This is the second post in a series I am doing on our time spent at James’ SWI and the larger topic of children in China today as it relates to those in foster care, “orphanages”, and the like. If you haven’t read the first post, you should definitely go back and read it before you read this one.
It was very, very surreal. We were finally there, and yet it seemed hard to believe that this place we’d imagined James in, was actually right in front of us. I tried to take it all in and at the same time being intimately attuned to James’ reaction and needs. We approached the gate and waited for someone to come and let us in. James was just very, very quiet. Our guide told him again that we were just visiting to see his friends and say goodbye but I can only imagine it was very confusing for him.
A worker finally came and let us in and I realized that this was likely the first time that James had ever walked through this gate. The first time he had ever been on the outside going on, at least in his own memory. He didn’t indicate wanting to go to any one place, nor did he show any expression of feelings at all at this point. We stood in what I can only describe as sort of a courtyard area, basically cement/blacktop type driveway I guess, and waited for one of the Directors to come. We really had no idea how this worked. We didn’t know if they liked to handle things a certain way, we didn’t know what they would let us see, or what the general feelings were towards us. As we waited we began to see some workers and some of the elderly folks in wheelchairs up the drive near one of the other buildings. And then we heard James begin talking excitedly, calling out to someone he recognized. We had no idea what he was saying but he was pointing and seemed happy. Again, I didn’t know what the rules were, but at that moment I decided I’d act and ask questions later. My son needed a chance to connect so we started going towards the woman he was wanting to see who was calling back to him “Zhi Zhi!”. He looked at us as if to ask if it was okay and we told him yes, yes, it’s okay and he got down and was given a hug and so much affection. Like everyone at the SWI, this woman had no English at all. We did our best to communicate, but our guide was trying to figure out where a Director was, so we just rolled with it, staying close to let James know we were with him, but giving him the space to enjoy these moments. We could hear her saying “mama” and “baba” and smiling so we know she was talking to him about us. A few moments later, another woman came and then another and another. It was awesome to see him happy to see them. It was clear to us then, that they had loved him and wanted him to have a family. We captured some of this on video and in pictures as best we could. The whole time I was thinking, “I hope this is okay?? Are we gonna get in trouble?” but I just didn’t care because I knew this was priceless. He needed to see those he looked to as caregivers keep reaffirming us, and we were able to capture those moments for him to look back on. It was also important for me to say “Thank You” to them. I looked the in the eye, some I took their hands, and said it in English and Cantonese and used my best gestures to say how much we were thankful for them and for him. They would look directly at me and nod their understanding. I so wished I could say more in their language…
I decided to keep heading the direction those women had come from and as we came to the end of the first building we noticed two women hanging laundry on several very long lines. I recognized one from earlier pictures. She seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties. She was clearly not a traditional “worker” like the others. She was dressed differently and was busy at her work, but I got the sense she was reporting to the other women…there is a very good chance she grew up here and when she wasn’t adopted by age 14, when children in China become “unadoptable”, she was allowed to stay on to work and live there. I quickly wondered how she felt about her circumstances. If her heart hurt the way I imagine it might. No doubt she had watched other children leave, heading for loving families, and perhaps always wondered when it would be her turn. And then, why was she never chosen. This would not be the last time I would wonder this about a young girl that day…
The Director came to greet us finally and she was quite excited about James. He didn’t engage with her to the same degree as the others but neither did he seem uncomfortable in any way. We turned to head towards a room on the first floor of the building just inside the gate and that’s when we heard them.
“Zhi Zhi!” a little girl’s voice rang out.
“Zhi Zhi!” we heard from another one.
And then we saw them.
Little hands, little faces, little bodies jumping up and down with excitement from the barred windows of the second story. His friends had heard the news – Zhi Zhi was here – and they couldn’t wait to see him.
My heart lept. I wanted to cry and smile and laugh at the same time. I was really starting to struggle with the loss of James leaving people who he had loved and who had loved him as best they knew how. I knew that it was the better choice for his life, but I just wished it didn’t have to involve this loss. And now…to hear and see his “first family” in these children, was just so intense. It’s hard to find words.
However, I knew that my friend’s future daughter was among these children. I knew her name, her face, and that of her waiting family and I was on a mission. I needed to learn as much as I could for her Momma – to stand in the gap while she waited. I scanned the faces trying to find her and once I did I called out her name. She was likely shocked that I knew it but she eagerly waved back. I wanted to go right up to the kids, but they wanted to give them lunch and wanted to talk to us first.
