Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Very Humble Beginning

This is Henry’s dad writing. Yesterday was the third time I've stood on the spot where one of my children is said to have been abandoned. When I did this for my girls at each of the sites where they were left and found in separate parts of China far to the southeast, I felt a complicated connection to their birth parents, the people who left them, in both cases with a note on red cloth indicating a birth date on the lunar calendar and items like packets of baby formula—signs of hope.

As much as I wanted to, I could not find the same connection yesterday on the east side of the crossroad next to the Tian Yuan Guest House in Jingchuan, where my son had been found. From looking carefully around that place and from talking to people here, I sense that Henry was dropped by the roadside under different circumstances.

Jingchuan is a mid-size town with modern buildings and businesses because it is the local administrative center for a very large county. It shares a broad floodplain with a natural hot spring and some ancient historic sites that are modestly popular attractions locally. But the town is very much part of a very rural area in which there is nothing more important within a family than the birth of a healthy son for a host of practical and not so practical (traditional cultural) reasons. Still, the practical importance of one's family here can be nearly all encompassing: it is an income unit, social support system, and rural retirement policy.

Moreover, people here, whether muslim Hui or Han Chinese, believe strongly in a kind of kharma, that what goes around comes around. “Most rural people are very superstitious so that if their son is born with a (cleft) face like a rabbit, or something else is really wrong, they are scared and think that it is punishment for something bad they have done,” went one of several similar explanations. “So they want to get rid of this punishment. For them this child is very bad luck.”

Birth anomalies are common in this region and local clinics will try to arrange help for children brought in with severe cleft and other conditions, sometimes through charitable organizations. But there are old ideas here, illustrated by the well kept presence of the ancient hillside Wang Mu Gong Temple that watches over this town. There are more modest Buddhist temples generally overlooking almost every smaller village in the area also, even in some villages where we noticed that nearly all of the men wore white Muslim prayer caps. The temples are said to be maintained not so much for regular use, but more as a wishful means of warding off misfortune.

The Tian Yuan Guest House is a fairly new multi-story structure that is at the intersection of National Highway 312 and Zhoung Shan Road, which is the central thoroughfare for Jingchuan and lined with shops and other businesses. Highway 312 is actually an important artery sometimes called the "Mother Road" that begins on China’s east coast and ends 2,998 miles later at its western border with Kazakhstan.

Small public buses that travel up and down Highway 312 can easily bring people to this spot from any number of small villages within walking distance to the highway, as can all manner of carts, bicycles, or small three-wheel vehicles with motorcycle engines that are commonly used for tractors. Searching for answers sometimes yields only more questions and this was the case in looking around at this abandonment site--a fundamentally sad undertaking. Chen and I stayed at the site for a half hour, and then talked with nearby shopkeepers in their stores to see if they knew anything that could help us. They didn't. I kept thinking that there was some other clue that would come to me if I stayed and thought really hard a little bit longer. Finally we left.

At least the crossroad is a very prominent location where an abandoned child could be easily found, but the most distinguishing feature of its east side, where that taxi driver discovered this particular naked newborn child wrapped in an old quilt that had looked like a bundle of rags ... is a small public dumpster that is said to have been maintained there for a very long time.

That’s okay.

To us our little Henry, my son, could not be more precious or more perfect.

The Pingliang Social Welfare Institute is at the end of a winding, narrow series of streets on a low hill in the east end of Pingliang, about 40 miles back in the direction of Lanzhou, which is 5 ½ more dusty daylight hours away and a longer drive back at night. It is in a neighborhood that is largely Muslim Hui and there is a Hui marketplace and a mosque near where these back streets connect to Highway 312, which serves as Pingliang’s main road.

The orphanage in many ways is typical of the other Chinese orphanages that by some strange twist of fate and responsibility I’ve visited over the years. It’s a facility originally designed to assist a broad range of seniors, homeless people (often with diminished mental capacity), and orphans—those without families to care for them. But it became much more of an orphanage a decade or so ago after the government began to more strictly enforce its population restrictions. Living conditions at the orphanage are understandably similar to those one might see in the tiny, exceedingly modest brick homes in the surrounding area.

The major difference here is that, rather than being populated primarily as a result of China's "one child" rule (which often results in a predominance of infant and toddler girls often free of serious disabilities), the population at this orphanage is today about half female and half male and nearly all have special needs.  I suspect that nowadays most children wind up here because of their special needs, not directly because of birth quotas.

A little over a third of the 80 or so children at the Pingliang SWI are under three years of age. The rest are as old as 16. There is a school in the city for the blind and deaf that some of the older children go to. A few who are able go to a regular elementary school nearby. Most just stay within the orphanage.

It is challenging and often heart breaking work to care for these children and the staff at the Pingliang SWI appears to be kind and dedicated. They have to be. Some of the babies and young children appeared to be candidates for China’s waiting child program for special needs children, but others have issues that are probably too severe.

Less than a month after the earthquake there are few signs of serious damage in the city overall, even though about 10 people were killed by the quake in Pingliang. Along Highway 312 north of Pingliang and the southern tip of Ningxia Province toward Lanzhou, Chen and I had seen homes with blue tarps fastened over damaged rooftops and Army tents used in some areas as temporary shelter. South of Pingliang toward Jingchuan and closer to the southern part of Gansu Province where the earthquake was most devastating we saw more obvious signs of continuing relief efforts, mostly trucks laden with emergency supplies heading further south, and uprooted families on the move and headed in the other direction, their small vehicles piled with their salvaged belongings.

