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, March 9, 2011

Welcome to the White Stork... Er, White Swan! (July 18, 2010)

There must be a corollary of Murphy's Law that limits how much sleep you get when you go to bed late & have to get up extra-early the next morning... because the Pipsqueak had one of her roughest nights yet. I think we had her in the crib by about 10:00pm (after a looong series of group photos in our private dining room, where the wait staff patiently & happily used camera after camera to take photo after photo before we retired upstairs for the night). As usual, she'd periodically make a few noises, kinda-sorta wake up, then snooze again...

...until just before 1:00am, when she WOKE UP and made sure her mommy & uncle remained equally wide awake for the next hour. She fussed a little again somewhere around 3:30am, but the bottom line was that wake-up call hurt when it came. These days, I'm often just falling asleep around the time I groggily thanked the recorded voice telling me (in at least 3 languages) that it was time to get up. We got dressed as quickly as our bodies would allow, did one last sweep of the room (and found a couple of things we'd forgotten to pack), and had our luggage sitting outside our door at 5:00am as required. (Ugh.)

I felt better a few minutes later (after a cup of coffee) when I realized the hotel had sent one. single. bellhop. to handle all three families' luggage... All I had to do was remain vertical with my eyes half-open, while he had to violate the laws of physics and get all our stuff onto a single luggage cart without any help! I don't know how he did it, but that was one righteous dude they sent up -- everything made it to the bus on time, intact and undamaged!

We all got checked out, passed through the revolving door with its rosebushes for the last time, and boarded the bus in relatively good order. (I did mention that there were two large, live rosebushes inside the large revolving door in the front entrance of the hotel, didn't I?) As the driver pulled away, Effie & Lisa handed out boxes with our breakfasts. I don't remember exactly what was in the box, but I inhaled a small dinner-roll sized sandwich, some juice and (I think) a hard-boiled egg while AJ attempted to keep a very annoyed and sleepy little girl from nose-diving off her lap onto the floor. I was glad I did; somewhere along the line those boxes got lost in the scramble to get off the bus & through airport security, and there wasn't anything else to eat until halfway through our flight several hours later (AJ never managed to have any of the breakfast, but the Pipsqueak did get a bottle of formula). We rolled over that bridge one more time and through the city, passed the entrance to a wildlife park flanked by statues of a tiger & a bear at least 40 feet high, and continued through acre after acre of rice (and a few fields of corn) occupying every square foot of flat land that wasn't paved... We were on our way!

While rolling down the road, Effie kept us awake with stories about the various local ethnic groups (like the one everyone avoids because they tend to bathe only at birth and at death but never in between) and what it had been like growing up in the area in sparser times. She told us the Zhuang have a reputation for eating "everything in the sky except the airplanes, everything in the sea except the boats, and everything in the room except the table" -- and proceeded to tell us about hunting (and cooking and eating) rats in the fields as a young girl. She said there's a fancy restaurant in the city where they specialize in "country" food, and a couple of years earlier she'd tried a rat-based dish there but could barely choke it down. All she could think was that the meat had been such a valuable rarity when she was a small child that it automatically tasted good... while all I could think was that we take a hell of a lot for granted in our everyday middle-class lives.

Along the way, Lisa announced that she would be staying with us for a couple of extra days to help smooth the transition into the last stages of paperchasing in Guangzhou -- information greeted with cheers & smiles, because we'd all grown very fond of the lady and she had been an amazing lifesaver time after time. Her skills (and knowledge of Chinese) came in very, very handy during check-in at the airport; she somehow convinced the ticket agent to spread one family's overweight suitcase poundage over the entire group, almost eliminating what would have been a hefty set of fees. We had to say a fast but emotional goodbye to Effie before checking in because the counters were a "tickets only" area. We were sad to see her go -- she'd really become a good friend for us all, especially the two older girls -- but then we had one last chance to see her because AJ had to go running after her with a bag full of water bottles we'd bought not knowing they would not be allowed into the ticket counter area! Unfortunately, it was only after we'd reached the waiting area at the gate that we realized she'd also inadvertently given Effie our trusty old thermos... but it was a minor sacrifice that we could work around.

