Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A bitter sweet trip to Xi'an

Sunday, we had just finished our morning service when we received a phone call from Walter Castro and his wife, visiting in Beijing from Charlotte, North Carolina. He said he thought he would just search the web to see if there could possibly be a church here and our Beijing Church of Christ popped up. We took a taxi to their hotel, visited with them a couple of hours and then we all took a taxi to Archer's apt. for the afternoon meeting. The Castro family is originally from Ecuador. Walter works for Bank of America. They have a little girl, Christine, four years old. The entire afternoon group had dinner together at a nearby restaurant. The Castro family took a taxi back to their hotel and we took a taxi to the train station.

We entered the train with a tourist group from Germany. One lady spoke good English and she was rearranging passengers so they could all be together. Their tickets had been pre-purchased by an agency so it had split up couples into different cabins. It involved our cabin, so we just waited in the hall to see how all the sleeping arrangements would be worked out. One of the train workers came in and when she saw the many changes that the woman had made, she just shook her head and gave up. A young man (train worker) came along and she explained it to him. It appeared that he let the Germans stay the way they had worked it out and took us to another car and found an empty cabin for us.

Jackie, our worker in Xi'an (pronounced She Ann) met us at the train station and took us to a nearby hotel to check in. (We saw the German group in the lobby but didn't have any more contact with them.) After freshening up a bit, we left the city to visit Ha Ha. The drive to Lantian, the closest small city to his home, was about 25 miles. It was a pretty highway with a mountain range on the side of the highway. Most of the land was flat and good farm land. When we arrived in Lantian, we met up with Paul, the worker who visits the orphans in this area. He was purchasing cooking oil, rice, vegetables and fruit to take to Ha Ha's family. While we were waiting for him to get the things together, Ron and I watched two women making thick bed comforters. They had a table in front of a shop and were quilting through the heavy batting with very skilled hands. They didn't have a pattern or lines to go by but their stitches were perfectly straight. They used a heavy cord and took log stitches to quilt the batting into place. They could complete one in about 15 minutes.

From Lantian, we drove another 5-10 miles to the area where Ha Ha lives. His house is not directly on the main road but the road down to his house is dirt, rough and rocky. We parked the car and began walking. Ha Ha and his mother were waiting in the road for us. She was very happy to see us but Ha Ha was so shy he would not have anything to do with us.

He hid behind his mother as much as he could. We all walked on to their house but Ha Ha still did not warm up to us. He did not even want to look at us. The men took the groceries inside and Ha Ha's mother welcomed us to sit on the bed in the little front room. Ha Ha pulled away and went into a bedroom. We left him for a while but Ron and I each peeked in and smiled at him a few times and began to get a little smile from him. When we went in the room, however, he still would not let us hold him and he would not look at us. I tried to get a picture made with him but he squirmed from my arms and got on the bed.

Ha Ha's grandmother lives with them now. She is 53 but looked to be in her 70's. The peasant women age very fast and look much older than they are. She had prepared lunch for us and there was no way we could refuse to eat. I looked into the kitchen and saw so much wood and sticks piled up in the room to build the fire for cooking, that there was hardly any room in front of the stove for her to work. I don't know how you could cook a meal in that little turn-around space.

The meal consisted of dishes of steamed rice, cauliflower, green peppers, fried eggs, garlic greens (tops of the garlic plant, which is very delicious) and a dish of meat that looked like Bologna, which we did not eat. They have a well so we assumed the water would be clean and the food would be sanitary. We were lucky because we did not get sick from eating the meal. The food was delicious.

Ha Ha's mother told us that the night before she told Ha Ha we were coming to visit. He was very excited and talked about us. The morning we arrived, he woke up early, got dressed and kept going outside to see if we were coming. We are certain that he knew us but was just too shy to have anything to do with us. If we had stayed several more hours, he might have shown some interest. He and his mother walked with us to the car but he still hid and did not want to have a picture made. The workers took the pictures on the sly when he wasn't posing for them. The only picture he wanted us to take was the one with his sister, who is 10 years old. She was home from school to eat lunch.

