Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Thoughts on a Homeland Tour by Steve Ross

Michelle and Amy in Lijiang, Yunan


During this past summer, Sandi, our two daughters, ages 7 and 10, and I returned to China, where the girls had been adopted as infants. For the adults, this was our 4th trip to the PRC over 21 years; for the girls, this was to be their first real chance to get to know their country of birth. Our oldest had been to China at 3 ½ to get her then baby sister, but she only remembers what the pictures tell her of that trip. On this trip we traveled for 35 days all over China, from Lijiang and Kunming, in the southwest near the Burma border, all the way north to Beijing. We got to see an incredible range of historical sites and experience the wondrous variety of sceneries, places and peoples that make China what it is today.

Our girls rode yaks up in the mountains of Yunnan Province, camels in a Song Dynasty theme park outside Hangzhou, bamboo rafts on a gentle river amidst the incomparable scenery of the Guilin-Yangshou region, and bicycle rickshaws in a Hutong area near downtown Beijing. They climbed the Great Wall, walked the Forbidden City in what was at times a downpour, tried their hands at Chinese knotting, cloisonné making, and ink-block printing, and took a boat ride down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges area.

As importantly, our daughters also had the chance to visit their hometowns and orphanages (i.e., Social Welfare Institutes or SWIs)! Our older girl came to us from a blue-collar, smokestack, industrial city 3 hours from the provincial capital in southeastern China. Now a retirement home, the old orphanage--the one our daughter was at for most of the time before her adoption--consisted of 3 one-storied rectangular buildings that looked like dilapidated bungalows with multiple rooms all facing a overgrown courtyard. By contrast, the newer orphanage was multi-storied white tile and glass edifice, with well manicured grounds and a warm and welcoming staff, some of whom had actually been there long enough to have known our daughter as an infant. While visiting, we were able to see, play with and hold some of the nearly two dozen 12-20 month old children awaiting adoption. The children seemed very energetic, clean, well cared for, with good eye contact and good motor skills for their ages. My daughters were quite smitten by some of the children they played with and held. Indeed, we all were tempted to take a few ‘more’ children home with us! The staff, by the way, seemed fully engaged with the children, and even the male director--who was probably 50 something--held and actively played with the children.
Our younger daughter came from a major city and provincial capital in southeastern China. Like the city itself, our younger daughter’s orphanage has completely changed. Most of the old facility (a model in 1999, with a then new children’s building) has been demolished and the ground has been taken over for still another amongst the many high rises dotting the city skyline facing the Yangtze River, and the remainder of the property (including the once model children’s building) is now used primarily as a senior citizens’ home. The new orphanage, a gleaming, white marble building built around an inner courtyard, has been located completely out of the city to a rice field studded countryside, purportedly because the air is better and the noise is less in the countryside. It was also hinted that many of the children abandoned these days are found in the countryside. Very few young children were actually in this new orphanage when we visited, and those that were there were either small babies who were too ill to be placed in foster homes, or infants with recent surgeries who were recovering, or a handful of older preschoolers who were awaiting adoptions. We were told that many of the orphanage’s charges were actually under the care of foster families, with a few more lodged at the old folks’ home while attending school in the city.

With another family, we also visited the Shanghai Social Welfare Institute, a model orphanage with a cheerful, new, state of the art facility and with skilled staff ready to handle healthy and handicapped children, each according to their needs. We were told that the social workers monitor the well-being of the children in the institution, as well as doing weekly visits to foster family homes.

From our experiences during the trip, we were able to make some observations and drew some conclusions. First, there is significantly more affluence in China than there has ever been before. Second, China is demolishing and building things so quickly that it leaves one’s head spinning. With all the new wealth and economic activity, it is not surprising that the economic pressures, and some of the political ones too, that have lead to many past abandonments, are easing—at least in some larger cities in China. That means that, comparatively, a greater percentage of the abandoned children are showing up in rural areas than in the past. Another good sign: the placement of orphans in foster families has increased substantially over the past few years (at least since 1999, when we ourselves last adopted). Nevertheless, there still seems to be a lot of healthy, beautiful Chinese children--boys as well as girls--waiting for adoption into good homes; and there seems to be a commitment by the Chinese to provide these orphaned children with nurturance not only of their physical needs but also of their developmental, social and emotional needs. Still the quality of the care and of the facilities varied substantially depending on where the orphanage was located and the economic health of the region. Thus far, most SWIs do not have the resources to establish and operate a model orphanage, with rehabilitation services and even a hydrotherapy facility, like that now in Shanghai. All told, ours was a wonderful journey that gave our adopted daughters a positive and hopefully memorable trip of their birth country.

Steve, proud dad of 2 Gladney girls from China

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