From Exclusive to Inclusive, David Goes Universal

Manling China Plus Published: 2019-07-08 10:44:06
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By Manling, China Plus Host

When I was told that my next interviewee, David Lai, was a young blind pianist whose talent has won domestic and international acclaim, I was uncertain about how close I’d be able to get to him to dig into his life for a profile story. Despite having worked in radio for several decades, this was my first interview with a blind person, or more accurately, with a person with a physical disability.

Episode 1

Lai Jiajun presents a solo piano recital. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

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Episode 2

A search for his name in our news room archive brought up a report on this rising pianist. Colleagues who had been in touch with him assured me that the 23-year-old had a sunny personality, an easy going attitude, and spoke fluent English. But still I felt uneasy, because deep down I still wondered how I would succeed in getting an inspiring and unique story for our listeners as I tried to sensitively ask him about his disability.

Lai Jiajun takes an interview from China Plus. [Photo: China Plus]

We met in the corridor outside the studio for a brief chat, before I guided him inside and adjusted his microphone. I caught myself gesturing in the air with my hands, and tried to fight my instinct to rely on visual cues and instead use his way of understanding. At that moment I wanted so desperately to communicate telepathically with him. Luckily, David’s relaxed attitude rescued me from an awkward protective self-consciousness.

I started by asking him about the importance of international exchanges of young musicians. His friendship and performances with the famous Austrian pianist and composer Jorg Demus has been written about in the media. Jorg even wrote a short piece of music for him called “Song of Love”, which he dedicated to David on stage in the summer of 2016. According to David, Jorg was touched by the simplicity of his approach to the piano. Simplicity is the word David uses himself to define his style. He believes that a performance is about expression, and not about showing off.

Lai Jiajun and Austrian pianist Jorg Demus perform a piano duet. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

Aside from his visit to Hong Kong University where he met Jorg, David had also been to Singapore and Japan to perform. These trips were organized by middle schools and high schools along with local federations for people with a disability. When he uttered the word “disabled,” I realized that David was the first to use that word in our interview. I felt relieved at having avoided the potential awkwardness that can accompany bringing it up in conversation.

Once we touched upon visual impairment, I felt relieved and become more relaxed in asking questions. David said he didn’t mind people using the word blind. It’s direct, he said. I asked how he and his parents came to terms with his blindness. David was born premature, and lost his sight because he had stayed in an incubator too long. He hasn’t had a chance to see a glimpse of light since he was born, so with no point of comparison, the word darkness has no meaning to him. He disagrees with people who say blind people live in a world of darkness. It’s too negative, he said. When asked to use colors to describe his world, David said he lives in a world with a changing palette. I was deeply touched by what he saw in this world and how he used his rich imagination and vocabulary to paint such a wonderful picture for us.

Lai Jiajun and his parents pose for a photo. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

At one point during the interview, David suddenly looked distracted, and turned his head as if he was searching for something. It soon happened again, and David explained that he could hear a strange sound coming from outside the studio. I couldn’t hear anything outside our quiet, well-insulated cocoon. I’d heard that, compared to sighted people, blind people often develop hearing that’s better attuned to capturing the tiniest of sounds. Some people might look down at a blind person like David, and pity what they see as his loss. As a radio host, someone who makes a living out of sound, this incident made me reflect on my own complacency about my ability to experience the world around me.

When he was little, David recognized that he was different. He once asked his parents whether his condition could be cured, but when he got a no for an answer, he accepted who he was, and didn’t show the kind of emotional trauma that some people might expect. However, his parents responded differently. At first, they were struck with grief and disbelief. Fortunately, David’s father came out of the shock a stronger person. He quit his job and embarked on a journey of no return, determined to raise a healthy child who, like every other child, could pursue his own dreams and live a happy and self-sufficient life.

Lai Jiajun presents a solo piano recital. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

When he was a toddler, David was brought out into the world to interact and connect with people. During one of these daily excursions, a toy keyboard and a piano at a friend’s home came onto his horizon. His sharp sensitivity to sound and talent for understanding and remembering melodies was noticed by his parents, who came to believe that music would be their son’s future. According to David, since he was 4 years old, music has been his ever-growing passion and purpose in life.

Aside from his parents, there were three other people in David’s life who played a major role in David’s development as a musician. One is the piano shop owner who allowed him to frequent his shop and play with the keyboards to his heart’s content. He donated a piano to the family, the first one that David owned. He later upgraded the old piano to one that could match the young lad’s growing talent, an expression of generosity to a family that needed public support to pay for daily necessities.

