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Adventures in Adoption, or, Mommy and Me

Life, as it tends to do, has been accelerating to warp speed over the past year. My child, as children tend to do, has decided not to remain a baby. I hate that. I mean, I love it, but I hate it. He has somehow managed to morph from a wobbly little toddler to a full-fledged boy child who is governed only by his thirst for adventure (and the occasional juice box. Never underestimate the power of the juicebox).

To say I’ve been scarce around these parts in an understatement. I realized the other day that I haven’t sat down to write in over a year. What the hell??? Something that was once so much a part of my daily routine just up and vanished. The thing is, though, that I kind of needed it to. See, there’s something you don’t know. Something I have only talked about with VERY close family members and friends. Something that shamed me, at least until I could work through it. Are you ready for it? The big reveal? The horrible secret I kept for a year? Here goes…..

I was a bad mother. Seriously. Terrible. Selfish. Any other negative word you can think of. I’m certain I’ve used those words to describe myself, which is VERY out of character for me. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I tend to think I’m kind of awesome. But the early days of motherhood? Nope. Not even close to awesome. I flat out sucked as a mommy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I never did anything to jeopardize my child’s health or safety. It’s just that I spent the first six months trying to figure out who this little stranger was. I focused so much on his attachment to us that I totally forgot to think about my attachment to *him*. I felt like I couldn’t relate to him, that I didn’t understand him, and I spent a large portion of each day beating myself up about that. I went through the motions and engaged my favorite coping mechanism of “Fake It Till You Make It”, clinging to the hope that my tried and true strategy would pull me through. And it did (thank God). Quick aside: The whole “Mommy Wars” thing didn’t help, either. Ladies, let’s stop beating each other up, okay? I think we do enough of that to ourselves.

We brought Jack home in October of 2010; it took me until March of 2011 to feel like I was worthy of the gift of him. It took me until October of 2011 to feel like a decent mother. Somewhere around Christmas of last year I finally stopped examining my every parenting decision under a microscope. I learned to relax and cut myself some slack. And here’s the big one: I forced myself to recognize the difference between being an “Adoptive Mom” and just “Mom”. I had to shed the first identity (along with all her insecurities of not being enough) in order to embrace the second, truer one. As soon as I figured out how to do that, I found freedom. It was a profound moment for me, and I wonder if/when Jack will have the same one, although I hope he doesn’t. I never EVER want him think of himself as the Adopted Son. He’s just our son.

We were walking the dog the other day when we were stopped by an older couple who lives in our neighborhood. Oliver the Beagle and Jack are so unbearably cute that they never cease to attract attention, and that day was no different. After the initial small talk (“welcome to the neighborhood”, etc.), we were hit with it. “Is he yours?”. It wasn’t said with malice, just curiosity, but I was still a bit stung on Jack’s behalf. Yes, yes, yes he is mine. Who else’s would he be? He is my son. I tuck him in at night. I kiss his boo boos. I spent hours and hours and hours potty training him. I know how to do the voices in his favorite books. And like a flash of lighting, Adoptive Mom tried to rear her ugly head. I bitch slapped her back into submission, politely answered their question with a strained smile, and we walked on.

From the minute I met my precious little man, I’ve loved him. I’ve celebrated each of his milestones, and I’ve always, ALWAYS been proud of him and over-the-moon ecstatic to be his mother. My own parenting skills, though? Not so much with the trust there. It was truly the first time I’ve ever suffered a crisis of confidence, and it was a doozy. I lost myself for a little while. No, that’s not true. I had to rebuild myself from the remains of the person I was. I did it, though. I took a long hard look at who I was vs. who I wanted to be, and I made it happen. Today I can say that, while I’m not Mother of the Year, I’m a good mom. A solid mom. A loving, fun, (mostly) patient mom. And yes, I adopted my child, which technically makes me an Adoptive Mom, but I think I’ll just rip that label right off.

Adventures in Adoption, or, These Are Days

One year. 365 days. 525,948 minutes. Not to sound like the cast of “Rent”, but really, how do you measure a year? Okay, that totally sounds like the cast of “Rent”. Sorry about that. Before Jack, I marked the passage of time with birthdays or anniversaries, and later, milestones reached in the adoption process. Before Jack, I would look back on the previous year and reflect on lessons learned in the workplace. Before Jack, I’d reflect on the valuable time spent with family and friends and the memories we created. Before Jack, I really didn’t appreciate just how precious the ebb and flow of time truly is.

One year ago today, we became a family. After 16 years, Kevin and I became Kevin, Merrin, and Jack. After a seemingly endless wait, we finally had a child. One year ago today, I naively looked at the moment we first held our son as the end of a journey. How foolish. It wasn’t the end at all, but a beautiful, glorious beginning. Everything that came before, good or bad, had led me to that exact time and place, had set me on the path to motherhood.

One year ago today, we stood in a room in a nondescript building in China holding the perfect (screaming) miracle of our lives. In sharp contrast to the endless wait that led up to that minute, every second that’s passed since has flown by at warp speed. Jack has grown SIX INCHES in one year. He’s gained eight pounds. He legs are no longer scrawny; instead, he has muscles that would make the Hulk (the Incredible one, not Hulk Hogan) tremble in fear. He doesn’t have furrow lines of worry between his eyebrows; instead, his smile lights up not only his face, but the entire world. He doesn’t sit passively watching the world go by; instead, he jumps up and dances. He doesn’t scream when I come near him; instead, he throws himself into my arms for hugs and kisses. More than that, though, his intelligence shines through in everything he does. He is the smartest two-year-old I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his mom. Well, maybe I am.

In the last year, he’s celebrated holidays and birthdays. He’s learned how to ride his bike and climb the jungle gym. He’s learned how to open doors and turn on lights (both of which will scare the crap out of you in the middle of the night). He’s learned how to use an iPad, and is, in fact, more adept at it than I am. He’s started potty training, and is SO proud of himself. He’s discovered Elmo and Thomas the Train. He’s started school, where, naturally, he’s the most popular kid there. He even has a little girlfriend. He’s figured out that the loves the beach and the pool (anywhere with water, really). He’s learned how to sneak food he doesn’t like to the dog (thankfully, he likes almost everything, but the dog has still managed to gain some weight). He doesn’t toddle along anymore, he runs at a full sprint just about everywhere he goes. He fits in my arms like he was born to be there, and my body recognizes him as the child I was meant to have. We’ve measured every developmental milestone with a sense of triumph. Jack isn’t delayed in any area, and we have Half The Sky to thank for that.

One year ago today, I had no idea who my son was, or who he would be. One year later, and nobody knows Jack better than I do. A year ago, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was pretty good at faking it. Now, I still don’t have much of a clue, but I’m not afraid to try new things. I’m no longer worried that he’ll end up in therapy because I’ve warped him for life (I mean, he probably will, but I’m not *worried* about it). I make mistakes, and I kick myself for them, but somehow, miraculously, Jack loves me anyway. I will never know what I have done to deserve such a precious gift, and I’m pretty sure I’m not worthy of it, but I treasure it every single day.

One year ago today, a family was born.

Adventures in Adoption, or, Clash of the Kirbys

After a last-minute snafu that necessitated a harried run by Civil Affairs (one piece of paper needed to be changed out for another one), Ashley broke all kinds of records getting us to the airport on time for our flight to Guangzhou. He also worked his special Ashley Magic and got our baggage fees dramatically reduced. It turns out that all that candy weighed kind of a lot (so worth it, though. Except for the corn-flavored candy. That was just nasty). We said our tearful goodbyes, although we promised to keep in touch, and I’m happy to report that we have. He gave us huge bear hugs, kissed Jack, and sent us on our way to the next leg of our journey.

We boarded the flight with more than a litte trepidation. Oh, alright. Straight up FEAR. It was Baby’s First Flight, and we had NO IDEA how he was going to handle it. Also, you flat-out cannot buy a separate seat for kids under two, so he had no choice but to hang out on our laps the whole time. And when I say “our”, I mean Kevin’s. By this time, Jack had decided that he didn’t really care so much for Mommy. Oh sure, he’d let me feed him or change his diaper. He even let me read or sing to him at bedtime. But holding him? OH, the horror. Forget it, lady. It ain’t gonna happen. Thank you, drive through please. So we settled ourselves in and prayed for the best.

Thankfully, Jack just took it in stride, like he does with everything life throws at him. He also got a LOT of attention from the girls across the aisle, and he even flirted with the little baby girl sitting behind us. The flight was mercifully short, and we were in Guangzhou before we knew it. We headed down to baggage claim where we spied a couple of members of the Chinese Olympic team, who just happened to be in town for the Asian Games, which was kind of a big deal. The Asian Games are the second largest sporting event after the Olympics, so you can kind of imagine what an absolute zoo Guangzhou was during this time. Looking back, we probably should have waited a week or so to travel, but we’d already been waiting SOOOOO long, so we sucked it up and made the decision to travel during the busiest time possible. Did I mention that the Trade Fair was going on, too? It just happens to be the world’s largest Import/Export fair. Yeah, we’re super smart. Truth be told, though, even though we were fully aware that hotel rooms were A) hard to come by, and B) ridiculously expensive, there was no way we could convince ourselves to leave our son in an orphanage for one day longer than necessary. Yes, I’m aware that sounds kind of douchey, but it’s totally true. It’s also not the last time I’m going to sound douchey because, luckily for you, we’re edging ever closer to the Clash Of The Kirbys.

Okay. Back on track. We gathered our bags, ran the gauntlet of the baggage ticket checker guy, and met up with our guide for this part of the trip. His name, incidentally, was also Jack. Jack was no Jerry. He was certainly no Ashley. In fact, Jack basically said “Hey, glad you made it. Go get in the van and Mr. Li will take you to your hotel. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow. There’s another family coming in tonight, and I’ve decided to take care of them. You’re pretty much on your own, suckers”. Maybe he didn’t really say that last part. I can’t quite remember. It was no big deal, though, and Mr. Li was perfectly nice, even if he didn’t speak a word of English. He looked kind of like what you think a member of the Chinese Mafia looks like: Big, broad-shouldered, buzz-cut, intimidating. He got us where we were going though, which was the Holiday Inn Shi Fu. I can hear you now. You’re all like “WHAAAAAAAT???? What the what??? Kevin works in luxury hospitality, and you stayed at the Holiday Inn????”. My response to that is “We totally stayed at the Holiday Inn, and it was AWESOME.” Hotels are one of those things that I researched tirelessly during The Wait, and I’d heard nothing but awesome things about this place. Most people stay at the White Swan, but it was 1) booked solid (Trade Fair. Asian Games) and 2) not nearly as nice. Seriously. The rooms at the White Swan are holes compared to the Holiday Inn. The food is better at the HI, too. I cannot say enough good stuff about this hotel. I’m super proud to say that I found that little gem all on my own, with no help from my Hotel Super Star husband.

