Rodney & Julie Higginbotham
I begin this long story by assuring you that it has a happy ending. As I write, Alice Jiaojiao (who just turned 15 months old) is crawling around the babyproofed room.... something she couldn't do a month ago, when we brought her home from China. She stops once in a while and hollers to make sure I'm still watching, then gives me a toothy grin and resumes her travels. I still cannot believe that this wonder-girl is my child.... that I don't have to give her back! She is a constant joy, like a gift we get to unwrap over and over again.
Stressing the happy ending is important, because this first installment (part 1 of 6 lengthy chapters) is very sad. APC travel stories often start with the referral, or departure from the airport. But that's not where China adoption stories actually begin. Like some of you, Rodney and I have an adoption story rooted in sorrow. (And this is something we can share with our daughter, whose journey to us also began in sorrow.) If you are already feeling overburdened, I suggest waiting for part 2, where a more conventional travel tale unfolds. I include this prologue for two reasons: because of my writer's passion for beginning at the beginning, and because I want to assure others who have come to adoption through sorrow that there can, indeed, be a happy ending.
In late 1991, after 13 years of marriage (and almost as many years of striving for one of us to find a job that would support the other as a full-time child-care giver), we decided to launch our quest for parenthood. I was 34, Rod was 39, and we weren't getting any younger. Financially, we'd find a way to cope. We stopped using birth control. During the subsequent year and a half, both of us changed jobs, causing additional stress. After a preliminary fertility workup with my primary care doctor, we made an appointment to see a fertility doctor in spring 1993. We never kept the appointment; I got pregnant on my own. We stared at the "dipstick" on the home pregnancy test with unbelievable joy.
It was a crampy pregnancy. Eight weeks later, on July 4, I miscarried. The event was physically uncomplicated, and though we were sad, we weren't distraught. We got pregnant once, we reasoned; we could get pregnant again.
Six months later, I went to the fertility doctor at last. We embarked on a seemingly endless series of blood tests and more invasive procedures. The eventual diagnosis: unexplained infertility. The doctor said we should be aggressive about treatment due to my "advanced age" of 36.
Between early 1994 and late 1995, Rod and I had more job upheavals, causing insurance changes that dictated an off-and-on approach to treatment. (In Illinois, carriers are legally mandated to offer some coverage of the expenses.) Over a year and a half, we had several cycles of Metrodin/Lupron injection and artificial insems. Many of you know the emotional toll this entails.... not to mention the sheer hassle of the late-night hypodermics and crack-of-dawn ultrasounds. Finally, on Thanksgiving 1995, our fourth cycle worked. Too well. We became pregnant with quads, something against which the docs told us the odds were "astronomically high" for a woman my age.
We were advised by three separate doctors that "reducing" (selectively aborting) one or more of the babies would greatly improve the others' chances of survival, which were not good (again, considering my age and the high probability of severe prematurity). A major inheritable birth defect, undetectable by amniocentesis and a 50:50 possibility for each fetus, sealed our agonizing decision. We decided we could handle two children with this problem, but not four. Alas, after four amnios and the reduction ... an anguished affair, though we believed it was the right decision for our children ... I contracted a massive uterine infection in February 1996 and had to terminate the pregnancy at week 14. It was a life-threatening situation, including three days in ICU and four more in a regular hospital ward (mercifully far from the maternity ward where I'd first been taken).
We'd heard one huge, cosmic "no." We were devastated. After carrying four babies for three months--even watching them flailing their tiny arms on the ultrasound screen--it was almost impossible to believe there were none left. All that effort, all that pain, all those lives begun and ended, and we were no closer to parenthood than we had been four years earlier. We began to question whether we were meant to be parents at all.
The support of our family, friends, and church community got us through this terrible time. Though saddened and angered by our outcome, and filled with grief for the loss of all five children we had conceived, we managed to maintain some degree of pragmatism. Our current situation stemmed from choices we had freely made, first to seek treatment and then to do the amnios and reduction. We'd analyzed the risks, played the odds, and lost. Blaming God or anyone else for our results wasn't going to bring our children back--or get us any closer to our goal. If we'd made different decisions, perhaps our outcome would also have been different. We would never know. All we could do was try to go forward.
