Eight years ago, I had the inexplicable honor of traveling with my brother to China as he and his wife, Avisia, adopted their first child, Henry.
Yesterday, Henry had his second surgery to correct a cleft lip and palette. As I watched him smirking and squirming on his recovery bed, and telling everyone “I’m fine!” I was reminded what a brave little dude he is.
I wrote this shortly after returning from China in 2008, for Henry, David, and Avisia.
A NOTE IN CHINESE
The note I hand the cabbie says, “Please take me to the airport, international gate” in Chinese. The guide from the adoption agency wrote it for me last night, when I told her I had to leave three days early because of work. It would be no big deal, I thought, when we planned this trip, when my big brother, David, bought my tickets, to skip out just a little early on the two-week adoption process. David would take care of Henry all by himself, just like a regular dad, and could do it fine without me. I’m just here to help; and I’ve helped. Now it’s time to go.
I should be ready to go, and I am. There is no Jimmy John’s in China, and no pancakes on any menu that I have seen. I have missed my husband, my daughter, my pillow-top bed, and HGTV.
But I have also held Henry, bathed him, bounced him on my legs, and made him laugh out loud. I have blown bubbles. I have nicknamed his morning diaper (Big Trouble in Little China) and I have used my favorite gray tank top to wipe up his drool. I have kissed the bottoms of his feet. I’ve never kissed the bottoms of anybody’s feet.
It will be hard for David, with nobody to hand Henry off to when he gets tired. It’s no picnic keeping a 20-month-old entertained in a small, un-child-proofed hotel room. It’s no picnic navigating the hotel breakfast buffet and grazing for two with only one arm free. For some reason, David has been stubborn in his resolve not to rent a stroller, so Henry perpetually clings to him like a baby koala. It would take a load off if he had something to put Henry and all the diaper gear in, I try to tell him in the two days before I am to leave. But he just shrugs me off, straps a shoulder harness on, tucks Henry’s legs around his waist, and off we go. Me holding the diaper bag, Henry bouncing along with his big almond eyes and his look of wonder.
The cabbie hands my note right back after barely glancing at it. The bellboy already told him, I suppose. And anyway, where else would an American woman be heading with all her luggage, here in this city that seems to be built solely for the purpose of adoption? Here in Guangzhou, you can buy pull-up diapers and The Communist Manifesto in the same gift shop, and all the menus include a section especially for Chinese toddlers. Rice porridge. Steamed egg.
I instinctively reach for a seat belt, then remember for the hundredth time that they don’t really do that here. They don’t shell their shrimp, they don’t mind if you smoke indoors, and they don’t wear seatbelts.
I turn toward the rear window and see that I’m moving away from them quickly. I expect to see David walking back inside, but the two are still in the car port as the bell boy shuffles away. Henry’s eyes are glossy and wide. Suddenly, the skin on my face weighs ten pounds; my jaw throbs. David remains still, holding Henry at his waist with one mammoth arm. He looks like someone just handed him a note in Chinese.
When we finally get to China, I feel as if I’d walked the entire way. My brother looks like I feel, and all I can smell is my own sweat, or perhaps it’s his sweat, or worse, that of someone else on the plane. We have traveled twenty hours, and it is mid-May. We disembark into ninety-degree heat, and I feel as though I’ve been dipped in honey.
My brother is in China because he is about to become a father. I am in China, rather than David’s wife, Avisia, because David is about to become a father twice. Just a few weeks after David and Avisia saw their first pictures of Jien Da (who they will name Henry), they found out Avisia was pregnant. Apparently, that happens a lot. A couple tries and tries to conceive, spends months and years taking hormone shots and buying ovulation kits, finally throws in the towel, fills out several reams of adoption paperwork, and Whamo! Buy one, get one. Another one of those examples of God and his rapier wit, I guess.
So, I was asked to be David’s travel companion and adoption assistant. The idea that I am on the opposite end of the world from my family, my chocolate lab, my brand new Simmons Beautyrest bed, my blender, my book collection … makes me nervous. All I have in the world is my brother, my laptop, and my feather pillow. And soon, Henry.
