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!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zippy Baby and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees (July 22, 2010)

I didn't wake up with a voice screaming, "IT'S YOUR LAST DAY HERE!" in the back of my mind, and although it did come up in our conversation, I don't think AJ was too terribly worried about it. (I'll have to ask her one of these days -- I think she only cared that she had her daughter with her, never mind where!) Still, there was a bit of a different feel to the morning, as if everything was being run through a different filter; we'd gotten through the "we'll meet her soon" stage and gotten through the "I hope she's bonding well" stage and through the "so this is China" stage... now we were in the "it's almost time to go home, how the heck do we pack?!?" stage, so everything felt a little different. While I had all these odd thoughts bouncing around inside my head, the Pipsqueak did the smart thing and grabbed a few extra Z's while Mommy and Uncle ran through the by-now-well-established morning routine.

Happily, it was one of our more leisurely mornings; we had a slightly later than usual departure time for our tours and a more relaxed schedule for the day, so we had plenty of time because we'd both become good Early Risers. (Okay, I'm lying through my teeth; AJ is an early riser but I never have been and never will be... Let's just say ya does what ya gots to do and I'd gotten used to it.) The Pipsqueak had finished inhaling her first bottle of the day and was occupying her usual spot in the middle of a bed (curiously studying a couple of Dollar bills she'd pulled from Mommy's bag) when AJ said, "Let's put her down and see what she does." For some reason, up until this point it hadn't occurred to either of us to give the little one more real estate than what's available atop a hotel bed -- so we honestly weren't sure how mobile she was on her own. I picked Miri up, gently retrieved the money, and put her down on the carpet. My niece looked up at me with a surprised expression, looked around the room, and then.. Zoom! Surprise, y'all -- the kid can crawl faster than you can walk!

She checked out the area by the beds, then zipped to the other end of the room (by Mommy, of course) and investigated the bathroom, pulling herself up onto her feet in the doorway for a moment for a better look at the counter (on the video I was busy taking, I can hear myself telling AJ "Uh oh, she found where we're hiding her bottles!"). Then she sort of walked/crawled/wobbled to the louvered wood doors on the closet and happily banged on them for a few minutes. Somewhere in the middle of all the activity, AJ turned to me and said, "We better get those baby gates put up fast when we get home!" (Note: Those fershlugginer baby gates will have a future post all to themselves.)

Eventually we corralled the now-mobile Pipsqueak and got downstairs for our last tour outing in China. (Dude, don't say it that way, it sounds too scary.)  In the lobby, we found that it would be just us, Lucy, and Papa & Baby S; everybody else was either a bit under the weather, too tired to get up early, or had too much shopping left to do (or too much laundry left to pick up!). That was okay; we were all pretty much family by this point, so AJ & I were glad for the company as we got onto the minibus.

Our first stop for the day was the famous Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, a Buddhist temple almost 1,500 years old in downtown Guangzhou. It started out with a different name (Baozhuangyan) but roughly 1,000 years ago a famous writer/poet called it by the new name and it stuck. The temple's been burned, rebuilt, and modified in various ways since its establishment, but it's occupied the same spot the whole time. (Kind of makes the Pueblo Indian settlements in the southwestern U.S. look young!) I wasn't sure what to expect, so it was a surprise when the bus pulled up to an unassuming gate in an unassuming (but high) wall on a busy street in the old downtown area.

Walking through the gate, we (mostly) left the modern city behind. We passed ancient guardian figures painted on the inside of the gates, and guardian statues (including one holding a rather impressive sword) by a covered gallery just inside the entrance, and then strolled into a large, open courtyard area. The central courtyard is dominated by the tall, beautifully intricate tower of the Flower Pagoda, with a less imposing but also beautifully decorated building off to the right. There was a steady trickle of people coming in behind us, and as we moved further into the courtyard I caught an occasional whiff of incense being burned ahead of us. (Dude, this ain't a tourist trap, it's the real thing!)

As we crossed the open area, we came up to a large cast-iron vessel. Each level was different; it looked like a pagoda on top of an incense burner on top of a teapot (but was actually one piece), and it was easily ten feet from top to bottom.  Near the top, there were two large openings in a hexagonal section, and Lucy told us that anyone who tossed a coin into one of the holes so that it dropped down into the vessel would have a wish granted. I had no coins with me, but Papa S handed me the Chinese equivalent of a penny and told me to give it a try. I wasn't sure it was a good idea -- I've been known to repeatedly miss tossing a ball into a bucket just a couple of feet away -- but everyone looked so hopeful that I couldn't say no. I turned to face the target, hefted the coin a few times to get a feel for its mass, took a deep breath, and made a wish for everyone to have a safe, comfortable trip home. I gently swung the coin up in an underhand toss...

...and was shocked to see it sail through the middle of the hole and drop straight down inside. Even the little dragons that decorated the vessel seemed a little bug-eyed at my success, but I undeniably made it on the first try! (Yay, me!) We all agreed it was a good omen, but I don't think anyone -- with the possible exception of my sister -- realized just how rare an occurrence it really was!

