A Visit to Lanzhou Foster Care
Lanzhou, my final destination, was more than a hop, skip and a jump away from Guizhou where Cindy and I had visited our two foster care programs in Tongren and Qiandongnan. A long narrow city with the Yellow River running through it, Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province in the northwest of China.
To my surprise, the airport was more than 70 kilometers (40+miles) out of the city center where Cindy and I were staying. As we were driven along the relatively new highway I gazed out at a very different landscape flashing by – dry, brown, sparsely vegetated and hilly.
I thought about the fact that we were very close to the Gobi desert, Mongolia, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. What would the next few days hold in store?
To our delight, our first stop was a noodle shop. I had heard much about Lanzhou’s famous hand-pulled noodles: Lanzhou lamian. Served in a clear broth of our choice and meat with chili and other condiments, the soup was warming, filling and indescribably delicious. For the rest of our stay, when given the choice, I always suggested we visit a noodle shop, which were everywhere. There I could marvel at the deftness and skill of the noodle maker and indulge in this simple but delicious dish. I am sure there are many other delicious dishes in Lanzhou, but the noodles were a highlight.
After lunch, we were off to visit four children who lived in the far west of the city: Lizbeth, Bodie, Edith, Anton, and Holly. This part of the city used to be an industrial hub, but since the privatization of companies and other factors, lots of factories closed and many people lost their jobs. On a positive note, the closing of the factories has significantly improved the air quality. Revitalising this part of the city is going to take time.
After ascending seven flights of stairs, both Cindy and I were grateful to find the correct apartment. When we walked in, both Lizbeth and Bodie were sitting on two little stools placed in front of a low table in the main room. They delighted in the musical instruments that we brought them and played with the instruments to their hearts’ content.
Bodie particularly loved the xylophone and was very energetic in his playing. Their foster mother beamed with pride and was grateful that they were given the same gift as this lessened the opportunity for sibling rivalry.
Our next stop was Edith’s family. Like so many buildings, their building had no elevator, but this time we had one flight less to ascend. Edith had just awoken from her afternoon nap so was not overly excited to find two strangers visiting.
She methodically dressed herself and then snacked on some yogurt, finding security close to her father.
A short drive further and we found ourselves at the apartment building of the foster family of Anton and Holly.
A rambunctious little fellow, Anton was stringing words together and confidently trying out the different toys. Holly was gentler and much more reserved; she observed us from a distance, preferring to stay close to her foster grandparents. She stayed behind while Anton and his foster mother walked us down to our van to farewell us.
That first day, we were thrilled to catch up with the Lanzhou teens who had participated in LWB’s first two Life Skills camps for older orphaned children. Cindy, organizer extraordinaire of these two camps, had invited the teens to dinner. We gathered at a restaurant of the teens’ choosing and spent a memorable hour with them.
They caught Cindy up on their news and reminisced about their camp experiences. When I asked about their highlights, their faces lit up. Many said it was their visit to the beach and sea, others the historical sights like the Great Wall of China. Some mentioned making friends with their peers from other orphanages across China and being able to maintain those friendships through WeChat.
One young man impressed both Cindy and me when he said that the highlight for him was the financial planning and budgeting lessons they had. A long conversation ensued, and it turns out that since getting a job he has been diligently saving a portion of his money each week, using a portion of it for essentials for himself and also putting money aside to buy treats for younger children in the orphanage and to take his friends out to dinner.
It was this meeting and that with the teen from Qiandongnan that brought home to me how the lessons and experiences that the teens had are reverberating through their lives and of others and will continue to do so long into the future. For these young people, the camp was priceless.
Before making our way to dinner and then our hotel, we had one more foster care visit to make to Cory. The apartment buildings were identical and despite many phone calls and knocking on doors, we just didn’t seem to be able to find the right one. What a relief it was when Cory’s mother came out and could direct us to the right building. A serious little fellow, it was not until the end of our visit that he warmed up to us and discovered the fun of playing hide-and-seek with my camera. The laughs and smiles were well worth the wait.
Next day was just as busy as the first, if not more. We spent the morning visiting Lanzhou hospital, discussing the next LWB cleft medical exchange which will be held this fall. The staff were warm, welcoming and professional and the hospital impressive not only in its size and cleanliness but in its protocols and state of the art equipment that we saw.
After another delicious noodle lunch, we visited the orphanage. The director was overjoyed with the letters sent through by families who had had children in LWB foster care and education programs. Together with the head of the Education unit in the orphanage, he pored over the collection of pictures and stories. Before leaving we were able to visit Caleb, Shawn, and Dante who had recently had to return to the orphanage, but who we are hopeful of returning back to foster care as new foster families are found.