We arrive in Guangzhou about 10 p.m., China time. The hotel is a short walk from the airport, and I use the time it takes to fantasize about the shower I will take when we get there. The bath in the extremely posh room we stay in that night is equipped only with a short nozzle, forcing me to take a sit-down shower, and the water pressure is practically non-existent. David, who once spent a semester of college in France, says the odd plumbing configuration is the Chinese imitating the French style. Whatever. I would shower under my dog’s dripping jowls at this point.
The first hotel is posh, vast and mostly empty. The three-story entryway is like a black and white marble church minus the pews. On each level are several conversation areas, which contain majestic, ornate couches and chairs in purples, reds, and golds, but no people having conversation. And if there were, it would be a little comical, I think, envisioning a family of petite Chinese resting on these enormous, velvet perches. I give David my camera, and he snaps a shot of me in a chair with a back rest that reaches about two feet above my head. I am on another planet. A rich, beautiful other planet with tiny people and huge furniture.
Walls are covered in life-sized Chinese murals depicting country-side scenes and bold colors, and fish. Lots of fish. Blown glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Perhaps we have come during a slow season. We see hardly any other tourists on our way down the escalators to breakfast. Every step echoes in the grand lobby.
I snap a picture of one of the many fire extinguishers positioned throughout the hotel. Alongside the extinguisher is a stash of gas masks, brightly packaged and illustrated with models wearing the contraptions. Dressed for success, and chemical warfare. The red box reads: “119.”
Bellboys and girls stand by expectantly, waiting for the remotest chance to assist us in their best possible English. I begin to learn that the Chinese who see a lot of Americans often adopt European names so that we don’t have to be bothered with learning how to address them in their language.
At the breakfast buffet, our waiter, “Jeffrey” places napkins on our laps and dips his head politely. David informs me that the French Danish is the real thing. I load up on pineapple and baguettes. I could totally get used to China.
David and I make the flight from Guangzhou to Fuzhou, where we will find our guide, who will help us find our hotel, where we will stay for a week, getting to know Henry and waiting for paperwork to be processed. The next morning, David tells me, we will meet Henry for the first time.
On the plane, a stewardess with a smart navy dress suite and a green bow in her ponytail gives us a bottle of water and a package of “health biscuits,” which, near as I can tell, are shortbread cookies. Most of the packaged foods have both Chinese and English on the packaging, which is a great relief. What I’m enjoying even more than the bilingual courtesy are the actual English translations. The package of freeze-dried banana slices I bought at the hotel gift shop reads: “Delicious for you by finest chef!” and “You are the new man! Banana piece.”
The plane to Fuzhou is of course much smaller than the jumbo jet that brought us to China. The seats are much smaller, and David, with his size twelve feet and legs to match, is like a Clydesdale in a phone booth. He reaches for the overhead light and fan panel and unleashes what turns out to be an underwhelming stream of cool air that feathers the hair on his head just slightly. He lets out a long sigh.
Then, as if he’s talking to somebody who might know, my brother turns to me and says, “Sis, what the hell am I doing? Am I in over my head?”
This could actually be the reason I’m here. I’m not well traveled, having never even off the continent, and I don’t know a lick of Chinese (not even “thank you” or “bathroom” at this point). Given that I adopted my stepdaughter when she was already 11, I actually know almost nothing about how to care for a toddler. After only two days away from home, I’m already homesick. I’m basically useless, but for the fact that I can easily, and without even blinking, look my 37-year-old big brother in the eye in a foreign land on a plane bound for Fuzhou, and very calmly lie.
“You’re going to be fine. You’re exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you need to do. You’re ready for this.”
David’s face lifts, and he reminds me briefly of the little boy he once was, delight all over his face after hand-feeding a deer in the woods by my grandfather’s house.
