I remember a day in China when I asked my driver to go with me to buy train tickets. In other words, I hinted for him to drive me so that he could work his way through the mob to buy my tickets while I watched from the safety of the backseat of the car.
He understood completely.
I can’t remember where it was I wanted to go but it was probably to Xi’an or Beijing—or maybe even to Shanghai for shopping.
But back to the story.
The train station was located out of town and quite a distance away from my home. When we first moved to China, our company let us borrow a small, black Volkswagen Passat. I hated that car.
Seriously. I absolutely hated it. Why, you ask? Because we were an American minivan family! We were used to having unreasonable space all around us. Space we didn’t really need but were accustomed to! (Um…the word you are searching for is spoiled)
In the tiny Passat, my six foot something husband and lanky daughter and I were crammed in the backseat like sardines. To make matters worse, within the close confinement and chaotic driving of the Chinese drivers combined with the weaving about, it wouldn’t take long before one of them was moaning and begging to get out of the car—most of the time to vomit. After a year of that, I suddenly developed my own version of motion sickness.
That began the negotiations for a minivan that turned into a standoff between my husband and the higher uppers. Ultimately we got our minivan, used and scarred a bit, but we were content to be higher off the ground, have more room, and felt sufficiently spoiled enough to keep the motion sickness to a manageable level.
But back to the story. Again.
On this day my driver was not particularly pleased to spend his day taking the Tai Tai (that’s me) to the train station. Though he was paid extra to drive the family around, he would much rather spend his time in the drivers’ lounge at my hubby’s factory, playing cards with the other drivers. So to passively aggressively show his dismay, that day he treated me to a ride that would have been Nascar worthy.
But I’m proud to say that I showed no weakness. Never let them see you sweat.
I played with my phone, flipped through a magazine, and fluttered my eyelashes as if I were on a slow cruise through the Pacific as I silently fumed and gritted my teeth. You have to understand, ours was a love/hate relationship. Against all warnings, we had become too close to our driver and his family. We’d even gone to his home for dinner, much to the complete shock of some of our expat friends. We were helping him to plan for his upcoming birth of his son—and had even committed to buying the crib after explaining to him that in our family, that was a gesture always picked up by the grandparents or godparents. And Richard adored us. Except when he hated us. He even told us one day, “I want to have a happy family, like you.” That was after as a family we sang Christmas carols all the way home during a 2-hour drive from Shanghai. (He is probably still wondering to this day who Rudolph is and why his nose was so red..)
Back to the story. Okay! I’m getting to the point!
Finally through the madness of traffic we arrived at the train station and Richard (as he asked us to call him) flipped the car into a tight spot, threw it in Park and turned around.
“Where you want to go and how much you want to pay?”
I spent a moment emphasizing to him that I wanted to pay the going rate and no more. I handed him some cash and he was off, disappearing through the crowd and probably mumbling his frustrations at having to baby sit the boss’ wife.
As always, I took the time to ‘people watch’. Being such a big part of the orphanage world, I was always on the lookout for children. Also knowing that children were frequently abandoned in the train stations around China, I was especially watchful to see if I could find anyone who appeared suspicious with their child(ren) in tow. What would I do if I suddenly saw someone put their child down and walk away? I don’t know—knowing me I’d probably chase them down and tackle them and as I sat on their chest, poke them in the eye. (just kidding, guys. A little)
As I watched the crowd, I failed to notice a woman approaching my car. It wasn’t until she was only a few inches from the glass that she caught my attention. It was a cold day and the woman wore a long dress of some sort, and her head was wrapped in a multitude of scarves. I smiled at her and she beckoned for me to roll down the window. I hesitated and she waved some tiny flowers impaled on sticks at me.
The windows were electric and the car was not on. I looked to the front area to see if Richard had left the keys and I saw him bolting back to the car. He opened the door and jumped in, then locked it.
“Don’t look at her. Don’t speak to her.” He bellowed at me.
Richard was usually very soft-spoken. Even when angry, instead of articulating his irritation he usually simmered quietly. For him to yell at me was shocking.
“Richard! What’s wrong?”
“She is gypsy. A fortune teller. She will curse you and your children if you no give her money.” He quickly began backing out of the parking space.
I can’t say I am a believer of fortune telling and cursing generations and such—but then again, I’m not a non-believer. I guess you could say I like to err on the side of caution.
