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!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shopping and Swimming and Sweating Oh My! (July 20, 2010)

Since we'd all managed to avoid spending any money on pets (which we couldn't travel with) or traditional herbal medicines (ditto), we all pretty much decided it was time to do some shopping in the stores on the island. I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but there's actually an entire ecosystem there based on (primarily American) families adopting Chinese children. (The U.S. Consulate used to be on Shamian Island, so that's where everybody stayed for at least a few days before returning home.)  Although a goodly number of them had vanished since the last time the S and B families had been there, all we had to do to find any of the remaining stores was walk... Usually there'd be a cool breeze coming out from an air conditioned shop with all its doors open, or there'd be a small bunch of women of various ages sitting by a doorway smiling at us and calling out "Hello!" (and sometimes "Hello! Best prices here! Hello!").

It's also fun to check out the list of names of some stores: A Home Of Love; Beatrice Grocery; Emma's; Jennifer's; Jordon's; Lucy's; Peter's Place; The Deli Shop; Sherry's; Susan's.  Then there are the names of the shopkeepers and their families: Amy; Daisy; Emma; Jerry; Jordon; Linna; Peter; Sherry; Susan; Vicky (who you'll meet a few paragraphs farther down)... The lists go on, but I think you can probably see what I'm aiming for. (Dude, are there any Chinese businesses here?) Don't get me wrong; there are many other businesses with thoroughly Chinese names, and a number of the shops & shopkeepers have names obviously chosen to help keep travelers feeling comfortable when they're a long, long way from home... but I still thought it was worth a chuckle or two while we were there. (Note: I've included the names of some stores that we didn't see, and a couple that might not even be there anymore; if you've adopted from China you'll probably remember these and several others.)

In any case, we all decided it was time to spend some money... So off we went, wandering in & out of several stores in short order. Sometimes I browsed along with AJ, and sometimes I just hung around outside the smaller shops while she perused the shelves. The attached photo should give you an idea of just some of the services offered by many of the small shops -- and this one's actually one of the smallest!  The three families split up after a while, and we headed back to Jordon's to inquire about more calligraphy work and check the prices on suitcases. (The Pipsqueak had her own seat for the flight home, which meant she was entitled to a full adult share of baggage -- and we intended to take advantage of that!)

Jordon turned out to be a very patient man; one of the American families in the store with us had a couple of kids who just couldn't keep still or keep their hands off the merchandise, but even when one of them bounced a ball across one room and knocked a whole bunch of stuff off the shelves he calmed the parents and told them not to worry, and quietly went about his business after cleaning up behind the departing kids. We wanted some calligraphy work done, and he refused to charge us for some of it and quoted an excellent price on the rest, which he promised would be ready for pickup on the 22nd -- our last full day in China. (It was a little shocking to suddenly realize we had to plan around our departure date... had we really been in China that long already?)  We also picked up a couple of additional bottles (Miri had never learned to hold her own bottle, so we got one with easy-grip handles to help her pick up the skilll) and a few tchotchkes, and two new bibs: one that AJ had picked out, and one that her daughter had grabbed off the shelf and adamantly refused to let go of! We headed back to the White Swan, along the way stopping to grab a photo of the statue at the entrance to Shamian Park -- no caption needed, it'll show you just how much a feature of the local scene Western adoptive families have been:

It was still ridiculously hot and even more ridiculously humid, so after all the walking around we decided to join the other families at the pool again. The Pipsqueak didn't seem too sure about her costume change, but once we got into the water she enjoyed watching me blow bubbles and even helped me splash Mommy a little bit. (Something the two of us inexplicably thought was much funnier than AJ did...)  Interestingly, as we were preparing to head back in to change for dinner, we all felt the first real "negative vibes" we'd gotten from anyone during the trip... from a Western tourist sitting nearby, glaring at the girls for no apparent reason aside from several empty beer cans on the table in front of him. We just ignored the guy and paraded back inside, talking about the irony of the situation.