Mr. Li deposited us outside of the Holiday Inn Shi Fu and promptly took off. The entrance to the hotel is a bit nondescript, and if there’s not a doorman on duty, it’s kind of hard to find. I mean, you look up and you see the hotel, but there’s just one not-very-clearly-marked door that opens up to a tiny vestibule with two elevators. The lobby is actually on the 4th floor, so you have to go up to get to the main entrance. We got all checked in (thankfully we were on Club Level. If there is ONE tip I’d give to potential traveling adoptive parents, it’s spring for the Club Level at every hotel you stay at. There are free drinks, free nibbles throughout the day, and really excellent services like 24 currency exchange), ordered a little room service, and settled into the very cool room that we would call home for the next week. My only mistake that evening was putting ketchup on my burger. Curses!!! Apparently, I’d blocked out the horror of my first encounter with Chinese Ketchup. We hunkered down to watch a little Amazing Race and Wipeout (remember that scene in European Vacation when Rusty is all “I think there’s something wrong with the TV. We only get two channels and no MTV. What do you want to watch, cheese or snow?” It was kind of like that, except we only got The Amazing Race Asia, Wipeout, which seriously was on, like, 24/7, CSI, and Headline News. Incidentally, I got hooked on TAR Asia, which is much better than its American counterpart. Just sayin’.

The next morning we were downstairs bright and early waiting for Mr. Li to come and fetch us so we could go and get started on the American side of the paperwork. The Chinese stuff had all been wrapped up in Changsha; now it was time to get squared away with the US government. Let me explain what we were in for that day (and yes, we were fully prepared for all of the adoption-related stuff. What we weren’t prepared for was the extra kick in the ass of dealing with the Kirbys). First, we’d head on over to Shamian Island (about 5 minutes away) for visa pictures and a visit with the Travel Doctor, or, more precisely, The Guangzhou International Travel Medical Center, where our boy would be subjected to a VERY thorough medical exam complete with shots. SIX of them. Yay. Understandably, we pretty much just wanted to get it over with before the day even started.

So there we were, waiting curbside for our chariot. Mr. Li was prompt, and Jack the Guide was there. He was there, of course, because the Kirbys were there. Right there in the van. The tiny, tiny van whose walls started closing in the minute the door shut. Now, for the record, I don’t actually remember the Kirbys’ real names. Well, I remember their son’s name. His name was Jake. He was 9. He was also the most annoying child you’ll ever have the misfortune of meeting. I don’t believe in any kind of corporal punishment, but I swear I wanted to smack this kid after about 5 minutes. He was like a cross between Urkel, Dennis the Menace, and the fat kid from Stand By Me. Added bonus? Him parents constantly made excuses for him, too, so he grew increasingly annoying as the days wore on. You may be wondering why we refer to them as The Kirbys, and it’s kind of a long story, but hey, you’ve already read this far, so you might as well stick with it.

Kevin and I watch a lot of movies. No, this isn’t a non-sequitur. Quotes from those movies eventually work their way into our lexicon. I’m sure you’ve said, at some point in your life, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. No? Hmmmm. That’s just me, then. Anyway, random phrases sneak into our conversations. (Did I hear a niner in there, Tommy Boy?). My mother will tell you that “Thank you for doing this, Ellen” is a Donahue classic (watch the movie “Dave” for context). There is one movie that I’m pretty sure nobody else has seen, and that movie is “The Story of Us”. It wasn’t a particularly memorable movie (Eric Clapton did the soundtrack, which is amazing, however), except for a few scenes where Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis head to Italy and have their romantic getaway shanghaied by the most annoying people in the world. The annoying couple just happens to be named, you guessed it, The Kirbys. They start passing a Hangman game back and forth under the table during an particularly excruciating dinner, and the solution to the puzzle is “I Hate The Kirbys”. Michelle and Bruce turn to each other, smile, and Michelle says “Oh, honey. Me too!”.

About five minutes after we met them, we were getting out of the van for the quick walk to the photographer and then the Medical Center. The following is the transcript of the conversation:

Kevin: What was the name—-?

Me: The Kirbys.

Kevin: YES. The Kirbys. So very, very much The Kirbys.

See? He didn’t even have to finish the thought. I was right there with him.

You might think that five minutes isn’t enough time to form a fair opinion of someone. I say, respectfully, you’re so wrong. Do you remember the middle school music teachers on SNL? The Culps? These people were definitely close relatives. Sadly, though, they also had an added dash of douchebaggery with a healthy pinch of self-importance, not to mention arrogance and a side of super rude Ugly American. I can handle nerdy. Hell, I’m nerdy. I can handle a little douchey. I can even deal with some arrogance. These people took it all to a new level. We made a silent pact then and there to spend as little time as possible with this family. I wish I could say that we managed to avoid them altogether, but no such luck. We were stuck with them for the next few days, but we DID minimize our exposure as much as possible.

We got Jack’s picture taken for his US visa then we walked over to the Medical Center. The Kirbys had, for some inexplicable reason, maintained their I(600) status throughout their wait. (If you really want to know what that is, feel free to email me, but all you need to know is that it was WAY more expensive to pay the fees to keep paperwork from expiring as opposed to filing new stuff). We, on the other hand, had let our original stuff expire and refiled as an I(800), or Hague, family. This meant that Jack (the kid, not the guide) had to have lots and lots of shots (six, to be exact), which meant that we had to spend a bit more time there while The Kirbys had to wait for us. They made their displeasure known. A lot. We had to wait outside for about 15 minutes after Jack’s exam was done and he’d had all of his shots to make sure he didn’t have a bad reaction. Mr. Kirby’s exact words were “This is ridiculous. Let’s get going”. Nice. Real nice.

Thankfully, not too long after that, we got to split up for a bit and do some shopping, which was so. Much. FUN! We wandered in and out of the little shops on Shamian Island, where we loaded up on clothes, shoes, souvenirs, and all kinds of little trinkets. We got tons of stuff to give to Jack each year on Family Day: Terra Cotta warrior chess sets, DVDs, personalized chopsticks, puzzles, games….Yeah, we went a little bit overboard, and yes, there was talk about buying an extra bag to get it all home. The shops that are sprinkled throughout the island cater specifically to adoptive families. The US Consulate used to be located there, so it was a no-brainer to set up shop where the Americans were. The stores all have names like “Sherry’s Place” or “Jordon’s Place”, and every shopkeeper speaks English and is willing to haggle. WIN! We managed to (mostly) evade the Kirbys as we wandered in and out of the shops, although Jake managed to ambush us in one spot. I swear the kid was just lying in wait for the perfect moment to jump out and start peppering us with annoying questions).

Too soon, it was time to hook back up with Jack (the Guide) and the dreaded Kirbys so we could have lunch. After Mr. Kirby decided he was the only one who could talk throughout the meal (dude. He cut me off twice by saying “Be quiet”. Lovely fellow, Mr. Kirby), and after Jake Kirby insisted on drinking my Coke (thanks, kid), we were FINALLY headed back to the hotel, but not before Mr. Kirby told us how inconvenient it was for us to be staying where we were, since they were across town at the Garden. SOOOOOO not my problem, mister. Deal with it. We graciously agreed to be picked up later the next morning, though, since it seemed like it would be better for them. Mrs. Kirby complained that Jake wouldn’t have enough time to do his homework in the morning, but, ugh, she guessed she could make it work. Again? Not my problem.
The good news is that we had the whole afternoon free, and after Jack (the Kid) had his nap, we set out to explore the streets around us.

Adventures in Adoption, or Brothers From Another Mother

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.

One World, Not Three

Adventures in Adoption, or, I’m Going To Wally World!!!

We started our adoption process back in 2006, which obviously gave us lots and lots of time to dream/plan/fantasize about every aspect of the actual trip to China. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent scouring the interwebz for every piece of information about tourist destinations, food, shopping, and basic daily life. My mother would be the first one to tell you that I get all Julie the Cruise Director when it comes to travel planning (in my defense, though, I my system totally WORKS. You may be exhausted after I’ve dragged your butt all over kingdom come–sorry, Kevin, but there was a lot to see in London–, but you will definitely have seen everything you wanted to). So in between picking out baby names and painting the nursery (twice, because, hey! It’s a boy!), I obsessed about the stuff I wanted to experience.

Now, five years is a LOT of time to dig up information. The more I read, the more I was determined to see as much of China as I possibly could. I dreamed of the Great Wall. I yearned for the Temple of Heaven. The Forbidden City? Not so forbidden anymore, because, dude, I was GOING TO SEE IT IN PERSON. My research wasn’t limited to the tourist hotspots, though. I subscribed to random news feeds that covered all aspects of Chinese life. I freaked myself out about the food–I don’t like American Chinese food– (which was pointless, as it was all delicious. Well, except for those noodles. Those? Not so much) and the bathrooms (again, pointless. AND xenophobic). I devoured every little thing I could get my hands on. And then, one day, I saw this article on Buzzfeed. Chinese Wal Mart??? Oh, yes please. 1000 times YES. I knew *immediately* that I had to move heaven and earth to experience Chinese Wal Mart for myself.

Once we had our Travel Call (that’s the call with your agency that prepares you for what to expect, what to pack, what you’ll do in-country, etc.), a couple of things became abundantly clear. One, we were actually going to CHINA, which, after the wait we’d had, didn’t quite seem possible, and B), we weren’t going to have a whole lot of free time. Those agencies do a damn fine job of making sure you’re well-occupied, which now that I think about it, is not unlike my whole Julie the Cruise Director approach to travel. If I wanted to see Chinese Wal Mart, I had to be crafty and strategic. I pored over our itinerary. I knew Beijing was out of the question; we were simply WAY too over-scheduled as it was. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the pearl market, the jade market, Olympic Village, a Hutong tour…And that was only 48 hours. Definitely no time there.

Next, I looked at the time we had in Guangzhou. It was a possibility. We had quite a bit of down-time, and we were spending almost an entire week there. The problem was, however, that there just wasn’t one anywhere close to where we were staying. Also, although we didn’t realize this until we got there, there was another family to contend with in Guangzhou. Ah, yes. The Kirbys. For now, let’s just say that if we never see them again, it will be too soon. And worry not, I’ll be covering that particular story in the near future. So that left Changsha. Logistically, I wasn’t too sure how it would work out, but I KNEW that there was a Wal Mart about 20 minutes from Civil Affairs.
Once again, let me say that Ashley is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. From the moment we introduced ourselves, he was a friend. He was so completely accommodating of every single request we had, almost before we’d voiced it. He was a scheduling magician. So on the ride into the city from the airport, after having set eyes on each other only minutes before, I was (almost) comfortable enough to tell him my deep secret wish to see Wal Mart. He told us to let him know if there was anything special we wanted to see or do, but at that moment, I realized how completely ridiculous it sounded to say “Hey, I came all the way to China so I could go to Wal Mart.” Luckily, Kevin loves me, and he knows me better than anyone, so he stepped up and put it out there. Thank God for Kevin.