“Stop and let me give her some money.” I instructed him. What would it hurt to give her 50 yuan to ensure my children’s futures were curse free, after all?
“Bu keyi. Cannot. I am very afraid.” He returned, and refused to stop.
Richard had never told me no before. His fear of the woman and her powers were something indeed, for he quickly drove away while reminding me not to look in the eyes.
It’s years later now. And I guess she didn’t curse me or my children. We are doing okay—minus the few ups and downs many families have. However, she might have blown some magic dust on me as we backed away because my career as an author has really taken off.
So if you are out there, Dear Miss Gypsy Fortune Teller, thank you if you are the one who sent three of my books sailing to the best-selling lists on Amazon!
After a harrowing ride from the quiet (civilized) community I live, through nightmare traffic (uncivilized) and kamikaze drivers trying to bully me out of their way, we finally arrived at the Atlanta airport. My daughter and I searched and searched for a parking spot but one that would fit my over-sized tank was not to be found. (Once again I cursed my impulsive decision to buy the SUV and wished I had gone with what I had always wanted—a smaller Honda Accord with a sunroof and spoiler on the back) Short on time and patience, I carefully eased through the too-close metal dividers and drove to the highest level of the parking deck and maneuvered into the first space I found. Finally on foot, we made our way to the filthy elevator and went down a level, played Frogger as we dodged cars to get to the terminal, and then asked directions from an airport employee who was hanging about outside with a cigarette in one hand and a vampire novel in the other.
An escalator ride, a few more direction-asking-moments and we finally (miraculously) stood in the Arrival Lobby to wait for the moment when Amanda would be reunited with her best friend from China. Since leaving the expat life in China, the girls have gotten together numerous times in various states—Michigan, Texas, South Carolina and now Georgia. Their bond is one I know will never be broken, as they share many memories from all over the map. Amanda was so excited that I could not persuade her to go for a bathroom detour, and her eyes remained fixed on the hallway the new arrivals were streaming through. Knowing the first thing she would notice was Madi’s naturally platinum hair, she relentlessly searched the crowds for each blonde and scrutinized her face before moving on to the next stranger.
As we waited and I tried to ignore the traffic-induced back spasms, I struck up a conversation with the tattooed man beside me. I saw him give directions to a lost passenger and he was obviously very familiar with the airport layout so I asked if he could direct me to where to pick up Delta luggage. I knew that as soon as the girls were together, they wouldn’t be much help and I wanted to get a head start on getting the heck out of there. We began a conversation and he told me he was picking up two young men who had been exchange students at his home a few years back. Both boys were from Austria but he really tweaked my interest when he told me that his latest student was a girl from China. He said, “Jessica came over and was very quiet and timid but when she left she was a riot—I ruined her.” At this confession, he let out a boisterous laugh and I could tell he was a fun person who genuinely cared about each student. When the two boys saw him, they both high-fived him and the joy on their faces was proof that the affection was reciprocated. I realized as they walked away that I still need to work on my judging-a-book-by-the-cover-skills because this man at first was not someone I would usually approach because of his tattoos and overall appearance, but just a few minutes with him and I would bet that he is an amazing person with a collection of interesting tales that I would be honored to hear him spin.
Behind me, I suddenly heard a “Wo yao….blah blah blah” and turned to find a group of Chinese businessmen. Watching them rock back and forth on their heels, I was suddenly taken back to memories of China and the many airport trips we survived as we scuttled to and fro on home visits and rest trips to various places. Being in the midst of all the chaos of travelers, luggage and reunions, I desperately missed my expat life and the feeling of ‘doing something different’ it constantly brought us. Now back home in the states, I’ll admit that American life feels boring and monotonous, at least compared to the five years we spent overseas. While we were told that repatriation was very difficult, no one explained that years after returning home, these feelings would remain. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that once our Amanda is out of school, we are sure we will once again become travelers and I will be able to do more to feed my passion of working with underprivileged children.
The next person to catch my eye was a fascinating woman who was slowly weaving her way to the front of the waiting crowd to compete for the best look-out spot. She appeared to be approximately mid-forties and had ash-colored dreadlocks bundled with a hair tie and falling down her back. Uncaring about the out-dated clothes she wore, she was perfectly at ease in her Jesus sandals and long shorts, covered by a scalloped-collared simple sleeve-less shirt. She wore no jewelry or make-up, but her face was so interesting that that she didn’t need it. For a fleeting moment, I wished that I could borrow her confidence and walk about without make-up and leave behind all the effort it takes to do my hair and choose my clothes each day—but at this age, I know that gift will never come. If anything, I’ll try to do more to disguise the effects of age on my quickly fading youth, as that is just who I am.