We stepped in the room and sat down. They offered us lunch. Our train had been delayed and because we had to go back the same day we didn’t get the chance to take the director and some of the ayis (nannies) out to lunch which is customary on a visit. But they knew it was lunchtime and insisted that they feed James. They fussed over him – bringing a special chair and his favorite congee – and I decided to eat some too. I wanted him to see me eating what he had eaten, and I wanted to know what it tasted like so I could try to replicate it at home. It was actually pretty good to me!
We had a nice conversation with the Children’s Director, through our guide. I won’t share everything we talked about here as much of it related to private matters around James’ early days, but what was very interesting was when she said that many of the workers very having a hard time with him being gone – that they wanted him to be happy but they didn’t want him to leave. She kept reassuring us that he is very smart and can really do anything. We made sure to say to her that what they had done in preparing him – in showing him our photo album and teaching him about us – that it was very good and very helpful and like a gift to us. We asked them to please keep doing it for other children and families. We showed them the gifts we had brought and talked about the other needs that they have. Specifically, they need vitamins, diapers, new fans, and money or help to repair a broken A/C. They only have one working mobile unit in the room with the kids. This is in an area of high humidity where 85 feels really cool. And, as is traditional, they layer the kids in clothing almost year round (they ease up in the summer) because they believe children get cold easily. I am working with my friend that is traveling early next year for her daughter to get these supplies to them. Our family is purchasing a big bottle of gummy vitamins from Costco, with an instruction label in Chinese, for each child. We are going to ask for donations to help cover the cost of extra luggage for this family and to put towards the fans and A/C repair.
As good as this conversation was, I was really ready to move on. The kids were waiting and I knew we didn’t have a lot of time. Finally I just asked if we could please go see them. We paused on the stairs to take a picture. This was one of the places they had taken a picture of James to send to us. I knew from our training that it was important to have a visual demonstration of transition for him to look back on. So now we have a picture of him there before he came into our family, and a picture of him there with us as part of our family.
We climbed up the stairs and immediately on our right was a room with all of the children – about 12 altogether ranging in age from what I would guess is 18 months through what we now know is 11. Yes, 11. 18 months to 11 years old. In one room. A room that we would later learn was THE room where James had lived his life to this point. Where he slept, ate, and “played,” for four years. This room was about 15×20, with large metal cribs lining the walls, and an open area in the middle. The older children sat in a row of chairs, as they did in nearly every other picture we had of the group, and the younger ones moved around in walkers. I wasn’t sure where to go first, I wanted to put my arms around all of them. But James knew exactly where he wanted to go, and within seconds of walking in the door this happened…
This is a little girl that we now understand to be akin to what is termed an “institutional sibling” to James. He calls her by her nickname, “Ping Ping”, and she was one of his best friends. Until that moment we’d had no idea. And when this happened my heart nearly stopped because I thought both “yay! he had friends” and “oh my gosh I don’t want him to have to say goodbye.”
I knew about Ping Ping from someone else that had visited this summer. This family had shared with us that the workers had told them they believed she had dwarfism and that she was ELEVEN years old and they liked to give her jobs to help with the younger kids so she would feel like she had a place. (Does she actually have dwarfism? I don’t know. Yes, she’s more the size of a 7 or 8 year old, but who knows why that actually is. What I do know is that she seemed healthy, strong, active and engaged.)
Ping Ping has never been to school. Ping Ping is what we could call a “tween” and she is spending her days caring for other children. How many years has she been doing this? I don’t know. Why was she at this SWI? I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. What I know is this – she will age out of the system in less than 3 years and without a family to adopt her, she will likely live the rest of her life at this SWI hanging laundry, cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, and sleeping in a communal room with other workers, with no opportunity for education, or ever setting foot outside those gates.
This girl was our son’s safe place. This girl has missed out on most of her childhood. Ping Ping was sweet and polite and full of smiles. And I could not get over her dimples.
Ping Ping has kept a part of us in China because she holds a part of James. She holds memories and relationship that is dear to him, and in the few moments we spent with her, she became dear to us. There is more to share, more to say about Ping Ping’s future, but as you celebrate Christmas and the holidays this season with your family, would you pray with us for Ping Ping? She needs a family, she needs a chance. She needs someone willing to be the one used by God to step in and change the direction of her story.
Part 3 in the series: More about our time with the kids, Ping Ping’s future, and why saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.