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Expecting to treat some mildly ill children from the streets of Bolivia on a quick "service trip," an idealistic young medical student gets more than he bargained for when he takes a year off from Harvard Medical School to work at an orphanage in La Paz. As he comes to know the children, and sees how they live, Chi Huang is drawn deeper and deeper into their complex and desperate lives. The doctor soon realizes that to truly help these children, he will have to follow the example of Jesus: live among them, love ...
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Expecting to treat some mildly ill children from the streets of Bolivia on a quick "service trip," an idealistic young medical student gets more than he bargained for when he takes a year off from Harvard Medical School to work at an orphanage in La Paz. As he comes to know the children, and sees how they live, Chi Huang is drawn deeper and deeper into their complex and desperate lives. The doctor soon realizes that to truly help these children, he will have to follow the example of Jesus: live among them, love them in spite of their brokenness, and cling to his faith in God's goodness, even when it appears it is nowhere to be found. A true story that will inspire and challenge readers to greater faith and action. The book includes a Foreword by Harvard professor and world-renowned expert on the moral and spiritual development of children, Dr. Robert Coles.
Noon, August 1, 1997; Plaza San Francisco, Downtown La Paz, Bolivia
His hands all too visible, cupped as if holding water, but holding nothing. His eyes adhering to my every twitch. His eyes glazed over from sleeplessness, from 3 a.m. flights into the sewage system, from wincing too hard trying to forget, from seeing everything, even the eyes of all those who see straight through him. He is invisible.
I reach into my pocket for a small metal disk that will make him more visible. These disks are almost magical, the way they work. The child is watching and waiting. He speaks poor Spanish. He is Aymaran-of blood indigenous to the Andes mountains. I fumble the metal disk. It falls to the pavement.
The street. This is his workplace, his bed, his table, his plate, his fine crystal. This is his home, Mother Street. I pick up the metal disk and place it in his cupped hands. Now they are not so empty. Now he is not so invisible.
Money. The metal disk is known here as a boliviano. It is the currency of Bolivia, worth about twenty American cents.
Everyone loves children, as long they belong to someone. When they belong to the street, few love them. And the childrenknow it. Those cupped hands never ask for love. They ask for money.
I crouch down to ask him his name. He looks at my face. He knows I am new to La Paz. He knows it is my first day to walk the street. He knows he might get easy money from me. But he is not sure what I want now. Most people drop the coin in his hands and walk away, returning to their own sweet oblivion.
The child looks into my eyes, and he walks away.
* * *
The hill is steep and covered by cobblestones. The stones warp my feet as I lean forward, walking fast, as I usually do, marching double time to the girls' orphanage at the top of the hill.
By the time I reach the door of Yassela Home for Street Girls, I'm grabbing my sides and ready to vomit. A young girl runs by, giggling at me. Mountain climbers wear oxygen masks at ten thousand feet. Paceños-the people of La Paz-live their entire lives at more than twelve thousand feet.
I look around me at the snow-covered, craggy peaks of the Andes mountains. Each year, tons of silt roll down from these mountains, enriching the soil of the altiplano, the five-hundred-mile depression from which La Paz springs. The mountains only partially shield the 2 million Paceños who live there from ice-winds that blast through the altiplano. I'm told the wind is cruelly cold at night.
Panting for air, I bend over to catch my breath in front of the orphanage door. A little eyeball peers through a low peephole and examines my face. The peephole slams shut, and feet pitter-patter away as a little girl's voice shrieks, "Strange Chinese man! It's a strange Chinese man!" The door swings open to reveal a middle-aged mestiza woman, her hands clasped before her food-stained apron. "Dr. Chi," she says. "You're here already. My name is Señora Lola."
Señora Lola leads me silently down the stairs into the cozy main activity room where girls from three to sixteen sit quietly in groups of three or four. They knit. I take my position in the center of the room. "Hello, my name is Chi. I am going to be the orphanage medical doctor here for the next seven months." The girls glance up at me, return to their knitting.
A little girl peers up at me with her twinkling, starry eyes. Her rich chocolate skin is accentuated by her simple pink dress, with which she obscures her face. She lets down her dress slowly, slowly, and ever so carefully she reaches out to me. "Do you want to see my room?"
