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.
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!