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Bamboo Cradle

a Jewish father's story

by Avraham Schwartzbaum

Copyright © 1988 by Avraham Schwartzbaum and Feldheim Publishers

In memory of my father


For the upright, light rises in the darkness...

PSALMS 112:1

"The bamboo cradle that gently rocked our tiny Chinese daughter to sleep came to symbolize our own beginnings in the discovery of our heritage. In the land where bamboo fields whisper echoes of the sea, we heard a voice calling us home. We did not know then that the voice came from deep within our souls. For the first time, we turned our heart to God and he answered our prayers. The cradle swayed in the soft China breeze with a will of its own, just as events in our lives created their own momentum.

From our bamboo cradle we emerged into a world of timeless, ancient wisdom. We cut our teeth on Torah and learned to walk with the Prophets; the first words we uttered were words of devotion. Each day dawned on new revelations and faith in the Almighty filled our lives with joy."

Avraham Schwartzbaum

Part One: Dawn

Weeping may endure for a night, But with the dawn – Joy

                                                                           Psalm 30:6


WITH EACH passing minute of the early morning, more and more people poured in and out of the  train station. The traffic noise swelled as motor scooters and bicycles merged with buses, cars and taxis. Su-Yen huddled in a doorway opposite the station. She stood alone and still, apart from the moving stream of hurry­ing figures. She raised her eyes to the large clock above the entrance to the terminal. Six-thirty-five. Soon, she thought, the station would be at its busiest.

A pre-dawn drizzle had mingled with the ever-present dust, and the city was shrouded in a low mist. Su-Yen had been waiting in the doorway since daybreak and had watched the moon give way to the sun as it rose above the East Gate. Although the morning chill had left the air, Su-Yen shivered and drew her thin silk jacket tightly around her. Her heart was quiet, like the dark water of the pond near her grandfather's country home. Feelings and thoughts intertwined. Her mind wandered. She hardly saw the people who passed her on the pavement two elderly women dressed in black shuffled by, their tiny feet deformed from years of binding; uniformed school children, chattering like jaybirds, hopped and skipped along the sidewalk; a vendor, bent low by the weight of his wares, proffered a bright bird in a woven cage.

A cry, light as a whisper, rose from the small bundle Su-Yen held to her chest and she flinched as if awakened suddenly from a deep dream. How tired and alone she felt. A wave of pain and exhaustion washed over her. The cry became stronger. Su-Yen looked down. The baby's face was damp and bright from her tears.

PROFESSOR ALLAN SCHWARTZBAUM always left his house at 5:45 A.M. on Thursdays. One day each week he traveled to Taichung in central Taiwan. It was a long trip, made even longer by the fact that he had to travel first from the small fishing village of Tamsui to Taipei, and from there take a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to the university. A visiting American  professor on a Fulbright  Scholarship  to  the Republic of China, Schwartzbaum held part-time positions in three universities throughout the country, teaching sociology and industrial relations. The quaint hilltop quarters he and his wife, Barbara, occupied in Tamsui had been graciously provided by his Chinese hosts.

As he left the house that morning, he paused to appreciate the special beauty of the early hour. The departing May rains which came in from the China Sea had left a white curtain of clouds on the mountains. The final moments of night were black against a green-red sky. As he walked down the narrow mountain path, he became aware of the activity below. Food stalls were setting up to serve white bean soup and crisp bread. Farmers with their oxen were already specks of moving color in their fields of rice. Sleepy cats and dogs, rising to greet the dawn, stretched with great yawns, and in the distance, behind the willows, the words of a song turned in the air.

Su-Yen knew she must act now. If things had only been different, if the baby had been a boy, if their backgrounds had not been so unalike... A sharp pain interrupted her thoughts. She knew what she had to do, and procrastinating only postponed the inevitable. There was no choice events had overpowered her. She remembered the old Chinese phrase, "a rushing wave already broken."

She reached into a small bag and found a pen and scrap of paper on which to write a few words. Then, clutching her baby, she strode purposefully toward the station.

