Sunday, January 14, 2007

One day last fall, lunchtime at a home that cares for the children of prisoners was interrupted by a loud, sharp demand.

"Those who took the dates stand along the wall!" a voice rang out.

Slowly, reluctantly, several children took their places, one by one, below two lines of hand-painted Chinese characters that read, "Now I'm a good kid. When I grow up, I'll be a good adult."

"Is that date tree ours? Are you allowed to pick those dates?" shouted Pan Du, executive director of the Dalian Children's Village.

Fidgeting. Pouting. Silence.

"We have so many children in our family," Pan said. "What is this activity called, taking dates that don't belong to you?"

"Stealing," one child said at last.

"Were our parents sent to prison because of stealing?” Pan said. "The dates are small but the point is big!"

After every last date from a neighbor's tree was pulled from each pocket and laid on a table, the children sat down to turnip soup, shredded potatoes and carrots and a special treat: preserved, salty tofu.