At 9 p.m. the congested city showed no signs of slowing down; beauty salons swarmed with clients, field lights illuminated children’s soccer games, and package laden passengers boarded double decker buses…
In May 2010, I spent two weeks on a mission team, working in an orphanage for disabled children in Hengyang, China. Months of preparation went into the trip; tedious fund raising, ugly passport photos, creative suitcase packing, endless Chinese visa paperwork, painful immunizations, and best-rate currency exchange.
Our plane departed from Austin, Texas at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning; 8,258 miles, twenty four hours, five meals, four movies, three hours of sleep, one layover and numerous bathroom trips later, we disembarked under the neon lights of Hong Kong.
Sleep deprivation forgotten, I gazed in wonderment at gurgling fountains, high rise apartments wedged closely together, and the famous Victoria Harbor skyline. At 9 p.m. the congested city showed no signs of slowing down; beauty salons swarmed with clients, field lights illuminated children’s soccer games, and package laden passengers boarded double decker buses.
Day two was bursting with new experiences; my first double decker bus ride followed by a trip through the lush, green countryside aboard a monorail type bullet train, traveling at speeds of up to 200 MPH. Passing through Chinese customs was easier than I expected in a communist country. There were no stern looking armed guards to intimidate us. A group of college-age customs officers patted us down as we entered the building. At the final entry point was a suitcase scan and passport check; no questions, no bag searches.
Safely in the country and clutching our luggage we headed straight for the squatty potties, toilets built into the floor requiring Herculean quadriceps to hover over. Six hours after our Hong Kong departure, we had finally arrived in Hengyang.
Our hotel sat amidst a bustling city square surrounded by businesses, restaurants, and run down apartments with laundry billowing outside the windows. Masses of bustling pedestrians made their way through filthy, trash-laden streets and honking vehicles.
Before introducing us to the orphanage, our hosts treated the team to a traditional Chinese meal at a local restaurant. The bountiful array of offered food was palatable. A spinning lazy Susan held tangy fish served with its head still attached, rubbery tofu, flavorsome glass noodles, uniquely seasoned green beans, succulently grilled pork and several unidentifiable dishes. Mastery of chopsticks is required as forks are not included in place settings.
Boarding a bus for the short ride to the orphanage, my heart filled with trepidation; not at the peril of the narrow, winding roads, but at what we would find when we arrived. The orphanage houses over 100 disabled children, with conditions ranging from mild to severe. Prior to this trip, my interaction with disabled children was infinitesimal.
Thoughts raced through my mind, “What will the orphanage be like?” “How will I respond to the children?” “How will the children react to our presence?” “Can my mother’s heart handle the pain of seeing so many children with health challenges?”
Our arrival at the campus courtyard created a frenzy of action as a mob of children swarmed the team. The children laughed, smiled, touched our hair, hugged our necks, and grabbed at items in our exterior backpack pockets. Moving from the courtyard for a facility tour, I was more than a little overwhelmed. Naively, I expected to see rooms resembling an American daycare center, but these rooms were sparse, and cold, and uninviting. I wondered through the orphanage in a mindless haze, until we reached the Welfare Centre.
Most of the orphanage is run by a private British organization. However, the Welfare Centre is run by the Chinese government, and the contrast is obvious. In this building the children’s silence is deafening. Dead flies accumulating on sticky papers adorn infant cribs. Unhygienic potty chairs encroach on the sleeping area.
Tucked inside these abysmal surroundings was beautiful, chubby, baby Dao Dao. Wax filled her ears, filth covered her clothes, and her body reeked of sweat and urine but that precious baby girl was the only child I picked up that first day. Hugging her close, a familiar feeling wrapped itself around my heart, seeds of love for a child I had never met, began to blossom.
Life in the Welfare Centre is hard for both the children and the nannies. Three nannies work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week supervise twenty children – ages newborn through eight years. Children, each with varying degrees of disabilities, share two unventilated, foul-smelling, stimulus free, rooms.
Chinese childcare customs differ greatly from American practices. Rambunctious children are tied to potty chairs. Crib babies nurse from propped bottles. Outside play is a rarity, and because health care is costly, sick children die needlessly. During my stay, I focused on giving each individual child as much love and attention as possible.
Going into this trip, I knew it would be difficult, and I expected to suffer heartbreak. I did not, however, expect to fall in love. Though I tried to divide my time evenly among the children, Dao Dao quickly became my favorite. Within a few days, I could recognize her cry from down the hall.
Whisking into the room, scooping her from the confines of her crib, I would cuddle her until someone else demanded my attention. Dao Dao was always my first hello and my last goodbye of the day. She often rewarded my efforts with a toothless, chubby cheeked, grin.
Also capturing my heart was a little boy whose name no one seemed to know. “Him Him” became his nickname. On my second day at the Welfare Centre I spotted Him Him lying helplessly in his crib. He looked to be about 18 months old, but his crippled legs prevented him from walking, or even sitting. A mysterious illness caused him such discomfort that he refused any nourishment other than insignificant amounts of water from a medicine dropper.
Every day I walked him outside in the sunshine. He watched me with his solemn brown eyes as I sang songs and whispered words of love in his soft little ears. On our last day at the orphanage, Him Him’s condition degraded to the point that I knew his time was short. The orphanage nurse confirmed my suspicions. There was nothing left to do but make sure his last day on earth was not spent alone.
Later that afternoon, nestled peacefully in the comfort of my arms, Him Him slipped away. At that moment, my thoughts drifted to another baby. The scar of losing my own son ripped open, and convulsing sobs shook my body. As my tears drenched Him Him’s tranquil face I mourned for him just as I had mourned for my very own newborn son eighteen years ago. My mind registered relief that Him Him no longer suffered, mingled with anger and frustration over his senseless and preventable death.
The joy of realizing a dream one never thought possible, could easily be diminished by the sad realities of life in a Chinese orphanage. Instead, I choose to focus on the positive. For two weeks I was granted the rare opportunity to make a difference in the lives of discarded children.
My hope is that those moments will linger on in the subconscious memories of each child I touched; that somehow they can cling to the knowledge that someone cared enough to leave her hectic but comfortable world and live briefly in theirs.
Until Next Time,
Becky J Miller