We continued to the back of the courtyard, past a large cast-iron vessel full of sand that had many sticks of burning incense in it, placed there by worshippers making requests of the three massive golden Buddhas in the pavilion just beyond. As we walked, Lucy pointed out various details in the buildings around us (for example, the fish figures on the rooftops were one form of the son of the dragon spirit -- though I doubt the original architects thought of adding decorative colored electric bulbs). While admiring the intricate wood carving and ironwork, I couldn't help but notice the modern apartment buildings practically leading over the temple walls... another one of those old vs. new contrasts that seemed to be a trademark of Chinese cities.

My attention quickly got pulled back into the past as we looked at the three magnificent golden figures of Buddha. I don't have a lot of photos because Lucy (who admitted she's a practicing Buddhist) said it was considered disrespectful to photograph the figures inside the building.  I did take one shot (she said it was OK) from outside, but it really doesn't do the huge statues (each slightly different from the other two) justice. One detail we noticed was a (relatively) tiny swastika on the chest of each Buddha. Lucy was a little embarassed and tried to explain it wasn't that swastika, but we all already knew that it had been an ancient symbol of mystical importance for centuries before being misappropriated by a European leader in the mid-20th century and were simply able to admire the art & work of the shrine.

As we moved back into the courtyard, Lucy pointed out a small statue off to one side; it was the writer/poet Su Shi -- aka Zizhan, aka Dongpo Jushi, aka Su Dongpo -- the man who had first written of the six banyan trees from which the temple drew its name. Although we decided not to wait for a priestly blessing of Miri & Baby S, we spent a while longer looking through the temple. There were examples of architecture of many periods, and a small Thai-style Buddha in a shrine off to one side in a smaller courtyard, and many locals quietly stopping to pray, place incense offerings in the braziers, or just sit and enjoy the quiet shade under the large flowering tree on one side. One of the more modern touches was a white-painted square wooden post in one of the flowerbeds, with an inscription in a different language on each side; its photo is below. (I hope they really mean it...!)

As we prepared to leave, I was again struck by the sight of modern buildings looming over the ancient architecture of the temple buildings. Two quick glimpses were another one of the dragon spirit's sons serving as a focal point for families in the apartments next door, and a wall where someone obviously had a little fun when an old window was bricked in.

We finally headed back to the gate to leave, pausing for one last refreshing moment in the shade of the large flowering tree between the two courtyards. As we headed out through some ongoing renovation work, AJ noticed a slight "oops" on the part of the workmen and asked me to take a photo. (Excuse me, sir, but shouldn't the stairs go around support columns instead of through them?)

Back out on the sidewalk, as we folded the strollers and started getting back into the bus, we stopped for a moment to look at the bas-relief panels in the wall across the street. They showed scenes of everyday city life in old China -- and there was our friend Chicken Man, handing out olives to the children! Lucy said it was an old tradition, but unfortunately didn't know its source or the perceived link between chickens and olives. (I wondered if it was due to their egg shape, but I'm still looking for the answer.)

We boarded the bus and rolled back into the crazy downtown traffic. We were headed for the main city park and the statue that served as Guangzhou's mascot.

NEXT: Some really, really big goats...!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Evening Cruise on the Pearl River (July 21, 2010)

Sorry for the delay in posting -- I was trying to figure out how to handle all the photos & videos I took of the colored lights (and animated buildings!) during the cruise, and finally decided a few pictures were less important than the recollections & stories this blog is intended to share... So you may find a future post with additional photos & videos pertaining to this post. Meanwhile, back to July 2010...

There was a bit of a scramble when we got back to the hotel; traffic during the return trip from the Consulate made the traffic going there look light, and the clock was ticking down to the scheduled departure time for our evening cruise. I think the Pipsqueak must've loaned out her ability to teleport (remember the incident on the bed?) -- I really don't remember how we got from the big tour bus and into our usual minibus, but my memory jumps from one bus to the other so I figure that's how we did it. :-)

The ride back through the city on surface streets was different from the trip on the raised highway -- we were right down in the everyday rush at the end of the workday, and (since traffic was still barely moving) had a clear view of all the little vignettes that make up everyone's daily life. It was raining lightly, so people were moving quickly from one covered spot to another, some obviously shopping, some just trying to get home after a long day at work. The passing cityscape was also interesting -- we'd drive past grocery shops, apartments, clothing or electronics stores... and then suddenly there'd be a big nightclub with all kinds of crazy posters & photos in the windows (most including either photos or silhouettes of young women wearing quite a bit less than one would expect given the reputation of the national government).

One of the wilder signs I saw for a nightclub (of course there was a telephone pole right in front of it when the camera shutter clicked!) showed Bugs Bunny -- yes, I said Bugs Bunny -- ogling a couple of scantily-clad young women. (Holy copyright infringement, Batman!)  By this time I had gotten over my "not in Kansas any more" feeling, but this was one of the moments when I had to wonder exactly where I really was. Dude, pinch yourself again -- are you sure you're in the People's Republic of China and not back home...?

