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April 27, 2010

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Plight of 'pocket people'

HEIGHT is highly prized in China, and life is tough for short-statured people who are known as "pocket people." But a tiny Shanghai woman is filling a tall order and getting short folks to stand up tall. Zhang Qian reports.

At first glance, it seems a bunch of kids around 10 years old are playing football, happily dashing about and scoring goals as onlookers cheer. A closer look shows that they are not children, but very small adults, 20-30 years old.

Their game last Sunday in Beijing at Cuiwei Primary School is believed to be the first by China's so-called "pocket people" (xiuzhen ren), those who are super-short because of a lack of growth hormone.

The match, involving around 100 very small players and supporters nationwide, was organized by 30-year-old Lu Jiarui, president of the Shanghai Pocket People Club, aided by Everton Football Club, a British club that helps people with disabilities gain confidence through sports.

They will also play in Chongqing, Wuhan (Hubei Province), Chengdu (Sichuan Province), Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), Nanjing (Jiangsu Province), Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province) and Changchun (Jilin Province).

"It is the first time so many 'pocket people' have come together in public, and everybody is happy to see people of their own size," says Lu, herself a short person only 1.16 meters tall.

Lu is also founder and editor of the Website - Grow on the Net ( - where abnormally short people share information and blogs, much of them about discrimination and how they deal with it.

It's tough being a super-short person in China, where height and good looks are prized. Many stop going to school when their height becomes an embarrassment; many also hide out at home with their parents and live on disability payments.

Taxi drivers often won't stop for them because they think they are children. Stares, curiosity and ridicule make life uncomfortable when these "invisible people" do show themselves.

The treatment of China's small people was recently in the news when a Midget Theme Park in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province, was reported to be hiring small people to dance, sing and amuse visitors.

Some observers called it demeaning, some of the small performers themselves said it was difficult at first but it was a way to make a living.

The average height of Chinese men is 1.7 meters and for women it's 1.6 meters.

Many Chinese parents want their children to grow tall and some seek human growth hormone (HGH) treatment.

GeneScience Pharmaceuticals Co in Shanghai specializes in producing HGH and since 2008 has provided it at no cost to 114 short children since 2008, says Chen Lu, the company's senior public relations manager. He did not elaborate on how many children in total were treated.

Endocrine problems resulting in lack of growth hormone are the major cause of short stature.

China has more than 8 million reported cases, according to epidemiology and population statistics for 2009. The rate of occurrence of short stature is 3.77 percent in Shanghai, according to a research among 70,000 children 6-18 years old.

If HGH is supplied before closing of the epiphyseal plates (cartilage in the joints at either end of long bones), children can grow normally, or become taller than normal, says Dr Wang Wei, chief pediatrician at Shanghai Ruijin Hospital.

He says many parents are unaware their children can be treated.

Life is extremely difficult for short people, since the world is not designed for them. They cannot carry heavy weights or reach the elevator button. Prospects for education, work and marriage are dim.

Eighteen-year-old Zhou Jun, 124cm, has been job hunting since last year when he graduated with a computer science major from a technical secondary school. He says he is repeatedly rejected in interviews, adding that companies don't want anyone to think they use child laborer.

"I cannot say they made the decision out of discrimination," says Zhou. "After all, my height is an obstacle and keeps me from doing many things."

Even though he was lucky to get a job in advertising, 27-year-old Kevin Sun, 136cm, is paid far less than employees of normal height.

"We live in a world completely opposite of that of mentally disabled people," says small person organizer Lu. "They have adults' appearance and kids' carefree mind. But though we look like children, we cannot help but feel sad and inferior because we are fully aware of what's going on."

Wang from Ruijin Hospital says that the majority of short-stature people studied suffer from depression and feelings of inferiority.

A woman using the name "Wait in Silence" writes in her blog that she keeps smiling to cover her inferiority and mechanically smiles when people are curious. Some smile back while others mock her.

There are special QQ groups for short-stature people, to which only really short people can be admitted (shorter than 1.4 meters) and in which they share their sorrows and comfort each other.

"But hiding won't make us taller or stronger," says Lu. "We should step into the sunshine and face the facts."

Since last year Lu has been encouraging her short fellows on the Internet to join Pocket People Club activities, but it's difficult to persuade them.

"They are vulnerable and afraid of being abused," says Lu. "If one person has a problem during an activity, this can easily scare all the other people and they lock themselves away again."

Through continuous efforts, Lu collected more than 20 people to attend the first activity of the club last September. They sang, danced and played football with coaches of the Everton Football Club. Since then it has been easier to arrange club activities.

"I am afraid of all those curious eyes when I walk down the street," says 25-year-old Yuan Nana, 132cm. "But when I dash about with a bunch of pocket people like myself, I kind of like the feeling of being watched."

Lu says she will keep encouraging "pocket people" to face the sunshine.


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