Monday, December 3, 2012

Step Out or Stay Put

Life as an ex-pat tai-tai (housewife) in a gated community gives me two choices:

Step Out or Stay Put.

I like to think that over the past 19-months I’ve made wise choices in that department and for the most part I have. Everyone’s cultural immersion needs are different. I've tried both, Stepping out and Staying put throughout our assignment.

Some days I Stepped Out into a frustrating line at the market.  Because I was unable to understand the clerk’s directive I held out a palm full of Chinese coins and trusted that they would take the amount I owed them. This happened more than once but it was embarrassingly necessary at the time.

Other days I’ve ventured out with Stay Put tai-tai newbies and introduced them to ‘strange-to-them’ cuisine. There's always an inherent risk in endorsing street food that we just watched steam in a basket or roast on a spit.   Courageously conquering a fear one bite at a time.

So when I took on the Run Stitch Run Pillowcase Project I wasn’t sure where that would take me.

I knew my strengths of empathy and my sewing skills might lead me in all sorts of directions.  The main objective became ‘Stitching to Support those Less Fortunate than Ourselves.’  Simple enough and maybe a pleasant combination of Stepping Out and Staying Put, right? So I opened my heart to the possibilities.

My friend, Rita, knowing I loved to sew as a pasttime, sent me the website of a local Nanjing expat who sought quiltmakers.   A child advocate, Jenine, had a goal to gift a homemade custom quilt to each child of a Chinese orphanage.   She visits once or twice a year bringing her sunny personality and helping others to ‘make a difference.’

With wide-eyes I listened to her request and probed a bit.

C: “You need how many quilts?”

J:   “Ninety-five.”

C:   <gulp>

J:   “I know, I know that’s a lot, but I want each child to have something that is just theirs.  When they leave the orphanage they can take it with them.  And my Mom, in Canada, has made some already!”

C:   “Great!  How many has she made?”

J:    “Three.”

C:   <gulp – gulp>  “What size?”

J:    “Twin-sized,” she replied.

I looked up at the ceiling, calculating the expenditure in free time and fabric and said;

“I could make you 95 homemade custom pillowcases…if you like.”

Smilingly she said, “You do what your heart is telling you, and if you go home and decide not to do anything, I accept that, as well.”

Instantly I knew that Jenine understood volunteer work and had dealt with past offers of spare time to benefit her charitable mission work. Sometimes volunteers follow through and sometimes they do not. Having directed hundreds of volunteers myself, I knew this was the case.  Jenine is well-seasoned enough to know that it isn't about what she wanted but about what the donor is willing to give.

I went home and decided I was willing to give.

Within a week the Run Stitch Run Pillowcase Project burst into action and the response was remarkable.  Friends, children, church folks, social network groups and even total strangers wanted "IN!"  They purchased and stitched fabric.  A group of children gave up their allowance and hard-earned money to suit their goal of 'children helping children.'  

Much of my USA summer visit was spent gathering completed pillowcases and fabric to bring back to Nanjing.  It was a very humbling and heartwarming experience.  I am so grateful.

It was a dream to have so much support for children that no one even knew or would ever see.

Upon arrival back in Nanjing, it was time to “Get Going and Get Sewing!”  I enlisted my Australian friend, Angela Z. who descended into my sewing cave to stitch away for many afternoons.  Angela has a soft spot for less fortunate children and wonderful sewing skills, she was a natural.   Finally, 130 pillowcases stared up at us.  Task completed…to a point.

Initially, I had no intention of actually GOING to the orphanage.

I’d just tie them all up in a tidy little parcel and send them off with Jenine for her November visit.

Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do .

 But the outpouring of support made me work through my hesitancy.

What was I afraid of?  75 orphans?  A twenty-hour train trip? Being out of my comfortable little China nest for a week? 

Come on now, Cricket…these children had NOBODY.

 So, as the saying goes “I put on my big-girl panties and got going!”

Two meetings later my fate and the fate of my friend Angie H. was sealed.  We’d spend six nights as guests at an orphanage in Fujian.  There would be eight of us.  Four adults and four children.  We’d mingle among the children in their free time and offer them activities to break the monotony of an institutional setting.  Maybe we could make a difference.








I put on my craft-making, game-playing, sing-songy hat and began to gather STUFF.  A lot of STUFF. Craft sticks, yarn, scissors, tape, paper, and on and on. I fashioned four carpenter aprons for the four adults and bought scissors on lanyards so we'd be ALL set for everything from staplers to band-aids. We had luggage for the activities, luggage for our belongings and the most precious of cargo, those pillowcases.

