When I first starting working in the orphanage in China, I was a little startled by the way the children would soothe themselves. Many times I would walk by an infant lying in a crib staring at what seemed to be nothing but completely enraptured by it. I’d say, “Maybe they are seeing angels.”
Later I noticed other actions that proved the children were unaccustomed to human interaction or consolation. The way a child would rock back and forth endlessly, or how they would be completely engrossed in the ragged strings that tied their bedding to the rails. Some would just lay there motionless, even when we’d attempt to interact with them—or they’d flinch if we tried to touch them.
Xiao Gou, my little heart who I became attached to, would come to our house for visits and one day I thought to give her a pen and paper. She sat for over an hour drawing the same tiny little circles all over her paper, over and over—almost as if she was in a trance. Later when she began to emerge from her shell, she graduated to writing Chinese characters of different words and little stick figures, but that original piece of paper was like a knife in my heart.
The many techniques children develop for their own self-preservation is interesting. However, what is amazing is how the children changed after they were introduced to a different form of human interaction than what they were accustomed to. Small gestures of affection like a touch on a cheek or the stroking of their hair were quickly something that they craved more of, once they experienced it. I still remember how little Jia Jia would pull my hand to her face and just hold it there quietly, as if she was drawing strength from my body to hers with that sweet gesture. It was enough for her to have that small touch, she didn’t ask for more.
For me as a volunteer who was only there a small part of their monotonous days, I struggled with the gift we were giving them opposed to taking it away for hours on end. Was it better for them to not know what they were missing? Or were our pitiful attempts of love what kept many of them going in their survival mode? For many years I would go to bed and attempt to block out visuals of the children performing their unique self-soothing actions, just so that I could continue on in my mission of trying to make a difference one child at a time.
So many people say to me, “I don’t see how you did it day after day. I just couldn’t do it.”
What I want to say in return is, “How could I not?”
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