A scenic bus ride through the city and the outskirts of Xi’an wound through tree-lined roads near fields, through a university district also near fields, and through stretches of road adorned with tents and vendors and mountains of fresh, red cherries. Along the way, we passed a lone Ferris wheel looming above the fields and trees in the distance. Our bus stopped at the head of a side road with parked cars, shaded by trees, and introduced by an archway. A short walk down this road brought us to the gated entrance of the little building complex that is the Children’s Village. The central building that we first came upon wasn’t ornately decorated or by any means flamboyant. The buildings in view were painted in a nice light, solid color, with plants, animated characters, and other novelties of childhood painted onto them. When we walked through the gate, groups of children with adults were taking photos together with a small mountain of donated food and goods.
We had been waiting and watching for several minutes when one of the heads of the Children’s Village greeted us and took us on a tour of the complex. She explained that this place provided a home to children and young adults aged 3 to 20 years old who had one or both parents in prison, a circumstance that would leave these children alone and without care, guidance, or love. Whenever parents were released from prison, they could come to the village to pick up their children and bring them home.
If I remember correctly, there were about 64 children at the village. They lived in two separate buildings – one for boys and one for girls – with two barracks room in each, branching off of a kind of central communal space that was also connected to a bathroom shared by the children in each building. The communal space had painted walls decorated with images and characters like Ariel from the Little Mermaid, as well as books and seats and pictures of the kids who lived in the building. The head lady told us that for every certain number of kids, about 16, there was one “mother” to take care of and support them.
After walking the small ring through the complex, we arrived back at the first, central building. Our host invited us in to see the program. In the back of this assembly room, the village was selling bead crafts made by the kids. These were pretty impressive bead sculptures – Chinese lanterns, small frogs. First, the Children’s Village played a video about our host and the other key people and events that led to the initiation of the village. Next, they had a talent show or recital of sorts where a group of children went onstage and danced to a song, which reminded me a lot of Vacation Bible School, except I couldn’t understand the lyrics of the song. Afterwards, the kids were invited to show off a talent, whether that was singing, dancing, telling a story. Watching them perform so enthusiastically in front of an audience was cute and made me smile… a lot. A couple of rows in front of me sat a mother with her adorable little boy; he kept flopping, as small children do, towards his mother, kissing her again and again.
At the end of the program, a group of children escorted us to the basketball courts nearby. Originally, the girls in our group were supposed to make crafts with the village’s girls while the boys played basketball, but the girls had an event going on that occupied them. So, the entirety of our group gathered on or next to the basketball court. Several of the guys in our group started on a five-on-five pick-up game with the village’s boys. Some girls in my group started talking and playing hackey sack with young girls and older girls alike. I found myself casually shooting hoops on the court with small group of boys from the Children’s Village. What surprised me was that, at some point, one boy and I had an unspoken agreement for sharing one of the basketballs. He would shoot the ball, and if it rebounded to my side of the court, I would shoot it, and vice versa.
Sweaty with dust-covered hands, I put down the basketball and joined friends at the side of the court. Angeline had made a new friend, a young girl of about eight or nine years old. I think that she was the same girl who, about half an hour before, had showcased her extremely impressive hackey sack skills. I enjoyed seeing my classmates socializing and playing with the kids and young adults at the Children’s Village.
Next, we were shown to the cafeteria where the kids have their meals. The building had a tall ceiling with light blue-gray walls and pillars decorated with photos and paintings of scenes, plants, and characters. To the left, a line of windows revealed the kitchen, and to the back right of the room stood an industrial-looking sink. Tables and chairs dotted the room. A couple of adults working at the village brought out a large tray of rice and two pots of food. Each of us in the group grabbed a paper cup-pot-bowl and a pair of chopsticks and filled our bowls with rice and the concoctions in the pots. Each pot contained a soupy mixture of seaweed, thin noodles, thick noodles, or chicken. This lunch surprisingly delighted my taste buds; it was a welcome, simple change of pace from the complex, varied meals that we have had. Once we had served ourselves, the children entered the cafeteria and had lunch as well.
With full bellies and softened hearts, we boarded the bus to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. This reputed Buddhist temple of traditional Chinese architecture comprised a cluster of smaller outposts around the tall pagoda. In the base of the pagoda sat an enormous Buddha swathed in a peaceful, meditative atmosphere produced by flowers and by ornate sculptures and carvings of red and gold. Being a temple, people came in and out to worship, offering incense in a large basin just outside of the pagoda. Dr. Li advised us not to walk in through the middle door because that would mean that we want to be monks.
As we walked the grounds and took in both the natural beauty and the manmade beauty, Cindy noted the evolution of the image of Buddha – Buddhas that look more like a human Siddhartha Gautama, the fat happy Buddhas commonly associated with Buddhism by Americans, and even Buddhas with a more feminine aspect, though the Buddha supposedly does not have a gender. We passed living quarters where temple monks currently reside, and we walked through the cemetery where stone pillars used one sentence to regale passersby of the lives of deceased head monks.
Turning into the art and trinkets shop, we exchanged clean Chinese lunar year cards for ones stamped with the animal representing our years of birth. A door to the side led us to a room whose walls and tables boasted the art of monks, and possibly of students. A huge freestanding frame showcased the gorgeous branches of a plum blossom tree in bloom. We were sitting in polished wooden seats around a long, polished wooden table covered in art when our calligraphy instructor entered. We didn’t have the opportunity to try Chinese calligraphy ourselves, but we watched as the instructor inked modern and traditional Chinese characters onto rice paper and explained the meanings of each character. After the presentation, I bought two prints, one of a blue and purple summer scene on the water and another of an orange autumn scene on the water.
Back at the hotel, we were let loose for the rest of the day. Sophie, Chloe, Angeline, and I visited the hotel restaurant for food but ended up ordering desserts. I savored a black forest cake, which, like the Hershey’s chocolate bar that I eventually ate, was not as sweet and sugary as I expected but, instead, tasted more like cocoa and cherry. Angeline translated that the servers thought the four of us were strange for coming to the restaurant just for desserts. Later in the evening, the four of us plus Shaymi tried Chinese Pizza Hut for dinner. We generally agreed that the pizza tasted better than in America; it was a lot smaller with less tomato sauce and not as much grease as some pizzas. After dinner, we waited outside at a sidewalk bench and waited for Hanna, Lauren, Brian, Evan, Kieran, Jake, Justin, and Chandler and then proceeded to walk around Xi’an near the bell tower. This night, I would say, marked the beginning of our Plus3 friend group.
Our last day in Xi’an is tomorrow, and so far, I like this city. It seems more walkable with less sprawl and bustle than Beijing despite its smaller population and larger area. Xi’an, in comparison to Beijing, feels more like a Pittsburgh, or even a Chicago or Washington, D.C., to me, as opposed to a New York City.