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Silence of the Children
Journey of Love Part IV
Silence of the Children
By Ruth Jeng
Translated by Jennifer Dunn
Wednesday, July 4. 32 degrees Celsius, Dazhu to Chongqing.
The bus ride from Dazhu to Chongqing was grueling. Our "express" bus ambled along through the oppressive heat, stopping every 5 minutes to pick up more passengers. There was no air conditioning, but at least we could open the windows to blow away the stale cigarette smoke. Several of the kids got car sick, and pills didn't help.
We finally reached the People's Dignitary Guest House, and enthusiasm washed away our exhaustion from the ride. This establishment used to cater to high -level dignitaries, and now operated as a four star hotel. It was conveniently situated in the center of town, up on a small hill overlooking the neighboring People's Plaza and streets. The building was concealed by trees, and the only way to approach it was by taxi. A doorman stood before glass panel doors that led into a regal grand entrance. Crystal chandeliers and polished marble floors reflected the grandeur inside the hall. The staff, outfitted in crisp uniforms, stood attention behind pristine granite countertops.
Our initial tour of ten arrived in two taxis. The mere 200 kilometer ride from Dazhu had taken us over 9 hours, and it was now well past 5 pm. Arriving into town during the afternoon hours of heavy traffic didn't help, and had easily added an additional painstakingly slow 2 hours to the trip. The doorman dutifully helped with our 'luggage', which consisted mostly of awkward, tearing plastic bags bulging with clothes. I was worried about how the children's belongings had withstood the rough journey.
Once we got into our rooms it was time for 'big city living' lesson number 1: how to flush a toilet. I then distributed bed assignments and instructed them to be ready within 15 minutes for dinner. I had barely begun to freshen up in my room when my daughter Emily urgently rushed into the room.
"Mom, they were eating the food in the rooms!" she exclaimed. When I took Emily traveling with me in the past, I warned her not to eat the ludicrously priced food on display in the hotel rooms. She knew if she disobeyed she would be in serious trouble. I was relieved that this was the extent of the 'emergency' she felt desperate to inform me of. I asked what she told them, and she said that she had threatened them that I would be furious when I found out.
When I went to the girl's room, I found them standing sheepishly around empty wrappers, and the one remaining packet of food. The boys had devoured every last bite of snacks in their room. I explained softly how expensive the food in the rooms was, and that a bottle of coke cost 20 yuan instead of 5 yuan from outside vendors. I offered them the more reasonable option of buying food in the street stalls later. They all looked down shamefully. I felt the painful burn of their remorse, and tried lightening the situation. "Don't worry, it doesn't cost that much. You guys didn't know. Let's just go to dinner".
Emily wasn't satisfied with my reaction, and pouted all the way to the restaurant. She whined that it wasn't fair, that if she had done that she would be in deep trouble. I tried to explain the innocent naivety of these children, as compared to her travel experience. They had suffered from mild starvation for years, and this was their first glimpse of luxury. How could they be expected to react to this sudden, enticing abundance of food? She didn't soften to my explanation, and continued to complain about my double standards throughout the ensuing days.
The restaurant was nestled at the foot of the hill. I checked it out a few days earlier, and determined that it boasted the most appealing combination of taste, price, hygiene, and service of virtually all the places I had visited throughout China . I was so content with my discovery that I abandoned my original plan of going to a different restaurant each night.
The menu offered an appetizing array of local dishes. I ordered water boiled beef, egg plant with slivered pork, dry stir fried string beans, twice cooked spicy pork, Sichuan sauce liver, Sichuan sauce kidney and a soup. Our dinner would usually consist of eight dishes and a soup. Before I placed the order, I was worried that the food would be to rich for their digestive systems, which were accustomed only to much simpler foods. My eagerness to try and compensate for over a decade of malnutrition overpowered my brief hesitation. As for concerns about the digestive system, it was my daughter and I that had to explain away our behavior of sterilizing the utensils with rubbing alcohol, telling the curious children that our weaker systems necessitated this extra precaution.
The kids had an impressive appetite. They ate all the dishes with gusto, their enjoyment accentuated by loud slurping. They had no table manners, but this didn't surprise me. They never sat down to eat in a polite social situation at school. They just lined up at the kitchen window for rice, added their pickled vegetables and gobbled it down as they walked away. It was time for city living lesson number two. I explained that it was important for them to learn how to behave appropriately in situations like this. According to proper etiquette, they should chew with their mouths closed to avoid making loud noises, sit up straight and hold the bowl to their mouths instead of hunching over it and scarfing the food down. They should also pay attention to hygiene, and use the serving chopsticks instead of jabbing at the dishes with their own chopsticks.
After we left the restaurant, I was mortified to hear deep throat clearing noises, and see Fruity spit on the ground. It was disconcerting to see such a nice boy do such a disgusting thing. I gathered the kids around and told them that in the future, if they needed to spit they should do so in a napkin and then throw it away. For the rest of the trip, they behaved like perfect ladies and gentlemen. I was very pleased with myself.
It was 8pm when we passed by the People's Plaza. It was packed with people dancing to modern music blaring over the loudspeakers. This festive gathering was a nightly event here. The kids slowed, mesmerized by the rhythm and pulsating crowd. Tanya was interested in dancing, but too timid to get on to the floor. No one was brave enough, despite my enthusiastic encouragement. Finally I left them to watch and moved into the crowd myself. I moved to the music, thoroughly enjoying myself and hoping that the kids might find my pleasure contagious. When I caught sight of a large group of middle aged women doing a routine in sync I began to mimic them. Suddenly, three of them approached me.
