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China Journal

John Bedell

Monday, July 9
Well, tomorrow is the day. We have to catch a 6:30 flight to Newark , so we will be up early and off running on our great adventure to China .
Seven of us are going and eight are coming back. Going China are my wife Lisa, my mother-in-law Carole, my daughter Mary (12), my sons Robert (14), Thomas (10), and Ben (4), and me. Coming back we will be joined by a Chinese girl named Yi Zhen, who will be two in August. We plan to call her Clara, but at least for a while she will probably be Zhen Zhen . (This is the diminutive of her name, pronounced something like “Jen Jen.”)
China ! I never thought I would go there, never expected to have a reason. The other side of the world. A place with its own history, its own alphabet, its own musical scale, its own religions, its own ways of thinking. I can’t wait to see it. I have never been a tourist in such a pure sense, with no knowledge of the language, completely dependent on tour guides and hotel managers. But I suppose that is the price one pays for going to a really foreign place. Everything will be new for me. I won’t get to know people and talk to them in the way I have in Europe , so the connection to the place won’t be as strong, but I will see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, smell with my own nose. I can’t wait to be there.
I am a little worried about how my children will react to the 13 ½ hour flight, jet lag, and Chinese food. No doubt somebody will get sick, if not all of us. But there are risks in everything, and a trip to China is worth those risks. Good or bad, this is an adventure the children will always remember. Besides, we are adopting this girl as a family, so we are going to get her as a family.
People ask me if I am thinking about Zhen Zhen all the time, and I have to answer that I am not. I suppose that sounds strange, but it is the truth. It isn’t that I don’t care about her and don’t realize that this is a huge event in her life and ours. I am excited about meeting her. But the one thing I have learned from raising four biological children is that they are all born different from each other, and my relationships with them have to be based on who they are and what they want as much as on me and what I want or expect. None of my children are the ones I imagined before they were born. How can I think about my daughter without knowing who she is or what she is like? I could fantasize, I suppose, but those fantasies would be no more likely to come true than the ones I had, childless, about the dream children of my future. With Zhen Zhen this is even more true, because, well, babies are babies, but Zhen Zhen is nearly two. She is a person already, not an escaped fetus. How can I imagine her? Lisa has reminded me about meeting my niece Emy Lou when she was one and something. Emy Lou was shy of me at first but within a few hours she didn’t want me to put her down. Maybe Zhen Zhen will be like that, but I don’t want to assume. I don’t want to be disappointed in any way. I want to open to whatever she is.
I have a strong sense that I cannot and do not want to anticipate too much. I think the last time I had such a strong feeling of entering the unknown was when my first child was born. I started to say that it was like stepping off a cliff, but that makes it sound scary, and it isn’t. It’s more like opening a door and having no idea what is on the other side. I can’t wait to get there.
Zhen Zhen was born with a heart defect and abandoned when she was one week old. She was operated on by Chinese surgeons, and she seems to be healthy now. Health care for abandoned children is one of the benefits that foreign adoption has brought to China. Before they were collecting $3000 dollar fees from foreigners, Chinese orphanages did not have the resources to do much for abandoned infants, and Zhen Zhen likely would have died. She has spent much of the time since her surgery in foster care, in a town called Jingdezhen not far from Nanchang. Nanchang is where we will get her, just a week from today. We have seen pictures of how she looked just a few days ago, and she looks like a thriving, happy two-year-old girl.
It is close now. I have very little left to do – partly because Lisa has taken care of just about everything. Just wait, and sleep, and remember to bring everyone. Next time, from China!
Wednesday, July 11, Beijing
I'm in my hotel room now, the Novotel in downtown Beijing. From my window I have a interesting view of a changing city. I can see six tower cranes and other signs of new construction, as well as the yellow haze of pollution. But just under my window are two blocks of hutongs, the old-fashioned, single-story, tile roofed courtyard houses that used to make up most of Beijing. These look decrepit from overhead -- roofs covered with junk and shored up with loose metal sheets. But from the street some of the facades are nice, with stone lions and red paper lanterns. There are shops on the street fronts, but there seem to be houses on the inside -- at least there are clotheslines.
The flight was *long*. 13 1/2 house on a plane is a long time. Because we made our reservations so late we were scattered across the plane, and none of us had window seats. We persuaded a couple of nice people to trade seats with us, so we got all of us together except for Robert. It really wasn't awful. We were together, there were movies and games on the little video screens right in front of us, we had things to do. The food was even ok, except for these mysterious rolls they served with breakfast right before we arrived. They were cold, dry, and had no taste except for a faint hint of sawdust. Where did they even find them? The trip was just long. Poor Ben had the hardest time, but even he was ok most of the time.
Some time around 6 hours from the end I was getting miserable. I was too tired to read but had trouble falling asleep, and every time I did Ben or Thomas needed my attention. I longed to be horizontal and started to fantasize about lying down in the aisle. But eventually I did fall asleep for an hour or so, and after that I was ok.
In Beijing we were met by a friendly fellow from the adoption agency, and a van took us and another adopting family to the hotel. One thing that seems to be pretty much the same everywhere in the world is the expressway from the airport. Traffic jams are pretty universal, too.
Tomorrow the touristing begins.
Thursday, July 12
Today we were up early, still adjusting to the time. So I took a walk around the neighborhood before breakfast, just looking and soaking things in. I noticed people sweeping with long Chinese brooms, people playing hacky-sack in parks, a Chinese mass in the 1905 Catholic church around the corner.
After an enormous breakfast in hotel, which is set up to cater to people from all over the world and so features twelve different sorts of food, we were picked by a smiling 29-year-old man who calls himself Felix. (Chinese students choose English names for themselves when they start studying English.) Felix took us to the Panda House at the zoo, where we saw fat pandas sitting in a very relaxed looking way, chewing on bamboo as if they had not a care in the world. (Robert: I would be a good panda.) Then we went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was lovely but very crowded, mostly with Chinese tourists. We saw the courtyard where the next-to-last emperor was imprisoned by the dowager empress after he tried to introduce modernizing reforms, and the nearby courtyard where the dowager empress lived herself. We took a brief dragon boat ride on the lake, which was pleasant and gave us great views of the gardens and pagodas. Felix talked a great deal about the history and architecture, sometimes more than one wanted to hear. He didn't come on the boat, so we escaped from him for a while that way.