We had to make another sacrifice to get through security. I had no real problems (finally figured out how to keep straight which key went to which lock, even though two of my locks had mysteriously vanished) but then had to wait for my sister to come through the security lines... and wait, and then wait some more. About the time I was thinking I'd better find Lisa, AJ reappeared with wisps of steam coming out of her ears. Despite all the prior security checks with identical packing methods, this one particular guard took umbrage at all the "strange liquids" she was carrying. She finally convinced him that the saline solution for her contact lenses was inert, but he still insisted she either had to check the carry-on (complete with all the adoption papers inside) or give up the liquid Children's Benadryl that everyone else had cleared through. She was upset, but the papers were safely with her while the Benadryl sadly waved goodbye.

Boarding wasn't quite what we were used to; first there was the issue of the strollers (checked at the entrance to the jetway), then there was the issue of three little kiddos not entirely sure about what was going on. (Hey, lady, your carry-on just kicked me!) Considering all the weirdness of our previous flight, everyone was a bit nervous; after all, none of the girls had been on a plane before, and even during The Bus Ride From Hell we'd been able to stop & get off periodically... We realized I was supposed to sit on the opposite side of the aisle from AJ & Miri, but as soon as I asked a Chinese businessman sitting in the 3rd seat of their row if he'd mind swapping seats, he got up and motioned for me to sit beside my sister. (I don't know if he understood English or if he'd just noticed my pointing to the baby and the seat next to him.)  That hurdle past, I returned to worrying about how my niece would deal with her first flight...

...and it turned out that we hadn't needed to worry because the Pipsqueak handled it all like a champ. Not only did she pry a few smiles loose from the airport security people, she just spent her time on the plane looking around, busying herself with a little toy (or making toys out of anything within reach), and generally just chillaxin' for all but a few minutes here & there. No crying, no drama, no omigod they're gonna give me a parachute & push me out the door... I think the worst of it was while we were still on the ground (where I noticed the airport was simultaneously modern & rural, with modern aircraft on one side of a fence and farmland immediately on the other). You might notice my sister has a funny look on her face in the attached photo; that's because her daughter had just decided to see how hard she could hit Mommy's nose before it became dislodged. (All through our trip, and for a couple of months back home, Miri seemed convinced she could rearrange AJ's facial features if she could just find the right button to push...)

Takeoff was smooth, and after a few nervous minutes it was obvious that the Pipsqueak decided all the funny bumps & noises were just another set of diversions to prevent boredom so AJ & I relaxed. I remember commenting, as we caught one last look at the karst landscape, that the Pipsqueak was now moving farther from where she was born than she'd ever been in her life, and AJ replied that this was nothing compared to how far away she would be moving in just a few days. We took turns looking out the window and trying to keep the Pipsqueak happy (not nearly as difficult as it could've been; there were other kids on the flight, not part of our group, who seemed a lot less happy with things). I noticed a valley filled with clouds passing under the wing, and after a quick check of the time realized it was roughly on the border between the two provinces. Not long afterwards we saw a very large airport coming into view and began to get ready for landing... but we flew right on past it and kept going for a while.

Finally, the cabin crew began the usual end-of-flight dance down the aisles, and we put back together everything the Pipsqueak had pulled out and got ready to deplane. (Why do we "deplane" but not "deboat" or "decar" or "detrain"...?!?) The airport at Guangzhou was even more chaotic than in Guilin, and there were a few nervous moments for the group as we reclaimed the strollers, then picked up the luggage, then tried to find our guide Lucy. There were a few more nervous moments when we realized the minibus was more "mini" than "bus" and none of us thought we could fit all the people and all the luggage on board. Lucy and Lisa kept reassuring us it would be alright and shooed us aboard... and after several minutes (and a last couple of suitcases joining us in our seats) we actually hit the road and headed for Guangzhou. During the loading process, the driver was speaking with Lucy & Lisa almost nonstop;  I didn't understand a word he said, but could tell exactly what he was saying as he loaded suitcase after suitcase after suitcase after suitcase into the too-small cargo area in the rear...!