We all changed and headed down the block to continue the ongoing effort to eat our way through the entire American section of the Lucy's menu. (Note to travelers: the burgers are so-so, but the iced tea -- which comes with liquified honey for sweetening instead of sugar -- and the "American style fried chicken -- more like fat chicken fingers than fried chix -- are something I'm missing now that I'm back home... and I'm still looking for the local Guangzhou-brewed beer that was so good!) The weather was still holding, so we (again) sat out back on the patio and enjoyed the passing scene. The one "off" note was the nearby public restrooms; after hearing what others saw & smelled in there, I decided the White Swan was close enough. Luckily, the view (and scent) by our table was good, so it felt good to kick back with a belly full of familiar food.

One thing about the weather -- it was nice but it was still HOT. I spent most daylight hours feeling like a popsicle that had been dropped on a hot NYC sidewalk in mid-July, and sunset didn't seem to make much of a difference; think of an oven being set down from "broil" to "bake" and you've got the idea. We took a few family photos before leaving the patio, and it was only when I uploaded them onto my laptop that I realized what we had come to look like. I've included one of the better ones; you can see how tired we'd become,, and those dark spots on my shirt (AJ had 'em too, they just didn't show on her double-layered top) are fresh sweat marks.  Like I said, it was HOT.

The siren call of souvenirs grabbed us on the way back to the hotel, so we stopped into the store that's practically next door to the White Swan  (I think it's called "A Home of Love") for a little late evening shopping. The Pipsqueak gathered her usual collection of coos and smiles, and then one of the young women who runs the store asked if she could hold her. AJ hesitated for a moment, but everything seemed OK and the extra pair of hands would allow here to check out some dresses she wanted to take home for when Miri was older... And that's how the lovely Vicky became part of our family album. She was the only stranger who held my niece during the entire trip (I don't count our companion families or guides as "strangers" because we were with them practically 24x7 and we all swapped kids back & forth as needed), and for about 10 minutes she and the Pipsqueak had a mutual admiration society going.  I took a bunch of photos -- I've included the two I like best -- and Vicky had me promise to email them to her.

Reassuringly, after having fun with Vicky for a tad over 10 minutes, my niece showed signs of really wanting to go back to my sister -- which made us both feel pretty good, since that's a sign of attachment some families have to work very hard to achieve. (Please don't get me wrong: it's not that we think we did a much better job of it than others did. It all comes down to how well & how quickly the personality, background & experiences of the child being adopted allow him.her to bond with the adoptive mother & family, and we managed to roll a really good number in that gamble.)

Our shopping urges satisfied and all the younger members of the group showing signs of low battery power, we returned to the White Swan for the evening. The Pipsqueak seemed to recharge quickly (Dude, you gotta get whatever brand of batteries your niece has installed!) and was in a good mood, so we had a nice long Skype session with our folks. I had to keep moving the laptop away from the Pipsqueak and/or move her hands away from the trackpad & keyboard, but she really interacted with Grandma & Grandpa this time -- reacting to hand motions, making faces, reacting to their voices, and apparently studying their faces the way I often saw her studying ours. Our folks, of course, ate it up; they'd suffered through the paperchasing as much as AJ had, and even though we were still a couple of days away from returning home they finally had a chance to play with their granddaughter. I'm still not sure who had more fun with that call, but we were all in a great mood when we finally said goodnight.

The Pipsqueak was finally beginning to show signs of being tired, so AJ decided to take the chance to grab a quick shower before bed. She got the little one situated in the middle of the bed, and while I literally kept one eye on her there nonstop (I had no intention of allowing her to teleport off a bed again!) headed into the bathroom to clean up & get a little refreshed.

At least that was the plan.