Then we went to lunch at a big restaurant full of tourists, where the food was so-so.
After lunch we went to a silk store, which I found fascinating despite the intense sales pitch. I saw how they unwind the silk from the cocoons and twine it into thread -- somebody actually has to find the end of the thread on each cocoon and attach it to the machine, which unravels the mile or more of silk in each cocoon. We also saw how they make silk quilting. They don't bother to unroll the cocoons, they just stretch them out until they reach the desired size. Eighty layers makes a summer weight quilt, 200 winter weight.
Then we went to the Temple of Heaven, which was gorgeous but even more crowded than the Summer Palace. Chinese people kept trying to take pictures of Ben -- we were warned about the attention little blonde boys draw in China, and it's true. But he staged a tantrum every time and refused to pose. It was slightly embarrassing but I suppose it's his right, so we didn't try to insist.
The size of all these attractions is daunting. The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven is each a couple of hundred acres. You could spend days in each and not see everything, and trying to charge through them in two hours has a grim, campaigning sort of feel. I am loving Beijing but I am already looking forward to Nanchang, when we have very little scheduled and can just spend some time hanging out.
Friday, July 13
Today we drove out of Beijing headed north, to climb the wall at the old Beijing customs house, which was part of the Ming defenses of the capital and so passes for part of the "Great Wall." I'm not sure if it even connects to the real Great Wall, but you can get there easily from Beijing, so that's where they take the tourists. Whatever it was, it was cool, so I'm not complaining.
We drove for an hour through northern Beijing, mile after mile of high-rise apartment buildings. I was astonished by the scale of it, but I suppose that's what it takes to house 12 million people. We saw two of the new stadiums they are building for the Olympics. Beijing has already gone Olympics crazy. There are countdown clocks in the main squares telling you how many days, hours and minutes until the opening ceremonies. All of the billboards feature athletes, and the five little cartoon characters that are the official symbols of the games are everywhere.
Eventually we broke free of Beijing into a countryside of corn fields and peach orchards, oddly like eastern Maryland. After a half an hour of that, steep hills rose up on either side, and we climbed into a pass between them. Here was a marvelous complex of traditional Chinese buildings centered around a great gate, and, on either side, lengths of stone wall. The wall is five to fifteen feet high and six to ten feet wide on top. It runs up and down the steep hillsides, so the path along the top is mostly steps. There are towers every fifty yards or so along the wall, dividing the climb into stages. At the bottom the crowd was shoulder to shoulder, but at each tower people dropped out and the crowd thinned. I would have loved to make the whole four hour hike, but we had a schedule to meet and lots of people to consider. Lisa, Mary and Thomas made it to the first tower. Robert, Ben and I made it to the third. Ben did a lot of climbing himself, so I only carried him maybe half way. Then I left Robert and Ben at the third tower and climbed to the fourth myself, on top of the hill at least 300 feet above the gate. It was awesome. The weather was cloudy, so the view wasn't as good as it might have been, but on the other hand it wasn't hot. It felt good to work my legs hard, and to rise above the valley and the crowd.
I was amused by the presence of Germans. I had not heard German spoken anywhere else in China, but here where there was a tough hike to make there were suddenly Germans. Of course none of the Germans turned back at the lower towers, so by the time I reached the fourth tower the crowd was maybe a third German. Including four or five fifty-ish women with hair dyed unnatural colors, all wearing heels, who kept going past the fourth tower, probably headed off to complete the whole 4-hour hike.
After lunch at the Government Friendship Store and Restaurant--Fair Prices--No Bargaining, we drove to the Ming Tombs. Here we got another lesson in the vast scale of Chinese historical sites. What we really wanted to see is called the Sacred Way, a ritual roadway lined with stone sculptures of warriors and animals. Our guide took us to the mausoleum of the first Ming Emperor, which, as it turns out, is ten miles from the Sacred Way; the Ming Tombs is actually a complex of monuments, ritual places, and sacred roads that fills a whole valley, all organized according to the Feng Shui of the sacred landscape. Once we re-established communication we got back in the van and drove to the Sacred Way, which was as wonderful as I wanted it to be. It was also nearly empty, the first time we had seen that in China.
Saturday, July 14
This morning we took the last and grimmest of our historical endurance hikes, this one through the Forbidden City. We reached it by crossing Tiananmen Square, which looks like the capitals of all militaristic governments: monuments to fallen soldiers, grandiose buildings, wide plazas and boulevards. But it was full of smiling people, including some flying kites. We were accosted every few yards by aggressive peddlers (I bought Robert a Mao watch and Thomas a fake Beijing Olympics hat) and more people trying to take Ben's picture.
The Forbidden City is enormous and hugely crowded, but also amazing. The scale of it is daunting, but it serves it purpose, to impress on you the immense power of the emperor. Climbing the vast staircases is intimidating enough when there is nothing at the top but an empty building half covered in scaffolding; what must it have been like when at the top you would meet the officials who held power over the empire? And that's just the outer courtyards; the inner half of the whole immense place (400 acres? 500 acres?) was devoted to the emperor, his women, and the eunuchs who cared for them. You can still feel a sense of intrigue in the little courtyards and walled passages. The chambers of the last Empress Dowager are maintained pretty much as they were when she lived here, ruling the empire from behind the yellow curtain that still hangs in front of her throne.
By the end of the exhausting walk from one end of the Forbidden City to the other the children cheered when I told them we wouldn't be visiting any more historical sites.
