The subterfuge of silence


Cathy Howlett speaks to Zelda Cunningham about the difficulty of accepting cultural differences when embarking on charity work abroad.

China, a country still harnessed by Communism is slowly attempting to forge a place for itself in the ever-tightening global community.

However, the huge economic gap between rich and poor is a simple fact of life in China. Despite the wealth and bombast the country portrays to the world, charitable endeavours are still necessary in China.

From spending a month in Tainjin, the industrial capitol of China, Cathy Howlett awakened to a culture that was alien and difficult to comprehend. For Howlett, her experience invoked a paradox of feelings of empathy for the children and contempt for the system that seems to fail them.

Howlett arrived in China with the intention of working with a charity for a year and was directed to an orphanage by her aunt, who had previously moved to China. The orphanage housed children from the ages of three to eight months who had profound mental or physical disabilities.

Howlett’s first encounter with the children was an experience which she feels was life changing. “I walked in and saw this child with a severely cleft lip. He had this gaping hole in his face. I walked over and picked him up, just to confront my own fears really. I started to play with him, but because he had no mouth, I couldn’t see if he was laughing, but when I put him down he started crying. I immediately fell in love with him.”

The children in the orphanage are not placed up for adoption because, as Howlett describes, “it is assumed that no-one would want to adopt them.” She recalls being told that even if a person with medical experience wanted to adopt a child with a disability, they would not be allowed to do so.

Institutionalisation is for life for most of these children. There are many institutions for people of different ages and different degrees of disability. “[The patients] are moved from place to place, basically until they die.” The relegation of these childrens’ lives in institutions is something that Howlett found particularly distressing.

In the orphanage the children are tended to Aiyi, or nurses who feed, change and take care of the children’s daily routine. However, Howlett found that they appeared to act with a sterility and uniformity and would refrain from physical or emotional attachment with the children. Although admitting there may be a cultural disparity, Howlett suspected that this behaviour was due to the low pay, long hours and strenuous work that were expected of the women.

“The children would be on their backs on mats on the floor most of the day. The children are fed and changed at a certain time, if they are dirty or hungry before then it doesn’t feature.”

From the offset, Howlett’s volunteering in the orphanage was a difficult process. Howlett felt an uneasiness and contempt emanating from the Aiya towards her. This perceived distrust of westerners hindered her experience.

Howlett felt this was a cultural misunderstanding, something that had been ingrained in the psyche of the workers who felt it was their duty to hide the orphanage from the world and pretend it didn’t exist. They were suspicious of people who wanted to infringe this privacy. “The orphanage was in a really rough part of town, hidden behind a giant wall. People in Tainjin didn’t seem to know it was there. The walls seem to say ‘walk on’”.

Howlett’s experience in the orphanage opened her eyes to a different world and a culture that was difficult to digest. Initially, she had planned to spend a year in Tainjin, however, having witnessed the workings of a Chinese orphanage, her mind had been altered.

“I was planning to go back, but the more I think, I feel I want to go where people actually want help. That is what killed me about Tianjin; people were really suspicious. They were quite hostile to me.”

“It seems really bad to say you’d give up because they don’t want the help, but the point is you are giving so much energy trying to convince them that you are benefiting the children by just playing with them. They don’t see it as cruelty; it’s just a cultural thing. The children are cared for, they are just ostracised from birth and hidden.”