I put my fingers in her hand. "Sure. What's your name?"
"My name is Chi," I say.
"Chinito," she says. Chinaman.
"Actually," I say, "it's simply Chi. Chi Huang."
Señora Lola and I follow Sara to her room. The air is stale with mold. Posters of teenage singing sensations spice up the pastel pink walls. Sara hops onto her bed. From under her covers, she brings forth a ragged doll, its head secured by thin cloth. The doll has one black plastic eye and one imprint of an eye long gone. "Her name is Isabel," Sara introduces.
I kneel down so I'm eye to eye with the doll. "Isabel, how long have you been here?"
"Long time," Sara says.
"Do you like it here, Isabel?"
"I miss my mommy."
"In El Alto."
"Where's El Alto?"
"It's high above, in the mountains. It's far, far away. And it's very, very poor."
"Why are you here, Isabel?"
"Because Mommy does not have any money for us to live with her."
"Do you get to see your mommy?"
"Yes. She visits every week."
Sara's shoulders slump, and her eyes look far away.
"Will you show me the rest of your house?" I ask her. Sara's face lights up again. She jumps off her bed and scurries out of the room. We walk into the concrete courtyard, where a nurse grabs my arm. Nurse Olivia is a large woman, a strong woman. With her rouge thick and her silver hair pinned tightly into a bun, she looks like a big-limbed Tammy Faye Bakker. "Chi," she says, "I know it is your first day, but I need you to see this girl's arm." She raises her eyebrows and peers into my eyes. "Her name is Mercedes."
The bedroom hosts six sets of bunk beds. Mercedes, about fifteen, sits on her bed, which is a lower one and neatly made. Her hair is a bird's nest beneath which her face is safely sequestered. Her clothes hang loosely over her slender frame, her faded pink sweatshirt having seen the scrub brush one too many times. Her skin is a dark olive; her brown eyes are encircled by black rings of makeup. She looks down and away, deep into a bedpost.
"My name is Chi," I say, as I sit down on a parallel bed. "I am the new orphanage doctor. What's your name?" I ask. She studies the bedpost inside and out. A lightbulb hanging from the ceiling yellows everything. "Señora Olivia wants me to take a look at your arm."
"Can I look at it?" I ask gently.
"No," she says.
"Why don't you tell me what it looks like since you're not going to show it to me? Is it red? Is there blood coming out of it?"
"I have a cut."
"When did it happen?"
"How did your arm get cut?"
"I cut it," she says.
"With Gillette," she says. With a razor blade.
I try to slow my breath. "How come?"
"Because I wanted to."
"Were you mad at yourself? Were you sad?"
"No, I just felt like doing it." She looks as far away from me as she can. "It feels good. I enjoy cutting myself," she says.
I feel my stomach turning. "It doesn't hurt?"
"It hurts later," she says. There is no pride in her confession, but no shame either. I am sickened, perplexed, and my throat tightens out of anger. Knowing the tremendous odds against her survival, why does she make her life even harder? "Is there any pus coming out of your wound?"
"Yes," she says.
"I need to treat it."
"It doesn't need to be treated," she tells me.
"If you don't treat it, the wound will become necrotic," I say. "You'll not only get the skin infected, you'll get your muscles and bones infected."
She stares at nothing. "If you get your muscle and bone infected, I will have to cut your hand off."
She looks at me, and for the first time I see a young girl in her eyes. She is wondering who I am, why I am here, and if she can trust me. She looks away for a long spell. "Okay," she says.
We walk to the orphanage examination room, a small room stocked with only bandages and hydrogen peroxide. Mercedes sits down on the wooden examination table.
"It is 2 p.m. now. What time did you cut yourself ?" I ask her.
"Fourteen hours. I can't sew up your wound. I'd be closing a wound filled with germs, keeping them in your arm. So we'll have to disinfect your wound and bandage it. Please uncover your arm."
She uncovers her right arm. I disguise my gasp as a deep breath. Over twenty razor blade scars run up the palm side of her arm, tracing ragged lines from wrist to elbow. By their color and texture, I discern that the scars vary widely in age. Has she been cutting herself since the age of twelve? Ten?
