Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dongguan Orphanage, Guangdong Province, China

It's not philosophy or psychology, but I thought I'd post a few reflections on the orphanage (technically, "Social Welfare Institute") from which we just adopted our 14-month-old daughter, Kate -- partly for general interest and partly because accurate information about Chinese orphanages is hard to come by.

Let me start with a few pictures. From the outside:

Pretty nice looking -- especially compared to the (by American standards) rundown environment of Dongguan and Guangzhou:

Adoptive parents were led to an elegant reception room:

Note the beveled glass tables, elegant walls, leather couches, gleaming hardwood floor. (Those are not things I can afford in my house or office.) I've blocked out the face of our guide for his privacy; the woman standing in the center is the orphanage director.

The orphanage kindly allowed us to see the infants' area, but forbade us to take pictures, so a verbal description will have to do: Two rooms of dingy old rolling steel cribs, each with a baby lying on her back, completely silent. A washroom for dishes, laundry, and babies -- as far as I could tell, all in the same sink. A "playroom" empty but for some blue pads on the floor and single plastic chair.

How eerie it was to step into an utterly silent room containing 25 babies! I can only think that they learned that crying was useless. All the babies were malnourished. Kate is below the 3rd percentile in weight (even on Chinese charts) and head circumference, with calcium deficiency that shows itself (as is evidently typical in Chinese orphans) in splayed ribs at the bottom of the ribcage -- splayed, I'm guessing, because the top part, where the ribs join in the sterum, is stunted and narrow? For malnourished infants, it may be especially adaptive not to waste energy in useless crying.

I kept wondering how much a little more calcium would cost compared to the statue out front (visible in the first picture) and the elegant grounds and couches. Though we liked the nannies who worked there, especially the one who seemed to have had primary responsibility for Kate -- Kate smiled when she saw her -- I couldn't resist the thought that appearance to the outside world was a higher priority to those running the orphanage than the health of the babies. My wife says I'm being uncharitable: Maybe the elegant grounds and waiting rooms are necessary to attract funding from those who can give it. Universities spend big to wine and dine potential donors. Likely, famine relief organizations get more money if they spend some of their proceeds on indulgences for their contributors (not that donors explicitly want that -- presumably if you asked them they'd advocate sending as much as possible directly to the beneficiaries). If so, there's a morally and psychologically interesting paradox of charity.

Well, it seems I can't avoid thinking about philosophy and psychology after all, even when I try!


  1. The larger story is that you are now a father! Congrats...

    "It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity." ~ Montaigne

  2. I'm still haunted by the idea of the silent (presumably girl) babies.

  3. I'm waiting for letter of approval to adopt one of those silent little girls. I have seen photos like this of the orphanage, and your description makes my heart sink. Our little girl does chart on the American charts, and looks to be healthy in the photos. I only hope that she's okay.

  4. This is a very interesting and moving account. As a father, I too am struck by the eery image of a roomful of quiet infants.

    But let me express, once again, how wonderful it is that you have adopted a child! In the words of the Western Inscription:

    "All under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless,
    widows or widowers -- all are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else
    to appeal to. To care for them at such times is the practice of a good son."

  5. Is this the only orphanage in Guangdong Province? I have fallen in love with a little special needs boy who is 3 in a orphange in Guangdong Province. I worry about him and can't get him off my mind-since August! Waiting for my husband to come on board.

  6. Thanks for all the kind thoughts, folks.

    Vonda: There are other orphanages in Guangdong province, but my sense is that one one in Dongguan is the largest.

  7. We also adopted an 18 month old girl in 2002 from this orphanage. She was healthy, vibrant, and happy. We were shown her preschool room, where she had music and dancing every morning, their beautiful playground, and the medical wing. We met with her Nanny's who loved her so much - it was so moving and obvious. We were so surprised at how well taken care of she was and how loving the staff seemed after all that we had heard. GuanDong is the richest province so it made sense that their orphanage would be well funded. I guess we have wealth and poverty and unspeakable extremes in the US as well. She is seven now. We love her to pieces!!!

  8. Thanks for the comment, anon. I'm glad (and encouraged) to hear that your daughter is doing well. I'm impressed how well Kate is doing, too, despite my impression of the deprivation of her early environment.

    1. I am from this orphanage I would like to make contact with them can you help me with that my email is

  9. Hi Eric....
    I would like to see the children that are 'adoptable' at this orphanage. Do you know how I can go about this?

  10. @ Denise: I suspect that's not possible, unless things have changed radically since 2007. U.S. Asian Affairs or Holt International will have more up-to-date info about the process.

  11. Hello Eric,

    My husband and I adopted our daughter from the same orphanage as well two years ago. at the time our daughter was at the age of 4, and had the same perception as you and the director at the time was not friendly about answering a few question we had about our daughter's foster parents and eating habits. Would love to find other adoptive parent with holders from the same orphanage.

  12. Peter, I've emailed you. Hopefully you have received it!