In the afternoon we took a rickshaw tour of the preserved Hutong district, sort of the Annapolis or Williamsburg of Beijing, although a lot more crowded with residents. This was really fun. The crowded alleys of the Hutongs have a real Old World feel, and you see lots of evidence of Chinese life -- baby pigs in cages, men unloading bags of rice from rickshaw delivery carts. We had lunch in a private house, and it was the best food we've eaten in China. Later we visited another home and talked to the residents. A Hutong is a rectangular block of 1-story buildings arranged around three courtyards. They were built to house one important family, and some still have the pair of stones out front that tells you the family's rank and whether they were civil or military officials. Now they have been divided so that eight or so families live in each. The houses we visited consisted of three rooms for living, sleeping and eating. Cooking is done at a shared kitchen out in the alley within the Hutong; the toilet is a public one out in the street. The residents have to visit a bath house to bathe. The couple we visited -- he a salesman, she a minor bureaucrat, their one daughter away at college studying design -- said they chose to live in a Hutong because you know your neighbors, not like in a high-rise apartment building. I asked if you would want to know someone in the Hutong before you moved in, or to be introduced by a mutual friend, and he said yes, you would not move into a Hutong where everyone was a stranger. I noticed that the furniture was pretty shabby but they had a good tv and a nice sound system. They were very gracious and it was a lovely experience.
Sunday, July 15, AM
Today is the get we get Zhen Zhen. But meanwhile let me say something about last night. We caught our train for Nanchang at the Beijing West railroad station, which was unbelievably enormous and nearly as crowded as the Forbidden City. We were not in any particular hurry but Felix set a blistering pace through the immense halls and endless corridors, full of important-looking signs in Chinese. It was extremely disorienting. Eventually we found our train and settled into two adjacent sleeping rooms, four beds in each.
This kid of accommodation is called "soft sleeper", and soft sleeper train is the way to travel in China. The bed was comfortable and lulled by the rocking train I had the best night's sleep since leaving home. In the morning after the sun came up we had a wonderful view of the south Chinese countryside. No more corn fields; this is the land of rice paddies. I saw men plowing with water buffaloes, which I expected, but what surprised me was all the men out working in the fields with their buffaloes just kind of standing around nearby. I guess if you own a buffalo you have to watch it all day. We crossed the immense Yangtze River at Juliang and arrived in Nanchang at 8:00 AM. There we were met by our new guide, a very practical woman of about 40 named Mary, and made our way to the hotel.
Life with a 14-year-old boy: In the morning Robert came to the door of our room on the train, chewing. Lisa asked, "What are you eating?" and he answered "Something I found on the floor."
Sunday, July 15, PM
Now I have a new daughter. She is a lovely little thing with dark brown eyes and yellow-brown skin, a right foot that turns a little in and a smile of radiant joy. I am having issues with my new html editor and haven't figured out yet how to put pictures in this journal, but Lisa has some up on her blog http://arensplace.blogspot.com/
Walking into the Civil Affairs office I was terrified. But there wasn't any chance to act on this; we went into a sort of lounge room in the front of the office and there she was, standing with two people from her orphanage. Half a dozen other couples were getting their children at the same time, but once I saw Zhen Zhen they disappeared from my world and there nothing but her and us. She was very frightened, the poor little thing, and for a long as she could she clung to the legs of the orphanage staff. That wasn't for very long, though, because half an hour later we were on our way out the door. When Lisa picked her up she screamed.
Zhen Zhen cried for maybe the next half an hour, but with the help of a lollypop she soon settled down in Lisa's arms. Lisa is a wonder with babies. She cooed and rocked and smiled and played and Zhen Zhen already feels safe with her. She won't let anyone else hold her, but she clings to Lisa. It's beautiful to see. The other children have all been sweet with her too, especially Thomas, but she starts to fuss whenever Lisa goes away for even a moment.
Our guide Mary took us to a restaurant down the block from the hotel for dinner, and it was fun. Zhen Zhen loves to eat and between stuffing her face she was smiling and laughing at everyone. Back in our room she fell asleep easily, a lovely little person and now part of our family.
Monday, July 16
This was a hard day for all of us. In the morning Lisa and I had to take Zhen Zhen back to the Civil Affairs office and to a bunch of other offices; our daughter Mary came along. Zhen Zhen had been happy at breakfast, but as soon as we got to the Civil Affairs office she started crying again. Poor girl; I guess that is a sad place for her.
We sat through a pointless interview in which we repeated orally the questions we had been giving in writing for a year and a half, signed a bunch of Chinese forms, and checked six times the information that will go on her passport, all while trying to calm a squalling 2-year-old. Ugh.
Zhen Zhen was a little better in the other offices but by the end of this ordeal she was obviously exhausted, and she fell asleep in Lisa's arms on our way back to the hotel. While she was sleeping I finally got to hold her. Carrying a sleeping toddler is really a wonderful feeling.
We took ourselves to lunch at the same place we went to last night, ordering by pointing at pictures in the menu. That was ok, but in the afternoon our boys were like caged lions. They spent the morning in the hotel pool with their grandma, and I suppose they had fun, but later they were bored and the grownups were all too tired to do much for them. Ben is acting up as boredom, strange surroundings and jealousy of Zhen Zhen come together, and he was a real handful. There isn't much on our schedule for the next three days except to hang around and wait for Zhen Zhen's passport, and I will have to come up with ways to amuse them.
In the evening I took Ben and went to the big grocery store down the street. It was a confusing whirl of unfamiliar things with impenetrable labels. Some things were easy, like cookies and instant coffee. But one of the things on my list was ramen noodles in cups, so our kids could feed themselves in the hotel room. I found the noodles section, and I bought three different cup things, but I couldn't swear that any of them actually contains noodles. We'll see.
Zhen Zhen is a little darling. She likes it when Lisa fusses with her hair and puts ribbons in it, and they look wonderful together. Lisa brought a little touchy-feely animal book for her and Zhen Zhen loves it, making animal sounds and putting her face on the soft parts. I fell asleep early, exhausted.
Tuesday, July 17
This was an easy and relaxing day, no business to take care of and nothing else on the agenda, either. In the early morning I took a long walk through Nanchang. I went first to the river, which is lined with skyscrapers. I walked down the river for maybe half a mile, then turned into the city for a while, then turned again and wound my way back to the hotel through crowded side streets. This part of the city seems poorer and more run down than the districts in the other direction from the hotel. The buildings fronting on the main streets are nice, but if you look down the narrow little side streets and alleys you always see those dingy-looking apartment buildings where most of the people in Nanchang seem to live, along with equally dubious shops. But the people on the street seem busy and lively, nothing like the quiet, dead sort of atmosphere in the poor parts of a big American city.