Ha Ha goes to kindergarten. His mother said he likes it but will not talk at school. She showed us his tablet where he is writing the Chinese characters. It is like our children repeating the same letter over and over to practice writing. His handwriting was excellent and he made 100 on every page. We are so happy we were able to correct his little fingers from the bent position caused by the burn. Otherwise, he would not be able to do this beautiful writing.

Ha Ha's mother complimented Paige on the good training that was given Ha Ha while he lived there with his host family. She said before coming to America there were many things that he needed to learn such as respecting what belongs to someone else but when he came back he had very good manners and knew what to do. She is very grateful for the love and help the Peterson family gave him.

Ha Ha's father is working as a cook in another city. He and one other man cook for 150 factory workers. In factories, many (or most) employees live there in dormitory-style housing.

It was sad to leave for several reasons. The new house already looks like it's 10 years old. It's substantially built and is certainly warmer and better than the old house but they already have it in a mess. We decided that no matter how much paint you use and no matter how nice the things you give them, it will be back to their way of life within six months. It is all the peasant people know and it is their comfort zone. It is still sad to see children growing up in this lifestyle. There are literally millions that live this same way, not only in China but in many countries of the world.

I knew I would not see Ha Ha again unless we bring him back to the U.S. for more surgery around his eye in a few years. This visit would have made me feel a little better if he had been warm toward us. I know he's talked about us since we left and was happy to see us, but he didn't act that way. I have to remember that he's only four years old and he's a shy little boy. Every time he came to my house from Paige's home, it took him a while before he began to talk with us.

When we arrived back in Lantian, we met the man in charge of the Charity Federation. He walked with us to the nearby high school to find a student, #7 Kang Sha, supported by our daughter, Leigh Ann Dotson and Tim and Tracy Petrik. (Leigh Ann gives double support but we need three sponsors to cover the expenses for Kang Sha in this school).

Nothing in China is simple, I've found. The workers and the man at the school went down a long list of students' names trying to find her. After 15-20 minutes without success, they let us inside the school grounds and Paul went up to the classrooms to find her.

Soon, Kang Sha and her sister (#40 Kang Yixiao, supported by Ron and Kathryn Denney), came to see us. They were all smiles and happy girls. The older girl had to leave right away for class but Kang Sha talked with us for several minutes and had some pictures made with us. She said she is so happy at this school and feels so lucky. When we found her more than two years ago, she was living alone in an old abandoned building. She now lives at this nice school and makes very good grades. I asked the worker if she understood who we were and she spoke up herself and said, "Yes, I know." Her English was better than some of our workers. She is 15 years old. She is very smart and she definitely has a bright and hopeful future because of the support, giving her this wonderful opportunity for an education.

The next day we went to visit Dan Dan. She was home for her lunch break. Her parents were both there and welcomed us with open arms. Dan Dan and her mother attend the Sunday family meeting every week. It was so nice to see how pretty Dan Dan looks after all of her surgeries. I think she's had the most improvement in looks of any of the children who have come for burn surgery. Dan Dan's face was really bad but now she's a very pretty girl and her hair has grown thick and beautiful.

Dan Dan answered all of our questions, understanding English very well. She could talk with us fluently and had such a good time laughing about things that happened while she lived with us and Sherry. She loves the family who kept her in Nashville and they call her every Saturday night. She talked about her life with them and it was evident that she was happy living with them. She said she didn't know if she wanted to come back to America for another surgery because it was so far from her family. She said she loved her time in America but she missed her family very much. She has a good mother and father and she loves her little sister who will be three in October. Dan Dan had grown a foot taller since we last saw her. She is a good student and loves her school. She said she forgot a lot of her Chinese and the first few months back in China were very difficult for her. She asked her mother why they had to eat rice or noodles all the time. She couldn't adjust back to the simply Chinese diet after having such a variety in the U.S.

