WASHINGTON, DC, June 18,2012 — The Red Thread is thrilled to share the following story penned by an Elle Hogan, an American who worked in Hong Kong helping children in an orphanage learn English. She is currently the Director of External Relations at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and lives with her husband in Washington, DC. This is her first-hand account of her moving experience in Hong Kong:
When I was eight-years-old, I made only one request from Santa: I desperately wanted a Chinese baby. One of my mom’s colleagues had recently adopted a newborn from China and I fell in love with her immediately. Sensing that I was not likely to give up on my wish, my mom attempted to appease me by purchasing an Asian baby doll. I wasn’t fooled.
Twenty years later my Christmas wish finally came true when I had the opportunity to spend a year living abroad in Hong Kong where I volunteered as a Transition Specialist and Assistant English Teacher at a local orphanage.
As a Transition Specialist, I worked with children who would soon be adopted by English-speaking families. One of the children, an 11-year-old boy named Sam, was meeting his adoptive mother in a matter of months and then moving with her from Hong Kong to Australia.
We looked at photo albums she made for him and practiced saying the names of his new family members and pets. I wanted Sam to understand that while we might not be able to communicate with words, we could still have fun playing tag and racing his toy cars on the sidewalk. His adoptive mom invited me to join them on their first outing to an arcade that was located within walking-distance of the orphanage. I’ll never forget trailing behind them and watching Sam reach for his mom’s hand as they crossed the street. Neither one let go even after they were safely on the other side of the road.
Similar to Sam, the four girls I worked with in my role as an assistant English teacher were also removed from their homes for a variety of reasons including drugs, physical abuse and financial distress. Their parents refused to terminate their rights so they were unable to be adopted like Sam. Unless their families change their minds, these girls will live in the orphanage until they are forced to leave once they turn 18.
During the first two weeks of class my students were incredibly shy and rarely engaged in conversation. I couldn’t blame them; I was probably one of the first white, Western individuals they had encountered. However, once they discovered that I often carried candy in my purse, they quickly warmed up.
As fall approached, I told them that I wanted them to all experience a traditional American Thanksgiving. I scoured Hong Kong for a turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy. I even found a bakery that made pumpkin pies.
I brought this all to the classroom and prepared an elaborate spread complete with sparkling apple juice. I explained how some families in the United States have a tradition of going around the table and saying what they are thankful for that year. One student, Ling, said, “Tonight I am thankful for homemade dinner.” Another, Mae, informed us all that she was thankful for “bottle of sweet milk.” The can of whipped cream was a big hit.
While the girls appeared outwardly happy, it became clear to me that they were experiencing feelings of sadness and fear. One of my students brought a comb with her to each class and she would repeatedly run it through her hair even while holding a pencil in her other hand. Another had a habit of biting her fingernails and picking her skin until it bled. They would almost always arrive to class wearing pajamas and shoes that were too small and had been passed down from child to child. They were required to have their hair cut every six months, stripping them of their little girl locks. If I hadn’t known them it would have been difficult to distinguish them from a group of boys their age.
Right after Thanksgiving my boyfriend and I travelled to Thailand where he proposed. I was most excited to share the news with my tween friends who responded with squeals and claps and insisted on trying on my engagement ring. They even processed down the pretend aisle we made in the classroom while we all hummed the wedding march.
During our last class together I introduced them to another Western favorite—tacos. They enjoyed the orange cheese but were disgusted by the dry corn shell. With just 15 minutes to spare before they returned to their dorms, they became frantic and insisted I sit down and prepare to be surprised. The students went out in the hallway and returned to the classroom with a homemade card. On the card was a picture of a bride wearing a dress made with paper doilies. Inside they wrote, “Wishing you a sweet and happy forever.”
I wished them the same.
Elle Hogan is happy to share more stories about her experiences at the Hong Kong orphanage and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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