THERE WERE SEVERAL ways one could travel from Tamsui. The fastest, but least relaxing was with one of the special Tamsui-Taipei shuttle taxis, the drivers of which maximized their income by making as many round trips as they could each day. Because of the reckless manner in which the drivers navigated the winding roads at breakneck speeds, these taxis became known as "wild chickens." Buses were safer by far. A third mode of transportation was the local train, which, although it made many stops along the way, conveniently deposited its passengers right at the main train terminal.

Halfway down the mountain path, Schwartzbaum decided he would take the train this morning. He enjoyed sharing the ride with the many schoolchildren who usually rode to the city at that hour. This morning was no exception. Knots of children in twos, threes and fours, schoolbooks strapped on their backs, hopped, pushed, skipped and other­wise made their way into the train compartment. Whenever he watched them, he always discovered a smile on his face.

But the smile quickly faded when he remembered his own situation. He and Barbara had been married for seven years. They led busy, interesting lives traveling, working and studying. But in their quiet moments, when all around them was still, they would feel the palpable silence and vast emptiness that only a child could fill.

As she entered the station, Su-Yen's senses were assaulted by the noise and movement of the crowds all around her. She searched vainly for an empty space or corner where she could leave her bundle, a place where she would not be seen abandoning it, but where it was certain to be found.

She slipped off her jacket and wrapped it around the baby, making sure the note was in the pocket. Just then, an announcement came over the public address system, echoing throughout the terminal. A number of commuters rose from the benches and moved like a ragged army towards the platform and their train. For a moment, to Su-Yen's right, there was an unoccupied bench. Quickly, she placed the red jacket with its contents there, then drifted away, blending easily into the milling crowd. Her arms and heart were empty.

SCHWARTZBAUM JOINED the crowd climbing the stairs from the local platform to the main terminal. He purchased his ticket to Taichung, then headed across the huge hall toward his assigned gate. Suddenly, a bright splash of color caught his eye, a small red parcel on a vacant bench. He thought he saw it move. His curiosity piqued, he decided to investigate. Tiny dark eyes met his own. His briefcase fell from his hand as he reached for the baby. He picked her up gently and held her close. A note fluttered to the ground.

A short distance away, a figure stood watching the foreigner at the bench. After a moment, Su-Yen moved silently away.

Chapter 1

THE OFFICE of the railroad police was small but neat and orderly, as was its sole occupant. Lt. Lee glanced up from the report he was writing. He removed his glasses before he spoke. His tone and expression were courteous, but I sensed they concealed a deep-seated cautiousness.

"We apologize for this most unfortunate event," he began. "It is not proper for a distinguished visitor to be involved in such things. We have taken the baby to where she will be looked after. This has inconvenienced you. Let us not trouble you any longer." It seemed I was being dismissed, but my curiosity was far from satisfied. "Is the baby all right?" I asked. "She seemed healthy. A doctor will examine her." "She was so tiny, she could hardly have been more than a few days old."

"It is obvious that she was just born," the lieutenant agreed. "Her umbilical cord was still attached. But she appears strong."

Does this happen often? I mean, are infants often abandoned like this?"

Not as often as in the past. Traditionally, sons have been valued far more than daughters. A husband could divorce his wife if she failed to give him sons." I nodded, recalling having read this somewhere. Lee went on. "I remember on the Mainland, when there was nothing to eat, things were so bad that parents would try to sell their children, especially their girls. But here life is much better."

"Then why would someone do such a thing?" "Perhaps because of 'face', what you would call shame. The mother would not wish to bring shame to her family. If the baby were a boy who could carry the family name, an arrangement might have been worked out, but with a girl...." The lieutenant rose from his stiff-backed chair.

"Before I go," I said, "please let me know where the baby was taken." Lt. Lee hesitated, and looked away. Then he wrote out an address in his precise script and passed it across the desk. "One more question, please. There was a note with the baby. What did it say?"

Again Lee hesitated. "It said: 'Whoever finds this baby — watch over her with kindness and compassion, and fortune will share your way'."

THAT EVENING, Barbara and I sat in the living room of our little house in the faculty housing compound. We loved the house, even though it was sparsely furnished and very simple in design. Like the other faculty structures, it had plain exterior walls, a grey shingle roof and a blood-red door. Tatami mats covered the bare wood floors of the two bed­rooms, but the living room had a couch of sorts and after our evening meal we liked to have tea there. From the window, above a dense stand of bamboo, one could see the fishing boats returning home, tiny beacons of light pinpointed on the bay.

