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!

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Just a short post tonight... it's actually "morning" and I need to get some sleep... (I apologize for not posting much lately, work's been crazier than usual and the earliest I've gotten home lately is about 1:20am.)

Milestone: The 20th was the Pipsqueak's 2nd birthday, and we spent some good old-fashioned family time. I couldn't take the evening off but AJ laid claim to some of her vacation time and kept Miri home with her all day. We all got together for lunch (Chinese takeout, of course!) at our folks' and as usual my niece kept us all thoroughly entertained.  I think she enjoyed the card her Jiu Jiu delivered on behalf of the Birthday Panda ("it's a very long swim..."), and I know she enjoyed her mommy's wonton soup...  It's amazing to think that a year ago she was still one of a group of orphans living in the Luchuan County Social Welfare Institute, and that we knew her only as an image in four small photographs.

Milestone: The Pipsqueak had a doctor's appointment this week... and only cried a little, and seemed to think the doctor might actually just be another person. (This may not sound like much, but it's a major change for the better).

Milestone: We can finally turn the baby seats around! Despite still being a little Pipsqueak, Miri's finally reached the point where she'll be able to ride facing forward. Just in time, too; she was quickly running out of legroom, especially in Grandma & Grandpa's car.

Okay, lots more to say and talk about, but I need to get some sleep because Saturday is the Pipsqueak's first birthday party! (Talk about milestones...!)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes, Take 2 (Present Day)

Well, the good news is that AJ has managed to get the Pipsqueak's new vocabulary toned back down to the occasional "shoot!" -- always, to my great amusement, used exactly when & how any of us grownups would use it.

It's funny; we all keep wondering aloud what happened to the quiet little baby that came back from China with us. The Pipsqueak is a talker, folks, singing and burbling happily to herself almost nonstop. Only problem is, most of the time it's in no language any of us can identify! About a week ago, I got a late-evening call at work from AJ, who was desperately trying to get my wired-up niece to slow down enough to fall asleep. She gave Miri the phone, and for several minutes my niece told me all about what she did at daycare, and what games she'd played with Grandma & Grandpa later on, and what she & her mommy had for dinner. At least I think that's what she was telling me -- aside from the occasional "up" or "Mommy" or "yes!" I honestly didn't recognize a single word she said...! (Actually, we had two conversations; the second came when AJ tried to take back the phone and had to quickly give it back to her daughter to stop her yelling because she wasn't done talking to me!)

In any case, the Pipsqueak's gotten pretty good with language, stringing together short sentences and trying harder to communicate her desires verbally instead of pointing or grabbing a finger and dragging one of us somewhere to show us what she wants. Occasionally she'll get really frustrated if we don't understand, and that often leads us right back to wondering what happened to that quiet little baby we met in Nanning almost a year ago... But it's all good. And she no longer uses "Mommy" as a generic name for all family members, although she's still only kinda-sorta gotten the pronunciation of "Brian" right. Of course, the occasional odd pronunciation hasn't stopped her from adding to her vocabulary in unexpected ways...

AJ had to work this past Sunday, so I did "uncle duty" (anything but a chore!) to lend Mom & Dad a hand keeping up with their little grandbundleofenergy. At one point, we went outside to see if we could see any buurds... er, birds. We couldn't see 'em but there were at least three different types singing, chirping & squawking up a storm so I asked Miri, "Can you hear the birds chirping, cheep cheep cheep?" Well, she spent the rest of the time outside going, "cheep! cheep!' every time she heard a bird, and then again back inside when she spotted a robin through the window.

A little while later, shortly after AJ had finally busted loose from work & we were all trying to decide what to do about dinner (our original plans had long ago fallen apart due to time constraints), I was filming the Pipsqueak clomping around in her mommy's shoes -- when all of a sudden she kicked them off and made a high-velocity beeline for the stairs. (She loves loves loves going up & down Grandma & Grandpa's stairs... I detect another baby gate in my future....) I shut down the camera and ran after her, calling out, "Hey, guys!" when I realized I couldn't quite keep up with the her and no one else had yet realized what Miri was doing.