Less than five minutes after I heard the shower come on, the Pipsqueak woke up. She fussed for a couple of moments like she did every moment, then took a good look around the room. She focused on me for a moment, looked around again, noticed Mommy was missing, and began to cry. Strike that; she began to WAIL. I remember saying something to her about them hearing her clearly on the street 25 stories below us as I tried to distract her, tried to comfort her, tried to pick her up, tried to do something that would calm her down... all to no avail. She was so loud that AJ heard her through the closed bathroom door while she was in the shower, and I think my sister broke a couple of world speed records getting out of the shower and drying herself just enough to be able to pick up what might have by then might have been identified by passers-by as the world's least happy child. (Remember my "World's Loudest Medical Exam" post? This kid's got LUNGS...)

Happily, Miri began calming down almost as soon as AJ picked her up, and a few minutes of cuddling (and a fresh bottle) brought her back to a relatively happy & sleepy mood. We almost messed up by trying to put her in the crib (definitely a no go), but quickly gave in to preserve the peace and soon mother & daughter were quietly snoring next to each other in the big bed. We're still not sure what brought on the noise & drama, but ever since then I've wondered if it had something to do with being held by yet another new person then shortly afterwards having the most familiar face suddenly disappear; it was easy to forget that we not only were literally yanking the carpet out from under these kids every few days, but we had also taken them away from anyone that they could recognize. I was just glad that she had apparently decided her new mommy was her go-to person in this strange, confusing new world.

I took a few last swigs from the day's last bottle of Coke Zero (the Pipsqueak screamed so loudly, it made my throat hurt!), finished an entry in our travel blog, emailed the evening's photos to Vicky, and climbed carefully into bed while thinking about attachment issues and how lucky we'd been so far with the Pipsqueak's bonding with AJ. The next day was going to be a busy one -- we had one last official hurdle to clear before the adoption was really, truly, completely "for real" -- so I let my niece's quiet little snores lull me to sleep.

NEXT: An amazing museum, an emotional appointment, and some incredible lighting effects.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hot Dogs... and Cats... and Other Critters... (July 20, 2010)

With all three families now "official" in the eyes of both governments, we set out for... lunch. We walked back to the place we'd been the previous day, once again eyeballing the turtles & assorted fish in bins & buckets out front as we headed for what was now "our" table all the way in the back.  We didn't get the same show of boiling all the dishes & silverware at the table, but everything was clean -- and we didn't have nearly the same adventure with the lazy susan in the center of the table. Although none of us was particularly fond of the restaurant, it was familiar territory and the food ranged from "okay" to "gimme more o'that!" so lunch was A Good Thing for us all. (Luckily, the little ones all seemed to be hanging onto a good mood despite the heat.) As usual, the fish was a whole fish and the chicken was a whole chicken, apparently to ensure diners know they're not being short-changed on any of the dishes. (Dude, your lunch is looking at you!) We had some joking fun involving fish eyes -- long story! -- during the meal and then headed back to the hotel.

We didn't stay long; after a quick trip upstairs for a pit stop & to grab the daypacks, diaper bags, et al., we all headed back down to the main entrance where Lucy had commandeered a small shuttle bus that took us across the river into downtown Guangzhou proper. It was (as usual) plenty hot & plenty muggy, but we wanted to see a little more of the "real" city (Shamian Island, once a European trade enclave, is still quite a bit different from the rest of Guangzhou) and experience some of the local flavor -- so getting out in the heat and hoofing it for a while was the order of the day. The Pipsqueak seemed to shrug at the whole idea -- What, another bus ride? -- but by this point she was so used to being bundled from Point A to Point B and back again that she just settled in on AJ's lap and enjoyed the passing scene.

The bus dropped us off near one of the main shopping streets (mercifully turned into a pedestrian mall), and it was here that we could see how hard the city was pushing to be ready for the upcoming Pan-Asian Games; almost every square inch of every building was covered in bamboo scaffolding & green plastic netting so work crews could get everything repaired, cleaned, and spit-polished for the big show! One nice side effect was that this gave us a little more shade to walk in (depending on where we were), but it would've been nice to see more of the actual signage & architecture. There was also some statuary on the street (although far less than on the island), and although it was partially covered to protect it from the cleaning & construction work it was easy to see how some of it depicted the types of vendors one would have encountered on the street half a century earlier (my favorite was the tea vendor, shown here).