"I felt so strange when I realized it was a baby," I said, breaking the long silence that followed my account of the day's events. "I was frightened, but somehow happy."

Barbara turned toward me. Her eyes glistened. "Do you know where she is now?"

“Yes, the police officer gave me the address of the orphan­age - it's on Chung Hwa Road."

“We’ll go there first thing tomorrow morning," she said, reading my thoughts.

I nodded my agreement. "Yes, first thing."

As we rose from the couch, we noticed that there were no more lights on the water. All the boats had come safely into Port.

Chapter 2

WHEN WE ARRIVED at the address on Chung Hwa Road at half past eight the next morning, we were surprised to discover that it was a church.

We wandered around the stone courtyard for several minutes, until we found an open back door leading to a winding flight of wooden stairs. On the second floor landing, Barbara hesitantly opened a heavy ornate door. Suddenly, the din of countless crying babies assailed us and we were nearly overcome by the fetor of unchanged diapers. The large, high-ceilinged room in which we found ourselves was filled with rows of old-fashioned metal cribs, most of them occupied by wailing infants. There were no caretakers in evidence.

Eventually, a tired-looking woman entered through a narrow doorway. I immediately approached her.

"Good morning," I said over the racket. "We would like to see the baby who was found at the railroad station yesterday."

"Oh! I think she is over in the fourth row, near the wall, somewhere in the middle." She pointed vaguely in that direction and then went about her business.

Barbara and I anxiously searched among the cribs until we found one with a newborn in it. We saw a head of jet black hair and tiny, delicate features. The woman joined us at the crib "Yes, this is the one. She was brought in just the other day.”

''Are you the only person taking care of all these children?" Barbara asked, somewhat appalled.

"Yes. Sometimes I find someone to help me, but usually I am alone."

"How on earth do you manage?"

"Well, I get to each child when I can. They all get taken care of sooner or later."

Barbara turned to me and whispered urgently, "We must get this baby out of here!"

"I found this baby yesterday," I said to the caretaker, again shouting over the noise. "We wish to take her home with us."

"You must speak to Reverend Wen. He is downstairs, in his office."

We located the office and knocked on the door. The gentleman seated at the large desk was tall and balding, his shoulders slightly stooped and his expression blank. He moved slowly, like an old tortoise disturbed from its slumber. "Can I help you?"

"Yes, I hope so. I am Professor Allan Schwartzbaum and this is my wife, Barbara. Yesterday, I found a newborn baby at the railroad station. We were told she was brought here and we've just seen her upstairs. We'd like to take her home with us."

Reverend Wen looked us over very carefully for what seemed like a long time. "It might be possible," he said in a voice that matched his plodding movements, "but it is customary for people to first make a contribution to our church before we provide them with a child. I am sure you understand how expensive it is to care for so many children."

“I see. Please allow me a moment to discuss this with my wife.”

I took Barbara aside and spoke quietly to her. "I'm certain this guy gives babies to the highest bidder," I said. "He gets unwanted babies, then tries to sell them to anyone who'll pay. What should we do?"

"Make him an offer."

"How much should I say?"

"I don't know, but we must get the baby out of this place immediately."

I turned back to the desk. "Reverend Wen, I have twenty-five U.S. dollars and I'll pay you an additional two hundred dollars by next week." The Reverend looked up but his expression remained impassive. I couldn't tell if I'd bid too high or too low.

"Very good," he said at last. "Please sign this document which indicates how much you promise to give for a contribution." I complied and he took the signed paper, folded it neatly and placed it in one of the desk drawers. "I now release the baby into your care. Since the infant was abandoned we do not know what her family name is. In such cases I list the baby under my surname — Wen. I will also give her a personal name." He looked up at the ceiling, thinking, then wrote several Chinese characters on a sheet of paper before him and announced, "I have named her Yu-Bing — Jade Ice. Her full name is Wen Yu-Bing." He handed the sheet of paper to me and we all went back up the stairs.