Well, almost as soon as she got to the top, the Pipsqueak turned around and called out, "Guys!" and waited to see what would happen. After that, each time she went up the stairs (more often than we wanted... she's a fast little Pipsqueak!)  she'd call out, "Guys! Guys!" and wait for everyone to congregate at the bottom of the stairs. I can't wait to see what I add to her vocabulary next... <grin>

NEXT: Never mind Watergate, what about baby gates...?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Home Is Still Home (July 24-30, 2010)

There were a few surprises for me the first full day back Stateside. The first was that I found myself waking up in my own bed on the 24th; somehow my head hadn't quite caught up with events yet, and I'd spent so much time living out of a suitcase and moving between hotels that somewhat that had become normal and the "home stuff" was on the verge of becoming a memory. The second surprise was that I woke up at all on the 24th -- I was so tired that I'd honestly expected to sleep through the whole day! The next surprise was that I was really awake -- a little jet-lagged, maybe a little confused, not entirely sure of what time zone I was inhabiting -- but awake enough to be ready to get moving and run over to AJ's to "help" with the first family get-togethers with the Pipsqueak.

The next two surprises were a little less pleasant: somehow I'd forgotten about aaaaallllll that dirty laundry in my suitcase, and then as I left the house I discovered that driving felt a little strange. It was more than being driven around in buses for the previous two weeks; I had seen so much of Chinese driving that I had pretty much programmed myself to to think it was A Bad Thing to be doing. I don't think releasing the parking brake & steering a vehicle down the street has felt like that since Driver's Ed classes back in high school!

I got to AJ's house (Dude, you better make that "AJ & Miri's house"!) to find the Pipsqueak already further charming her grandparents while AJ sleepily tried to keep up. We spent a happy afternoon (what, did you think I woke up before noon?!?) catching up and sharing all those bits & pieces of the trip that we'd been too tired to talk about the previous night.

After two weeks of becoming steadily more attached to the Pipsqueak, I had actually worried that I wouldn't like "sharing" her with the rest of the family -- but it took me all of about 15 seconds to begin really enjoying the sight of Mom & Dad connecting with their new granddaughter and put those (in retrospect kinda dumb) thoughts behind me. When Miri fell asleep in her Grandma's arms for the first time... Well, let's just say I had to remind myself to take the picture (one I'd been hoping to be able to take for quite a while).  My folks and I had spent so much time discussing how worried we were about the effect of the waiting & paperchasing on AJ that I had almost forgotten how much they were being hurt by it -- there wasn't any sharing going on, we all "belonged" to each other and Miri was as much a part of that as the rest of us.

It felt good for all of us to be talking to each other in person, able to exchange hugs and watch each other reacting to the Pipsqueak's antics with the phone being ignored in the kitchen and the only "laptop" in sight being the one that magically appeared when we sat down & disappeared when we stood back up. Eventually the jet lag began to catch up, and it was time for everyone to head for their respective beds (and cleanups, and laundry... <sigh>).  I quickly realized it was going to take a little time to get used to the feeling of being alone at home again, of not always having someone on hand to share comments & observations with, or of keeping the Pipsqueak in sight 24x7... but it felt good to have Mom & Dad close at hand, to be able to read & understand all the signage I saw, to not worry about what I ate or drank (with the exception of one forgotten package of something... now green & fuzzy... left in a back corner of my refrigerator), to not feel like I was sticking out like a sore thumb...

Yep, I was home. And "home" really was. :-)

NEXT: Never mind Watergate, watch out for BABY gates...?!?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Long Day's Journey Home, Part 3/End (July 23, 2010)

For those of you unfamiliar with the airport we used, it has three distinguishing features. The first is its name: locals just call it "Dulles" but the airlines have to use its full name of "Washington Dulles International Airport" because too many non-English-speaking foreigners have accidentally wound up there thinking they were flying to Dallas, TX. The second is its terminal: the entire building is one huge, wide-open swoopy shape designed by Eero Saarinen, and it's so unique it's become the visual trademark of the airport. The third... well, Dulles was designed as The Airport Of The Future back in the late 1950s, so instead of that long walk across the open tarmac to your airplane they designed everything around mobile lounges that would carry you from terminal to plane in climate-controlled comfort. Essentially huge scissor-lift buses, these vehicles move people from gate to aircraft by rising up to match door height with the departure lounge of the terminal, dropping down to a safer height for the drive out to the waiting aircraft, then rising up again to match the height of the plane's doors. Unfortunately, this means you have the usual crush & inconvenience of boarding & disembarking twice... with the added attraction of diesel fumes.

