Seniors view Xinjiang as their second 'home'
I have been interviewing senior Shanghai volunteers who have headed to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region six times in recent years, but it was only recently that I visited the region for the first time to see for myself how their devotion and experience are making a difference in the lives of those living there.
Before embarking on the journalistic trip on August 7, I was very curious about their experiences and why they decided to serve the people there despite their ages, family concerns and the sizzling summer heat.
The delegation, comprising 20 volunteers with an average age of 63, comes from diverse backgrounds — medicine, education, psychology and so on. Since 2003, retired volunteers from Shanghai have made 351 trips to Xinjiang under a “senior volunteer action” program that encourages professionals to contribute their wisdom to the development of China’s western regions.
I talked with 13 of them in Kashgar, Bachu and Karamay, on topics ranging from their lives in Shanghai to their volunteer experiences in Xinjiang. These chats opened the floodgate to colorful stories. I interviewed locals about the volunteers and was impressed by tales of their enthusiasm, humility and devotion, as well as the deep bonds of friendship between them and their hosts.
Among them are Shanghai zhiqing, urban residents who were sent in their youth to Xinjiang to work on farms in the 1960s; retirees bent on contributing their expertise in their remaining years and people who simply love the land of Xinjiang and want to volunteer there.
It is 67-year-old team leader and Shanghai ophthalmologist Liu Hongdi’s seventh visit. As usual, Hasiyet Abilizi, a 19-year-old Uygur patient whom she knew on ward rounds six years ago, visited her just like in the old days.
It took Abilizi five hours to travel by bus to Kashgar from Zepu County where she lives. When they hugged and called each other mother and daughter, tears welled up in their eyes. That kind of personal attachment is not uncommon among senior volunteers from Shanghai who work in remote areas of Xinjiang. They passionately commit themselves to helping people in impoverished areas without seeking any compensation. If anything, the biggest reward was when they saw smiles on the faces of people whose lives they helped brighten.
This intimate people-to-people relationship helps promote understanding and friendship between Shanghai and Xinjiang. Most of these volunteers are retired doctors and teachers intent on travelling hundreds of kilometers to offer medical services or education for free. Meals are coarse and no air conditioning is available when temperatures soar to 38 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, they played down the hosts’ concerns about their age and the health effects.
After an interview in Bachu County, I braved rugged roads for an eight-hour return trip to Kashgar, where I was surrounded by patients and teachers, each having an emotional story to tell about the Shanghai volunteers.
Their arrival also sparked a groundswell of gratitude at the Kashgar Social Welfare Home. Xu Jinyao, a 69-year-old psychological counselor from Shanghai, is affectionately called “mother Xu” by the children there.
They clung to her in a show of deep fondness when taking photos. The trust and love fostered through numerous counselling sessions runs deep despite the fact that this was only her second visit. During a session with psychologist Ren Guoqian, 63, in the Karamay Municipal People’s Hospital, a female patient burst into tears at the knowledge of Ren’s scheduled departure on August 30 and hugged her, asking her to stay.
Ren helped many patients suffering from depression, working on their suicidal thoughts, mental ordeals and rekindling their hope in life.
It’s not an easy choice for the volunteers to leave their loved ones, albeit temporarily, for the wilderness and hardships in far-flung Xinjiang. For instance, Yu Ping, a 63-year-old doctor who works at the Kashgar Disease Prevention and Control Center, said she was reluctant at first because of her 84-year-old mother who lives alone — the volunteer service lasts two and a half months.
But her mother encouraged her to go.
Shanghai ophthalmologist Chen Jianhua, 66, has been financing a Uygur student’s studies for three years. On the recent trip, she was assigned to the Karamay Municipal People’s Hospital, but her biggest wish was to be stationed in Kashgar because the student she sponsors lives there. The retired doctor even forgot her birthday, until patients started signing birthday song for her.
These seniors have formed lasting friendships with locals and are often invited to homes and family celebrations such as weddings. Many of them said they have come to view Xinjiang as their second “home” and locals as their family.
They not only shared their expertise in Xinjiang, but also served as ambassadors of friendship. The people-to-people exchange between Shanghai and Xinjiang have deepened their passion and devotion.
The author is a senior reporter on Shanghai Daily’s Metro desk.