Judging by the concentrated expression that Gypsy Woman wore, and the intent way she was searching for a familiar face to come through, I expected to soon see her throw herself into the arms of her lover—and I was curious to see what sort of man he would be. Would he have dreadlocks and be wearing sandals and a shirt with a big marijuana leaf over the chest? Perhaps carrying a tattered army duffel bag that contained all of his worldly possessions? Or would he be a shined-up businessman, stopping in to see his mistress who represents the opposite of all that he is and has in his other life? As we watched for our Madi, I also kept one eye on Gypsy Woman so that I wouldn’t miss the passionate reunion.
Before long we witnessed a soldier coming through. The USO representative greeted the young man with an arm around his shoulders and a comforting word as he guided him to some unknown area. At first I searched the crowd for the man’s family but soon realized he was probably on a service-related mission and was not flying in to his home. On his face I only saw loneliness and fatigue—and I said a quick silent prayer for our troops who are facing experiences that we can only imagine.
As the soldier and the story line I had begun to weave in my head disappeared, my attention was captured by a woman dragging along her little boy. She was obviously exhausted, but so was he and I thought she could have had a little more patience with the small chap. She tugged him along behind her with one hand while dragging their luggage with the other. In the hand that was not grasped tightly by his mother, the boy dangled a ragged teddy bear. When the mother looked down and sharply said, “Hurry up!” the boy looked up at her and softly said, “I love you, Mommy.” I could tell he was trying to break through and soften her up and my heart ached for him. I thought he must have been about four years old and that prompted a sudden memory of a little girl who was only four when I met her—and the way she looked at me as if she wanted my love but was not going to lose any pride trying to get it. She was the opposite of this boy, to his innocence and naivety she was strong and had battled tragedy, molding her into a tiny warrior with battle scars evident all over her body. Yes, I was thinking of Xiao Gou and before I knew it, I was trying to swallow past the lump in my throat and blink away the unexpected tears. I had a flashback of the times I would get Xiao Gou out of the bath and put her little rosebud pajamas on her. I would pull the shirt down and she always wanted her pants pulled high over the shirt—Chinese style that looked ridiculous to me but soon became part of a night-time ritual. Then she would get 30 more minutes of playtime with her box of blocks before we’d trudge up the stairs with her on my hip and make our way to the guest room for bedtime. My little Asian angel wasn’t interested in teddy bears to bring her comfort; instead she would go to sleep wrapping the threads from the blanket around her tiny fingers. I would lie beside her until she finally closed her eyes and I would wonder what sort of nightmares she faced in the orphanage during those long nights in the cold rooms.
Lately I have been trying to guard my heart against thoughts of Xiao Gou, because it hurts so much—much more than anyone could ever understand—but with the upturned face of a little boy trying to be affectionate to his mommy, something triggered those memories to come flooding back and I took a moment to put aside the guilt of leaving her, the fear of her current circumstances, and remember the times she filled our house with the spunk of her personality.
Finally just when I thought Amanda couldn’t take the suspense of waiting any longer, a familiar petite figure broke through the crowd and Amanda was like a wound-up jumping bean beside me. “There she is! There she is!” The girls hugged each other tightly while doing a combination of a laugh/scream that represented the joy of their friendship. My mother’s heart was soaring at the happiness my daughter was feeling to see her forever best friend and I readied myself for five days of chatting, shopping, midnight laughter and all those things that make best friends click.
I can’t end this chronicle without giving you the conclusion of Gypsy Woman and her mystery man, now can I? Right before we walked away, I looked over to see the exact moment that she found her loved one in the crowd. The happiness that spread across her face made me instantly scan the crowd to see who she was zoned in on. Surprisingly and much to my romantic side’s disappointment, it was not her prince after all—but instead a woman who could have been her sister, or maybe a friend. What did peak my curiosity was the fact that as Gypsy Woman rushed around the roped area, the emotion on the other woman’s face was not the same as on Gypsy Woman’s face. There wasn’t much excitement or joy—only a look of irritation and a fumble to half-heartedly return the embrace that was heaped upon her. I felt a surge of pity for Gypsy Woman that her friend was not as excited to see her as she might have expected and I looked away from the public rejection of affection.