We got to the wharf on time and piled out of the bus, with Lucy warning us to keep close together and keep an eye out for any hands that weren't ours reaching into our pockets. We got into the "station" and Lucy tried to get us into the VIP lounge to wait -- but we were relegated to hanging out in the regular waiting area.  It didn't really matter too much in the end; we were only there a few minutes before the boat began boarding. We made our way through the dining room to our tables (happily right by the window), got all the kids & paraphernalia organized, and took a look around.

The dining room was nice, and we had enough space to be comfortable... but I was wondering if all the rushing had been for nothing because there wasn't much to see outside. It was too light for there to be any neon showing clearly (despite the heavy overcast), and everything looked pretty much the way it looked when we walked along the riverbank near the White Swan each evening. The fake "junk" tour boat we'd seen during our evening walks was maneuvering nearby -- up close, it proved even bigger than I'd thought -- and I watched it for a few minutes. Eventually our path was clear, and we cast off and motored into the main channel.

First we headed toward the new TV broadcast tower that was one of the newest additions to the Guangzhou skyline. It was supposed to be covered in lights that changed colors in a range of animated patterns, but they hadn't been turned on yet because the sun was just beginning to go down. With another pang of "oh well, at least I hope we'll have a nice meal on the river" I took a couple of photos (we were still a good distance from the tower when the boat turned around and headed in the other direction) and contented myself with watching the Pipsqueak play with one of the other girls on the wide sill between our table & the window.

As the sky began to darken, the rain tapered off... and I realized that the river had begun slowly filling with tour boats of all shapes & sizes, each with its own complement of neon & animated lights. Maybe this was the light show...? We just chilled, talking among ourselves, watching the passing scene and occasionally repositioning one of the kiddos on the windowsill (or moving potentially dangerous window blind cords away)...  Not too much time passed before it was dinnertime, and (as usual!) I wasn't exactly sure what I was eating but it was all pretty good. Meanwhile, it had been getting steadily darker outside, and the neon on passing boats was definitely becoming more of a show. I also noticed some of the buildings were beginning to light up... a colored rooftop here, highlighted edges there, maybe some moving lights on a large billboard...

Finally, whole buildings were lighting up, and the rain seemed to have finally stopped for real, so I decided that maybe my fears had been misplaced -- there really was a lot to look at, after all! There was a series of announcements on the PA system but without an English translation we had no way of knowing if it was a safety lecture, a running narration of the passing scene, or announcements about the evening's events so we just kept talking among ourselves while keeping one eye on the kiddos & the other out the window. (Hey, if a chameleon can do it, why can't I?!?)

We soon got a surprise: a huge animated neon billboard spanning almost half a city block advertising... Amway! Of all the bits of Americana I thought we might encounter in China, this was definitely not on the list -- I'm not exactly their biggest fan but I think I laughed out loud at the sight. Never mind good ol' Bugs... this was (supposedly) as American as it gets, but there it was, bigger than life and blasting out enough photons to read by!

Somehow it wasn't much of a surprise to see a big UPS billboard a couple of rooftops away... and at that point I decided to get a better view of things from the observation deck. AJ and the other mommies stayed put with the kiddos while the menfolk made their way (individually) upstairs and outside. Papa B and Papa S eventually went back inside, but I hung out topside with my camera for most of the rest of the evening. (Turns out I was missing a magic show and some other entertainment... guess I'll have to stay below in the dining room when we take the Pipsqueak back to China on a heritage tour in a couple of decades. <g>)

I'm posting some images below that don't really do justice to the passing scene -- problem is, I spent a lot more time with the camera in video mode than in still mode, and it's just taking waaaay too long to sample the hundreds of megabytes of animations to post it all here. Suffice it to say, they really like their neon in China -- as in, you need to go to the Strip in Vegas to see something like this, and that's just a few blocks while this is literally miles of waterfront! Some buildings just had decorative lighting; many had animated patterns running across their faces (often changing into different animations every couple of minutes); a few buildings were acting like giant TV screens (the pictures were low resolution but could definitely be watched, they just had no sound); and a surprising number of buildings had animated lights that actually displayed recognizable patterns (one of my favorites was a large office building whose entire facade was an animation of falling maple leaves).  Just to keep things interesting, most of the lights along the riverbanks were also animated, and all the passing tour boats were heavily decked out in many colors of neon (some of which was also animated). Here's a really small sample of what kept me enthralled for much of the evening:

Note: The last 2 pictures are frame sequences from one of my videos; I'll try to do a better job posting samples sometime in the future.

