The Room with Glass Walls
Little girls. Little girls. Little girls everywhere. Fragile grannies with gray, tangled hair, smiling their toothless grins, were holding babies, one on each hip, as we were ushered into a large, mostly empty room. Around the outside of this large room were rows and rows of cribs filled with babies.
There were no toys, no blankets, no books. Some of the walls were glass with smudged handprints and what appeared to be tiny nose prints. It was March, and it was cold. And silent. That was the strangest thing to me; all those babies and not one of them was crying, or laughing, or making any sound at all.
It never occurred to me that little girls could be so quiet. After all, as a mama of four daughters, I’ve seen little girls in every imaginable situation (or so I thought). But when we walked into the orphanage in Nanchang, China in 2005, I realized that this was different than anything I had ever seen or heard before.
“Why is it so cold in here?” I whispered to our tour guide, Helen.
“It is not cold in here!” she replied with a gentle laugh. “And why are you whispering? They cannot understand English.” Right. But it IS cold in here and I want to know why.
“Why are all the babies bundled up in so many coats if it is not cold in here?” I asked, still whispering, as if my impudence would offend one of the stern-faced Chinese men standing behind us. We learned later that government officials from the village had come to greet us.
“That is because there is no heat in any buildings in this city,” replied Helen, apparently thinking that should be obvious. No heat? In any of the buildings? “Even in the houses?” I inquired in my now-perfect stage whisper. “Or the schools? Or the offices? Or the hospitals? Or the orphanages?”
Helen just smiled at me with resignation, realizing that this ignorant American had no idea what life is really life for the people of China. That’s when the orphanage director came strolling up to our little, shivering, huddled mass of ignorance.
She was rather tall (compared to the bustling gray grannies who were chattering away, nodding, and smiling) with very dark, straight black hair and a serious look on her face. Even when she smiled, her eyes reflected a sense of fear, or sadness, or anger. I couldn’t tell. She spoke in clipped phrases with a harsh tone to the gray grannies, and they immediately began scurrying around to the cribs where more babies were waiting silently.
I suddenly realized that our little Annie, who had lived in this orphanage for the first two and a half years of her life, was sobbing quietly in my husband’s arms. Although she was 2 ½ years old, she could not walk, or talk, or crawl, or roll over, and she could not feed herself. She has Cerebral Palsy that affects the left side of her body, so she was completely unable to do any of the things that a typical toddler can do. Because the orphanage workers simply do not have the time to care for the needs of children who are unable to do some things for themselves, Annie had been left on her back in her crib for most of her short life.
Today was our first, and only, trip to visit Annie’s orphanage, and it was not a good idea for this Mama to do that. But I didn’t know until I got there.
As I turned to look at our new daughter, I could see that she was confused. Her searching gaze traveled from my face to that of the limping gray grannie that was chattering and smiling and touching Annie’s new coat.
When Annie looked beyond my face to see the stern orphanage director, she began to cry. A young Chinese girl, perhaps a young teenager, quickly stepped up and held out her hands to take Annie.
As soon as the young girl began to speak quietly to Annie, the tears stopped and they walked together to the other side of the room. There, in a little closet, were a few toys and the two of them began to play and chatter. Annie stopped crying.
With all of the hustle and bustle, the adults all talking in Chinese, and the grannies nodding, smiling, and bowing, I realized that the babies were still quiet. There were little girls in cribs, with some of the metal beds holding two babies, and then there was the room with the potty chairs.
This was the room that had glass walls, so the little girls on the potty chairs could be seen from the crib room. At least that was my assessment. The group of official-looking men stood just outside this room, talking quietly with the orphanage director, and watching us carefully. But I didn’t realize that until later, when my husband warned me to be careful.
As our Annie was being passed around from one gray grannie to another, while the teenage girl seemed to be protecting her, I casually wandered into the potty chair room. I looked around at the potty chairs all lined up around the room (there must have been fifteen or twenty of them), and I noticed that all of the baby girls sitting on the potty chairs were strapped in place and could not move.
Just like all the other baby girls in the crib room, all of these little ones were bundled up in several layers of winter clothing. They seemed to have on sweat shirts, pants, and socks with at least one bulky snow suit over everything. It was March and it was cold. And there is no heat in the buildings in that village.
In China, babies are not taught to use the toilet as babies and children are in America. In China, the children wear “split pants” which have an open bottom so that the child can go potty whenever and wherever they are, without having to go through the trouble of removing all those layers of clothing. That’s why the baby girls were lined up and strapped onto the potty chairs, all bundled up so they could barely move.
As I stepped inside the potty chair room, with the glass walls so my reaction was visible to anyone who might be looking in my direction (especially the stern government men who seemed to be watching me) – I glanced down to the little girl right beside me. She was staring straight ahead, not looking at anyone or anything, with no expression on her face.
She must have been about twelve months old, maybe a bit older, and her arms stuck straight out to the sides, all bundled up in her layers and layers of clothing. She sat there on the potty chair, strapped in, silently waiting for . . . . what? How long had she been sitting there? How long until someone would pick her up?
By this time, I was completely unaware of the other people around us as I knelt down beside her and began to speak softly to her. Of course, she could not understand me, but I could tell that she heard my voice. She still didn’t look at me, and she didn’t make a sound.
I noticed that her hair was all matted, and her eyes and nose were red and swollen. It looked as if she had a cold, as her upper lip was chapped, her nose was running, and her cheeks were red and rough. As I continued to whisper to her, “Hello. You look like you don’t feel so well,” she timidly looked up at me, but still made no sound.
Mumbling some silly mama talk to this tiny girl, I became completely oblivious to whatever was going on around me, and I felt my heart breaking. Her eyes searched mine in silence, and then . . . I reached out and touched her cheek. There was still no sound from her tiny soul, but in that moment I knew I had touched her heart as the silent tears began to fall.
As my own tears blurred my vision, I was suddenly jerked back to reality as my husband touched my arm and as quietly as possible he said, “You need to get up now.” I glanced up at him with a questioning look and he said, “They are watching you. You need to come out of here right now.”
I stood up and realized that the orphanage director and the government men were all looking at me. I quickly brushed away my tears, and with one last look at my tiny new friend, we were whisked away to have lunch with the village leaders who thanked us for coming to China to adopt one little girl. One little girl. China’s leaders say that’s how you must do it. Just one at a time.
Perhaps had the rules been different, we would have come home with two little girls that time. I often think of her and wonder where she is now. She would be almost a teenager now. In my prayers, I know that God cares for every tiny child, even those who seem to be silently forgotten in Chinese orphanages. Even my little girl in the potty chair room. For now, that has to be enough.