Today we’re chatting with Kay Bratt, author of Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. Her book is about her experience during the 4 years that she volunteered in a Chinese orphanage.
Kay, thanks for chatting with us.
Denise, Thank you for having me. I am honored that readers are interested in my story and experiences working in China
One thing about your move to China that you seemed to look forward to was working in an orphanage. Your family moved to China in March of 2003 and you first worked in the Shengxi orphanage at the beginning of July. How would you compare the conditions at the orphanage to what you expected to find?
Upon my first day in the orphanage, I was expecting to face hardship. What I was surprised by was the immobility and lack of animation from the children. I had never seen that before in a child and it really struck a chord of shock through me.
About a month after your first started working in the orphanage you discovered a baby who had died. Your reaction to her death was vastly different compared to the workers reaction. Why do the workers seem so callous?
I'll be the first to admit that when the incident with the deceased child happened, I thought the ayis cruel and heartless. Over time though, I realized that in order for them to survive in such an environment, they had to go into a mode of self-preservation about deaths and illness. In my opinion, it is difficult for the human spirit to survive such constant tragedies unless it builds up walls to block out the sadness. I began doing this myself after a year or so, though I am not proud of it. I still fought sadness and despair at some of the situations, but compared to "new" volunteers coming in, I could tell that I was building up strength and barriers to protect myself.
You became attached to a baby you nicknamed Squirt. In November of 2003 Squirt died. How did you deal with your grief and make yourself capable of going back to the orphanage only a few days later?
Squirt. I can still picture his tiny little fingers and his long eyelashes. I was being filmed last week and when I began to tell about him, I broke down crying and the videographer had to cut/splice that part. For such a strong person like me, it seems strange that I would still feel such emotion when I think/talk about him. When Squirt died, I was devastated. I was sure that he and I were winning this silent battle against the opinion of the ayis that my nurturing him was useless. He seemed stronger every day and then one day he was just gone--with no warning. I didn't handle his death well, I ranted and raved at a God that I served loyally but I felt had let me down. Even though the first few days I didn't want to step foot back in the orphanage, the part of me that was driven to make a difference came flooding back one morning and I was ready to jump back in. I have always been a fighter against the hardships of life, and that personality trait is what kept me going.
When I was adopting from Vietnam last year I was given the referral of a baby who died before I could travel to get her. She had been quite sick but the orphanage refused to admit she died, instead saying she was reclaimed by her birthmother. I knew this was unlikely because the child was gravely ill and near death. You describe how the Chinese orphanage workers rarely acknowledge when a child actually died. This really struck a chord with me and my own experience. Why do you think they do this?
I am sorry to hear that you experienced such a sad journey with your child dying before you could get to her. I know that these children become yours even before they are placed in your arms and can only imagine the pain of losing them before you have the chance to give them the gift of a family.
I don't know that I have an answer that is accurate, I can only guess based on my experiences in China. I feel it has a lot to do with losing face. The Chinese directors do not want to admit a child in their care died. On a blog recently, I saw pictures of a funeral that happened at an orphanage in another country. The children were carrying the miniature casket and a line of them were following with sad faces. It struck me that in the 4+ years I was at the orphanage and was told of countless deaths, I never saw them observe a death in any way. It seemed to be swept under the rug and most times, only the ayis would whisper to us that the child had died, but the official report is "she/he was no longer there". As if we believed that the child would be transferred--knowing this just didn't happen. One child I know of who died, (the room supervisor told me this) but the director said no such child had ever been there. Sometimes we could tell by the way the ayis acted that something bad had happened, and after a time if I got this feeling after asking about a child, I stopped the questioning. I would rather believe there was a small chance that the child hadn't died-- and did not pursue an answer that I didn't want to hear.
In February of 2004 several babies had cleft lip and palate surgeries paid for by donations that your volunteer group had collected. How difficult was it to get the orphanage to agree to the surgeries?