Many of the streets in Nanchang are lined with trees, all whitewashed about four feet up their trunks. But despite all the trees I have hardly seen any birds. I didn't see any in Beijing, either. So far the total count of birds I have seen in two days of walking Nanchang is one flock of seven or eight pigeons, flying high against the sky, one sparrow, one very bedraggled looking mockingbird, and another mockingbird overheard at his morning song, hiding somewhere up in a mulberry tree. In Beijing we saw a couple of magpies at the zoo (one scored a direct hit on Mary's shoulder), but otherwise nothing but a pathetic handful of pigeons. What happened to all the Chinese birds? Pollution? Something they spray for mosquitos? Poisoned? Eaten?
One of the things you hear about China is that every morning you see people doing tai chi in the parks. Actually what you see is lots of groggy people trying to wake themselves up with clumsily performed exercise, some of which looks a little like tai chi. Most of it looks like half-assed aerobics done by half-asleep people who probably aren't very graceful even when they're fully awake. On the pedestrian mall I saw three whole classes of 30 or 40 clumsy exercisers going through their motions, which struck me as a metaphor for something, although I wasn't sure what. Then, suddenly, in the midst of all the commercial schlock and modern bustle of the mall, a small scene of wondrous tranquility: two women doing classic tai chi with perfect grace and beauty. There was nothing remarkable about their faces, their bodies or their clothes, but their movements were smooth, precise, and lovely, performed in perfect unison.
On my way back to the hotel I had a very strange experience. A woman approached me on the street and said something in Chinese. She looked about 35, with short hair and an ordinary Chinese face, wearing a and black and white patterned pants and blouse outfit and sensible shoes. I waved her off, but she followed me all the way back to the hotel. I was walking pretty fast already and knowing she was behind me didn't slow me down any, and several times I heard her running to catch up. But she kept at it for at least a mile. I was wondering if maybe she was having delusions that I was her long-lost American husband, or if she suspected that I was adopting a Chinese baby and wanted to ask about one she had abandoned herself. Lisa suggested that maybe she was a prostitute. It certainly was an odd feeling, hearing the patter of her feet as she jogged behind me, wondering what on earth she could be doing back there.
Later in the morning Lisa, Carole, Mary and Zhen Zhen went shopping, and I took the boys to the hotel pool. They were rowdy as ever. Later we played hide and seek in our two attached hotel rooms. It started with Ben and me, but then Robert and Thomas joined in, and when they had exhausted all of the real hiding places they started joking, like by standing in the little trash can or putting just their heads under a table. One of the things I admire most about my children is their endless capacity for fun. In the afternoon I went on an expedition to buy fingernail clippers, which I forgot to bring with me. In a department store I made nail-clipping motions to a clerk who found me a pair of baby nail clippers, which I accepted because Lisa had mentioned that Zhen Zhen's nails were long. Out on the street I was wondering what I would do about finding some for myself when I saw a perfect pair. They were on a cloth spread in front of an old woman squatting on the sidewalk I lifted the clippers and held out a 5 yuan note, which she snatched. Pleasure doing business with you, you ignorant overpaying foreigner, she was probably thinking.
We scrounged dinner, confirming that the things I thought were noodles in cups actually were. Later I took the kids walking out on the street to get ice cream. I want them to be out seeing Chinese things and interacting with Chinese people, and if taking them for ice cream is the way to do it, that's ok with me. In the evening we saw lots of people on the street, many playing cards, mah jong, or Chinese chess, and one group of young women playing Chinese checkers. Funny, I always thought "Chinese checkers" was a western game given that name by its inventor, who wanted to make it seem old and noble. But maybe it isn't at all.
Zhen Zhen loves her mama. She clings to Lisa cries if Lisa leaves her sight. She doesn't want anyone else to touch Lisa, and she starts to fuss if Lisa holds Ben. Lisa brought her a wonderful little assortment of toys in a little backpack of her own, and she loves it. If somebody else touches something she thinks is hers, she makes this funny little "tsk tsk" sound that sounds like it would come from an angry rhesus monkey. What a darling, funny creature she is.
Wednesday, July 18
We've been in China for a week now. The thing I most wanted to do during this dead time in Nanchang, besides get to know Zhen Zhen, was take a drive out in the country. This morning we sort of did this. Apparently "driving around" is not a concept the Chinese understand. Mary, our guide, is a true urbanite and she was at first dubious of this expedition -- "I think in the country there are diseases," she said. But she did find us a van and a driver and she went along with us. We went out of Nanchang on side streets through an area where light industry alternated with gardens, five or six story apartment buildings and motorcycle repair shops. New high rises were going up everywhere. We crossed the river on a big bridge, and we saw that the river banks are lined for at least a mile with huge piles of sand and gravel. Barges must bring it in and unload it wherever there is room, so that trucks can take it to concrete plants nearby.
Then we went into a village, sort of. We were right on the edge of exurban Nanchang, not really very rural, but there were rice paddies and chickens and village houses and villagers. Mary the guide, Robert, Ben and I got out and walked around a little, looking into houses and gardens, noting hand pumps and piles of freshly harvested rice spread out to dry. Village houses in south China are tall, two and a half or three and a half stories, with a nearly square floor plan; I suppose they build up because land is so valuable. The old houses are brick, the new ones concrete. When we had walked around for ten minutes we drove back to Nanchang. Ok, you wanted to see a village and some rice paddies, there they are, now lets go. Sigh. But we have more train trips and a bus ride coming, so I hope I will get to see more.
We drove back into Nanchang along a different route, along a wide boulevard through a new and upscale area. There were lots new high rises, not blank concrete but decorated with Mediterranean accents and painted in pastel colors, like retirement condos in Tampa. The developments had names, like Flower Town and Number One Best. We saw another development of big town houses, which our guide called "villas," and I thought, the worldwide real estate industry has brought its corruption of the language to China. I wonder if they call apartments "homes." We saw a few really grand houses, the Chinese versions of those things going up in fields all around America. All of this followed the shore of a lovely lake, and the western niceness of it made me realize how little of that sensibility one feels in the older parts of Nanchang.
