Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book Alert: "Silent Tears"


Having had substantial experience in China, it is refreshing to finally read a book that presents a realistic view behind the curtain of China's orphanages. Many adoptive families have an idealized view of their child's orphanage. Families often ask me to "take pictures of my daughter's favorite nanny." Usually, however, I find that the children in most orphanages are treated as little more than an investment, with the cost in care being constantly offset to the ultimate reward -- the $3,000 orphanage donation.

"Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage" was written by a volunteer who worked for over three years in an internationally adopting orphanage in China's Jiangsu Province. She writes under a pen name to hide the identification of the orphanage, but in reality the conditions and attitudes she describes are found everywhere, in nearly all orphanages. Her story is at once infuriating, yet inspiring. It will leave the reader with a very realistic impression of the type of lives our children lived before being adopted, and the lives that those left behind continue to live.

Kay provided Research-China.Org with the following sample of her book. It can be purchased through Amazon.Com, and is highly recommended reading.

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I entered through those stark, gray orphanage walls with more than a little apprehension. What would I find? Would the nannies accept me? Would the children be fearful of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American woman? Would the conditions be as dire as I imagined?

So many questions and uncertainties that first day when fate brought me to the gates of a place that would burrow itself deep in my heart. It took time, but a year of keeping a low profile brought me acceptance and unlimited access to the children. For four years, I held the babies; spoke to them, sang to them, and fought their battles for them when they were too sick or afraid to do it for their selves. I played trading games with the administration, giving items of interest and paying many expenses. In return, they allowed me to duck under the red tape to place once-rejected children on adoption lists or send them for life-saving surgeries. With disdain showing in their eyes, they allowed me to comfort those who needed it, and cry for those who were beyond saving. I became a part of their world and they became mine.

It was a wonderful experience.
It was a heart-breaking experience.
An experience that changed me.
An experience I’ll never forget.

Upon my return home to the states last summer, I was faced with concern from my sisters and my parents. “You’ve changed,” they all said. I was afraid to ask whether they were indicating it as a good thing or a bad thing. There is no doubt that the many obstacles I overcame took their toll on me and brought out a part of me I did not know existed.

Digging back through memories, one of the early days at the orphanage went like this:

July 11, 2003
Ann asked me to initiate a new volunteer named Yolanda. She warned me that Yolanda was very outspoken and flamboyant, and asked if I would caution her about making derogatory remarks to the staff about the care and treatment of the children. She is worried we might be banned from our volunteer work if anyone is too judgmental.

I met Yolanda at the coffee shop near the orphanage, and as soon as I saw her, I knew there was going to be trouble. For one thing, the temperature was supposed to hit about 105 degrees that day. I was dressed for it in thin khakis, white T-shirt and hair up, but not Yolanda. She was Spanish, forty-one years old, and a fitness fanatic with a body that bespoke long workouts over many years. Yoli (she instructed me to call her) was wearing two shirts over a pair of tight silk pants with stiletto heels, her dark hair a wild mess of curls around her face.

Yoli was a fast talker and rapidly took me through her life story and what had brought her to China. Based on her many anti-American comments, I figured she was probably disappointed that I was going to become her volunteer partner.

Jumping in when she finally paused for air, I quickly shifted the conversation over to expectations of us at the orphanage. I tried to convey to her the seriousness of not making a bad impression and not criticizing the care of the children. I thought I was getting my point through, but was about to find out that not much gets through to Yoli.

After going through the proper administrative channels, we made our way to the baby area. As soon as she had taken one look, she started in with disdain and attitude. I told her she had to remove her shoes and wear the ones provided, but it was obvious she resented parting with her deadly weapons―although she did so and grudgingly put on the ragged slippers we all had to wear. The slipper policy is one of the few rules put in place to stop the spread of outside disease and one we all strictly obey.

For a short while, we enjoyed playing with the babies, but soon it was feeding time. It was the same as always: the workers prop the bottles on sheets and allow the babies to suck for about five minutes; then come and snatch the bottles away. The babies still appear hungry; I am not sure why they are not allowed more milk.

