Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Pictures

I have been pretty busy lately (understatement), and there are many things that are left undone.  One of those tasks was getting the disposable camera photos that we had sent to Christopher's orphanage developed.

For all of our adopted kids, we have sent a care package as we waited to complete our travel paperwork.  Included in these packages were clothes, a stuffed toy, an album with photos of the family and our home, and a disposable camera with a note attached.  In this note (we had translated into Chinese) we ask the nannies to take pictures of our kids in their current homes.  Many times, parents are not allowed to visit the places where their kids have lived all of their lives before being adopted.  We wanted to have some pictures of these places, both for us and for our kids to have some answers to their questions about their pre-America lives.

First of all, it was hard to find a disposable camera this time around.  Seriously, no one sells these things anymore!

Then it was hard to find a place to develop the film.  Target no longer provides this service.  It took way more energy than I had left over to even think where else could I look to develop film.  But, finally, I did it.  I took the camera in to a little pharmacy in our town, and then promptly forgot about it until I got the call the other day.

The photos were ready, but I was not prepared for what I saw.

Christopher lived in really shabby conditions.  I should not have been surprised by this fact.  We were told by our agency's local representative that he was from a very poor city and a very poor orphanage.  But I never got to see it in person because it was 5 and a half hours away from Guangzhou, the city in which I was staying.  It was too hard of a trip to make for one parent plus a baby, there and back in one day.  I hated the fact that I didn't get to see it, but promised myself that we would go next time we are in China.  It is hard to not know where your child has lived his entire life.

Unfortunately, it is also hard to know.

I think if I had seen the pictures while I was in China they would not have been so shocking to me.  In the States, in our abundant, sanitized, suburban existence, it is hard to understand the intricacies of life in the poor parts of China.  I see the puzzled looks people (other Americans) give me as I try to answer questions about "why they give up their kids"  -- it just doesn't make sense in the context of our culture.   It takes a whole mind-shift to get it; to get the fact that the Chinese people, in general, are very loving and adore children, but at the same time are not able or willing to take care of disabled children or kids with physical differences.  You have to grasp the whole historical, political, cultural picture (and I have only scraped the surface of all of this; such an old, complex country that China is).  But, when I am in China -- just being completely immersed in the bustling streets, the beautiful language, the smells of the food mixed with city fumes -- I kind of get it a little more.

If I had seen the photos while I was in China, I would have seen Christopher's orphanage for what it is:  poor, understaffed, underfunded, but doing its best to keep their kids safe and healthy. It is not ideal, but it is just the way it is.

But, instead, I opened the envelope of photos in my Honda Odyssey, after dropping my kids at summer camp, in suburban New Jersey. After I had been parenting Christopher for 2 months, and had fallen in love with him.  It was jarring.

I have not included the photos here because I want to share them with Christopher (one day) first, and because I do not want to publicly criticize a specific orphanage, in the event that someone recognizes the pictures.

But I will tell you, it looked like a prison.  An old, dingy, dirty prison.

Concrete, stained floors.  Cracked paint on the cinderblock walls.  And sliding doors made of steel bars.

Perhaps it was just the poor quality of the disposable camera photos, but it looked so dark. Dingy and dark and dirty.

Pictures of Christopher being bathed in a large mixing bowl, and sleeping in a crib with no mattress.

No toys or bright colors to be seen.

Other kids in the orphanage looking sad and dirty and neglected.

I have seen my fair share of orphanages and foster homes in China, and I was not naive about what to expect.  I did not expect it to look like an American daycare center.  I recall, at the U.S. Embassy during my last trip, meeting a woman during who just adopted her first child from the same home Ellie had lived in.  It is a home funded and directed by a certain U.S. adoption agency.  They train the nannies about child care, attachment, and child development.  They make a concerted effort to be especially clean and to make sure the kids get adequate stimulation and nurturing and fresh air.  It is a nice place.

I said to the new mother, "Isn't it a nice place?"

She replied, "Well, I wouldn't call it nice…"

And, I thought, she's right:  I guess it isn't really that nice -- not compared to a loving home, or even a nice American school.  But, compared to what I have seen, it is what I would call "nice".  And Ellie has shown us with her easy attachment, her lack of any major sensory issues or behavioral problems, that she has benefitted from her first home.

So, all that is to say, that I see Christopher's orphanage within the context of other orphan homes in China.  I know that many kids sleep on hard board beds instead of mattresses, and that they don't get out of these beds many times each day.  I know that many kids live in depressing, dark buildings, and that they don't get the luxury of playing with toys or being read picture books.

But to see your own child living in these conditions is a whole different thing.

Christopher is really doing really well.  He, like Ellie, is adjusting very well.  He is attaching, he does not seem to have any developmental or sensory issues.  He loves being cuddled and singing songs, and playing with his siblings.  He is fine, despite his initial home.  Or maybe because of it.  Maybe the photos can't do justice to the love that he experienced within those dark walls.

I really hope so.

Its just unbearable to think otherwise.

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