To get to Dan Dan's home, from the street, we had to walk through an alley where they were cooking every kind of food imaginable. This is where Americans can really get sick - eating the street food. We had not had lunch and it looked and smelled wonderful so I can see why Americans are tempted to try it. In addition to the cooking areas, there were fruit and vegetable markets all along the way. Usually, locals have never seen foreigners in these areas, so we create quite a stir of interest as we walk through.

Dan Dan lives at the end of another alley, where there are just rooms where people live all down the side as you walk. They have only one room with a side room (probably bath and storage). There was a small bed (Dan Dan's) and a medium size bed backed up together into a "L" shape. There was a small area where she cooks and that's all the space they have. The room was no larger than 8' x 8.' They told us that their family comes from the north and still live in caves. Ron says that thousands of people live in caves and that area. We saw pictures of their family members. Dan Dan's mother said her mother was 54 years old but looked much older than me. The peasant people think Ron and I are in our 50's.

Dan Dan and her family walked back through the alley to take Dan Dan back to school so they saw us to the car. Dan Dan didn't want us to leave. Later in the afternoon, she called the worker that was with us and said she missed us so much and wanted to talk to us again. We talked to her on the phone and promised her we would call her some more from Beijing before we go back to the U.S. She is a precious little girl and she has a sweet and thankful family.

Her father is learning to drive and hopes to be a taxi driver. I won't get into driving in China at this time. It would take you another 15 minutes to read how it's done in China! Let me say, it's not for the faint-hearted, whether you are the driver or the passenger.

Jackie, our worker, stopped at a restaurant for lunch that he said should be safe for us. He said both Aubrey Johnson and David Langley had tested it and not gotten sick. He ordered a plate of dumplings stuffed with pork, a dish of various kinds of mushrooms, a green vegetable with tiny whole fried shrimp (too small to peel and eaten whole), and a dish of steamed Chinese cabbage with thin noodles in a spicy sauce). This four-dish meal cost a total of $12 and there was enough left over for Jackie to take home for their dinner.

On Monday night, Ron had a meeting with the hospital officials (director of the cardiac division and surgeons). We have completed 43 open heart surgeries at this hospital so far in 2008. They have also done a lot of cleft palate surgeries for us. They seem to be kind-hearted men and dedicated to saving lives and helping the poor so they are very thankful for our work and what we are accomplishing for these families.

After the meeting, they took us to a private dining area of the hospital. The hospital is very large, much larger than Emory or Vanderbilt. It is very clean and beautiful. The dinner was probably the best gourmet meal I've ever eaten. It was not easy to eat with chopsticks, however. I was a little out of my comfort zone, to say the least. Here are some of the dishes they served: Smoked salmon, displayed over slices of cucumber, small shrimp (boiled and in the full shell - I decided it had to be a "finger" food), whole small crab, placed on our plate and very difficult to eat even with fingers, goose liver pate over a wedge of toast (very expensive and delicious), sausage made from pork ears (too much grissle), sweet and sour fish (excellent), spinach and mushroom soup, noodles with sauce and ground beef, tree ears (mushrooms) with white roasted walnuts (served cold), sprouts (many different kinds), green vegetable (maybe bok choy), and several types of bread. One bread had many layers and you put hot sauce in between the layers. We also had fried dumplings (vegetable) similar to pot stickers. At the end of the meal, there was a platter of watermelon and tangerines.

The top surgeon that sat next to me explained what some things were and shared how to eat them. His English was excellent and he was a very interesting person. He made me feel at ease, as much as was possible in this setting.

The weather was warm in Xi'an. At night, it was close to freezing but by noon, it was in the high 50's or maybe 60 degrees. I am happy the weather there is not so severe because of our little Ha Ha and Dan Dan. We arrived back in Beijing to a very cold temperature and a strong wind.

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