My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Most Special Day - Part 1

This post will be a little different from the last few. For one thing, it's going to be a lot more photo-intensive; for another, it's starting out with two different conondrums. The first involves my privacy concerns: the day we finally met my niece for the first time is not something I can just talk about, I've got to show some pictures... and how do I show pictures of the first meeting of mother & daughter if those pictures don't show mother & daughter?!? After much thought, I've decided that I'm taking enough of the proper precautions and I'll go ahead with the photos; if I need to throttle back (so to speak) in the future, I'll deal with it then.

The other conondrum (a word, by the way, that the spell-checker does not like!) is something that I simply hadn't thought of until I got ready to start typing. Arguably the most common term for the day an adopting parent and adopted child first get together is "Gotcha Day" (a term we use in our family). However, adoption and parent-child bonding being the intensely personal things they are, there's controversy in the adoption community over whether this term is a good one. Some adopters and/or adoptees consider it too informal or silly-sounding, other individuals consider it insulting, an affront, or belittling. I have read a wide range of opinions ranging from a simple, "Don't like it, so there" to long, carefully thought out and well-crafted treatises on both the "for" and "against" sides of the argument. (In extremely short form to save space, the three most common arguments against "Gotcha" are: 1 - it's a term inferring some kind of ownership or possession of another human being; 2 - it infers saving someone from something bad when they may actually be getting torn away from a foster family they love and/or removed from their birth culture; 3 - it's the kind of silly thing one says when swatting a bug or playing a game rather than a term that conveys the importance & emotion of the event.) I am NOT going to go deeper into this subject in this post (perhaps in the future); I do not mean to belittle anyone's beliefs or feelings on the subject, I am not unaware of the negative aspects of adoption, I am not trying to enforce my family's beliefs on any other... I simply want to acknowledge (for any other APs or adoptees reading this) that I am aware of the disagreement but that in my family, we often use "Gotcha Day" because for us it does not have negative meanings it so I will be using it here -- it's just our way, please (seriously!) feel free to substitute whatever term you use in your family. (For the non-adopting/adopted readers, I have seen variations on "Metcha Day," "Family Day," Sibling Day," and many others, my favorite alternative being "Forever Family Day" ...YMMV.)

And now, with the caveats done (at least for the rest of this post), I'm going to proceed with sharing our Gotcha Day... a Most Special Day in every (good) way.

I'm honestly not sure how we managed to wake up on the morning of the 12th; we were disoriented, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived travelers who'd barely had a chance to open our suitcases before repacking them and starting over with the weirdest flight we'd ever had. But wake up we did, at a relatively early hour, with the idea it's TODAY hanging in the air. Somehow, while we slept during the night, the crib in the corner lost the capital letters in its name and became just another piece of furniture, albeit one with an aura of hope around it. My "little" sister was ready, I would be, too.

One thing that helped keep things on a more concrete level was my discovery that I had done a lot more than just warp my passport while sweatily climbing the Great Wall; my money belt and all the cash in it (about 40% of all the money we had between us for the entire trip) was still wet from the previous day! Since we'd been repeatedly warned that Chinese banks won't exchange money that's not in pristine, like-new condition, I laid it all out on my bed to dry... the first (and so far only) time I ever had that much cash in one place at one time. A lesson was learned; for the rest of the trip, I kept my Yuan and a few smaller U.S. bills in my wallet... but all other cash on my person would be carried in sealed plastic baggies to keep it dry! I also took a panoramic series of photos out the windows of our hotel room; we had an excellent view of central Nanning, and both A & I noticed that we literally could not look in any direction without seeing at least one active construction crane (there was only one town we visited that was not like this; the "C" in PRC apparently stands for "construction" and not "China").

I remember many of our breakfasts; this day's is just a blur. We talked a bit with the other families, and everyone was wondering what it would be like when we met the girls. (We all had a good laugh when Older Daughter S kept saying "my baby" instead of "my sister" or "the baby.") I'm not sure if we went back to the room (and I began drying my money after brunch instead of before) or went out around that time together, I just remember that early in the afternoon the entire group took an exploratory walk around the hotel. All the nearby buildings were very modern in appearance, many with art deco style touches (most of which included neon and/or strobes at night) and "hats" of varying styles and shapes. We also had it driven home to us that we were in a true subtropical climate and it really was summertime: it was hot. Not, "hey, the sun is strong" hot. Not, "wow, I can get sunburned quickly here!" hot. No, it was more like, "wow, my car just melted!" hot. I mean HOT. With humidity to match.