Reverend Wen addressed the caretaker, "Professor Schwartzbaum and his wife are going to take this baby with them." The caretaker reached over the rail of the crib and wrapped the baby in a thin blanket. She picked her up and handed her to Barbara without a word. Clearly, this was their routine procedure. I nodded to Reverend Wen and led Bar­bara down the stairs and out the door, the tiny bundle clutched in her arms.

As we walked out to the church courtyard, I shook my head in amazement. "I don't believe what just happened!" I said. "Can you imagine going into an orphanage in America and walking out a few minutes later with a baby?"

Barbara looked down at the baby who was sleeping peacefully in her arms. "What are we going to do now?"

"Let's get her home — before someone changes his mind!" I flagged down a passing taxi and we climbed in. The driver looked at us curiously but only asked, "Dau nali chyu? — Where to?"


As the taxi sped past the city limits, Barbara murmured in a soft voice, almost to herself, "Yu-Bing, Jade Ice — what a terrible name! It's so cold, so remote." She looked down at the sleeping baby cradled in her arms. "I will never use that name again."

Chapter 3

MEI-MEI, OUR HOUSEKEEPER, was busy in the kitchen — as usual — when we returned. With­out even a glance in our direction, she declared, "I must be working too hard. I am sure I hear baby crying. Dr. Schwartzbaum, you are joking me again with your funny tricks?"

"Look, Mei-Mei!" Barbara called excitedly. "It is a baby! You remember — the baby that Allan found in the train station yesterday? We went to see if we could take her, and here she is!"

Mei-Mei calmly lifted a corner of the little blanket. "You are right," she stated simply, "it is baby — Chinese baby. There is old Chinese saying, 'Do not call a tree a rock.' Now tell me, please, what you are going to do with her?"

All at once, the full impact of our actions struck us. Most husbands and wives have nine months to prepare for a new baby. Even when couples adopt, there are many months of interviews, discussions and planning before they ever receive a child. In our case, we awoke that very morning, a childless couple, and three hours later, with no advance preparation, we had an infant.

"What are we going to do?" Barbara cried, a note of panic in her voice. "We have no crib, we have no baby clothes, we don't even have any baby food!"

"You forgot to mention experience," I added. "We don't have any of that, either."

"Do not worry," said Mei-Mei, "I have plenty experience, and soon you will know what to do also. There is old Chinese saying,

'The hungry child does not need to be taught how to eat'!"

Mei-Mei soon had everything organized. She rounded up the neighbors, and then, almost as if by magic, all the necessities began to appear: a tiny dress, a stock of diapers, an old bamboo cradle, warm blankets, baby bottles. Mei-Mei sent her oldest daughter, who'd been helping in the kitchen, to the market to search for infant formula. When she returned, we were all set.

In no time at all, the news had spread throughout the local community. Heads of curious little children popped up out of nowhere, with everyone trying to get a glimpse of the new baby. A steady stream of neighbors poured through our house, and with it, a steady stream of advice on every subject. After a while, the commotion became so great that Barbara had Mei-Mei bar any more visitors.

The baby seemed healthy. She drank from her bottle and responded to everyone who held her. She also cried. Not little whimpering sounds, but big, robust cries that filled the whole house and reverberated off the walls. Barbara grew anxious. The more she tried to calm the baby, the louder the baby cried. "Mei-Mei! Mei-Mei! What's wrong? Why is she crying? Is she hungry? Maybe she's not well! Maybe something hurts her!"

Mei answered without interrupting her chores. "Do not worry. It is normal. There is old Chinese saying, 'A silent brook has no water'."

MUCH LATER, when the sun had settled behind the green ns, and the baby had finally stopped crying, Barbara said. "We can't keep on calling her 'the baby', and I absolutely refuse to call her 'Jade Ice'."

"Yes," I said, "I've been giving the subject a lot of thought. Here we are with a tiny Chinese infant, and we have no idea what her future will be, or how her life will turn out. But whatever is in store for her, it began here in China. I'd like to call her 'Hsin-Mei', Hsin for heart and Mei for China. Hsin-Mei — 'My heart is in China'."

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