We also heard a strange tune echoing down the street, a not-quite-random selection of notes played on a flute that sounded completely different from the canned pop music playing in some of the larger fashion stores. We soon found its source -- a man wearing a large chicken! He seemed very popular with young kids, who'd go running up (sometimes accompanied by an adult), carry out some kind of transaction, then walk off looking satisfied and (usually) chewing on something while the guy would whip out a small reed flute and play his crazy tune 'til the next customer approached. I figured he was selling eggs, or chicken wings, or maybe even candy... but Lucy said he was selling olives. (We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto!) Unfortunately, no one could explain what the connection was between chickens and olives... but it was an interesting sight!

As we reached the end of the pedestrian street and prepared to play Frogger cross the street into the neighborhood of the old-style animal/pet and traditional medicine markets, I noticed a stone plaque set into the wall of a high-end shop that listed all the awards this particular shopping street had won from the local authorities over the years. I liked the fact that it was considered "the nation's civilized shopping street," but wasn't sure how I felt about someone feeling it necessary to give it an award -- twice! -- for being a leading "counterfeit-free" shopping area...

We didn't go very far before entering a narrow street jam-packed with cafe umbrellas and sidewalk market stands; we had reached the old animal market. Despite the heavy crowds (and occasional vehicle bravely/foolishly picking its way slowly through them), all the stores sort of ignored the division between building, sidewalk and street; merchandise started on the shelves in the small storefronts and continued in an odd collection of bins, bags, and buckets clear out to the curb and beyond. Everywhere we looked were small animals of every description, ranging from brilliant tropical fish in plastic bins on the ground to puppies & kittens (obviously panting & uncomfortable in the heat) in small cages that were sometimes stacked five or six feet high. Lucy reassured us, and we chose to believe her, that although things had once been different, the present-day market was a pet market -- not food. (Back in Guilin, Lisa had explained that in some areas, an old practice is continued: families raise dogs for a year or two, then at certain holidays exchange them -- to be used for special dinners. This led to a lot of nervous jokes about how to react if you gave your neighbors a Great Dane and they gave you a Chihuahua, but in general we avoided talking or thinking about the subject.)

I can write quite a lot about the animals we saw, but I'll just let my camera talk for me (this is just a sampling of what we saw for sale):

If the cage full of very still kittens looks scary, don't worry; the cage was lashed onto a bike, and about two minutes after I took that photo they were all awake and mewing at the passing crowd -- hotter than maybe they should've been, but looking & sounding healthy.

I also kept glancing up at the buildings lining the street and realized we were walking through the old neighborhood we saw from our window at the White Swan, the older part of the city with the new European-style facade that ran parallel to the river. I've always liked older buildings (they have character that most modern architecture lacks) so I took a few photos of the facades & alleyways that marked how most of the locals lived until very recently.

As we continued through the narrow streets, the animals sort of petered out to be replaced by stores literally overflowing with an odd variety of bins, bags and boxes of dried herbs, fungi and animal parts; we had entered the traditional medicine market. Lucy explained that people who wanted to try traditional cures instead of Western medicine would usually come to these markets and seek out a quality of goods that matched the seriousness of their condition (often trying cheaper, lower-quality ingredients first and working their way up the price & quality scales as needed). They would consult with the shopkeepers for the proper set of ingredients, which would either be mixed for them in the shop or that they would take home and prepare on their own. (I noticed many of the higher-end stores also sold food processors to aid in the at-home preparation of traditional mixes & brews.)

I had been expecting either a musty, woodsy smell or maybe something more "mediciney" but was pleasantly surprised at the variety of scents, most of which were pleasant. (Yes, there were a couple of spots where I definitely walked faster, but most things smelled pretty good if they smelled at all.) Most common were the large burlap or plastic bags of dried fungi, herbs, seeds or tree bark... but almost every store had "lizard-on-a-stick" available, and many also sold dried deer sinew, dried turtle shells, dried sea life, and assorted terrestrial animals' anatomical features dried for easy grinding.

