This is what we love about traveling the way we do: because we’re less than briefly in a place, we get the opportunity to stumble on places which would’ve illuded us otherwise.
Mysteriously wonderful places which aren’t on the tourist itinerary or promoted on the official websites.
We were looking for schools is nearby Doudian.
We’re on an extended trip.
And extended trips cost money.
Especially if you’re a Tribe of 7 people.
The Tribe must eat and live.
So we teach English to cover the cost and finance the experience.
Maybe we’re more like migrant workers, or Gypseys.
I like that idea.
So, yes, we’re Gypseys, working a little in a place, for a little while, while we meet beautiful new people and taste beautiful new experiences and discover a little more about The Way of the Gift.
We’ve settled, briefly, in a little village on the outskirts of Beijing.
Working in the town of Liangxiang.
But the school we work for treats the contract we signed, more like a very broad guideline than a contract, and even though we are just migrant workers, we do afford ourselves the luxury of, if we have to work, enjoying what we do.
So we’re looking for new schools.
Which is much easier than trying to get a school, which does not know what honesty or integrity means, to grasp these principles.
As we travel, we notice, everywhere, dogs bark, birds fly and people are the same.
Some are honest.
Some are caring.
Some can care about no one except themselves and their own interest.
This seems to be unrelated to race or gender or religion.
As if only glimpses of completeness is sown across our world, to spark happiness, framed by love and peace, on mountain tops and along the banks of rivers as they create new valleys flowing to the ocean.
DaGaoShe is sort of between Liangxiang and Doudian.
12 kilometers from Liangxiang.
8 kilometers from Doudian.
On the edge of the massive Beijing.
So we thought, a school in Doudian would be great.
An honest school.
It is closer.
It is smaller.
And generally we seem to meet greater people in smaller places.
So we’re Googling English Schools in Doudian.
And Bethel pops up.
But not a regular school.
And they’re not advertising that they’re hiring.
So we Google some more and later call in the help of recruiters, which makes things easier, because they know of all the schools and opportunities.
And we interview with other schools and look for that opportunity that will viably finance our experience in another place.
But it doesn’t matter.
The fact that Bethel isn’t hiring is of no consequence.
Because what they are doing, draws our interest.
Sort of like the sun drawing water from the ocean.
It cannot be resisted.
We call them.
Speak to a woman who introduces herself as Anna.
We make an appointment.
We’ll visit them on a Monday afternoon.
Anna explains that some kids won’t be there, that weekends are better for visits, but we work on weekends and kids aren’t monkeys in a zoo, so it doesn’t make a difference that they’ll be busy with their daily lives.
Over breakfast I order a cab on Grabtalk.
If you’re ever in China for a while, near a big city, you should get Grabtalk.
It’s like Uber, but much more.
In China you use WeChat, not Whatsapp.
And on WeChat you add Grabtalk.
And Grabtalk will get you whatever you need, wherever you are, at a really good price, between 8 in the morning and 11 at night.
Sometimes even later.
My sister went home to SA.
On her arrival back in China, she took a cab from the airport to our village and paid 400¥ just for the cab.
The other night we were in Beijing CBD for a medical emergency, at the Beijing Children’s Hospital.
We had a big scare.
It was a wild chase in an ambulance through the streets of Beijing.
And it was 3 in the morning when we headed back home, relieved that she is okay.
With Grabtalk the taxi cost 82¥.
More 300¥ cheaper.
You need tickets to go to the great wall, or a hotel, or a restaurant or a PS4 or perfume or pizza, they organize it for you, they don’t charge you anything extra and they speak English.
Believe me, that is very nice for people who have only a rudimentary understanding of Chinese, yet live in a world where few speak fluent English.
At 2 the cab arrives.
A smart new Beijing Motor Company x65 SUV.
Something like a Hyundia ix35.
The driver is friendly.
He knows the way.
It is a 15 minute drive.
Even closer to our home than we thought it was.
At Bethel Anna welcomes us.
She is a Spanish girl who has been with Bethel for about 2 years.
She studied to be a translator.
Studied in Spain.
Then studied more Chinese right here in China.
And her journey brought her to Bethel.
On their website we read about the project.
It was founded a decade ago.
A couple came to China from France.
They knew they wanted to do something which makes a difference.
They’re both musicians, so they started visiting orphanages and playing music.
Then they adopted a child.
Then Bethel happened.
An orphanage for visually impaired children.
Or a foster home specifically equiped to love and raise and educate kids who face this challenge.
China is an interesting place.
We’ve come to love the people.
We’ve come to respect their way.
But it isn’t Utopia.
