A Visit to the Wanzai
Orphanage in September 2001
This London family was able
to visit the orphanage at Wanzai during their trip to adopt their daughter from
there. Prior to arriving in Jiangxi province they were also able to visit
the orphanage their older daughter was from (in a different province).
We very nearly didn�t get that plane � the
precious Invitation to Travel did not appear on the Department of Health
official�s desk on the Tuesday after the Bank Holiday � I was trying hard
not to panic. I left my traveling companion�s passport at the Chinese Embassy
with the idea that at least she could get to Beijing and we would follow as soon
as possible.Anthea and I had a late night discussion about what we would do if
it didn�t turn up in the morning (the flight was at 4.30 in the afternoon). At
2 a.m. I decided to email Beijing with a plea to travel on a Tourist Visa. I
packed our clothes and made a pile of other things needed for the trip. How I
slept that night I don�t know � but I was exhausted.
I was awoken at 7.15 by the phone � it was Beijing � the
China Centre for Adoption Affairs had approved my request � the Chinese
Embassy had been informed and I should get straight down there for our visas! At
8.15 the phone rang again � the Invitation to Travel had arrived on the right
desk at the Department of Health! I was elated � China, here we come!
I arrived back from the Embassy at five past one � Anthea had
booked the minicab for one o�clock � but they had given him the wrong
number. There was just time to throw the pile into a kit bag and shut the house
up before we were off. I am amazed that the only important thing we forgot was
Alice�s panda. The sense of unreality continued � the driver, Ziggy, was
from Nigeria � his passion was classical music and he had radio 3 on!
The British Airways flight was efficient and uneventful �
Alice was delighted that the inflight movie was Shrek � she had already seen
it twice. At Beijing airport we met up with Joy, a young woman from the Travel
Agency with our onward tickets to Changsha. Alice excitedly asked me �is that
my tummy mummy?� � she had obviously been thinking hard.
A tremendous amount of construction has been going on in China
over the last three years � the skyline of Changsha, the provincial capital of
Hunan, has been transformed � massive skyscrapers towering over the city
centre. We stayed in the same hotel that I had used when I adopted Alice �
some of the staff recognised me � �she�s a bit fatter� they candidly
told our guide Winnie.
Alice was very subdued � she didn�t want to eat � and sat
in the window staring out into the busy street. We had a rest day and discovered
the hotel swimming pool that provided much welcomed relaxation. The next day we
piled into a minibus at 8 a.m. with Winnie and set off to Xiangtan about 40 km
away. I had memories of the trip in March 1998, when we struggled there in a
decrepit van that could only do 20 mph in the pouring rain. We were taking the
newly adopted Alice to the Notary to complete the formalities � she had a
chest infection and was very floppy. This time it was hot and dusty � and the
van was in better condition.
The Social Welfare Institute in Xiangtan is hidden away down a
tiny lane on the outskirts of the city. The administrative buildings are clean
and well maintained. On the walls are photographs of the staff � I immediately
recognised Wang Li who bought Alice to me � unfortunately she was off duty
that Saturday. The Deputy Director, Mrs Zhou showed us the children�s
building. The grounds and facade were well kept but the corridors were dank and
smelly. Mrs Zhou told me that 50% of the babies received into care there had
been abandoned at railway stations and arrived at the rate of about one per
month. They had no records or artifacts relating to Alice�s arrival.
The nurseries we saw � one for infants and one for 1 year olds � were
large rooms with 15 to 20 wooden cots in rows. The walls hadn�t been painted
for some time and in places the plaster was falling off. Despite being late
summer and about 85 degrees the much prized air conditioners were not on.
Three young women were on duty, wearing white coats and feeding the one year
olds with milk and rice gruel in bottles with holes cut into the teats. The
children were sat out in a row of little chairs. Some sat over potties, some
were tied in, some were sick and some were asleep on their trays. Most looked
miserable and listless. One toddler was crying loudly with arms outstretched
wanting to be picked up. I counted about 16 children � all girls � one had
In the babies room, there were again about 15 girls � 3 were newborn, well
wrapped up, lying in the cots. On was being prop fed � the prop was a dirty
Lala toy. I only spotted one other toy in the room.
Anthea and I were very distressed by this experience � but Alice appeared
unconcerned and was more interested in playing with the six year old daughter of
one of the staff. I recognised this woman as one of the other staff who had
bought another child to Changsha for adoption by an American couple on the day
of Alice�s adoption. She recognised the children�s Chinese names and we took
photos of her, a colleague, Alice and her daughter. We weren�t allowed to take
pictures inside the nursery.