Wilting steadily along the way, our group burned off nervous energy by circumnavigating the grounds. We found a beautiful swimming pool that we hoped to use (eventually the other two families did) next to a large "baby pool" that had thick, green growth on every surface and that was obviously being pumped dry for repairs. I stopped for a moment, thinking that in many ways our surroundings looked like an idealized Hollywood version of southern California (see photo) before catching up with everyone and heading for the nearest air-conditioned entrance. Somewhere along the way, A and I quietly wished Dad a happy 80th birthday and joked to each other that we were going to be picking him up a birthday present he'd never forget, and since Mom's birthday was just 2 days away they could share the present A was bringing home. There was another short time of retreat to our rooms to get ready; I checked my email and found PandaPhone had given up trying to find me, they were cancelling the order and giving me a full refund. (They were good to their word; I wouldn't hesitate to try them again.) Then I updated our trip blog while A got the required "gift bags" ready... and then it was time to go meet the babies.

The ride was quick; we reached the government offices in just a few minutes. We had to split up to fit in the elevators and I remember one of the other family members saying the next time we'd be in that elevator, we'd have our new daughters with us and everyone kind of just looked at each other for a moment. We were guided down a hot hallway to a large, mostly empty room and told the group from the SWI was on the way and would be arriving shortly. Left on our own, it was funny to see how everybody tried to not be nervous while being obviously nervous; the two girls alternated between being rambunctious on the little plastic hobbyhorses in the room and sitting quietly on the old worn sofas against the back wall; all the adults alternated between trying to set up video cameras just so on the windowsill to catch everything, checking to see if the gift bags were complete, double (triple- and quadruple-) checking the adoption paperwork... and just sitting quietly on the old worn sofas against the back wall.

There was an air of, "No I'm not nervous really I'm not no sirree I'm not nervous at all no I'm not..." as the last bit of years of waiting ticked slowly away... I was pacing around the room trying to distract myself when I noticed the sidewalk out front was actually a large mosaic, so I busied myself for a few minutes trying to get Just The Right Angle for a good photo. When I had finally milked that for as long as possible, I wandered to the other side of the room to where A was sitting quietly on one of the old sofas, not entirely aware she was clasping - unclasping - clasping - unclasping her hands repeatedly. She was suddenly not much of a conversationalist, so I started wandering again and discovered the building used to be a hotel, and the unintentionally funny "Chinglish" door plaques gave me a much-needed break from my own fraying nerves.

Then it was back to waiting... and then we waited some more... and then I think there was more waiting... Later that evening, when I had a chance to check the timeline, I realized we were inside the building less than half an hour before meeting the little ones; it just felt like all five years of paperchasing were repeating themselves while we were in that room! We were all beginning to run out of things to keep ourselves occupied with when I heard a bit of a commotion in the hallway. I looked out the door and saw several people... and at least two toddlers, with one of the adults pointing into the room! I went running back to where A was sitting while calling out, "I see babies!" and all of a sudden they were in the room with us.

First came a woman holding the hand of a little girl, hair cut short, walking with the air of a toddler who's finally mastered the basics of gravity; then a second woman holding the hand of another little girl, hair also cut short, also covering the ground easily but not quite so confidently; and then a man came in carrying a tiny little girl sucking her thumb. First one toddler, then the next, was introduced to her new family. And then...

"An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break." -- ancient Chinese proverb

...and then, at precisely 3:33 in the afternoon, the two ends of the thread connecting my sister to her daughter finally came together.

I have been challenging myself with how to describe the emotions of those first minutes. I like to think I'm good with words, and I know how to use both dictionary & thesaurus to find just the right way to phrase something... But I simply cannot. It's not that I was numb -- absolutely not, no way, no how! -- it's just that there were so many emotions, so strong, all clamoring to be at the top of the list that I simply do not have a way to communicate how I felt watching the scene. I know this little one isn't "my" child, that I am an uncle and not a father. I know this newly-minted mother is my sister and not a wife or partner. But we are a close, caring family and (especially in the last few years) the wait had been mine as much as A's (and as much as our parents'). How does one use printed words to convey the feeling of a child joining a family, of a void you hadn't even known existed finally being filled?  I can only describe what I saw, and heard, and (some of) what I thought.

Little Miri was little, a tiny thing at 13 months. She had a couple of bug bites... There was a bald spot on the back of her head from where she laid down each night... Her hair had been cut short, so we could plainly see a double whorl at the crown that made it stand up in a semi-mohawk (I think I said then, and have said many times since, that my niece is fated to a lifetime of bad hair days)... There was a small but pronounced bump down low on the back of her head that worried us a little... and good Lord, what is with her tongue...?!?  With all the questions A had prepared for the SWI staff, and all the questions we'd been told to ask, one of the very first things A had Lisa translate to the SWI representative was, "Does she always move her tongue around like that?" It went up, left, back up, 'round & 'round a couple of times, out to the right... The lady from the SWI (who turned out to be the head nanny) laughingly replied that it was her "hobby" and Miri always had her tongue sticking out one way or another.