Ashley didn’t make any promises that day, but he DID say he would try to work it out. The next morning (as a guy with a canvas bag full of thousands of dollars in currency sat in our hotel room counting out bills—again, part of a future installment), he worked out a schedule. That Thursday looked promising, and as fate would have it, it was right after we finalized everything at Civil Affairs AND we could even fit in lunch at McDonald’s (the food was awesome, but we’d been in the country for awhile, and we were ready for a taste of home, not unlike the time I hunted down a Wendy’s in Venice because I was dying for a burger after two weeks of the best Italian food I’d ever had. Yes, you read that right. Wendy’s. In VENICE. Operation Ugly American was a go.

So there we were. Finally a family, and the first thing we do was head to Wal Mart, and it was everything I’d dreamed it could be. First, let me say that Chinese Wal Mart is an upscale affair. Not like Prada or Vuitton, but definitely upper-middle class. The one we went to was also GINORMOUS. Two stories of awesome. I made Kevin stop out front so I could take his picture.

Speaking of pictures, Ashley smoothed things over (in his typical Ashely way), so I was able to snap as many pictures in there as I wanted. Sure, I got some nasty looks from the guy pawing the bin of raw chicken feet, but it’s not like I took a picture of HIM—just of the chicken feet. I was so completely enamored of Chinese Wal Mart from the minute I stepped foot inside. I spent 20 minutes in the seafood department alone (hey, I’d never seen fish with price tags shot through their fins before, not to mention a bin full of fat croaking frogs). I took my time checking out the large open bins of chicken parts (not just feet) exposed for anybody to sift through looking for just the right thigh. I wandered up and down aisles full of blueberry flavored Lay’s chips, Red Bull, and even Budweiser. I got a little bit lost in the snack foods and beverages.

And then, there it was. I swear it was like a moment out of a movie complete with a ray of light shining right down on it. THE CANDY DEPARTMENT. I have to admit, I went a little bit crazy. I realize that I am, deep down, a three-year-old, but I totally couldn’t help myself. Everything is sold in bulk, and I grabbed a couple of bags and started stuffing with wild abandon. I didn’t care what I grabbed, I just tried to get a little of everything. It was like a bad episode of Supermarket Sweep. I was a madwoman. Kevin finally had to stop me, since we didn’t have enough room in our luggage to account for the amount of sugar I’d just acquired.

Eventually, we headed upstairs so we could get a few baby essentials. The baby store in Changsha had most of what we needed, but we were on a quest for a sippy cup that the boy would actually drink from. It had been a problem up to this point. I’d packed every single kind of cup imaginable, even baby bottles, but he just. Wouldn’t. DRINK. It turns out that I had underestimated my little man (wouldn’t be the last time), and he needed something a bit more advanced and needed something with a straw. New cup in hand, we headed back down to the checkout. Surprisingly, we made it out of there for a hair under $20. A miracle.

As luck would have it, McDonald’s was right across the street, and it was lunch time. Ashley ordered for us, and a few minutes later, there it was. The Chinese Happy Meal. Oh, and a Big Mac and a Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

Jack, as usual, was in food heaven. He INHALED those McNuggets. Kevin and I had our first experience with Chinese ketchup, and we fervently wished it would be our last. Yikes. Kev enjoyed his Big Mac, but I realized I’d made a fatal error with the chicken sandwich. I’m pretty sure that chicken was about 1000 years old when they killed it, because it was stringy and weird. Still, though, I’m glad we had the experience, even if it wasn’t the best idea in the world.
That, my friends, is a lesson: No matter how homesick you are for the familiar, sometimes it’s just better to stick with the local flavor. Trust me on this. At least until you get to a Chinese Pizza Hut, and then it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Adventures In Adoption, Or, Congratulations! It’s a Toddler!

It turns out that two-year olds keep a Mama pretty busy. I swear the kiddo will graduate high school before I get his China story all written out. In the meantime, though, I’ll push on, even though my child is currently walking around the living room with a drum on his head. Best. Mother. EVER. After a (not) brief hiatus, I finally have a minute to continue telling the tales of our trip to China (if you need a refresher of where we left off, click here).
{EDIT: I began this post in JUNE. It’s almost OCTOBER. Yeah, the toddler keeps me on my toes}

Jack was worn OUT from the crazy morning he’d had: a train ride, a big city, new parents, you know, basic everyday stuff for an 18-month old baby. Or not. He slept like the dead even while firecrackers were going off right outside our open hotel window (there was a wedding down below on the street, and fireworks are kind of a thing in China. I’m surprised you didn’t know that). It sounded not unlike artillery fire, but he snoozed right through it, even though Kevin and I were CERTAIN the city was being attacked. When he woke up, though, I learned my first true lesson about what it feels like to be completely helpless. We had prepared ourselves in every way possible for the fact that Jack would be grieving. I read every book, took every class, talked to other parents….you name it. Even with all of that, though, nothing could have prepared me for the actual moment of holding a boy who woke up from a nap and fell into his own nightmare.

I promise I’m only going to talk about this for a minute, and I debated whether to put it out there at all, but the truth is that it’s a part of his story. He may very well read this one day, and I don’t want to do him a disservice by glossing over the hard parts. In a nutshell, the next 30 minutes were the very worst of my life, and I’m fairly certain Jack would’ve said the same thing about his, too. Imagine waking up in a strange place with people who don’t look like you, don’t sound like you, don’t smell like you. You have no way to tell them what you need or feel, but you’re supposed to trust them unconditionally. You can’t feed yourself or meet any of your own basic needs, and the only people you used to know are nowhere to be found. I have a feeling you’d be pretty freaked out, too. As soon as I picked him up out of the crib, Jack started keening. It was a primal scream that started from deep in his gut, and it just. Kept. Going. I did the only thing I could possibly do, and that was sit on the floor and rock him until it subsided, and it eventually did.

We spent the remainder of that afternoon wandering up and down the hallways of the hotel and trying to make Jack feel as comfortable as possible. We played with his beach ball, and we bounced on the bed. One of my favorite memories of those early days was getting the very first smile out of Jack. He thought bouncing on the bed with the green beach ball was the BEST toy. We had the hotel windows open (no AC; the government had declared it Fall already), and the noises 31 stories below us drifted up and blended with the squeaky mattress springs and Sam Cooke singing “Under the Boardwalk” through the laptop.

We ordered room service for dinner that night. We spread out the blanket that Delta was kind enough to let us “borrow”, hunkered down on the floor, and feasted on congee, cumin beef, and yes, ice cream. I couldn’t help but remember another carpet picnic 10 years earlier; a few of my friends will recall sitting on my mother’s living room floor on my wedding day eating take out from La Madeleine. It’s funny how little moments seem so insignificant until their pattern begins to emerge. Apparently, I reserve carpet picnics for the great big important days in life.

After dinner, it was time for bath and bed. I let Kevin do the honors on Jack’s first bath, and he did a great job. Jack, on the other hand, wasn’t too thrilled. I don’t think he’d ever been fully submerged before and he wasn’t quite sure what to think. He was also filthy. This is in no way a criticism of the care he received in the SWI. It’s an observation that gave me a glimpse into my future as Jack’s mom: lots and lots and lots of dirt. He’s a magnet. We got our now-fresh-smelling baby all wrapped up in jammies and began the bedtime ritual. There are no words to describe that very first tuck-in; we didn’t have a plan, there had been no previous discussion, but it was seamless. The way Kevin and I worked together that first night is concrete proof that there is, in fact, such a thing as a soulmate. My very favorite thing, though, about sitting in that hotel room while darkness settled softly through the smog was something I didn’t come to appreciate until six months later. That inaugural bedtime routine? It hasn’t changed. At all. We were lucky enough to stumble on something magical. Kevin has whispered the same thing to Jack every night for almost a year. I have read Goodnight Moon so many times that Jack has it memorized. We thought we were providing comfort in consistency, and we ARE. But mostly? The consistency comforts US. We are unbelievably lucky to be able to share the last quiet minutes with Jack before he sleeps, and that time is the most precious of my day.

The next few days were filled with Ashley striking a delicate balance between keeping us busy, eating, giving us bonding time, eating, and meeting with all the officials to finalize the paperwork (I have mentioned before that the first day we were literally handed a baby without having signed a thing. I’ve had to sign my life away to FedEx when receiving a delivery from Apple, but hey, here’s a baby! Have fun!). I cannot say enough good things about Ashley. He knew *exactly* what we needed when we needed it. He also showed us Changsha in a way that we’ll never forget. We spent one morning at the Hunan Provincial Museum where we saw a perfectly preserved 2000 year old mummy (she was even sticking out her tongue). This particular story, and accompanying picture, bites us in the butt later in our story when we meet the Kirbys, so stay tuned for that one. We also spent a couple of lovely hours at the Hunan Embroidery Museum, which was breathtaking. It was also a little chilly and strange, since we were the only people there. In fact, the lights were off when we arrived, and Ashley had to hunt down the curator so we could see everything. Ashley was SO knowledgeable and taught us everything we ever wanted to know about Hunan embroidery. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say it is the most stunning needlework I’ve ever seen. Also? We ate. A LOT. We ate some of the best food I’ve ever had, and I miss it. We had dumplings, pork with green peppers, a beef with mushrooms dish that Kevin would very well give his right arm for, and the best char siu I’ve EVER had. We also learned that there is watermelon at every meal. Pretty handy, since I know a boy who happens to love the stuff.

Finally, it was Thursday. Thursday was THE day. The last time we had to meet with Chinese officials. The day they told us that our son was officially ours. I wish I could say that there was some sort of pomp and ceremony involved, but in actuality, we returned to the Civil Affairs office where we waited a few minutes to be called back to a small room with a small woman standing over a small machine. She snapped a quick picture of Kevin, Jack, and me, and then we handed over a stack of Chinese bills which she ran through the machine (turns out it was a bill counter), and ushered us across the hall to yet another small room. {Please, no comments on the money thing. I’ll address all of that in a later post, but suffice it to say that whatever you may think is probably wrong, unless, of course, you’ve adopted from China.} We stamped our thumbprints in red ink on a few papers, stamped Jack’s handprint, and headed to yet another room where the notary awaited. He asked us a few questions (“Why did you want to adopt from China?” “WIll you keep this child safe and healthy?”), and five minutes later, we were on our way.

Jack was ours. Now all that was left was to go celebrate. American style.

A Letter To Your First Mother

Dear Sister,

I don’t know your name, where you live, or even what you look like. I don’t know what your voice sounds like or how tall you are, and I don’t know what your favorite food is. You and I are, however, as intimately connected as any two women can be. I don’t know those things about you, but I do know that our son has your infectious laugh and killer smile. I suspect he inherited his adorable cheeks from you, too. Maybe his incredible sense of curiosity came from you, and his bravery from his other father. His spark of intelligence and stubborn streak, although mirrored perfectly in both his Daddy AND me, came from you, too.

I’ve been thinking about you a lot this week as my precious boy approaches his second birthday, especially since it’s quite possible that milestone has already passed. The orphanage assigned his birthday as the 26th, but only you know the exact minute that this little miracle came into the world. I know there is so much you want to know about your baby, and I would give everything to be able to tell you all about what a special boy he is. I know your heart is breaking right now on these days surrounding the memories you have of his birth and your decision to give him a chance at something different. My heart is breaking because he will never get a chance to know who he got his “lucky earlobes” from, or who the first person to cuddle and soothe him was.

