My dad cried when we had to leave China. I tell friends that my family was deported, but it would be more apt to say we were formally “nudged” out of the country. At nine years-old, the sudden rush to pack and then my first overnight train-ride was actually a welcome and exciting resolution to what was in the end a four-month adventure. We were headed back to Hong Kong: my glistening emerald city and the only home I had ever known. To me it was a dreamy metropolis with movie theaters, malls, and soft-serve ice cream trucks; mainland China was intimidating, confusing, and at times jarring.
Last month, I asked my dad to explain to me once and for all what really occurred in those final weeks. All I knew was that my family was drawing too much attention. My parents, tall blonde California natives, had brought me and my three sisters, all blondes and red-heads between the ages of six and ten, to the bustling city of Nanning. Strangers in the park would literally grab my baby sister from my mom to admire like a rare treasure. They’d pet my hair and gawk at my wide, blue eyes.
In a city of 4 million, we stood out.
“They tapped our phone,” my dad told me. I was sitting in my SUV in Nashville, jotting down notes in the parking lot of a gas station. He had called me from West Virginia where he runs a new non-profit, and with the spotty cell service out there I had to make the most of the opportunity.
“We could hear someone breathing on the line,” he said. “After a while we got tired of it. So we just started talking to them: ‘Hey! Who’s there? What do you want?’ We’d hear a click but nobody ever answered.”
Shortly after the phone tapping started, my dad was pulled into the local office of civil affairs. There he learned the Beijing Ministry of Justice had launched an investigation on him. Having the kids there was drawing too much attention so my dad could stay but the rest of the family had to go. “That’s the moment I knew,” my dad said. “I knew I would have to leave the work I was doing…I really, really loved the work.” His voice was quiet. “It was an emotional time for me.”
Most people are aware that China instituted a one-child policy to curb their population growth. Particularly in the rural, agrarian areas, the reality of being restricted to one offspring created a strong cultural preference for boys. Boys could help their dad in the fields. Boys could father their own children and continue the family name. And so, in areas where ultrasounds were too expensive or unavailable, the nurse might hold a barrier in front of the mother while she was in the delivery room. This way if it was a girl and she would be forced to giver her up, the mother wouldn’t bear the grief of ever having seen her. The baby girl would simply be whisked away – no name, no family identity – hopefully to be dropped off at a local orphanage. And not all were so fortunate.
This is why my parents moved to Hong Kong and then Nanning. One of my dad’s roles was to receive prospective American parents and help them navigate the red-tape of adoption. His other, more ambitious role was to help establish a new, privately run orphanage.
Two years before our abrupt exodus from China, my family was living in the old governor’s mansion in Hong Kong. For me, that British-flavored corner of Southeast Asia was a magical, inspiring place. My bedroom boasted a panoramic view of the most distinctive skyline on the planet. I wore a uniform to my British primary school, located near the top of Victoria Peak, the looming giant behind the towers of steel and concrete. I remember the school blanketed by fog each morning. We had “Victorian Day” once a year where we wore knee-pants, did yard exercises, and a few mothers volunteered to serve us tea and biscuits dressed as kitchen-maids. I played rugby, and by that I mean I struggled to get cleats on and follow that awkward ball as it bounced away from me. It was fantastic and I never really knew what any of it was about.
In those days, my dad traveled back and forth between Nanning and home, working with local orphanages and government officials. As a treat, he would take one or two of us with him when he could. In 1992, I was seven and Laura, my elder sister, was eight. I have a smattering of memories from that time: sitting in the side-car of a motorcycle taxi, speeding through what should have been impassible hordes of bicyclists; holding my nose in a public restroom that was really just a pavilion with an end to end trench; smiling, curious faces in crowded markets with the pungent odor of freshly butchered meat hanging in the humid air.
But what I remember most from that trip in 1992 is the Dying Room.
We were visiting an orphanage with my dad. I don’t really know what he was doing. Perhaps visiting the children who were soon to be adopted, or maybe just spending time with kids and staff. My sister and I, prone to explore, wandered around the third level of the large concrete building. Typical of the region, an open-air courtyard filled the center. We watched some kids playing below. A few of them were naked. I felt embarrassed by that so we moved on. Halfway down the corridor we came upon a closed door. Nonplussed by the silence and stark absence of people, my sister tried the knob.