No society, no matter how well it is run, is free of trouble.
China is a well run society.
It is egalitarian.
People have access.
The streets are safe.
Old people and young girls walk in streets and parks, late at night, without fear of mugging or rape.
Public transport is clean, effective and affordable.
Public healthcare is available and of high quality.
Police are well trained, friendly and helpful.
Education is good and free, until you have to go to High School and then it is inexpensive, even University within the reach of a Mom and Dad who work at a factory and want to send their one child to University.
That is one challenge this society faces.
Our Tribe adored by some, envied by others.
For a long time a couple could have only one child.
Then it eased a bit.
If both members of a couple were the only child, they were allowed to have 2 children.
Then it was eased a little more.
If either member of the couple were the only child, they were allowed to have 2 children.
And quite recently couples were being encouraged to have 2 children, as the government saw a negative population growth and projections predicted a lack of labor and consumers in the world’s second largest economy.
But it seems, most people have gottten used to the idea of one child.
A family is 3.
Or 5, if grandma and grandpa is included.
6 adults really, mostly, and one child.
So women don’t seem to be dragging their men to the bedroom at every opportunity to conceive that second child.
And somehow this affects babies who are born with a visual impairment.
“A blind baby won’t be able to take care of us as well as a healthy baby would.”
Of all eight of us.
That is quite a burden children in China grow up with.
Family is everything.
And you take care of your family.
It is beautiful.
But imagine the weight on a Chinese child as he grows up and goes through education with the one aim: to get to the top with the best possible job, so that I could take care of my Mom and Dad and my husband’s Mom and Dad and our grandparents.
Imagine the fear in a parent as they discover their baby is blind.
Anna welcomes us in the foyer of the school.
It is an old hotel of sorts on a largish piece of land.
The hotel building has been converted to offices and classrooms.
The property is well maintained.
She shows us the classrooms, the music room.
We meet some students and teachers.
A little guy runs up to us and starts talking.
He seems happy.
Anna tells us there are about 500 000 orphans in China.
A lot of children.
But, if you think about the population of China, maybe half a million orphans aren’t that many?
Still half a million children.
Children abandoned for some or other reason.
Many of them abandoned because they are blind.
Anna explains, parents often don’t realize their baby is blind at birth.
And many times, visually impaired babies are abandoned when they are closer to their first birthday, or even after that.
Almost like little Moses, abandoned after he did not need to be nursed anymore, with the slight difference, these babies are not abandoned to go live in a palace, they are taken into State Orphanages, which are mostly not geared to take care of and raise and educate children with disabilities.
Which complicates matterrs a bit.
The sooner a visually impaired child can get the care he needs, the better.
Bethel has a relationship with many Chinese Orphanages.
They provide training and do awareness campaigns.
They’re launching a new project inside a specific orphanage where the need is deep.
And some of the children are fortunate enough to come to be in their care.
At Bethel they get a proper education and all the care they need.
They learn to read braille.
They learn Chinese and English and music and all the regular subjects they would’ve been taught at school.
They learn to move in their environment, without sight.
As Anna takes us on our tour, two kids with bowls of fruit make their way up the stairs to the second floor of the school.
They are taking an afternoon snack to their classmates.
They find their way with ease, playing as they go along.
One stops halfway up the stairs at the large Christmas tree.
Puts the bowl of fruit down and looks at the tree, feeling the decorations and smiling.
Then he’s off, after his friend, running up the stairs.
Counselors come to meet the children once a week.
A large hospital in the city helps with medical care.
Some children need operations.
Others would be greatly helped by a cornea transplant.
This year Bethel managed that.
A donor and transplant which changed a child’s life.
But being here at Bethel seems to change lives.
Being abandoned as a child must be something to deal with.
Being abandoned because of a physical impairment must be even harder.
And as we walk from classroom to classroom, meeting beautiful children and amazing teachers and carers, we are overwhelmed by gratitude.
For our own sight.
For being able to navigate our world with ease.
For being able to come to this place, so close to our little Chinese House, and meeting these awesome people who love without hesitation.
Changing the future of a handful of beings.
“It is a drop in the ocean”, Anna says as she explains the daily routine.
“We foster 40 children”.
“And there is a long waiting list.”
“Here at Bethel we care for 27 children.”
“In the city we have two apartments where we care for 13 older kids who we’ve been able to enroll in a special needs school.”
“Why not more?” I ask.
“It costs 4000¥ to take care of one child.”
“4000¥ per month.”
“That’s about $650”.
It comes down to funding.
“We have a ‘sponsor-a-child-program’ in which you can give 400¥ ($65) a month towards the care of a specific child.”
