One weekend while in Shanghai, I accompany some volunteers to Red Buds Foster Home for Children in the suburban Baoshan District.
Red Buds is in an old two-storey building surrounded by an iron fence. I shout through the railings for someone to open the gate and am greeted by a big beaming smile from the middle-aged man who comes to let us in. He’s great, the head of our group, Donkey explains – very welcoming whenever he sees us.
There’s something quite special about that smile and at first, I can’t put my finger on what. Then it occurs to me that he is always smiling, and it’s always the same smile. Donkey quietly adds that the man has learning difficulties but can tell good people from bad. He doesn’t open the door for people he doesn’t recognize and only smiles like this at the good ones.
The second floor turns out to be where the foster children are – all together in a large room that resembles my middle school classroom. There are piles of bedclothes on the rear desks which in the evening will be laid out for sleeping on. One unmistakable difference from the classroom of my youth, itself not the cleanest space, hits me straight through the door: a whiff of something I can’t immediately pinpoint. The riddle is solved when I notice the potties lining one side of the room. Each is a plastic seat attached to a bedpan beneath and, although empty now, there is no doubt where the stench is coming from. I can’t imagine why these improvised toilets are necessary.
Children throng the whole room, filling every bed and patch of floor space. Right away, I’m shocked to see that a few of the kids who are running around have their hands tied together behind their backs. As they rush between bodies and beds, back and forth, they keep their heads low and eyes fixed in a frantic stare at who-knows-what, their bodies straining against the fetters of cloth around their wrists. One of these bound children, a scrawny youngster even more frantic than the rest, keeps producing this “heugh” sound as he races about. It seems that his eyes are taking nothing in and at any moment he might bump into someone or crash into a bed. His face sports the bruises of previous collisions.
It’s not until I ask one of the carers that I learn this is manic behaviour. They have their hands tied for fear they will lash out at other kids and smash objects around them – damage to the cerebellum has stripped them of self-control. Binding their wrists stops them from thrashing their arms so they endlessly work their legs instead, here and there, round and round. They remind me of caged bears at the zoo, pacing in circles and shaking their heads behind the bars.
The carers are women from farming villages come to work for wages of just seven to eight hundred yuan a month. The bulk of their efforts is spent handling the children – big and small – who are confined to the beds by cerebral palsy. None of them have enough energy left after that to attend properly to the kids with minor cerebellar damage, hence the tied hands.
The children on the beds are more severely handicapped. Several of them simply lie there unmoving, like babies, sound asleep side by side. Except these “infants'” heads are much larger. I think of the tightly swaddled cerebral palsy sufferers on the roadside out the back of Changfeng Park, laid out with a donation box placed in front of them. The size of these children’s heads is alarming, almost larger than the rest of their bodies, and their eyes seem bigger still as they stare at you with angelic, unworldly smiles. These smiles are unbearable, and you’re forced to make a swift escape.
I’m surprised to see an adult laid between the bedridden children. She is taller than the little kids beside her, and her legs protrude from beneath the sheets. She has an average-sized head and her face shows no trace of that dull smile. In fact, both eyes are perfectly clear and they follow Donkey and the volunteers as they move around to her side, sit down and start to sing to her. The first song is Invisible Wings. It must be a communal favourite as several of the more normal-looking children around the bed add their voices and beat time with their hands. Only the carers don’t sing, instead smiling on at the impromptu choir.
As one song follows another, I’m told that the woman on the bed loves listening to others sing. Her eyes sparkle as they move around the room, scanning past each face. This is the only part of her whole body that can move, the only perceptible sign of life besides the gradually accumulating glimmer at the corners of her eyes that keep welling until a single tear slips down her cheek to be wiped away by a volunteer.
Her smile, however, never moves, never changes. And her eyes never lose their shine. Nor does it appear they ever will. That’s what gives it away in the end: that there is something not quite right behind the fixed grin and limpid gaze. Something broken. She fell off her bicycle, someone later confirms, and an integral component within her immobile head sustained fatal injury. The bike flipped over, and the back of her skull cracked against the asphalt. Now in this state, the parents have no way of looking after her so had to send her here, to the home.
Looking around some more I’m impressed by one teenage girl who since the first song, Invisible Wings, has been stood beside the bed beating time and singing along. She does so right up until everyone else stops and I suspect that if the songs never ended, she would happily go on singing forever as well. But she’s clearly different from the other kids. She looks normal. When Donkey and the other volunteers present her with two story books, she accepts as most anyone would, with the front cover the right way up, unlike the other children who hold them upside down or back to front.
The thing is she really is normal. I’m told she’s only here because her parents divorced, and her father runs a business which takes him away all over the place. Her school has no accommodation for her, so instead of being left at home with no one keeping an eye on her, she has been sent to Red Buds. She sleeps here most nights and stays for whole days at weekends as her parents only manage to see her once or twice a month.
On my second visit two weeks later, I arrive just in time for breakfast. Everyone is preparing to eat while two kids straight out of bed are held over the makeshift toilets to relieve themselves. Again, a strange stink hangs in the room. I see the young girl once more and she tells me that her father visited the day before and left a few pastries.
Her reply, when I ask if she’s happy that he came, is slow and formal: “Of course, but he didn’t stay long, so I’m not happy anymore.”
The singing is shorter this time than the last. The weather is good so the carers agree to let us take those kids that can go outside down to the exercise area in the rear courtyard to play. These kids have average-sized heads but are autistic. They’ve sat on their beds in silence ever since we arrived and no matter what we are doing, be it singing or talking, they stay still and don’t make a sound.
On my first visit, I sat with one of these children on his bed, holding his hand for a straight half hour. He never reacted to my presence nor gave the slightest sign of recognition, but a carer told me that this is the type of company that they most need. He is simply unable to put it into words.
The announcement that we are going downstairs to play stirs up a wave of excitement among the kids. I take the same boy by the hand and he follows along quite contently into the rear courtyard. Outside, I hope that I might get him to play basketball for a while, except the other kids have a different game in mind – hugging the ball with one arm and hitting it over and over with the other hand. There’s no passing involved so no ball comes our way.
Seesaw is my second choice. When we sit on either end, there’s no mistaking our difference in size, but nobody here blinks an eye. The boy concentrates hard on every rise and fall, coordinating his kicks very well, as if this is the only game he plays. Eventually I realize that he won’t stop and ignores me each time I suggest that we play something else. He continues bouncing on the seesaw, blank-faced as if I haven’t spoken. In the end, I get off and he keeps on jumping at his end, so I’m left holding my end to avoid him falling. When he finally notices the seesaw won’t move any longer, he sits there silently.
After a while I manage to lift him from the seat. I don’t dare start up another game like that in case time runs out and I can’t coax him down again. All I can do is take him to a bench in a corner of the square and sit, like the first time on his bed, holding his hand.
Again, he seems content to let me take his hand. For a while this seems like the perfect chance to try start a conversation, but I abandon the idea not long after and settle for the quiet sitting. I sense, when we’ve not moved for a long while, that he and I are one person now, unable to put our feelings into words.
This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.