"Uncover your other arm," I say.
Dozens of parallel scars line her other arm.
"Do you have razor blade marks elsewhere?"
"No," she states with a twitch of the eye.
She's lying to me. But do I have the right to insist on seeing the other cuts? If not the right, at least I have the obligation. But if I insist, will I squander what little trust I've earned?
"Do you have any razor blade marks on your legs?" I ask Mercedes.
"This is my first meeting with you, Mercedes, I know. But I need to make a full examination. Are you lying to me?"
Nurse Olivia shouts at her, "How you can do such things to your body, and before the eyes of God, is a mystery to me! You don't love yourself and you don't love the Lord!" Only the vitriol hurled at this child can distract from the horror unfolding before my eyes. Five razor blade marks of six centimeters line each of her thighs. Longer scars cover her stomach, stretching from one side of her rib cage to the other. Is this real? I feel like I am a minor character ("DOCTOR") in a tragic play. With scars closing up over other scars, she has probably cut herself at least two hundred times. If she continues, by the time she is an adult, her entire body, save her face, will be covered by this street map of razor scars.
"Did you do all this yourself ?" I ask Mercedes.
"Yes," she utters robotically. As soon as Nurse Olivia went into her tirade, Mercedes tuned out of reality.
"She is a cutter," states Nurse Olivia.
I clean her arm wound and bandage it up. A putrid odor has been emanating from her lower body and getting worse. I don't want to offend young Mercedes by gagging, so I open the window and the door for air. The odor recalls for me the time I relieved a man who had been constipated for two weeks. She's fifteen! She should be clean and happy. I take a deep breath and reach for a speculum, and then I remember where we are. I have essentially no medical equipment here. I manually examine the labia. As I examine her for herpetic sores, green pus flows steadily out of her.
I sit there dazed. I didn't expect anything like this. I had hoped for docile children who just needed some antibiotics and a break in life. Whatever I envisioned, now that I'm here, I wonder what I can possibly offer these children.
"You probably have a venereal disease," I inform Mercedes.
She looks at me oddly.
"You should never have sex again, Mercedes!" shouts Nurse Olivia. "God has punished you!"
"Please," I implore Nurse Olivia, "let me take over here." Taking a calming breath, I look into Mercedes's eyes. "You have a sexual infection," I tell her, the words altering neither her face nor her breathing.
"Please take these samples, Señora," I tell Nurse Olivia. "I'll be right back." I walk to a neighborhood pharmacy and return with enough antibiotics to cover most venereal diseases. After explaining to Mercedes her schedule of medication, I ask Nurse Olivia to send the blood and cervical samples to the nearest laboratory in order to identify Mercedes's disease. And then I walk to the boys' orphanage.
* * *
Bururu. This is what the street children say when they are cold. You can hear them saying it at night when the cold wind blows.
"Welcome to Bururu Home for Street Boys." Señora Lydia opens the door to Bururu and then points eastward. "As you can see, we are located in the downtown area, not far from the old cathedral of San Francisco and the grand city square known as Plaza San Francisco, where the campesina women set up shop and the street children sell drinks and shine shoes."
Walking past Señora Lydia, I extend my toe past Bururu's threshold. Whuff! A quartet of boys tackles me, staggering me but not felling me. They each grab hold of a limb and try to pull me down, giggling the whole time. I finally catch my breath, and I playfully punch a chubby boy in the chest, swing a skinny boy around by the arms, drag a boy in a fútbol (soccer) jersey across the room, and try unsuccessfully to shake the fourth boy off my leg. My back grows weaker with each giggle, and they pull me to the brown Spanish tiles.
Then one of the boys speaks to me. He stops to see if I understand him, which I don't, before he continues. I'm not even sure if he is speaking Aymara-which is spoken by 1.6 million people around Lake Titicaca-or Quechua, the official language of the Inca Empire, spoken by 13 million people along the Andes mountains. A second boy tries to explain what the first boy said. He is speaking a different but similarly incomprehensible language. Slowly, though, words such as la and el stand out. They mean "the" in Spanish, a language I do speak, shakily.