Yoli and I took the bottles we were able to hang onto and tried to move around to the babies who had yet to be fed. One little preemie boy looks like a shriveled-up old man. They never move him and his head is completely flat on the back from always lying in the same position. He is so skinny; he looks to weigh not more than four pounds. They had not bothered to give him a bottle so I grabbed one and rushed over. I realized why they hadn’t bothered; he was so weak he did not have the strength to suckle. I spent the next few minutes giving him drinks in small bursts by squeezing the nipple directly into his mouth.

When it came time to undress them for their baths, Yoli asked me to take care of the premature boy because she was afraid of hurting him. I picked him up and laid him on my left arm with his face in my hand. I was amazed at the way his little body fit on my slender arm. I massaged his shoulders and neck to help with the stiffness. I rubbed his tiny eyebrows because I remembered my baby girls both used to like that, and I was looking for a way to make him feel loved and comforted without causing more pain.

The worker took him from me and held him with one hand under his head and one hand holding his ankles. He was so stiff that he looked like a play doll. She held him brutally under the cold water, and Yoli wept. I was trying to hold it together because Yoli had already made them angry by her outburst of emotion.

I had prepared Yoli for the cold, brusque way in which the ayis behaved toward the babies, but it apparently had not registered. Under her breath, Yoli was calling the ayis dirty names; she thought they could not understand. They knew enough to know she was talking about them, so I kept my head down and did not respond. I know Yoli thinks I am a wimp, but I do not want to make things worse for the children.

The disgusted looks Yoli kept throwing their way did nothing but infuriate the women more. The workers passed the babies under the stream of water and then roughly dumped them into their cribs with a piece of clothing. Most of the time, they threw the clothes over their faces, causing the babies to struggle for breath underneath. Yoli and I rushed around dressing them and trying to calm them after the shock of the cold showers. What Yoli does not understand is the more compassion, pity, and outrage we show on our faces— the rougher the staff is with the children. Two of the infants had bruises that were not there last week; based on their limited mobility I can only imagine how they got them.

I hope Yoli’s attitude will not get us thrown out. Even though we cannot change the situation, at least we give the babies a little love and care while we are there. What I had learned from Ann is that we simply have to keep silent and do what we can. All the histrionics only make it worse.

The boy preemie is really struggling and I can’t get him out of my thoughts. I want him to prove to the workers that he can survive. It is obvious in the disapproving looks they give us that they think it is a waste of time to nurture him. If nothing else, this orphanage runs a flawless model of survival of the fittest. One final thought for the day―I hope that Yoli will not want to come back. To lose a new volunteer is sad, but it will be better for the children.


Things at the orphanage improved greatly over the years. I won’t say that it was a model institution, because it wasn’t. There were still issues of occasional abuse and neglect. However, with our team assisting the nannies in their daily chores and helping to care for the babies, the overall atmosphere became happier and safer. In time, I built a rapport with one director that called herself my Chinese mother. I was able to laugh and joke with some of the nannies, many of whom I had a genuine affection for. With a huge support network from local expatriates and international colleagues, we were able to provide urgent medical care for many children. Selfishly, it took me quite awhile to get over missing the ease and comforts of America and accept the hardships of my new life, but I discovered I could survive—and even flourish in a third-world country. To put it simply, I grew up.

Here is a piece from later in my China saga that highlights the changes in my demeanor:

March 16, 2006

Isn’t it strange how a key can just lose itself? Awakening this morning to a gorgeous, sunny day, I decided that since I had just spent three days in bed with a stubborn flu, I was going to ride my bike to the Ling Li, our local market, to buy vegetables for a salad. I haven’t ridden all winter, and it was time to begin my spring exercise regimen. However, since experiencing how rampant the theft of bikes is here, I first needed to find the key to my bicycle lock.

After a frustratingly unsuccessful search, I opted to walk—the day was lovely. As a writer, I am constantly formulating little essays in my head, and ideas come much more easily when I observe things at a slower pace.

But how is one expected to cross six lanes of traffic and two lanes of bicycles before the light turns red? I tried twice at different intersections, walking as fast as I could, but it was simply impossible. I would get perhaps halfway before the light changed, and then I’d have to race for the opposite sidewalk. How did others less nimble than me fare?

