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This past summer, Peter and Terry Conn traveled to Asia for Pearl S. Buck International (PSBI), a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with children, families and communities in the United States and abroad. Peter, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, chairs PSBI’s board of directors; Terry, Penn’s assistant vice-provost for university life, is a member of the board. They visited several sites where PSBI, in partnership with other NGOs and with American and foreign government agencies, operates programs ranging from village development and microenterprise projects in Thailand to individual counseling and health programs in the Philippines and Vietnam. PSBI works with orphanages in South Korea and northern Vietnam, and manages HIV/AIDS programs in Thailand and the Philippines. They also had a mission to perform for PSBI’s adoption unit, Welcome House, which supervises more than 100 adoptions each year.


Let me start at the end of the story.
Or near the end, anyway. On a Sunday evening last June, my wife, Terry, and I boarded a Korean Air Lines 747 in Seoul for the long flight back to the United States after three weeks in Asia. We had checked through almost all our luggage so that we could cope with our rather special carry-on items: two six-month-old Korean boys, whom we were escorting to the States, and who would be met by their new families when we landed 16 hours later.
   
We had picked up the children earlier in the day, after they had spent their final night in a nursery, which for a few weeks had been their way-station between orphanage and America. Terry and I had volunteered to accompany the two boys, whose adoption was being managed by Welcome House. We had escorted about-to-be-adopted children before, 10 years ago, and had found it to be one of the most deeply gratifying experiences of our lives. (Fifteen years before that, we had been on the other side of the transaction when we had met our own Korean daughter, Jennifer, at Kennedy Airport–but that’s another story.)
   
Before we took the babies from the nursery, we joined in an impromptu ceremony, standing in a close circle with the women who had been caring for the children; they were happy for the homes and futures the boys would find in America, but they grieved to see them go. We shared tears and laughter and embraces and even prayers. (Prayers, I hasten to point out, are not typically my cup of ginseng. But the nursery is run by good people who happen to be Christians, and I choose not to insult good people over such matters. So I prayed right along.)
   
This small ceremony, with all of its ambivalence, is altogether appropriate. I’ve been in the adoption business (you’ll pardon the expression) long enough to know that the process entails as much anguish on one end as it confers joy on the other. I’ve also been at it long enough to know that, with all its tangle of pain and joy, adoption probably offers some of the world’s homeless children the best chance they will have for a productive, meaningful life.

 
 

    When it’s possible, PSBI tries to help families remain intact, and we support all sorts of projects in half-a-dozen Asian countries that aim at community development, improved healthcare and expanded educational opportunities. In Korea, for example, Terry and I took a bus to Tung Du Chun, a dispirited town that sprawls along the perimeter of a U.S. Army base a few miles below the demilitarized zone. There we visited several Amerasian children, sons and daughters of American servicemen and Korean women, young people who suffer the double disadvantage of their illegitimacy and their mixed race. PSBI provides modest funds that enable such children to gain better educations and thus better prospects than they would otherwise have.
   
The houses we visited were single-room cinderblock dwellings, vulnerable to heat in the summer and cold in the winter. After removing our shoes, we sat and talked on the floor mats that serve as sofa, desk, bed and dining-room table. We had dinner with one family, vegetables cooked on a portable stove in the alley outside the room. Under the circumstances, it was one of the most welcome meals we ate on our trip.
   
In Vietnam, we had the chance to visit a special program for hearing-impaired children. PSBI found the money for a portable audiometer and can now test children in their homes–a significant advantage for families too poor to travel to a clinic for testing. I also spent time in a village in which we’ve collaborated with local authorities to upgrade the facilities and equipment at an elementary school. Nearly 100 children, ages four to 14, were mobilized to act out their thanks with songs and games, and a series of dramatic vignettes in my honor. (I would have given them the day off instead, but I was touched by the whole thing in spite of myself.)
   
My favorite moment involved a hilarious little sketch in which a Mother (played by the tallest girl) tells her children (played by a dozen others) that they should stay home and help her with her work rather than going to school. The children respond by invoking the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and explaining gently but firmly that this document guarantees them the right to an education. Mother listens with elaborate interest, sees the light and cheerfully sends the children off to school.
   
After the entertainment, I was obliged to make a speech–though in the heat of Vietnam’s June I kept it as short as dignity allowed. Over the years, on such occasions, when I have heard my unmemorable remarks translated into Chinese, Russian, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese, I am invariably embarrassed by my provincial lack of language. I have learned to say "Thank you," "The bill, please," and "Where is the bathroom?" in nine different languages, but I haven’t learned much else.
   
Pausing between sentences, and hearing myself repeated in one or another language, I harbor masochistic fantasies that my interpreters have deliberately distorted my statements, just to liven things up. "I am delighted to be here," I intoned sincerely but without much originality to a room full of teachers and Communist Party officials in a sweltering classroom outside of Ho Chi Minh City. "I bring greetings from my colleagues in the U.S." The applause is disproportionate, so I imagine that the interpreter, bored by my poor rhetorical showing, has decided to tell the crowd that I have come to announce a multi-million-dollar grant.
   
I wish that I had, but the financial realities are sobering. Raising money takes up much of my time these days. NGOs such as PSBI face relentless financial pressure, and we must continually pursue donations from the small number of people willing to support humanitarian work overseas.

 

 

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