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Last summer a Penn English professor and his wife, a University administrator, visited some of the world’s saddest places— and made two families very happy.

By Peter Conn


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.


On the evening of my visit to the school, I talked with a couple of mid-level government officers–party members–during a leisurely dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Saigon River. The meal included several kinds of spicy fish, and a platter of even spicier vegetables. The subject of the conversation was educational policy, not politics, but politics constantly and inevitably elbowed its way into our talk. The discussion made abundantly clear what I already knew: that nobody in Vietnam actually believes in communism anymore. (But then, who does, aside from the crackpots ruling in North Korea, and a handful of academic Marxists?) Everyone is scrambling to find the door that leads to the market economy, while hanging on to party privileges.
    Thirty-seven thousand feet over the Pacific, Terry and I recollected that dinner, and other conversations, as we changed diapers, warmed bottles, and walked up and down the aisles of the plane with Baby Kim and Baby Park. (Not their real names, but even six-month-olds are entitled to a little privacy.) Kim was about as wide as he was long, shaped approximately like a softball attached to the top of a basketball, and blessed with a seraphic smile. Park was slimmer, more serious, given to long, silent eye contact. The pair of them resembled a kind of miniature, Korean Laurel and Hardy, and we found them irresistible. Having been through infant routines with four children of our own, we didn’t actually need help, but we got quite a lot, from the cabin crew, and from other passengers. What we did eventually need was a little sleep, but neither Kim nor Park was going to permit it. As if by prearranged plan, they took turns being awake, lively and charmingly demanding.
    When a fellow passenger asked me where we had been, I found myself telling her first about Poipet, Cambodia, which is one of the world’s sad places. Just 10 years ago, it was a nondescript village of 10,000 people, not far from the last Khmer Rouge stronghold. Today, Poipet is home to something like 75,000 people, displaced by the country’s bitter civil wars, living in primitive shacks made of wood scraps and corrugated tin. Fighting was lethal in this region, and danger persists because of the thousands of landmines buried in the area. We saw adults and children with missing limbs, and we were sharply instructed to stay on the paths when we walked around. That useful if rather obvious advice was not always easy to follow when the “path” was a thin and slippery plank suspended a few inches over the muddy lane that served as a passage and sometimes sewer connecting one cluster of huts with the next.
    Diseases associated with the absence of hygiene flourish here; we arrived in the midst of a cholera outbreak. With the end of the war, humanitarian efforts are becoming better organized, and PSBI is one of several NGOs commencing work in this area. We had a two-hour meeting with local health and education officials, who briefed us on some of the town’s needs. During the introductions, a Cambodian general, the regional commander, showed up unexpectedly. He was affable, low-keyed, and unarmed, but his presence obviously made the other Cambodians nervous, and he certainly spooked me. (“And what did you do during the war, Daddy?” crossed my mind, but I kept my sentiments to myself and smiled for the photo-op.)
    Our Cambodian-speaking staff had gathered information through interviews with dozens of Poipet residents. Questions about nutrition, schooling and sanitation yielded fairly alarming answers. A health clinic, whose ill-trained nurses can provide little beyond aspirin, is open only two days each week. Unemployment is staggering, and no one was prepared to predict that the economy would improve.
    We met a few of the town’s hundreds of commercial sex workers–girls and young women who service their clients in long rows of tiny, ramshackle cubicles, decorated with tawdry, wistfully innocent calendars and movie-magazine covers. The sex workers are mainly Cambodian and Vietnamese women, the customers are Cambodian and Thai men. The women charge between 30 and 40 Thai baht (a little over a dollar); the Vietnamese women can charge the Thais a few pennies more, because Thai men find Vietnamese women more attractive than Cambodians. The HIV infection rate among the sex workers is estimated to be 65-70 percent.
    We talked about these findings with a number of experts, including the regional director of the United Nations AIDS project in Southeast Asia, an eloquent, compassionate man who endorsed our plans for HIV/AIDS education and counseling. Now we have to find the money.