So we pushed & pulled our way to the 777's door and boarded the (crowded and stuffy) mobile lounge for the trip to the terminal... and didn't go anywhere. And then we didn't go anywhere some more. And then we didn't go anywhere for a while longer. Most of the flight crew had squeezed on behind me, and I overheard the last hostess who'd boarded explain to the others that there was a somewhat confused elderly Chinese gentleman on the plane who thought he'd lost something. He couldn't remember what he'd lost; he couldn't remember where he was sitting; he couldn't remember if he'd lost it on the plane or left it back home in Beijing; he just knew he'd lost something and didn't want to get off the plane 'til he knew what it was and where it was. (No, I'm not making that up.)

Eventually the airport schedule overrode the needs of the one confused passenger and we slowly sank to the tarmac, drove around a couple of other aircraft, dodged a few trucks, then rose back up to match doors with the terminal and everybody piled off. Then we walked down a corridor... and walked down a corridor... and then walked down a corridor some more... Apparently the delay had made it necessary for the mobile lounge to drop us at the far end of the terminal from where we had been expected to deplane! Eventually we reached the Customs area and stepped to one side to catch our breath.

AJ had to make a pit stop, so I gladly held the Pipsqueak while her mommy ran off to take care of business. I realized it might be the last "alone time" I had with her for a while, so we had a quiet little talk, just the two of us, and I think she actually understood part of what I was saying. I'm not going to detail the conversation here; it was a private moment between me and my niece, and I'm glad we had those few moments before I had to start sharing her with the rest of the family.

Luckily, we'd been told we didn't need to stand in the Foreign Arrivals line back at the Consulate in Guangzhou; ours was just one of five jumbo jets simultaneously disgorging passengers from around the world, so the U.S. Citizens line was much shorter. Still, we zig-zagged back & forth for at least 20 minutes, slowly working our way toward the line of kiosks where an officer would open that all-important brown envelope and stamp a couple of pages that would magically turn the Pipsqueak into a U.S. citizen. During this time, I marveled at the variety of people around us: a rainbow of shades of pinks and browns and tans, dressed in everything from African tribal designs to Middle Eastern thobis to semi-formal cocktail dress to plain ol' cutoff jeans and tees... an amazing variety that we simply did not see in China.

We finally got to the front of the line, and a young guy in uniform overalls that looked amazingly like what the security guards in Beijing had been wearing motioned for us to come forward. He took a quick look at the papers, did what he had to -- the only glitch being there was no SSN application in the package as we'd been told there would be -- and then all of a sudden we were through, and the Pipsqueak's Chinese passport was no longer valid.  (I think it was at this point that my sister stopped holding her breath for the first time since first filing her adoption papers roughly half a decade earlier; Miri was her daughter and a U.S. citizen, and that -- finally! -- was that.)

There was a surprise waiting for us, though... We don't know what happened, but when we got to the baggage claim area we found all the carousels shut down and several planeloads of luggage simply spread out on the floor. By this time, we probably could recognize our luggage with our eyes closed, so it only took about 5 minutes to find all three suitcases and load them on a baggage cart. Then we pushed through the double doors...

...and found ourselves on another line. (Do you detect a recurring theme here?) This time, there were two uniformed guys -- just two! -- in the middle of the hallway collecting those little Immigration cards we'd had to fill out on the plane. (AJ wound up needing a 2nd card after the Pipsqueak got her hands on the first one.) I handed ours to the guy on the left, he smiled and said, "Welcome home," and then we pushed through another set of double doors to the actual arrivals area.

I was concentrating so much on navigating our baggage cart through the people zig-zagging in front of me that I failed to see Dad standing on one side, waving his arms like a semaphore and snapping his first photos of his new granddaughter. Eventually I realized that the noise I heard behind me was my sister telling me to stop and wait, and then we found both our folks and everybody jumbled together in a big happy family "HI!" for a couple of minutes. (We all enjoyed the little in-joke of the pink "Made in China" tee AJ had put on the Pipsqueak shortly before the plane landed.)

Miri had "met" her grandparents on Skype while we were still in China, even interacted with them a little during our sessions, but we were amazed to see that she seemed to actually recognize them as familiar faces in the crowd.  Dad managed to get our first photo of all three generations of L family wimmenfolk together before Mom took the camera for some photos of the happy Grandpa, and we slowly began making our way up the familiar ramp to the exit and out into the parking lot. 

