Ming Canaday at the Great Wall

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The Unstoppable Duck

“You’d see people dying every few months, and they were put into little black garbage bags and you’d see them be dragged away,” Ming Canaday, BA ’13 said of the eight years she spent growing up in a Chinese orphanage. “That’s unhealthy for a child to see that all the time, that kind of brutality and finiteness to life.”

For Canaday, childhood was a daily battle to avoid becoming another statistic. She was only three or four years old when her biological parents abandoned her on the streets of Chenzhou, China, due to her polio and scoliosis. Unable to walk and barely able to fend for herself, she was all alone in a city that would rank as the USA’s second largest were it on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. After a day or two of homelessness, a stranger picked Canaday up and took her to the Chenzhou Welfare Center, a day she still remembers clearly.

“I was splashing in the water in this little tub, and they were trying to wash me because I was so dirty,” said Canaday. “I was in this yellow and white striped outfit, and crying uncontrollably and being very defiant. Somebody handed me this bowl of rice and I tossed it on the ground. I was very angry and upset.”

The next eight years of Canaday’s life were spent in the orphanage. Worldwide, life expectancy for orphans is less than 30 years; in China specifically, as recently as thirty years ago more than half of all orphans died within their first year. Living in the section of the orphanage specifically set aside for children with disabilities, death was as much a fact of life as roasting oranges on an old wood stove during the holidays, or watching fireworks and eating dumplings at New Year.

“It was not a home where you’d feel relaxed, knowing no matter what you did somebody loved you,” she said. “You had to be good, be disciplined, do your chores, and stay vigilant all the time. You could never put your guard down; you had to be aware that nobody’s really watching out for you, and you had to watch out for yourself.”

The orphans with disabilities did not go to school, so Canaday spent her days helping with chores or, as she says, “sitting around in dreary boredom.” The children fought with each other, ignored by the caretakers unless the misbehaving affected them; on one occasion, Canaday was hit with a chair after stealing meat from a cupboard.

“We resented this kind of treatment, but we couldn’t do anything to stop it,” she said in an article published in November in ChinaFile.

Ming Canaday in the orphanage
Ming Canaday (red and white skirt) in the Chenzhou Welfare Center. Chunchun, whom Canaday affectionately calls her "little sister," is in the wheelchair to her left.

Ming’s life turned around after eight years in the orphanage when David Slansky, director of international programs at Hillsboro-based adoption agency Journeys of the Heart, visited the Chenzhou Welfare Center. He wrote an article about what he saw there—an article that was read by Pamela and Clifton Canaday, a couple living 6,400 miles away in Sheridan, Oregon. The Canadays decided to adopt Ming after reading about her, and somewhere near the age of 11 she left China to move to the United States with her new family.

But leaving behind an orphanage where the threat of violence was ever present, to move to bucolic Sheridan, on the banks of the meandering Yamhill River, was not as easy in practice as it sounds in theory.

“Nobody spoke Chinese, and the vast majority of people were white—it was like looking at aliens,” Canaday said. “It was so different and so foreign, and I felt like my whole body was rejecting it.”

Due to her scoliosis and polio, Canaday was breaking down physically as well as emotionally. Doctors determined she needed an operation on her spine to ensure she lived to adulthood, so her parents arranged for the surgery and stayed with her in the hospital while she recovered. To help their new daughter settle in, they also bought her DVDs of the Chinese dramas she watched in the orphanage to help with the homesickness and keep her in touch with her heritage; while sleeping, Canaday would dream she was back in China with the characters from the shows. With Pamela and Clifton’s help she began to adjust to her new life, and soon enrolled in school for the first time, as an eleven-year-old fifth-grader.

Illiterate after not receiving schooling in the orphanage, Canaday taught herself to read and write Mandarin while also learning English. Her studies came in handy when the time came to apply to go to college; one of the few schools she applied to was the University of Oregon, with its Chinese Flagship Program, but needed to be able to read and write Mandarin in order to study in the program.

“There was a couple of years of memorizing flash cards, sitting in front of a computer for hours looking at characters, and then hand writing the characters making sure I could pass the written portion,” Canaday said.

