We spent the day focusing on issues relating to children in China. There are untold thousands of orphans in China, many of whom are unwanted simply because they are daughters, or because they have disabilities. Even fairly minor things like a harelip or cleft palate may cause parents to abandon a child, because the cost for the medical procedure is beyond their means. Sometimes a parent will be killed in a car accident, and the remaining spouse is unable to care for the child alone, so the child is abandoned. Increasingly, many children are also orphaned because of AIDS.
The homes we saw are different than the actual state-run orphanages. We didn’t visit those, though we heard some horror stories – situations where the staff goes home at night and simply locks the children in their rooms, including the babies. Babies dying constantly because of lack of care. Very sad situations. We heard that sometimes Christians can work in these settings and try to improve the quality of care, but that it’s very difficult to change things. So Christians do other things to care for orphans, like these group homes.
The group homes we saw are located in private houses, with perhaps a dozen kids each. These particular homes specialized in caring for orphans that have had medical surgeries or have special needs. Some are there temporarily, while others have been there for years. The home often serves as a halfway house for kids who are in the process of being adopted – they have already been matched up with adoptive families in the West, and they are at the home as an interlude between their medical treatments and being picked up by their families. So the staff also teach the children basic English. When we saw the kids, they were watching Sesame Street, and they sang the alphabet song with us.
One little boy, maybe three years old, came running up to Ellen and wouldn’t let go. An eight-year-old boy, whom I’ll call Jiang, beckoned me over to the bed where he was sitting. He couldn’t walk because he has severe club feet, and his arms and limbs are quite deformed. He asked me to hold him and carry him around the house so he could show me things, saying, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” He pointed to pictures and told me in English, “Horse. Butterfly. Flower.” He looked through an Olympic sticker book with me and asked me to identify the various sports that were pictured. The staff told me that Jiang probably singled me out because not many men come to these homes; the staff are all women, and he and other boys are hungry for male affirmation and interaction.
Jiang has already had three surgeries, and they don’t think they can do any more for him. He will likely never walk. He gets around the house by rolling on the floor. Jiang has already been at this home for several years, and it’s not likely that he will ever be adopted because of his disabilities and also because he’s older.
As we drove away, I was terribly sad about the situation of Jiang and other orphans. The other day on the way to Tiananmen Square, we saw quite a number of beggars who were missing limbs or had other physical disabilities. Is that Jiang’s future? What kind of life will he have?
One of our guides told us a story that gave me some encouragement. Some years ago, she and a few friends were going to a McDonald’s, and outside was a man who had no legs, begging. Feeling the nudging of the Holy Spirit, they invited the man in and bought him a meal. One of the friends very zealously shared the gospel with him, which is rather risky to do in such a public way. But the man responded well and built enough of a relationship with them that he eventually started attending a church and became a Christian. He even got married later, and the church helped him get prosthetic legs and the therapy to learn how to walk. He now has a pretty good life working at a food shop.
So there is hope, and there are success stories. But so much depends on the willingness of Christians to reach out. The group homes find some funding from local and overseas churches, but the needs are so great and they could always use more help. We also saw a school that provides education and vocational training to the children of migrant workers; they don’t have the legal standing or financial means to go to regular schools. Their resources are quite basic – except their computer lab, which has thirty new computers, donated by a Christian businessman.
Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman has become a great champion of adoption in China as a pro-life cause; if American Christians really want to be pro-life, then one of the best ways to live that out is to adopt. Abortion is extremely common in China, often state-enforced for families who have a second pregnancy. Families who want to keep their second child often need to go into hiding, and even if the second child is born, he or she may not have legal standing or official status to go to school or be employed. One of our speakers told us that perhaps 80% of Chinese college students and young twentysomethings live together or cohabitate, which is a radical departure from the past. Cohabitation did not really take place at all twenty or thirty years ago. For cohabitating couples, when pregnancies occur, abortion is the norm.
Another issue that’s a little more encouraging – attitudes about the value of daughters have been improving. Traditionally, Chinese culture has always emphasized sons, which has led to the abortion, infanticide or abandonment of millions of baby girls over the years. As a response, now pregnant mothers are not permitted to find out the gender of the baby beforehand, to prevent abortions of unwanted girls. Also, people are realizing that daughters actually take better care of aging parents than sons. So the traditional preference for sons over daughters is changing somewhat, especially in cities. Not so much in the countryside yet. And ironically, girls are becoming more valued precisely because there’s such a shortage of them, and people are worried about the social ramifications of having 70 million men without potential marriage partners.
We also heard about the need for published resources for children and teens in China. Very little exists right now – basically just a Bible story picture book and some Max Lucado children’s books. Churches don’t have Sunday school materials or curricula and don’t know how to put together programs. Often churches minister to kids the same way they minister to adults, with hour-and-a-half-long preaching, with kids from ages 3 to 15 all lumped together, without understanding of developmental differences or interactive teaching methods. And there’s next to nothing available for teens.
But our guides told us about their efforts to translate and contextualize some elementary school level materials. Some exciting things are happening, both in unofficial printed materials and official published materials. Both have challenges and opportunities. Unofficial printed materials can be more explicit about Christian content but need to be distributed more carefully. Official published materials need to be more cautious about content, to get past government censors, but once published, they can be sold and marketed quite openly. So if people get challenged for using them, they can say, hey, we bought this at the bookstore down the street, and it has a government-issued ISBN, so it must be okay. I’m encouraged by both avenues to getting Christian materials to China’s children.
As a second-generation Taiwanese American, I feel a certain connection to the kids we’ve met here in China. I look at their faces, and I think, well, they look like me, this could be me. I look at the children with disabilities and hear about babies with Down syndrome who are abandoned, and I think of my son, Elijah, who has Down syndrome. If he had been born here, what kind of life would he have? It’s immensely daunting to think about the sheer numbers of people (some 400 million children and teens in China – that’s more than the entire population of the United States!) and how hard it will be to alleviate poverty, to care for orphans, to challenge cultural thinking about the value of girls and the disabled, to share the gospel and provide ministry resources and all the rest. But Christians in China and around the world can make a difference. So please pray, and give, and send, and go. The children of China need us!