Caleb and Shawn loved playing with the magnetiles, and Dante hung back to just watch.
From the orphanage, we traveled to the northern part of the city to visit Isabella. On the way, we passed the Zhong Shan Bridge also known as the Iron Bridge that crosses the Yellow River. Built in its current form in 1909, its history stretches back more than 700 years and is a popular tourist destination. Directly across from the bridge we saw White Pagoda Mountain and the many pagodas and temples that dot its side and the criss-crossing of stairways. Though we couldn’t stop and take photographs, it is definitely on my list of places to visit next time in Lanzhou. A melting pot of cultures, I saw on more than one occasion a church, mosque and temple within close proximity, a testament to a rich history and vibrant culture now.
When we visited Isabella, the living area was bathed in the warmth and light of the late afternoon sun. Isabella is clearly attached to her foster mother and loves the cooking of her foster brother.
Living in a new apartment complex, amenities are all close by and Isabella we were told loves to play in the immaculately kept central play and recreation area of circular design in the middle of the complex of apartments.
As the red sun disappeared and darkness began to descend we made our way to the home of Lilah and Rilee. Their foster family lives in an older part of town, likely to be demolished some time in the not too distant future to make way for new buildings.
The family lives in a three-story apartment, and we were made to feel welcome in the best room of the home. On the little table before us were an array of Chinese snacks including sunflower seeds, other seeds, and sweet mandarins. Lilah’s eyes lit up and were as big as saucers when she saw the letter and photographs sent by the family that adopted her foster sister, Olivia. She picked up the letter several times to read it and look at the pictures and assured us, when asked, that she too wants to be adopted. Lilah is 13 and does not have much time left to be chosen by a family before she ages out in early 2019. (Please note that LWB is offering a $3,000 Adoption Assistance Grant for Lilah).
Rilee meanwhile, snuggled into her foster mother’s arms.
Before we knew it, it was time to say farewell as we had one final visit to make.
The family of Myles also live in an old part of the city, a village that is slated to be demolished in the next few years. Getting in and out of this village can only be done by foot, bicycle, or other small vehicle.
The laneways are narrow and meander and twist soon after you pass the hawkers and other stall holders.
With no light but that of our phones to guide us, Cindy and I noted the numbers on the homes and kept walking. To our relief, Myles’ foster father met us with a torch and guided us the last 30 meters or so to the entrance gate to their courtyard. Had he not done so, I am sure we would have passed it because there was no number visible.
Myles greeted us on the landing and entertained us with his musical prowess for the entirety of our visit. Curious and well-spoken, he clearly keeps his family on their toes.
On our last day in Lanzhou, we had two more children to visit before catching a shuttle bus to the airport and winging our way back to Beijing for my connecting flight back home. Maiana and Faith live in close proximity to each other see each other often because their foster families are good friends. Walking through the nearby marketplace we picked up some mandarins to give to the girls’ families.
What a delightful time we had with both girls, listening to Maiana recite Chinese poems learned in kindergarten and the two girls chatting away as best of friends do when they get together.
Both are curious and full of fun, and both loved using my phone to take photographs and video.
The foster parents of both girls absolutely adore them, and the girls reciprocate.
Maiana’s foster granny enjoys knitting warm woolen clothes and Maiana was wearing two of them.
And so my foster care visits came to a close on a high note. In seven days, Cindy and I had visited five foster care programs across four provinces. We got first-hand insight into what was happening with these programs by visiting the families and children in their homes, talking to directors and other orphanage staff who work closely with the families and getting to know the managers.
It allowed us to ask questions, but of equal importance, it allowed the families and orphanage staff to ask us questions and comment upon things so that we could look to improve and build upon what we have.
I saw the reality of winter and the fact that most families use many layers of clothing to keep warm and few have the luxury of room heating at the flick of a switch. I came to appreciate distances and the amount of time our managers take to just travel from one family to another, mostly by public transport, sometimes carrying gifts that we organize, often carrying gifts for the family that they personally get because of the relationships that they have built with the families.
I appreciated our amazing director, Cindy, who does so much behind the scenes with the children always her prime concern.
And as I write these final lines, I appreciate our loyal and giving donors whose heart for children and belief in foster care makes our work possible.
To you, to the families, to Cindy, our managers, and the orphanages, I give my deepest thanks.
~Kirsten Vizjak is LWB’s Director of Foster Care and volunteers from her home in Australia. You can read all of Kirsten’s blogs here: