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Archive: October 2011

Adventures in Adoption, or, These Are Days

One year. 365 days. 525,948 minutes. Not to sound like the cast of “Rent”, but really, how do you measure a year? Okay, that totally sounds like the cast of “Rent”. Sorry about that. Before Jack, I marked the passage of time with birthdays or anniversaries, and later, milestones reached in the adoption process. Before Jack, I would look back on the previous year and reflect on lessons learned in the workplace. Before Jack, I’d reflect on the valuable time spent with family and friends and the memories we created. Before Jack, I really didn’t appreciate just how precious the ebb and flow of time truly is.

One year ago today, we became a family. After 16 years, Kevin and I became Kevin, Merrin, and Jack. After a seemingly endless wait, we finally had a child. One year ago today, I naively looked at the moment we first held our son as the end of a journey. How foolish. It wasn’t the end at all, but a beautiful, glorious beginning. Everything that came before, good or bad, had led me to that exact time and place, had set me on the path to motherhood.

One year ago today, we stood in a room in a nondescript building in China holding the perfect (screaming) miracle of our lives. In sharp contrast to the endless wait that led up to that minute, every second that’s passed since has flown by at warp speed. Jack has grown SIX INCHES in one year. He’s gained eight pounds. He legs are no longer scrawny; instead, he has muscles that would make the Hulk (the Incredible one, not Hulk Hogan) tremble in fear. He doesn’t have furrow lines of worry between his eyebrows; instead, his smile lights up not only his face, but the entire world. He doesn’t sit passively watching the world go by; instead, he jumps up and dances. He doesn’t scream when I come near him; instead, he throws himself into my arms for hugs and kisses. More than that, though, his intelligence shines through in everything he does. He is the smartest two-year-old I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his mom. Well, maybe I am.

In the last year, he’s celebrated holidays and birthdays. He’s learned how to ride his bike and climb the jungle gym. He’s learned how to open doors and turn on lights (both of which will scare the crap out of you in the middle of the night). He’s learned how to use an iPad, and is, in fact, more adept at it than I am. He’s started potty training, and is SO proud of himself. He’s discovered Elmo and Thomas the Train. He’s started school, where, naturally, he’s the most popular kid there. He even has a little girlfriend. He’s figured out that the loves the beach and the pool (anywhere with water, really). He’s learned how to sneak food he doesn’t like to the dog (thankfully, he likes almost everything, but the dog has still managed to gain some weight). He doesn’t toddle along anymore, he runs at a full sprint just about everywhere he goes. He fits in my arms like he was born to be there, and my body recognizes him as the child I was meant to have. We’ve measured every developmental milestone with a sense of triumph. Jack isn’t delayed in any area, and we have Half The Sky to thank for that.

One year ago today, I had no idea who my son was, or who he would be. One year later, and nobody knows Jack better than I do. A year ago, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was pretty good at faking it. Now, I still don’t have much of a clue, but I’m not afraid to try new things. I’m no longer worried that he’ll end up in therapy because I’ve warped him for life (I mean, he probably will, but I’m not *worried* about it). I make mistakes, and I kick myself for them, but somehow, miraculously, Jack loves me anyway. I will never know what I have done to deserve such a precious gift, and I’m pretty sure I’m not worthy of it, but I treasure it every single day.

One year ago today, a family was born.

Adventures in Adoption, or, Clash of the Kirbys

After a last-minute snafu that necessitated a harried run by Civil Affairs (one piece of paper needed to be changed out for another one), Ashley broke all kinds of records getting us to the airport on time for our flight to Guangzhou. He also worked his special Ashley Magic and got our baggage fees dramatically reduced. It turns out that all that candy weighed kind of a lot (so worth it, though. Except for the corn-flavored candy. That was just nasty). We said our tearful goodbyes, although we promised to keep in touch, and I’m happy to report that we have. He gave us huge bear hugs, kissed Jack, and sent us on our way to the next leg of our journey.

We boarded the flight with more than a litte trepidation. Oh, alright. Straight up FEAR. It was Baby’s First Flight, and we had NO IDEA how he was going to handle it. Also, you flat-out cannot buy a separate seat for kids under two, so he had no choice but to hang out on our laps the whole time. And when I say “our”, I mean Kevin’s. By this time, Jack had decided that he didn’t really care so much for Mommy. Oh sure, he’d let me feed him or change his diaper. He even let me read or sing to him at bedtime. But holding him? OH, the horror. Forget it, lady. It ain’t gonna happen. Thank you, drive through please. So we settled ourselves in and prayed for the best.