At the end of the visit I presented a photo album with pictures of Alice, our
extended family and life in London to the Director. I also gave him a $500
donation for the children. He told us that the staff all worked hard to improve
standards of care for the children and that the money would be spent on
improving their diet.
As we drove away Anthea and I were on the verge of tears. Winnie was a little
perplexed � telling us that Xiangtan was a good Social Welfare Institute. I
was left with an abiding impression of a very institutionalized environment
providing very basic care in difficult circumstances. I understood more clearly
why Alice had been so developmentally delayed when I first met her.
That afternoon we visited Shaoshan, birthplace of Mao Zhedong. It was about
an hour�s drive from Xiangtan. We had regained our composure by the time we
arrived and after a good lunch of local dishes we visited the compound where the
�Great Helmsman� had been raised. A simple wattle and daub farmhouse, 150
years old � there was plenty of evidence that his family had not been poor
peasants � but had been land owners on a small scale.
Below the farmhouse were two pools � one full of lotus plants � the other
a famous fishpond where Mao enjoyed swimming. Above the site was a row of
trinket sellers and further on a delightful walk through the steep wooded hills
to other farms and the burial sites of family members. Alice was delighted to
buy a gaudy heart shaped memento of the Chairman on a shiny chain. Her delight
was short lived � as she skipped past the swimming pool swinging her toy she
let go and it flew into the pond. She was inconsolable although later she did
giggle when I explained that obviously Chairman Mao had wanted another swim.
This part of the visit was a stark contrast to the Orphanage � Shaoshan is
a pilgrimage site for many Chinese who have incorporated Mao into their pantheon
of gods and spirits. We were told that some people prayed to Mao for sons,
prosperity and good fortune. I wondered whether Alice�s mother had abandoned
her as close as she could get to Shaoshan so as to share in some of that good
The following day we traveled by train from Changsha to Nanchang, provincial
capital of Jiangxi province. The train was en route for Shanghai and we had two
births in a �soft sleeper�. The journey was to take 5 hours and arrive at
midnight. Alice loved the sleeper with its embroidered table cloths and plastic
flowers. We had a long conversation with a 30 something computer engineer about
Chinese politics, economics and �family planning� (the euphemism for the one
child policy). He was genuinely distressed about the abandoned girls and told us
that his son was the same age as Alice. He was concerned about the effects on
his son of being an only child but felt powerless to effect any change in
Government policy. We exchanged email addresses.
On Monday 3rd September we were driven to Jiangxi province Civil
Affairs Department building in central Nanchang to meet Wan Jin Jiong. Anthea
was armed with the video camera and Alice with the stills camera. Grace was
there with the Orphanage Director Mr. Tan. There was one other child � also
being adopted by a single mother from the Midlands. Grace looked just like her
photo. She was alert and hungry � having missed her breakfast. She was soon
munching away on a croissant I had bought from the hotel for Alice, who as usual
had refused to eat breakfast. The formalities were brief and civilized. We were
given a porcelain dish as a gift from the province. A photographer was present
and took a shot of me holding Grace � this photo was used in the adoption
certificate and also posted in the local newspaper along with an adoption
announcement. This was a new practice which I had not heard about � but was
pleased to think that maybe someone would see it and keep it for the future when
perhaps the draconian laws on abandonment were relaxed and birth mothers could
Back at the hotel by lunchtime, I got a chance to inspect my new daughter.
She was plump, clean and well cared for. She was a bit miserable with a cold.
She was also teething (three teeth appearing over the next week) and constipated
up to the eyeballs. She was very responsive and curious about us. She could
already crawl and pull herself up to stand. She was, and remains, delightful.
She cried for three hours that night � a combination of tooth and tummy ache.
Bonding proceeded rapidly during the night whilst I tried to read her signals
and calm her down.
Meanwhile Alice developed an acute attack of the green eyed monster. Her
initial reaction at Civil Affairs was very positive � feeding and cuddling the
baby whilst I filled in forms and signed papers. Back at the hotel, however, the
reality began to dawn � this baby needed looking after � and her crying was
irritating. Anthea and I rapidly learnt not to take our eyes off her to prevent
hitting, pinching and arm twisting. Anthea was brilliant at taking Alice out for
adventures at the baby�s bedtime so that I could get her settled.