If I could talk to you I would tell you that he always chooses the orange circle first when sorting shapes and he leaves the red heart for last, that he can’t make it through a meal without at least three kisses on the head, that he can’t get enough tomatoes or guacamole but doesn’t like spinach, that he’s learning to count on his fingers, that he loves his dog, he’s learning to sing, he’s ticklish behind his knees, that he’s already worn out one copy of “Goodnight Moon” because we read it every night, and his favorite place on earth is a toss-up between the beach and Mommy and Daddy’s great big bed. He is loved with not only your whole heart, but mine as well.

I would try to tell you, too, how incredibly grateful I am for the chance to be this amazing child’s mother, and how unbelievably humbled I am to have received the gifts of not only your son, but of this capacity for love that I never knew I had. There are no words for that kind of gratitude, though, and it sounds hollow to me even as I write it. My gratitude is a tangible, breathing thing; I can almost see it shining in waves every time I look at our son. I desperately want you to know that he is safe and healthy and happy. It is not the life you hoped for or imagined for him (of that I’m certain), but my promise to you is that I am doing the very best I can to give him the best opportunities for happiness and success. I promise, too, to honor your memory every chance I get. One day in the not-too-distant future he’ll ask about you, and while I won’t be able to tell him anything of significance, I *do* know that there’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about him.

You and I will always be connected: the mother that carried him and gave him life and loves him from so far away, and the mother that has been blessed with the unimaginable gift of being called “Mommy” and being here to kiss the boo-boos and chase away the bad dreams. You are my sister, and although I will never meet you, I have more love for you than you will ever know. On Saturday when we light the candles on his cake, we’ll light one for you, too, sending up a prayer as we blow it out and send the smoke sailing across the seas to you. I hope with everything in me that you hear it when the wind whispers past bringing my good wishes and a gratitude so huge that I feel like I could collapse under the weight of the joy it brings. I hope that the wind carries away some of your grief and leaves you with a bit of peace.

Adventures in Adoption, or, I Like the Roller Coaster

The waiting room in the Civil Affairs office in Changsha is long and rectangular, and the walls are lined with bamboo couches. A few tables are scattered throughout, but mostly it’s pretty open. We were joined soon enough by two other families, one of which already had their baby. Ashley stepped out to check if the Chenzhou babies had arrived yet (they hadn’t). You know the feeling you get when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re heading to the top of that first gigantic hill? Yeah, that’s about how I was feeling. I now have a deep appreciation for the expression “jumping out of my skin”, because that’s *exactly* what I felt like.

We sat in that room for what felt like FOREVER. Every time somebody came close to the door we jumped up. FINALLY we saw a woman enter…with a little baby girl. SO not our kiddo. Right behind her, though, was a diminutive woman in a bright pink sweater, and she was holding the hand of a tiny toddler in a pale blue coat. His hair was too long, and his cheeks were flaming, and, after five years of waiting, *this* was our child. I looked at Kevin, who hadn’t quite recognized him (we were both still floating in a weird state of non-reality), and I said “There he is.” All of a sudden we had no idea what to do. We stood up and walked (flew) the ten or so steps over to little Chen Jian Hua. I knelt down and told him hello in Mandarin. Kevin was armed and ready with the video camera. I reached out to touch my baby, and he shrank back from me into the familiar safety of his nanny’s arms. She whispered to him, telling him who we were, but he wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. I tried to engage him for a couple more minutes, and finally I couldn’t stand it anymore; I reached out and hugged him to me. I told him over and over that I loved him (in Chinese, of course), and he cried his eyes out. Kevin tried to distract him with the toy truck, and that actually worked for about five seconds. During all of this, the nanny was showing us what she had brought for him: a few toys, his vaccination records, a chop (a personalized stamp), and the clothes in which he was found. I was trying my best to answer the questions Ashley was asking as we were trying to clarify names and addresses for paperwork, all the while wrestling a terrified toddler. After a few minutes of holding him and rocking him, I handed him over to Kevin.

As long as I live I will never forget the look on my husband’s face as he held his son for the first time. Tears were streaming down both of our faces, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen Kevin so incredibly happy. He somehow managed to calm the baby down, and we were able to sit for a couple of minutes and wrap up the rest of the paperwork that needed to be done that day. We had prepared a list of questions to ask his nanny, and I have to give Kevin some major props for remembering to refer to the list. It was all pretty basic stuff: Nap times, questions about poop (little did we know just how much our lives would come to revolve around poop), likes and dislikes. 45 minutes after setting foot into the waiting room, we were on our way back down to the car. Instant family. Just like that.

Ashley had a stop to make on the way back to the hotel, so the three of us were able to spend some quiet time in the car playing “Getting To Know You”. Little Man had a fever (he had a raging upper respiratory infection), but he was surprisingly calm by this point. He was looking out the window with naked curiosity, and he was very interested in both Kevin and the toy truck. Ashley was back soon, and he told us he was taking us back to the hotel for a couple of minutes and then to lunch.

Once back in the hotel, we quickly changed the baby’s clothes. It was HOT outside (side note: In China, they run the air conditioning according to season, not thermostat, so even though it was 80 degrees, we had no A/C in the hotel. Yikes.), and he was wrapped up like the kid in “A Christmas Story”. Trying to be mindful of the fact that the Chinese think it’s unhealthy to have babies dressed in anything other than 95 layers of clothes, we kept him in a long-sleeved onsie. We layered on a t-shirt and some long shorts (on him, they looked like pants), and we headed back down to the lobby. Sure enough, Ashley warned us that we had not dressed the kiddo warmly enough. As IF. We also knew it wouldn’t be the last time somebody told us that, so we weren’t too concerned.

We walked the 1/2 block to the restaurant, and Ashley ordered for us, keeping the baby’s G6PD in mind. He told us that he had ordered traditional Hunan dishes, including pork with green peppers, steamed egg and congee for the baby, and a beef and mushrooms dish. I am not a fan of the green pepper, but I wasn’t really paying much attention; I was more concerned with feeding the hungry little bird who was seated to my left; we had been worried that he wouldn’t want to eat, as is sometimes the case when babies are first placed. It turns out that the pork was AWESOME; so good that I’m making it tonight for Lunar New Year! It also turned out that I shouldn’t have worried about his appetite. He hoovered down everything we fed him.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel, and we spent the remainder of the afternoon basically sitting around staring at this little boy who was now ours. We settled him in for an afternoon nap, and he was out in seconds. I’m sure he was exhausted from the morning. There are no words to adequately describe just how odd it is to go from two people “approved and waiting” to being parents in a matter of seconds. We were literally handed a child who was now ours. We didn’t know him; aside from the snippets of information we got from his caregiver, we had NO IDEA who this little creature was. I didn’t know what scared him, what made him giggle, where he was ticklish, IF he was ticklish….NOTHING. I have never been so intimidated in my entire life. Our kiddo was a whole little person who had already formed his own identity without any help from us.

I’d had 5 years to prepare myself to be a mom. I’d read countless books, not just on parenting, but parenting an adopted toddler. I could tell you all about attachment theory and sensory processing disorders, but it all flew out the window once I held 24 pounds of squirming boy. I found out just how woefully unprepared I was for this moment; then again, nobody could EVER be prepared for something like this. I have never been, nor will I ever be, more profoundly grateful than I was that day. I was grateful, yes, for my precious boy, and for the opportunity to be his mom and make him happy, but I was even more grateful to have made this journey with my husband. Kevin held my hand during the endless wait; he propped me up when I sagged under the weight of it. He listened while I worried endlessly about who our child would be and whether he or she would be the right fit for our family.

That afternoon, as we sat in the stuffy hotel room watching our sleeping son, I knew that there was no better father on Earth than my husband, and I knew that we’d figure out this whole parenting thing together; soon enough we’d be obsessing about poop like old pros (also? You totally know you’ve gotten the hang of the “parent” thing when poop doesn’t gross you out anymore). The best moment of that day, though? Holding my baby, I looked at Kevin with tears in my eyes, and I told him that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the fact that I wasn’t just babysitting someone else’s child. I didn’t have to give him back. It was the most exhilarating and terrifying feeling ever.

Adventures In Adoption, or, The Changsha Cha-Cha

We had a pretty early wake-up call on Sunday morning. In order to fight our way out of Beijing traffic to the airport, we had to leave the hotel at 6:15. Jerry once again met us in the lobby and made sure we got checked out OK. Mr. Crankypants met us with his usual scowl, and we jumped into the car and headed to the airport in the just-breaking dawn. Now, I’m not a morning person (I know, shocking, right?). so it took me about 20 minutes or so to tune in to the conversation that Jerry was having with Kevin (also? I’m so glad the ride to the airport took almost an hour so I got to hear all the good stuff).

Jerry began telling us about the Chinese saying “You are thousands of miles apart but you come together because you have yuan between you. You face each other but you don’t know each other because you don’t have YUAN between you.” We knew a bit about this; after all, we had been sporting our red thread bracelets for quite a while (the Chinese adoption community is big on the “Red Thread” proverb, which is basically what Jerry was telling us about). What we didn’t know, however, is just how deeply the concept of “yuan” is embedded in Chinese culture. If you have yuan, you become a family, friends, classmates, colleagues, and neighbors. Some Chinese like to say that a relationship has to be cultivated for at least 500 years before it blossoms. This saying shows their appreciation for the relationship because it is not easy to wait for 500 years.

What Jerry told us is that we are connected to him through our yuan. He believes we were destined to meet, and because of that, we’re connected for life. When I said before that we consider him part of our family, I absolutely meant it, and we have become his family, too. I will never cease to be amazed at how quickly complete strangers can come together and form lifelong relationships. I absolutely buy into the concept of yuan.

By this time, we were pulling into the airport. We got out, Mr. Crankypants unloaded our luggage (and what’s that??? A SMILE??? AND a HANDSHAKE??? Hmmm. Maybe not so cranky after all….), and Jerry escorted us into the insanely busy Beijing airport. After some impressive haggling with the airline agent to reduce our baggage fee (we were over the allowed weight since we were traveling with three bags, and there were only two of us), we headed to Customs (in China you get it coming and going). We said goodbye to Jerry, and we promised to call him when we got back to town in a couple of weeks; sadly, he wouldn’t be our guide on our return trip as he was already booked with another group. We promised to meet up with him when we could, though. I was surprisingly sad to say goodbye to him, and I’m sure it had to do with the fact that we were now on our own. I’ve been to plenty of foreign places, but nothing even comes close to being a westerner in China. I absolutely love the country and its people, but it’s a bit overwhelming in the beginning. Plus, it was very sad to say goodbye to our friend, even for a little while.

