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Faces of the Abandoned

Faces of the Abandoned

China's orphanages used to be seen as dumping grounds for unwanted children. No longer. An on-scene report from a volunteer caregiver.

Noelle Chun
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 10:01 AM ET Dec 13, 2007

The first time I met Jun Jun, she was quieter than the other children. The reason? She'd been separated from her foster parents and returned to a children's home to ready herself for permanent adoption. At first, she padded around in her puffy purple dress, eyebrows arched as she cautiously watched other kids play before jumping in. But she soon warmed up. Revving back a few paces, she sprinted into my arms. I tossed her up and down amid happy squeals of "yah yah yah yah!" She played with a boldness that often left her on her head or flat on her face. The caretakers practiced lunging as they reached to catch her.

I met Jun Jun during the two and a half weeks I spent in Beijing and its vicinities volunteering at homes for Chinese orphans. I wasn't sure what to expect before I arrived. With access to the homes typically limited, most foreign perceptions of the country's orphanages are informed by pieces such as "The Dying Rooms," a 1995 British hidden-camera documentary that gave rise to a scathing expose of neglect of Chinese orphans.

It's different now. While the conditions of the hundreds of state-run orphanages in China are still largely unknown, U.S. agencies participating in the China Center of Adoption Affairs's international adoption program say that at least some of China's state-run homes are now equipped with better facilities, such as new cribs, heaters, air conditioners and medical equipment. There are no definitive estimates on the number of orphans in China, though Children's Hope International believes there are around 600,000, with 70,000 of them in state-run programs. "Orphanage care in China is superior to that found in any other country," says Katie Biddle of the Hawaii International Adoption Agency. "They really put money into the kids."

The privately run facilities I worked at certainly bore no resemblance to those dying rooms. Instead, I found simple but clean and conscientiously run facilities, taking close care of more than 100 children.

By the time I left, I saw a new side of China. I had seen the painted faces of Shanghai girls in their shiny heels. I had also seen the bare feet of the countryside. But this was the first time I saw the faces of the abandoned. The classic foreign stereotype is that Chinese orphanages are filled with young girls, pushed out of the family by the dual forces of preference for boys and the nation's one-child policy. But these homes were different. Workers cared for the frailest of children, those suffering from serious birth abnormalities such as heart defects, anal atresia, cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida, seizure disorders and other cosmetic abnormalities. Here are some of my experiences:

In Shanxi province, it was hard tell when the day began and ended. The washing machine labored at all hours with its loads of dirty cloth diapers; infants wheezed; oxygen machines hummed and toddlers squealed. The day passed in three shifts of ayi--or aunties, the common term for a caregiver--with one ayi for every two children at any given time. The four home directors lived on-site in rooms adjacent to the main office. The night that 1-month-old Li Li almost died, they traversed sleeplessly between the babies' cribs and their own iron bunk beds, monitoring the delicate little girl's crashing oxygen levels. Earlier that morning, the doctors had said the new rattle in her lung was pneumonia. Through the night, the ayi tirelessly worked to support Li Li's dying respiratory system until the medicine could kick in.

Illnesses such as pneumonia were common, especially among the infants with their fragile immune systems. The ayi kept a special quarantine room with restricted access to minimize infections, but when the humidity got bad enough, that wasn't sufficient. Sick babies often spent hours in the nearby clinic, hooked up to IVs with wet towels on their heads, the ayi stroking their tiny hands while doctors hunted for miniscule veins. When Ban Ban first arrived at the home, the pudgy 2-year-old had been in a coma for months. She suffered from a seizure disorder so severe that the constant trickle of medicine kept her unconscious.

Beth, the home director, took the toddler under wing, following doctors' orders as she slowly reduced her seizure medication. Surprisingly, as Ban Ban's medicine decreased, so did her seizures. Not too soon after, Ban Ban awoke and started crying for the first time in months. In a small way, Ban Ban was re-introduced to life.
Bao Bao doesn't sound like he was born with a birth defect. But you can't miss it when you look at the 4-year-old. The middle of his forehead protruded into a bump about the size of a baby eggplant. It slipped down his nose, where his nostrils were left slightly open. At the peak of his lips, there was a delicate slit. Bao Bao had been told about another place--America--where he will receive surgery to smooth out his forehead and reshape his nose. When he is big and strong enough, that's when he will go.