The Chinese Flagship Program awarded Canaday a partial scholarship, and she enrolled at the UO in 2009. During her four years in Eugene she earned three degrees—Chinese, Asian Studies, and International Studies—and added a graduate certificate in disability studies from the City University of New York. Canaday took approximately 20 credits each semester, and added three study abroad trips to China for good measure.

“Studying was my priority, and everything else came second,” she said. “I had a very good experience. Lots of homework, lots of reading, lots of classes, lots of stressing out—but that’s just me. Most people at the UO seemed much more chill than me.”

Ming participating in UO student activities

Fun in college may have come second to academics, but Canaday still managed to leave her mark on the UO’s social scene as a student.

Community service? She worked on roofing and house painting projects in California through Rotaract and Habitat for Humanity.

Athletics? As a member of the Adaptive Ducks wheelchair racing team, she finished seventh in the 100-meter and 1,500-meter races at the Pac-10 wheelchair championships during the 2010 Oregon Relays.

Student organizations? China-born Canaday’s curiosity led her to join the Black Student Union to learn more about a culture she was unfamiliar with. “I absolutely loved joining the Black Student Union and getting involved,” she said. “With Oregon being a very ‘white’ state, I enjoyed being immersed and meeting black people. It was a very different experience. Everyone was very nice—they put cornrows on me and I participated in a lot of events.”

After graduating from the UO, Canaday kept herself busy by working as a linguist for TransPerfect, as a volunteer recruiter for the Community Service Society, and as a Disability Rights Division intern for Human Rights Watch, where she attended UN conferences, wrote articles, and helped with research.

From there, she headed across the Atlantic Ocean and enrolled at the London School of Economics— ranked the fourth-best university in the world by the QS World University Rankings—to get a master of science degree in the history of international relations. While in London, Canaday began playing basketball and traveled throughout Europe, and even made a trip to South Africa where she studied emerging powers in Africa and conducted interviews for her dissertation on the changing attitudes towards Chinese migrants in South Africa.

“It was a really good experience,” Canaday said. “Lots of work, but again, that could just be me. School has never come naturally to me.”

On her way to the UO's commencement

Canaday received her master’s in 2016 and recently moved to DC where, like many recent graduates, she is looking for a job. Ideally, she’d like to work in the State Department or Foreign Service, while also serving as an advocate for the disabled. Though she hasn’t yet found a job to help with the former goal, she’s already been hard at work on the latter for some time.

Five years ago, she designed a curriculum for a vocational school in China to teach the English language and American culture to students with disabilities. The following year, she translated foster care evaluations for the Amity Foundation, an organization which promotes education, social services, and development in China.

Now she is setting her sights back on Chenzhou, helping her “little sister” who still lives there. Chunchun was already at the orphanage when Canaday arrived; the pair, who each have scoliosis and polio, became friends and remain in close contact despite now living on opposite sides of the globe. But while Canaday was adopted, moved to America, and was able to have the surgery she needed to improve her quality of life, Chunchun was not as fortunate.

At around the age of 15, Chunchun became too old to live with the children at the orphanage, so was moved to the senior living center. With her internal organs being crushed by her curved spine, she was on her way to becoming one of the millions of orphans worldwide who do not live to see their thirtieth birthday. Canaday found an organization who covered the cost of Chunchun’s eight-hour surgery, but her “little sister” still faces a 30-hour train ride to receive follow-up treatment, with little more than her boyfriend Lei Yu, who is blind, to help.

Canaday has helped Chunchun before, purchasing wheelchairs and paying for tutoring, and this time has set up a gofundme page to help her friend, saying “I wouldn’t be able to live with that if she died under those treatable circumstances.” Canaday’s explanation of why she’s raising funds to help a friend when she has her own bills to pay, and while she is looking for a job on Capitol Hill to help others, is simple: looking back on a life that began homeless on the streets of China and eventually took her to the University of Oregon, she considers herself one of the lucky ones, and is determined now to pay it forward.

“I feel very fortunate that I’m in a position of privilege,” Canaday said. “Not because I’m special, but because of mere luck. A lot of things are beyond our control; no matter how hard you work, different factors happen and you’re put into a position of extreme discomfort and brutality, or wealth and privilege. Not that I’m wealthy but I feel I am very privileged, and I do have a voice, so I feel like I need to utilize that in the best way possible and not waste it.”

- Damian Foley, assistant director of communications

Photos courtesy Ming Canaday