We made our way to the HUGE security line (have I mentioned that there are 19 million people in Beijing???) and eventually we were called up to the officer. After thoroughly examining our documents, we were waved on to the metal detectors and pat-down people. Let me tell you this, too: I never minded AT ALL being frisked at airport security while in China. They were efficient and respectful, and if the TSA could manage to pull that off we’d be way better for it. And that’s all I have to say about that. Once through, we found our way to our gate. It quickly became apparent that we would have to be bussed to the aircraft. If you’ve ever flown out of Miami to the Bahamas or the Caribbean, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about, except it’s WAY more confusing. They don’t call you by group number or anything else, and because it’s the culture, there’s a whole lot of pushing and shoving, both to board the bus AND to board the plane. Once we were finally aboard, we realized we were definitely the only gringos. The other thing we noticed was that China Southern airlines is NICE. Really, really, really nice. We settled in, and in no time we were backing up and hitting the taxi way.

They don’t so much enforce the whole “stay seated with your seatbelt securely fastened” rule aboard China Southern, as there were people milling around the aisles up until about 10 seconds before takeoff, and again as soon as we were airborne. It was really fun to watch the little old men who had obviously never flown before as the peeked out the windows, and as we flew over the Yangtze River (which makes the Mississippi River look like a puddle, incidentally), almost the entire plane got up and crossed over the aisle to see out the other side. People were piled on top of each other just so they could catch a glimpse of the HUGE river below. Thankfully, it was time for meal service, so everybody settled back down. Oh, and you heard right: MEAL SERVICE. On a two hour flight. In coach. Also? It was really tasty. Take that, American Airlines. There was one other thing that was a bit different about our flight: About 20 minutes before landing, a the video screens dropped and a calisthenics program began. All of a sudden the entire plane full of people started doing chair aerobics. The subtitles were *awesome*, too. Apparently, one’s chi can become unbalanced during air travel, and the lovely ladies of China Southern were there to help restore it. I was torn between REALLY wanting to shoot video and stretching along with everybody. I chose stretching, and you know what? I felt spectacular afterward. They’re definitely on to something.

We landed in Changsha not long after lunch was served, and it was time for my very first experience with the squatty potty. While Kevin waited for our luggage, I scouted out the bathrooms. I really don’t know what I was so nervous about, with the possible exception of the small chance I would lose my balance, because it was absolutely no big deal. I will say that I’m glad I was prepared for it, but it was a piece of cake. By the time I was done, Kevin had our bags and we made our way toward the exit (you have to have your bag claim tickets verified by an agent before you can leave the airport with any claimed luggage). Waiting just on the other side was Ashley, who would be our guide for this leg of our journey.

The first thing we noticed is that Ashley looks almost *exactly* like someone we know (and no, I’m not going to say who). He didn’t have a sign with our names on it, but we KNEW he was our guide, and we gravitated straight to him. Sure enough, we were right. He got us out to a van, loaded our bags, and we started the drive into Changsha. On the way, Kevin was checking his iPad for our hotel confirmation, and Ashley was immediately smitten. He asked if he could play with it, and of course Kevin let him. Kevin was also cracking (lame) jokes the whole time, and he really tickled Ashley when he said that the national bird of China must be the crane (we were passing through a particularly developing part of the city, and the skyline was filled with construction cranes). It took Ashely a full minute, but he finally got the joke and let out a huge laugh. He told us that the American sense of humor is wonderful, and that he tries so hard to joke like that, too. By the time we got to the hotel, we knew we had stuck gold with our guide yet again; sure enough, by the end of our time in Changsha, Ashely would become part of our family, just as Jerry had.

We pulled up to the Dolton, Ashley got us all squared away with the front desk, and he went with us to our room to make sure we had everything we needed. He stuck around long enough to explain what we could expect the next day; there was a lot to go over so we would know what to expect when we got to the Civil Affairs office. He told us what paperwork we needed to bring (mostly just our passports and one or two other forms), and how the morning would go. Then he said he’d see us the next morning around 10:00 and he left. Oh, great. Now we had the whole afternoon to get ourselves all worked up.

We set out to explore the hotel and decide on which of its restaurants we were going to try for dinner, and I had my first experience with the Chinese escalator. The Dolton is a pretty big hotel, and there are quite a few shops and restaurants spread out over a couple of floors. We hopped on the deceptively slow-moving escalator to head up, and as soon as we did, that thing took *off*. It was CRAZY fast. As soon as we stepped off, it slowed back down. It turns out that this is an energy-saving measure, and it’s pretty frickin’ cool. I felt like a little kid; I just wanted to ride that escalator all day. We had to decide on dinner, though, so we started checking out the menus of the various restaurants.

Nothing on the Chinese menu seemed very appealing to me that night, so we headed back downstairs to the western-style dinner buffet. After cruising through the room and seeing the various options, I chose to order off the menu. I wasn’t quite in the mood for anything as exotic as I was seeing (this turned out to be a mistake. Just like ordering Chinese food in America is not the real deal, neither is ordering western-style food in China. I learned my lesson once and for all in Changsha). As soon as we ordered, though, I began to feel absolutely awful. Our drinks hadn’t even made it to the table, but I didn’t think there was anyway I could wait around for them. Kevin, being the amazing man that he is, sent me back up to the room and promised to sort everything out.

He made it up to the room about 10 minutes after I did, and he had a waiter in tow. Kevin had somehow figured out how to communicate the fact that we wanted our dinner wrapped up and taken to our room, and Jason (his Americanized name, obviously) had complied. Kevin gave him a hefty tip, which is frowned upon in China, but he had gone so far out of his way to help us that Kev felt compelled. Jason thanked us in broken English, shook his hand, told me to feel better, and then I tried to eat dinner. Before anybody jumps to the (incorrect) assumption that food or water was the root of my illness, let me just say that I think that stress and exhaustion had finally caught up with me. After I ate a few bites of food, I took a Benadryl and fell into drug-induced slumber, which was exactly what I needed.

We woke up super early the next morning and hit up the breakfast buffet. Then we wore holes in the hotel room floor with our pacing. We checked and rechecked the baby essentials we had packed in my backpack. We double and triple checked our paperwork and our passports. We made sure Kevin had a toy truck tucked in his pocket. FINALLY it was time to meet Ashley downstairs in the lobby. I was super happy to see that Dean the Doorman was manning the front doors of the hotel; he’s sort of a legend for parents who’ve adopted from Hunan province. He has a ridiculously huge smile, he’s very tall, and his mannerisms are beyond exaggerated. He also has a special affinity for babies and the couples who adopt them. You can’t help but smile when you see Dean. I took this as a good sign of how the day would go.

The next time I post, it will be the story of the moment we became a family (my best friend’s son calls their family of three a Three Family, and that’s how I think of us, now too). Up until now, I haven’t talked a whole lot about what we were actually feeling, and truth be told, from the minute we touched down in Beijing until the moment we got in the car that day, we hadn’t had a whole lot of time to feel anything; we’d been too busy or too tired. Now, though, it all came crashing over me in a huge wave. If you’ve seen the documentary “Wo Ai Ni, Mommy”, then you probably remember the moment when Donna Sadowsky was about to leave her hotel room. She took a huge breath and teared up. That’s exactly how I felt, and exactly what I did.

The morning had seemed surreal, and I remember trying to take in every single moment of the drive over to Civil Affairs. I remember being fascinated by the fruit stands and the dumpling vendors, and then….nothing. Everything was kind of a gray blur for the next ten minutes. The only thing I can recall is that I had to pee. BAD. For someone who prides herself on an ironclad memory, I honestly cannot tell you what thoughts were swirling around in my head. We made it to the Civil Affairs building, and Ashley let us out while he found a parking place. Kevin and I just stood there completely paralyzed. I had seen pictures and video of this building, and I knew exactly where we were going, so by the time Ashley came back, I was chomping at the bit to hit the button for the third floor on the elevator. Then the doors opened, we stepped out, and there was….nobody. Seriously. Nobody was there. The place was empty. And I still had to pee.

Adventures in Adoption, or Wu Tang, Hutong….Same Difference

In a continuing effort to exhaust us and keep our minds off of the fact that we were now a mere 48 hours away from meeting our son, Jerry had orchestrated yet another action-packed day touring Beijing. We got an early start that crisp Saturday morning, and we piled into our car and headed out of town. At this point, I feel I should digress just a bit and (attempt to) describe just exactly what it’s like to be in a car in Beijing.

First of all, when we were introduced to our driver the night we arrived, it was explained that he has the most difficult job in all of Beijing. This became apparent to us as we made our way to the Great Wall, which is located about 90 kilometers outside of Beijing. Our driver was, at best, surly. In truth, he was the crankiest man we’ve ever met. He was VERY vocal toward other drivers, and he punctuated his outbursts with blasts of his horn and shakes of his fist. We weren’t scared of him, necessarily, but let’s just say that he wasn’t the kind of guy we were including on our Christmas card list (and believe it or not, this all becomes relevant, albeit much later in our story). My point is, he had every right to be cranky. I think I would be, too, if I had to negotiate what is *supposed* to be a 3 lane highway….with EIGHT cars crammed across. The only time I EVER let a curse word leave my lips was on the return trip from the Wall, and yes, I yelled the F word. I was certain we were going to die. Thankfully, Mr. Crankypants had everything under control, but still. 19 million people call Beijing home, and most of them have cars. None of them, however, have any respect for A) other cars, B) lanes, C) speed limits, or D) pedestrians (the only thing scarier than being in a CAR in Beijing is being a PEDESTRIAN). Truth be told, though, in hindsight we were perfectly safe. The American view of traffic control is different, certainly, but we never saw a single car accident the whole time we were in China. I think that the manner in which the Chinese are accustomed to driving forces extra vigilance; plus they are required to go through pretty extensive driver’s training classes before acquiring a license. It makes our version of driver’s ed look ridiculous.

Okay, back to the sightseeing. We arrived at the Juyongguan Pass at the Great Wall, which is about an hour outside of the city. It was a cool morning, but it was PACKED. It was also a veritable United Nations. I heard at least nine different languages as we made our way towards the wall (also, someone asked me if the Great Wall was really all that great. The answer is yes. It’s pretty spectacular). Also? It’s steep. Really, really steep. The steps themselves are steep. Kevin ran up that thing like a champ; me, not so much. I was nursing a broken toe, but I did manage to climb a little way up before I threw in the towel.

Once Kevin rejoined Jerry and me, we sat for a bit, picked up our souvenir photo book (think “Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!), and headed back into the city. As luck (or clever design on the part of our efficient tour guide, take your pick) would have it, we were going to pass right by the oldest jade market in China. As we had been at the pearl market, we were met with a guide who taught us everything we ever wanted to know about jade. We even got to see some of the carvers at work.

Let me say this: The Chinese know *exactly* what they’re doing when it comes to escorting foreigners. It was lunchtime, but that was no problem for Jerry; there was a restaurant right there in the jade market. Soon enough, we were seated and brought a mountain of “western-style” Chinese food (side note: Western-style” Chinese food is not good. It’s not good at ALL. I’m not entirely sure what I ate, but I learned my lesson to stick with Chinese-style Chinese food). After we had eaten our fill, we had plenty of energy to shop. The market is huuuuuuge and labyrinthine, which I suppose is the point, because before we knew it, we had bought enough jade to fill an extra suitcase. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since we managed to get the one thing we didn’t want to leave without: A pendant with the Ox symbol for Jack. These are traditional gifts for baby boys, and Jerry was invaluable in helping us pick out one of the highest quality. Kevin did an AWESOME job haggling down our final bill, too. The salespeople (both at the pearl market and the jade market) knew exactly how to part these fools with their money. They also honestly believed we wouldn’t blink at a the price of their wares, either, which we totally did. It was difficult to convince them that we thought their jade was beautiful and very high quality, but we just didn’t have that kind of money to spend. In the end, though, everybody was happy, and we were even still a bit ahead of schedule!