At first, it wasn't difficult to get the director's approval for the surgeries. The hard part was getting the children nourished enough and at the proper weight level for the doctor to approve the hardship of an operation. In the baby room, the cleft lip children were the ones most often neglected by the ayis because their feedings took so much time that the short-handed staff didn't have. And it was a reverse culture shock to them that we "foreigners" gravitated towards the handicapped children first before the strongest. It took some time for the ayis to realize that we were stubbornly going to nurture those children no matter how much we were discouraged against it. Later, as new directors came on board, it was harder to get approvals for surgeries of any kind. The directors wanted us to donate the funds we had raised to the orphanage to do with it what they wanted to, but I was firm with exactly how we would help the children. I insisted on seeing hospital bills and buying items directly. I never handed over cash to the directors to spend as needed--this was one reason why our group was so successful in gaining supporters. We knew where every penny was spent and could prove it.
With these surgeries your volunteer efforts seemed to evolve into a new ministry, if you will. Was this actually planned or did it just naturally occur? You saw a need and tried to address it?
You are exactly right. It was a need that was put right in my face and I really didn't know it would become as big as it did--meaning I never imagined that we would be as successful in involving so many supporters that we actually had more money than we had operations needed. The biggest part of our funds came from expatriates living in that Chinese city and they wanted their donations to stay in that specific orphanage, so to this day they are still funding surgeries there with the funds that were built while I was in China. As I said, it got harder to get approval for specific children to have operations, and many times I got the feeling that the directors thought if they continued to play hardball with us, we'd give up and just hand over the donations. That was never an option and to my knowledge, still isn't. We not only funded surgeries, though, we also were able to improve daily conditions by purchasing items like diapers, shampoo, soaps, shoes, clothes, snacks, etc.. One day the director sent a request to me via our translator that they'd like to have a new van to transport the children back and forth to the hospital. Some volunteers laughed and said we'd never pull that one off-- but two months later, I got to be a part of the unveiling of the brand new van donated by the local hotel. I had sent it out as an email that went to my bible study group, then one of the ladies sent the request on, and it finally landed in the lap of the general manager of the hotel. After some meetings back and forth, he approved it! They got their van, even though they really didn't think that we would come through for them--
I guess they learned that Kay Bratt gets things accomplished!
Most of the time, I love working against the considered impossible--I'll admit, China was definitely my biggest challenge yet.
While you were visiting one of the orphanage children in the hospital you had your first encounter with Xiao Gou. Several months later you discovered she had been sent to the orphanage where you volunteered and you developed a special attachment to Xiao Gou. Why do you think you were attached to her more than the other children?
With Xiao Gou, I believe the reason that I felt such a need to help her was because she was a child that had known the love of her family before being abandoned. She still remembered her mother-- and her puppy. She knew what it was like to run free outside or to have a Happy Meal from McDonalds, simple things to most children but usually unknown gifts to the orphans we dealt with on a regular basis. To live that life and then have it abruptly snatched away seemed so much crueler than being left as a baby. Not only that, but she is such an amazing little spirit. She is funny, smart and SASSY! Her personality just reeled me in and kept me captivated. She didn't easily give her love so when it was given to me, it was that more of a gift to be treasured.
How do you address those who feel that you abandoned Xiao Gou?
When I read comments from people that they feel I have abandoned Xiao Gou, it makes me sad and makes me angry. They do not know that I still fight for her and still grieve for her. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her, and many nights I dream about her. Could I have done more while I was there? I don't know what else I could have done at the time. I had tried every avenue, including bribery, that I knew of. Now that I am on this side of the ocean and have a new perspective, I am still working towards freeing her from the life of the orphanage. In the past few weeks, we have uncovered amazing news but I am keeping it under wraps until more progress is made. Ultimately, I know and she will know, all that I did to try to help her and that is all that matters. People who have never experienced the Real China will never understand the complexities of their laws, and will unknowingly make unintelligent assumptions about subjects they don't have all the details of. It is just human nature. I'll admit that the subject of Xiao Gou is still a very sensitive one to me, a subject that I am protective of.
Hi Kay, I read your book with great interest and I have followed the story of Xiao Gou. In the book you speak in a negative way about her parents abandoning her and yet I have followed your blog and see that you now are trying to locate her parents and seem to have a different view about this situation.
It is a very complicated situation. We must find her parents before she will ever be allowed to be a part of a family. They are still her legal guardians and I have not always understood that. With the help and tutoring of some colleagues, I understand more on this end that wasn't able to be translated to me on the China end. I would like to say, though, that my first wish has always been to reunite her with her mother and father. I tried to do this in the very beginning. I even offered funds to pay the hospital bills if the parents would come forward. I only pushed for adoption after a long time had gone by with no success in reuniting her with them.
