Inside an Orphanage

I’ve lived through many traumatic days in recent years, ones that replay in my mind over and over, ones that I will never forget.  The day I went to visit Abby’s orphanage (or SWI – Social Welfare Institute – as they are known in China) is one of these days.

Mike was sick on Friday, January 9th – well, much sicker than I was, so I went by myself with Abby, Ely, Lulu, and our guide, Helen.  Panyu SWI was about 45 minutes away from our hotel.  During the ride there, I held Lulu on my lap and prayed.  I knew what was about to happen would be extremely emotional for me.  I also knew I had to be strong and not let emotions overtake me for Abby’s sake.  What I did not know was how emotional our visit was about to be for little Lulu.

When we arrived, I recognized the entrance and the play yard from the videos of Abby, videos we had watched dozens and dozens of times.  Each time, the play yard seemed the same, and the little girl running and sliding aged.  We were here – at the setting of all the photos and videos, in person.  It all seemed so surreal.  This time would be the final picture of the little girl on the swing.  I wondered how many times our new daughter had swung on that swing and how many memories she had created there.

As soon as we exited the van, Lulu began to cry.  We were greeted at the door by the orphanage director, and as we entered the building, Lulu began to cry again.  Not whimper.  She all out screamed.  She did this all day long.  Every time we walked through a door, entered a room, stepped into the elevator, saw a metal-barred crib or another little face. I tried to keep her busy and distracted with lots of lots of snacks, but she screamed all the same with her mouth full. There was no doubt Lulu was petrified of being returned to an orphanage.  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t her SWI; every sight, smell, and sound brought back memories for her.  It astounded me that in the five short days she had been with us, she knew life with us was worlds apart from what she had known.

Ely, Abby, and Lulu at the SWI

Ely, Abby, and Lulu at the SWI

The first stop of our orphanage “tour” was the office, where we were served boiling hot water in flimsy plastic cups.  Abby downed hers, and I sipped mine to be polite.  I asked as many questions I could think of about Abby’s schooling, friends, routine, and foster family.  I learned that Abby had only been in a formal school setting for two years, and the school which she had attended was for children with vision issues.  I learned that she had spent a maximum of a year-and-a-half with her foster family. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out whether she had been with her foster family for a consecutive year-and-a-half or whether she had been with them on and off.  Something was lost in translation.  I also couldn’t get clarification on when Abby’s time with her foster family came to an end.

While in the office, we presented the director with candy for the children and a gift for Abby’s friend.  After about fifteen minutes of conversation, Abby was getting really antsy and asked the director if she could go outside.  Outside we went.  Thankfully, the weather was nice, and Abby had one last hoorah with her treasured outdoor toys.  On this day, though, she had a big brother to push her and play with her and swing with her.  She had a mother to clap and cheer and snap pictures as if she were a toddler learning to maneuver the playground for the first time.

Ely pushing Abby on the tractor at her SWI

Ely pushing Abby on the tractor at her SWI

The orphanage workers smiled and laughed and gushed over Ely and their budding relationship.  They asked me lots of questions with the help of our guide, including about where we’d send Abby to school.  Our guide explained that I homeschooled.  The orphanage staff members weren’t too sure, so I added that my husband and I were both teachers, and that I had taught at a nearby university.  They reacted with vigorous nods, smiles, and thumbs up.  Their eyes communicated the bittersweet-ness of this moment for them, too.  They were saying goodbye to a child they had raised from an itty bitty baby.

Ely, Mommy, and Abby on the swing at the SWI

Ely, Mommy, and Abby on the swing at the SWI

After a short while playing outside, we headed back inside.  The orphanage director warned against seeing the baby room for fear of catching stomach illness and also told us that we could not take photos of any children. I was really disappointed, but I smiled weakly and nodded.

Abby looking at the plaque on her bed.

Abby looking at the plaque on her bed.

We visited the room where Abby slept as a 2-5 year old, and we visited the room where Abby slept up until the time she joined our family.  Both rooms were lined with lots and lots of identical metal-barred beds.  Some beds were the size of toddler beds, and some were slightly larger, but nowhere near the size of a normal twin bed.  Abby’s bed still had her name and DOB on the footboard plaque.  Ely smiled a bit too happily and pointed at it.  Abby squatted down and examined it, a contemplative look upon her face.

Sleeping quarters at the SWI

Sleeping quarters at the SWI

The plaque on Abby's bed with her name on it.

The plaque on Abby’s bed with her name on it.

Next we visited Abby’s “classroom.”  It was an L-shaped room, part of which resembled a primitive kitchen, and the other part of which had a long table flanked with shelves lined with a few educational supplies.  Here, a group of ten or so children were gathered watching two classmates play Chinese checkers.  The kids’ reactions ranged from excited to cautious to curious.  Most of them seemed really happy to see Abby.  These were the kids Abby had grown up with.  I remember three of the children in particular.  One boy, whose name is now Preston, was about to be adopted.  When the orphanage director told us this, the boy beamed from ear to ear and seemed unafraid of the enormous life change that was about to take place for him.  I will never forget the way his face absolutely lit up that day.

