Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seven Nights and Six Days

I appreciate Jackie Lantry for contributing this story about her son Jack. As I look through the thousands of faces in my research, the older children are the ones that haunt me the most.


“I wondered if they were going to throw me away.” Zhou Jun was talking about his birth parents. At age 9 they took him to a train station in Urumqi, China, gave him a few cents and told him an uncle would pick him up at the next stop. “Did your mom seem sad when she put you on the train?” “No” he said, she just seemed normal.’ “What about your dad?” “No, he seemed normal too.” “Didn’t anyone question why you were traveling alone?” I asked. “No,” he said, “people were nice to me, some gave me food.”

“What happened when you got off the train?” “There were people everywhere,” he said. “Everyone was grown up, they all looked very busy, like they knew where they were going. I walked up and down the platform looking for my uncle. It was difficult. Everyone was so tall and I was short.” When he realized no one was going to meet him he tried to reboard the train. “If I could retrace my steps, perhaps I would find my parents.” He no longer had a ticket. The Conductor wouldn’t let him back on. When the other passengers realized he didn’t have a ticket, their attitudes toward him changed. They were no longer helpful, they were dismissive and scornful.

“At that moment I realized my intuition was correct, my parents had thrown me away. I was on my own now.” In one train ride he went from a person with standing in society, to a beggar child. Chinese society treats beggars with disdain.

Zhou Jun wandered around the station for hours. He was alone with hundreds of people, noises, and smells swirling around him. It got cold. It got dark. He slept on a bench. He ate out of garbage cans. “I cried for 7 nights and 6 days. After that, I never cried again.” With his childhood gone, he joined up with other abandoned kids. All of them were living on the streets, eating what others threw away and sleeping wherever they could. Occasionally the authorities would try to round up the street kids, but he always eluded capture. One day a man told him to go to the police station, that they would help him. Exhausted, nine year old Zhou Jun went with the man to the police station.

Children of all ages, rounded up from all parts of the city, were warehoused at the “children’s jail.” It was a dank, fetid place. What little he had to eat was horrible. There was a lot of work. Locked up at all times, a small dusty yard surrounded by fencing and wire was his only connection to the outside world. He used to stare at the rooftops and dream of being able to climb to freedom. There was talk of running away, but no real hope of actually doing so. The older kids would tell the younger ones “if you ever get out, you must run. Do not stop running until you are at the train station. Do not look back, only forward. Do not waste one second of possibility. It is so crowded at the train station you can easily get lost. No one will find you there.”

One day the bosses told a group of kids to move some old mattresses out to the street. Under heavy supervision the kids pushed and shoved the smelly, stained mattresses out. Back inside, Zhou Jun noticed the door. Someone had forgotten to lock it. His heart began to beat faster. He remembers sidelong glances between he and the other children. Suddenly a group of kids jumped up. Charging the door, they pushed it open and tumbled out onto the street. He remembers hearing kids yell (“run, run,”) and frantic screams (did someone get caught?) His mind was racing. Do not look back, do not look back, do not look back. He didn’t stop running until he got to the train station.

With no food, nowhere to sleep, no place to wash his face or go to the bathroom, life on the street was better than life in children’s jail. A station worker recognized him from before and took pity. Occasionally the worker took Zhou Jun home with him. He was able to sleep, eat, and play with the workers young son. Returning to the train station each morning, he would wander all day. Other workers would give him food. One day the man who befriended him told Zhou Jun that he must do something about his situation. He could not live forever between the streets and the train station. “Please, please do not take me to the children’s jail” Zhou Jun begged. The man was kind. He arranged for Zhou Jun to go to an orphanage.

No fingers. That was the first thing Zhou Jun noticed about the orphanage worker. He had no fingers. “Take off your belt” the worker said. Zhou Jun took it off. The man took the belt and with a powerful snap brought it down hard across Zhou Jun’s head. “You must understand who is in charge,” the worker said. It was October 14, 1997.

“On that day I was erased. I was given a new identity.” Zhou Jun was stripped of his ragged, filthy clothes. He was washed and clothed in hand me downs. All children at the orphanage are given the sir name of the orphanage director. Zhou Jun, homeless and unsure of his age or date of birth, officially became Wang Jun, age 9, birth date 10-14-88. His birth year was a guess. He had no idea what year he was actually born.