Then we went to a big public park. It was laid out as a garden, with a stream crossed by many Chinese bridges, ponds, trees, bushes, and playgrounds. We let the little ones play for a while at one of the playgrounds, while the larger ones amused themselves by dreaming up difficult ways to climb across things. There were swings but all were occupied, another little reminder of how many Chinese there are. On one of the ponds they had something I haven't seen anywhere else, clear plastic spheres about six feet in diameter that children can get into and play around in on the water. Robert and Thomas got zipped into two of them and flopped around for about ten minutes, trying to stand up and run like hamsters. This was a really hot day, about 95 I think, and in those bubbles it must have been over a hundred, so they were sweat soaked and exhausted when they got back. But they had fun, of the kind that boys need to have.
Later Thomas and I went to the grocery store again, mainly to get more formula for Zhen Zhen, who is still taking two bottles a day. These little expeditions aren't very long, but they require crossing this strange intersection by the hotel where there are no signs at all. This seems to be the norm in China. If there isn't a traffic light, there is no guidance at all and cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians fight it out for right of way as best they can. We have only seen one stop sign in China. The struggle for supremacy happens slowly and without any visible anger, as people nudge their way through. Pedestrians slide their way across one lane at a time, never running. It looks like a setup for constant mayhem but somehow it works ok most of the time.
Zhen Zhen finally let me pick her up tonight. She wanted to see what was on top of the counter in the bathroom, so she turned to me and lifted her arms. I'm still not allowed to provide comfort, but I will serve as a ladder in a pinch.
Thursday, July 19
Our last night in Nanchang. Tomorrow, is all goes according to plan, we will pick up Zhen Zhen's Chinese passport and catch a train out of town.
This morning I took another long walk. I ended up at a park surrounding a small lake, with pavilions and bits of garden. I saw lots of people exercising, and on two islands in the park people were making music. It was strange Chinese music, but to see people making music in the park was sweet and uplifting.
Later we went to Nanchang's biggest tourist attraction, the Tang Weng Pavilion. The first Pavilion on the spot was built for an imperial prince in the seventh century, but it has been destroyed 27 times, so this is the 28th version. It is a big pagoda sort of building surrounded by gardens, and it serves as a museum of traditional Chinese culture. We watched a 15-minute show of traditional Chinese music and dance -- I always regard the ability of people to enjoy those sounds as proof of the extreme adaptability of our species -- enjoyed the view of the city and the river, and wandered in the gardens. In the garden was the biggest display of amazing bonsai I have ever seen. There were dozens, maybe a hundred, all big and lovely. It was beautiful. It is also, so far as I have been able to tell, the only traditional building in Nanchang -- everything else from the old city is gone, buried under concrete high rises.
In the afternoon I finally got Mary down to the pool with the boys, and in the water she is just as rowdy as they are. It was a three-way dunkfest instead of two-way, and it looked a lot more fun. When it's just Robert and Thomas they always escalate until somebody gets really angry, but with Mary the energy and anger get spread around more and escalation is avoided.
Then I took the kids on a promised expedition to MacDonalds. We ordered by pointing at pictures. They all wanted chicken nuggets, which tasted exactly like they do in the US. I was somewhat disappointed by this, because I was curious about Chinese hamburgers, but not curious enough to order one for myself. When the nuggets and fries were gone they wanted milkshakes, and I said I would pay if one of them did the ordering. Robert eventually volunteered, but we ended up with four peach juice floats. Mary and Thomas liked them and I thought it was more interesting to try a peach juice float than to have another MacDonald's shake, but I think Robert was a little disheartened by the failure of his first exercise in Chinese shopping.
We walked the half a mile or so back to the hotel down a street I hadn't been on before, and I saw, down a side alley, the first houses I have seen in central Nanchang. They looked just like the ones in the village, brick and three and a half stories, except they were jammed together like townhouses. This is why I like to explore as much as I can any place I go -- just when you think everything is the same you find something really different.
We discovered that Zhen Zhen likes horsey rides and similar games, and we tried to get her to take a ride on my knee, but she refused. She laughed along and bounced a little while I was giving rides to Ben and Thomas, but she wouldn't get on my knee herself. It is fascinating to learn about her this way, by watching what she knows and doesn't know, likes and doesn't like. She came along to the pavilion in a hotel stroller, and she is obviously used to riding that way. She likes being dressed and having her hair played with; she likes shoes.
Saturday, July 21
We're in Guilin now, in the Lijiang Waterfall Hotel. I got up early yesterday for our last day in Nanchang and took my longest walk yet. I went first to the street of old houses I found the day before. There I saw a scrawny white cat standing on the sidewalk with a dead rat in her mouth, making that sad-sounding cry that mother cats make wen they are looking for their kittens. I took her picture and watched her for a while, but she was still calling when I walked around the corner and lost sight of her. I was a little worried about her kittens, but an hour later when I walked back the same way I saw two dirty white four- or five-month-old kittens playing near where I had seen her, and I suppose they must have been hers. "Come, children," she was saying, "Rat is served!"
I found a lovely park where lots of people were exercising, including one old man who was doing what they call tiger-style kung fu in the movies. I saw crumbling old brick houses, new apartment buildings, stores, motorcycle repair shops, people playing badminton on the sidewalks, people on bicycles, people walking, people sitting on curbs and door stops. I saw a big group of older women exercising, but then a motorized, three-wheeled delivery bike arrived and they all ran over. It was full of ducks, and they all fell to haggling. In a few minutes the ducks were all gone and the crowd had dispersed. I imagined that this must be some local farmer whose ducks are famous in that neighborhood. I tried to soak everything in. I don't know when I will get back to the city where we got our new daughter, and no doubt by then the place will have changed a great deal. I want to remember all I can.