 All packed up, we traveled in a soft-sleeper (HA!) through the night. Angie described the train as "right out of a Harry Potter movie." Even the train stops were pretty surreal. The train squealed and screeched and clackety-clacked throughout the night.  It swayed from side to side, stopping often to pick up passengers.  I used a half-inflated neck pillow to avoid bouncing my brains about. We finally arrived the following afternoon at 5:00pm dusk in Shun Chang.

Zheng Sheng Love Orphanage

At the highest point of the top of a mountain sat Zheng Sheng Love Orphanage.  We were greeted and our possessions were whisked up to the 5th floor (100 stair steps) to our rooms for the week.  Each room was well-appointed with fresh sheets and a private shower.  We felt like royalty and were treated as such.  The children occupied two other floors.  One for boys and one for girls.

Soup, Fried Duck, Fried Dumplings, Greens, Mushrooms

This orphanage was run like a boarding school. The children ranged from 7-14 years of age. Funding was provided from two sources. A charitable organization in Hong Kong and the Chinese government. The first ensured that the children were well-fed, clothed and cared for. The second decided who should be there and why.

I quickly caught on to the daily routine that never changed. Each day began at 7:00am and ended at 8:30pm. Within that time frame occured: Breakfast and Chores. Walk down the hill to school. Return for lunch. Playtime Outside or Activities and Games with Visitors. Return to School. Return Home, Homework, Supper & Chores. Playtime Outside or Activities and Games with Visitors. Bedtime.

We did this Monday through Friday. We were the only visitors in over six months who had brought any change to their monotony.

Heading to the Hill and Down to School
Lining Up to Head to School

Primary School Room - No Heat

Even Chores at School
Older Classes divided by Gender

Chores Before School 

Our Crafts and Games - After Lunch and Each Night

Bead Night

Fun with Flight

Cat's Cradle - Universal

Circle Up!

Link Legs - Hop in a Circle- Until it is Broken - the Circle, that is...

Let me Help You

Games are Fun in All Languages

A Fun Game of Action and then FREEZE!

Our girls knew that ending in a Hug was the Way to Go!

Duck -Duck- Goose became  Ya -Ya -E!


I wish I could tell you ALL of their stories.  I wasn’t privy to that and only know the background of a few.  It wasn’t our place to know everyone’s personal story, I suppose.  We weren’t there to gawk and sympathize and I fully suspect we weren’t there to report anything but good news. Referring to a higher power was not allowed, although the children did recite a gratitude chant before each meal.

I kept my eye on my own agenda; make a difference and deliver those pillowcases!


Children’s laughter is a common language and I heard plenty of that throughout the week.  They liked each other and it was rare that I saw any conflict. 

What I did experience took me by surprise.  Children usually like me and I often receive a reassuring reaction when I deliver kind attention. But these children didn’t return a smile with a smile, even if I helped them with something they wanted. They probably didn’t trust the blonde blue-eyed white lady who couldn’t speak their language, even if she was tying their shoe or cutting their yarn or attaching this to that.  The lack of response surprised me.   And then I realized:

They knew I was an adult who was there to help them, right now.

They knew I was temporary. 

They knew I would leave. 

They knew what it felt like to be left behind, so their guard was up…..way up.

It was frustrating NOT to be able to speak their language to aid in my ‘winning them over.’
Everyone else there, including the four daughters of Mira and Jenine,  knew plenty of Mandarin to communicate.  My friend Angie had been brought up in the USA in a Mandarin-speaking home, so she was fluent, too. Translation applications weren’t speedy enough to help me address the immediate needs of young children.   I felt ineffective and beat myself up over it, frankly.  What kind of impact did I really THINK I was going to have if I couldn’t speak to them?  ---- But it didn’t stop me from trying to connect or helping or sporting a smile and not expecting one back. 

Jenine determined that our last evening prior to departure was the best time to distribute those pretty pillowcases. I was very excited and asked one of the boys to lug the heavy purple suitcase, that Rita so graciously donated, down the 100-step staircase.


We assembled benches in the dining/activity hall as the children waited behind the closed doors, not knowing what we were up to and waiting for the “reveal.”

Once they all found a spot it was my turn.  I gave a one minute, nine sentence explanation in English, keeping it simple so that Jenine could then translate it to Mandarin for the quietly attentive crowd:
Awaiting the Reveal - Pillowcases

“When I met Jenine Ayi she told me about this place.

I wanted to help in some way.

I have many friends in the USA and here in China who love children. <gulp>

I told them if they gave me fabric, I would make something special for each child.

But I wanted each one to be different, just like each child is different and special.

Many people sewed pillowcases for you, so did I, and Angie Ayi helped too.

Everyone who helped wants YOU to have Sweet Dreams when you sleep and remember that there is no one like you.

