A Visit to Tongren Foster Care
The visually stunning and culturally diverse province of Guizhou was the next destination for me and Cindy, our China director. Situated to the west of Hunan, it is mountainous; little wonder that bicycles are not the most popular mode of transport here. Travel from Loudi was through countless tunnels, and I drank in glimpses of terraced fields and forested mountain peaks, some with exposed rock and others without; and of villages nestled in valleys.
On arrival, it was overcast and rainy. We were picked up by orphanage staff and driven the long distance into town. This railway station is located some distance from the city center, something we needed to take into account the next day too, to ensure we made our departure time. Due to the late hour, we traveled directly to dinner rather than to our hotel. It was here, at a local and extremely popular restaurant, that our number increased significantly as our two managers joined us, together with the two orphanage directors and other staff members.
Our timing was perfect. Just as we arrived, a large corner table vacated, and we were ushered to the empty seats. Within minutes, our table was laid and we were snacking on dry sunflower seeds and sipping tea. Two small bowls of red chili pepper and green chili pepper were placed in front of each person. Not long after came a steaming sour hot pot divided into two sides, each containing small catfish of delicate sweetness, tofu and a variety of winter greens; one side with a tomato base.
I was encouraged to eat the catfish with the chili. “Try the red before you try the green,” I was advised, “the green is hotter.” As I soon discovered, the red was a baptism of fire, literally and figuratively for my unaccustomed taste buds. The green remained untouched, and for the rest of the evening, dipping was done with great care. Meanwhile, my dinner companions dipped their food generously into the chili and maintained animated conversations, sweat dripping off brows and coats unbuttoned and hung over chairs. Yes, this is a wonderful hotpot to warm up anyone on a cold winter’s evening in Tongren. A similar dish was on the menu when we visited Qiandongnan, so it is clearly a Guizhou specialty.
Next day we were up bright and early, fortified by a delicious breakfast of rice noodle soup and other condiments, with considerably less fire than what we had had the night before. We piled into a small minivan and set off to an older part of town built up the side of a mountain.
Leaving the car to go by foot, we ascended a long narrow concrete road, indented with crisscrosses to provide grip in icy conditions. A turn here, a turn there, steps and more concrete; we continued to move towards the homes of our foster families.
Large golden globes of grapefruit hung ripe from heavily laden trees, and a rooster crowed our arrival just before we walked through the tiled gate of the family fostering sweet Sara.
Sara met us with joy and smiles.
She loved the toys we gave her, and it was not long before she was engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with the soft toy duck. Hearing impaired she may be, but Sara is a clever little button whose joie de vivre is contagious.
It was a short walk from Sara’s home to that of Mateo and Alejandro, a traditional home with an open courtyard and magnificent gateway. Mateo joyfully emerged from the smoking room to greet us.
A pig had been butchered the day before, and Mateo was helping his grandfather smoke some of the sausages that had been made for Chinese New Year. The first thing Mateo did after we gave him his gift of magnatiles was to say ‘Xie Xie’ and then disappear back into the smoking room to show his grandfather.
I could easily have spent all day with this family. Mateo was keen to show us what he could make with his new toy and later entertained us with a music show which he performed with much gusto. His foster parents are just as proud of him as they are of their own daughter, his awards being displayed alongside those of his foster sister.
Alejandro, Mateo’s younger foster brother, was not as enamored of the strangers in his home and stayed close to his foster mother. Only when a phone was produced did he come out of his shell, and he used it to babble.
We farewelled Mateo and Alejandro and walked towards the family home of Samuel and Gonzalo, passing a water spring that until recently was regularly used by the community to wash vegetables.
An elderly villager was on her way down to wash the dirt off some carrots, just dug up.
Samuel and Gonzalo were playing when we arrived and running about in new boots.
Like most homes, there was no heating and the boys were dressed warmly. They both delighted in their toys and were particularly curious as to how the magnatiles were put together.
Samuel showed us what good fine motor skills he has in addition to his patience and concentration, while Gonzalo showed that he was interested in anything Samuel was doing and was keen to copy. (Samuel is eligible and waiting for adoption).
Our next foster family lived in another part of town, so we piled back into the minivan. Brothers Mario (in red) and Alex (in blue) were waiting for us and politely greeted us when we came arrived.
Although two years younger than his sibling, Mario is almost as tall as Alex and is as keen as mustard to do whatever his brother does.
Although Mario liked the musical instruments he was given, he liked his brother’s magnatiles even more. For the duration of our visit, the boys shared the toys and played cooperatively.
While Mario was particularly engrossed in making his creation, Alex chatted amiably with Cindy, plying her with questions about the tiles. They were both very interested in the multivitamins that I brought for them. Mario liked the taste, and Alex was not so keen but assured us that he would still have his every day.
There were three more visits to fit in before we boarded our afternoon train for Qiandongnan, including two new children whom we were accepting into our program: Lara and Teo. Lovely Lara was settling in well with her foster mom.
It was at the home of Teo that I noticed a box that is used to keep feet warm.
Placed in front of the sofa, it has warm down blankets in it to keep cold tootsies warm. For children though, including Teo, it is another wonderful place to play.
We were late arriving at Jone’s place, and she was tired and just about to go down for an afternoon nap. She loved the shape sorter we brought as a gift and fought off her tiredness to play with it. We were told that Jone speaks clearly, but was too shy to do so until just before we left when she said “goodbye!” — clear as a bell.
Time was rapidly running away from us, but we were still able to enjoy some noodle soup specialties before traveling on to Qiandongnan. Although Cindy could not be tempted to try the goose noodle soup, I was, and how grateful I am.
The small open restaurant was simple, but the soup anything but. The broth was rich and sumptuous, the meat meltingly delicate, and the noodles done to perfection.
And so we left Tongren, having visited ten children, all of whom appeared healthy and well cared for.
As we boarded the train for Qiandongnan, Mateo’s musical performance rang in my ears and I wondered what the Year of the Dog would hold for these beautiful children.
~Kirsten Vizjak is LWB’s Director of Foster Care and volunteers from her home in Australia. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing Kirsten’s observations and photos from her recent trip to China. Next up will be her visit to Qiandongnan foster care.