Arriving at the orphanage brought on a huge feeling of déjà vu. From the narrow back alley leading to the ancient gates, to the laoren (old people) sitting around bundled in coats smoking their brown cigarettes, it was the same sort of sad atmosphere that I experienced at the other orphanage. However, it was obviously a much poorer institute, without the frills to impress visitors that I have seen previously.
Anticipation at a bursting point, we all exited the cars and the director immediately asked if we wanted to come to her office first or see Xiao Gou. Um…..hello….doesn’t she realize I flew half way around the world to see the girl who captured my heart so long ago? I was so close—I couldn’t possible sit through a short meeting knowing she was only a mere feet away. Lucy explained that I was too excited to see Xiao Gou and we headed to the big, gray building that housed the children. In the door, the director led us down the surprisingly clean but very cold hall. The red Chinese New Year decorations hanging from the ceiling floated gently in the wind as we passed below, making me wonder just who had created the art work. We passed a big room that appeared to be used as a school room at one time. Now the desks were just jumbled or stacked together and all but abandoned. There was a boy of about 12 or so standing at the window with his jacket pulled tight around him, just staring at the brick wall. I wondered why he wasn’t in school and also why our arrival didn’t even break his concentration for a minute. He continued to stare and we walked on by.
At a door marked with a 218, the director knocked gently. In only a few seconds, the door opened and there stood Xiao Gou with a huge, shy grin on her face. I am not even sure what was going on around me, or even what Amanda was saying, as I was so over-whelmed with emotion and awe that despite the many obstacles, I had found her. I do remember I called her name, “Xiao Gou!” and went to her and hugged her. She was happy, yet a little wary, and I wasn’t completely sure at first that she remembered us. She looked beautiful, despite her chopped off hair. I expected her to be taller, and at first I thought she hadn’t grown much but now that I think about how I used to tote her around, and how at her current height that would be impossible, I know she has indeed grown quite a bit. Her hair of course, was cut very short—which made me sad because I know what a prissy girl she is. She was wearing a long, pink coat and was using the same antique-looking crutch I had seen in a picture. I asked about the crutches that we donated that I mailed and they said they were too tall for her yet. The speed at which she moved with that one leg and one crutch is amazing—she uses quite a little wiggle and it was hard to see the technique under the long coat, but she doesn’t struggle at all to walk.
We sat down on the bed that the director said was Xiao Gou’s, and Xiao Gou sat between Amanda and I. Using my choppy Mandarin, I told her I had missed her very, very much. She didn’t reciprocate the words, but instead continued to give me a shy smile. Feeling a bit surreal at the situation, I brought out the little photo book we had made her, and we went through pictures of her with us in our house in China and of her with her friends in the other SWI. I would point at a picture of her and ask her who it was and she’d exclaim, “Wo!” –So she could recognize herself. Then I started pointing to ones of her and Amanda and she said, “Jie Jie“. (big sister) The only ones she didn’t recognize were of her friends in the orphanage, which I thought very strange. Maybe she has buried a lot of her memories from there, I am not sure.
When I called her Xiao Gou, she laughed and told Lucy that she had forgotten that was her name but we had reminded her. She was really pleased each time she heard it. The longer we were there, the more relaxed and playful she became, until she was cuddled fairly close to Amanda with me sitting near, trying to refrain from grabbing her and hugging and kissing her for an hour at least. I know to a little girl, three years is a long time and I didn’t want to come across too strong or scare her with my emotions, so I played it fairly cool. However, it was obvious to those around us that I could not get enough of looking at her, and I am not sure if they heard the thumping of my heart or the silent prayers of thanksgiving that I was offering up for being able to be reunited with her. I wanted to drink in every moment with her and I wished desperately for some privacy that I knew would not come.
I wanted to know as much as possible about her current life situation so I started by asking questions about the room. Where does she sleep? Who sleeps beside her? Does the ayi sleep in the same room? What time does she go to school? What time does she come back? How is she doing in school? Does she take care of her own colostomy needs? Etc..etc..
We brought out the book of puzzles we brought her and with a very determined look on her face, she immediately started working on one. I told her not to pull out all the pieces because I really thought it was may be too difficult of a level for her. But as we all talked, she quickly put the puzzles together. During the ‘puzzle time’, the director told us Xiao Gou is the smartest girl in their orphanage and I believe it! Her personality was the same, if not a bit more serious. But snippets of her sassiness kept emerging and she let out a few magnificent giggles that were music to my ears.
The lady who is Xiao Gou’s ayi was there and she was quite overwhelmed with all of the commotion. I got a very good feeling from her and it was evident with the body language of the children that she is a good nanny. In that room she is in charge of care for Xiao Gou, a baby boy of about age 2 and an adorable 5-year-old girl named Fu Ji. The ayi has a bed in the room and I was relieved to see each bed had a thick quilt folded up on top, ready to use. It was amazingly cold in there! However, I spotted a heater high up on the wall and asked if it worked. They said it did and that made me feel better, even if it is only used to warm the room for baths. There was also a working television in the room and a table and two chairs used for eating meals. All in all, it was more cozy than I expected and a complete contradiction to the institutional atmosphere of the other orphanage I worked in. But that being said, it was still not a place I would want a child to live out their childhood. It was gray, cold and even with the attempt at brightening the atmosphere with various wall hangings and decorations, it brought me a heavy feeling of depression.
