Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[travel] Nanfeng day 9, visiting the orphanage

This journey had been a long spiral into the_child's past, figuratively speaking, and to some degree, literally. We began with the iconic China that every Westerner knows of: the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. From there we moved to the buried armies of Chinese legend, and all their associations for the Western mind. We left Chinese history for the present with the panda preserve in Chengdu, then moved on to 's history with this visit to Nanchang and Nanfeng.

We woke up early yesterday in Nanchang with the usual affair of odd breakfast and packing out. After loading into the van, we commenced the three+ hour drive to Nanfeng, the_child's home city. It took us the better part of an hour to pass outside of Nanchang's conurbation. Chinese cities are big. Nanchang, which is a relatively minor city, has a population of about four million, much of it spread out over endless miles of one, two and three story housing.




The countryside was interesting because this was the first time we'd really left new China. We saw water buffalo, some being used to plow rice paddies in the most traditional manner. The tiny little towns and villages had the very distinctive look of developing China — a mix of traditional house, many decaying or partially dismantled, and two story brick or cinderblock buildings with rows of shop fronts topped by apartments. Chickens, tractors, children, heavy trucks, haystacks, and life being lived by the side of the road. It very much reminded my parents and I of Taiwan in the 1970s, when we lived there.


We eventually wound up on an expressway, which took us away from the villages and into the mental space of highways. Much to see, but speeding by from a distance. The character of the traditional architecture changed a bit. A new style of grave appeared in the hillside cemeteries conical mound covered with small flags, as opposed to a more Western style headstone in front of a cleared area. The style of the haystacks changed, too, from roughly conical mounds to a twisting construction around a tall stick, pole, tree or lamppost, so they looked like ennormous hats left by the side of the road. Eventually we traded rice paddies for orange groves.

Nanfeng happened in the same manner that Nanchang had disappeared. Rural cross-faded to urban, the agricultural land being substituted with living quarters, industrial compounds, businesses, construction zones and so forth. We traded orange groves for concrete.


The city itself looks like so many other modern Chinese cities the without influence or resources for showpiece projects and international development, such as Beijing. Our hotel was small and modest when we checked in. Our rooms were third floor walkups, though the rooms themselves are quite nice. Also, the best airconditioning we've yet found in China, so win there.


Once checked in and sorted out, we headed for a well-reputed local restaurant. It was on a side alley, one of those placed we'd never have found on our own. A number of policemen were eating there, which probably means the food is good. From the posters in the hall, the place specialized in deer meat, though we did not order any. Our guide worked through the menu with dad, and we wound up with a chicken dish, a pork dish, several vegetable dishes, and some vegetable soup. (Much to the disappointment of the head waitress, who told my dad in Chinese that soup without meat in it is not soup.) The chicken was similar to kung pao, but they had used a whole cold roast chicken which had simply been sliced cross-wise with a cleaver, like a loaf of bread. Beady little eyes stared at us, while feet swam in the brown sauce with the peanuts. It was all bracingly spicy, which means they'd geared it down for the foreigners. Cooks and waitresses kept coming to the serving window of our private room to peer in, mostly at the_child. On the way out, dad overheard several men discussing with amazement the fact that foreigners ate here, and it must be a better place than they thought.


Outside, we went across the street to one of the little stores to buy some more bottled water for the hotel later. The store had about fifteen people, mostly women and children, hanging around in front of it. A mah jong game was going, along with general gossip and visiting. Our arrival precipitated a nine day wonder of a gathering. Much with the "hello" and "ni hao" and photographing of babies. Dad was still inside the restaurant, so I bargained for the water in my fractured Chinese, with some help from Mom. We were definitely the talk of the neighborhood.


From there we went to a supermarket to pick up some food for breakfast the next day, since the hotel here does not serve breakfast, eccentric or otherwise. That provoked another nine day wonder, as everything in place came to a screeching halt while we wandered around. All the stockgirls and supervisors and customers and cashiers were watching us to see what we'd do, what we'd buy. If you'd plotted everyone's movements from above, each of our group had a gravitational attraction, pulling people with us in a game of hide and seek among the aisles as people tried to stare without being stupidly obvious. Or in some cases, not bothering to try.

At one point two schoolboys came up to me, and one, with great visible effort and nervousness, introduced himself in English and asked if he could talk to me. We had a short chat, during which I complimented his English (he demurred, but I pointed out my Chinese was far the poorer). Really, his English was fine, better than most people I've spoken to here. He asked what we were doing in Nanfeng foreigners are quite rare here — and I explained. By the time we left, we'd tied up at least twenty people for half an hour with our foreign antics. This is China the way I remember it from the 1990s. Nanfeng is the first place we've been on this trip where we provoked that much response from people.

After the supermarket, we headed for the Nanfeng Social Welfare Home, which is the formal name of the orphanage where the_child spent the first year of her life. The van drove through a garage entrance in one of the three story commercial blocks, to the courtyard behind. A set of stairs led up through some trees to a set of white and pink buildings on a hilltop set back from the street quite some distance. Pillars with the number 9 atop them flanked the stairs. the_child jumped out of the van and raced up the stairs to disappear from view, then came back a few moments later to wave down at us.



We unloaded at a more stately pace, looked around the courtyard, then headed up the stairs ourselves. I felt a mix of trepidation and hope, as did everyone else in our group in their own way.

The stairs led to a bridge over a dry pond, then another set of stairs up to the buildings themselves. We passed upward to a courtard where several men waited for us. A banner over the main building read "Welcome Lu Qiu Ju back home." (Lu Qiu Ju was the_child's Chinese name before her adoption. She still uses "Qiu Ju", but our Chinese surname is different.) Women and children watched us from balconies. Someone set off an enormous string of firecrackers. the_child appeared delighted and embarrassed all at once.