As we hurried along, a light bulb moment hit and my fairy tale continued as I realized that it may have been her lover after all—coming in person to break up the long distance relationship they had shared for years. With this new twist in the story, my imagination revved back up again and we headed out the door into the heavy Georgia heat and a two-hour return trip home with two happy fifteen-year-olds chatting behind me as I day-dreamed of another life on another continent with a different culture to appease my constant purpose-seeking spirit.—Kay Bratt
I spoke at a church in Canton on Sunday night and it was a small group but the atmosphere was one of the best I’ve experienced. The people were so supportive and friendly—Ben and I felt comfortable from the start and would’ve loved even more time to chat at the end. This time, however, there were a few adopted children attending with their parents. I don’t know if seeing those little faces is what brought on my bout of melancholy, but I am once again missing my China life. Each time I stand in front of a crowd and work through my presentation, stories and pictures of the kids, I feel passionate at the moment but always sink into a quiet, pensive mood after it is over. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I spent almost five years living in China and working with the children I care so much about. At times when I am so wrapped up in my American life of chaos, my China memories feel almost like a dream, not quite real. I’m starting to understand how hard it is for people on this side of the world to be less passionate or excited about supporting orphans, if they’ve never been impacted by an experience that instills that goal. Honestly, if I am not looking at the faces I knew and loved, I can easily forget the hardships they endured and those behind them are enduring today—this very moment! For example, I checked the weather in the city I worked in and I know from experience that at this time of year the babies are starting to suffer from heat rash that is aggravated greatly by laying on bamboo mats in extremely muggy rooms. I know they are being attacked each night by hordes of mosquitoes that will leave welts on their tiny faces, arms and hands. I know the nannies are feeling over-whelmed because the volunteer team will be dropping off one by one to return to their home countries for summer visits, causing the workloads to get heavier, and impatience to soar.
Most of all, I know this for sure—I don’t want to lose the passion I cultivated and I want to use my story to inspire that fire in others to advocate for children—any and all children, China and everywhere. I need to work harder to be an example to the children in my own family so that one day they might take over and do more for the disadvantaged than our generation did. This world should not be about who gets ahead, who has the nicest car or the biggest house—We shouldn’t obsess about what colleges our kids will go to or how successful they will be if we just push them a little harder or force them to join one more sport or club. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we concentrated more on molding the younger generation to be more compassionate to those around them, to reach out to people in their lives and give a helping hand? What if we gave equal time to community outreach that we do to organized sports and activities? The important thing to remember is that when the children become adults and find their passion, they will find their peace.
You can hear my latest radio interview here on the Georgia Public Broadcasting show called, “Cover to Cover”.
SCROLL TO BOTTOM TO SEE WINNERS OF THE GIVEAWAY!
Do you know what’s interesting? The success of my story and the change in my life still has not hit me.
Yes, the first edition has sold thousands. [Which was thousands more than the maybe 5 books I thought would be bought] Yes, I have spoken at churches, book clubs and other events and been told how moving my story is. Yes, my new ‘team’ has booked me for radio interviews and even one upcoming television spot. Yes, googling my name will bring up tons of hits where people are talking about the book. When will I feel that I’ve been a success? Ever?
I doubt it.
On the outside I come across as a professional, put-together woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. But on the inside I am still that same middle-class American mom carrying around all the insecurities I’ve collected through my challenging childhood and traumatizing young adulthood. Let me tell you something–just because through hard work and perseverance (and faith) you have clawed your way up to a better place, that does not take away all of the battle scars you have gathered through the years and continue to gather as you make your way through this drama/comedy/tragedy they call life. I am always afraid that people will see through the confident, joking woman standing in front of them and spot the shaking, insecure girl I once was. I wish that girl would disappear forever and just let me be the new me!
Do you know that despite the urgings of my husband, Ben, I have yet to celebrate any of the milestones I have met with my China journey and subsequent book? Not the operations we were able to fund, not the adoptions we witnessed, not the award from the Chinese city, not the release of the first edition of my book, not the surprising sales and not the contract I signed with my new publisher. Why? I am not sure but I have some ideas.
-The realities of the children I wrote about are really not something to celebrate. (Though many of them have now gone on to live much happier lives, which you’ll get to see updates in the Encore edition)
-My history of always striving to overcome life’s many hurdles have jaded me to be suspicious of anything great in my life, for fear of it being taken away.
