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Rebuilding A Life Shattered By An Earthquake In China

Meihua and her parents shared a room at a temporary school following the earthquake. She's shown here with her mother in 2009, a year after the quake.
Andrea Hsu
Meihua and her parents shared a room at a temporary school following the earthquake. She's shown here with her mother in 2009, a year after the quake.

Editor's Note: NPR's Melissa Block was on a reporting trip to southwest China in May 2008 when a massive earthquake hit, leaving some 90,000 dead or missing. Now, as she wraps up her time hostingAll Things Considered , she reconnected with a girl, now a young woman, who has overcome great obstacles since that traumatic event.

You can also see this story in Chinese.

One year after the earthquake, I went back to Sichuan Province and met a girl who gave me great hope. Huang Meihua was a feisty, funny 12-year-old at the time.

Here's how she described herself:

"First of all, I'm quite pretty," she said. "I'm smart. And I can make you laugh. If I listed all of my good qualities, it would take more than three days and three nights."

She sat in her wheelchair as we talked. Both of her legs were amputated above the knee. They were crushed when her school collapsed around her in the earthquake.

She was trapped for hours. And what was going through her head during that ordeal?

"I was thinking, my legs are fine. After I get out I'm going to write an essay about this and get a good grade," she said.

Today she's 18 and is about to start her last year of high school. She goes to an English-language school in the city of Dujiangyan. Her parents live there, too, to help care for her.

"She's physically handicapped, but that doesn't mean she's mentally disabled," her father, Huang Sheqin, told me back in 2009. "The most important thing for us is to find her a very good school."

I chatted with Meihua by Skype on Wednesday, and she spoke in both English and Mandarin.

She told me six years ago that she really didn't like wearing her prosthetic legs. They were heavy, and hurt. And they're still giving her trouble.

"I waited three years for new prosthesis," she said Wednesday. "Now they gave me a new one but now the prosthesis is still not suitable for my legs."

So she uses her wheelchair, which is also a problem when her classes are up three flights of stairs.

"My mother carries me and the wheelchair and I can help a little bit," she added.

Her College Dreams

While her father, a migrant worker, only made it through ninth grade and her mother never went to school, Meihua has big dreams.

Her goal is to go to college in the U.S. or Canada, though she has no idea how she would pay for it. She's taking AP classes and studying hard. She took the SATs in June, but she's not happy with how she did, so she'll take them again.

"Before, I really wanted to go to a famous school — a Top 10 school," she said. "But then, after thinking about it, I decided I have to be realistic and try for something that's good but not a top school. I really want to study medicine. So when I go to graduate school, I can aim higher."

I asked her how her parents felt about her dream.

"My parents think it's not that realistic that this little girl from the countryside could to go to college in the U.S.," she said. "But my mother still wants me to make the most of every opportunity. As a disabled person in China, it's very difficult to be treated equally. I may not even be able to find a job. Somebody told my parents that being disabled in Western countries means fewer problems and more independence. They want me to be independent and to have a bright future."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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