Our next “official” stop was a tour of a hutong (a very old, very traditional Beijing neighborhood that Kevin insisted on calling a Wu Tang, after, you know, the Wu Tang Clan), but since we had a bit of time, Jerry treated us to something beyond cool: He took us to Olympic Park. On the way there he gave us a bit of background (he was SUCH a great source of information, and we learned an incredible amount of history from him, and I’ll be forever grateful). Beijing is built on an axis; the placement of every important building is critical. Even the shapes of the buildings have significance. China was subjected to a whole lot of criticism for displacing families when building Olympic Park, but until you *really* understand Chinese culture, you can’t judge. I’m not condoning human rights violations, but there’s definitely a lot more to the story. Once again, however, I digress.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I wanted to see the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube up close and personal. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Beijing has the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and some other cool historical stuff, but I was so in love with Beijing’s Olympic Park from the moment I watched the opening ceremonies in ’08 that I couldn’t wait to be there in person. Mr. Crankypants pulled over, double-parked, and out we set. We climbed a set of stairs, and at the top we found ourselves dead in the middle of…..a movie shoot. Jerry led us right through the whole set-up of cameras, cables, and actors. I’m not sure if he exchanged words with the director or not, but he led us over to a perfect vantage point for taking pictures. I know it sounds strange, but that moment of staring at those two buildings was one of the highlights of my trip to China. Oh, and by the way, the round shape of the Bird’s Nest symbolizes Heaven (just like the Temple of Heaven), and the Water Cube’s shape represents Earth.

We trekked back through the movie set and piled into the car, and now we were finally headed to the hutong tour. We had completely fallen behind schedule, though, not because we dawdled in Olympic Park, but because of the horrific traffic. We got there soon enough, though, and Jerry handed us off to Tom, who would be our guide through the hutong (yes, I’m perfectly aware that our guides that day were Tom and Jerry. They got a kick out of it, too, since the cartoon is hugely popular in China). We climbed into a rickshaw, and Tom hopped on his bike to follow us. The very first thing I noticed was how QUIET it was. Here we were, smack in the middle of a city of 19 million people, and it was almost dead silent. The streets are almost too narrow for cars, so bicycles reign supreme. Our rickshaw driver took us up and down nearly every street, with Tom giving us little bits of history every now and again. Eventually we stopped in front of a brilliantly red-lacquered door, and we hopped out to get a little history of hutong (or Wu Tang, if you’re Kevin) residences. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with too many of the details, because, hey, Wikipedia and Google, yo, but
I will say that these neighborhoods are hundreds of years old, and they’re passed down through the family. You can tell how successful a family is by the number of “posts” above the door (the more posts, the more wealth and prominence. The emperor, obviously, had the most at 9). Here’s a picture of the door we stopped in front of:

After a brief history lesson we were once again underway on the rickshaw. Pretty soon we got stuck in a crazy traffic jam. A rather large van-load of VERY drunk tourists had gotten stuck on the tiny street, and there was a HUGE bottleneck of rickshaws and bicycles as the van tried to make an extremely ill-advised three-point turn. It was so amusing that I actually shot video; the pissed-off shouts of several angry Chinese men totally made my day. It took about five minutes to get everything straightened out, but it was so much fun to watch. We got going again, though, and a couple of turns down some even narrower lanes led to our next stop. Our driver pulled over and Tom told us to hop out.

We were SHOCKED. He was inviting us into the hutong home of a family who had lived there for so many generations that the addition of indoor plumbing was recent. We entered into the courtyard and through the front door (it was a two-post dwelling just in case you’re curious), where we were met by Mrs. Dong. She is a diminutive woman, but we immediately got the feeling that we didn’t want to cross her, especially when we got settled and saw the 8 million swords on the wall. She offered us jasmine tea, and with Tom acting as translator, answered every question we had about day-to-day life in China. She explained that her house had belonged to her family for over 200 years, and not only had they added said plumbing, but the second floor now had heat. The first floor? Yeah, not yet. Her sons are kung fu champions; one of them actually coaches the US team in Houston. Kevin was invited to engage in a little training exercise (yes, with a real-life sword), which was hilarious. Mrs. Dong then showed me the kitchen, because, hey, I’m totally into that. It was, and I say this with absolutely no exaggeration whatsoever, TINY. It was the size of my coat closet in my front hall. There was a wood-burning stove, a tiny sink, and…yeah. That was pretty much it. Having said that, though, there were some pretty incredible smells coming out of there, so I’d say that lack of space wasn’t much of an issue for them. We were so humbled and honored to be invited into the Dong family home, and it was an experience we won’t forget. We hopped back in the rickshaw and we drove toward the Drum Tower, where we met back up with Jerry. We said goodbye to Tom and our driver, and headed off to the evening’s next adventure: The Acrobatic Show.

All that needs to be said about the show was that it’s a miracle nobody was seriously injured or worse. These were definitely not the Chinese acrobats you see touring the world. Don’t get me wrong, some of the acts were perfectly fine, and they were all amusing, but that’s about the best that can be said. The audience started out with polite gasps and cheers, but yawns soon took over. Boredom reigned for a while….until, that is, the Great Motorcycle Sphere of Death came to the stage. I’m sure you’ve seen a similar act: The huge metal sphere is rolled out, and a couple of guys on motorbikes go roaring around inside of it. This was not that. This was not that AT ALL.

First of all, we were in a very small theater, and we were all close to death ourselves from the carbon monoxide coming from the bikes. We fought for consciousness, though, when we saw the third bike enter the Great Sphere of Death. When the fourth one came, we thought we were hallucinating. When the FIFTH one entered we were pretty sure we had already died and gone to stunt heaven. Dude. I’ve NEVER seen anything quite like the sight of those five motorcycles and their certifiably insane riders. It made the rest of the show totally worth it, especially since, based on the caliber of the previous acts, we were so SURE somebody was going to die. One of these days I’ll get around to posting the video; it’s five minutes of your life you’ll gladly spend.

Once we stepped outside into the fresh air (and that right there should be an indication of just how bad it was inside the theater; nobody would ever refer to Beijing’s air as “fresh”), we headed across the street to dinner. Jerry had asked us earlier in the day if there was anything special we wanted to eat, and I jumped at the chance to have Peking duck. Hello??? We were in PEKING. You bet your ass I was gonna have some duck. Jerry, being the awesome guy that he is, took us to a tiny local hole in the wall, and as he had done every meal since our arrival, proceeded to order for us. Soon the table was filled with huge platters of beef, noodles, broccoli….ZOMG. We STUFFED ourselves. Kevin went to town on that beef, and I have never in my life attacked broccoli like that. To say that it was delicious is a huge understatement. I couldn’t resist; I HAD to take the following goofy picture:

And then there it was….My beautiful caramel-colored duck. Normally, the guy just slices it up back in the kitchen, but Jerry had arranged for him to come and slice it up where I could watch. It was like watching Van Gogh paint. He had that bird broken down in record time, and it was a good thing, too, because I was about to wrestle the carcass away from him. It was served with all of the usual accoutrements, but I gave up on those after the first two little duck burritos. This duck was so succulent, the skin was so crisp, and it was just so GOOD that I didn’t want to spoil it with anything else. I am unashamed to say that I ate every bit of that duck. Every. Last. Bite. It was one of the tastiest things I have ever put into my mouth, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will spend the rest of my life trying to duplicate the experience. Crap. Now I’m hungry.

After dinner, Jerry took us back to our hotel and told us what we could expect the next day at the airport. It seemed impossible to believe that our first visit to Beijing was already almost over (we were definitely looking forward to our return trip a couple weeks later). We couldn’t have asked for a better guide, or a better overall experience. We stuck to an itinerary that would have made Clark W. Griswold weep with pride. We ate some truly spectacular meals, and, most importantly, we were shown amazing hospitality that (we thought) would be impossible to duplicate. In case I forget to mention this later (Mommy brain has set in something fierce), Jerry is now someone we consider not just a friend, but part of our family. I’ll share the story about how fate binds people together in another post, but I think it’s worth noting now that we have continued to stay in touch with him. In every way that counts, Jerry set the tone for our whole trip to China, although he didn’t know it at the time. Without him, we could have found our way around, but we would never have had so much fun or such a rich experience.

We crashed HARD that night. The next day would take us to Changsha, Hunan. We were counting the hours until we met our son.

Misty Watercolor Memories

Yesterday marked three months since we first met our son. It seems impossible to me that only 90 days have passed; it honestly feels like he’s been with us forever, and yet he has grown and changed SO MUCH in that time. He’s no longer the too-thin baby with brittle hair and sallow skin. He doesn’t scream and thrash anymore when I reach for him while he clings desperately to his daddy. He finally has a concept of what it’s like to feel full at mealtime, and he doesn’t shovel every morsel of food into his mouth. He walks with confidence and he can roll over and pull himself up with ease, which was a significant challenge just three short months ago.

My boy loves his dog (so much so that it’s his favorite word, and he repeats it all day long) and his toys, he loves to run, and he can’t get enough time in front of a mirror–he cracks himself up making funny faces. He thinks Hide & Seek is the best game ever. His laughter could fill concert halls, and boy, is it ever contagious. His smile is the sweetest thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I LOVE it when I go into his room in the morning and he’s peeking over the crib at me with that huge grin plastered on his face.

I am more than a little bit amazed at how quickly we have assimilated to one another; granted, it took him nearly four weeks to warm up to me, but now? Now he’s Mommy’s boy for SURE. He loves his daddy, too, but now when he gets a boo-boo he comes to me for the kisses and cuddles. There are no words for the kind of love I have for him, nor any measurement for the depth of it. When he smiles, he owns me. When he cries, my heart aches.

J grieved pretty hard while we were in China. His adjustment was as smooth as could be expected (probably smoother, even), but he did have some heavy moments of raw, awful grief. I held and rocked him that first day in Changsha while both of our hearts just shattered and we cried our eyes out. Since that day, though, it’s been much better. So much better, in fact, that it’s been easy to forget that his days (or ours) were ever anything other than happy. Sure, we prepared ourselves for the grief, the attachment issues, the sensory processing issues…all the things associated with adopting an institutionalized child. The thing is, though, that it’s super easy to forget about all of those things when you have such a happy, bubbly, curious, loving, sweet baby. And then one day the darkness rears its ugly head.

