If Derek and I weren’t going to be on the road for the next eleven months, I’d say there’s a fair chance that, sometime during the last four days, we would have adopted a Chinese daughter.  We’ve just returned to Guangzhou from the Social Welfare Institute of Yangxi, an orphanage in the southeastern part of China.  I’m not sure that we’ve digested everything that happened during our time there, but perhaps we never will.

We found the Institute through Mindy Sontag, a dear friend in Nashville whose niece Maggie was adopted from there four years ago.  When Mindy learned that we wanted to do some volunteer work during our time in China, she asked if we would be interested in stopping by.  We responded in the affirmative, and she and her family, along with Derek’s parents and the parents of another little girl – Carly – who was adopted from the same place, offered up a very generous amount of money for us to use to purchase whatever the orphanage needed.  (We’ve posted a picture of Maggie and Carly below).
We arrived in Yangxi on Wednesday with pockets full of Chinese yuan.  We literally showed up on the orphanage doorstep and–with much gesturing and thumbing through our very cursory Chinese phrasebook–announced “we’ve come bearing gifts…let’s go shopping.”  And so we piled into a minivan with a bunch of the Institute’s higher-ups.  In a prelude to the incredible hospitality that the staff would show us over the next few days, our first stop was a hotel, where the orphanage director negotiated a rate for us that was 1/5 of the one posted.   Then we were off to the market, where the staff selected a bouncy chair, a blender, 200 baby bottles and some plastic baskets.  Our next stop was an appliance store, where a washing machine and a bottle sterilizer were purchased in rapid measure.  Later, the director placed an order for 90 onesies (for those of you without kids, that’s a kind of baby clothing…), which should arrive next week.  We found ourselves wishing that Mindy and family were there to witness the shopping spree.

Having obtained permission to volunteer  atthe orphanage for a couple of days, we arrived on Thursday morning and spent a couple of hours folding what must have been thousands of cloth diapers.  And then we got to meet the babies.  Here’s the part we haven’t digested yet.
In our estimation, the Institute houses about 60 babies, 58 of whom are girls.  (The remaining two are boys who appeared to be mentally and physically challenged.)  This incredible gender disparity is a product of China’s one-child policy.  Adopted in 1979 with the goal of limiting population growth, this policy restricts all urban Chinese families to one child apiece.  Rural families are allotted two children, and the eight percent of the population who qualify as minorities are exempt from the policy altogether.  Traditional thought values boys over girls, and so families with a limited number of opportunities to try for a boy sometimes abandon newborn girls.  For obvious reasons, I really struggled with this.

Because I’m entirely unfamiliar with orphanages in general and Chinese methods of child-rearing in particular, I’m finding it very difficult to write an objective report of the babies’ living conditions.  It seems that their basic needs are being met.  The appear to be well-fed.  Their diapers and their clothes are changed on a regular basis.  The institute is clean.  I’m not sure how much more one could legitimately expect.
With that said, the babies spent the great bulk of their time in small cribs made of metal bars and rough, wooden planks.  (Yes, they sleep on wood.)  They often have only a towel for a blanket.  We saw a lot of open sores and runny noses.  We saw no mobiles, no stuffed animals, no books.  We saw neither soap nor baby wipes.  My heart ached every time I entered the rooms where the babies lived, and I found myself wanting to hold each one long enough to instill in her the memory of being touched.  It was not easy, and we left with heavy hearts.  We also left on a mission to purchases a mattress for each crib.
Wensi, a kind woman here in Guangzhou who works at this area’s umbrella adoption agency and speaks fluent English (hooray!) gave up her Saturday today to help us with this task.  All day today, our Chinese guardian angel helped us to navigate this city’s busy streets and its many baby supply stores.  She also helped us to understand a lot of what we’d seen at the orphanage.  For instance, she explained that many Chinese babies sleep on wooden boards because their parents believe that it promotes bone growth.  She also assured us that all of the orphanage’s healthy babies eventually get adopted (not so for the not-so-healthy ones; they often remain institutionalized).  Her agency processed 2,200 adoptions last year alone.  Wensi told us that most Chinese people endorse the one-child policy as a way to prevent food shortages and other pitfalls of over-population.  We left her with a better understanding of how the American lens through which we view the world perhaps made a difficult situation appear even more dire than it actually was.  The perspective she offered was invaluable.

We’re meeting Wensi and her daughter in the morning to discuss over a dim sum brunch the mechanics of procuring crib mattresses (not American-style thick, but with a Chinese-acceptable level of padding) from a nearby factory.  We can only hope that, someday, she’ll visit us in the US so that we can try to repay the incredible kindness that she’s shown us.