Thankfully, Jack just took it in stride, like he does with everything life throws at him. He also got a LOT of attention from the girls across the aisle, and he even flirted with the little baby girl sitting behind us. The flight was mercifully short, and we were in Guangzhou before we knew it. We headed down to baggage claim where we spied a couple of members of the Chinese Olympic team, who just happened to be in town for the Asian Games, which was kind of a big deal. The Asian Games are the second largest sporting event after the Olympics, so you can kind of imagine what an absolute zoo Guangzhou was during this time. Looking back, we probably should have waited a week or so to travel, but we’d already been waiting SOOOOO long, so we sucked it up and made the decision to travel during the busiest time possible. Did I mention that the Trade Fair was going on, too? It just happens to be the world’s largest Import/Export fair. Yeah, we’re super smart. Truth be told, though, even though we were fully aware that hotel rooms were A) hard to come by, and B) ridiculously expensive, there was no way we could convince ourselves to leave our son in an orphanage for one day longer than necessary. Yes, I’m aware that sounds kind of douchey, but it’s totally true. It’s also not the last time I’m going to sound douchey because, luckily for you, we’re edging ever closer to the Clash Of The Kirbys.

Okay. Back on track. We gathered our bags, ran the gauntlet of the baggage ticket checker guy, and met up with our guide for this part of the trip. His name, incidentally, was also Jack. Jack was no Jerry. He was certainly no Ashley. In fact, Jack basically said “Hey, glad you made it. Go get in the van and Mr. Li will take you to your hotel. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow. There’s another family coming in tonight, and I’ve decided to take care of them. You’re pretty much on your own, suckers”. Maybe he didn’t really say that last part. I can’t quite remember. It was no big deal, though, and Mr. Li was perfectly nice, even if he didn’t speak a word of English. He looked kind of like what you think a member of the Chinese Mafia looks like: Big, broad-shouldered, buzz-cut, intimidating. He got us where we were going though, which was the Holiday Inn Shi Fu. I can hear you now. You’re all like “WHAAAAAAAT???? What the what??? Kevin works in luxury hospitality, and you stayed at the Holiday Inn????”. My response to that is “We totally stayed at the Holiday Inn, and it was AWESOME.” Hotels are one of those things that I researched tirelessly during The Wait, and I’d heard nothing but awesome things about this place. Most people stay at the White Swan, but it was 1) booked solid (Trade Fair. Asian Games) and 2) not nearly as nice. Seriously. The rooms at the White Swan are holes compared to the Holiday Inn. The food is better at the HI, too. I cannot say enough good stuff about this hotel. I’m super proud to say that I found that little gem all on my own, with no help from my Hotel Super Star husband.

Mr. Li deposited us outside of the Holiday Inn Shi Fu and promptly took off. The entrance to the hotel is a bit nondescript, and if there’s not a doorman on duty, it’s kind of hard to find. I mean, you look up and you see the hotel, but there’s just one not-very-clearly-marked door that opens up to a tiny vestibule with two elevators. The lobby is actually on the 4th floor, so you have to go up to get to the main entrance. We got all checked in (thankfully we were on Club Level. If there is ONE tip I’d give to potential traveling adoptive parents, it’s spring for the Club Level at every hotel you stay at. There are free drinks, free nibbles throughout the day, and really excellent services like 24 currency exchange), ordered a little room service, and settled into the very cool room that we would call home for the next week. My only mistake that evening was putting ketchup on my burger. Curses!!! Apparently, I’d blocked out the horror of my first encounter with Chinese Ketchup. We hunkered down to watch a little Amazing Race and Wipeout (remember that scene in European Vacation when Rusty is all “I think there’s something wrong with the TV. We only get two channels and no MTV. What do you want to watch, cheese or snow?” It was kind of like that, except we only got The Amazing Race Asia, Wipeout, which seriously was on, like, 24/7, CSI, and Headline News. Incidentally, I got hooked on TAR Asia, which is much better than its American counterpart. Just sayin’.

The next morning we were downstairs bright and early waiting for Mr. Li to come and fetch us so we could go and get started on the American side of the paperwork. The Chinese stuff had all been wrapped up in Changsha; now it was time to get squared away with the US government. Let me explain what we were in for that day (and yes, we were fully prepared for all of the adoption-related stuff. What we weren’t prepared for was the extra kick in the ass of dealing with the Kirbys). First, we’d head on over to Shamian Island (about 5 minutes away) for visa pictures and a visit with the Travel Doctor, or, more precisely, The Guangzhou International Travel Medical Center, where our boy would be subjected to a VERY thorough medical exam complete with shots. SIX of them. Yay. Understandably, we pretty much just wanted to get it over with before the day even started.

