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Ghosts of the Orphanage

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Alive or Not Alive?

Leah and one of the family's many pets.
photo by Steve Schapiro

The Helgesen household a lively place. There are exotic birds scolding from cages in the dining room, two peppy dogs, and an ever-changing cast of small critters in Leah and her brother Nate's bedrooms.

Leah shows off her guinea pig, Jack, named for Jackie Chan, her favorite actor. Leah plans to bring her biography of Chan on her upcoming trip to China. Her parents are planning a family trip so Leah can visit the Xiangtan orphanage where she spent her early years. In the orphanage, Leah apparently had little exposure to animals. That led to some of the familie's most entertaining stories about her introduction to their household.

"She had never seen an animal," remembers Becky. "She just about had hysterics at the sight of our dog and insisted I hold her at home in case the dog came around the corner."

Becky remembers Leah liked to point to objects and animals and ask, "Alive?" "Yes," her mother would assure her. "That's alive." When the family took a trip to the Minnesota State Fair Leah spotted a giraffe standing stock-still in the sweltering heat. "Not alive!" Leah exclaimed to her mother. "Surprise, Leah, that's alive." Becky told her very disbelieving daughter.

Orphanage life had limited her experiences in the world, but not her curiosity. Tom says his daughter is capable of looking at things in a completely different way from most people. He tells a story about finding Leah standing on the back porch of the family's home when she was about six. When he asked her what she was doing, she told her father, "The birds are bringing me worms. " She told her father to be quiet and she'd show him. Pretty soon, Tom remembers, a sparrow landed on the nearby grass. "Wrong bird, dad " Leah informed him. Another bird arrived. This time, a robin. As it began tugging at a worm, Leah ran full speed toward it and the bird dropped the worm. Leah plucked it up and put it in her styrofoam cup. "She had dozens of these huge worms in there! She had figured out how to get the birds to bring her worms!" marvels Tom.

Starting at Zero

Tom and Becky already had a seven-year-old son, Nate, when they adopted Leah. The three year age difference between the siblings has often felt like more to Nate, which he attributes to Leah's years in an orphanage. "She had to spend three and a half years once she got here doing all the things that one, two and three-year-olds get to do. So it was almost like she had been alive for three and a half years but not really," Nate says.

Leah missed out on the kind of intellectual stimulation Nate got when he was a baby and toddler. Becky remembers asking the orphanage director what her favorite toy was. He responded, "We have no toys."

"She clearly did not know what a book was," says Becky. "She thought it was some sort of flapping thing that she could flap or throw." Leah's parents remember that the one game she did seem to have practiced was throwing rocks, probably something the orphans did to entertain themselves.

But while Leah was hungry to learn in her new environment, some things were unexpectedly difficult. Colors, for example. Becky says, "Leah did not know what colors were even in Chinese. It was clear that yellow was her favorite color from the start, and she would always pick yellow. But learning the word 'yellow' and connecting it with that color, it wasn't just as if she were a child from another country who had to learn the new words. That's not that difficult. She didn't know if we were talking about reflective, shiny, furry, dull. She didn't know the quality we meant."

To Becky, Leah had no way of knowing what they were talking about because of the neglect she had experienced in the orphanage. She points out that even a child born into a very impoverished family might still hear, "Go put on your red shirt. Or, wear the blue shirt. That one's clean," and learn colors. But in an orphanage, Becky thinks probably none of the caregivers ever had time to have those kinds of conversations with the children.

Next: One Word Right

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