We're driving towards the orphanage. The highway is lonely, save for a few languid trucks ambling along. It is damp too, and a thick fog covers the countryside: a single light here or there provides the only hint of civilization amidst the interminable verdure. Inside the van, the smoke of cigarettes past wafts in the air, lingering like a lost soul. I inhale, and quickly cough. I subsequently open the window to the enveloping darkness outside, so slightly as to not disturb my companions in the back. The roar of the road echoes in my ears.
An unexpected wrench was thrown into our travel plans today. The trip began expediently enough as the bus on which Candy and I rode reached the Shenzhen airport with hours to spare; however, the unscheduled hiccups soon followed. We received an announcement over the public address system notifying us of a flight delay, due to a mysterious military maneuver, we deduced, high in the Shenzhen skies. Several more sonorous reminders came in punctual succession over the next six hours. It seemed as though we would be stuck, stranded really, at the airport forever, or for the day at least. Thankfully, after the police arrested some of the more aggrieved passengers, we finally boarded the plane and took off for central China. We were blessed to be on our way at last, none of us having blown a gasket during the afternoon tedium.
One more pitch black road awaited, down a single lonely lane lined with swarthy trees, standing as though sentries, and at length we arrived at the orphanage. The car stopped in a clearing, and we stepped out, onto a cement lot with soft puddles spread silently beneath our feet. We squinted into the twilight, our eyes trying to make sense of the surroundings. Our bags were unloaded, we made our way to the rooms, and soon enough fell asleep. I think we all enjoyed the repose, rendered especially comfortable by the new guest rooms in which we were staying.
We have only been here for barely 24 hours, yet it feels as though we have been here for much longer, as if time at some point in our journey decided to slow itself to a crawl. Maybe it was because of the litany of activities that we packed into the span of several hours, or perhaps it was the lack of worldly distractions, allowing us to focus solely on our mission, that caused us to suspend the hands of that imaginary clock in our mind. Whatever the case, we've enjoyed every minute at the orphanage; it is time definitely well spent in service!
Morning call was at 6:20; and after a prayer meeting we went down to finally visit the kids. They were playing on the vast driveway of the orphanage, savoring their moment of freedom before breakfast. To see so many friendly faces, in spite of their precarious physical and filial circumstance was definitely encouraging. I made a multitude of new friends; and did my best throughout the day to impact those kids with joy, honesty and patience. It is a powerful cocktail which brings love immediately to many.
The food at the orphanage is without processing, as natural as victuals can be in these days of impersonal industrial production. Large chunks of mantou, steaming bowls of soupy congee, and salty vegetables with slivers of meat have characterized our meals. It is the kind of humble stuff that lengthens life spans, and disciplines the palate.
We presented a wide range of activities - structured and unstructured; whole class and small group - to the kids, in the hope that we would manage them as much as amuse. In the morning, as though breaking the ice once were not enough, we ran through a series of dizzying, if not at times totally incoherent, activities designed to familiarize our dispositions to each other. Later, we established a makeshift fun fair, at which we ushered the children to rooms filled with (board) games, and puzzles, and other, more colorful activities such as face painting and balloon making. The kids couldn't at length contain their enthusiasm, busting into and out of rooms with impunity, soaking in the rapturous atmosphere. In the afternoon, our team attempted to tire them out: running topped the agenda, and by leaps and bounds, the activities, whether straightforward relays or schoolyard classics like duck duck goose and red light, green light, indeed began to tucker our charges out. We, too, were pretty beat by the time night began to creep over the horizon!
Yesterday evening, we surprised the students with a musical performance, followed by forty minutes of bubble-blowing madness; to be sure, the students could not appreciate our somewhat accurate rendition of Amazing Grace so much as the innocent madness of dipping one's hands in a solution of dish detergent and corn syrup and then whispering a bubble to life; and indeed, the moment the Disney branded bubble-making machines churned the first batch of bubbles into the air, with much rapidity weaving their frenetic pattern of fun, chaos erupted in the room. The students stormed the soap basin, and almost overwhelmed my teammates who valiantly held the Snitch and Pooh high above the heads of the clamoring kids.