Eventually, even the passing light show on both sides of the boat wasn't enough to keep me from noticing that I had almost been blown over by the wind on several occasions, and I decided it was time to rejoin the group. It wasn't long afterwards that it became obvious we were nearing the end of the cruise, and we managed to have most of our stuff ready to roll when the boat docked. As we made our way back to our bus, I noticed the crowds were different -- there were a lot more twentysomethings, and many seemed dressed for an evening of club-hopping. At this point, I had so completely rewritten my old notions of what China would look like that I just kept one hand on my wallet and treated the crowd like any other I'd encountered in Europe or the Americas. In fact, I think we had all reached a similar point; the crazy traffic on the way back to the White Swan was just another ride through the city, and the occasional stare from someone in a nearby vehicle no longer seemed impolite or novel.

I don't know -- maybe, with the adoptions completed and our return home looming so large, Guangzhou had become just another city, China just another place...? All I know is that somehow things felt different, and while I really was in no rush to leave I felt like it really was time to return Stateside and get on with life. (Despite this feeling, none of us had trouble being amused by the sight of a street cleaner whose driver had tried squeezing beneath an overpass a good couple of feet lower than the top of his machine...!)

On the way back to the hotel, Lucy talked a little about what we could do the next day -- our last full day in China! -- and while AJ and I decided to see how much more sightseeing we could squeeze in, there were some noncommital answers from the rest of the group. We were all tired (especially the two newly-minted older sisters, who had been behaving wonderfully the whole time despite being exhausted) so as we disembarked it was left at "we'll see who's in the lobby at such-and-such a time" and we headed back upstairs to our rooms.

We did a little bit of pre-packing, Skyped with our folks a bit, and then AJ & Miri went to bed while I completed posting in our travel blog. Unlike any other evening during the trip, something about the almost generically urban crowds and immediacy of our pending departure had left me feeling a little melancholy. I'd felt similar feelings before, when pending returns to the U.S. from overseas postings were close and there was a sort of "this is ending very soon" scent in the air, but the feeling evaporated every time I looked at the Pipsqueak snoring quietly beside my sister in bed. It took a few minutes to sink in, but by the time I turned out the lights I had a new feeling that this wasn't an ending -- it was just the closing of a first chapter, very much the beginning of a whole new adventure.

NEXT: Last Day in China!

Present Day - The Pipsqueak's First Passover

Oy... Thank you,  Compost  Comcast for such a wonderful "now it's there, now it's not, now it's there but too slow to use" connection to the Internet.

I just wanted to wish everyone a slightly belated Happy Passover... On Monday night, with the Pipsqueak running in & out of the kitchen, dining room, family room, and foyer, I couldn't help but remember how it was just one year ago that we were still closing out the family seders with "Next year in Beijing..." (It was a joke the 1st year; by the 5th Passover last year, none of us were smiling when we said it!)  I also noticed that when we reached the line in the old Haggadahs that reads, "...and causes the barren woman to dwell in her house a joyful mother of children" that AJ seemed to hug the Pipsqueak just a bit harder and maybe even have a catch in her voice for just a moment... :-)

Never mind that my niece almost had a meltdown at one point, or that Mommy and Uncle and Grandma had to sometimes take turns occupying her in another room, or that anyone sitting within 5 feet of her during mealtimes needs to wear only machine-washable, non-delicate clothing... Seeing her there sampling Grandma's chicken soup while sitting in Mommy's lap (and spending a little time sitting on her Jiujiu's lap, making my dinner last much longer) or how her presence added to the usual level of chaos that marks almost every family seder for as long as I can remember... Wow.  Just wow.

Like my niece says during family hugs: "Happy happy!"

But now I'm going to try to get back to typing in the text of my long-delayed post about our evening cruise on the Pearl River in Guangzhou... see y'all later!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Present Day: Kvelling Again :-)

While y'all wait for me to put up my next post about the trip (see note at the end of this post), I just thought I'd do a little online kvelling over my niece.  Mommy had an all-day certification course to deal with, so Grandma & Grandpa had the little dynamo at home... so Uncle Brian stopped by mid-afternoon to try & spell them a bit.  The Pipsqueak and I had a very nice time; we watched the birds in the yard, took a nice walk outside, did a little sketching, shared a bit of dinner, and I even got an unsolicited hug & cuddle later on as I got her into her jammies! (Mommy was exhausted & had given up trying; Grandma & Grandpa knew better than to even try at that point, leaving me the only adult awake enough[?] to attempt the feat.)

What got me kvelling again was some of what the Pipsqueak said & did...

- Looking out the window at the hole in a nearby tree that's just had a little woodpecker move in, she kept pointing & saying, "Doggie!" (her general-purpose "that's an animal" statement). I pointed to a Robin moving around in the yard and told her it's not a doggie, it's a bird; I said that maybe 2-3 times when she looked at me, very clearly said, "bird!" and used that word properly the rest of the afternoon. (Okay, it was more like "buud" but she got the idea. <g>)

- During our walk in the yard she was interested in my SUV (which she's never been in before) so I opened the door & plopped her into the passenger seat. After a couple of minutes looking around, she whacked the seat next to her and commanded, "sit DOWN!", then pointed at the steering wheel and asked, "Beep?" When I honked the horn, she laughed and for the next several minutes would periodically interrupt her exploration to point at the wheel and ask for another beep. Pretty cool, since she's still riding backwards in her car seat and can't see where honking horns come from -- she got the idea of the wheel going "beep" from "The Wheels on the Bus" (one of her three favoritest songs).

