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, November 14, 2015

And So It Begins...

Every now and then I've referred (usually in passing) to some of the issues adoptees face that are simply not part of the everyday life of non-adoptees.  Even back during the long wait to meet Miri, we would sometimes discuss how we would approach the expected questions as she grew older. There was never any question of trying to hide the fact that she was adopted -- as if the obvious physical differences would be invisible! -- and we have always kept an eye out for good resources, information, etc. on how to discuss the various issues associated with adoption once the Pipsqueak was old enough to really wrap her head around it.

(What issues, you ask?  Howzabout explaining to a six year old child why the family she was born into put her down one day and walked away?  Miri was lucky, being left at a medical center; we know of children who were found in a box in an alleyway, under the bench of a bus stop, in a dumpster, in a sewer... and despite knowing their Finding Spot, no one can tell them where they were actually born with more certitude that the name of the county.)

In any case, we long ago decided to be as matter-of-fact as possible about adoption, and to let the Pipsqueak set the timing & pace of more advanced discussion.

I suspect some of those discussions will be starting very soon.

Y'see, a few of Miri's classmates mommies are pregnant, and the kids are excited about having new siblings on the way.  Somewhere along the way, the most basic of "where do babies come from?" answers began making the rounds leading to the following question the Pipsqueak presented to her Mommy earlier this week...

"Mommy, if babies come from their mommies' tummies but I was born in China and didn't come from your tummy, where did I come from?"

This is gonna be interesting; I'm actually looking forward to seeing how my smart little niece processes this...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Halloween 2015

Set your WABAC machine to 1964, when the earliest of my own halloween costumes that I can remember was Astroboy (yes, I'm that old!) Of course, in those days the whole idea of tie-in merchandising -- especially for a Japanese cartoon -- was unheard of, so Mom cut holes in a big box for my arms to stick out of and a larger hole for my head to stick out of, and then (with vociferous guidance from yours truly) used magic markers to make it look roughly like Astroboy and off I went trick-or-treating with a friend. I don't remember his costume, but I do remember my next-door neighbor scaring the freakin' daylights out of us by answering the door with a big kitchen knife in hand.

In ensuing years there were ghosts, and pirates, and hoboes, and even a nondescript big brown something-or-other -- the only costume to actually win a prize at a halloween party! -- but in reality nothing terribly "different." (Unless you count the $40 full-head lizard monster mask with long blonde hair that I splurged on one year in college, with big green 4-fingered clawed hands and a big brown cloak, and a pair of old jeans I spent an entire day sewing blonde fake fur material onto to match the mask... still have the mask & claws, too!)

Fast-forward to the post-China years, and the Pipsqueak's also gone the "predictable" route. Her first halloween costume wasn't much more than a "My First Halloween" bib, but then there was a princess, and another princess, and then Elsa (from "Frozen") and then this year...

Well, this year my niece did something a bit different.  If you read my "A Trip to Pennsyltucky" post last month, you might remember a photo of the world's largest crayon at the Crayola Experience in Easton, PA. It looked a little like this:

Well, as interesting as I thought it was, the big blue behemoth apparently really impressed the Pipsqueak because her Halloween costume this year was...

...a big blue Crayola crayon!  (Who woulda thunk it?!?)  I took the photos below at her school's annual Halloween parade, which luckily is early enough in the day for me to zoom over to see and then zoom back home to change for work.

There were scads of princesses, doctors, superheroes, cowboys & cowgirls, ninjas, warriors, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and so on, but only one other crayon -- and that little girl wore a pink dress with a tutu-style skirt, so it really didn't look like a crayon at all. Leave it to my niece to be the single rugged individualist in a school with hundreds of students!

After the parade was a dance party (I don't know how Miri danced in that tubular costume,  but AJ has video to prove she did). The next day -- Halloween proper -- Miri participated in a "Thriller" dance flash mob(!) at a nearby shopping center without the costume, but later on she again donned the blue tube and pointy blue hat and had fun trick-or-treating with one of her BFFs from school. I joined AJ & Miri at their house later that evening (some longtime friends had stopped by for a visit) and she told me she got lots and lots of candy -- "like a hundred pounds!" before offering to share exactly one piece with her uncle. (Dude, that's one piece more than you usually shared with your family, right...?  Shaddup.)