It seemed that the farther we walked, the more exotic the goods became; dried snakes began showing up in batches (see photo above), dried deer legs appeared by the boxload, and bags of dried insects sat on many shelves. One memorable store seemed intent on proving their products were the freshest possible: out front was a huge plastic basin filled with ginormous LIVE black scorpions, all intent on climbing out of the bin and wreaking havoc on the several men who sat nearby, nonchalantly knocking the most adventurous of the arachnids back into the clicking, writhing pile in the middle of the basin.

Somehow, I couldn't picture finding any of these -- nor their smaller and only slightly less athletic brown cousins in another bin next door -- at my local CVS or Giant Pharmacy. I was also very glad for the excellent zoom lens on my camera; fascinating as the sight was, I found it best enjoyed from several feet away.  We kept walking, eventually passing a set of blankets on the ground with fresh turtle shells drying in the sun as we reached the end of the market. There were a few difficult moments as we located and navigated up the stairs of the pedestrian bridge that would let us cross back onto Shamian Island, but we all figured out how to carry strollers up the steps without taking the little ones out and soon were passing from the hustle & bustle of downtown to the relative quiet of the island.

There was one slightly jarring sight on the bridge: near the Shamian end, sitting quietly against the wall, was a little girl obviously begging. We took our cue from the passers-by & Lucy and walked past her without stopping, and as we began navigating the steps back down to street level Lucy told us that there were some criminal gangs who would have one or two little children act as beggars for them. She said there were doubtless one or two older teens or young adults nearby keeping an eye on the girl, as much to ensure she didn't run away with any cash as to keep her safe. It was an unpleasant surprise, but also helped explain the background of "counterfeit-free" awards just a few blocks away.

As soon as we were back on the island, the pace slowed and the noise dropped away -- Shamian really is an enclave of (relative!) calm in the city. We hadn't gone far before encountering several more fashion shoots; one featured what I thought was a particularly good-looking bridal couple, while another had a young woman in 6" platform heels balancing on the 3" wide wall around one of the planters. Yep, it was good to be back "home" after the noise & crowds of downtown! :-)

NEXT: Shopping and Swimming and Sweating, Oh My!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's Official! (July 20, 2010)

Whoops... looks like time got away from me there... sorry for the gap in posts!  I'll pick the story back up on the morning of July 20th, the day for our CA (Consulate Appointment) -- the one schedule item that had held everything up at the last minute before we traveled to China.

Since the only hard-coded item in the day's schedule was getting the papers to the U.S. Consulate for review and (we hoped) acceptance, we slept in late... As I posted in our travel blog, it was the first time in my life I considered getting up at 7:30am "late" but compared to the rest of the trip it was the equivalent of sleeping in on a Saturday back home. Unlike the previous day, the Pipsqueak was in a good mood. Strike that; she was in a great mood. Once we got past the "I just woke up so leave me ALONE!" phase (something she shares with her uncle, unfortunately) she was all giggles and smiles and playtime. After a bottle and a quick diaper change -- replete with squirming and smiling and trying to roll over & get away -- we headed downstairs for breakfast and the good times continued to roll.

The Pipsqueak was busy demolishing some hapless tater tots (yep, they had 'em on the breakfast buffet and yep, we "peeled" the crispy outsides off for her) when I remembered a game I used to play with her mom at the same age. During a quiet moment, I momentarily flipped the big cloth napkin up over her head, crooned, "Where's Miri?" and pulled it back down with a big, "There you are!"  I got a quiet, funny look for a moment, and then a smile slowly spread across my niece's face. I did it a second time and she chuckled for me... then grabbed the napkin, flipped it over her face, and pulled it back down with a big smile!  AJ and I looked at each other -- the Pipsqueak had learned how to play "peekaboo" in just 2 tries -- and happily spent most of breakfast alternating between peeling more tater tots (Dude, your niece is filling a hollow leg!) and hiding under a napkin.