This room was smaller than the others. Maybe twelve feet wide, ten feet deep. Encircling the dank, windowless room was what resembled a plywood work-bench you might see in someone’s garage. The only light in the room came from the open door through which we surreptitiously entered to find, arranged in rows, at least a dozen babies. Their skin was yellow; a foul, unwashed odor hung in the air. Many of them were awake, staring upward at the ceiling, ignoring our presence. Most disturbing of all, it was utterly silent.
Not one infant made a sound.
My sister and I rushed from the room, unsure of what we had seen but instinctively certain it was something horrible. I didn’t understand it then, but it was the first time I ever encountered death.
On the phone with my dad twenty-five years later, he told me about how he felt to see me and my sister walking out of that room.
“I didn’t want you to see that place,” he said, “I remember you asked me, ‘Dad, what is this?’ I tried to explain…I wanted to be honest with you. But it was a complicated situation. I didn’t want you to walk away saying, ‘This is who is at fault’ or ‘These people are horrible.’ It had to do with the historical value on boys…a system that put the lowest paid people in orphanages.”
My dad sounded tired on the phone. I wondered if he’d had a long day or if the memory still troubled him.
“If a baby started to decline,” he explained, “they put her in that room and stopped care.” It was a simple statement. A matter of resource allocation.
The first time my dad saw this room was earlier that year when he was with his interpreter, Christine. Her brother was a writer for the South China Morning Post and he wrote an article where he coined the term, “The Dying Rooms.” By 1993, the article had spanned the globe. That was the same year that China and Australia were both bidding to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. That article was a stiff blow to China’s ultimately failed efforts, and it’s also what led Beijing to start investigating my family.
In our phone call, my dad asked me what I thought about that memory. I told him it was scary, and really sad. But I didn’t think that the people who worked there were bad. It just seemed like they didn’t know what else to do.
I can imagine people around the world reading that Post article may not have felt much charity for the orphanage staff. And true, the entire situation appeared barbarous. It wasn’t hyped or sensationalized. Just honest and tragic. Who couldn’t imagine the pain and suffering of those discarded children, and then curse the men and women who saw and did nothing?
But being there, meeting the staff, walking with my sister amongst the echoes of children playing below, I didn’t feel hatred. These were just normal people. As witness to a horror, surrounded not by clean sidewalks, chain burger joints, school crossing guards, and littering laws, but rather by the day-to-day struggle of a broken system, I felt sad but not vindictive.
Now, decades later, I think my dad was relieved to hear my current thoughts on the subject. The work he did with orphans in China, as well as the Chinese staff with whom he worked side-by-side, remain the most treasured memories of his life. Following our mandated departure from Nanning, my family spent a few months back in Hong Kong before moving to our first permanent home in the U.S. He would then work with Mercy Ships International for ten years, an organization that uses hospital ships to deliver free medical care to countries around the world. Thereafter, he joined Hope Force International, a disaster-relief charity based in Brentwood, Tennessee. After I graduated from Pepperdine University in 2007, I joined my dad as his construction manager in Biloxi, Mississippi where we spent two years working together, renovating and rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Since I had him on the phone, I asked my dad if he remembered our first blitz-build. “The one next to the Salvation Army,” I said. He answered that of course he did. It was an exciting project. We would prepare by building the foundation and floor frame, and then in a carefully organized fashion bring thirty or forty volunteers together from various non-profits to finish the home in just seven days. It was supposed to bring excitement to the community and energize the volunteer staff.
The circle of leadership decided that I was to be the project director. I was responsible for the foundation, the build-prep, and the day-of leadership. The task was way beyond my experience, but I was surrounded by support and I decided to embrace the challenge.
“Dad,” I said, “I think working on that job-site changed me somehow.”
I remember there were six or seven of us framing the floor together. It was hot. I was shirtless, wearing a tool-belt slung over my shoulders by suspenders, a pneumatic framing gun in my hand. The most like a cowboy I will ever be. A truck pulled to a stop suddenly in front of us and we could see two men arguing in the cab. They were shouting and pushing each other before one of them, a youth a few years younger than myself, jumped out and began sprinting down the road. The driver – a man roughly in his fifties – followed suit. He was carrying a Crown Royal bag and, as the youth fled, he reached in and drew a small pistol from within the purple velvet folds.
“Don’t do it!”
That was Brian Deubert – people called him Deubs – a long, curly haired volunteer with Hands On Gulf Coast. He had dropped his tools and was walking calmly toward the man, hands up, trying to calm him down.
