of social responsibility has developed at the same rate as well.