- The one event that caught us all by surprise came after we went back inside. The Pipsqueak pushed a pen & paper across the table to me and said, "Doggie!" so I drew a few. (It helps that she's no art critic, 'cause I'm no artist!) I started running out of room on the page, so I drew a little star and showed it to her. She contemplated it for about 30 seconds, then drew herself up to her full miniscule height, held her hands up over her head, and with a big smile said, "Up in the sky!" This was the longest sentence any of us have heard her say, and (based on "Twinkle Twinkle" being one of her current favorite songs) just blew us all away with how she put the picture, the word, the idea, and the song together in just seconds & then let us know about it. Not bad for someone a bit shy of 22 months! :-)

Oh, and now she's made a game of calling me "Mommy" -- I'll say, "No, I'm not your mommy, who am I?" and she'll laugh and say "Uncle!" a couple of times.


Okay, maybe this post doesn't have a lot of deeply meaningful philosophical statements, but I'm proud of the Pipsqueak and wanted to share it with everybody!

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to figure out what to do with/to/about all the photos I was thinking of including in my upcoming post about our nighttime cruise through Guangzhou on the Pearl River... Should have it straightened out (and posted!) soon...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Consulate Appointment & Oath-Taking (July 21, 2010)

Because of the U.S. Consulate's security restrictions, I left my camera in our hotel room. Lucy had explained we could take our cameras with us -- but that we'd have to either leave them on the bus or at the last security checkpoint in the Consulate; neither choice was appealing, so for the first time in the entire trip I was without a camera. (I thus have to ask readers to forgive the resulting lack of photos in this entry.)

We all reached the White Swan's downstairs lobby in record time, and found a small mob that was roughly 2/3 American adults and 1/3 Chinese babies, toddlers, and young children. The kids were all in various stages of napping, meltdown, or confusion, and the adults all looked either dreamy, panicked, or various combinations of the two. For those readers not familiar with the adoption process, we were all headed to the CA: the Consulate Appointment, where the U.S. government would process the last pieces of the application to ensure everything up to that point had been aboveboard, honest, and legal. Short of the point of entry customs counter back home (point of entry being the first airport on U.S. soil), CA is the final hurdle adopting families must clear before the Feds agree with the Chinese government and declare the adoption official and complete. The dreamy looks were due to the knowledge of this last fact; the panicked looks were, too. (Hey, you try waiting half a decade to complete a process on the opposite side of the planet from where you live, in a place where the local language might as well be Na'vi or Klingon, where even one missing page from one official form or one typographical error on a key line of text can derail everything and then try to not look a little panicky!)

It was obvious that the White Swan staff were used to dealing with American adoptive families; there were two large tour buses in the lot, ready & waiting to take the entire mob to the U.S. Consulate. Despite the size of the group, there was minimal confusion and very little drama as everyone made their way to the buses in the beginnings of a light drizzle. Once everyone had boarded (with the different agencies' guides cross-checking repeatedly to make sure no one had lost any of their charges), the mini-convoy set out through the usual impossible traffic.

Once upon a time, the U.S. Consulate was just an easy walk from the White Swan, just a couple of blocks away in a building that dated back to the 1890s. However, Guangzhou has continued growing, sprawling out along the banks of the Pearl River and farther out from the river; the center of the city has been slowly moving, much like a plot of land carried along by the action of continental drift. In addition, the classic old building simply could not accommodate the flood of adopting families & Chinese visa-seekers, nor the increased staff needed to service them. The result was a move to "temporary" facilities in the new downtown area in 2005 -- leaving us a cross-city drive in heavy traffic to attend the pre-scheduled appointment for processing & oath-taking. (It's my understanding that the Consulate is scheduled to move again to a new, custom-built 7+ acre campus in late 2011.)

I regretted not having the camera with me during the drive; much of the route was on a raised highway (something you'll find a lot of in Chinese cities), so I had a good view of many rooftops & upper-floor apartments. An excellent view, in fact; traffic was still moving at an absolute crawl. There were apartments without curtains that we could see in their entirety; rooftop gardens with no rail to prevent a multi-story "oops" if one stepped back too far while admiring the view; jury-rigged shelters I couldn't decide were storage sheds or squatters' shacks; and the occasional apartment-dweller staring back at the busload of Westerners. In short. it was a fascinating close-up view of everyday life in Guangzhou, a quick series of silent vignettes that left me wanting to see more and marveling at how everything looked simultaneously different from, and the same as, similar territory in cities back home.