It was heartwarming to see many grandparents strolling hand in hand with their grandchildren. In China, it is customary for the grandparents to care for the small children while their parents work, unlike in developed countries where daycare is prevalent. It’s a practical concept if you don’t mind your parents living with you under the same roof, which is a sacrifice many new young couples here must make.

I passed several Chinese locals leaving the market carrying small bags of raw meat, which explained all the red splotches on the sidewalk that I delicately stepped over. They carry the meat home unwrapped and bloody—a dangerous bacterial breeding ground, particularly in this warm weather. The meat at the market hangs in the open, humid air; flies swarm everywhere, invariably settling on the meat no matter what the temperature outside or in. Ordinarily, I avoid the meat side of the markets because of the dirt, nauseous smells, choking throngs of people, and thousands of aggravating flies.

I strolled toward the market, trying to ignore the exuberant calls of “Hello laowei!” (foreigner) from a group of construction men.

I yelled back at them in Chinese, “Wo bushi laowei, wo ju zai zhe li!” (I’m not a foreigner, I live here!)

This prompted hysterical laughter; they weren’t expecting a sarcastic retort in Chinese from a tall, blonde American. Not wanting to encourage them further, I continued past without turning my head.

Nearing the market, I decided I’d better eat lunch before going to the open food area; the experience always throws off my appetite. Instead, I stopped at KFC, where I practiced ordering in Mandarin while the cashier practiced her limited English. The scene would have made for a great comedic skit.

I sat down to eat and quickly became the center of attention as people began staring, pointing, and commenting to their companions. I could almost hear their thoughts: “What country is she from? Why is she alone? What is she doing here among us?”

A few years ago, I would never have been able to withstand the pressure of being alone in a public place full of curious, gawking Chinese. Time has made me immune to this kind of attention. I stare right back and even have the language skills to tell them to quit staring. I’m learning to live through all the frustrations. Even better, I can keep a smile on my face and if I choose, engage in conversation. I have come a long way from the na├»ve, idealistic woman who first landed in this country some three years ago. Who was that person?

As I finished my meal, I realized I should not have gulped the entire cup of strange-tasting coke. I headed to the bathroom, knowing I’d be extremely lucky if it contained a toilet.

Luck was not on today’s agenda, and in any case, I needed to get over my squatter phobia. I hooked my bag over my shoulder and squatted like a local, not even bothering to look down and see if my aim was on. I figured my shoes needed a good wash anyway. Afterward I scrubbed my hands vigorously and strode out with my head held high. I’m no princess; I am no longer too good to squat. It only took me three years to come down off my pedestal.

I walked out of the department area and into the open food market. Upon entering, I was immediately harassed by dozens of vendors wanting me to stop at their vegetables. I ignored the aggressive hawkers and sought out a polite shop owner, a scarce commodity here where every kuai (Chinese dollar) earned means a decent meal or a bus ride. Eventually, I found one who smiled warmly as I stopped to browse her cucumbers.
When I stepped over to the fruits, a woman pointed at some strange objects and asked if I wanted any. They were round and yellowish and unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“Bu zhi dow, wo hai pa . . .” (I am afraid and I don’t know what they are), I said uncertainly and she handed me one to sample.

She laughed good-humoredly. “Don’t be afraid,” she said in Mandarin. I decided to live dangerously and bit into it. Delicious! It was sweet like a peach but not fuzzy, and small like a ping-pong ball but oblong shaped. I bought a dollar’s worth―Amanda is sure to love them. I wish I could remember what the woman called them.

More succulent-looking oranges, grapes, and apples beckoned enticingly, but my hands were full and I had to get everything home. I left loaded with the strange fruit, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It all cost less than two dollars, a remarkable deal by American standards. Heading to the street, I contemplated walking home for all of five seconds before waving down a taxi. I was weary from the stress of dealing with another so-called ordinary day in China.


In closing, let me say that there are days that I long to be right back there sitting in the sweltering orphanage nursery with a baby in my arms and a toddler pulling at my knees. I crave the challenge of going to battle for a child and feeling that triumph when they are finally adopted or a once-opposed surgery is successful. But then there are the still frequent long nights that memories of tragedies I witnessed haunt my dreams. I realize some people can only take so much sadness in one lifetime. I’ve had my share---this I know for sure.