One . . .
The poor orphan child confined to the basement of a rickety old orphanage with a black hearted, domineering head master who forces him to scrub the toilets with his own toothbrush and eat gruel from the dog’s bowl. It’s Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie and every single story about “orphans” since (except those that choose “the other”). It’s the lowest of the down-trodden (who could be more down-trodden than a poor unfortunate orphan) inevitably transcending the hopeless challenges of parentlessness, abuse and gruel to become the happy hero who teaches all the world how to love unconditionally and stick it to the man.
It makes a great story, I get it. But does the care taker ALWAYS have to be the villain?
The Other . . .
The poor orphan is adopted by beautiful, rich parents whose only dream has forever been to love and nurture a perfectly healthy, white 10 year old. As time passes however, the happy family discovers that their dream child is a black hearted deviant who chains them to the toilet in the basement and makes them eat gruel with their own toothbrushes. It’s the ironic plot twist of the helpless downtrodden adolescent scarred by the hopeless challenges of orphanism (now a word).
Again. Gripping. But seriously, could we please stretch the orphan stereotype a little?
Even the real life stereotype is missing something.
It’s virtually impossible for me to envision an orphan without floods of pity. My personal orphan image has been built by beautiful starving baby pictures and pleas for just $10 a month. Not that there are not millions of beautiful starving orphans all over the world (and probably some ugly ones that didn’t make the commercials). I’m sure there are. And not that some pity and $10 a month wouldn’t help. I’m sure it would.
(Stepping onto my soapbox and speaking in my Martin Luther King Jr. voice)
But when does an orphan become a person?
At what point does a child without parents become . . . a child . . . who likes Star Wars . . . or soccer . . . or Crunch Berries. When does an orphanage become a child’s home with the emphasis on HOME as a good thing. Think about it. Home is almost exclusively a delightful concept.
“Home is where the heart is”
“Home Sweet Home”
“There’s no place like home”
But apply it to orphans (and in fairness, old folks) . . .
What’s going to happen to the orphan?
Well if no one will take them they’ll have to go to a home.
. . . and it’s a bad thing.
Three people rocked my paradigm of orphans and orphanages.
We arrived at the gate to our daughter’s orphanage with low expectations and massive stereotypes. When we adopted our daughter more than 8 years ago, visiting the orphanage was not an option. In my mind that was because “they” have something to hide. I’m not even sure who “they” are but probably some combination of the orphanage workers, the government and the Chinese population in general. “They” didn’t want “us” to see the horrible conditions that “they” had been raising “our” children in. I’ve heard the China orphanage stories. I know the “truth”.
We weren’t surprised when the guard at the gate wouldn’t let us in but Flight, our Chinese assistant (whom we had brought with us specifically for this moment – and because we like her) was not intimidated. In true Chinese fashion she pressed and pressed for about 45 minutes with a smile and a gentle tone and in true Chinese fashion he continued to refuse with a smile and a gentle tone.
He didn’t really offer any answers but in retrospect, answers were above his pay grade. He was the guard. He keeps people out. He was pretty good at that.
Eventually word had spread that there were some annoying foreigners at the gate who weren’t leaving and the director of the orphanage came out to explain that without the proper paperwork and signatures and stamps their hands were tied. However he had asked his second in charge to come out and answer any of our questions.
Paradigm Rocker #1: Mr. Wang
Mr. Wang was amazing. He had this heir about him that made me think he was perfect for his job. I could envision him walking through a cafeteria filled with children who would both wrap themselves around his leg and finish their broccoli when he looked at them just so. He was thrilled to see Rachel and the first thing he told her was there was a good chance that he had held her when she was a baby.
He laughed and said, “you cried when we gave you to your parents and now you would cry if we took you back.” I got the feeling that this was his go to one liner that he uses every chance he gets but it was still profound.
He told us about the 400 plus kids who lived at the orphanage and the brand new school that had just been built. We could see the building from the gate and it was beautiful. Nicer than the school I went to. Then Mr. Wang hit us with the zinger . . .
“I was raised here. I was an orphan.”
It was a sobering thought that this was more than just a home to him. It was home. The good kind. So much so that he never left.
Paradigm Rocker’s #2 and #3: ?
As Mr. Wang told his stories two little girls walked into the orphanage arm in arm. I’m guessing they were 10 or 11 and they were obviously residents. As they walked by us they did something strange. They stared . . . and they giggled.
If you’ve ever been to China for more than 10 minutes you’re probably thinking, “what’s so strange about that? Everyone stares and giggles.” For me however, that was a defining moment. They were little girls, like other little Chinese girls that I have seen all over China doing what little Chinese girls do. Namely staring . . . and giggling.
We came to the Orphanage hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the facilities and maybe some of the orphans and instead we saw kids . . . at home.
My imagination went a little crazy and I couldn’t help but think that these two beautiful little girls might have been Rachel’s friends if she still lived here. Or maybe they would have been the little girls who made fun of her and threw grapes at her in the lunch room. Or maybe Rachel would have been the one throwing the grapes and getting sent to talk to Mr. Wang.
I’m not naive enough to think that stereotypes aren’t built from at least a partial truth. I know for a fact that there are some horrible orphanages in China . . . and America . . . and anywhere there are children. I also know that not every care taker is kind and compassionate. I’m even willing to admit that I could be wrong about Mr. Wang. I also love that we adopted Rachel and I love that her home is with us.
However, for the first time, I got to see beyond the word orphan. To be parentless may be horrible but it doesn’t have to remain the single most distinguishing characteristic of a person for their entire life.