I have absolutely no idea what happened, but something triggered a nasty memory for J. We had just started playing outside, and he was torn between his water table (which I’m fairly certain he would sleep in if we let him) and his playhouse (he’s WAY into climbing things these days). We also had a sensory ball outside, and I thought I’d get a giggle out of him by rolling it down his slide (silly things like that never fail to crack him up; heck, he thinks an exaggerated blink is the funniest thing in the world). I rolled it down once, and he stopped dead in his tracks. I did it a second time, and he ran over to me with huge tears in his eyes. I scooped him up, and he wouldn’t let me put him down for the next 30 minutes. He didn’t want his water table, his dog, his juice, NOTHING. He wasn’t angry or channeling the Terrible Two’s (although we’ve had previews of that almost daily); he was flat-out SAD. Really, really sad.

By this time, we were cuddled up in his bedroom, and I asked him if he had a sad thought. He shook his head “yes”, and I told him that it is okay to feel sad, and that Mommy and Daddy will be here for him when he feels like that. I told him he doesn’t have to be scared, and that he’s here with us for ever and ever. He calmed down after that, and we just sat there and rocked, with him curled up in my lap and his little hands curled around my neck.

Eventually, he was ready to get down and play some more, and the palpable sadness that had fallen over him like a shroud lifted. Anyone who knows my child will tell you just how happy he is. Sure, he gets mad, he gets frustrated, and sometimes he whines when he doesn’t get his way, but this is only the second time I’ve ever seen him genuinely sad, and it just about did me in. It happened so quickly that I felt like I had been punched square in the gut, and I was knocked way off the Awesome Mom pedestal on which I had put myself. I have read the books, sure, and I’ve taken the classes, but I sure wasn’t ready to start having these conversations with my son quite so soon.

J bounced back tonight. There were tons of snuggles and belly laughs, and a lot of playtime with Daddy and Mommy. I’m sure it will all be a distant memory for him tomorrow, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be ready next time Grief pays us a visit, but I don’t think I’ll ever hurt less when he hurts. Barbra Streisand was a little bit wrong when she sang “What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget”. I don’t think my boy has that luxury. And I’m glad I was blindsided by it today, because the lesson I will take away might be the most important thing I ever learn: I will NEVER dismiss my child’s emotions, nor will I underestimate his ability to understand them. His capacity for love is greater than I have ever known, and I couldn’t be more blessed that his is my child.

Living By Our Words

I wake up almost every morning with a song stuck in my head. Sometimes it’s something totally irritating (Ke$ha, I’m talking to you) and I want to render myself deaf from the inside out (on these mornings I’m convinced that Kevin somehow subliminally plants earworms in my subconscious while I snooze. He’s REALLY good at torturing me that way). Usually, though, whatever song it is tends to reflect my mood. Today’s song, which I also belted out in the shower, was “Fly Me To The Moon”. Any day that starts out with Sinatra is probably going to be a pretty decent day.

I hit the chorus as my conditioner sat on my head, and it dawned on me that I have never been as happy as I was right at that moment. Now, I’ve always thought I’m a pretty happy girl (let’s just say that I don’t wake up with a lot of Morrissey running through my head). I have an awesome life: I live in a spectacularly wonderful town by the ocean, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, I have a beagle who is neurotic (in a hilarious way), my husband has a terrific job with an excellent company, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to see parts of the world that most people only dream about…..Yeah, those things alone add up to a nice little package.

But here’s the deal: Those things are the little things. They’re the pretty and shiny things on the surface. The foundation of my happiness is SO much deeper. I have friends who have stood by my side for more than half my life. They know where the bodies are buried, but I know they won’t tell. I have an incredible family who love and support me no matter what my flaws. I have a husband who kisses me goodbye every. Single. Morning. before he leaves for work (which, come to think of it, could very well be when he plants those pesky earworms). They say that girls grow up to marry their fathers, and I’m so proud to say that I did just that. My Dad is smart, funny, and he taught me how to embrace life’s opportunities, and I couldn’t ask for a better gift than that. I have a mother who, by example, taught me the skills I needed to be a mother myself. Finally, (and by God, I do mean FINALLY!), I have a child whose smile stops my whole world.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year (and every year), but the biggest blessing I’ve EVER had is my baby boy. Watching him not only adapt but thrive is the single greatest joy I’ve ever known. He picks up our quirky personality traits and makes them his own without ever losing a single piece of who he is. He’s loving, inquisitive, and just about the smartest kid I’ve ever seen. He has amazing lung power when he cries, and he does a mean Hulk impression when he’s angry. He doesn’t care when I belt out songs frighteningly off-key, either, which is a huge plus. I will never grow tired of watching him discovering his world and who he is. Mostly, though, I have never known love like I do when he hugs me.

I love Thanksgiving because it’s the one day of the year where people vocalize their gratitude. I’m thankful every single day for the blessings in my life, and I don’t say that as much as I should; none of us do. John F. Kennedy once said that “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them”.

I woke up this morning with a song not just in my head, but in my heart. Most of my days start out just like that. There is nothing on earth big enough to contain the gratitude I have for that one simple fact (even when the song is by Ke$ha). Yes, the foundation of my happiness is planted deep and true, and I have all the motivation in the universe to live by my words.

Happy Thanksgiving to my friends and my family, and to the friends that ARE my family. Every single one of you makes me a better person, and I am so thankful that I have you in my life. Now go eat some turkey. 😉

Adventures In Adoption, Or The Griswolds Take Beijing

Ah, yes. It’s finally time to tell the story of the actual trip. Don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details of the interminable flight over. Just know that Jacksonville is a loooooong way from China. The trip over took just over 30 hours, and we were fortunate enough to have in-flight internet for the domestic portion (JAX-SeaTac). Sadly, there was no such diversion on the leg from Seattle to Beijing, which kind of sucked since we needed something to take our minds off the fact that we were just days away from meeting our son. We made do, though, and I was unreasonably excited that we flew over Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, especially since King Crab season was underway. I waved down to SIg and the boys, and soon enough, we touched down in Beijing!

First, let me say that the approach to the Beijing airport takes FOREVER. Also, the city is ginormous, and absolutely gorgeous at night. We breezed through immigration and customs (Dude. SO easy! Miami should take notes) and were met by our guide, Jerry. He got us straight out to our waiting chariot, which was driven by a surly man with a clear death wish. I’m convinced you HAVE to have a death wish to drive in Beijing. One of the perks about arriving at midnight, however, is that traffic is only *slightly* terrifying, and we made it safely to the hotel where Jerry made sure we had everything we needed. We quickly crashed and slept like logs.

The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, and met Jerry down in the lobby (the other perk of a late arrival into China is the absence of jet lag. Seriously. We were both totally fine). We headed out for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square. Jerry gave us LOTS of history before we even made it over there, and we saw a LOT of soldiers. Not police, but soldiers. They march EVERYWHERE near the Square. I also couldn’t help but notice just how precisely the branches of each willow tree were trimmed. They were all exactly the same length, which I’m sure was a huge pain, but man, it’s pretty! We were treated to a lengthy dissertation on the monuments in the largest public square in the world, and Jerry spent a few more minutes extolling the virtues of Chairman Mao, and then we crossed the street into the throng. Thankfully, it was a weekday, so it wasn’t too crazy. The line to get into the Chairman’s mausoleum was only about 3 hours long (yeah, we skipped that part). There isn’t too much to say about Tiananmen Square. It’s big. It’s, well, square. There are a couple of monuments. It’s flanked by government buildings and The Forbidden City. Mostly, though, it’s just square. Very, very square.

One thing of note did happen, though, just as we were making our way to the gate of the Forbidden City. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a police car “caught fire”, and by “caught fire”, I mean somebody tossed a molotov cocktail through the car window. Jerry was a little horrified by it, but it didn’t stop him (or us) from getting as close as we could so we could see what was happening. As we approached the gates, however, there was a whole battalion of soldiers there pushing us back, and you could hear the whir of about 1,000 strategically placed cameras recording the scene.

As quickly as it had started, the fire was put out (seriously. NYC could take lessons from just how quickly the whole “incident” was squashed. By the time we walked to the other side of the street via an underground passage, it was totally cleared up and traffic was moving normally. The whole thing was done in under five minutes), and there was a whole lot of the Chinese version of “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here”. We found ourselves at the most well-known entrance to the Forbidden City, directly under the MASSIVE portrait of Chairman Mao (the thing weighs in at 1.5 tons). This is probably the picture that everyone has in their heads of both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City itself. It is the Wumen Gate, also known as the Meridian Gate, so named because it is located on the central axis of Beijing. Also, note the complete and utter lack of people in the picture below. Holy evacuation, Batman!

I won’t go into too much detail (I could spend hours explaining the significance of the number of posts inserted above gates, or doors, and don ‘t even get me started on the significance of numbers) about the architecture (amazing), beauty (stunningly gorgeous), or the massive scale of the place (dude. It’s HUGE. There’s a reason why the refer to it as a city), but I will say that I’m so glad I got to experience it firsthand. Most of the jewels and treasures are now located in a museum in Taiwan, so there are mostly just empty halls, but the buildings themselves are spectacular and treasures in their own right. I will note that it was our first encounter with high thresholds; you REALLY have to make an effort to step over the 12 inch (or more) barriers in doorways. These are meant to keep ghosts from being able to enter rooms. Ghosts, it seems, can glide and even run, but they lack the ability to step over obstacles or jump. Good to know.

Also, I know there is one very important subject that I haven’t touched on yet. I know, I know, the question is burning. The answer is YES. I did, in fact, encounter my very first squatty potty. Luckily for us, Jerry steered us toward the Four Star-rated restrooms. I still had to bring my own paper, and I still had to squat, but it was clean, and I was VERY proud of myself for conquering that particular insecurity. It gave me all the confidence in the world, and by the time we boarded the plane for the US, I was the master of the squatty potty!

After the Forbidden City, we took a quick break for lunch and then headed to the Pearl Market. Kevin got to fish out his own oyster, and we got a crash course in pearls. We learned everything from the history to how to tell real pearls from fake ones. We (okay, I) did a little shopping, and then it was on to the Temple of Heaven. There’s definitely a reason that this is the symbol of Beijing; nothing I’ve ever seen comes close to the splendor of the grounds of the Temple. There are beautiful parks surrounding the central buildings, and we saw men doing water calligraphy, which I could have spent all day watching. It’s elegant and simple, and there’s a poetry in the motion.

One interesting tidbit about the temple (okay, two, and then I won’t bore you anymore): There are no nails used ANYWHERE in the construction of the Hall of Prayer For Good Harvests ( I LOVE the Chinese names for things; they’re so lyrical), and the central pillars were replaced after a fire in 1889 by massive trees shipped from Oregon. Really. Most importantly, though, I got to scratch another item off of my personal bucket list. We made an offering at the Temple of Heaven, and that was one of the highlights of my entire time in China.

