The Xiangyin County Social Welfare Institute was built in 1998 as part of a complex that also shelters veterans of the People’s Liberation Army who fought against the United States in the Korean War. When it first opened, there were six orphans. Today there are approximately one hundred, all of whom will be adopted. In its seven years, 196 children have been adopted internationally from the institute, and “twenty to thirty” have been adopted domestically (as of December 2004). In addition to Dr. Yu, the institute employs fifteen office workers and twenty-one caregivers who provide a twenty-four-hour presence with an average seven-to-one child to caregiver ratio.
“How many babies were brought here this year?” asks one of the visiting parents. “Approximately seventy,” answers Yu. “Only babies from Xiangyin County are brought here.”
“Why so many abandoned babies?”
“The One Child policy.” Yu gestures for the group to follow around a corner and upstairs. As they do, they pass two young caregivers with babies in their arms. “They’re lucky,” one says to the other. “They have rich parents.”
At the top, windows overlook clotheslines hung with blankets, towels, and baby clothes, most of them covered with American sports logos. Through an open doorway, the group follows Yu along a short hallway lined by babies standing in individual wooden cribs and dressed in puffy winter clothes. The room is fifteen feet long, ten feet wide, and impeccably clean. Along both walls are three wooden cribs, each of which holds two babies dressed in heavy winter clothes beneath heavier blankets. Opposite the hallway is another where four additional babies sit in little wooden high chairs. One sleeps, her head leaning against the uninterested shoulder of her companion. “So cute!” bawls one of the visiting parents and begins to take pictures.
Paul stands in a corner and films. Laurel stands beside him, watching as nannies in their early twenties are reunited with the babies who had been in their care until a couple of days ago. The parents hand over the children and excitedly ask questions about personality and care. Several nannies slip into the room and whisper about which parents are good-looking and which children are lucky. Ya Qun’s face has awakened with expression. No longer blank, her lips spit and smile.
The adjoining room is slightly larger, with five cribs on both walls. Blankets are rolled up and the babies occupy themselves with small plastic toys. Two of the babies from the visiting group lived in this room, and the caregivers are waiting to show the cribs and answer questions.
Dr. Yu’s tour includes a well-maintained padded playroom complete with plastic playground equipment. “The children are brought here every morning.” Yu also shows off the simple small room that is the orphanage’s medical clinic. “There are no serious health problems here,” she says. “Mostly colds.” There is a padded examination table and two cabinets holding antibiotics.
Midway through the tour, Shirley quietly gestures for the Stuebers to follow her to the third floor. As they climb, Olivia is active in Laurel’s arms, turning her head back and forth. At the top, the Stuebers walk into a sunny bedroom like the others, except that most of the cribs are unoccupied. Waiting alone in the middle is a handsome woman in her mid-thirties. When she sees Olivia, she smiles broadly. Laurel, without hesitation, places her daughter in the woman’s arms. “Thank you for taking such good care of our daughter,” she says, tears streaming down her face.
Olivia stares into her caregiver’s eyes for a long moment and then lifts her arms over her head and pumps them in joy. The caregiver, overcome, begins to weep. “I am very happy to know that Ya Qun has such good parents,” she says. “She’s very quiet and well-behaved. She likes to be clean. And sometimes she is afraid of strangers.”
Paul and Laurel ask to see Olivia’s crib. The caregiver nods and walks to the middle crib of five against the wall. Gently, she sets Olivia into the middle of it and steps back. Olivia sits with her legs straight out as her brow furrows slightly. She looks in both directions, kicks, and does her very best to get up and out. “I’m outta here,” Paul jokes. Laurel picks her up.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” exclaims the caregiver. Shirley doesn’t recognize the word, but Paul and Laurel understand and there is no need for translation. “I’m a Christian,” the caregiver reveals. “And I hope that when Ya Qun is older she will be a Christian, too.”
Laurel, deeply touched, seemingly out of breath, opens her mouth wide to say “Yes,” and it emerges as a whisper.
“Every day I pray for the babies,” the caregiver says. “I am very happy that this one has found a good home.”
Paul and Laurel thank her, again, and leave to rejoin the group on the second floor.
After a week the hotel food has grown old, the padded play area outside of the elevators has lost its novelty, and more than one parent bemoans the lack of English-language television programming. Fortunately, Shirley obtains the Chinese passports on schedule, and within hours she and the group fly south to Guangzhou, China’s third largest city. The long bus ride from the airport reveals a transition from farmland to an impromptu maze where giant shoe markets thrive beside colonial tenements that push against highway guardrails enveloped in exhaust. Initially, it does not seem to be much of a lifestyle upgrade from Changsha. But then the bus crosses the canal that separates the city from Shamian Island. Towering oaks shade wide-open boulevards and a well-preserved collection of British colonial architecture. Western restaurants and English are common. Walking paths are uncrowded and plentiful.
During a particularly gentle evening twilight stroll, the Stuebers pass a meat truck unloading animal carcasses into a Cantonese restaurant. “When we first got her I couldn’t ever put her down without her crying,” she says. Paul nods. “It’s amazing when you think about it. We’ve only had her for eight days.” Laurel removes a bottle of water from her bag and notices that she is favoring one hip, as if she is still carrying Olivia. “I guess we’re getting used to her, too.”