Eventually the buses pulled up in front of a big commercial building and everyone filed into the lobby. We all climbed onto an escalator... then onto another... then onto another... Remembering the old Consulate building I was familiar with back in Chile, and some of the U.S. support buildings in Brussels, this was a real surprise -- the Guangzhou consular offices were several stories up in a commercial office building packed chock-full of travel agencies, import/export companies, and local businesses! We eventually reached a floor that looked different from the others, with U.S. Marines manning an airport-style security checkpoint.

We made our way in (about half the group was being held up by having to check their cameras  other items we'd been told to not bother bringing) and a couple of twists & turns later found ourselves in a large room filled with those small metal-and-plastic institutional chairs one can find in waiting rooms worldwide. One side of the room had a series of large windows akin to a bank's, while a big flat-screen TV on either side of the room presented videos on what we were all supposed to be doing. There was one problem the room's designers had seemingly not thought of: the more families there were waiting, the more increasingly bored young children & nervous adoptive parents there were to make noise. We were only in the room 5-6 minutes before I couldn't hear even the TV that was just a few feet away from our seats.

Eventually, the Consular Officer got up in front of the room to address the crowd and explain the process. She gave a brief history of adoptions, including the slowdown of the past few years and the notable increase in special needs adoptions. She closed out her talk with statement that the oath (to be administered after everyone had been processed at one of the windows) was going to be "anticlimatic"-- it was not an actual oath of citizenship, merely a formalized statement that all the information given was true all promises for remaining adoption procedures would be kept. (The actual citizenship situation varies slightly according to the path families take to return to U.S. territory and/or whether both spouses travel to the PRC.)

There was one more unexpected hurdle we had to clear. Families were being called to the windows for processing with the name of their adoption agency and the Chinese name of the child being adopted. This was easy enough, but for the first time we realized that the Pipsqueak's Chinese name differed from the Chinese name of Baby S by only one consonant; in the middle of all the noise, we had to listen to slightly fuzzy announcements for babies from the same agency whose names differed only by the sound of a "D" versus a "T" in their last name! Time passed, and our nervousness slowly grew as we watched one family after another respond to calls for names that all seemed very clearly different from each other. The steady movement of families to & from the windows continued, with the nervous expressions of adults being called being replaced with big relieved smiles as they returned to their seats, little ones (many dressed in variations of red, white & blue) firmly in arms or running ahead.

Finally, we heard our agency called, and after a couple of seconds of hesitation we all decided it was the Pipsqueak's name that we'd heard. AJ headed to the windows, the Pipsqueak secure in her arms and that oh-so-valuable, carefully guarded envelope of papers in her hand. I sat quietly for a few minutes, gritting my teeth and wondering what was taking so long (since I wasn't an adoptive parent I wasn't allowed up to the windows with my sister) and then AJ came back through the crowd looking like she didn't know if she should laugh or cry -- everything was OK, the paperwork was complete.

Half a decade of hair-pulling, hand-wringing, second-guessing, stress, worry, sleepless nights, searches for information, mounting expenses, disappointing updates, paperwork renewals, and putting life on indefinite hold had just come to their desired end.

(Note to readers not acquainted with the adoption process: I keep repeating statements like the above because there's just no other way to communicate how insanely, indecently, incessantly hard the process is when you're going through it.)  The next 15-20 minutes kind of blurred away; as happy as we were for our traveling companions as they also returned from the processing windows with teary smiles, it was taking a few minutes for our brains to catch up with our reality. Finally, the last family in the room sat back down and the Consular Officer returned to the front of the room to administer the oath.

I don't care how anticlimatic the oath was supposed to be, or how minor a legal procedure it was in the adoption; it marked the official closure we'd been striving to achieve for so long, and thus held a personal importance to us both far in excess of its actual importance. The oath was officially just for adopting parents and not other family members, but I stood with AJ and raised my hand just like she did. (Dude, the kid's peed on you, drooled on you, awakened you at three in the morning... you earned this!) About halfway through the oath, I was getting a little choked up with emotion (as were most of the adults in the room), but when I looked to my left I saw my sister with tears streaming down her face looking at her daughter; her hand was still up, but she was barely able to lip-synch with the oath as it was being read. By the time we were done, she was just one of many who'd completely lost the ability to speak and later only half-jokingly commented that I had finished the oath on her behalf. (I didn't tell her at the time that if it had been only a few words longer, I would've been crying as hard as she was.)

There was a different feeling as everyone made their way back down the multiple flights of escalators. I overheard a lot of comments like, "You're going to see your new home soon!" and the general tone of conversations was somehow lighter. There were still a few odds & ends to take care of, and long flights home ahead of us all, but everyone knew that the adoptions were for all intents and purposes complete.