Lingual calisthenics aside, there was much checking of fingers and toes and eyes and noses... Miri was a little congested and had a runny nose (the nanny apologized and told us she'd caught a cold just a few days earlier)... one eyelid looked droopy (but both eyes tracked & focused exactly the same)... that mysterious bump on the back of her head was worrisome but we were told to expect it to go away... But she was clean, and she was alert, and despite all the horror stories we'd heard about babies screaming nonstop for days after meeting their new parents, seemed completely unworried about the funny-looking lady cooing over her and carefully counting her digits; the Pipsqueak even seemed to be getting comfortable after just a couple of minutes. She kept looking around, focusing first on one crying baby, then another, studiously sucking her thumb while apparently wondering what they were fussing about.

After several minutes of making sure there really was a little girl in her arms, A finally asked if I'd like to hold my niece. I'm definitely not an expert baby wrangler (but I got real good at it real fast, as you'll read in future posts!) and I'm always just a little worried I might drop a little tyke... but it took all of about three nanoseconds for me to sit down and reach out for my niece the first time. I may not have become a daddy, but "uncle" felt pretty doggone good right then. Miri looked around, looked at me for a few moments, and kind of settled in on my knee and stuck her thumb back in her mouth; I wasn't sure how or why, but I got the feeling I'd just passed some kind of test. It wasn't too long before A wanted her daughter back so I went back to playing photographer for a while, still amazed that I had just held a new, permanent member of my immediate family. The wrapping of one uncle around one toddler's little finger was already well under way. :-)

One young Chinese woman in the party apparently worked for the provincial government separate from the SWI; she was taking photos that would be used as the official portraits for the adoption paperwork. (That sounds big & imposing & important, but she was a young gal who seemed to genuinely like what she was doing and enjoyed sharing the photos with the families.) The photo she & A decided upon appeared on more than the Chinese governmental documents; it's etched in a block of crystal in in A & Miri's house, and was copied onto the homemade adoption announcements. There was, of course, some paperwork to take care of, and some of the gift bags, and through it all Miri just watched and observed and absorbed what was going on around her. During our own commotion, a single Canadian family had been ushered in on the other end of the room, and introduced to their little girl (a cute little dynamo a couple of years older than any of ours); I watched New Mama and New Older Sister introducing themselves, and then noticed Miri focusing on them as well. Back at the agency-hosted seminars we'd attended during the wait, we'd heard that nobody knows how the CCAA matches babies with families but that they have an almost mystical ability to choose correctly... Now I was having flashes of deja vu comparing my niece to my sister at the same age. I still remember A sitting on someone's lap, thumb in mouth, just watching & observing and absorbing what was going on around her with the same intent expression. (The only difference in their behavior was that A used to take her free hand & twirl her hair; Miri's hair was just too short to twirl.)

Finally, as the other girls quieted down and the reality that all the waiting really, truly was over, it was time to head back to the hotel. There would be a 24-hour "harmonious period" for parents & children to get to know each other better, and then we would all meet back in this same room the next day to finalize the paperwork. As we gathered our things and I picked up the big red baby bag that was about to become a permanent fixture in our daily life, I caught my niece looking back at her new mommy with an expression that seemed to say, "Okay, I'm game -- let's go!" I fired off several quick photos, but the one below has already become one of my favorite family photos ever...

As we returned to the first floor (multiple elevators again!), someone mentioned we should have a shot of all the mothers & daughters leaving together for the first time so all the menfolk scrambled out the door and across the driveway (hauling baby bags and backpacks and camera gear) and then spun around to try to get the shot. All the gals obligingly posed in the furnace-hot sun long enough for everyone to get a couple of photos, and then the entire group retreated to the air conditioned bus.

There were a few last-second concerns about getting the bus out of the gated parking lot, but no one seemed to really mind. At least for one day, there were no more concerns of getting someplace on time, no worries about racing from point A to point B on a particular schedule; everyone had a completely new focus. There were three more people on the bus now, little ones who had no way to comprehend they'd been looked for and wanted and waited for ever since a time long before they were born. Getting off the bus, there'd been a few comments along the lines of, "wow, I'm getting sweaty again," and "I'm really hot," and even a few, "but MOMMY...!" Now, as we rocked & rattled our way out the driveway, it was all, "Is she comfortable?" "Is it too hot for her?" "Can I hold her?" and, "I think she likes me!" 

The waiting was over; the family-building had begun.

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