We took a quick break for coffee (I ordered iced coffee and actually braved the ice against ALL advice. I was totally fine; in fact, I ordered drinks with ice for the remainder of the trip and never had a problem. I even–GASP–brushed my teeth with water straight from the tap. I know, I’m a rebel), and then we headed to the Kung Fu show. Kevin was super excited about it, but it turns out that I actually liked it more than he did. It wasn’t just a bunch of kung fu; it was an elaborate production that told the story of Chun Yi, a young warrior on the path to become a kung fu master. Read more about the show here. From there, we told Jerry that we were up for a traditional Beijing-style dinner, and he willingly obliged. He took us to a noodle house where we filled up on some pretty awesome homemade noodles. It was pretty cool to watch the cooks carrying HUGE trays of fresh noodles down to the woks. It was crowded and noisy, and *exactly* what China is all about. We loved it.

So there you have it: 1,250 words JUST about Day 1 in China. In typical Griswold–look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!– fashion (although my Mom would say that I was just being my normal Julie The Cruise Director self), we managed to see a little more than half of the good stuff in Beijing in a single day. We had one more full day to spend in the city, and we still had the Great Wall to check off the list. One more quick thing of note: I’m fairly certain that our days were purposely designed to wear us the hell out so we would be too tired to obsess over the fact that we were mere days away from meeting our precious boy. For that, I am eternally in Jerry’s debt.

Adventures In Adoption, Or The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

For those of you keeping score, Kevin and I started the adoption process almost five long years ago. In fact, it was about this time in 2005 that we decided to commit to the process (although we didn’t tell our friends and family until quite a few months later). The last time I checked, most women are typically pregnant for 9 months. That means that they have a mere handful of weeks to plan a nursery theme, obsess about names, buy baby clothes, read child-rearing books…..You know, all the usual stuff. I’ve had FIVE YEARS. We’ve changed nursery themes twice (granted, it was because surprise! we had a boy, but still), we’ve debated every single baby name in existence as well as a few that aren’t, we’ve bought enough clothes to make Suri Cruise look like a vagrant, and I’ve read just about every book ever published about children and adoption. Additionally, I’ve spent the last five years learning everything I possibly could about China (and I’m SO glad I did. That “squatty potty” research really paid off!). Mostly, though, over the last five years I’ve learned to squash any and all sense of hope or anticipation.

I spent the first year convinced my referral was just around the corner. I studied charts and timelines detailing average wait times. I did MATH, for crying out loud (like real math, too, not just simple addition. I DIVIDED stuff. By HAND. With no calculator). After the first year, though, and my extensive mathletics, I came to the ugly realization that we were in for a VERY long wait. Sometime during the beginning of the third year, I learned to let go of anticipation. I stopped stalking China adoption websites. I withdrew from the message boards. I screamed in my head EVERY SINGLE TIME somebody asked me if we were still planning to adopt or why it was taking so long. I buried my hope so deep that I convinced myself that it never really existed. And in doing so, I was able to go on living my life. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 11:1, which says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen”. My faith wasn’t gone, but it was getting *really* hard to find the substance of things hoped for.

And then we entered Year Four. It started regularly enough: Time at the beach, walks with The Beagle, the usual. One day at the end of March, everything started to change. I saw my son’s picture for the first time. We had 24 hours to lock his profile, and after a very late night discussing it (and his special need. Also? I cannot emphasize this enough: ALL INSTITUTIONALIZED CHILDREN HAVE SPECIAL NEEDS. There. I feel better now) we did just that. Really, we knew from the second we saw his sweet face that he was our son. As soon as we signed our Letter Of Intent, the funniest thing began to happen. My hope began to come back. It was a little like the Grinch looking down at Whoville, really. With every step we completed, my hope grew and grew until it was huge and tangible. It filled entire rooms. It shattered the numbness that had been my self-preservation. Mostly, though, I don’t think I needed the plane ticket to fly to China, since I’m pretty sure I could’ve sprouted wings by the day it was finally time to travel.

Soon enough I’ll bore everybody with the actual details of the trip; I mean, we really did see and experience some amazing things. All of it, though (even Chinese WalMart and the Great Wall) takes a backseat to October 18, 2010. People who haven’t experienced “Gotcha Day” (or as we’re calling it, “Family Day”) really have no concept of just how strange and wonderful it is. You wake up in the morning, and it’s just like any other day. You shower, have breakfast (and if you’re me, you remark at the oddity of having goose feet available on the “Western” breakfast buffet), read the news, and then a car comes to pick you up. You’re not headed to the mall or the airport, though, but rather to a nondescript building that sits off of a busy city street. You park, walk up 5 steps, and get in an elevator with a guy who is smoking like a chimney. Three floors later, you emerge into a hallway. On the white wall, in huge gold letters, are the Chinese characters and English words: “Hunan Adoption Registration and Service Center”. You take a quick right into a room outfitted with low-slung bamboo chairs, tables, and couches, and you wait. All this time, though, you feel like you’re moving in jello. Nothing seems remotely real, except for the super-urgent sensation of desperately having to pee. Okay, maybe that part’s just me.

You feel like you’re jumping out of your skin, but on the outside, you’re holding up remarkably well. Also? You feel every millisecond of the four and half years you’ve been waiting; in fact, every second that ticks by feels like ANOTHER four and half years. You sit calm and composed, though, as babies are brought into the room. You quickly scan faces, but none of them are yours. And you KNOW which one is yours, because you’ve been obsessing over his picture for the last six months; every dimple, every freckle, every eyelash. And then it happens.

J’s nanny came in with two babies, a little baby girl and my sweet boy. Kevin didn’t recognize him at first. I had to point him out. We got up and slowly walked over to him. He shrank back into his nanny, and she tried so hard to get him to come to us willingly. He was not a fan of us at ALL. After a few minutes, though, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I picked him up. He immediately began to wail (duh. Who WERE we, anyway???). She tried to explain that we were his new Mama and Baba, but he was having no part of it. I held him for a little while, then handed him to Kevin (we were both in tears, and I think Jack either thought we were nuts or wanted to petition for different parents at this point). Shortly after that we were able to ask his nanny some questions (you know, important things like naps and poop), and then we were on our own. Parents. Of a toddler. Just like that.

Somebody somewhere (including a couple of social workers) gave the go-ahead for us to be parents (although I’m fairly certain that if I had mentioned my deep and abiding–not to mention creepy and a little stalker-like–love of Don Henley then they would have reconsidered). It’s not like being pregnant. If you get pregnant, with or without medical assistance, you still don’t have to run the adoption gauntlet. You don’t have social workers asking about details of your marriage or family relationships or looking in your closets or cabinets. You don’t have to justify your desire or ability to parent a child to various US (and for us, foreign) government agencies. Don’t get me wrong; I actually think that ALL parents should be subjected to the rigors of the adoption process. I think it would *definitely* change some minds, and at the very least, people would get an education in child development and crisis management. In fact, forget watching “Teen Mom”; just have teenagers attempt to fill out the 18 million forms for the adoption process. That’ll work better than any condom would. Oh, okay. You can still watch “Teen Mom”, but you get my drift.

My point is that the weirdest and most wonderful experience in the wide world is having someone hand you a child who, until that exact moment, was a stranger to you. We were judged to be two people capable of lovingly parenting a child, and I’m not sure I believed that about myself until the minute I held my son. As soon as I picked him up, though, I knew two things with absolute certainty: This was my son, and I had this whole Mom thing locked.

Our journey was a long one, and I’m not just talking about the eternal flight to China. The process that morning though, from the time we got in the car until the time we loaded back into it with Jack, took less than an hour. It’s amazing how quickly four and a half years fell away. Four and half years of waiting, of self-doubt, of fading faith, of hope buried so deep I was honestly afraid it would never again see the light of day….Four and half years vanished in the blink of an eye, and I became a Mom.

One More Day

Tomorrow is our last day in China, and I can’t believe how quickly the time here has flown. It was wonderful to get back to Beijing last night; after two weeks of constant flux, we felt like we were coming back to something familiar. It’s crowded, hazy, noisy, and a bit intimidating, but I think we were surprised at just how much we like Beijing. We’re taking it easy today, and tomorrow we’re heading to the Beijing Zoo and to the Lama Temple. We’ll be through with the last of our sightseeing in a short 24 more hours, and then we can focus on getting all packed up to go home. I’m a little bit sad that Delta doesn’t take a page out of China Southern’s book and do a plane-wide video-led exercises that promote a harmonious meridian. It’s definitely interesting to see a whole plane full of people doing seated calisthenics right before the plane lands! Maybe Kevin and I will start that trend on the approach to Seattle…..

I would give anything to spend a few more days in Hunan; we were shown incredible hospitality, the food was amazing, and, most of all, it’s where our son’s story began. The five days we were in Changsha are so precious to me, and I’ll always remember every little detail (especially about Chinese WalMart. Dude. I LOVE some Chinese WalMart!!!!). I can’t wait until J is old enough to bring back, and until that day comes, I’ll love telling him the stories of his home province. Also, when we do visit again, Kevin and I will take him back to his home city of Chenzhou. I really wish we could have made that trip this time, but it’s nice to know we have something special to come back to.

Our time in Guangzhou was less fun; doctor’s appointments, shots, a new hotel room (with yet another EXTREMELY hard mattress), no real guide to speak of, and nothing really special to see. We were very fortunate to stay in a hotel located in a VERY Chinese neighborhood; no English speaking people around for miles! There was a maze of side streets lined with every shop imaginable: small grocers, butchers, dumpling shops, shoe shops, bicycle repair, even a whole district selling HazMat gear! No matter what the district, though, there were two constants: There were cigarette shops about every 50 feet, and tea stalls EVERYWHERE!


That was actually very fun, and I was so glad to be able to experience the “real” China. Forget the hutongs of Beijing, or the swanky high-rise apartments in Changsha; the neighborhood surrounding our hotel was definitely the highlight of our time in Guangzhou. Sure, we walked over to Shamian Island, we paid too much for souvenirs (although most of the things were still pretty inexpensive), and we even broke down and ordered Pizza Hut (because really? The food in Guangzhou is NOTHING compared to the food in Hunan!), but again, we were glad to see the city lights of Beijing last night.

We’re taking it easy today; Baby J was up WAY past his bedtime last night, and we’re making sure he gets plenty of naptime to compensate. The Little Man get super F-U-S-S-Y when he hasn’t had his beauty sleep! Soon, we’ll head out for some lunch, and maybe walk to the park around the corner. We’ll be back in the hotel room tonight, and we’ll start to think about packing up (believe me, packing the baby’s bag is a MAJOR undertaking).

Tomorrow will go by in a blur, and we’ll be up before the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. In 48 hours, we’ll be flying somewhere over Siberia, on our way back home. Too soon, our time in China will be a memory; we’ll slowly start to forget the smells and the sounds, and our boy will adjust to his new American life. He won’t remember how much he loves real, authentic (even spicy!) Hunan food, he won’t wake up in the night anymore scared of yet ANOTHER new room, he’ll forget how he first called his Daddy “BaBa”, and he’ll learn to speak with a perfect American accent. I can’t wait to be home and get settled into our permanent family routine (not to mention smooch The Beagle!) but a big part of me is very sad to be leaving this all behind. I know we’ll be back, and Kevin and I will do our very best to teach our child to value his heritage. When we first arrived, I was definitely in a bit of culture shock, but in spite of myself, I have fallen in love with China, and I can’t wait to share that with J as he grows up.

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