As we were getting ready to leave the dining room, something that had been tickling the back of my mind popped out into the foreground. I took a good look around at all the little Chinese kids (99% girls) and primarily Caucasian, English-speaking adults, and came to two simultaneous decisions: one, we were definitely in the right place, and two, any aliens dropping in on the White Swan at breakfast would leave the planet believing humans are born looking Asian and slowly morph into Caucasians as they age. (Well, it really did look that way in the mornings!)

Our original plan for the morning was for a bus ride to the U.S. Consulate, but Lucy had arranged to have our papers delivered & reviewed without our having to appear in person; we just needed to be in our rooms between 11:00 and Noon in case there were issues and she needed to reach us. We decided it would be easier to just stay in the hotel (it was already about 10:00am) and took a little tour of the shops in the White Swan's basement. Correction; we took a little tour of the miniature Rodeo Drive in the White Swan's basement. Granted, some of the items being sold were amazing -- witness the closeup of the clouds & flying birds on an almost 2' high "ivory" carving -- but I quickly decided I'd better stop "translating" the price tags into U.S. Dollars or my wallet would run screaming from the building without me!  We also both got a kick out of an obvious "oops" in one storefront: check the photo below and see if you can figure out what the "oops" was! (The answer's at the end of this post.)

Heading upstairs, we took a few more minutes for a leisurely stroll around the pond & waterfall in the lobby, where a young woman was feeding the carp. Don't let the photo fool you; I like fish, but used the zoom lens because those carp looked like they were more interested in a meal of "long pig" than bread crumbs!  (Kind of like a parrot looking you in the eye and squawking, "Polly wanna finger!") We continued our walk to a safer, man-eating-fish-free part of the lobby, and decided it was time for a nice "mother and daughter" photo... one that I inadvertently duplicated almost every day of our stay at the White Swan, but this version's actually one of my favorites.

The Pipsqueak was showing definite signs of having her batteries running down, and it was getting close to 11:00am, so we headed upstairs. We found our room being cleaned so we just hung out in the hall for a few minutes as the uniformed staffer rushed to get done & get out of our way.  I noticed what looked like a glassed-in balcony at the end of the hallway and headed thataway to take in the view. It turned out to be the fire escape, and after one quick glance AJ announced she'd probably burn to death or have to be carried down in an emergency: the "ladder" was just U-shaped metal bars set in the wall, out in the open air, with small, unlabeled & unsecured holes in the floor of each balcony allowing passage (for very thin people only) from one floor to the next. It looked like the holes alternated sides every couple of floors (so you didn't have to worry about a one-way ticket straight down 30 stories if you slipped)... but I really didn't get close enough to be sure. (Go figure!)

I did test my luck with the balcony railing, and found a great view of the Pearl River and part of the city. There was a lot of commercial traffic on the water -- mainly barges carrying what looked like either fill dirt or ore, sometimes obviously on the "out" or "back" legs of their trips -- and I even caught a glimpse of yet another of the ubiquitous fashion photoshoots, this one on the grounds of the hotel itself. There was also a ferry going back & forth just a couple of buildings away, and we watched the crowds disembarking & boarding (complete with bikes, motorbikes, and bundles that were sometimes larger than the person carrying them).

By this time, the Pipsqueak was completely peekaboo'd out and might have actually been snoring quietly; just as we were beginning to think we'd have head down the hall to one of our friends' rooms to borrow a bathroom, we were smilingly motioned into our room and settled down to wait for news from the Consulate. We all made good use of the time: AJ took care of some odds & ends of packing & paperwork, the Pipsqueak had a nice longevity nap... and yours truly gave up on air-drying all his socks and stood in the bathroom slowly drying them one by one with the hair dryer. (Note to self: do not wait until you have only one clean pair of socks left before doing the laundry!)