I do the math in my head.
It takes 10 donors to sponsor 1 child.
And then the needs of the existing children are taken care of.
“There are always more kids waiting to come to Bethel“, Anna explains, as we stand in front of a large world map at the top of the stairs.
I don’t get the map.
Then a see a sign talking about adoptions.
And Anna explains.
“We try to find the kids homes.”
“A child needs a home.”
“A child needs a family who will love them.”
“Last year we did 14 adoptions.”
“This year we did 19.”
“It is the most adoptions we could manage so far.”
“Most adoptions are international.”
This is part of Anna’s responsibility at Bethel.
“A lot of adoptions are to America.”
Anna explains that people from other countries have done adoptions too.
I can’t remember the countries.
I think Spain.
This year they had a child adopted by a Chinese family in China.
“That is the ideal. Then the child stays within his culture, his own language and world.”
Kids are well prepared for adoption.
In addition to being able to read braille, find their way in their environment and being counseled regularly, there are always English classes, so if they are adopted by an English speaking couple, language is not a problem.
At the moment an American and a Brazilian girl volunteer a year of their time specifically to teach English to the kids who are being prepared for adoptions.
And my gratitude deepens.
How amazing that there are people who love so much that they would adopt a visually impaired child, from another country and raise that child as their own.
“It is difficult, ” Anna explains.
“People want to adopt babies”.
“Babies without challenges.”
“Often our kids aren’t babies anymore, when they are ready to be adopted.”
In China it seems there is a deadline for adoption as well.
If you’re 14, that deadline has passed.
“We were so happy”, Anna says as we walk from the world map, past pictures of children and Christmas decorations, “this year a boy was adopted just before his 14th birthday. That is good. He has a home. He has a family.”
And as children move to families, new children come to Bethel to receive a gift they would not receive, had this organization not been here in our backyard, supported by good people and run by stunning people, who love enough to change little lives into eternity.
We see the homes where the kids live.
The playground where they play.
The pool where they swim in summer.
We hear of the horses they ride once a week at a stable in Beijing.
And then it is four o’clock and our Grabtalk Cab is back to pick us up and take us home.
Maddi plays on one of the bikes in the playground.
I know we’ve only seen a glimpse of what happens at Bethel.
I sense that it wasn’t chance, or by the way that we stumbled on this place.
We believe in ‘serendipity’.
Our lives drawn by our Origin towards meaning in every moment.
And as we get ready to leave, I ask:”So what can we do? What are needs we can fill. I can shovel coal for the heating? Or do dishes? Maybe clean?”
“It sounds stupid”, Anna responds, “but maybe you could come and play with our boys?”
“Two thirds of our kids are boys, but our staff is female and the boys lack a male role-model.”
Except for Anna and the two volunteers, the rest of the people who make Bethel a reality are all Chinese.
The manager is a woman who studied special needs care and education.
The carers and teachers are women who live in the nearby village.
And I agree.
Hesitatingly, for it is not something small to be a role-model for a child whose world you have no idea of.
“I’ll come. And be. Here. With a boy or two. For as long as I can and as often as I can, and as long as you’ll have me. It would be a gift.”
As we ride the short drive home I think of it all.
The families who moved close to Bethel, who kept their visually impaired children and changed their own lives, so that they could bring their kids to Bethel during the day for education and special needs care.
The founders, who started something astounding, in such a way that it could continue long after their departure.
The families who support and adopt.
The exquisite beauty, hidden in our backyard, in the Chinese countryside, in a seemingly insignificant place.
The startling beauty of the gift these kids receive, in a world which was ready to destroy them.
The grace of it all, as our Origin conspires to take loss and transform it into gain, by touching peoples’ being and connecting people and filling us with happiness, framed by love and peace.
And I know this hour or two on a cold Beijing afternoon was just the beginning.
As we forge new relationships.
And are allowed to share in the immensity of it.
As, perhaps, your reading this, is just the start.
Of your own involvement with this exquisiteness, in a far off place, which you cannot comprehend.
Maybe you could look at their website: www.bethelchina.org/home/?
Maybe you could see a child?
Maybe you’ll be taken on a trip, which would be the best years of your life?
I don’t know.
For, each of us, have our own journey.
But I do know this: no one can visit this place and leave untouched.
Maybe, instead of planning your next trip in the Seychelles or the US or Paris, maybe you could do a trip to Bethel?
Or if you are at that stage of your life where you have time on your hands, you could offer to be a volunteer, giving the most precious gift of all.
Who knows how this journey will go?
But we share it.
Even if just briefly.
And it is not without meaning.
It is serendipitous.