"Would you please go someplace else?" one emphatically demanded.
"Why?" I felt ostracized and defensive.
"There isn't enough space here" chimed in the other. "Besides, you were trying to copy us and you looked awful."
I stood my ground. "Hey, be respectful. I am not getting in your way. You just don't like me. " They turned and left in a huff.
I wasn't feeling inspired anymore, and half -heartedly danced out the rest of the song. I could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on me through the dim lighting. I went to the kids, who had seen me but didn't understand what had transpired. I explained the confrontation, and used the opportunity to instruct them to be assertive in some situations, even when outnumbered. I also warned them against being too stubborn and putting themselves in harm's way. The kids remained quiet throughout my speech, but I noted how closely they observed me throughout the next few days.
It was about 9 pm when we returned to the hotel. I was concerned because Sparrow, a girl from an extremely remote village, hadn't arrived yet. I had offered to fly her in, but her uncle refused such lavish transportation. I didn't insist, but did make reservations for him to stay at the hotel that night after making the journey with her. Sparrow lost her parents before she was 7, and stayed with her 80 -year -old grandma. Like the other kids, she lived in the dorm and subsisted on plain rice and picked vegetables. I was sure they had an exhausting journey, and left word at the counter to keep an eye out for them.
Thursday, July 5. 35 degrees Celsius.
I woke up early, anticipating our packed schedule for the day. We started off the morning with a luxurious buffet. The dining hall was well staffed. The soothing background music and the soft crystal chandelier glow almost reminded me of a fine dining experience in the States. I smiled, as the children's eyes fixated on the plentiful spread of delectable dishes before them. I reminded them to be courteous, and express gratitude when someone served them. I tried to initiate casual conversation as we ate, but their awe and shyness left them speechless. I could understand their hesitancy amongst all these strangers, and in this new environment. They never offered more than a few sparing answers to my questions. I finally got tired of hearing my own voice and lapsed into a shared silence. I would just have to take things slowly.
Sparrow finally arrived, looking weary and bedraggled. Their trip had taken over 20 hours on the road. I shook my head, recalling how tortuous our own tumbling nine- hour ride was. They had endured more than twice the hardship.
The first time I met Dong, one of the original boys that inspired me to make this journey, he looked cock-eyed and appeared to be myopic. He had never been to an optician in all of his 16 years, and probably desperately needed eyeglasses. Prompted by concern for him, I arranged for all the children to have eye exams that morning. My daughter wanted to have an exam like the others, and whined how unfair it was when I explained that she had yearly check-ups and really didn't need one now. I ignored her poutiness, and focused on the promising results from most of the children's exams. Only two of the children's were diagnosed as myopic. I encouraged the rest to take special care of their eyes.
At noon we set out for an adventure at McDonalds. Emily was giddy with excitement, and explained everything that she knew about a hamburger. I had no idea she was such an expert. After everyone finished their meal, we asked for their opinions. Fruity thought it was sweet, while Little Lotus insisted it was sour. The others shook their heads, expressing they didn't care for it. Emily was more surprised than disappointed. She couldn't figure out why any kid wouldn't like McDonalds. It was even more puzzling considering they had Coke, ice cream and all the deluxe fixings. Then again, it was hard to discern any specific emotions behind their generally muted, expressionless faces.
We spent the afternoon visiting a number of tourist attractions. The city was well situated amongst lush hills and rivers. It had many elegant buildings located to accentuate the spectacular scenery. It also provided a rich stage for exploring Chinese history. Chongqing had been the capital several times in the past, for different Chinese dynasties. It temporarily served as the capital during World War II. Chongqing also has many places commemorated for their historical significance to the Communists during China 's civil war. I was hopeful that the students would find these sights inspiring, while secretly resolving to contain my own mixed emotions about China 's turbulent history. I tried to imagine what this nation would be like today if the civil war of 1949 hadn't happened, or if it had turned out differently. Would my services here be as needed today? This was my fourth visit to China . Each time I came, the locals unfailingly complimented me for making the long journey and proving my devotion to my "mother" country. I quietly accepted their comments, but had a difficult time feeling that it was truly my homeland. On the other hand, I couldn't really claim that Taiwan , where I grew up, was my 'mother' country either. This issue of loyalties is complicated for a person intimately connected to such different worlds. As always, I refrained from any political discussion with the kids. Any criticism I might have to offer them wouldn't benefit them anyway. The only productive difference I could make in their lives was to continue my current path of assistance.
Before I finalized my plans for the trip, my husband expressed his concern that my typically out-spoken nature might get me into trouble. I asked him why.
"You know, you could easily say the wrong thing, especially considering the spy plane incident. The atmosphere is tense in China !"
I reflected on this, and challenged him to do a role- play with me, acting as a Security Officer. He confidently took the challenge.
"Ms. Jeng, what to you think about the spy plane incident?"
"What incident?" I responded blankly. His eyes were wide with surprise, as he stumbled for a response.
"The incident that happened a couple of months ago. Didn't you hear about it?"
"You know" I replied casually, "I don't really read the paper, listen to the radio or watch TV."
At first he was stunned by my act, and then realized how I was toying with him.
"Mr. Security Officer, I'm just a simple housewife interested in children's education." I had to burst out laughing at his expression. "My dear, think you can out-smart me?"
I returned to the hotel with my quiet procession past 9 pm . I was hot and tired, and sought relief in my third shower of the day. I told the kids to wash up and do their laundry, then get plenty of rest in preparation for our next action-packed day. (to be continued)