We didn't try to do much during the day, other than a quick trip to the pool and a late lunch. I wanted to do more walking but it was beastly hot again, so I didn't get far. Our train left at 5:20, and we wanted to keep at least one room during the day. I explained this to the clerk, who said we could have one room by paying half the daily rate. When Mary our guide heard this she called them herself and in a minute we had all three rooms until 4 PM for free. We've noticed that the guides think they far outrank the hotel staff, and they are always barking orders at clerks. I suppose they have a lot of say in where the visitors they are looking after stay, so the threat to take their business elsewhere is taken seriously. I'm going to miss Mary. She was extremely efficient without ever being rude, and her English was better than Felix's. She seems very interested in the adoption process and in the families that adopt children. Her business is slowing down now, but she said "I think that is good, because not so many babies are coming into the orphanages."
The train ride was great again. Zhen Zhen was terrific. We played up to the top bunk and back down again for half an hour -- I seem to have graduated from ladder to plaything. She was a little sad when Lisa left the room, but she didn't wail like she did just two days ago. Ben was at his rowdiest and he was driving everybody a little crazy, but he eventually settled down and he and Zhen Zhen slept in the same bunk. When we woke up in the morning we could see mountains in the distance, and the houses in the villages were different. Most had one story, and they had decorations on the gables that looked like horns. The countryside was the same beautiful mix of terraced rice paddies, ponds, and bean fields, with lots of water buffalo.
We arrived in Guilin around 7:20 AM, and we were met at the train station by our new guide, Lisa. (Note to world: enough with the confusing guide names, ok?) Guilin is a tourist city, with no industry to speak of. Lisa told us it is a great place to live because it is very relaxed and nobody works very hard. The area is famous for the steep-sided mountains that line the Li River, the same mountains that you see in all those Chinese landscape paintings. One of the famous ones has a hole through one end and is called Elephant Mountain, and there is a painting of Elephant Mountain on the wall in the Panda Buffet, the Chinese restaurant we go to almost every week at home.
We had breakfast in the hotel, which is the fanciest we have stayed in. (Mary: "Robert, behave yourself, this is a 5-star hotel." Robert: "Yeah, but we're 3-star people.") Then we went out touring. We went to Seven Stars Park, which was a beautiful place. For the first time in China I saw lots of birds and butterflies. There was a small zoo, where we saw a famously lazy panda sitting in the air-conditioned room that he won't leave all summer, placidly eating. The birds and the boiling pool of bright orange carp were more fun. There was a sort of pool in which you can try to catch small fish for 1 yuan a minute, and we got little rods for all of the boys. Robert caught two fish and Thomas one. After lunch we drove about ten minutes out of town to Reed Flute Cave. This was a wonderful cavern full of gorgeous rock formations. One I especially liked was a huge column, 30 feet tall and ten feet across, that looked sort of like a pile of human skulls. There were two rocks near the entrance that look a lot like lions, and of course the Chinese love that. Zhen Zhen wouldn't let anybody but her mama carry her today, and the hotel didn't have strollers to borrow, so Lisa was all worn out by the end of the day.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a big pearl store. Mary got black pearl earrings, which was kind of funny because she is sort of a goth girl, and so of course she wanted black. We were the only customers when we arrived, and all of the clerks clustered around Zhen Zhen, cooing over her and feeding her candy. I imagined the Chinese waitresses at the Panda Buffet doing this when we get back to Baltimore, but it's already happening in China.
After dinner we walked around central Guilin. It really is a tourist area, and these streets feel more like an American beach town than like Nanchang or Beijing. Our hotel has a Las Vegas-like claim to fame, which is that for 15 minutes every night the wall facing the main square of the town becomes the world's tallest manmade waterfall. We watched the show, and it really was kind of cool.
Monday, July 23, AM
In the hotel in Guangzhou now. This is the last stop on our itinerary. Here we go to the American consulate to get an entry visa for Zhen Zhen. Every American who adopts in China has to come here, so the hotels by the consulate are all set up for adopting families.
Yesterday we took a boat cruise on the Li River. We started near Guilin and went down river for three and a half hours, to a little town called Yangshao. The scenery was wonderful all the way. Where there weren't more of those wonderful steep-sided mountains there were villages and rice paddies. I couldn't believe how many mountains there were, rank upon rank of them. I guess in height they are only big hills, but some have nearly vertical sides. We sat across from a big Chinese-American family, three couples and their college-aged children, and they were very nice. One of the fathers said to me that he always thought those Chinese paintings were mystical and never knew until yesterday that those fantastic mountains were real. I loved this trip. It was very relaxing, with nothing to do but watch the world go by. It was cool in the river breeze, and for the most part the children were content to relax, too. I took about a thousand pictures but I'm sure none of them do justice to the place.
At the end of the cruise we came to Yangshao. This is the perfect tourist town, nothing but shops, restaurants and hotels surrounded by mountains. There were lots of westerners there, many of them with the clothes and look of Trekkers or mountain climbers. I'm willing to bet that a lot of the climbing guides and bar owners are ex-patriate Americans or Australians. It was that kind of place. One bar had a sign that said, "Open til we close." Australians, surely. I thought we would have to drag Lisa and Carole out of town with ropes, so tempting were the shops, but it was very hot in town and Lisa was worn out from carrying Zhen Zhen, who still won't let anyone else hold her for more than a minute. So we left after an hour or so.
I enjoyed the bus ride back almost as much as the boat ride. We were going through farm country, and this is a semi-tropical area where they grow all sorts of interesting crops: bananas, mangoes, strange vines growing on trellises that turn half-acre fields into big tents. We went through a couple of small towns where the streets were lined with people selling watermelons and other fruit. Otherwise they seemed to consist mostly of warehouses for shipping produce and motorcycle repair shops.