"My name is Chi," I tell them. "I am your doctor."
The boy with the soccer jersey tells me, "I am Marcos. I am a fútbol player. When I grow up, you won't see me playing in the street leagues anymore. You'll see me only in the stadium. Do you play fútbol?"
Before I can answer, the boys all say, "Upstairs. Let's go upstairs!"
"What's upstairs?" I ask.
"The bedrooms," Marcos tells me.
Room 1 stinks like feet unwashed for a fortnight. A dozen blankets laid side by side on the floor mark the boys' sleeping territories. I walk over to a beautiful, brightly colored blanket and pick it up. The indigenous women, or cholitas, weave these blankets, and every boy seems to own at least one.
"Ahuayo," says Jesús.
"Ahuayo," I repeat.
The children burst into laughter at my pronunciation.
"Ahuayo," I say.
More laughter. I grow popular through incompetence. I study their giggling faces. We look alike, the boys and me. We are all brown. They are short kids, and I am five-six. Their hair is straight, coarse, and black. Mine is so straight that it stands punk-rockishly vertical after a shower. Broad strong cheeks. My fleshy face-flanks make deep dimples when I smile. Eyes like fat or skinny almonds. My eyes are pretty round, but I retain the almond flavor. Yes, this twenty-five-year-old Taiwanese American medical student can pass for their indigenous older brother.
"It is time for the meeting." Señora Lydia stands in the doorway to Room 1. She is of pale Spanish skin, her white, oval face shining through a shower of dark curls. Dressed "Euro," like an Upper West Side art dealer, she escorts me through the carpentry room. Aged five through seventeen and of both indio and mestizo blood, the boys hammer together bookshelves and footlockers. Bang! Bang! Bang! They are dressed in cotton shirts and blue jeans or beige slacks.
"Many of these children came from off the streets," Señora Lydia tells me. "The others were dropped off by parents who could not afford to care for them."
We enter the meeting room, and four women sitting in a semicircle stand up and give me solemn smiles. "Some of you have already met him," says Señora Lydia. "Let me introduce him formally. This is Chi Huang."
Nurse Olivia shakes my hand. "God bless you for coming here," she says.
"I am the social worker at the Yassela Home," says Señora Lola, who seems to possess a knowing peace. "I handle fights and hurt feelings, and I keep order."
"Hello." A woman in blue jeans and a collared shirt waves. "My name is Jessica. I do whatever needs to be done. I pick up the loose ends."
A psychologist named Eva tells me, "The boys need more men around here."
"The girls will like him too!" exclaims Nurse Olivia. "He is a godsend! A blessing!" She opens her arms to the heavens.
Señora Lydia clears her throat. Although she is now the head administrator of three orphanages, in earlier years Señora Lydia Morales spent many nights on the streets of La Paz coaxing street children to leave the street and join her orphanage. On the streets where women get beaten, raped, and murdered, Señora Lydia earned the trust and respect of the children by practically living in alleys and nooks. That is why some tiny fraction of the La Paz street children population is willing to leave the familiarity of the street to live in her orphanages.
Excerpted from When Invisible Children Sing by CHI HUANG IRWIN TANG Copyright © 2006 by Chi-Cheng Huang and Irwin Tang. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 16, 2008
One of the most sdisturbing but uplifting books I've ever read. Instead of spending money on frivolous things, we Americans would be more satisfied to help mankind.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 15, 2006
This book is interesting on several levels. First, it tells the fascinating story of Dr. Huang and his work with the street children of Bolivia. His approach of focusing on the stories of several children makes it very easy for the reader to connect with and understand the children. In addition, the book really explains generational and intractable poverty and the forces that keep it in place. I suspect similar forces are in place in all settings, even in a country as wealthy as the United States. Moreover, he describes his own childhood living with a family recently immigranted from Taiwan and his family's experience with the health care system in the U.S. It is a must read for employees in social service settings. Last, because he is an physician, he describes in detail the medical and mental health issues faced by the children, and I would recommend this book to be required curriculum for anyone planning to do medical mission work. (Or work with the homeless in the U.S. for that matter.)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.