Luckily I had decided that staying for five days in hot, polluted Nanchang
whilst the paperwork was completed, wasn�t a good idea. I had booked a trip up
to the mountain resort of Lushan, where the early communists had their �awaydays�
and developed many of their infamous policies. Our guide, Sissi, a delightful
and very experienced interpreter, came with us � and � as her husband was
away on business, also bought her two year old daughter and the nanny. We had a
wonderful three day holiday in the clear cool mountain air. With four adults and
three kids and plenty of things to do � the heat was taken out of the sibling
rivalry and I got a chance to spoil Alice a bit.
Our last day in Jiangxi was a very important one. We made a three hour
journey to Wanzai where Grace had been looked after. We visited the Social
Welfare Institute first. As in Xiangtan, it was on the outskirts of the town.
However, it was in a much more open situation and although it was an institution
it did not have the same hopeless feeling about it. We were shown the nursery
� there were only 8 children � 2 were shortly coming to the U.K. and there
were a couple of newborns. We were told that another 30 children were in foster
care in the community. The children were alert and responsive � there were
several toys and a balloon in evidence. There was a bed in the nursery where a
caregiver slept. There was one caregiver at the time � she was cuddling one of
the babies who was crying. Several of the old people living there joined us in
the nursery to stare at us � one old lady was obviously involved in caring for
the children. We were encouraged to take photos.
As Wanzai is not on the railway line and is a county town in an agricultural
community � the babies are frequently left at the Institution gate. We were
told that this was where Grace had been found early one morning. We took a
number of photos of us sitting by the gate. On the way back to town Alice asked
me about this. �Mummy, why did you take all those pictures outside?�
�Because that is where Grace�s Mummy left her so that she could be looked
- eyes widening � �Mummy, was she left ALL ALONE?�
�Yes, love, she was�
�. long pause �. �did MY Mummy leave me like that?�
�Yes, she did�
This was the most difficult conversation to have with the four year old who
has bought so much joy to me over the last 3 years. I have no doubt that we will
come back to it over the next few years � I can only hope that by
incorporating the story into our lives both children will be able to absorb what
it means over time.
Our next port of call was the Foster mother�s house. The Director did not
want Grace to accompany us � so Anthea looked after her while Alice and I
walked with him and Sissi through back streets that looked almost medieval in
red brick and timber. We followed him round a maze of corridors into a little
courtyard which seemed to be full of people. Mrs. Guo was a sprightly widow in
her late forties � she welcomed us into her home and we sat on an old red
leatherette sofa eating enormous grapes and sipping tea. Alice was grumpy and
hot � still processing the fact of her abandonment. She promptly took her
tee-shirt off and sat watching a diving competition on TV twice the size of
Sissi asked her questions that I had prepared beforehand about her family and
Grace�s life with them. She reluctantly told us that Grace�s nickname in the
local dialect meant �fat baby� due to her healthy appetite. We met two of
her three sons � Ping(28) and Bin(17) and were able to take photographs of
them and Grace�s cot and high chair. We also were given a couple of small toys
that she played with and a dishrag she played peek-a-boo with. I wanted to stay
longer but I could sense that the Director was getting restless � and Alice
tired and upset.
Mrs Guo pressed us to take apples and peaches with us for our journey and
asked to have photos of Grace every year. I was impressed that she was an
excellent foster mother and can only hope that other babies come into her care.
The Director then took us for lunch at the local restaurant. Jiangxi cooking
involves a lot of chili � somehow in China it works � although at home I can�t
cope with much. We had fried river fish, sliced water hyacinth bulbs, spicy
aubergines and spare ribs � all liberally coated with dried chili flakes.
Alice refused to eat. She spent the meal mixing sugar and water in a glass and
towards the end poured a whole bottle of chilled water into Anthea�s lap.
Luckily she slept on the way home. When she awoke she was in a much calmer frame
The following day we flew back to Beijing. Whilst waiting in Nanchang airport
we spied an English couple arriving from Beijing � we knew that they were
expected from our guide � we had seen their daughter the day before in Wanzai
� we had a brief conversation over the barrier and exchanged addresses.
We returned to London the day after the World Trade Centre incident � we
watched the story unfolding on CNN in our hotel room as we packed. Our flight
was very smooth � British Airways put on a double crew which somehow helped to
relieve any anxieties we may have had. Alice watched the cartoon channel for
most of the trip and Grace slept for over 6 hours. Ziggy picked us up from the
airport and eventually we got home tired but exhilarated to start our new life
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