During the evening's festivities, I grew progressively ill, until at last I dashed out of the room to sneeze. Outside, in the cool of the night, under a cloud of stars beaming so far away in the deep of space, I exploded in a rancor of sneezing. The fit lasted for five minutes, an inexorable depression in my system which sent both my body and my esteem tumbling down. I felt bad, not only for my exceedingly rickety health, but for my teammates and the children who may have been exposed to my sickness as it incubated within me; furthermore, everyone in the classroom was saying goodbye and all I could do was rid myself of a sniffle here and there, in between rounds of bursting from nostrils and sinuses. I was impotent, as though one of my insignificant droplets on the floor!
We are in a car heading towards a famous historical site in Henan. The driver's drawl slips slowly from his mouth, and what he says resonates intelligibly in our ears. Candy, Tanya and the driver are discussing Chinese mythology, and history, which, for better or for worse seem to be inextricably intertwined. We narrowly just now missed hitting an idle biker in the middle of the road; in dodging our human obstacle, the car swerved into the oncoming traffic, sending us flying inside the cabin. Reciting a verse from a worship song calmed our frazzled nerves.
How to describe the children? Many of them smiled freely, and were so polite when greeted that undoubtedly they had been trained well at some point in the tumult of their life education. Precociousness was also a common characteristic shared by the kids, whose stunted bodies belied the mature, perspicacious thoughts hiding just underneath the skin. Of course, in our time together we were more merry than serious, that quality being best left for the adults working silently in their rooms; and to that effect, the kids brought out their funny bones and jangled them in the air to stir up the excitement and to destroy by a jocular clamor any hint of a dull moment – we really laughed a lot. At last, although not all of them seemed interested in our staged activities – rather than feign enthusiasm and eagerness, some skipped our events altogether – those who did participate, most of them in fact, enjoyed themselves with abandon, helping to create that delightful atmosphere where the many sounds of elation reign.
Of the students whom I had the opportunity to know personally, several still stick out in my mind, not the least for my having christened a few of them with English names! David was bold, and courageous, willing to soothe crying babes as much as reprimand them when their capricious actions led them astray; he had a caring heart not unlike a shepherd who tends to his young charges. Edward, who at 13 was the same age as David, definitely grew emotionally, not to mention physically attached to me. He was by my side for much of the weekend, grabbing onto my hand and not letting go, to the point where I in my arrogance would detach my fingers within his, ever so slightly, as if to suggest that a second more would lead to a clean break - I know now that with the cruel hands of time motoring away during the mission, I shouldn't have lapsed into such an independent, selfish state; he should have been my son. Another child who became so attached to the team as to intimate annoyance was the boy we deemed John's son, because the boy, it seemed, had handcuffed himself to our teammate, and would only free himself to cause insidious mischief, which would invariably result in an explosion of hysterics, his eyes bursting with tears and his mouth, as wide as canyon, unleashing a sonorous wail when something went wrong. On the other hand, Alice remained in the distance, content to smile and shyly wave her hand at our team while hiding behind her sisters. And last but not least, of our precious goonies, Sunny undoubtedly was the photographer extraordinaire, always in charge of the school's camera, snapping away liberally, never allowing any passing moment to escape his shot.
That I learned on this trip so much about my teammates verily surprised me, as I thought the relationships that we had established were already mature, not hiding any new bump, any sharp edge to surprise us from our friendly stupor. So, consider myself delightfully amazed at how a few slight changes in the personality mix can bring out the best, the most creative and the strangest in the group dynamic: admittedly, Candy and Tanya were the ideal foils for John, they eliciting the most humorous observations and reactions from my house church leader, they expertly constructing a depth of character that even last week, in the wake of the Guangdong biking trip, I never knew existed! Most of all, I'm glad to have been a part of such a harmonious fellowship, for the fact that we could prayer together as one, and encourage each other too, and all the more as we saw the day approaching.