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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.