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Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness

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Recently I read a blog where the parents of a child adopted from one of our programs made some derogatory comments about the child’s appearance and behavior in their first days together. As I read through the blog, it made me quite sad. I don’t think they wrote such critical things purposely, but it was clear that they weren’t taking the time to see life through the child’s eyes instead of their own.

It made me think that perhaps I should write up a few articles over the next month about setting realistic expectations during adoption. I hope these can be practical blogs that address some very common daily issues such as standards of cleanliness. I have read more than my fair share of adoption blogs where parents complain about how dirty their children are on adoption day. So let’s do a reality check and better understand how difficult it can be in some areas of China to even take a bath, something we as Westerners absolutely take for granted each and every day.

I consider myself very blessed to have done extensive travel in rural China, and so I want to be fair to those who have only experienced the bathrooms at the White Swan Hotel. Please remember that many rural orphanages and foster homes often have no indoor bathroom facilities. If you are fortunate enough to have an indoor bath, there is a chance it consists of a tiny tiled or concrete area with a single drainage hole for both the shower and toilet.

A water heater would be RARE, so cold water is the norm. Your source of heat for the entire small apartment or orphanage could be a single coal stove in the center of the main room, and there is no heat in the bathroom area at all. So let’s start with a fact that pretty much everyone knows: children in China are bundled up in multiple layers in the winter to protect them from getting sick.

So if you truly care about your child – do you risk stripping them down in an unheated room and exposing them to ice cold water during the winter months? Is that bath really a NECESSITY or a luxury? Well, I’ve met enough foster moms over the last decade to know that the child’s physical health comes first and foremost in their minds, and so scrubbing down their face and hands with a washrag and pail of water more than meets their cleanliness standards.

Now let’s say that you don’t have the luxury of having a shower in your actual home. Instead, your only option is the public bath house, where you have to pay money to take a group shower with others from your village. Do you look forward to going there in the winter months? When your whole body feels cold most of the time? Well, I can tell you that on my most recent trip to China, one of the hotels we stayed in didn’t have heat and only tepid shower water, and I lasted a whole 15 seconds before jumping out and deciding I did NOT need to freshen up.

No adoptive parent should be surprised or disgusted if their newly adopted child “doesn’t know how to take a proper bath.” There is a good chance they have never had the extravagant opportunity of even knowing what that is! Adoptive parents should not be dismayed if a child’s fingernails are dirty, or if their body hasn’t been scrubbed clean in the last several months. It is very likely that your child’s first encounter with a five star hotel in the provincial capital is their first experience with centralized heat, running hot water, or a Western-sized bathtub. Be compassionate, and try to understand that even the most simple things in our minds, such as taking a bath, are often very difficult indeed in rural China. Try not to feel a need to immediately “wash off” the scents and smells and yes, even the “dirt” that could be a very real comfort at the moment to your child.

Always remember that everything the child has known as his or her safety and security has suddenly disappeared upon meeting you– and that things you might think are “wrong” (like a child being dirty) are completely and understandably acceptable in living situations where bathrooms and heat and warm water are complete opulence. Dirt is not an automatic indication that your child experienced neglect. In many cases, it can actually equal “loving care,” where a nanny or foster parent did not want to expose a child to the cold. Always try to think about the cultural differences between your life and theirs, and be slow to judge when you don’t have the full story of what their daily life has been.

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director

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