For what it’s worth, I have never understood what more those people thought you could do. From what I read, you had tried MANY avenues, and it sounds as though there were even more that you didn't write about.
Thank you, Denise. You are right, I didn't write about every avenue we took. There were many meetings, phone calls and letters that were on behalf of Xiao Gou that would have seemed redundant to write about.
Do you harbor any resentment to the Chinese people or to the orphanage system after witnessing what you did?
Okay, we are being honest here. The answer is not so easy. I really do not harbor resentment towards the welfare system and especially not towards the Chinese people. I do harbor resentment towards the Chinese government that places such rules and hardships on its people and welfare system, to force them into acting in ways that perhaps they wouldn't given other circumstances.
I think it would be difficult to see such hardship and suffering and not harbor some resentment toward someone.
Overall, Denise. The longer I was there, the more compassion I felt for the ayis and also the parents of abandoned children. They live a life that is much harder than most Americans can fathom.
I know that you have encountered much criticism about writing this book. Although you changed the name of the city that the orphanage is in, some people are concerned that the volunteer group you left behind will pay a price because of this book. How do you answer these concerns?
Before I made the decision to publish my book, I sought the advice of several people that had experience with China, controversy and the welfare systems. One of my main concerns was the directors of my orphanage finding out I wrote about them. But with encouragement, I came to believe that if my directors found out and closed the doors to volunteers, the good that came out of the book would outweigh the negative. It was a hard choice to make, and I hope that something like that doesn't happen, but my story is opening the eyes of people all over the world to the plight of institutional life for children. I feel like this book was needed and I would do it again.
Do you have any regrets about your time in China? Would you do anything differently?
The only regrets I have about my time in China is that given the chance to do it all over again, I would have looked for more help in the administrative and negotiating duties sooner. Many of the volunteers that were there and are still there had no idea of all of the meetings and drama that were happening behind the scenes. My time in China took its toll on me emotionally and physically, and I could have lasted longer if I had tried harder to find someone with whom to share the burden of leadership sooner. That being said, my volunteer group was made up of some really wonderful women from all over the world--many of them sacrificed a part of their hearts for their work there as well. It was such a gift to me to meet them and have them share this amazing journey together. I wish I could name them all here but we know I can't do that!
I have a million more questions but I only ask you one more: What’s next for Kay Bratt?
Hmm...next for Kay Bratt... I am involved in so many things right now that it is hard to say what is next. I work full-time in the Human Resources field for a non-profit. I am working on getting Silent Tears out to the world, moving beyond the United States. I want to find more ways to promote foster care support for children in Chinese orphanages. And I wrote a book for my daughter--she wants me to hurry up and get it polished so I can eventually get it published. (It is a humorous chapter book called "I Don't Want to Move to China" written from the pov of a child that has to leave her home to move to China...and all of the adventures she finds herself in and how she deals with it.) One day I know I will return to China, but it will probably be after my little one graduate’s high school. I don't feel that my work there is complete; the children never leave my thoughts for long. Sometimes I wish I could move on and I have tried, but my passion continues to be the children. That tells me that God isn't through with me yet. My husband always has his ears open for the next assignment and I know one day he'll call me and say those familiar words, "Guess where they want us to go, honey?!" And we'll pack up and head out to the next adventure...
Kay, thank you SO much for chatting with me! And thank you all the work that you did and continue to do to improve the lives of the children in the orphanage. I'm sure that many people would have just given up or when they came home said "well, my job is done" but you keep fighting for the children. You had the courage to do what many of us say we want to do but never get around to doing. Thanks for being such a wonderful example to us all!
Thank you for having me. I have had so many personal emails as well as responses to my own blog from people that want to do more for China but just need to know how to do it--I was just lucky enough to have been given the chance that most people aren't given. I really am just the average Mom with a stubborn streak--which came in handy when dealing with the famous red tape of the Chinese welfare systems. I want to give a big internet [hug] to all of those that have supported my book and encouraged me during the tense moments; each and every kind word was a salve to my soul. And Denise, you are the true inspiration to us all. I have read through your posts to see who I was talking to and you are an amazing lady. You have weathered so much in your life, yet you continue on and your mostly humorous take on daily life is entertaining to us all. Keep blogging, you are a natural!
1 month ago