Heartbreak a long way from home

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
Trip End Jul 02, 2012

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, June 18, 2012

Once again, I rolled out of bed at
five. This time, however, my morning was saved by one of my group's
faculty members who was an early riser and hanging around the lobby.
We made our way out to a bench across the street from the hotel and
simply watched the neighborhood walk by on their way to work as we
discussed life back home. This seemingly mundane routine became a bit
jarring as it seemed that every person walking by shot us a
particularly serious glance, much more critical than the usual double
takes. At first we wondered if the bench was somehow private property
or reserved for certain occasions, then bluntly asked each other if a
black woman and a wild-haired white man sitting on a bench was simply
unnerving to the locals. I don't believe it's a direct prejudice,
honestly our hair styles and races may simply be that unusual around

Today's assigned trip was immediately
known to be a less cheerful affair compared to yesterday: We were
visiting an orphanage. On the ride out to a town outside of Beijing,
we had to brace each other for this. We found ourselves repeating odd
mantras, such as hoping the kids had something to play on, at least a
couple toys, things like that. I'm notably inept with children,
destitute children wouldn't improve on that. Amazingly enough, we
pulled into a gated compound with a handful of traditionally roofed
buildings with modern furnishings, an expansive courtyard, and a
large playground littered with toys. Without even seeing a child or
talking to one of the workers, we already sighed in relief.

We were greeted by an American citizen
who was currently the manager of the facility and given a history and
summary of the organization. A section of a much larger foundation
dedicated to orphans in China, this orphanage is a faith-based third
party that operates independently of the Chinese government and
assists thirty five other orphanages with special needs treatment,
healthcare, and adoption services. Realize that the Chinese
government is notably lacking when it comes to the millions of
orphans in the country, and is heavily opposed to faith-based groups
establishing themselves on Chinese soil in any form. Through some
unexplainable twist of fate, this orphanage was given permission to
exist with its fundamentally Christian approach, it was built on land
sold by the government to the founder for a specific price offered
without any explanation. One yuan. The owner was instantly skeptical
and demanded to know how much one yuan is worth in American dollars.
He was told the truth...One yuan, at that time and in that economy,
was worth twelve cents in American currency. Is this a concealed
attempt at philanthropy by a government official? A public relations
defense tactic? An act of a higher power? No one knows. They paid the
twelve cents the facility now includes several residence buildings, a
staff hall, medical clinic, primary school, and a currently
under-construction vocational school.

Walking out for our initial tour, we
met two individuals who illustrated major points about this facility.
The first was a special needs boy of around thirteen who made his way
over to the group and inspected our bus before smiling at all of us
and wandering into the entrance hall. The staff member greeted him
fondly and introduced him to us as one of the more mobile and
independent cases being treated by the orphanage. Closely following
him was 'Stevie', an extremely amicable little dog who had been
abandoned at the orphanage as a puppy and had been kept around as a
mascot. This tiny dog walked with us throughout the visit, obediently
curling into a ball and waiting outside each building as we went in.

Unfortunately, our overall visit was
going to be limited due to an outbreak of chicken pox throughout the
dorm buildings. While the facility holds a large number of children,
we mostly came in contact with under a dozen due to quarantine
issues. Our first was at a nursery building where we spent most of an
hour playing with a group of toddlers. As time went by, it became
apparent that some of the toddlers were actually rather advanced in
age, but had been stunted by various diseases and conditions. One
child that I feebly tried to hold and entertain was about the size of
a three year old with visible facial and limb deformities, but was in
fact about seven years old. The rest of the group was extremely
natural dealing with these children, but for me personally it was an
endurance test. I'm not comfortable with young children, and in the
past I've had to stop volunteering at group homes because heavily
handicapped individuals hit me too hard emotionally. Combining the
two and adding on the fact this was an orphanage that would have to
find homes for these children or place them in a workhouse...This is
not going to be a good memory to look back on.

To keep sane, I tried making
conversation about the adoption process because many of my friends
were foreign adoptions. Orphanages such as this one draw fire from
Chinese nationalist groups as well as cultural advocates because the
primarily American staff teaches all the children to be bilingual,
which includes assigning them a Western name. Staff members report
that because the volunteers have little experience in the language,
it's simply easier to use the Western name and it also eases the
transition for children who will be adopted by Americans. Older
children reportedly prefer being called their Western name to their
birth name, the children we encountered later all introduced
themselves with typically Biblical names.

I can see the controversy. In the past,
I've known an adopted Korean who was raised by white Americans and
decided to later change her last name to the one she'd been born with
because she wanted to have ties to her original heritage. It's a
common if not expected practice in Chinese-American relations to take
on a name in the opposite language in order to both accommodate
others, and immerse yourself in the new culture. Chinese people may
pick names based on characters from movies or novels, or even pick
more unique phrases such as 'Hollywood' or in the case of our beloved
translator, 'Watermelon'. Whenever some one out here finds out that
I've studied Chinese, they instantly ask for my Chinese name and will
prefer calling me that from then on. However, this is a matter of
matured individuals choosing their own identities and when to use it.
While some foreign names are bestowed affectionately by friends,
including my own Chinese name, I'm still not sure how to feel about
infants being assigned permanent names by Americans who are passing
through on a volunteer basis.