I don't know what Miri will be next Halloween.. but it's sure to be interesting...!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Saga of the Toy Chest, Part 3

I was beginning to feel a little desperate. More and more of my time (in addition to more and more of my budget) was being taken up by what was supposed to be a cheap & simple project, and with less than a month to go I was literally starting over almost from scratch.  I had already told my family what I was doing, and just before the latest disaster had told Miri what I was going to give her for her birthday.

Nope, no pressure... sigh.

I now had to sand off all the paint I had so carefully sprayed onto all the panels, then do all the preparation I should have done to begin with, then move forward with the painting, tracing, coloring, and so on. The problem  was (very much like in school) the math; each coat of paint needed time to dry before another coat could be applied, I could only paint one side of each panel at a time, and I only had room to work on two or three panels at a time. I had finally reached the point where there were not enough hours left before the my original deadline to finish the project.

I flirted briefly with the idea of abandoning the project altogether, or at least buying something closer to the desired finished project, but knew that would be a cop-out of major proportions... not to mention that stubborn streak way down deep inside that simply would not accept losing an argument with an inanimate object. (And did I mention the terribly empty feeling in my wallet...?)

Thus it was that I began spending part of every afternoon, plus a few hours late each night after work, alternating between sanding Trogen panels and vacuuming up a seemingly infinite volume of paint dust. On some panels, I had to be extra-careful to not sand away the factory-made cutouts for hinges and other fittings, while on others I simply had to make sure I didn't accidentally change the shape of any edges or corners.

It took a week, but I finally had (mostly) all the paint removed. Musing on how the stuff wiling to jump off the Trogen on its own when I didn't want it to, but required so much work to remove when I did, I spent the next several days gently sanding off whatever it was IKEA used to kid-proof that neon yellow finish, starting with a medium-grit sanding sponge and working my way down to extra-fine. Finally, well into June, I was able to begin painting the darn thing again.

As the sanding dust in my house was replaced by bright white "dust" consisting of spray paint particles that dried in midair, the now not-so-neon yellow panels began to once again turn white; three coats of paint (and another week) later, I was ready to Olafize the panels again, starting with the front panel. This time there were no "little rough spots" or alien-looking bubble patches, and I was able to heave a sigh of relief before pushing onward.

However, there was a new problem: I was exhausted. I work a late shift, often getting home at 2:00am or later, so working on the chest after work meant I often went to bed as the sun was rising. Desperate to get the project finished, my life devolved into job - work on the chest - nap - work on the chest - job - repeat, with only an occasional interruption. This served to increase the level of insanity that had let to my undertaking the project in the first place, and it wasn't long before Mistakes Were Made.

Luckily, the one that made me realize I needed to spend more time sleeping than painting or tracing was a minor goof. As usual, I spent a little over 30 minutes carefully tracing a picture of Olaf onto one of the panels. I finished & carefully pulled everything away from the panel... and found the same all-white surface I had started with, nary a bit of Olaf anywhere in sight. I sat there too puzzled to even cuss (not like I hadn't had a lot of practice with that, lately!) and then looked at the paper I'd printed Olaf on and burst out laughing. There, on the back of the page, was a mirror image of the picture I had traced -- I was so tired, I had oh-so-carefully put the graphite paper in place with the business side facing up instead of down! I didn't even bother moving everything into the usual piles -- I just turned off the lights and went upstairs to bed.

By this time, Miri had gotten into the habit of asking, "So how's my chest coming?" any time I spoke with her.  (For a kid about to have her 6th birthday, her command of sarcasm was a little scary -- funny, but scary.)  It finally had to let her know her birthday gift would be late, and I took great pains to explain to her how hard Uncle Brian was working.  Luckily, my niece often lets me get away with things her mother didn't at the same age, so she was forgiving as long as I kept her up to date on how the project was progressing.