No problemo. What I’d really like to tell him is that, in my estimation, life as he knows it is basically over in a way that he can’t even comprehend, and that sometimes, he’s going to wonder why he did it, and who can he possibly talk to about undoing it and getting his life back. What I’d really like to say is that when I heard that Avisia was pregnant, my first thought was, well, I guess it’s not too late to stop the adoption process, right? I mean, one life-changing, finance-draining, family-leave enacting thing at a time, right? Then they told us they were going through with the adoption, and I thought, Cripes. Typical over-achieving first-born. Next he’s going to tell me he’s going to continue his doctoral thesis work and keep playing in his Irish folk band on the weekends. (Flash forward: Yes. And yes.)
I don’t know if my brother is in over his head. When I legally adopted my husband’s daughter, she was already living with me, eating my oatmeal cream pies, talking my ear off, and ruining my sex life. When I signed the papers, it was just a new chapter in a book already half-written. It had started with weekends, then every other week, then “custody,” and along the way, people started referring to me as a “mom.” As she moves into her teen years, I’ve gone from in over my head to drowning. And she speaks English.
I want to tell David everything will be alright, and mean it. But that’s just … bullshit.
We arrive in Fuzhou and find our guide, Helen, and her assistant, Molly, who take us to a waiting minivan and driver. Helen is small, plain and sturdy. She wears her hair short and bobbed, and seems unaffected by the heat, despite her pilled blue sweater and gray tweed dress pants. Molly is small-boned and fashionable, with black-rimmed glasses. Helen has done this a million times; Molly holds the clipboard.
David and I make our way to the furthest rear seat of the minivan because it is the only one, far as I can tell, that will accommodate David’s long legs. Helen appears poised to object, perhaps for proprietary reasons we don’t know about, but then observes that David’s legs stretch all the way up the open space on the door side of the van and past the middle row. She takes a middle seat, turns to us, and in what seems to be very practiced English, begins telling us what is going to happen.
David asks Helen what her real name is. She tells us, then David repeats it, perfectly. She flashes an approving smile. Two minutes later, I couldn’t tell you what that name was for all the tea in China.
“First, of course,” Helen says, “we will go to hotel conference room and you will meet da baby.”
I glance at David to see if he’s caught that.
So, yes, then.
“Yes, you will meet da baby.”
“The baby’s there? Now?”
David turns to me for that ever-so-necessary lying thing I did on the plane. It’s short notice, but I straighten, look him right in the eye, and say, “OK. I’m sure it will be fine. It will be fine.”
“Uh, OK.” David says, but doesn’t sound quite so convinced this time.
Helen continues talking about the week to come, but little of it penetrates for us. We are stuck on da baby. Will he scream? Will he cry? Will he stand on the highest piece of furniture and demand representation? Will he like his auntie Caroline?
I don’t know why this is such a big deal. I guess we just thought we had another 12 hours to talk about how exciting it all was or to wax philosophical about Chinese culture versus American culture, or run around taking pictures of cool furniture.
We like to talk a lot in America about being “emotionally” ready for something. We need time to “process” our “feelings” and to meditate on the possibilities and weigh all the pros and cons over coffee and white chocolate raspberry scones.
As we near the city of Fuzhou, I start to catch short glimpses of the traffic situation in this city. If the traffic is any indicator, the people of China afford themselves little time for “processing” or emotional readiness. The closer we get to the city’s center, the larger the swarms of people, bikes, scooters, cars and minivans. There is no apparent system to what is occurring, just droves and droves of wheels all headed in their own directions, not really slowing for each other and not crashing, just bumping, screeching and honking.
Helen turns again and says, “As you can see. Wary, wary busy city here.”
I glance at my brother, who is sweating and gripping what we long-legged Americans like to call the “oh shit” handle on the ceiling of the minivan. I have run out of reassurances to give him and I can no longer lie. We are about to become responsible for a 20-month-old Chinese boy who has never seen a big white dude in his sweet little life, and who doesn’t speak English, and who will undoubtedly think we are kidnapping him.
That’s if we live through the commute.
After about an hour, our minivan lands us at the front doors of the Lakeside Hotel. Helen instructs us to hand our baggage over to the busboy right away, that we will meet Henry even before we check in.
The hotel is 24 stories high, and likely was considered quite grand 15 or 20 years ago. Helen moves us quickly past all the marble and all the Asian businessmen who have turned to look at us. Fuzhou, Helen explains, sees very few American tourists.
