Have you ever been to a rural province in China? Have you ever helped 3,000 kids to see, and have you ever met up with 33 international volunteers whom you have never before met to do the above? Well, I can now say that I have.
Yulin is a rural city in the mid north of China. Mostly dry and sandy. The local soil is Loess, hundred+ metres thick, blown in from Mongolia centuries before, apparently, covering the entire region. Half a million people live in this remote city in China with well over a million more in the surrounding counties. Agriculture has been the staple in this region, however in more recent years coal and oil has brought prosperity to many, with accompanying development. Health professionals, like Optometrists or Ophthalmologists, are few and far between though, let alone spectacle shops. Combine this with a negative cultural attitude regarding wearing specs, and the obvious visual needs, and this sets the stage for a lot of work to be done. It is the view of many in this area that anyone wearing specs must be “defective”, so kids don’t like to wear them and parents only see their kids being dis-advantaged if they are seen to be wearing them.
OneSight is a charity supported by Luxottica and it’s employees to bring vision care and vision correction to those who cannot afford specs, or just do not have access to Optometrists . Having supported OneSight for many years now, I was given the opportunity to participate in this international clinic to China. Even given that I have skills to contribute to vision care anywhere in the world, I still feel very privileged to have been chosen for the clinic team.
36 people from 10 different countries along with local volunteers and in partnership with REAP (Regional Education Action Program), examined the eyes of 3,600 students and teachers from 26 odd schools, producing onsite 3,000 pairs of spec’s. Some to be worn by students for the first time. The reaction was at times, one of great surprise and sometimes even shock.
But before we got there, we had to endure 26 hours in 4 planes and 5 airports, before we arrived at Yulin Airport, ready for another 2 hours on a bus to a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere, but nowhere near anything else except the massive oil refinery. The reason it’s there is because there is no other decent accommodation for visiting business people and VIP’s. There reason why we were there is because it is the closest accommodation to our first school.
The days were filled with pretesting eyes, dilating pupils and checking their intra ocular pressures, and of course testing their vision and fitting them up for specs. Except those who ended up not needing too much correction, then we gave them “cool” (“coo” in Mandarin) sunglasses. We checked the kids eyes in this school as well as many who were bussed in from other schools in the province.
The food of which many of us were a bit wary, was to my taste, absolutely fantastic! Albeit unconventional, with pretty much the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, I have to admit that my internals hadn’t been this good for about 10 years! Good fresh, unprocessed, fibrous food. Beans, rice, noodles, tofu, that mashed potato stuff with the green in it, and various other unknown and indescribable food stuffs. Many of which I was not game to ask what it was. Everything went down, and nothing came back up, so all good. The same can not be said for the locally brewed alcohol. Wine and spirits, I can say they do not do well. Just as well the beer was ok, and later on we found some JW scotch at a (believe or not) 711 in Yulin.
Interesting sights along the roads we saw. Oil refinery, wind farms, solar farms, all next to each other, and a “billion” or so coal trucks. Oh and then there was the small fields of hemp growing adjacent the road. Not sure if it is legal here but no one seems to be concerned about it. Saw some “weed” growing on the footpath about 50 metres from the hotel. Very interesting, and I did not take the suggestion at the time to pocket a sample.
Working with a bunch of people from all over the world with similar skills and the same passion for helping people to see, is a quite extra-ordinary feeling. Different cultures, different languages, and different personalities, would normally be a recipe for conflict and division, but here in mid north China, I see nothing but care, commitment for the job at hand, and a bit of fun thrown in to keep things enjoyable. Makes for an amazing experience.
Then there was shopping. Oh my. The locals of which some I am sure had never seen a European person before, were very surprised and entertained by our appearance and by our definite lack of language skills, in particular when I attempted to actually pronounce something in Mandarin. Many of the shop keepers even got photo’s with us. We were like rock stars! Every where we went we attracted a crowd with many getting a sneaky phone pic, and occasionally some of the more brave locals asked for a photo with us. So cool. We felt very special in China. Funny, that when I was finally back in Sydney airport, I felt a little ordinary. Just one more Caucasian in a land of many.
NOTE : REAP (Rural Education Action Program) is a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences which conducts social policy experiments to improve educational outcomes. This project, of which we are a part, is designed to measure the impact of proper vision on school outcomes. 55% of the students in the study have imperfect vision. Only 20% of those students currently have glasses. Some of which are not correctly prescribed. The control group will receive their prescribed specs about 1 semester after the rest of the students.