    We also met with a senior UNICEF official in Laos, a woman from Colorado who has spent 20 years in Southeast Asia, eight of them working in Cambodian refugee camps. Savvy and irrepressibly optimistic, she decided to transfer to Laos, a small, desperately poor country that has simply fallen off the journalistic map since the Vietnam War ended. Geography has been unkind to Laos, which is landlocked and mountainous, and is routinely bullied by its larger neighbors. If we can find the money, PSBI will try to help with a U.N.-initiated literacy project; Laotian children suffer from some of the poorest education in the region.
    Eight hours after leaving Seoul, the plane stopped for a crew-change in Anchorage, Alaska. Terry and I, a little bleary-eyed, walked around the small terminal once or twice, trying to interest ourselves in the stuffed bears and wolves and salmon that make up the airport’s principal decorations. The babies attracted a good deal of attention, most of it sympathetic, some merely curious. We had learned years ago, when we went out with our daughter Jennifer, that complete strangers sometimes feel free to ask the most intimate questions when they meet adults and children who seem to be of different races: Who are these children? Where do they come from? Why are they with you? Who are you? The interlocutors are not usually hostile, but they consider themselves entitled to some basic information. I usually answer politely, though I find the intrusions tiresome and I’m sometimes tempted to ask return questions of my own: How many children do you have? How many are adopted? If none, why not? And who are you?
    Indifferent to my irritation, Baby Kim and Baby Park seemed to enjoy the attention, and responded with some of their more seductive smiles.
    Kim and Park are healthy babies. In Thailand, we had spent a day with less fortunate boys and girls, the sons and daughters of HIV/AIDS victims; many of the children also have the disease. The city of Chon Buri lies about two hours (by car) southeast of Bangkok. Terry and I arrived in the mid-morning, and met first for an hour with an HIV support committee that PSBI has organized: 15 men and women, all HIV-positive, who meet regularly as a group and who have been trained to provide counseling to AIDS patients in the local hospital. The committee’s members are impressively resilient and good-humored, and our conversation was an illuminating and (to me) humbling experience.
    In the afternoon, we left Chon Buri’s main streets and drove to a muddy village nearby. Here we met with a few of the families PSBI works with, all of them victimized by AIDS. In one case, four of the family’s five members, the 30-year-old father and mother, and two of the three small children, have the illness. In another case, an uninfected three-year-old boy is being cared for by his 90-year-old great-grandmother. It is not clear what will happen when the great-grandmother is no longer able to look after him.
    In each country we visited, Terry and I took full advantage of PSBI’s staff members, the local nationals who tutored and guided us. Our long conversations with these dedicated, knowledgeable men and women added the depth and texture that helped us understand what we were seeing. They kept us busy, but did give us time for some of the more predictable tourist activities. We knelt in the breathtakingly beautiful Temple of the Emerald Buddha near the Thai Royal Palace; watched the boat traffic on the Mekong River in Laos; had our pockets picked in Ho Chi Minh City. We walked around the ancient Korean city of Kyong-ju, and we had the dinner of our lives at the legendary Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. We spent time with friends in Korea and Thailand, and promised them that we would return soon. I believe we will.
    We left Seoul at about 7:00 p.m. Sunday and, after crossing the dateline and stopping in Anchorage, arrived at Newark airport at 9:00 the same night: two hours on the clock, 16 in the air. A half-hour later, in a crowded arrivals hall that suddenly went quiet around us, we handed over the two babies to their adoptive parents. Another improvised ceremony, with more laughter and embraces and tears. Frankly, we relinquished the children with a twinge of reluctance: you do quite a lot of bonding with a baby on a journey like this.
    Our daughter Jennifer, now an adult living and working in New York, came to the airport and joined in our homecoming; her presence drew a comforting circle around past and present. Baby Kim and Baby Park seemed instantly pleased by their new families, a response that was obviously and fully reciprocated. These two boys will do all right, I predict. And although they won’t remember the journey they made to their new home, Terry and I will never forget it. 


To learn more about Pearl S. Buck International and its programs, go to http:// www.pearl-s-buck.org; call (215) 249-0100; or write to PSBI at Green Hills Farm, Perkasie, PA 18944.

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