So there we were, waiting curbside for our chariot. Mr. Li was prompt, and Jack the Guide was there. He was there, of course, because the Kirbys were there. Right there in the van. The tiny, tiny van whose walls started closing in the minute the door shut. Now, for the record, I don’t actually remember the Kirbys’ real names. Well, I remember their son’s name. His name was Jake. He was 9. He was also the most annoying child you’ll ever have the misfortune of meeting. I don’t believe in any kind of corporal punishment, but I swear I wanted to smack this kid after about 5 minutes. He was like a cross between Urkel, Dennis the Menace, and the fat kid from Stand By Me. Added bonus? Him parents constantly made excuses for him, too, so he grew increasingly annoying as the days wore on. You may be wondering why we refer to them as The Kirbys, and it’s kind of a long story, but hey, you’ve already read this far, so you might as well stick with it.

Kevin and I watch a lot of movies. No, this isn’t a non-sequitur. Quotes from those movies eventually work their way into our lexicon. I’m sure you’ve said, at some point in your life, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. No? Hmmmm. That’s just me, then. Anyway, random phrases sneak into our conversations. (Did I hear a niner in there, Tommy Boy?). My mother will tell you that “Thank you for doing this, Ellen” is a Donahue classic (watch the movie “Dave” for context). There is one movie that I’m pretty sure nobody else has seen, and that movie is “The Story of Us”. It wasn’t a particularly memorable movie (Eric Clapton did the soundtrack, which is amazing, however), except for a few scenes where Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis head to Italy and have their romantic getaway shanghaied by the most annoying people in the world. The annoying couple just happens to be named, you guessed it, The Kirbys. They start passing a Hangman game back and forth under the table during an particularly excruciating dinner, and the solution to the puzzle is “I Hate The Kirbys”. Michelle and Bruce turn to each other, smile, and Michelle says “Oh, honey. Me too!”.

About five minutes after we met them, we were getting out of the van for the quick walk to the photographer and then the Medical Center. The following is the transcript of the conversation:

Kevin: What was the name—-?

Me: The Kirbys.

Kevin: YES. The Kirbys. So very, very much The Kirbys.

See? He didn’t even have to finish the thought. I was right there with him.

You might think that five minutes isn’t enough time to form a fair opinion of someone. I say, respectfully, you’re so wrong. Do you remember the middle school music teachers on SNL? The Culps? These people were definitely close relatives. Sadly, though, they also had an added dash of douchebaggery with a healthy pinch of self-importance, not to mention arrogance and a side of super rude Ugly American. I can handle nerdy. Hell, I’m nerdy. I can handle a little douchey. I can even deal with some arrogance. These people took it all to a new level. We made a silent pact then and there to spend as little time as possible with this family. I wish I could say that we managed to avoid them altogether, but no such luck. We were stuck with them for the next few days, but we DID minimize our exposure as much as possible.

We got Jack’s picture taken for his US visa then we walked over to the Medical Center. The Kirbys had, for some inexplicable reason, maintained their I(600) status throughout their wait. (If you really want to know what that is, feel free to email me, but all you need to know is that it was WAY more expensive to pay the fees to keep paperwork from expiring as opposed to filing new stuff). We, on the other hand, had let our original stuff expire and refiled as an I(800), or Hague, family. This meant that Jack (the kid, not the guide) had to have lots and lots of shots (six, to be exact), which meant that we had to spend a bit more time there while The Kirbys had to wait for us. They made their displeasure known. A lot. We had to wait outside for about 15 minutes after Jack’s exam was done and he’d had all of his shots to make sure he didn’t have a bad reaction. Mr. Kirby’s exact words were “This is ridiculous. Let’s get going”. Nice. Real nice.

Thankfully, not too long after that, we got to split up for a bit and do some shopping, which was so. Much. FUN! We wandered in and out of the little shops on Shamian Island, where we loaded up on clothes, shoes, souvenirs, and all kinds of little trinkets. We got tons of stuff to give to Jack each year on Family Day: Terra Cotta warrior chess sets, DVDs, personalized chopsticks, puzzles, games….Yeah, we went a little bit overboard, and yes, there was talk about buying an extra bag to get it all home. The shops that are sprinkled throughout the island cater specifically to adoptive families. The US Consulate used to be located there, so it was a no-brainer to set up shop where the Americans were. The stores all have names like “Sherry’s Place” or “Jordon’s Place”, and every shopkeeper speaks English and is willing to haggle. WIN! We managed to (mostly) evade the Kirbys as we wandered in and out of the shops, although Jake managed to ambush us in one spot. I swear the kid was just lying in wait for the perfect moment to jump out and start peppering us with annoying questions).

