Saturday, July 02, 2005

Pilgrimage to YouXian

Pilgrimage to YouXian
Originally uploaded by Dennis&Terri.
We knew that traveling deep into the rural heart of the Hunan Province to visit the orphanage that nutured Eleanor would be a powerful experience, but we had no idea just how meaningful the journey would be. Our trip from Changsha to YouXian on a searing-hot day was a hypnotic three-hour ride through some of the most lush and mesmerizing countryside that China has to offer, vast swaths of which look resolutely unchanged since the 19th Century. Crumbling stone huts interspersed with rice paddies tended by stooped peasants in straw hats; wobbly rickshaws burdened by farm-to-market goods; quaint villages thronged by midday shoppers, many in traditional dress, bartering over vegetables and other provisions ... all framed by soaring green mountain ranges and stream-dappled flood plains. Not everything is bucolic bliss -- cold-blooded madmen on rickety motorcycles swarmed the roads like angry bees, dueling with the buses and trucks and occasional cars as if giving up an inch of asphalt would disgrace their ancestors. Our bus driver was a profusely sweating, mentally deranged man with the guts of a riverboat gambler who apparently has spent most of his adult life obsessively watching the chase scene from The French Connection in a perpetual loop, and thought nothing of hurtling past a line of trucks on a blind curve, severely traumatizing the few passengers who had the courage to look.

But this was only a backdrop to the business of the day, a sobering tour of the orphanage that actually is a county home for destitute seniors as well as abandoned children. The director of the facility was very gracious but very strict about photographing the premises -- it soon became clear that there are concerns about photographs of children yet to be adopted leaking to the outside world. The children we saw were wide-eyed, beautiful, and heartbreaking -- they navigated around at knee-level on baby walkers, craning up to look at you like baby robins. The caregivers were very friendly and seemed thrilled to see the newly adopted children, like Eleanor, who had returned for a visit. The place was clean but grim, and though it probably compares fairly well to most Chinese orphanages it was wrenching to think of our Eleanor spending day after day after day there, competing for attention and love. We saw the crib that Eleanor used, a cold, institutional-looking model among a fleet of others just like it in a gray, lifeless room. It seemed terribly sad. Make no mistake -- clearly the orphanage staff works extremely hard and does their level best for the children who find their way into their care. But they face a great challenge with relatively thin resources. We were heartened to learn that US Asian Affairs, the liasion between our adoption agency and the Chinese government, has just donated $3,000 to buy air conditioners for the YouXian orphanage; we also were happy to hear that every child at the orphanage is in line to be adopted. We left the premises with heavy yet hopeful hearts, and gripped our own lovely children who will never spend another night there with all the compassion we could muster.

The climax of our day came when we were taken to the site where Eleanor was found the day after she was born, the steps of a large post office (pictured here) on the main highway leading into town. Pictures were taken and Dennis scooped up a handful of red clay from along the roadside to give to Eleanor someday, a piece of earth from this remote and other-wordly place. This entire day, in truth, was for Eleanor: a mission to investigate her roots as best we could, so that one day we might provide her with some understanding of where she is from and how abject strangers loved her enough to sustain her until a blessed and lucky couple came from halfway around the world to take her as their very own.


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