Another person David feels especially grateful to is Professor Zhou Guangren at the Central Conservatory of Music, China’s highest-level conservatory. David’s father tracked her down from the details on the cover of a CD. Touched by his father’s efforts to reach out, Professor Zhou agreed to meet David in person. It was to be David’s first and most important interview: When it was over, Professor Zhou concluded that he was a boy with talent. She agreed to find David a teacher at the school on the condition that the family moved to Beijing from their home in Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province. David’s father agreed without hesitation, and Professor Zhou kept her promise. Since then she’s remained a beacon of light in David’s career.

Lai Jiajun and Professor Zhou Guangren (R) pose for a photo. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

The third person was his close friend, the Austrian pianist Jorg Demus. David was introduced to him after he was invited to perform at Hong Kong University. The 87 year old and the teenage boy struck a chord and remained friends. David described his ties with Jorg as “Friendship without borders,” which is his interpretation of “wang nian jiao” (忘年交), a Chinese expression that describes the kind of rare and deeply cherished relationship between two people from different generations. A few days after our interview, David texted me to say that Jorg had died. David said his death was a great loss to the world’s community of musicians as well as to him personally. His elderly friend had been “a living history book” and “a walking knowledge base” of music, and although he would miss him, he said he was comforted that he had the privilege to call Jorg his friend.

David also received constant help from people he came across from all walks of life, including those from charity and government organizations, and the school teachers and classmates who strived to ensure that he could play an active role in and outside of the classroom.

Meeting the right people at the right moment in life is good fortune. Was this good fortune the result of random chance? “Not really!” he said. Perhaps, David answered, it was because of his personality, his open mindedness toward new things, and his willingness to engage with people. Besides these, David has inherited two other useful traits from his parents. His down-to-earth attitude toward life comes from his mom, a very practical woman who never stops earning at least a meager income to support the family. His persistence and perseverance comes from his dad, who used to work as a group leader in the quality control office of a factory. Ever since the doctors told David’s parents that he was blind, his father has never been shaken in his determination to fight for equality and each and every opportunity for his son.

Is it possible for others to embark on a similar path to success as David? We have witnessed the introduction of barrier-free vehicles, wheelchair services are available in major public areas like railway stations and airports, and more and more people, especially young students, are keen to help people with a disability to cross busy streets. While writing this story, I heard about the first film to be made in China for blind people. “Spirit Traveler” started screening in cinemas on April 1. It is a milestone on the journey of China’s film industry towards catering to the need of blind people for popular entertainment.

Lai Jiajun graduates from the Central Conservatory of Music. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

In 2015, an important step was taken in the reform of China’s university entrance exam system, the gaokao. A braille edition of the test was introduced. David became one of the trailblazers when he sat the new exam and succeeded in becoming a student at one of the country’s most exclusive academies. David said that before the braille exam was available, blind people could only choose from a very limited number of colleges specially designed for the blind to receive higher education. As a member of the class of 2019 at the Central Conservatory of Music, he’ll soon finish his undergraduate study and go on to pursue a higher degree. As for whether he’ll go abroad or stay in China, that’s a decision he’s yet to make, and he’s leaving his options open.

David said inclusive education in China is now at a budding stage, and when more and more people have the courage to apply, when more people believe in the value of education for people with a disability, he is confident that more blind people will follow their dreams and go to university so they can live their best life, just like he does now.

Disabled people need special assistance. But don’t we all need to choose different options to get through life? He used an analogy to explain this idea. Taking the example of our interview, David told me that he came by subway. He pointed out that if he had a car, he and his father could have driven. Or they could have walked, if he was so inclined and it was convenient. Life is all about choosing the best option available from the ones that are on offer.

Lai Jiajun and China Plus host Manling (R) pose for a photo. [Photo: courtesy of Lai Jiajun]

Talking with David on the phone, seeing his fingers dancing across his phone’s keyboard as he types messages, and interviewing him in the studio showed that there were no barriers when it came to me communicating with this promising young man.

David’s parting advice: Be more open minded, and invest in something that you enjoy. This is his message, especially for people who have a disability.

My interview with David was a wakeup call that journalists can and should do our share to make our work more inclusive. Our interview will serve as a reminder for me to ensure that I am being inclusive when I cover the news and tell stories, because as Huffington Post journalist Wendy Lu, who was born with vocal cord paralysis, once said: “As a journalist, I'm thinking, every story has a disability angle.”

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