2022-05-13 23:24ByTaoXing
Beijing Review 2022年10期

By Tao Xing

Smooth skin, clear eyes and a sweet dimpled smile: meet Li Daifeng, aka Xiao Dai. The 17-year-old ocarina player, who lives in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, is autistic, but this doesn’t stop the teen and his mother from streaming their daily ongoings on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

“Sharing life’s ups and downs has become a part of our routine,” Xiao Dai’s mother Hu Shili told Beijing Review.

Then there’s Luo Qingsheng, a university student of traditional Chinese painting in Jiangxi Province’s Jingdezhen, a city nicknamed the Porcelain Capital. He, too, found his voice across an assortment of platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), known as China’s answer to Instagram.

Losing his right leg in a traffic accident at the age of 4, Luo now works as a part-time model. He uses his social media stardom to channel a mix of sponsored wardrobes and personal styles to attract audiences. His colorful prosthetic limb lends him that modish edge, leading many to comment on his posts. “I decorated it with stickers myself,” Luo told Beijing Review.

These two young online phenomena and their families are prime examples of self-acceptance. They hold no fear of the unknown and confidently embrace their being different in artistic ways to inspire the public.

Today, Xiao Dai is a member of the Shenzhen Ai Te Troupe. Founded in 2013, the musical ensemble for people with autism also functions as a platform where families with loved ones on the spectrum can come together to share and support each other.

Ai Te is a homonym for “autism team,” initiator of the troupe Sun Lili explained. Her 38-year-old son Sun Shouning, also known as Beibei, is also a member.

According to Sun, Beibei only started learning the piano in his 20s, but immediately presented a great flair for the instrument. He passed his grade-10 (advanced level) exam within five years and even landed a part-time job playing the piano in a hotel. During this time, Sun got to know other families dealing with similar issues and initiated the idea of bringing them together. Xiao Dai and his mother Hu Shili joined in 2017.

Ai Te now has evolved from six to 12 participants and further provides specialized training to more than 30 others, Sun said. Most of the mothers had sacrificed their careers to take care of the children, and would grasp any opportunity to let their children indulge in their interests and perform on stage. “Autistic children, too, can do music; very well, even,” both mothers said.

Thanks to a lot of social support, Ai Te has been able to move its rehearsals from the members’ living rooms into a cultural center, according to Sun. Typically, the members play together at least three times a week.

“Xiao Dai and I rely on one another,” Hu said. “This is the general bond between parents and children like us.”

“This is the reality of things and we have accepted that. The world comes with many different types of people,” the mothers added.

Luo, too, has come to terms with his everyday life.“When I was growing up, I sometimes struggled being different and would lose myself in bouts of depression and melancholia,”he said. But gradually he managed to make his way out of the shadows.

“Today, I keep a positive attitude,”he continued. Modeling pictures aside, Luo also shares some of his more“regular” moments on social media, including posts of him painting ceramics or even surfing the waves.

Xiao Dai has attracted 261,000 followers since his mother first began sharing his life on Douyin in late 2019. “The fact he managed to acquire such a large following in a relatively short period of time is partially thanks to Ai Te’s account given it would share many of his performances and tag us,” Hu said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the troupe for a long time couldn’t perform live and so the parents decided to post their recitals on social media. Netizens were impressed.

“Xiao Dai has become somewhat of an idol; he also looks at Douyin with me,” Hu added. Whether it’s at school or at the mall, many fans want to take pictures with him; Xiao Dai is willing to snap a shot—albeit slightly shyly so.

Though his following as of yet doesn’t bring him any direct income, it does trigger traffic. This leads more people to see first-hand the undertakings of the differently abled and potentially can generate more economic support for their activities. And Ai Te has the option to raise money on social media to sponsor its further development.

Lest we forget, China’s social media is widely known to be a hotspot for e-commerce.

“Some fans have suggested Xiao Dai sell or advertise goods or services on Douyin. It might be difficult for him, but we’re considering having a go,” Hu said.

Luo amassed 40,000 followers on Little Red Book and 130,000 followers on Douyin within months.

Growing up in Baise, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Luo has been receiving help from the local government and related organizations ever since the tragedy occurred. “The government paid for my first prosthetic limb,” Luo said, adding that his latest one was subsidized by his university.

Luo will be graduating this summer, and he’s already secured a sales job at a bank in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. “After working hours, I will continue my practices in the arts and fashion,” he said.

Some of Ai Te members’ mothers harbor a sense of anxiety about the future. “Very often, high school graduation equals unemployment for kids on the spectrum,” Hu said. Some companies are able to provide positions for people with autism; in return they can get a tax reduction according to government regulations. Yet vacancies remain few and far between.

At this point, Xiao Dai still receives some 50,000 yuan ($7,920.8) in subsidized rehabilitation training from the government every year, but once he comes of age, the costs will largely have to be borne by his family.

According to Dami&Xiaomi, an online platform for autistic children, social and government assistance for adults on the spectrum is still relatively non-existent. But the fact China is paying more attention to the group is in itself encouraging.

“One step at a time; let’s cherish today and see what happens tomorrow,”Hu concluded. Being different can, in the end, help make a difference. BR