We got back to Guilin too early for dinner, and since we had already checked out of our hotel we had time to kill. Lisa our guide took us to a university where some of the buildings used to be the palace of an imperial prince. It was beautiful, but every patch of grass had a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. There is nothing that irritates me so much as "Keep Off the Grass" signs. What is the point of grass if not to be walked on, sat on, played on? Grrr. But wandering around I did discover a set up of steps leading up a small hill at the back of the campus. I have wanted to climb one of those steep-sided hills since I first saw them on the way into Guilin, so I took the chance. It was maybe eight or nine stories up, steps all the way. Half way up I saw an old woman standing on the steps. I thought at first that she was resting, but then I saw that she and an old man were talking to a girl of 7 or 8 who had gone into the fetal position on the steps, refusing to speak or move. Her grandparents thought it would be fun to take her up the hill, but I guess she showed them. The view from the top was great, but I didn't have my camera. We caught another overnight train and got into Guangzhou at 6:30 AM.
In each train station we go through the same little ordeal of packing up everything and carrying or wheeling our luggage out to our waiting van (or else from the van into the train). This seems to get harder with every stop, and I'm not sure if our baggage is really getting heavier or if we're just getting tired. But we always manage, and the road goes on.
Tuesday, July 24, AM
This is the day of our consular appointment, the day around which our whole schedule was planned. Turns out, though, that we don't have to do anything at all; the facilitator from our adoption agency does everything for us. We just have to wait by the phone in case there are any problems.
I'm in our room in the Victory Hotel now, around the corner from the where US consulate used to be. The presence of the consulate here was a remnant of colonial days. When the Chinese emperors first opened their country to trade back in the 1500s, they kept foreigners far away from the capital, here on the Pearl River in south China. So Portuguese Macau is here, and Hong Kong, and the place westerners used to call Canton -- that is, Guangzhou. And when Deng Xiao Ping wanted to open the country to western trade again around 1980, he reverted to the pattern of his imperial ancestors and set up his foreign investment zone on the Pearl River, at a village called Shenzhen. Now trade and manufacturing have swelled Guangzhou to 9 million people and Shenzhen has grown from nothing to nearly as big. But in the old heart of Guangzhou is a place called Shamian Island, about ten square blocks where little has changed. Most of the buildings are stone western style edifices built around 1900, and they are surrounded by tree-shaded streets. Our guide said it looks like Savannah, Georgia, and it kind of does, with banyans instead of live oaks. The buildings that were once European consulates now house apartments for Chinese people, or Chinese businesses, and a few years ago the US consulate, the last important foreign presence, moved off the island.
In the last fifteen years, though, the island has been remade for foreigners again, this time to support the adoption industry. There are two big hotels full of adopting families, and there is a whole street of shops that all supply free loaner strollers, laundry service, and things new mothers from America will want to buy. It's beautiful, but the weather has been so brutally hot that we haven't enjoyed it much. This all got started because it was by the US consulate, but with the consulate moved downtown it continues as a sort of safe haven for Americans. Here families who spent the past week living in untouristy Chinese cities like Nanchang, Wuhan or Chengdu can find coffee bars, french fries, and English-speaking clerks and waitresses.
Yesterday Lisa went out to shop by herself for about an hour, leaving Zhen Zhen with me. I was nervous about this because Zhen Zhen tends to start fussing whenever Lisa leaves her sight, but we had a great time. Lisa slipped out unseen, an evil little trick we learned with our other kids that often circumvents departure trauma. Zhen Zhen, Ben and I played for almost the whole hour. I tickled her, and swung her, and Ben hid under the quilt and we found him. For a while she got tired. She handed her bottle to me, and when I had filled it she lay on the bed and drank it, and I sang to her. She loved it. This warmed my heart because Ben has refused to be sung to since he could form the words to object to it, so I haven't had much chance to sing my baby songs since Thomas was a toddler.
One thing we have noticed as we wander across China is the way pronunciation changes. The Chinese currency is spelled "yuan." In Beijing our guide told us to just say "wen." But in Nanchang you could hear a second syllable starting to creep in, and here in Guangzhou people distinctly say "you-an." This effects the pronunciation of our daughter's name. In Nanchang it sounded like Jin Jin, with a voiced "j" sound like in "bridge." Here it sounds more like Zen Zen, or Tsen Tsen. I think I will use this southern pronunciation, which is easier for me.
Well, the phone call came from our facilitator saying that our consular appointment went fine. It was an odd sort of non-event, but I think that was the last potential obstacle in the adoption process. Now all we have to do is attend our swearing-in ceremony and catch the plane home. I really have a new daughter now.
I took a walk around the island early this morning, and I saw people exercising in all the usual Chinese ways: badminton, tai chi, aerobics, jogging. In the park along the river two groups of people had set up loudspeakers and were practicing ballroom dancing. I also saw lots of men swimming in the Pearl River, which I found little disturbing. It flows through the heart of industrial China, and I shudder to think what is floating in those greenish brown waters. But I love this Chinese morning routine. It isn't something regimented or required, it's just something that people do, in whatever way they want. Some exercise alone, some in pairs, some in big groups. You see husbands and wives together, mothers and daughters, friends. In some groups people are trying to follow a leader, but in others everybody is doing something different. Some people are graceful, some clumsy; some fit, some hardly moving. It's a beautiful way to start day.
We took the whole family to the hotel pool today. The pool is on the roof, with no shade at all, which seems a strange thing to do in a place with such brutal sunshine. I covered myself with sunscreen and kept my shirt on but I still feel burned. It seems like this was Zhen Zhen's first trip to a pool, but she wasn't at all afraid and she happily rode around in the water with Lisa while our older children dunked each other and generally made mayhem.
Later on we went out for ice cream, and Zhen Zhen insisted on coming along even though Lisa was staying behind. I think she is finally getting used to the rest of us. Then we went by a little playground, and Zhen Zhen hopped out of the stroller and ran around, trying everything she could try. After half an hour the rest of us were wilted and ready to seek out air conditioning, but she wanted to stay even though big beads of sweat were rolling down her face.