It was a beautiful night, and after two weeks in subtropical southern China the usually uncomfortable heat & humidity of a late July Washington summer felt cool and comfy. Our folks had picked us up in AJ's SUV because it offered the most room, so there were a few comical moments as everyone tried to remember what button did what and how to open the doors, but AJ & I had so much practice with those minibuses that we had our luggage stowed in under five minutes. Both Dad & I took photos of the moon rising above the main terminal building...

...and then the peace was shattered by the Pipsqueak's discovery that she was going to have to ride strapped into a baby seat instead of sitting loose in her mommy's lap. I swear, they must've heard her all the way back in Guangzhou! We were all wondering how we'd manage the long ride home with that sound in a small, enclosed space, but by the time we'd gotten onto the Dulles Toll Road the Pipsqueak had begun drifting off to sleep. (Aaaahhh...)

We got to AJ's house in good order, and discovered that one of her neighbors had decorated the entire front as a surprise to welcome her home with the neighborhood's newest addition. We unloaded everything and transferred my suitcase & carry-on into our folks' car before hauling everything else up the steps and into the house. It felt weird to leave my stuff in a vehicle instead of bringing it through the door with me, but the idea of "home" was slooowly beginning to settle in. We spent some happy time just hanging out, watching Miri begin exploring her new home with a little help from Mommy and Grandma. Everyone enjoyed watching Grandma feed Miri for the first time while Grandpa taught her how to play pattycakes and give high-fives. 

By this time, even the Pipsqueak's latest nap was wearing off and AJ & I had pretty much exhausted our reserves of adrenaline so the newly-minted grandparents forced us to all say goodnight and drove me home. I had thought it felt strange to be traveling without the other families or not bring my luggage into the house -- but there was no comparison to how weird (and kinda lonely) it felt to be going somewhere without AJ nearby with the Pipsqueak in her lap. (Dude, you've got some adjusting to do...) I thought I would be too wound up to sleep, but I simply dropped my suitcase inside the door, hauled my carry-on up to my room, and had to force myself to stay awake long enough to wash up a bit before collapsing into bed. (I used to complain constantly that my bed was much too hard -- but after a series of Chinese hotel beds, it felt like I was dropping into a cloud!)

I did manage to stay awake long enough to check the clocks and do a little basic math. For the three of us, it had been one day since we woke up... but (even with our last flight touching down almost 45 minutes early) we'd spent about 16 hours aboard airplanes and because we'd flown "backwards" across so many time zones, "Friday" had lasted about 30 hours!

I'd like to say I closed out this longest day marked by so many family firsts with some pithy thoughts or meaningful insights, but what I actually did was turn off the light and doze off while wondering how long it would take me to catch up on all the laundry in my suitcase...

We'd gotten the Pipsqueak home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Long Day's Journey Home, Part 2 (July 23, 2010)

Our actual travels were far from over... but as we walked (and walked... and walked...) through the departure areas, just the three members of the L family, the trip really took on a different character for me. Up until we had said goodbye to the B and S families and actually left them for their own flight on a different airline to a different airport, it had still been "The China Trip" on which we were going so AJ could finalize the adoption she'd been paperchasing for so long.

The whole time we'd been in-country had been spent with the other families and at least one guide; we were a group, each family participating to some degree in the other two families' growth and addition of new members. There was always one more hotel breakfast buffet, one more day of sharing the sights or worrying over paperwork, one more day of talking about how the kiddos would do once we were all back Stateside... And all of a sudden it was just the three of us heading home on our own, with the foreign adventure pretty much done & over with and the first faint glimmerings of our new "normal" on the horizon.

We had another half-day's worth of flying ahead of us, but now I knew the trip was over and it was time for the commute home. Reinforcing that feeling was the usual sterility of the generic airport departure gate; we weren't in a place, we were merely in transit. I tried writing in my journal -- sadly neglected throughout the trip, due partly to exhaustion and partly to the Pipsqueak wanting to play with the pen whenever it was within reach -- but found myself more involved with people-watching. (Dude, all these adults... where are the kids?!?)

We needed water to mix a bottle of formula, so I found a vending machine that had water and bought three bottles. I used a Yuan note for the first bottle, and the machine gave me back the first Chinese coins I'd had for the whole trip -- which I was sorely tempted to keep, but the only other Yuan notes I had left were of denominations the machine didn't take, so I used the coins to buy two more bottles so AJ and I could have a drink and still have water for more formula later. As usual, the Pipsqueak attracted some attention, and there were a few short but pleasant conversations with other people waiting to board the plane. (One woman noted she was flying United because the last time she'd used the same airline the B and S families were using, she had a similar problem that chewed a couple of days off her itinerary!) The call to line up for boarding finally came, and the airline representative bumped us to a shorter, earlier-boarding line because of the Pipsqueak. Finally, we started filing through the doorway, boarding passes being scanned as we did the Baggage Dance one last time, and...