I looked at the nail-gun in my hand, wondering how close I’d have to be to realistically defend myself.
The rest of our group started calling to the gunman, imploring him to stand down. I could feel the stress and thick afternoon air bearing down on me. The moment maybe lasted thirty seconds. The gun lowered and the man turned towards us. His face was hard to read. I was struck by the situation and stood, eye to eye with a human whose life and perspective I could simply not fathom. He was looking right at me, at first emotionless, but then just for a moment, there was the smallest sign of stark awareness. He was aware for the first time that he was being watched, and I was aware that each day I had been alive so had he, and his life was fundamentally different from mine.
When the man got in his truck and drove away, Jimmy Trevino, one of my mentors, jumped into his own pickup and gave chase. He used to be a prison guard in Texas and evidently his instincts had kicked in. He helped the police locate the man and that’s how I learned the backstory. The two men had been arguing about a $50 debt when the younger of the two started hitting the driver, who then grabbed the pouch which both of them knew contained a gun. The young man knew this fact because the driver, the man he was hitting, the man who drew the gun and chased him away, was his father.
I heard my dad draw a breath when I told him the end of this story on the phone. “Wow,” he said. “That’s a powerful experience you had.”
A very dad-like comment, but he was right. I’ve thought about that day often in the years since. In fact, every time I see or hear about something devastating or horrific, I think about that man. Not the gun in his hand, not even his boy running down the road. I think about his eyes locked on mine and I can’t help feeling that this was one of the good things Katrina did: It forced two disparate worlds to collide. I needed to see him, and I think on some level he needed to see me.
As the new Blog Editor for TEDxNashville, I want to find a way to engage Nashvillians throughout the year. I want to discover those ideas, good works, and interesting perspectives in and around Nashville. For me, that’s what TED represents: discovering nuances to the human experience I might otherwise never encounter. In his 2002 address, Chris Anderson, the new Curator of TED, said that it’s core values are “truth, curiosity, diversity, and the pursuit of interest wherever it lies.”
I love those values. They’re why I believe in TED.
My life is changed because I encountered the other when I wasn’t safe and protected inside a familiar community. I couldn’t snub my nose at it, poke fun with friends. I was immersed and troubled and frustratingly incapable of resolving my inner turmoil by casting these people and events aside as strange, immoral mistakes. I saw them, but more pointedly, I became aware of their existence.
The theme of TEDxNashville 2017 was “Illuminate.” For me, illuminate means that a room or being is filled where it had been empty; it means the genesis of knowledge and therefore the coming into existence of something new. When I walked inside the Dying Room, it went from non-being to being in my universe. Twenty years later, looking that gun-wielding man in the eyes, I didn’t see him as a criminal or wretch. I found myself wondering, “In his universe, is he the orphanage worker? Or is he the infant lying on a table, eyes upward, waiting to die. Had he been abandoned too? What chance did he ever really have at life?”
These questions I asked myself are about empathy. There is a great TEDxPSU Talk about this word by Sam Richards, a sociology professor at Penn State University. He titled it,”A Radical Experiment In Empathy” because he believed the entire world could change if people learned how to see themselves in someone else’s shoes. If, for example, we could switch places with an Iraqi soldier, imagine it was us saying goodbye to our child as we went off to fight for his or her security, believing ardently that we too are fighting for freedom and justice for our own community, then our entire outlook on life could undergo a fundamental paradigm shift. In that transformative moment of heightened awareness, the faceless aggressor on the other side of the world gets to be a family member or a friend. So too, perhaps in a more trivial way, could the irritating stranger driving slow in the passing lane, or cutting the grass early on a Sunday morning be understood, not hated.
We would become them and they would become us.
“Step outside your tiny, little world. Step inside the tiny, little world of someone else. Then do it again, and do it again, and suddenly all these tiny little worlds come together in a complex web, and they build a big complex world. And suddenly, without realizing it, you’re seeing the world differently. Everything has changed.” – Sam Richards, HPS
As we move forward with our blog, I invite you to join us in the proliferation of ideas and, most importantly, the uncovering of new perspectives waiting to be called into existence. I’m excited to discover the thinkers and doers who, because of their own personal moments of illumination, have progressed through life in a manner I find foreign. I want to find out what life will become after I’ve looked them in the eyes. I want my tiny little world to become part of that complex web of thoughts, feelings, and ideas so that little by little, story by story, I can compose a self-understanding that transcends my own limited experience.