And it was progressing. Once I'd gotten enough sleep to think (and see) straight again, all that practice I'd had on versions 1.0 and 2.0 of the project enabled me to cruise through the remaining work. Aside from the discovery that the graphite lines I was inking over clogged up the tips of the black Sharpie pens I was using (causing me to have to buy more by the time I was done), it wasn't long before the panels were ready for clear lacquer, getting clear lacquer, or having their clear lacquer drying in preparation for the next coat. My house again reeked of spray paint and there were Trogen panels all over the place, but even as June 20th came and went I was so close to completing the chest that I could practically smell my impending success. (Or maybe it was a combination of spray paint and Sharpie ink I was smelling; by that point my olfactory nerves had all packed up and flown to Vegas without me.)

Finally, the last set of panels was curing and all the others were stacked neatly against the dining room wall, ready for assembly.  Even the lid was done, a three-day nail-biter that saw me repeatedly stenciling - erasing - stenciling letters until everything lined up and got the Sharpie treatment in bright pink. With a smile I couldn't get rid of, for the first time in nearly three months I packed all the markers, paint pens, cans of spray paint, sanding supplies, and tools away.  I located the small plastic bag of IKEA hardware necessary to hold all the Trogen parts together (I'll leave my emotional state when I was at first unable to find the darn thing to your imagination) and was finally ready to FINISH! the project...

But first... Throughout the project, plans had been jelling for a big mid-July family get-together to celebrate a bunch of birthdays (we seem to have a genetic predisposition for the late June - early July timeframe).  Since my house was the only local family abode not saturated with feline furriness, I would be the host -- adding the need to rearrange the entire first floor to make room for relatives from three other states to my list of stressors.

Somewhere around the time I used the graphite paper backwards, a dim bulb went on over my head.  I had been scrambling to clear enough space in which to work, shoving pieces of furniture here or there and back again... but there's that big ol' queen size sleep sofa that hasn't been slept on by anyone for at least a decade... and it takes up a lot of room... and it's not even comfortable to sit on anymore... hmmm...

Thus I postponed the final assembly a couple of days until my new-found friends at 1-800-GOT-JUNK could come by and cart off the old sleep sofa (not to mention the dead 32" old-style TV that had been sitting in the middle of the living room for several months until I could find time to take it to the dump). Once it was gone, I was amazed at how much space there was, and mentally kicked myself for not doing that at the beginning of the project.

I also mentally kicked myself a few times when I went to vacuum up all the "stuff" that had accumulated under the sofa & pulled down all the paper that had protected the oak railing from paint overspray.  See all the white floor tiles in the photo? They're supposed to be cream -- and that's not dust on the base of the railing, it's a layer of fine white paint particles that required several cuss-filled hours of careful, gentle sanding to remove.

One the cleanup was done, I set about interpreting the instructional IKEA heiroglyphics. (Even when I worked there, it wasn't uncommon for one of the crew to get most of the way through assembling something only to discover a part was on backwards or upside-down.) There were a few anxious moments dealing with the lid's balky soft-close mechanism, but all the parts came together and in no more time than it would take me to trace a single Olaf picture I had a real live actual shiny white Olafized toy chest in my living room!

All that remained was to present it to the Pipsqueak. After arranging the remaining furniture, I moved the chest into the foyer area and pushed it up against the poor abused oak railing. Shortly before everyone arrived on the day of our get-together, I simply covered it with a bedsheet and made a point of ignoring it when AJ and Miri arrived.  Eventually my niece's curiosity got the best of her, giving me the chance for a very satisfying Grand Unveiling to an appropriate collection of oohs and aahs.

It had taken three solid months of sometimes physically painful work, about $160 worth of assorted supplies (including a new toy chest), and weeks of paint fume-induced headaches and/or overspray-induced sanding, but Miri had a shiny new Olaf toy chest for her things!

