For a lot of people, the concept of “China” is kind of abstract. It’s something you watch on the evening news, where Diane Sawyer visits a school in Beijing and reports on how smart the kids are and how strict the curriculum is. It’s a roll of the eyes when you read another label stamped “Made in China”. It’s an entire world away and so completely foreign, and even though that earthquake in Sichuan that you read about seemed pretty bad, it doesn’t really register on your radar of things you need to worry about. I’m no different. I remember the flooding in Chenzhou back in 2008. It got a cursory mention on ABC World News Tonight, and then I promptly forgot about it. Hell, the only reason I tuned in at all was because we were already committed to the China program, and we tried to keep abreast of what was happening over there. Little did we know that our baby was going to be from Chenzhou, and his life was indeed affected by the floods (for the better, actually. The old orphanage sustained major damage, so he only ever knew the shiny and pretty new facility). It’s funny how the world comes knocking on your door.
Kevin and I have been so extremely fortunate to be able to see a lot of the world. We’ve been all over our great nation, we’ve been to Mexico, the Caribbean, a few countries in Europe. We spent a dreamlike two weeks in Kenya where we not only saw extraordinary wildlife, we BECAME the extraordinary wildlife. At the end of that family vacation, we were so lucky to be able to count our safari guides among our friends. Actually, I think that they qualify as family, since, hey, they cheered Kevin on while he drank the blood from a still-breathing goat, and that kind of experience tends to bond you for life. At the risk of sounding all “It’s A Small World After All” (and now you’ve got that stuck in your head. HaHaHa!!!), we really HAVE found that the planet is a pretty small place.
We had absolutely no idea what to expect when we got to China. We had both tried to learn a little bit of Mandarin since I think it’s pretty important to be able to communicate at least a little bit. “Please” and “Thank You” are the bare minimum, but never underestimate the ability to ask for the nearest bathroom. Kevin is able to understand quite a bit of Mandarin (but don’t ask him to speak it), and I speak enough to get by (although it’s harder for me to understand), so we make a pretty good team. This proved to be critically important at least twice, and I firmly believe it’s what helped bring us so close to our guides. First, Jerry was impressed that we had put forth such an effort, especially when we were touring The Forbidden City. He was SO happy that we not only knew a little history, but that we were able to talk a little bit about it in his native language. Not a lot, mind you, but one or two words here and there. When we met Ashley, he was shocked that Kevin was able to understand so much of what was being said. He was even happier to listen to Kev’s corny jokes, which was pretty hilarious.
The first time we were in a situation where we really had to draw on our limited powers of communication was in Changsha. I’ve mentioned that our first night there (the night before we met our son), I had to leave the restaurant and return to the hotel room because I wasn’t feeling well. Kevin managed to flag down a waiter and communicate that he wanted our order wrapped up and delivered to our room. Believe me, this was no easy feat. The young man, though, figured it out, got our food all set up on trays, and accompanied Kevin back upstairs. We were SO thankful that we threw propriety out the window and insisted that he accept a tip. Tipping is really not done in China. Sure, you tip your guides and your drivers, but that’s a totally different kettle of fish. You don’t tip waitstaff. EVER. Poor Jason (that was the kid’s name) tried to refuse, but we weren’t having any of it. He had gone so completely out of his way that we really felt that we needed to acknowledge that. After a little bit of persuasion, he took the tip, and we had a brief conversation in broken English and mangled Mandarin. After that night, Jason tended to magically appear whenever we were even a little bit *close* to the hotel restaurant. He helped us at each breakfast service, he checked on us at dinner, and he just materialized out of thin air if he even thought we might need a little help. It sounds a little stalker-like, but it was really one of the nicest parts of our stay.
Side note to Been There Done That’s in Changsha: Dean the doorman might be a legend, and don’t get me wrong;. he’s awesome. I mean, who else will sing Christmas carols in the middle of October to every American he meets? Plus, his smile is stellar, and he genuinely loves all the babies who cross the threshold of the Dolton Hotel. Jason, though, is simply amazing. If you’re ever staying at the Dolton, make sure you look for him. He’s the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet.