We followed Mr. Lu, the director, up to his third floor office. Another banner hung there, again welcome the_child home. Mr. Lu bade us to sit, then there was much chaffering in Chinese. A photocopy of her adoption file was produced, which our guide Tom read, and produced a partial translation. They confirmed something we'd thought, that she'd been found outside the orphanage gates in a box as a newborn. We were introduced to the woman who found the_child. She is now the orphanage's accountant, I'm not sure what her job was then. At the time she lived just outside the orphanage in a nearby apartment, and she says she heard a child crying outside very early in the morning, and went to investigate. (This cannot be so uncommon.) She took the baby in to her place until it was time to go to work, then brought her in to the orphanage. It was Mr. Lu who named the_child "Qiu Ju", a Chinese name which means "Autumn Chrysanthemum", for the season in which she was born. We've been told the name is considered old fashioned but beautiful, so I suppose it's a bit like naming your child "Esmerelda".



We also looked over books of photos sent by adoptive families from around the world. Mr. Lu gave us a copy of the master adoption records from 1996-2005, which include the_child's information about being adopted into our family. He presented the_child with a ceremonial mask carved in the local tradition. Much visiting was had. We in turn donated school supplies collected by the_child's class, as well as paintings the children had done.



After a while we went downstairs to another building, where we visited one of the early childhood rooms. Three children about one year old were sitting in walkers, while the nanny there brought out several infants to see us. the_child got very involved with the kids, and we spent some time playing with them. This room, or one very much like it, is where the_child spent the first six months of her life.




Back outside, dad asked about the sign on the building, which loosely translated, read "Old People's Home." Mr. Lu said the complex had been built by the city government as a retirement home, with some of the buildings being converted to an orphanage later. We met some of the elderly, including a 95 year old woman who was delighted to see us. We then trooped down to the gate where the_child had been found, where we took more photos and discussed with her finder exactly where she'd been at the time.



To our surprise, we loaded up in the vans and headed out into the country to meet the_child's foster mother. I'd always thought that her foster mother had been one of the orphanage nannies, but in fact, she'd been fostered with a village family perhaps ten miles outside the city. Shang Jing is a farming village among the orange groves, and the drive was down a series of increasingly tiny roads until we arrived there. They were expecting us, and everyone turned out in their best to greet their long-gone foster daughter. They lived in the Ping Ja Ling section, which means "Ping family district."


Her foster mother, Mrs. Ping, was clutching an old photo of the_child sitting with one of her two foster brothers, taken when the_child was about ten months old, perhaps. We met in their new house, not the one the_child had lived in, where we talked a bit through the translator, and many photos were taken. As with small towns worldwide, the presence of strangers swiftly drew a substantial crowd, and soon we were surrounded. Most of the onlookers were Ping family relatives, including another orphanage foster mother who had a baby in her care.

We trooped out back to view the old house, where the_child had lived. It is a two-room brick hut among the orange groves. She lived from the age of six months to one year there, with this family and their two little boys. (The boys are now grown, one of them married with a small daughter, everyone there for this event.) It was sweet but difficult to see this. The foster mother was very overwhelmed, very glad to see . We were told later that she had been so attached to the_child that she hadn't taken any more foster children after.


Many more photos were taken, the_child holding up well under all the attention. We tried to get the mailing address of the foster family, but I am not sure we have succeeded. Time will tell. the_child's foster mother offered us fruit, which she pressed on the_child as a parting gift. I was struck by the thought that those who have very little sacrifice most when they choose to give. We discretely gave her a gift of money. Had we known of this visit when planning the trip, we would have brought something more personal, but it was what we could do in the moment.


Leaving her foster family, the_child was overwhelmed for a while. We followed the orphanage van down some even tinier country roads — no one knew where we were going — until we reached a shrine to Zeng Gong, the greatest poet of Nanfeng history. This was a series of pavilions and temple-like structures built in a small cleft valley. It was very beautiful, very Chinese, and not the least bit touristy. Mr. Lu wanted to photograph the_child at various spots in the shrine, so she and I and Mother of the Child climbed with him, while mom and dad stayed below and chatted with a gaggle of elementary school aged kids who were very amazed that I was the_child's dad. Also, from that spot we could see across the river to one of the older sections of Nanfeng, including a watergate which had once admitted river traffic into a city canal.




Back in town, we returned to the same restaurant where we'd had lunch for a banquet in honor of the_child hosted by Mr. Lu and attended by some of his staff. This was a more elaborate meal than our lunch had been, fancier with far more curious foods. Dishes included something similar to wonton soup, bok choi in hot sauce, a whole fish staring from its plate, roast duck sliced whole much as the chicken at lunch had been, something stated to be boiled eggs which was basically custard, a mushroom dish I cannot begin to describe accurately, spicy hot beef (the only thing which resembled American Chinese food), blanched prawns, and a number of other delights. After that it was back to the hotel for an early night of hard sleep.

In a sense, this journey began here in Nanfeng. This phase of it ended here. I can't say what this trip means to the_child now, and I may never know. She is excited to have discovered her foster family and meet them, especially her foster brothers. She has developed a much stronger sense of being Chinese, and found great pride in being here. There is a sense of melancholy we all share about her difficult history, and a sense of hope and pride her foster family certainly feels about her opportunities in life. She'll be integrating this for a long time to come, as will we all. But I will say this: whatever her emotions and sense of challenge, the_child was gracious and polite to Mr. Lu, to the orphanage staff and children, and to her foster family.

I love that kid. So do the people who took care of her at the beginning of her life.

Originally published at jlake.com.

Tags: child, china, family, personal, photos, travel

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