But that will come later. For now, Bao Bao, two ayi and I sprawled across the beds of a three-story sleeper car on our way to Beijing, where he was to be taken into the care of a new foster family. He spent the eight-hour ride by singing "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" in Chinese and by eating Bugles, peaches, bread, instant noodles, cucumber, dried haw candy and strawberry and milk drinks. "Wo chi bao le, jiu la si le!" he cried, in lispy Mandarin: "I eat 'till I'm full, then poop to death!"

Bao Bao was not the only orphan going to Beijing. Across from Bao Bao and his ayi, 1-month-old Xiao Cong curled up quietly against the breast of his caretaker. Cong Cong was born with anal atresia, which meant he had no anus. Weeks earlier, doctors had attempted reconstruction, but the surgery failed--possibly because Cong Cong was still too young. That left him dangerously susceptible to infection. Staff at the orphanage wanted him treated in Beijing, where hospital resources are better. Halfway through the journey, the man in the bunk above Bao Bao descended. He paged through Bao Bao's photo memory book with him.

"Who is that?" the man asked.

"Bao Bao!"

"Who are your mother and father?"

"He has no mother and father," said Bao Bao's ayi. "Bao Bao, who is your mommy?"

Bao Bao starts listing names immediately.

"Who are these people?" asked the man.

"They're the aunties in the orphanage," the ayi responded, smiling.


The building is almost a mirror image of the Beijing children's home across the way. The room has the same large playroom, matching foam play mats on the ground and bedrooms with cribs. The ayi even wear the same blue floral tops.

The difference, though, is immeasurable. This is the place children come when all possibilities of cure are exhausted. This is the orphan hospice. The children laughed and rolled around on the play mats, clear oxygen tubes dangling from their noses. Two toddlers with inoperable heart defects sat on the laps of the ayi. The youngsters were small and thin for their ages. Their mouths, fingers and toes were tinged with purple hue from lack of oxygen, as if they had eaten too many blueberries.

Nearby, a boy and a girl, both 2-year-olds with encephalitis, lay on pillows on the play surface. Internal fluid had inflated the top of their heads to about the size of a soccer balls. Their delicate skin looked shiny and translucent, the tautness pulling a vastness into their eyes, as they looked around wildly. They held my hand tightly when I slipped my finger in their palms. They smiled at dangling toys.

Some of the children had to stay in their cribs, spina bifida curving their backs into an extreme S shape. The ayi wheeled their beds into the main playroom, so they could join everyone else.

This home only gives up when the last thread of hope is severed.

The young girl with encephalitis, Tai Tai, went to doctors around the country to see if an operation could save her. All the doctors said they could not place a shunt to drain the fluid, but the hospice workers still want to try one more doctor in Hong Kong.

A dying life, hospice workers say, is just as valuable as a living one. They bounce the children up and down, played ball with them and hugged them to fill the babies' pitifully last few days with affection. Although the organization itself is not a religious one, some Roman Catholic staff sometimes baptize the babies before they die, hoping to give them a heavenly Father in absence of an earthly one.
Permanent adoption is the best option for these children. Jun Jun was one of the lucky ones. Her ride arrived in the early morning, while the directing staff was still eating breakfast in the kitchen and Jun Jun was still asleep. The ayi gently shook her awake and dressed her in the prettiest clothes they could find--green pants with embroidered flowers, a yellow dress with a collar and tapered sleeves, and pink plastic sandals. When it was time to go, Jun Jun climbed into the van herself. She was smiling as the door closed.

For the most part, where adopted children live remained a mystery to the ayi. Children who still had physical or mental abnormalities could not be adopted within China. But those like Jun Jun, who had come to the children's home with a cleft palate, could go anywhere in the world if they were in perfect health.

Esther, the youngest ayi to take care of Jun Jun, left before Jun Jun rolled away in the orphanage van. I found her inside the kitchen washing applesauce off plastic bowls. Her glasses seemed to need constant cleaning that morning, and she took them off frequently to wipe on her tunic.

Later on the way to the park, I asked her how she felt when she had to say goodbye. She took her glasses off again, wiped them and put them back on. And then she smiled. "I feel happy for them," she said. "I really don't like to say goodbye, but they are going to go to have a new family that loves them. We hope it for them all."

Editor's Note: Names of the children mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their identities.

2007 Dec 13