NEXT: An amazing evening cruise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

More Museum Shops than You Can Shake A Stick At (July 21, 2010)

I'd like to say we awoke bright-eyed and ready for another adventurous day, but the truth is more along the lines of, "I fumbled for the phone when we got our recorded wake-up call and then we both tried to talk each other into getting out of bed." The Pipsqueak didn't have the greatest night, waking mommy (and occasionally Jiujiu) several times and not always going right back to sleep. Bleary-eyed as we were, we couldn't blame her; not only did the crib scare her so much that she was sleeping with AJ in bed, the poor kid hadn't been in the same location more than 4 consecutive days for at least two weeks, and was subject to being carried/rolled/coaxed to new places every few hours every day. Frankly, I suspect the only thing allowing any of us to get some sleep was the resulting exhaustion! (Although I've still kept my promise of not cussing at my "too hard" bed here at home... gaaah...!)

In any case, we had the morning routine down pat and managed to get downstairs early enough for a leisurely breakfast despite none of us actually having our eyes fully open. I don't remember if I had watermelon juice or banana juice (or both?) but we discovered a chocolate cake that it worth hauling our tired tail feathers down the 25 stories for breakfast... and then it was back upstairs to make sure we had everything we needed, and right back down to board the bus with the other two families for a trip to the Guangdong Folk Art Museum.

The traffic in Guangzhou was no better than the traffic in any other city we'd visited, but by now we were all slightly blase about it. (When the count of close calls enters the realm of 5-digit numbers, you stop counting... sometimes you even stop gasping and closing your eyes...) The ride wasn't too long, and we rolled through some more construction into a nearly empty parking lot surrounded by tall, grey stone walls. There were hi-rise buildings all around, but the low, grey building in front of us was obviously from another time. There were highly detailed bas-relief panels in the walls, and the roofline was broken up with more carvings.

As we got closer, I realized there weren't a few shapes carved into the peak of the roof; the entire roof was crowded -- jammed! -- with three-dimensional carvings and free-standing figures. While I shot multiple photos, Lucy explained that all the statuary & carvings depicted either scenes from Chinese folklore, scenes from history, scenes designed to invoke celestial goodwill, or scenes designed to show the greatness of the Chen clan, the original builders & owners of the complex. (I was so interested in the figures that I didn't notice AJ taking photos of yours truly.) The free-standing figures along the peak of each roof were all ceramic, and looked very dark due to the age & weathering of the colored glazes; the bas-relief figures immediately below them were more brightly colored because they were made of soapstone (which would not hold colors permanently) and the government had them repainted after the rainy season every year.

We walked through the huge double doors -- each with a massive protective spirit painted on that dwarfed passers-by -- and encountered a large wooden screen with multiple carved panels. Back when this was the Chen clan's compound, this screen could tell you how important they thought you were; the screen would be folded out of the way so VIPs could walk straight in, but more common guests would have to walk around it. (Dude, you're just a commoner, get over it...!)  Lucy reviewed the meaning of the carvings -- each panel told a different story or had a different meaning -- and then the entire group began moving slowly through the compound. There were large panels on either side of the doors that gave a brief history of the compound, both as the Chen Clan Academy and as the Guangdong Folk Art Museum; based on my knowledge of , I caught myself wondering just how "voluntary" the Chen clan's handing over of their ancestral hall to the local government had been... But here we were, and it was a truly impressive place to be.

Unfortunately, one of the very first things we all noticed was -- you guessed it -- it was HOT. Even walking in the shade of covered walkways, the heat was making itself felt with a vengeance despite the relatively early hour. The entire courtyard area is open-air, and many of the display rooms opened directly onto the courtyard; as interesting as the exhibits were, we seemed to be moving progressively slower as time passed. (It wasn't just us; more tourists, both Chinese and foreign, trickled in throughout our stay, and most were either talking about the heat or sitting down and mopping their brows every few minutes.)

Heat aside, we enjoyed walking through the various exhibition rooms, each dedicated to a different form of art (and a few simply showing how the wealthy lived in China in the previous century). Walking from room to room, I couldn't help but keep marveling at the statuary on the roof; it was as if the Chen clan had the last laugh, with scenes of their family history overshadowing displays of other artists' and clans' work. I'll stop talking for a minute and just put up a few more photos:

I was also struck by the contrast between the very old and the very new, more pronounced here than many other places we'd been. Visitors who kept their gaze straight ahead would see the ancient building and the (sometimes astonishing) arts & crafts displayed there; all one had to do to break the impression of being in a very old place was to step out from the roofs protecting the walkways from the sun and look up, and the surrounding hi-rise buildings would immediately jump into view. Of course, there were also some good, old-fashioned touristy photo ops along the way, and we were happy to take advantage of those as well. :-)  Still, seeing those very modern apartment buildings looming ever closer over the intricate & ornate roofs of the museum complex made me very glad it had been designated too historic to be turned into yet another construction site.