Somewhere in the middle of the morning -- I think it was this day of the trip -- we tried using one of those aspirator bulb things to clear the Pipsqueak's nose a bit; her cold just would not go away, and we wanted to get some of the goo gunk yukky stuff out of her nose. I'll say this for my niece: what she lacks in stature she has in feistiness! With both of us trying to hold her down  pin her to the bed   keep her still, AJ had no success at all and I managed to get just one schlurp of goop out of her nose before she practically knocked the aspirator bulb from my hand!  We looked at each other and decided a sniffly nose didn't seem to bother the Pipsqueak so we wouldn't let it bother us.... and that was the last time we even thought of using the bulb. (I vaguely remember only marginally better results with a similar implement when AJ was the Pipsqueak's age -- what goes around, comes around!)

Just after 11:30am the phone rang, and AJ dove to answer the call. It was Lucy: all was well, the paperwork was handed over the the Consulate staff & reviewed successfully, and -- the news we'd been waiting for -- the U.S. government now officially recognized my sister & niece as mother and daughter. We had already been feeling like a family; now both Chinese & American law said we were family. It was almost anticlimatic; a lot of worry, a lot of concerns, a lot of preparation... and that one phone call put it all in the past once and for all.

NEXT: A happy lunch and some unique markets.

(The "oops" was a high-end jewelry store with a florist sign on the window.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Clingy Baby, Big Lunch (July 19, 2010)

The three of us got back to the room without any problems only to discover that the Pipsqueak had decided she needed some reassurance that she wasn't going to encounter any more doctors, no way, no how. (Eight months later, she's still one of the toughest patients her pediatrician has to deal with!) The instant one of us put her down, she'd start wailing -- and if we thought she was loud in the clinic, well... (Dude, this hotel room's got great acoustics!) We finally gave up and took turns holding her, then somehow got her into the stroller and moving quickly enough to avoid all but the most cursory of cries.

What came next I can only refer to as The Grand Tour -- no matter how hard we tried, AJ and I simply could not find the playroom! Eventually, after over 15 minutes of encountering shops, dining rooms, and more assorted nooks & crannies than we thought could fit into a single building, we figured out which floor we were supposed to be on & how to find the playroom once there. The rest of the group was already there, hard at work on their paperwork, so I took Little Miss Dontputmedown and AJ joined in on the paperwork party.

Now, don't get me wrong; I enjoyed (still do!) any chance to hold my niece, and she was certainly light enough to not be much of a strain... but as any parent will tell you, hanging onto a crochety baby who doesn't want you to sit still, put her down, interact with other people, or reposition her to minimize back strain... Playroom or not, it wasn't much fun. I walked around with her but she fussed; I tried to interest her in some of the toys but she fussed; I tried to sit down with her but she fussed; I tried... well, you get the idea. Lisa took a break from the ongoing chorus of, "write your name in box six, then check 'yes' in box seven, then write..." to give me a break from my increasingly unhappy niece but even she could only keep the waters dammed up for a few short minutes. I had enough time to take one quick photo and get the worst kink out of my back before I had to again try to keep the Pipsqueak occupied while AJ tried to finish the papers that only she could fill out.

We finally caught a break; the Pipsqueak had spent so much energy screaming at the nurses & doctors in the clinic, then yowling when we tried to put her down in the room, then crying (probably out of sheer frustration) most of the time we were in the playroom, she finally just fell asleep. Unfortunately for me, I had just slouched down onto a couch, so I was kind of trapped underneath and didn't dare move out of fear I'd wake her again. Eventually I was able to sloooooowly move into a more comfortable position, and until AJ was done with the paperwork I was actually enjoying just watching the little one sleeping quietly on my belly. This, of course, was a great photo op for my sister; here's one of the better pix she took before we headed out for lunch -- with another major milestone, the completion of the Consulate paperwork.