...and we walked into another security checkpoint at the base of the jetway. I couldn't figure out what they were looking for -- the only people who'd gotten that close to the aircraft had already been through at least three other permanent checkpoints and everyone's papers had been examined repeatedly, but right there at the base of the jetway, maybe 10 feet from the actual door of the plan, was a set of tables with two armed security guards per table. Everyone had to scramble to re-open their bags, carry-ons, etc. for one last examination by the Chinese authorities. Even more annoying was the confiscation of our unopened water bottle -- had I known, I wouldn't have bothered buying it and would've had some interesting coins to add to my souvenirs.

The young woman in military uniform motioned me over to the closest table, then patiently waited while I dug out the keys and unlocked my carry-on. She rummaged through everything quickly -- strangely not bothering to look in any small compartments or open up the laptop's carry sleeve, but carefully looking inside all the folded shirts & pants -- then gave me a polite "Okey!" A quick reorganizing, rezipping, and relocking later, I was waiting for AJ to finish & catch up (the Pipsqueak sorta slowed things down), and we finally boarded the 777 for our flight home.

[Special Note: It was only when I talked with AJ about this post a few hours ago that I learned that she and the Pipsqueak were also tested for chemical residue -- not just this time, but at every checkpoint we passed through!]

For the first time since arriving in-country, our plane pushed back from the gate on schedule, and it wasn't long before we again felt the familiar pusssssshhhhhhh and lift and -- albeit with mixed feelings -- were leaving Beijing & China behind. The plane was arranged 2-5-2 across, and we had seats 3 thru 5 with the Pipsqueak between us; I missed having a window but was glad to be able to lean back, catch a movie or two, and maybe catch up on some sleep.

Oh, wait... sleep? On a plane? Moi? Unfortunately, I've never been good at it, and this flight was no exception. The young Chinese girl on my right (I'm guessing junior high age) and her mother both had a tendency to lean away from each other, which meant one was usually leaning into me. Meanwhile, I was helping keep an eye on the Pipsqueak, who was traveling like a pro but who periodically would either get too close to the edge of her seat or would conk her head on the seat belt buckle. (I think that bothered her mommy & uncle more than it bothered her.) A row forward and to our left was a mother (and either auntie or grandma) traveling with a little girl in a "lap seat" -- which means the child is in the parent's lap for THE ENTIRE FLIGHT -- and as much as I understood her feelings it wasn't too many hours before I caught myself wishing the kid would just pass out or something. (Her mom didn't seem to have brought along much of anything to entertain the poor child, which neither AJ nor I could figure out.)

Offsetting the minor inconveniences (did I mention the entertainment system was glitchy again?) and periodic crying & whining was the polite & happy attentiveness of the flight crew. We had three hostesses working our section, and they were a good team -- and they seemed to take a special shine to Miri, quickly learning what would be good timing to bring water for her formula & checking to make sure she and her mommy were in good shape. The flight was relatively uneventful, and the Pipsqueak only got smelly a couple of times (which is how we learned the B777 only has fold-down changing tables in some of its bathrooms),  It was cool to see our wingtip just brushing the North Pole on the little seatback monitors before watching another rerun of "Ratatouille" or "Date Night" or "Clash of the Titans"(hey, who says I don't like variety?).

The only scare came after we had begun final descent into Dulles. We had all 3 tray tables down (to discourage the Pipsqueak from exploring that big open area under the seat in front of her), AJ and I were talking about nothing in particular... and all of a sudden my niece disappeared headfirst through the little opening between her seat and the tray table with a loud "THUNK!" as her head hit the floor. Of course, there was all kinds of stuff on all the tables, so there was a mad scramble to get them cleared & folded up out of the way so we could reach Miri.  I don't know how AJ did it so fast but she was scooping her daughter up off the floor and checking her head and cooing calming noises in her ear in about 2.7 seconds. Luckily there was not damage done -- not even a bump! -- and soon we were stowing everything away for the last time.

Then came the experience of getting off the plane.

NEXT: Hurry Up And Wait!