One of the other things that we all slowly noticed was that this museum had more souvenir shops than any other museum we could think of. We'd see an exhibit on wood carving... and then encounter a related shop... then move on to paper cutting... and encounter a related shop... then move on to statuary... and encounter a related shop... and so on for each of the disciplines on display. It wasn't bad; you can handle newly-made items in the shops that you can't get very close to in the displays, thus getting a much better look at some of the artists' work (we missed many of the artists, but the few people keeping the old arts alive regularly work at the museum). Even better, all the shops had large fans to keep visitors cool -- and I quickly perfected the fine art of locating the closest cool spot in each shop we entered.

We picked up a few souvenirs, and spent a pittance on some very nice papercuts for ourselves, and continued through the various displays & exhibits while everyone slowly wilted in the heat. (I really enjoyed the museum and would like to go back for a better look at some things, maybe catch more of the artists & artisans at work... but maybe I'll try it in the spring or the fall instead of mid-summer!) We came to one of the last galleries, where artists both modern and ancient had created works of needlepoint art using multicolored silk thread (some quite large), many of which looked like finely-done paintings and a few with so much detail they could be mistaken for photographs from just a few feet away.

One of the very last displays shows visitors what a wealthy woman's quarters would have looked like early in the previous century. One piece of furniture made us all laugh: the bed. Where we would put a mattress was a bare wood platform; where we would have pillows were ceramic boxes. Lucy told us that the only linens used were covers for warmth & privacy; no padding was used to soften all the hard surfaces. When asked if she slept like that, she laughed and said there was no way she could, and that most Chinese had long since adopted Western-style beds. (Would someone PLEASE explain that to the hotel chains?!?)  With a few last photos of the intricately-carved wood & glass windows, we bid farewell to the museum and made our way back out the door to the bus through the usual gauntlet of vendors hawking all kinds of tchochkes, toys, and snacks.  (I think the girls got a couple of inexpensive souvenirs from one vendor this time.)

Once again, a simple trip -- this time to a nearby restaurant for lunch -- was turned into an adventure by the traffic. As I said earlier, you eventually reach a point where you simply don't pay attention to it; your mind adapts to the apparent insanity of the drivers and lack of space between vehicles. Still, there were a few moments when I just had to pay attention; it's one thing to see two vehicles attempting to jostle each other out of the way, but it's a whole 'nother story when whole herds of behemoths attempt to simultaneously occupy the same point in the time-space continuum! By the time our driver pulled over to the curb to drop us off, I think we'd all reached the point where we would've welcomed being back out in the withering heat instead of the air-conditioned "comfort" of a vehicle in Guangzhou traffic! (Just for reference, there are three full-size tourist buses simultaneously cutting us and each other off in the photo to the right.)

The building we entered was apparently Restaurant Central; we walked up to the 2nd floor for lunch, but there seemed to be at least 2 or 3 restaurants on every floor. (Ignore the color scheme of the facade; although one place seemed to be a fast-food joint, there wasn't a Mickey D's in sight.) We had a good lunch, even with the Pipsqueak insisting Mommy's food was better than her own bowl of congee, and were soon all fully recovered from the combined effects of walking around in the heat and being repeatedly scared out of our gourds by traffic. (As I mentioned in our travel blog, "The chicken wasn't looking at us, but we did get a whole fish.)

As we waited for our driver to take us back to the hotel, we watched a small, white cat dodge foot traffic on the sidewalk (almost as crowded as the roads) and then finally give up & slink into an opening where the pavers had been torn up for work smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. About the time I realized it was the first stray animal I'd seen in the city, I noticed a nearby security guard apparently keeping an eye on the work site. More correctly, I noticed a nearby security guard who was apparently supposed to be keeping an eye on the work stie -- what he was doing in Chinese is called shui mián... or in plain ol' English, sleeping. How anyone could snooze in a chair in the middle of the median strip of a major road surrounded by all that crazy traffic (where the car horn is used more often than the car brakes)... well, more power to the guy, I guess. 

At this point, the day's plans sort of came apart. The original idea was to return to the hotel and just chill out for a couple of hours (maybe a fast shower, or a quick swim) before getting ready for the oath-taking at the U.S. Consulate.  However, the harder our driver tried to find a road that wasn't blocked, or jammed, or just acting like a parking lot, the heavier & more sedentary the traffic became. I kept checking my watch and doing math in my head, coming up with progressively less favorable numbers as the trip wore on (and on and on and one and...) It didn't help much to notice Lucy was beginning to look concerned... then worried... then really worried... and the traffic simply would not budge.

Eventually, the short "twenty minute" drive back to the White Swan concluded with just enough time -- if we moved really, really fast! -- to change clothes, grab our papers, and meet up at the lower entrance with all the other families who had Consulate appointments that day. Lucy had taken advantage of our being a captive audience on the bus to ensure we knew cameras were DEFINITELY NOT ALLOWED inside the Consulate for security reasons, so I snapped a couple of quick pictures of the Pipsqueak in her new "special appointment" outfit as she investigated the contents of mommy's purse and then we ran (literally!) out the door.

NEXT: Happy Tears!