Lessons Learned
  1. Always prepare any surface to be painted with careful cleaning and enough light sanding to remove any surface coatings that might reject the paint you want to apply.
  2. Just because the label says your chosen paint will adhere to nearly anything, do NOT skip preparing the target surface.
  3. When the IKEA catalog says something has a clear lacquer coating... see #1 and #2 above.
  4. Make sure you fully understand the difference between (and capabilities of) ultra-fine, fine, and chisel point markers & pens, and experiment on a surface like the one you'll be using them on before spending money on an entire collection of the wrong type.
  5. Make sure you have at least 1 or 2 extras of any critical tool (e.g., black Sharpie markers for inking over pencil/graphite lines). Make that 3 or 4 extras, you can always use them for other things later.
  6. Spray paint goes everywhere no matter how carefully you aim; put at least as much effort into protecting every surface within several feet of where you're spraying as you do into any other part of the task.
  7. If you're using spray paint, think ventilation. Lots of ventilation. No, more than that.
  8. Plain white spray paint will accentuate any cracks or defects on a wooden surface. It will not make them less obvious to the human eye no matter how many coats you spray on.
  9. There's a reason cheap spray paint is cheap and expensive spray paint isn't. If you care about your project, it's worth a couple of extra bucks per can to get a good finish.
  10. Make sure you have enough room to work in comfortably; it's much easier to make a mistake when you've had to fold yourself into an odd shape just to fit into your workspace.
  11. If you're going to trace a design, print the design lightly enough to easily see which parts you have or have not yet traced.
  12. Remember Cheops' Law: "Nothing ever gets built on time or within budget."
  13. "Grease" is not the word. "Patience" is the word. (And keep your sense of humor close by.)
  14. If you can custom-make something yourself, it's a whole lot more satisfying than just gifting someone with a store-bought version.

After all the trials and tribulations, Miri's toy chest was finally gifted to her in mid-July. It is now the first week of November, and the darn thing is still sitting exactly where I put it on that day.  AJ keeps begging for more time to figure out where she's going to put it, and despite my repeated statements that it should not be added to her living room so much as replace some of its current overflowing contents, she just hasn't had the time to figure out what to do. So the Olafized Trogen sits just inside my front door, waiting anxiously (as do I) for my sister and niece to find just the right place for it in their home.  Miri comes over to visit it once in a while, and every now and then I stop to admire my own handiwork...

...but I'm really hoping Miri gets to use it at home before she goes away to college! <sigh>

Monday, November 2, 2015

End of An Era

Just a note before posting the 3rd (and final!) chapter of the Toy Chest Saga...

My email had piled up for a few days, and when I was going through it just a few minutes ago I found a message dated October 29th that signals the true end of an era for the international adoption community (especially the China families).

For many years, one of the "in" jokes for families adopting from China was, "You don't know who the Rumor Queen is but you know who the Rumor Queen is."  RQ did an excellent job of hiding her real-life identity and an equally excellent job of maintaining a massive website and multi-thread discussion forum for any and all folks interested in or going through the process of adopting a child from China (over the years, a few discussion threads for other countries went active).  The URL "chinaadopttalk.com" was one of the first things memorized by most adoptive families, and the information available on the website and in the forums (as well as the much-needed chance to air concerns, fears, frustrations, etc.) provided a service absolutely unequalled anywhere else, including a scary-accurate and regularly updated set of charts & tables showing when the writing families could expect to reach the various milestones in the process.

I signed up for an account a few months before AJ was matched with the Pipsqueak, and probably learned more about what to expect in that short time than in the previous 3-4 years. Even after returning home, I returned to the forums regularly to share my own information and just sort of reminisce about The Wait... and enjoy the periodic new links to various blogs and online videos in RQ's much-anticipated "BABIES!" posts.  Then, a couple of years ago, over the course of just a few weeks, RQ removed her presence from the forums, and (even though a small group of dedicated administrators continued keeping things going) the updates petered out. The forums remained active (sometimes very!) but the feel of the place was changing.  Most of the old-timers began trickling away, and soon I found myself logging in only a a couple of times a year, mostly to see if there were any familiar voices in the forums or to see if there was anything I could contribute (less and less, to be honest). And then I opened the email from October 29th.

For those in the adoption community who may read this blog but did not use the RQ site and forums... ChinaAdoptTalk.com is gone.

There's a new Facebook group starting up, but there's no way it'll be the same -- the international adoption community has lost a wonderful, valuable resource.

RQ, whoever and whereever you might be, THANK YOU! for all your years of effort and support to this adoptive uncle and the entire community. You have more than earned the right to move on with your life, hopefully secure in the knowledge that you performed a much-needed service above and beyond the call of duty with little more reward than knowing you were doing so & the occasional "thanks" from the site's members & visitors. You will be missed -- and you will always have our gratitude.

But somehow I feel like a group of friends have all moved far, far away...