We learned today that Zhen Zhen recognizes the tellytubbies, of which there is a Chinese version. But what she really likes to do is play with the remote and push all the buttons at random. I've been thinking a lot about her foster mother, because somebody obviously loved Zhen Zhen a lot. She is used to having her hair combed and her teeth brushed; she likes hair ribbons, pretty dresses and squeaky shoes. She loves to be held and cuddled and tickled. She loves books. She likes to be sung to; one of our documents from the orphanage lists her favorite song. She recognizes the packages of Chinese cookies. She likes to ride in a stroller. She likes to pull leaves off bushes and throw them in the water. She likes fish in ponds. She stops what she is doing if you say "Buh!" which is my approximation of "no" in Chinese. She talks in sentences and she is already picking up English words. Somebody even let her hold the tv remote, and probably in a little apartment where it could get really annoying. I hope her foster mother is happy for her and thinks she is lucky to be going to America. I know she is lucky to have been loved so much, and that we are lucky to be getting a daughter who has gotten such a good start in life.
Wednesday, July 25
This is our last day in China, and we're spending the morning packing. We have accumulated an assortment of shopping bags and the like during our travels, full of little Chinese treasures, and we need to re-arrange so that everything will go into proper luggage for the airplane. It feels good to re-establish order.
Last night we took a dinner cruise on the Pearl River. The food was awful but the view was great, one skyscraper after another all along the river. As dusk fell some of them glowed with flashing lights and gigantic neon advertisements, Tokyo-style. Two of the tallest buildings had giant spotlights on top that made me think of the Eye of Sauron. It was nice to get out and see a little of this enormous city, and it made me feel more like we have actually been here, instead of just passing through. Several other adopting families went along, and it was interesting to observe all the other kooky people who are doing this. Lisa mentioned to one woman, a sweet Wiscosinite with a passel of children at home, that we were drawing the line at five because that was a full minivan and we weren't going to go to a big van. She said, "Oh" -- imagine a real Minnesota sot of accent here -- "my sister in law has eight, you should talk to her, they have pop-up seats and all sorts of ways now to fit more into the minivan."
Near the end Zhen Zhen was sitting in her stroller playing that favorite toddler game, "uh-oh!" Or so I call it when the little beast keeps intentionally drops his or her bottle, to which you are supposed to say "uh-oh!" and pick it up again. She was doing this with Thomas, using Pepsi cans. He kept getting closer, trying to catch the can before it hit the floor. But she tricked him, holding the can out in front of her and then tossing it backward. We all laughed, and she was beaming and giggling. I think she's going to do all right in our big, crazy family.

Friday, July 27

I am writing now at my own computer in the basement of my own house. We made it, all of us safe and together.

Wednesday afternoon we went over to the US consulate to pick up Zhen Zhen's visa and attend what people call our swearing in. This just means affirming in person that everything we said in all our adoption paperwork is true, but it is the closest thing to a ceremony in the whole process. If I were in charge of this I would re-arrange things to put in a real ceremony that meant something, like the oath of citizenship. The way it works now is that if both parents go to China the adoption becomes final there in the consulate, and your child receives an immigrant visa. She becomes a US citizen at the border, when the agent endorses her visa. I mean, why should such an important moment be reduced to getting a stamp from a grouchy guy named Vito in a long line in the Newark Airport? But I digress.

So we did our affirming, scooped up Zhen Zhen's passport with the immigrant visa inside, and then made a dash for the train station. We managed to catch the train to Hong Kong with ten minutes to spare, which was nice, because there wasn't another one for two hours and we didn't want to get in so late. I was surprised by how much customs and immigration control there still is between China and Hong Kong, just like any other international border. The train ride was very pleasant, just two hours, and we got a nice view of the boom town of Shenzhen, where a whole city has come into being in 25 years. It looks much like every other Chinese city, which I suppose tell you how much all of them have changed in 25 years.

All we saw of Hong Kong was glimpses from the train and from the bus to the airport, but that was enough to impress. There is a traffic light at every intersection and the traffic is very orderly, nothing like in China. All the signs are bilingual, Chinese and English. Policemen and hotel clerks and even the staff at the MacDonalds in the train station speak English. Hong Kong is mostly mountainous, and all of the buildings are wedged into small level areas along the sea, so it may be the most vertical city in the world. Most people seem to live in gigantic high-rise developments, so you don't just see lots of 50-story buildings, you see whole groups them, all identical. (Robert: "How do they know which building is theirs?)

We woke up yesterday morning and caught a 6:20 AM bus to the airport, beginning our long, long journey home. Hong Kong is a long way south of Beijing, so the flight was scheduled for 15 hours. We were delayed 45 minutes or so by a minor mechanical glitch, and then we were off. We were all together on this flight, and we had two window seats. This was great, because the skies were clear over the North Pole and we had amazing views of the polar ice. Ben and Zhen Zhen both did very well, playing and talking and eating for a while and then falling into long sleeps. I think Ben slept for ten hours. We bought two copies of the new Harry Potter book, and Mary finished hers in the air. (We laughed a lot about all the snob points she could get out if this, telling her friends, "You see, I read the British version, which I picked up in the Hong Kong airport during my world travels....")

In Newark we had to wait through the hour-long line for non-US citizens, getting a small taste of the rudeness our country shows to foreigners at the border. Vito stamped Zhen Zhen's passport, and we swept on through, carrying our new US citizen. We picked up our bags, went through customs, checked them again, and then immediately had to go through another 45-minute long security line before we could get to the gate for our domestic flight. And then we settled down to wait. We should have had about two hours, but there was some kind of enormous traffic jam on the ground in the airport, and we were ninety minutes late getting on the plane, at which point we then had to spent 90 minutes taxiing to the runway for takeoff, so that we spent three times as long sitting on runways in Newark as we did in the air on the way to Baltimore. We finally landed around 11:45, 29 hours or so after we started in Hong Kong.

In the Newark airport Thomas, Ben and Zhen Zhen were wide awake after their long sleeps on the plane, and they wanted to play. There was a little area of empty carpet in front of our chairs, maybe 30 feet across, and they ran around on it and played tag and rolled over each other, laughing and smiling and looking like they had never done anything more fun. I saw lots of adults stoically making the best of being stranded in that airport, but I didn't see anyone else having as much fun as they were. Zhen Zhen was imitating her big brothers; when Thomas took Ben in his arms and they rolled together across the floor, Zhen Zhen rolled after them. I think I will remember the image of my children laughing in that grim airport waiting room as much as anything else from the trip.