It is early morning at the Tang home. The kids are not awake yet, and everything is quiet except for the subtle clink of dishes as Chen Qin Qin, who goes by the English name, Kathy prepares a simple breakfast of rice porridge with pumpkin. It is another hot day in late July, on the outskirts of the city of Chengdu, a place that bakes in the Sichuan basin during summer months, and chills to the bone with its humid like cold temperatures in the winter. The table we sit at is shoved up against the wall in the main room of their modest apartment. Light streams in from the porch window, across the lone teal couch and a few small bins of toys; plastic cups saved for stacking, duplo blocks and stacks of children's books.
Neither Tang Ming Hua (who goes by Jake) or Kathy are originally from Chengdu. Jake grew up in a town a few hours from the city, and Kathy is from a countryside village in Zheijiang province, near Shanghai. "My parents were from a small village, so you know, they wanted a boy. My mother had four children in five years- she was very fruitful. But she was always hiding from the Family Planning officials. She was like a guerrilla fighter." The two met while Jake was interviewing for an educational job in Shanghai which he failed to get, but came away instead with Kathy's phone number, and a few years later they were married.
I've worked with Jake for a few years at a local school where he taught varying grades in the elementary. His son, Andy was about a year old when I first met him, and everyone talked about what an attentive father Jake was. I saw his wife a few times from a distance, at large group gatherings, and she was strikingly beautiful. We all wondered how Jake had landed such a treasure. As I was around them more and more in the few years that followed, the observations I had heard from others proved true and then some. Jake is one of the most involved, dedicated fathers I know in China. He himself seems like an insatiable learner, always reading everything he sees in English aloud, under his breath, and willing to soak up any new bits of knowledge. You can see how he tries to pass this passion on to his children as he tirelessly talks with them, asking questions, repeating phrases, practicing and teaching, pouring out anything he can think of so as almost not to waste a moment or breath if there's an opportunity to learn. And it shows. Within minutes of spending time with five year old Andy, you will hear tidbits of facts ranging from the feathers of a peacock to how to create a calendar.
We finish our porridge, and the kids are still asleep in the heat. School is out and the mornings start a bit later than usual. Kathy motions for me to tiptoe in and see the kids sleeping, stretched out on their bamboo mats meant to keep them cool, hands pushed up against their limp, plump cheeks, oblivious to the world.
We talk for awhile, and the kids begin to stir. They have a few minutes to rub their eyes, before morning routines start with face washing, brushing teeth, and getting ready for breakfast. Contrary to many Chinese households, Jake and Kathy do not have help at home. Neither of their mothers live with them, and that was a decision they both made with conviction, though it goes against the norms and expectations. Kathy stays at home and takes care of the kids full time, with no house helper to assist with cleaning or childcare or cooking. Jake works full time as a school teacher, taking Andy with him each day and spending most of his evenings and weekends with his family. "Right now I come straight home from work and just spend time with my family. I don't take my phone with me, or use my phone most of the time I am with them."
For many families in China, this is not the case. With demands from companies to work incredible hours, and more often than not the need to find work outside the city they live in, many men are away from their families the majority of the time, returning home on weekends or for a few days each month, or just spending much of their time outside of formal work hours attending dinners and drinking parties with colleagues and bosses, as can often be an expectation one is required to meet if you want to do well.
Watching Jake with his kids as they stumble from their rooms, assisting in teeth brushing, gathering little Candy into his arms as she takes her bottle, playing silly games to encourage walking and gross motor skills, talking over plans for the day with his son, it's starkly evident that his priority is right here at home.
When you look at the Tang children, there is Andy with his inquisitive eyes and determined personality, and there is Candy, pudgy and adorable with a scrunched up laugh that tickles everyone who hears it, and there are those unmistakable almond shaped eyes that tell another story. One of Down Syndrome and all the children of China who have come into this world with that extra wonderful chromosome.
"When Jake called me, a few weeks after Candy was born, with the results from the doctor, and told me the news, I cried. Then I prayed and asked God to take away all my bad feelings. Two days later, wo mei you baoguo, meiyou huanyi, meiyou shengqi, meiyou shangxin I had no complaint, no doubt, no anger, no sadness. He gave me peace...."
Because Down Syndrome is still largely stigmatized, especially in rural areas, making the decision to keep a child with this special need is in the minority. But Jake and Kathy never batted an eye. Theirs was not a question of why or what to do, but how they could do the very best for their precious and unique daughter. For Jake, it has become just another way to pour his dedication of learning into a child who needs him. He doesn't seem to have stars in his eyes, or an unreasonable expectation for what could happen with Candy, but neither does he set his hopes low for her. He wants to give her the best and most fertile ground he can, so that she can grow.
"Still," Kathy confessed, as she peeled potatoes over the small sink in their closet sized kitchen, "I must face my daughter all day, every day. And there was a time when I prayed a lot. I wanted God to show me the future, what will my daughter become? Later, as I was reading my Bible, He gave me James 1:6-8. When you ask for wisdom, do not doubt. I put Candy in God's hands. He will take care of her. He will help me."
This kind of rare perspective, that sees this child as imageo dei despite her special needs, that doesn't see her as a hopeless case or a waste of educational time, is like a beautifully powerful force on the streets of China, and within the personal influences of a neighborhood. "When I bring my kids out to play, most of the time it is all the grandmothers and a few ayi's with the children. When they see me, they usually just say things about what a good father I am, or they may ask some questions about Candy, like, why can't she walk yet? I try to answer them and show that she is the same as other kids, it may just take her a little longer. Chinese people hide their feelings, so they don't ask too much, but I can see the look of surprise sometimes. So we try to tell them things, and explain her condition. It's good for her if they understand more."
Later as I left, Candy waving goodbye and Andy eagerly pulling on his father's hand begging to go swimming, the door closed and I thought of the incredible love and all the challenges that were wrapped up behind that door. The supports here for special needs children are slim, and the cultural and economic pressures that push against the health and strength of family life are many. I whispered my own prayer of blessing over this family, tucked away like a small hidden stone in a pile of endless rocks, yet shining like a glowing ember of hope that could spread like a wildfire.