The day we checked out, we were standing by the registration desk and Jason showed up out of nowhere to see us off. He shook Kevin’s hand, he gave us hugs, and he looked honest-to-God sad to see us go. I couldn’t help it. I HAD to take a picture.
So we could now count Jerry and Jason among our good friends in China. But Ashley? Ashley was FAMILY. On our last night in Changsha, Ashely asked us if there was any way we might think about coming over to his house for dinner. Um, YES PLEASE! He was so humble about the whole thing, too. He was all “Hey, it’s no big deal, just a small little meal with the wife and kids, and you don’t have to come if you don’t want to”, but of COURSE we jumped at the chance. First of all, he was SO nice to even offer, but to welcome us into his home with open arms was more than we could have ever dreamed.
He came to pick us up at the hotel and (bless his heart) he drove us 45 minutes to his high-rise condo, which, by the way, is bigger than our house, and totally decorated like a Pottery Barn catalogue. It’s seriously beautiful. His wife and boys greeted us at the door and we visited for a little while before we sat down to a HUGE feast. Mrs. Ashley had made lion’s head meatballs, chicken with cashews, rice, a beef dish, pork with green peppers…There was other stuff, too, but I was so in love with the chicken that I didn’t really pay attention to anything else. HIs boys got a huge kick out of our lack of proper Chinese manners, and they had an absolute ball pointing and laughing at Kevin. We all giggled our way through the meal and then sat and visited some more. His boys are rambunctious and hilarious, and they were thrilled to be able to try out some English on us. Ashley is working so hard to open up the world to his kids. We definitely bonded over our shared commitment to make our kids global citizens. Finally, he showed us around his house, and we got to see first hand how that Chinese household functioned. It was worlds apart from what we’d experienced in the hutong in Beijing, and it was SO COOL to see how they integrated all members of the family into the house. The mother-in-law had her own suite, and it was the biggest bedroom in the house. The kids’ room was so cute, and it was definitely inhabited by boys. The living room was spacious, and the entertainment center took up an entire wall and was FILLED with American DVDs. The sun room was gorgeous. Ashley has a lot to be proud of. He was also really curious to see pictures of our house, and I had a few to show him. He didn’t believe us at all when we told him that our house was smaller than his! He was happy to see pictures of our guest room, though, and we assured him that he’d always have a place to stay if he ever makes it to the States. He was adamant that they are definitely planning a visit sometime in the next few years, and I have to say that I hope they mean it. I would love nothing better than for them to come and stay with us.
The one phrase that kept coming to mind when I sat down to write this part of the story was “Wherever you go, there you are”. We’ve stood in an elder’s house in a manyatta in the middle of Kenya and were shown amazing hospitality. We’ve giggled over a kitchen table in a house in China while we shared not just food, but the experience of two totally different cultures coming together. Wherever we’ve gone, we’ve seen firsthand how small the world truly is. Our time in Changsha was so special to me, and not just for the obvious reason that it was where we first met our son. It’s special because we were welcomed so completely by everybody we met. There was a warmth and an openness in the people that I’ve never experienced anywhere else (no, not even in Texas).
When you travel, if you’re open to it, there are places that settle into your soul, places that some part of you recognizes as home. I am the most fortunate girl I know, because I have those homes all over the place. I have Ft. Worth, which will always be my hometown. I have Amelia Island, which is–by far–the best place I’ve ever lived. I have Guana, which is as much my home as my own house is, and when the ferry pulls up to the dock it feels like a homecoming each and every time. I have Kenya, and even though Hippo Point might not be the most welcoming place, Ol Malo sure is. And now I have Changsha. Smoggy, noisy, crowded, trafficky, wonderful Changsha. The geography between these places is as different as could be. Their common denominator, however, is that I have family in every single one of them. We’ve not only adopted a son, we’ve adopted a whole crazy bunch of friends who’ve become brothers. My brothers from other mothers are spread all over the world, and I couldn’t be luckier to count them among my family.