In Pingliang the worst damages were to older, rickety brick structures and most of the newer, more modern buildings came through okay. Heavily damaged or collapsed buildings have already been demolished. At the orphanage they are concerned about cracks in the walls of both the main building and the lower, older one-story brick building behind it that houses many of the youngest children. I sensed that the buildings may still be structurally sound but officials there are somewhat spooked and cautious in this because a large one-story structure directly in front of the main building completely collapsed.

Construction of a new orphanage and social welfare complex on a different site in Pingliang is apparently set to begin relatively soon. In the meantime the staff is waiting for engineers from the provincial Earthquake Bureau to come by and carefully check out the structural integrity of their buildings. The children are cared for in their regular rooms during the day but still sleep in the tents at night, as a safety precaution.

Because the random nature of the damages in Pingliang left many of its stores unharmed and business in the city only briefly interrupted, Chen and I did not have to carry too many supplies from Lanzhou and instead we arranged in advance to also present during our visit a sizable monetary donation to Yang Xialin, the orphanage director, with instructions to use it where it will be immediately needed most. This should not be a problem since the orphanage needs a lot. After this donation is quickly used up on general supplies, the orphanage is next most in need of a heart rhythm monitor, and clothes and shoes for the older children.

Note to Pingliang families: these clothes and shoes for the older children can be provided through Love Without Boundaries like we did with clothes and blankets for the younger ones and LWB may be able to check in advance on sizes needed.

Also, we learned some hard lessons in Hunan Province about being careful in extending our trust to orphanage officials but for making responsible use of our donations I trust Mrs. Yang. She is a remarkable woman.


M & D said...

Oh, thank you for the picture of our Jack!! It was such a boost today - was feeling down because we are still dealing with a delay with our 171-h. It is a great reminder of the treasure that awaits us!
:0) Michele

teri said...


I don't know what you do for a living but in some way I hope it involves writing. You are a beautiful writer and I loved how your described where our sons our from. We will never forget.

Teri Prichard

knoble said...

Trish and Andy, I have been following your news and am speechless. You two really do make the world a better place. Henry, Clara, and Dorothy are the luckiest children in the workd to have found parents with such extraordinary reserves of love and warmth. I am so proud to know you.
You are in my prayers for a safe return home. Good luck with the rest of your trip.

Teagues said...

Thanks so much for the description of Pingliang. We so wished we could have gone and love to have your writing as a bit of Hudson's history.

Anonymous said...

We have enjoyed reading Henry's travel journal. :)He is so darned CUTE!

This last post was so raw and honest-it brought tears to my eyes. You truly have a gift for words, Andy. It was so real to read and it's great that you don't sugar coat the truth-however sad it is.

All three of your children are so wonderful and you are very lucky to have each one of them! :) I'm glad that Henry is bonding with everyone and we can't wait to read the next post!

Megan, Greg and Emma Montieth
Waiting for blessing #2-Sophie in Yangxi!

PS: Trish, we have contacted our Senator and hopefully he will get our I171H's to us...4 months and waiting now....thank you for the advice! ; )

Anita said...

I am thinking of you continually and hope you are staying well and strong. These last few days seem to me to be a heart-rending pilgrimage of love for Andy and a veritable marathon of mommy-love for Trish. I am hoping you're all five together now with lots of hugs and smiles all around. And naps! Thank you so much for sharing these blessings with all of us. I look forward to seeing you soon. Say hello to your beautiful children for me.

AnaStacia Bergeron (Stacia) said...

Dear Henry's family- My name is Patti Bergeron. In October, 2009 my husband, daughter and I went to China to pick up our little girl, Elianna. She came to us from the Pingliang Orphanage. Recently, I was searching for pictures from her orphanage and any other information I could find out about the place that took care of our daughter, and I came upon your blog sight. I was so excited about everything I saw and read I could hardly believe it. In fact, one of your pictures has my daughter in it. The one blog titled A Very Humble Beginning in the 7th picture down the child in the walker on the right-hand side is our little Ellie! I cried when I saw it!Thank You so much for all that you did to document all about your son, we have been deeply blessed because of that! I would also like to encourage you, who wrote that material, that you definitely have a gifting in writing, I noticed it right away and commented to my husband. And can I say what a beautiful little boy that God has blessed you with! We were deeply moved to hear his story.When we traveled to pick up Ellie I think we were in a haze, of not knowing what to expect. We were also euphoric, and so we really didn"t ask hardly any questions of her past. When I came home and began to read about doing a Lifebook for Ellie, I deeply grieved not having asked more questions! Also there was this hunger and desire in us, her mom and Dad to know all about the time that she wasn't with us. Your web-sight definitely helped fill some gaps, Thank You again!One other thing I was wondering, do you have any more pictures besides what was shown on the web-sight of the orphanage and the children? If you do would you be interested in sharing them?

Thank you again, will look forward to hearing from you.

Patti Bergeron

Elianna's Web-sight