When I was about five and my mother was expecting my brother, a neighbor asked me if I wanted her to have a girl or a boy. I remember replying: “I didn’t want the other two––“ My twin sisters–– “In the first place. Why would I want another one?” My mother scolded me for my impertinence, but since then I’ve never really loved children. As an oldest sibling, I always felt I was meant to be an only child.
When one of my IES Abroad classmates invited us to go with her to an orphanage here in Beijing, I was hesitant. The classmate goes every week to volunteer at an orphanage owned by an American organization which is home to parentless children with physical and developmental disabilities. I thought about what I expected an orphanage in China would look like––grey, dark, and cold––and then imagined what it must be like for children with special needs. I don’t like the idea of “voluntourism,” the notion that Westerners go to developing countries, ostensibly to volunteer but mostly to feel good about themselves and take heart-wrenching pictures to post on Facebook. I didn’t want to go to a place like what I imagined this orphanage would be, especially where I thought I’d do nothing but get in the way.
But I realized after a couple of weeks of classes that I was so caught up in my classwork that I was forgetting to get out and experience Beijing. I texted my classmate and told her I would go, just to see what the orphanage was like.
As it happens, my classmate was adopted from China through the same organization, and her mother is a friend of its founder. The organization arranged for her to volunteer at this home while she is studying in Beijing, and she’d already been a couple of times when I joined her. She led me confidently on a circuitous subway route all the way across the city. We walked past a luxury outlets center, past an art museum and a housing development (when you see houses in Beijing you can be sure that their residents are wealthy) and into a more deserted neighbored, with mostly shuttered shopfronts. The orphanage was down a narrow ally lined with ramshackle houses. We turned right and stepped into the home.
It was not what I was expecting. Inside, it was warm and bright. The main room was covered by a glass roof that let in plenty of sunlight. It was quiet, but my classmate assured me that the babies would soon wake up from their nap and come out to play with us and the other volunteers. While we waited, we washed our hands and put protective covers on our shoes, which would keep harmful germs from coming into contact with the children.
Then, they arrived. I watched, at first unsure of what to do, as a few wonderful ayis (the Chinese term for “auntie,” here referring to the women who work at the home) led a dozen children out into the main room. Some were toddlers, not yet quite able to walk. A couple of the children were older, speaking fluidly in Mandarin. One little baby was no more than a few months old. Many had Down’s Syndrome, while others were unable to walk, exhibited autism symptoms, or had heart or respiratory problems. Out of consideration for the kids, we don’t discuss their disabilities in front of them. Instead, I followed my classmate in saying hello to the children.
By my second visit, two babies held me captive by untying my shoelaces while another kid tried to see if I was ticklish. A little girl grabbed onto my sweatshirt and impatiently criticized my Chinese. When we left, they waved. A baby who I’d told stories to and held earlier ran up and hugged me as I left.
In the U.S. many of us have met children who were adopted from China, or were adopted ourselves, but it’s difficult to imagine what the orphanages where as-yet unadopted children live are like. I’ve spent most of the time I’ve been studying in China in affluent neighborhoods and mostly socialized with people who are members of China’s burgeoning middle class. Before going to volunteer at the orphanage, I hadn’t given much thought to the kinds of lives that lower income children, especially orphaned children with special needs, might lead. I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about them.
Last week, another volunteer told us that two of the children with whom we were playing would soon be adopted and move to America. I felt sad that they would be leaving until I reminded myself that in the U.S. they would have loving families and the opportunity to be treated at first-rate hospitals (China’s hospitals are lackluster unless they are privately-owned, which are prohibitively expensive for non-profit orphanages to patronize). I am thankful that there are wonderful families who are happy to adopt children like those who live in the home where I volunteer, even though they have special needs, but even when the couple of children who are about to be adopted leave, there will still be children at the orphanage. For this, I’m glad that my classmate invited us to volunteer with her. It brightens my week to be able to interact with the kids who live there; I hope that I am able to brighten theirs.