At first the orphanage was better than the street, but certainly not good. The older kids ran the show. You had to try to fit in and at the same time fly under the radar. Be there without being seen. Wang Jun was lucky, he learned quickly. He was able to stay out of the way and avoid trouble. For the first time in many months he had a bed, food and clothing. Each day had a routine. He got up, cleaned himself and his corner of the dorm room. He then went to a cafeteria and ate. He went to school. He came back to the orphanage after school and did homework and cleaning. After a simple dinner, he studied and then went to bed. In winter they got up extra early to shovel snow off the cities streets. Eventually, he became a group leader at the orphanage. He started a small business venture. Wang Jun organized the little kids into teams. Each team would scour the neighborhood for paper and cardboard, gather it up and bring it back to the orphanage. Working together they would tear it down, bundle it up and take it to a junkyard. They were paid by the pound. Money earned bought videos the kids could watch on the orphanage TV.

He remembers learning Chinese songs, poems, and cultural dances. Americans and other foreigners would come and watch him on perform on stage, watch him sing and dance. They would smile and clap their hands. They seemed happy to watch him. They liked his performances. Afterward, the foreigners would pick up babies and leave the orphanage. They took the babies to America, to grandparents, aunts and uncles, to brothers and sisters. They took them to schools and bedrooms and warm clean clothes. They took them home. Once gone, he would never see the babies again. I asked him if it bothered him to see others get adopted. “No, I knew they wanted babies, not older kids.” In China once you turn 14 you are taken out of the adoption queue-you are no longer eligible, you “age out.” Wang Jun was careening toward his fourteenth birthday.

The adoption agency sent out its spring newsletter. Spring being a season of hope, of all things being reborn. This newsletter focused on special needs kids. It featured pictures of kids waiting for “forever families.” Older kids are difficult to place, almost as difficult as kids with medical issues. They come with unknown amounts of baggage-some if it legitimate, some of it imagined by prospective parents.

We got the newsletter and were charmed by a couple kids. One, a little boy who was deaf, was so darling. Another, an older boy was perfect-no problems, just age as his special need. We decided to inquire about the little boy.

A few days went by before I got a phone call from the agency. “Sorry,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “The little boy you are interested in has been put on hold for another family. They have all their paperwork completed, so it’s pretty much a done deal.” I was disappointed but OK. We had experience with this, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. We knew it had been a long shot. I was just about to hang up the phone when I asked, “I know there’s probably no chance, but just for the heck of it, how about the older boy, I think his name is Wang Jun? I’m sure he got snapped up. He has no big problems, just his age. I bet he got put on hold quickly too.” I was preparing myself to listen once again to the “Sorry, he’s on hold too” speech. “Actually no one has come forward for him. We think his age frightens people.” My heart skipped a beat. “Really? Could you send me his information?” We got the information via overnight mail. After reading about him, it occurred to us that time was of the essence. We had a very short time to get all our paperwork in order and go get our son.

It was a typical September evening at the orphanage. Wang Jun had gone to school, done his studying and daily chores and was ready for bed. The kids in his dorm were in their beds waiting for lights out. A worker came to fetch him. “Come with me, the director needs to talk to you.” Wang Jun climbed out of bed, padded down the hallway and through the door. He stood in front of the director’s desk. “Wang Jun” he said, “in two weeks you will be adopted. You are going to live in America. You cannot tell the other children.” Wang Jun stood very still, he didn’t smile and he didn’t move a muscle. “I did not want the director to think I was not grateful. My heart was pounding. I was afraid the director could see it pounding inside my body.” Calmly Wang Jun said, “OK, Goodnight.” He turned and walked out of the room. Again he padded quietly down the hall, around the corner and through the door. He shut the door and glanced behind to see if anyone was watching. No one was there. Wang Jun jumped up and down while pumping his fist in the air. “Yes! Yes! He whispered urgently. He went into the dorm. He woke all the kids and told them the news.

It was September 16, 2002. Wang Jun, aka Zhou Jun walked into a room and saw a very tall man. The man reached down and put his arms gently around Wang Jun’s shoulders. “We’re going to call him Jack, if that’s O.K. with him” the man said. That night Jack and his father stayed in a hotel. Jack took a hot shower and ate in a restaurant. The next day they flew out of Urumqi. He is now Jack Stephen. He is now an American; he is now a son, a brother, a cousin, a nephew, and a grandchild.


Jackie has provided the following response to several comments from readers:

Jack has adjusted very well. It was not without some difficulty, but I don’t think it was anything greater than one would expect under the circumstances. He had to be “taught” how to connect to a family in the beginning. He did not understand why we treated our younger children the way we did (the typical American fawning over little ones that we all do.) He felt we were spoiling them. He kept himself at arms length for a long time -- in fact, it took my sister (who observed from a distance) to notice that he was quite envious of the hugs and kisses we gave the little ones. She suggested we start hugging and kissing him -- despite his protests. It worked like a charm. He warmed up right away. There have been some difficult times and issues, but overall it has been a good match. He will start an intensive 2 year english language program in the fall and then he is off to college. It is odd to have a child for 5 or 6 years and them see them off into adulthood-but that’s my issue, not his.

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