-I never want anyone to think that I am cashing in on my experiences, or taking advantage of the children by using their names to further myself.
-I don’t feel like God is done with me yet, that would be like celebrating an A on my math quiz a week before the final term test!
So what do I really hope to accomplish with this book?
-First and foremost it was to fulfill a promise to be the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves. To tell their stories. Because for me, to keep it silent would be to contribute to the neglect and/or abuse I witnessed.
-to raise awareness of the travesties of children in institutional care
-to encourage readers to do something to make a difference. Support an organization, adopt, or sponsor an orphan for foster care.
To be honest, I really don’t feel like my time in China or my book has been enough. Every day and plaguing my dreams I wonder what else I can do, what is next on my horizon. I am continually driven to do more (while juggling life) and when I reach that place of ‘enough’….then–and only then, will I celebrate.
*Winners of the Friday, March 19 Giveaway—please contact me using the ‘Contact’ tab at the top to give me your mailing address. I will send your Advanced Readers Copy of the Encore edition of Silent Tears! Congrats!
Some of you did not link to a blog, etc..and no last name so I used info from your comment:
Winner #1 is Lisa Stott
Winner #2 is Melanie Feick
Winner #3 is Christie from Cherry Blossom Life
Winner #4 is Joan, who volunteered in China
Thanks to many of my online friends, I purchased another Lisa See book and like everyone predicted, fell in love with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The story taught me so much about Chinese history, beliefs and their cultural decisions.
Two specific pages in the book were turned down and marked as special to me. The first brought me to shame for some of the early feelings I had while working in the orphanage, when I would hold a beautiful child and feel a rush of anger at his/her parents. Being knew to the country and not really knowing much of the hardships endured, in my naivete I believed that the parents must not have cared for their child. Here are Lisa See’s words that brought me to tears:
Then we waited. Uncle sat on a stool by the table and wept so hard into her tunic that stains spread across the fabric like rain clouds. Baba tried to comfort Uncle, but what was the use? He could not be comforted. Anyone who tells you that the Yao people never care for their daughters is lying. we may be worthless. We may be raised for another family. But often we are loved and cherished, despite our natal families’ best efforts not to have feelings for us. Why else in our secret writing do you see phrases lke “I was a pearl in my father’s palm” so frequently?
The second excerpt brought back a flood of memories to me. First read Lisa’s words and then go back and remember with me.
“Lady Lu, a cure is not possible,” he said. “All you can do now is wait for the onset of death. You can see it already in the purple tint of her flesh just above her bindings. First, her ankles; then the legs will come next, swelling and turning the skin purple as her life force slows. Soon, I suspect, her breathing will change. You’ll recongnize it. An inhale, and exhale, then nothing. Just when you think she is gone she will take another breath.”
That passage instantly took me back to the day I stood in front of a crib of a dying child. Her eyes were already checked out, she was not able to focus on anything but her pain. Knowing she was too sick for me to hold, I gently rubbed her back and whispered encouragement to her. As I peeked under her coverlet, the purplish/black color of her feet, ankles and legs sent shivers of shock down my spine. At that time, I did not understand that it was the onset of death. When she disappeared a day or so later and no one would tell me where she was, I knew then that she had passed on. It feels strange for me to say this, because not many people would understand, but I was thankful for her release from her circumstances–from her relentless pain.
Why would I enjoy a book that brings back such sad memories for me? Perhaps because if the memories still linger, that means I won’t forget the children and my promise to continue to tell their stories.
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?”
Silent Tears 2nd Edition is available for pre-order on Amazon right now. For one month only, the price is discounted 45% to a meager $8.22! This is the same story but with some updates, especially about Xiao Gou, you won’t believe what she has been up to. I’ve also added a section to the back titled, “Letters to Kay” that includes some amazing letters from adoptive parents. It is a poignant, beautiful cover and my intention was for this edition to be a sort of collector’s book. It will also make a wonderful Mother’s Day gift so send a hint. [Actually, if you want Kay Bratt to send your loved one an email request telling him/her that you would love to have a copy of this book, email me their information at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right on it!]
Update: The offer for Hardcover is expired, only softcover available for now.
To see the collection of previous blog posts about China, the orphanage or just fun stuff…go to my blogsite.