Too soon, it was time to hook back up with Jack (the Guide) and the dreaded Kirbys so we could have lunch. After Mr. Kirby decided he was the only one who could talk throughout the meal (dude. He cut me off twice by saying “Be quiet”. Lovely fellow, Mr. Kirby), and after Jake Kirby insisted on drinking my Coke (thanks, kid), we were FINALLY headed back to the hotel, but not before Mr. Kirby told us how inconvenient it was for us to be staying where we were, since they were across town at the Garden. SOOOOOO not my problem, mister. Deal with it. We graciously agreed to be picked up later the next morning, though, since it seemed like it would be better for them. Mrs. Kirby complained that Jake wouldn’t have enough time to do his homework in the morning, but, ugh, she guessed she could make it work. Again? Not my problem.
The good news is that we had the whole afternoon free, and after Jack (the Kid) had his nap, we set out to explore the streets around us.

Adventures in Adoption, or Brothers From Another Mother

For a lot of people, the concept of “China” is kind of abstract. It’s something you watch on the evening news, where Diane Sawyer visits a school in Beijing and reports on how smart the kids are and how strict the curriculum is. It’s a roll of the eyes when you read another label stamped “Made in China”. It’s an entire world away and so completely foreign, and even though that earthquake in Sichuan that you read about seemed pretty bad, it doesn’t really register on your radar of things you need to worry about. I’m no different. I remember the flooding in Chenzhou back in 2008. It got a cursory mention on ABC World News Tonight, and then I promptly forgot about it. Hell, the only reason I tuned in at all was because we were already committed to the China program, and we tried to keep abreast of what was happening over there. Little did we know that our baby was going to be from Chenzhou, and his life was indeed affected by the floods (for the better, actually. The old orphanage sustained major damage, so he only ever knew the shiny and pretty new facility). It’s funny how the world comes knocking on your door.

Kevin and I have been so extremely fortunate to be able to see a lot of the world. We’ve been all over our great nation, we’ve been to Mexico, the Caribbean, a few countries in Europe. We spent a dreamlike two weeks in Kenya where we not only saw extraordinary wildlife, we BECAME the extraordinary wildlife. At the end of that family vacation, we were so lucky to be able to count our safari guides among our friends. Actually, I think that they qualify as family, since, hey, they cheered Kevin on while he drank the blood from a still-breathing goat, and that kind of experience tends to bond you for life. At the risk of sounding all “It’s A Small World After All” (and now you’ve got that stuck in your head. HaHaHa!!!), we really HAVE found that the planet is a pretty small place.

We had absolutely no idea what to expect when we got to China. We had both tried to learn a little bit of Mandarin since I think it’s pretty important to be able to communicate at least a little bit. “Please” and “Thank You” are the bare minimum, but never underestimate the ability to ask for the nearest bathroom. Kevin is able to understand quite a bit of Mandarin (but don’t ask him to speak it), and I speak enough to get by (although it’s harder for me to understand), so we make a pretty good team. This proved to be critically important at least twice, and I firmly believe it’s what helped bring us so close to our guides. First, Jerry was impressed that we had put forth such an effort, especially when we were touring The Forbidden City. He was SO happy that we not only knew a little history, but that we were able to talk a little bit about it in his native language. Not a lot, mind you, but one or two words here and there. When we met Ashley, he was shocked that Kevin was able to understand so much of what was being said. He was even happier to listen to Kev’s corny jokes, which was pretty hilarious.

The first time we were in a situation where we really had to draw on our limited powers of communication was in Changsha. I’ve mentioned that our first night there (the night before we met our son), I had to leave the restaurant and return to the hotel room because I wasn’t feeling well. Kevin managed to flag down a waiter and communicate that he wanted our order wrapped up and delivered to our room. Believe me, this was no easy feat. The young man, though, figured it out, got our food all set up on trays, and accompanied Kevin back upstairs. We were SO thankful that we threw propriety out the window and insisted that he accept a tip. Tipping is really not done in China. Sure, you tip your guides and your drivers, but that’s a totally different kettle of fish. You don’t tip waitstaff. EVER. Poor Jason (that was the kid’s name) tried to refuse, but we weren’t having any of it. He had gone so completely out of his way that we really felt that we needed to acknowledge that. After a little bit of persuasion, he took the tip, and we had a brief conversation in broken English and mangled Mandarin. After that night, Jason tended to magically appear whenever we were even a little bit *close* to the hotel restaurant. He helped us at each breakfast service, he checked on us at dinner, and he just materialized out of thin air if he even thought we might need a little help. It sounds a little stalker-like, but it was really one of the nicest parts of our stay.
Side note to Been There Done That’s in Changsha: Dean the doorman might be a legend, and don’t get me wrong;. he’s awesome. I mean, who else will sing Christmas carols in the middle of October to every American he meets? Plus, his smile is stellar, and he genuinely loves all the babies who cross the threshold of the Dolton Hotel. Jason, though, is simply amazing. If you’re ever staying at the Dolton, make sure you look for him. He’s the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet.