We are hurried up to a conference room on the third floor. As we approach, I can hear a toddler wailing angrily. When we reach the door, I can see that there are three other families meeting their new children in this same room. The screaming toddler is a little girl. Her new parents are speaking to her in French, and appear not at all upset by her reaction to them. As her new mother holds her, she reaches back to a middle-aged Chinese woman, bellows, “Mahhhhhhh!”
On the other end of the long conference table that spans the room, an American family with four other small children is having a picture taken with a giggling Chinese boy with mismatched clothing and a crew cut. They break from their pose and resume playing a game of catch that revolves around their new brother, stopping only to pet him or hug him, which makes him giggle and scream with glee.
David is speechless, glancing about the room for Henry, who he has only seen in fuzzy, emailed photos.
As if anyone could even begin to overhear us, he turns to me and whispers, “Could you go get a toy?”
A toy! Here we are, kidnapping an orphan child from a foreign country without so much as a Nerf ball to entice him to like us. I am grateful for the opportunity to escape this room of screams and laughter and words I don’t understand, now in both Chinese and French. I rush back out the double doors and head for the elevator.
In the hotel lobby, I root around in David’s enormous tote bag and find a packet with a soft Spiderman ball and a matching disc. This is some kind of game, I guess, but there is nothing on the packaging to tell me what it is. Never mind. I don’t know much, but I do know that when it comes to children at Henry’s age, this is as good a gift as any. I grab a camera, too. This will be another function of mine on this trip: to capture moments in China as they happen for the people who didn’t get to be there.
When I return, my brother is sitting at the conference table with a little boy on his lap. Already, the ladies from the orphanage have him working on signing a pile of paperwork half an inch thick. Henry’s tiny body is dwarfed by David’s huge shoulders and frame. His hand clutches a goldfish cracker; his lips are pursed. I put the toy on the table and grab my camera. Helen is talking and singing in Chinese and making clicking noises with her tongue at Henry, and although I know she is trying to keep him entertained, I wish she would stop with the noise-making. It just adds to the carnival atmosphere, the feeling of anxiety, discovery, pain, and joy all packed into the crowded room.
Henry makes a whining noise that we will later call his “creaky door” then throws his goldfish cracker to the floor.
David stops signing, picks it up, says casually, “That’s my boy.”
When all the paperwork is signed, we are at last given key cards for a room with double beds. A bellboy brings us a baby-blue metal crib for Henry to sleep in, which we place in between the beds. When the last of the brigade of Chinese ladies has finally left for the evening, when no familiar faces are clicking, singing, or jangling keys in front of his face, Henry finally begins to assess the situation for what it is, and at the moment, surrounded by nothing and no one that he recognizes, it is a big old shit sandwich. He begins to cry.
He cries and cries, and we take turns holding him, his 21-pound body tired and hot. We glance at each other with wan smiles. We were expecting this, but that doesn’t make it any less disarming. We don’t ask the question out loud, but we are both wondering, “How long will it last?”
David calls Avisia at some point, and she reassures him about Henry’s crying. Avisia has looked forward to this baby her whole life, has worked in day care centers for many years, and now works for the department of education. Sending me on this errand in place of her is a little like the Vikings putting Martha Stewart in to play for Brett Favre. As Avisia has predicted, it takes about an hour before Henry’s crying turns to soft whimpering, then at last silence. He is asleep.
Despite the heat, it is the way of the Chinese to keep their children well-covered. Careful not to wake him, we peel two layers of long-sleeved shirts, soaked with sweat, and one pair of long pants off of Henry, then lay him down in a clean diaper and t-shirt.
It is then that I finally get to take him in. I stare at his black spiky hair, his sweet mottled nose, and his lips, which give just the slightest hint of the gaping hole that goes from the roof of his mouth to his nasal passage. Henry’s cleft lip and palette are why his parents left a newborn boy (normally a valued commodity to a Chinese family) at the door of an orphanage when he was only three days old, with a note safety-pinned to his shirt stating only his birth date. The outward affect is a small crease below his nose, a crooked little watermark on his soft rounded face.