There was another boy who was also in the process of being adopted.  Then there was a third child, who I initially thought was a boy and who reminded me of one of my favorite Lanai students.  The way she peered at me with her soul-piercing gaze just broke my heart.  It was like she was sending me an unspoken message:  please, please…take me too.  Oh darling, how my whole being wishes I could.

It was in that room that I learned that out of the thirty Panyu children whose paperwork was submitted for adoption in 2014, that ONLY TWO were chosen:  Preston and our Abby.  I swear I could hear a few more little pieces of my heart break.

And then came the baby room.  They weren’t going to let me see it.  They had closed the door every time we had walked by previously, but I could tell the orphanage director really liked me, so I asked.  She said I could peek in for a minute, but I could absolutely not take photos.

The door creaked open.  I left Lulu in the hallway where I could see here and took a few steps inside.  What struck me first was the absolute silence.  There was not a peep coming from the room.  No crying, no whining, no babbling, no laughing.  Nothing.  The babies had been conditioned that no one would come if they cried.  No one would respond; no one would pick them up; no one would comfort them; no one would babble back or affirm their attempts to communicate.

The babies were rolled up in layers upon layers of clothing like little burritos. Their topmost layer, a heavy comforter, was wrapped around them so that they laid horizontally, unable to move.  I saw little faces, most of which stared blankly.  I saw a few eyes blink, a few weak smiles when I made eye contact, and only one of whom attempted to return my wave.  A baby with Down Syndrome.  He was still attempting to reach out for affection.  Bless his little heart.  The orphanage director informed me that no one wants babies with Down Syndrome.  I informed her that she was wrong about that.

The director volunteered some information about the babies: which ones were likely to be adopted and which ones weren’t, the breakdown of special needs.  She told me that children remain in this room until they are two-years-old.  I quietly asked as many questions as I could before their embarrassment got the best of them and they shooed us out and closed the door.

I knew that they were ashamed of the condition of the babies.  I knew that they knew babies should not live like this, without holding or cuddling, without the opportunity to move and play and interact. I also knew they did not have any alternatives.  There were only two nannies to a room of thirty or so babies.   How do you take care of that many babies with only a few child care workers?  You only change diapers a few times a day at the scheduled time.  You only feed a few times a day – watered down, sugared up rice formula.  You only let the babies out to play during a short scheduled playtime in a cement-floored playroom, if at all.  And you condition the babies not to cry and to sleep for twenty hours a day…so you don’t go insane.  And you certainly don’t let anyone in to photograph the silent, hopeless-eyed, half-starved little ones so as not to expose the inhumanity of it all.

But the thing is, after visiting in person, I felt almost as much compassion for the nannies as I did for the babies.  I knew that their hands were tied.  I wept inside for all those involved and the vicious perpetual cycle that exists: nannies do their best but can’t meet the needs of all the orphaned babies, they prevent outsiders from visiting and photographing and advocating from the orphaned babies, then there are more orphanage babies and the cycles starts all over again.

The last stop on the tour was the 2-5 year old room.  Against the director’s advice, I went into the room to see the kids.  They were sitting, again, completely silently, at kid-sized tables in a cement-floored room, staring at a TV.  There were a few pictures here and there on the wall, but mostly, the walls were bare.  There were no toys that I could see and no toys even stored anywhere that I could tell.  I stooped down to the level of the kids, smiled, and said, “Hi!”  For almost every little face that looked back at me, it was like Christmas.  They stared, wide-eyed, in wonder and amazement, soaking in the attention, relishing in the interaction.  Little hands waved, and little voices chorused, “hi, hi!” over and over again.  I was informed that most of these children had more significant needs and adoption paperwork would never be prepared for them.

On our way out, I looked around once again, taking it all in…the institutional setting, the old photo-copied pictures of Mickey and Minnie and worn posters of child Anime characters.  The stairwells reminded me of our college dorm – cement and peeling paint, cold, metal railings.  Everything felt cold.  The smells were of bleach and other harsh chemical cleaners mixed with oil, meat, and Chinese spices.  The colors were mostly pastels with some brightness mixed in.

We stopped to take some photos at the entrance before we left.  Everyone generally looks happy in our final photos there (except, of course, for Lulu).  Photos can lie.

In front of Panyu SWI

In front of Panyu SWI

As we left, I prayed that my new daughter would find peace and closure from our visit.  And I knew, after looking into all those pleading little eyes, that I could never tell God no if He called me to do this again.


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2 thoughts on “Inside an Orphanage

  1. Diana says:

    Beautifully written, and yes, people really DO want to adopt babies with Down syndrome. We do too! Praying xx

  2. Your experience sounds so similar to going to an orphanage in Ukraine…and I’m sure many other places around the world. It’s so heartbreaking. Children belong in families. Thank you for documenting your trip. Hope your adjustment home with your new ones is going well.

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