You are Strong!           <they cheered!>

You are Beautiful!     <they smiled>

And, Yes, You are LOVED!” 
One by one, Sophia and Abby tapped a group of 3-4 children to come up and pick out their very OWN unique pillowcase. I suggested starting with the older boys because I expected that they would be the most choosey and not want the pink butterflies or teddy bears on skates. They chose race cars, planets and cowboys instead. Good call.


Distribution over, it was time for us to go as the train was leaving soon. The van sped away with all of the luggage and one-half of our group.

Echoes of Goodbyes
Angie and I were in the second group, without luggage and hands free.  The children were very chatty and excited, some still clinging to their pillowcase. They lined the staircase & wide corridor to say goodbye.  It was a LONG goodbye because we had to wait for the van.  It gave us time for a final interaction.  Angie took several fun photos of those nearby.  We had plenty of time.

A young girl, about ten years old stepped out & came within reach of me. I was near the wide open exit and out of the way of the staircase echo.  She brushed up against me- then just as quickly turned her body while remaining close.  She did not look into my eyes.   It felt natural right then, for the first time all week, to drape my arm over her back and right shoulder and draw her to me in a quick hug.  She accepted this and walked away, returning for a second and then a third hug in that same way.  Those subsequent times I added a kiss to the back of her head along with a squeeze.  Still, no eye contact. Off she’d scuttle as Angie and I waited for the van to return.  Rain pelted the black top outside the big opened door.  It was the first time it had rained all week.

My “new” little friend returned a fourth time.

This fourth time I decided that this exchange was probably not in her best interest.

 I chose not to touch her and stayed put.   It just felt wrong to tease her with this affection. 

Affection from someone who was about to leave her.

Like someone else had left her.

At the top of a mountain in China.

I regretted my decision as soon as I made it.

But it was too late, the van was back for us and she had melted into the crowd of children.

How appropriate the sky cried fiercely right then.

Did my visit have impact?
Had I been a good steward of my time and the countless expenditure of others that brought me to this particular orphanage? 

Had I made a difference?

I wasn’t convinced at that point.

We trained home all night, arriving the following afternoon.

Two weeks later I am left with many memories and hundreds of photos. Lots of time to reflect and recall that I did indeed, Step Out.

Out of my little ex-pat bubble of privilege and warmth and into the lives of  discarded less fortunate children.  Children with a cold past and a lukewarm present.

Children without family to listen to their stories or be the recipient of reassuring hugs in hallways.

I’ve thought about my "new" little friend each night, pondering an English name for her and wondering about her day.

I wish her well.

But most of all, I wish her Sweet Dreams as she lays her pretty black-haired head on a freshly-ironed pillowcase. You know, the one with the tiaras and fairy wings. 

Thanks for Reading,

~photos by Mira, Angie and me~
Immeasurable Thanks to the following Donors & Participants - Run Stitch Run Pillowcase Project

My Big Guy

Abby B – Nanjing, China
Adrienne Y - Allendale, Michigan

Allison D – Toluca Lake, California
Angela Z – Nanjing, China
Angie H – Nanjing, China
Anonymous - Quilt Guild of Wisconsin
Barb F – Dearborn, Michigan
Barbara NM – Livonia, Michigan

Becky & Jim R - Northville, Michigan

Becky O - Anchorage, AK
Bethe W – Thailand
Chen Ayi – Nanjing, China
Cheryl K – Livonia, Michigan
Cindy D – Livonia, Michigan
Collette B – Brighton, Michigan
Corinne B - Howell, Michigan
Dale MB – Portland, Oregon
Ella W - Thailand
FaceBook Friends
Gabrielle L – Northville, Michigan
Gloria B – Nanjing, China
I Spy Quilts – Yahoo Group
Jackie R – Milwaukee,Wisconsin
Janet O – Averill Park, New York
Jenine B – Nanjing, China
Jill RA – Livonia, Michigan
Jim & Buff B – Livonia, Michigan
Joyce G - Redford, Michigan
Karen D – Livonia, Michigan
Kezia B – Nanjing, China
Kristi C - Ft. Smith, Arkansas
Laura L – Dearborn Hts. Michigan
Laura M – Spring Lake, Michigan
Lois F- Kansas City, Missouri
Marilyn D - Tennessee
Material Girls –Dearborn, Michigan
Mira B – Nanjing, China
Myla F – Nanjing, China

Niki AR - Nanjing, China
Pamela G – Redford, Michigan
Patrice S Livonia, Michigan
Paula B – Yahoo Group
Rita M – Shanghai, China
Roberta T - Canada
Rosedale Gardens Church Vacation Bible School
Sharon CB – Sterling Hts. Michigan
Sophia B – Nanjing, China
Stitchers of Howell, Michigan

Terri N – Oregon City, Oregon
Zheng Sheng Love Orphanage Staff

[Any omission is unintentional - please let me know]