I’m so grateful he’s asleep, and I’m so tired I can’t even speak. But when we get up the next day, David and I both admit to the same thing: listening to him breathe almost all night long. I don’t know why I did that. As if he hadn’t been breathing successfully without me up until that point. As if a baby can’t sleep without help.
Henry awakens with a cautious smile on his face. David lifts him out of the crib, kisses his hot cheek, and sets him on his feet.
“Good morning, Sir!” David announces. When David was little, our dad used to call him “Sir Hiss,” after the Jungle Book character. “Sir” fits Henry just fine. He is like a little man, stout and serious, seemingly wise. He walks bow-legged to the end of the room and contemplates his next move, which as it turns out, is to plop down on his diapered but.
The orphanage ladies told us that Henry loves cars, so I am ready with a blue and yellow plastic jeep.
“Hen-reeee!” I say, all sing-songy. I drag the thing backwards on the blue carpet, which winds it up. I set it down, and it sails straight at Henry, knocking him square on the knee.
He startles a little, readjusts, then, mercifully, gives a huge grin.
He says, “Lah-la!”
And I am in love.
The food in China perplexes me.
Henry’s favorite food is called con-gee, which is basically rice porridge, often served with spiced pork or egg sprinkled in. Blech.
As for grown-up food, I want to want it, but I can’t. The food here is prepared so much healthier, so much closer to God and nature and the sea and the ground it comes from. There is nothing breaded or fried or sweet-n-soured here. It’s simply fresh or steamed seafood, veggies, eggs and rice in a million different forms, and it’s absolutely no wonder why I have yet to see a single obese person in this country – who isn’t American.
Still, I am grossed out. Still, I can’t eat anything that comes to me wearing its tail or its head or – God help me – its beady little eyes.
My best meal of the day is obtained at the breakfast buffet because there are also some breads and cereals offered among the fish and eggs. Every other meal is kind of a crap shoot until I discover that the room service hamburger and fries meal is actually quite good, then proceed to order it for lunch four out of the six days we spend in Fuzhou. This annoys my brother, who has basically brought me all the way to China only to watch me run from the culture like a scared rat. Hey – a girl’s got to eat.
In the afternoon, Helen takes us to a downtown supermarket so we can stock up on munchies and juice for Henry. It’s like a five-story, super-packed Walmart, where a person can get just about anything he or she may need. Food, sandals, maxi-pads, T-shirts, white rice up the yin yang.
Though it is a Tuesday afternoon, the place is absolutely jammed with people. David puts Henry in the cart, begins to push forward, and suddenly, a Chinese woman passing through grabs my hips and moves me out of her way. I’m about ready to huff, but she just breezes by casually without even a nod. Then another woman knocks into Helen’s side and Helen simply adjusts her stance and lets the woman by, without even seeming to notice.
The market is hot and the air is still, and Henry, who has never really set foot outside of his orphanage out in the country, vacillates between whimpering and silence. In this market, David, Henry and I have one thing in common: we are overwhelmed.
On Helen’s recommendations, we pick out some oyster crackers and some orange-flavored juice. We stare at Henry’s behind for a good ten minutes, trying to determine what size diapers we should buy. It feels critical that we get this right. As if they could yank Henry from us if we fail the diaper test.
The three of us collapse back into our hotel room, Henry rushing for his new favorite toy, the blue and yellow jeep. David wants to take a nap. I want to read my book, a fascinating first-hand account from a former Sing-Sing prison guard, which I haven’t opened for two days.
Suddenly, Henry throws his truck to the floor. Then he starts to cry hard.
“Maybe he’s hungry,” I suggest. He hadn’t eaten any of his dumplings at the restaurant Helen had taken us to. We try to give him some leftover con-gee, but he just continues.
The cries turn to loud wailing, and David tries to hold him, but he’s not having it.
Soon he is screaming. His little body goes stiff, and when it finally takes a break from being stiff, it is flailing. We try to move toys and shoes away from him on the floor, but sometimes he hits things anyway. I notice a hairline scratch on his stomach and feel panic. I would give anything for this to stop.