The day we checked out, we were standing by the registration desk and Jason showed up out of nowhere to see us off. He shook Kevin’s hand, he gave us hugs, and he looked honest-to-God sad to see us go. I couldn’t help it. I HAD to take a picture.

So we could now count Jerry and Jason among our good friends in China. But Ashley? Ashley was FAMILY. On our last night in Changsha, Ashely asked us if there was any way we might think about coming over to his house for dinner. Um, YES PLEASE! He was so humble about the whole thing, too. He was all “Hey, it’s no big deal, just a small little meal with the wife and kids, and you don’t have to come if you don’t want to”, but of COURSE we jumped at the chance. First of all, he was SO nice to even offer, but to welcome us into his home with open arms was more than we could have ever dreamed.
He came to pick us up at the hotel and (bless his heart) he drove us 45 minutes to his high-rise condo, which, by the way, is bigger than our house, and totally decorated like a Pottery Barn catalogue. It’s seriously beautiful. His wife and boys greeted us at the door and we visited for a little while before we sat down to a HUGE feast. Mrs. Ashley had made lion’s head meatballs, chicken with cashews, rice, a beef dish, pork with green peppers…There was other stuff, too, but I was so in love with the chicken that I didn’t really pay attention to anything else. HIs boys got a huge kick out of our lack of proper Chinese manners, and they had an absolute ball pointing and laughing at Kevin. We all giggled our way through the meal and then sat and visited some more. His boys are rambunctious and hilarious, and they were thrilled to be able to try out some English on us. Ashley is working so hard to open up the world to his kids. We definitely bonded over our shared commitment to make our kids global citizens. Finally, he showed us around his house, and we got to see first hand how that Chinese household functioned. It was worlds apart from what we’d experienced in the hutong in Beijing, and it was SO COOL to see how they integrated all members of the family into the house. The mother-in-law had her own suite, and it was the biggest bedroom in the house. The kids’ room was so cute, and it was definitely inhabited by boys. The living room was spacious, and the entertainment center took up an entire wall and was FILLED with American DVDs. The sun room was gorgeous. Ashley has a lot to be proud of. He was also really curious to see pictures of our house, and I had a few to show him. He didn’t believe us at all when we told him that our house was smaller than his! He was happy to see pictures of our guest room, though, and we assured him that he’d always have a place to stay if he ever makes it to the States. He was adamant that they are definitely planning a visit sometime in the next few years, and I have to say that I hope they mean it. I would love nothing better than for them to come and stay with us.

The one phrase that kept coming to mind when I sat down to write this part of the story was “Wherever you go, there you are”. We’ve stood in an elder’s house in a manyatta in the middle of Kenya and were shown amazing hospitality. We’ve giggled over a kitchen table in a house in China while we shared not just food, but the experience of two totally different cultures coming together. Wherever we’ve gone, we’ve seen firsthand how small the world truly is. Our time in Changsha was so special to me, and not just for the obvious reason that it was where we first met our son. It’s special because we were welcomed so completely by everybody we met. There was a warmth and an openness in the people that I’ve never experienced anywhere else (no, not even in Texas).

When you travel, if you’re open to it, there are places that settle into your soul, places that some part of you recognizes as home. I am the most fortunate girl I know, because I have those homes all over the place. I have Ft. Worth, which will always be my hometown. I have Amelia Island, which is–by far–the best place I’ve ever lived. I have Guana, which is as much my home as my own house is, and when the ferry pulls up to the dock it feels like a homecoming each and every time. I have Kenya, and even though Hippo Point might not be the most welcoming place, Ol Malo sure is. And now I have Changsha. Smoggy, noisy, crowded, trafficky, wonderful Changsha. The geography between these places is as different as could be. Their common denominator, however, is that I have family in every single one of them. We’ve not only adopted a son, we’ve adopted a whole crazy bunch of friends who’ve become brothers. My brothers from other mothers are spread all over the world, and I couldn’t be luckier to count them among my family.

One World, Not Three

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