As we rolled along the airport expressway toward Guangzhou, Lucy introduced herself to us and let us know a little bit about what to expect the next few days. She also raised some actual (quiet) cheers from the group by saying she'd order pizza for us, did we prefer Pizza Hut or Papa John's...?

(Waitaminit... Dude, you're in China, and you're cheering over a choice between two brands of pizza you don't normally buy at home...?!?!)

To this day, I really can't explain it. Everywhere we'd gone, we had eaten mainly local dishes and (usually) eaten well. The breakfasts were an interesting mix of East and West, and I had been enjoying the different looks, smells, textures and flavors of the Chinese food that made up the bulk of our diet. Chopsticks weren't a problem, and I was willing to at least taste pretty much anything the restaurants were willing to put on a plate. (Correction: pretty much anything that wasn't sea cucumber.) I hadn't realized that my palate had gotten homesick until I caught myself cheering much like everyone else at the prospect of good ol' pizza for a late lunch.

We entered Guangzhou proper as the elation of pending pizza began to wear off and the exhaustion born of a ridiculously early start to a long day began to make itself felt. The city of Guangzhou was a lot more "city" than Guilin had been -- big, noisy, the kind of traffic that made Beijing's roads look good... I was beginning to wonder what we'd gotten into when suddenly we were in a quiet neighborhood, driving along a road that quickly rose above the trees & river, and suddenly there it was in front of us: the White Swan Hotel. Once upon a time, the U.S. Consulate was just a couple of blocks away, and there weren't many hotels in the area; this resulted in the White Swan being the hotel of choice for American families adopting children from China. So many, in fact, that some people referred to it as the "White Stork," and a whole ecosystem of businesses catering to adoptive families sprang up in the surrounding streets. Even though some things have changed, the White Swan still hosts a statistically significant percentage of American families adopting children from China.

We rolled up to the front door and I think all the adults in the group had the same feeling of the adoptions finally being really, truly almost complete -- the place is so deeply ingrained in the American adoption experience that there are some traditions that cause families go to the White Swan even if they're staying in other hotels in the city (more on these in a later post).  It was thus only mildly jarring to step off the bus and find a limo festooned with wedding decorations waiting to whisk a bride & groom away on their honeymoon. (We all thought the stuffed Mickey & Minnie figurines attached to the grill were a nice touch.) It was a gentle reminder that this was a "real" hotel catering to other demographics different from our own.

We walked through the doors, past the requisite jade ship that seemed to be a requirement of all "classy" establishments, and started the check-in process. Looking around, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of huge cartoony goats on a pedestal nearby; the mascots of Guangzhou, they had also been chosen as the mascots for the Pan-Asian Games the city would be hosting a couple of months later. The second thing I noticed, once my eyes adjusted to the scene, was a much larger percentage of non-Asian faces that I'd become used to, along with quite a few more young children than I'd seen for a while. The voice in the back of my mind was going, "Yep, this must be the place!" as I moved farther into the building, and promptly changed to going, "Whoa!" when I reached a spot where I could see the entire lobby.

Hey, this place was big... The waterfall was two floors below where I was standing, and the ceiling another two floors up! During much of the paperchasing, I'd heard about one of AJ's friends who had stayed here while adopting her first daughter smack-dab in the middle of the SARS scare -- who had thus not been allowed off the hotel grounds (not just her, all the visiting adoptive families). I'd had visions of being cooped up in the equivalent of the old motel I'd once spent 2 weeks living in during a business trip to Albany but now any fears of being restricted to the hotel were replaced with an interest in exploring a lot of interesting nooks & crannies (and I hadn't even seen the basement shopping mall or the swimming pools yet).

[Quick aside: This friend of my sister's, now the happy mommy to two cute little girls born in China, is arguably the reason we were making the same trek a few years after her. If you're reading this, you know who you are... Thank you.! :-)]

[Additional quick aside: I don't mean to slight the old friend of mine up in Canada, also the happy & proud parent of two wonderful little girls born in China, who gladly gave AJ excellent advice & information during her paperchasing. Thank you, too, Rev!]

Asides aside, as I looked around the lobby of the White Swan, I had the feeling things were going to work out well. Now we just had to find our room...!

NEXT: Pizza, a hot & muggy walk among the statuary, and rediscovering hamburgers.

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