It turned out that I could've probably done jumping jacks on that sofa; the Pipsqueak barely stirred when we put her back in the stroller and slept all the way to the restaurant a few blocks away. Once there, we were treated to a brand-new experience. Walking in through an entrance featuring a wide array of fish & turtles swimming & crawling in plastic bins & tanks, we moved through the lunchtime crowd (many of whom seemed openly curious about us) to the back of the restaurant, where we found a large round table with what looked like a big metal wok in the center. While I wondered what they were going to cook for us when a waitress came over and filled the bowl with steaming hot water from a teapot -- and proceeded to rinse all our plates & utensils in the water in front of us! (I later found out it was supposed to be a sign of a better restaurant in a country where public hygiene is usually far below Western standards.) There was then a bit of an adventure as she tried to move the hot bowl (still filled with hot water) away and replace it with a large, glass lazy Susan that almost met with disaster a couple of times until several of the group helped get it in place.

Lunch was pretty good, with a wide array of dishes that helped wake up the Pipsqueak, but just barely. Even with a bowl of congee and a plateful of mommy's food available, she remained clingy & sleepy through most of the meal. The one thing that we both thought was a good sign was the fact that the one person she seemed to really want to have holding her was AJ -- I may have been a convenient spot for a nap and Lisa may have been a familiar figure to distract her, but her new mommy was definitely the person she wanted comforting from.

After lunch came another milestone, this time a sad one: it was time for Lisa to return home. She'd been the one constant for us all since reaching Nanning, and had been negotiator, translator, purchaser, arranger, helper, schlepper, baby holder, kid distracter, friend, traveling companion and helper-outer for us all -- and (as we found out that day) had been away from home and her husband for two months. We were shocked at the news, and the knowledge that she was going home for the first time in a long time helped take the edge off our losing her. She told us that her husband was an advanced math instructor at a regional university, but when I suggested she take one of his courses so they could spend more time together she laughed and said that what he taught was so advanced, she couldn't understand any of it! We took turns hugging goodbye & taking family photos in the White Swan's downstairs lobby, and then (with one of the girls nearly in tears and all of us a little choked up) went our separate ways.

Most of the remainder of the day fits the description I posted in our travel blog that night: The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to doing laundry, passing the Pipsqueak back & forth, hunting for little things in our luggage, passing the Pipsqueak back & forth, figuring out plans for the next few days, passing the Pipsqueak back & forth, and passing the Pipsqueak back & forth. She had been a happy, outgoing little crowd pleaser the previous day, but today she just wanted to be held and comforted and just would not let us put her down. During the course of the afternoon, she had a couple of bottles and took a couple of short naps (joined for one "longevity nap" by her mommy & uncle) but we just could not break that unhappy mood.

During one of the quiet naps, I took telephoto pictures of the few remaining blocks of old city across the river, struck by how different it was from the much newer buildings that had been put up around it in the past few years. (I didn't realize at the time that I would be walking through that area the next day.) I was distracted by a group of workmen who seemed to be constructing a walled rooftop patio on a nearby building. They seemed to be taking great pride in their work, carefully making sure the brick columns were properly aligned by stepping back a few feet to see how they looked from a distance. The only problem was that they were stepping back onto the very edge of the building's roof with no safety gear of any kind. The two photos below show you how the guys were working... and then show you just where they were stepping back to admire their handiwork.

Eventually the Pipsqueak's mood improved a bit, and we joined our traveling companions for dinner at Lucy's. (We were all beginning to get just a tad frayed around the edges, and home-style food was just what we wanted.) We headed back to the White Swan (and I took advantage of a good opportunity to catch the building's famous trapezoidal shape lit up for the night) and everyone else decided to go swimming again, but AJ and I were feeling pretty beat so we retired to our room to just chill for a while before bed (and get some more laundry done). We had a nice long Skype session with our folks -- the Pipsqueak even seemed to be distracted by that for a few minutes -- and I took advantage of the extra time to wring more water out of all my wet shirts & socks hanging in the shower.

The next day was going to be an important one -- we would find out if the U.S. Consulate had accepted the paperwork to allow the adoption to be finalized -- so we settled down for the night, the Pipsqueak and my sister dozing off together in bed as I finished writing about the day's adventures in our blog.

NEXT: It's official! :-)