Top 10 Questions: Orphanage Visits

Top 10 Questions: Orphanage Visits

Are you ready for your Trip of a Lifetime?  For 17 years Lotus Travel has been arranging and accompanying families to China on Heritage Tours.  Over the years, we have put together a travel guide to help families know what to expect. For many families, a visit to their child's orphanage is the highlight of their travel through China.  

1.  What exactly happens during an orphanage visit?

It can vary greatly. Factors affecting this include orphanage director “persona”; how often families return; and daily priorities of staff.  At times, families are greeted (literally) with a firecracker ceremony; at other locations there is a short, perfunctory meeting.  There is no one exact “formula” for an orphanage visit.  Generally however, there is a welcome meeting with the director and staff, possibly an opportunity to review the file, followed by a limited tour of a  portion of the facility.  These activities typically takes a good section of a morning, which flows into taking the director and staff to lunch.  

 2.  My child wants to see the children at the orphanage and hug and hold the babies there. Can we do that?  

Most state-run orphanages don’t allow this type of interruption to their daily routine. Staff  are responsible for the daily routines; visiting families are an interruption to those routines. Staff often will shield older children from the view of a returning family, to lessen the reminders to the remaining kids that they lack a forever family. Your local guide will help you navigate this appropriately

3.  Our family would like to meet with our child’s primary caregiver from the orphanage.  Is that possible?

It is often possible. However, do keep in mind that if you are returning 10 or more years after an adoption, the caregiver may have moved away.  The earlier a return trip is planned, the more likely it is to connect with a  caregiver. If the caregiver still works at the orphanage, some directors facilitate this. Many caregivers excitedly anticipate a baby’s return.  However it can be naïve to assume it is always happens this way.  Some caregivers have cared for more than one hundred children and can’t remember each child in their charge.  Be practical and realistic. Also, it is not unusual for families to return and the old orphanage building is gone and to be visiting a new facility.  Just as your child has changed dramatically from when he or she left the orphanage, people in the birth country have also experienced many changes.

4.  Will we be allowed to see the orphanage file of my child and what might be in it?

The practice will vary greatly.  Some directors follow a practice that the child themselves will be granted access to that information at the time she/he becomes of adult age.  Quite a few others allow for easy review of the file, often allowing families to take photos.  However, most directors will decline to grant “formal” approval of making “official” copies.  Typically, documents in an orphanage file include: the child’s abandonment report, police report, notes or papers that may have been left, and possibly medical notes.   

Sometimes reviewing the file will bring up unexpected challenges, such as receiving a different birth date than the one you were given and have used all these years.  You, as the parent might want to look at the file alone, with only the translator. If something unexpected is in the file you can take that information and make it available to the child when you feel it is appropriate for them to process and re-evaluate.

5.  Is it possible to visit the finding spot of my child?  

Yes, if this is of interest for your or family member it is often accomplished. Sometimes one parent decides to visit that spot on their own, while the other parent stays with the child. This is an intensely personal decision; only you can determine if this is something you’d like to accomplish.  If all or part of your family chooses to try to locate this spot, anticipate that you or your child may have a strong emotional reaction to this experience.  

Since, this is often the most emotional aspect of the entire trip, allow yourself time and space to process your own emotional reaction.  Don’t allow your emotions to overwhelm your child and “crowd out” the space that your child needs in order to process this piece of her (or his) story. Be prepared to support your child as they go through getting acquainted with the physical reality of this part of their story and help them process the experience later, via journaling, or discussing.  We recommend after the emotional pieces of the trip, you plan some low-key activities, such as swimming at the pool, playing at the park with friends from the trip, or movie and popcorn at the hotel, just to unwind and process the day’s events

6.  What should we anticipate at the finding spot location, and how do we prepare?

Some parents find themselves totally caught off guard by the physical reality of the finding spot itself.   Think through some preparation steps for yourself as well as your child.  Based on what information you may already have, anticipate possible scenarios and what options you prefer. Is it likely to have changed significantly since your child was placed there?  How reliable is the information that you have?  Do you have conflicting reports about the finding spot?   Is this spot likely to be a crowded spot? Is your child emotionally mature enough to visit this location?  Is it in a small, obscure village where visiting foreigners will attract a lot of attention?  If you draw a crowd, how does your child handle that?

Think through how to make an exit strategy available to your child ahead of time.  This allows your child to say something meaningful to you but insignificant to others.  It can be a simple, pre-arranged phrase that your child says to you such as “I really hate yellow umbrellas, don’t you?”  This pre-arranged “code” can be easily spoken in public by your child. And you, as the adult, can shift into removing your child from the situation without any fanfare or explanation to others as to why you are leaving.  Having this option and control over the situation can help alleviate your child’s concerns, and give you a comfort level in knowing how to support them.  Some families like to make it a personal and meaningful connection to that site via bringing something from their home, such as a rock from their yard and leave it there; and to pick up a rock from that location and take it home to remember the family connection to the site. This is something you can discuss with your child ahead of time, and ask for her ideas. Is there some family ceremony or other meaningful way that you would like to connect to this part of your child’s history? 

7.  What is the most surprising aspect of an orphanage visit for returning families?

Oftentimes families and children are taken aback at the number of disabled children at a facility. If visiting kids meet or see others their age it often causes deep reflection around “Why me?” or “Why not me?”, referencing some inklings of “survivor guilt”.   Most Chinese orphanages are part of a Social Welfare Institution, which serves as nursing home and facility for mentally disabled individuals. Some discussion and preparation regarding these realities and also differences and similarities in how different countries care for elderly or orphaned children, can bring some context and preparation for the visit.

8.  Who can guarantee that our visit to the orphanage will be approved?  No one single person can guarantee access to each orphanage; each orphanage director has final authority to grant or deny a visit following other approval steps.  In China, provinces now work through a centralized visit request process via the CCWA.  Lotus Travel has a long history of relationships throughout China and Southeast Asia and have been highly successful in securing approval for such requests.  Each orphanage visit request is handled with great care.  For families with two or more children, it is routine to arrange two or more visits during one trip.    

9.  My child is ambivalent about the orphanage visit part of the trip.  I am not sure if my child will really want to go through with the visit.   What should I do?

This can be a common challenge.  Going ahead and submitting paperwork requesting a visit is a good idea, as it allows for most options. For a private tour, or a custom trip, it is easy to opt out of a visit while you are in China if you and your child feel it is too much. Your family can spend the day doing other sightseeing or just visiting the hometown area, etc.  ) Having  a thorough discussion with the child before the trip will help the child in deciding if they want to visit or not. Help the child understand what to expect and what not to expect is key to preparing them for this visit.

10.  Our family would like to bring back something special for the orphanage itself.  Can we do this, and if yes, what should we purchase?

Often, it is possible to purchase requested items while in China, such as a CD player and CD tapes with music, or a computer for the children of the orphanage. If the orphanage does not let you know of any special need, some suggested gifts are: school and art supplies; school backpacks (highly favored); or a bit of candy. As for staff gifts, a small scrapbook or photo book of your child’s life can be a particularly meaningful gift.  For other courtesy gift suggestions, a basket of fruit is considered a courteous gesture.

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