The other child in the room, Fu Ji, is the happiest girl I’ve ever seen in an orphanage! She kept smiling and rocking back and forth on her chair. She was so excited to see us so I soon told her to come join us on the bed. She hopped over as if she was saying, “I thought you’d never ask!” We brought out the Tootsie Pops and they were a huge hit. I did a no-no and stuffed several in the pockets of the girls. All this was going on with a small crowd of people watching everything and taking pictures—I really don’t think they are very accustomed to seeing foreigners. Despite her aversion to being the center of attention, Amanda did very well and just focused on Xiao Gou and Fu Ji, and blocked out the audience. The girls were obviously smitten with Amanda, and Xiao Gou even looked a bit jealous a few times when too much attention was given to Fu Ji.
After some time, we had to say goodbye because the director wanted to take us to her office to partake in a snack of fruits. We promised Xiao Gou and Fu Ji that we’d be back tomorrow. Xiao Gou accepted our goodbye in her usual reserved manner while Fu Ji kept bellowing, “Mingtian hui lai! Mingtian hui Lai!” (Tomorrow come back!)
On the way to the office, the director asked if we would allow them to take us to dinner. Though we were starving, we were more exhausted and really didn’t have the energy to sit through a Chinese formal meal. But in China, it is all about formalities so we said yes. After a few minutes of snacking on fruit (a banana never looked so good!), we headed to the restaurant.
Once we arrived at the busy Chinese restaurant, I had a problem. It had been a full day (no pun intended) without even once using the bathroom and even though I had put my bladder through Olympic training before leaving the states, I had pushed it way past its limits. I asked to use the restroom and psyched myself up for the traditional Chinese toilet. But lo and behold, it was Western-style toilet! But hold your applause, because it was marked with footprints and soaked with pee, which meant I would have to hover. There was not enough toilet paper available for wiping the seat clean, so I prepared for business.
Unfortunately, my back is not what it used to be so I had to beg-plead-bargain assistance from Amanda. She had to hold my shoulders as I hovered because my back muscles (and frequent spasms) would not allow me to hold myself up in that precarious position for more than 10 seconds. Unfortunately, the room was tiny, (it only held one toilet) and everyone was sitting on the other side of the door, and could obviously hear us. Amanda felt like she couldn’t hold on to me long enough, as I was holding close to 10 gallons in my reserve tank. It just wouldn’t stop and my cut off valve was not functioning! So she started saying, “I have to let go, Mama! I can’t hold you!”
I was laughing and yelling, “NO! Amanda! Don’t let go! Don’t let me fall on the pee!” We were both hysterical with laughter— it had been a physically and emotionally exhausting day that had started at 4 am, and I think we were past silly and rounding the bend of delirious. I was finally able to stop the flow before she dumped me on the wet seat, and I realized my training should have included hovering instead of just holding.
So– now that I’ve told way too much– back to the meal. We sat down and the first thing they do is bring us forks! How embarrassing, but we didn’t use them. We were a little rusty on the chopsticks but got the hang of it after awhile. We would have made Ben proud because we really tried most things (except fish for me) and didn’t even squirm at the whole birdies or the shrimps with antennas and eyes. Many of the dishes were familiar and I believe the director was pleased with our willingness to try their food. She may not have realized, but that wasn’t my first Chinese meal. She did insist, however, that me and Amanda have some Bai Jiu. (White liquor) I continued to say no and she was disappointed. I know that she wanted to use it to make toasts— as she made about 50, but they instead used their milk or water, and we used coke. Each time she would stand up and make a toast, Amanda and I would also jump to our feet and we had no idea what she was toasting to. We caught a few words here and there but her local dialect was almost impossible for our amateur ears to understand.
I was so relieved that the director was such a nice woman. Her compassion and politeness towards us was pleasantly surprising. It is really humbling to be treated like such significant guests, when I know that we are really just average, everyday people. The formal meal, just like I remembered, seemed to go on forever. I waited the appropriate time and then began asking questions about Xiao Gou. I felt that with the unknowns of Lucy staying or not staying with me to translate, I had better get as much information as possible while I had the chance. My focus never wavered, I knew I was not there to enjoy a fancy meal or rub elbows with important people. My reason for this journey was sitting in a frigid room, in an all but forgotten building, miles away.
That is all for now. The next day after a nice visit and a shopping trip with Xiao Gou for her and the rest of the orphanage, and her being pushed around the store in a shopping cart by Amanda, the story takes a dramatic turn. I faced a few minutes of complete fear, along with some positive feedback mingled in with negative news. Because of the sensitive nature of Xiao Gou’s story and the realization that random words can affect the fate of a child, I will only tell more of our story when we get our happy ending. It may be still just out of reach, but I will never give up. For now, I will continue to tell myself that my gut says Xiao Gou is in as safe as a place as can be expected for the moment, and that she has an ayi that genuinely cares for her.