My guesthouse has a sign on the bulletin board from the local orphanage. Handwritten, the sign is obviously by a woman. You can tell because the letters are all round and fat, and there are little flowers drawn here and there. There’s a color photo of a wide-eyed kid at the top, about two years old. The sign is asking for volunteers.
I’m an American, middle-aged, a little closer to the grave than the cradle, divorced, no kids. It’s not that I don’t like kids, because I do, so why don’t I have any? It just didn’t work out that way. Truth be told, I’m not very good with children. But I feel sorry for them.
I remember childhood vividly, and it was rough. So the sign says they need somebody to “play with the babies,” and that isn’t going to be me, obviously, but maybe I can help out with painting or whatever needs to be done around the place.
The Viengping Orphanage is at the back of a large, walled complex that includes the Boys’ Home, an office and a hospice for infants with HIV. I go into the office and say I want to volunteer.
No one understands me. They don’t speak English.
I try explaining that I am here to paint or whatever they need me to do. I even swipe phantom brush strokes with an imaginary paintbrush, but I’m not getting my point across. Finally a woman picks out the words “volunteer” and “orphanage,” and she says: “Mayuree speak English. She teacher.” So Mayuree is who I need to talk to. They point the way.
I step into the orphanage and see a woman, but when I ask if she’s Mayuree, I am told, “She no here. She Bangkok.” I say, “When will she be back? I’m here to volunteer.” She says: “Oh. You volunteer. Come.”
I’m led upstairs. The woman opens a door, I follow, and suddenly I’m standing at the threshold of a nursery. “You play with baby.” I look in at the kids. “Um, um!” The woman puts her hand on my back and gives me a gentle push, I trip two steps in. I look back at the door, which is closing, then at three Thai women and 13 Thai toddlers. “But, but, but … ”
The kids see me and stumble over, arms outstretched. And so it’s me and the babies for an hour and a half.
Here’s the deal about playing with babies, at least at the Viengping Orphanage. You don’t need to keep them entertained. They just want to touch you.
I’m not here 30 seconds and I have three kids hanging off my neck and one planting himself in my lap. And he’s settling in. He’s not going anywhere. Six girls, seven boys, one- and two-year-olds, looking well-fed, but all really starved for attention.
They are all snot-nosed, huge gobs of the stuff running down or caked on their faces, and they wear dirty baby clothes with smiling cartoon characters peeking out from under unidentifiable splotches. The nursery is painted in off-white, the paint job slopped on, and the Heroes of Youth (Mickey, Pluto, etc.) are on the walls in jagged strokes, put there by an artist whose crude handiwork pegs him as a former prison tattooist. The characters are half-finished and uncolored, and I can only guess the artist ran out of time, or paint, or inclination, or all three.
But these kids are a very colorful cast of characters themselves, with very different personalities. Happy is a two-year-old, and nothing bothers him. He grins from the time I walk in until the time I leave.
Big Ears, also two, is a smart boy, but a little mean, into roughhousing, even with the little girls. Saucer Eyes is a girl of about one, fragile and a little lost, but she has the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen in your life, eyes like an adult.
Monkey Head is somewhere between an infant and a toddler. She has a big tuft of hair shooting out of her forehead like some weird ape, and I feel really sorry for her, because she cries and cries and wanders around the room, and neither I nor the three Thai women can fix what is wrong with her.
None of the Thai women speak English, so they can’t tell me what to do, and whatever it is I’m doing, I must be doing it wrong. Why can’t I make Monkey Head stop crying?
I’m lucky, because 15 minutes after I get here, another American comes in. Fifty-seven years old, this guy, Dale Douglas, is a former LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) officer and an ex private detective with the LA county prosecutor’s office.
Retired now, he’s come to live in Chiang Mai with his 29-year-old Thai girlfriend. He and I get along famously. This guy has grown children. I’m confident now. And, of course, he takes care of Monkey Head, and she stops crying.
Feeding time comes at 11 a.m., and one of the Thai women gives me a bowl of oatmeal with a little bit of meat in it and points to this kid. Now he’s my charge. I’ll call him “Hungry,” though he doesn’t seem like it at first.
He doesn’t want to eat at all, but he does a little, then after he gets about a quarter of the way through, he loses interest completely. I press him, putting the spoon up to his mouth and doing the humming and cajoling I’ve seen parents do in the movies. My hands are shaking the whole time.
I’m so retarded. What a lame volunteer. Finally he starts eating, then suddenly he’s inhaling the stuff, and I can’t believe all this food is going into this little kid. He keeps giving me the wai, pressing his hands together like the Thais do when they say “thank you,” but I’m thinking, this can’t be possible. The kid’s two years old; how can he know how to do that?
The ex-cop is feeding Saucer Eyes, and he says she’s doing the same thing.
Hungry finishes the oatmeal, but not before the other boys come up and dig their hands in what’s left of it, and jump off my crossed legs like a springboard. The floor in this place is really hard, and the springboarding leads to head-conking and wailing, of course.
The cop looks down and notices there’s a huge wet spot on his jeans where Saucer Eyes is sitting. She has urinated all over his leg. The orphanage can’t afford diapers, so when a kid has to go she does it in her clothes.
Nap time is up next, which means we’re almost through, thank God, but first a shower. The three Thai women march the kids into a shower room next door. When they emerge, they are all clean, with no snot running down their faces, and they are all wearing clean clothes and smelling like soap.
Then this two-year-old does a big poop on the floor. Another kid walks over and sticks his hand in it. I have to lead the second kid to the Thai women and explain in sign language what that stuff is on his hand. Both kids are led to the shower for another go round.
Nap time. 11:30. Thirteen cots are dragged out, 13 pillows. The kids lie on the cots, some gurgling, some sniffling, some sleeping. And a boy and a girl are crying. I don’t recognize them. They’ve been here the whole time, obviously, but they’ve stayed clear of us and just kind of blended in with the others.
The American cop and I look down at the two criers, and he says: “I know what this one needs,” and he kneels down and puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the kid stops crying immediately. I kneel down and put my hand on the little girl’s back, and she stops crying and shuts her eyes and falls asleep.
For More Information:
The Viengping Children’s Home
63/3 M004 Tambon Donkaew
Amphoe Mae Rim
Chiang Mai 50180 Thailand