Henry continues like this for minutes and minutes. David’s face is cross, tired. I am confused. What is he trying to tell us?
After about 15 minutes, it is clear this is beyond our control, and we are in this for the long haul. Avisia had warned us about this. David grabs some earplugs, then offers some to me. I try them, but they hurt so I take them out.
David says, “If you want, you can go take a walk or something.”
I want to go, but I don’t. I’m glued there, watching my brother stroke his son’s belly. Henry is giving David the business, and he is taking it like a man.
When Mariah came to live with us, she was eight years old. None of us had wanted the move to happen, but her mother’s personal problems had made it necessary. Jim was working and going to school full time, I was a budding reporter working toward magazine writing, so children had been placed into our “someday” file along with skydiving and swing dancing classes. Mariah had only ever lived with her mother, visiting us on weekends and holidays.
I remember explaining the situation to a co-worker of mine at the time.
“Wow,” she said, “You’re lives are really going to change.” I didn’t know quite what she meant. But I just said, “No… she’s already eight years old, and she can dress herself and take care of herself pretty well already.”
I’ll never forget the way that woman looked at me.
Six years later, and actually, Mariah has done a pretty darn good job of taking care of herself. I mean, I came around eventually, after years of processing and examining my feelings, after about a thousand cups of coffee with my sympathetic friends, and after making sure everyone in the world knew how much work it was.
I watch Henry in that state for more than an hour. I watch his eyes run out of tears. I hold my breath during a pause, hoping he will finally succumb to a nap. But it’s just a rest break. After a moment, he opens his eyes and starts anew.
This is hard, and it’s scary, and it feels like nothing is mine, and I am nobody’s, he seems to be telling us. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, what he’s going through, and what Mariah went through when she came to live with us. I’m humbled.
I want to leave the room and walk away, but I can’t, and I won’t.
When everyone lives in an apartment, and nobody has a yard, the whole city hangs out in the park. The main municipal park is a short stroll and just across the lake from our hotel room, and is the piece of China that I wish I could put in a box and take home with me. Everything beautiful in nature is represented here: flowers, fish, greenery, water, people, music, sky. Led once again by Helen, the three of us absorb the place in sections. There is the open community area, where the men sit around on picnic tables playing chess and cards. Close by, couples ballroom dance to shrill music broadcast on crude loudspeakers. Further along the lakeside, dozens of women move to the music with synchronized tai chi moves. I wish like hell I knew enough moves to join.
There are pathways and pathways lined with hundreds and maybe even thousands of flower pots. Red is a favorite color, meaning luck. Where there are no red flowers, there are red banners and flags. There are ponds loaded with colorful, big-bellied fish, who eagerly peek their heads above the water in the hopes that you will feed them like so many people have before.
David and I stop along a concrete wall near the lake edge for a rest, having given Helen the rest of the day off from entertaining us. We are a strange site to the Chinese: a tall, white man and woman toting a tiny Chinese boy. Before long, we are surrounded by curious, chattering onlookers, who are asking us questions we have no way to understand or answer.
Henry clings to David, whimpering. David, at home in front of a crowd for as long as I can remember, smiles politely, then opens his mouth wide and points to his own upper palate, indicating a hole with the fingers of that same hand. Several women nod in understanding, make noises of approval, continue chattering among themselves.
“They just don’t understand how we were able to adopt a boy,” David says. He is relaxed here, thousands of miles from home, with me, a part of his past, and Henry, his future.
In two days, we will fly back to Guangzhou, where David will complete all the paperwork for the formal adoption. In five days, I will board a plane and head back toward my family and all the comforts I miss so badly, and I won’t stop crying until at least Japan.
David will never rent a stroller.
With the crowd of onlookers gone, Henry relaxes. There will be more tantrums. But for now, he has assumed a cross-legged position on David’s lap and is beginning an apparent study of his new dad’s mouth, nose, eyes, and forehead. He gazes at David, holds his face with tiny hands, and laughs at his own little private joke.
Maybe he’s thinking, “Is this my dad?”
I take out my camera. Avisia will want to see this.