Once the infants were taken away for
their mid-day naps, we were told we were in for some downtime. The
entire orphanage, staff members included, all take a nap during
around noon for a few hours. To kill time, we joined some volunteers
in walking down the block to a refutable restaurant for lunch. As
usual, we made quite a scene walking in. The waitresses took our
orders, then took pictures of us with our phones, then came back with
actual cameras. Sideshow appeal aside, the food was excellent and we
managed to get to know some of the volunteers. The youngest was a
thirteen year old named Kevin, a Chinese-American who had actually
been adopted from the orphanage and now volunteered every summer as a
translator and general assistant. The males in our group went out of
our way to include him in our conversation, as it turns out he was
starting out in saber fencing. I'm an avid fencer in several weapon
forms, something I never get to talk about because of translation
issues, so I was happy to bore the heck out of my group for twenty
minutes talking to Kevin about it. One female volunteer had been
working for ten months as an English instructor, and is going to be
finally leaving for the States tomorrow. She admitted that she had
learned almost none of the language, the orphanage acts as a colony
both for the children and the American staff.

Making our way back to the facility, we
mingled with the other volunteers for a while lounging around the
dorm. Then, one of the younger volunteers walked into the lounge area
and asked a question to which everyone will answer in the
“Do you guys want to play Super Smash
For the next hour, the males of our
group and the volunteers proceeded to kill each other in the form of
various beloved childhood video game characters, keeping our language
unusually clean because it was a Christian-run organization after
all. At one point, Kevin the volunteer got frustrated with my playing
style and asked how long I'd been playing as the character 'Fox'. I
replied that I'd started playing as Fox in 1999. Kevin replied that
he was born in 1999. Kevin is
an impressive young man with a bright future ahead of him, but
beating children in video games is the only way I can feel like a man
nowadays. Being able to zone out in the same way college kids
throughout America do was a surreal but welcome change of pace, but
eventually it was time to turn the game off and head over to the

I'm sorry to
readers in advance, but I could only stay in the infant-care clinic
for a few minutes before having to excuse myself. The rest of my
colleagues spent the hour with the babies and toddlers in the
intensive care unit, truly earning my admiration while I paced the
lobby to get a grip on myself. We were then directed to the school,
which despite being mostly empty because of chicken pox quarantine,
still gave us the chance to interact with a number of children of
various ages. The highlight of this was two children volunteering to
sing songs for our group in both languages, a truly heartwarming
sight we made sure to video tape. It's truly amazing how fast the
children are taking to both languages...to my friends advocating for
or working in bilingual education, this is a case study waiting to

After a long
session of hugging and hand shaking on our way out of the orphanage,
our group decided to make a supply run and pick up a few things at
...You heard me. We
went to pick up a few things, at Walmart.

We heard in passing
that such a thing existed in China nearby, and we all instantly
agreed upon visiting it just to see if it was both real and
comparable. Seeing as we walked in and instantly stumbled into a
booth that sold Prada bags, I'm going to take the risk of being
opinionated and say it was nowhere near the reality we expect in a
Walmart. Between the escalator-like ramps to get to the second floor,
the piles of products on every shelf without any organization or
system, the high end brands being offered at every corner, and the
array of local foods available including live fish...Imagine a
Chinese marketplace, then simply tell the shop owners that they can
use an abandoned Walmart to set up shop. Walking out with some
familiar brands in our carts, we then made our way down the block to
have dinner at Pizza Hut.

Something to
consider: If every KFC in America closed...they would stay in
business because they make more money in China. There is a KFC on
almost every major street, with other brands competing for second
place including the Pizza Hut we found. However, these fast food
chains are transformed into high-priced, high-class, highly exotic
foods that the Chinese reserve for special occasions. How fancy are
we talking? Pizza hut featured a list of fine wines. Despite how
bizarrely high-brow this place felt, the food was still an imitation
of what we knew back home. A large pizza is our version of a small,
with insane markup. I ordered an Oreo milkshake...It actually
contained no milk, no Oreos, and was not actually stirred like a
milkshake. I'm still not sure what it was, it tasted like something
between unmixed whey protein and club soda. For the foreigners
craving that nostalgic taste, you're better off at McDonalds which
reportedly tastes the same everywhere because it's basically xeroxed
in a factory somewhere.

Traveling means
breaking internal barriers and building yourself up again...While
this is usually what drives me out to places like this, the kids were
just too much for me. I'm in this to help people, hopefully I can
find an outlet for progress that I can face head-on. Freezing up like
I did today...Humbling. Very humbling. Time to sleep on that for the
night, and hope tomorrow goes better.  
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