Our tragic experience had at least one positive aspect: it gave us a clear-cut reason to discontinue treatment. Fertility doctors will rarely tell you to quit, and there were other options we could have tried. But when the "no" has been that huge, and your biological clock is loudly ticking, you begin asking what you really want: to make a baby or to be a parent. The terms are not necessarily synonymous.
We started attending adoption seminars, collecting piles of literature, researching agencies, and having intense discussions about whether to try this route. I was enthusiastic; Rod, more cautious, though his interest grew as the weeks went by. We considered domestic as well as a number of international options. China seemed like the most sensible choice for us, in terms of speed of process, affordability, favorable outcomes for older parents, and healthy, intelligent children. Finally, on Memorial Day 1996, we sent our application to Family Resource Center of Chicago. No bags were packed; no Pampers were purchased. But in a very real sense, we were on our way to China.
Chasing Ali, Part 2/6
It took us (and others in our travel group) months to get all our documents collected, complete the home study, and secure INS approval. Finally, on Oct. 4, 1996, our translated documents were on their way to Beijing. I was already sick of waiting, and we still had so long to go.
Now comes the part of the story most apc'ers (and pac'ers) know.... the China Center reorganization, the constant shifting forward of date expectations, the fears about changes in the program. We originally thought we might get a referral in February.... then April.... then June. Every time we got close, the date would move forward another couple of months. My 39th birthday came and went; would I reach 40 without becoming a mommy? Each delay made me more skeptical about our ultimate outcome. The Lunar New Year meant a delay; Deng's death meant a delay. I read apc obsessively (and some of you will remember that I was a pretty obsessive poster, too). I had difficulty being productive at work. I did frantic mental math, looking at others' dossier, referral, and travel dates and trying to figure out what their experiences might mean for us. I called FRC's hotline frequently, hoping to hear of progress for groups in front of us.
In my worst moments, I convinced myself that some political crisis would put an end to the China adoption program just as our dossier approached the head of whatever slow-moving line we were in. We'd already gambled our hearts and lost; it was hard to believe we wouldn't just keep losing.
But good things were also happening. We rehabbed large portions of our house, working off our frustration by paint stripping and sanding. We saved money for the trip. I found a new, part-time job with a flexible schedule that would kick in upon my return from China, and recruited a good friend as a part-time caregiver. We selected a pediatrician. We went to seminars and read books. We joined AFA and the local FCC chapter and started going to events, though attending FCC meetings without a child made me feel as vulnerable as a naked person in a public place.
Most important, my ideas about adoption matured. My thoughts became less me-centered and more child-centered. We started to consider our future daughter's need for connection with her native culture, and Rod and I began formulating large sections of the adoption story we would share with Alice. Every bit of information we assimilated forced us to make additional choices about the risks we were assuming: some inherent in any kind of parenting, some unique to international adoption.
Finally, just when I was starting to think I couldn't stand much more waiting without cracking up, the call came. It was July 1, nine months after sending the dossier, and I'd convinced myself that the Hong Kong handover would delay our referral till August. Rodney was at a rehearsal for a play he was directing, so I was alone when the phone rang that evening. We had a daughter in Nanchang: Hong Jiao Jiao, born 6/16/96.
It took us several days to receive the photo and translated medical documents. I was happy, of course, but so wrung out that I couldn't feel that "Cloud 9" thing other apc'ers often mentioned in their referral posts. This baby was old, for one thing: a likely 14 or 15 months when we would meet her, rather than the 5 to 8 months we'd requested. It wasn't a shock--all the trends on apc had led me to expect an older child--but my dream of a tiny infant would be yet another dream deferred. Worse, I still had great difficulty believing the whole process wouldn't blow up in our faces. But Jiao Jiao's picture was precious, showing a sweet-looking 3-month-old with little fists drawn up inside the cuffs of a voluminous shirt. I cautioned myself not to fall too hard for that baby. After all, we might not get THAT baby. (Hadn't the agency told us a million times not to bond with the picture?) Even if that was her, she wouldn't look much like the photo by the time we met her.
Cloud 9 or not, we were going to China, and soon. The weeks sped by, with a tentative departure date of Friday, Aug. 8. Travel approvals didn't show up till the day before, though Beijing assured the agency they'd been sent, so we bit our nails to the quick. Good friends took us to the airport bright and early Friday morning, toasting us with champagne. At O'Hare, we met up with the other five families in our group--already old friends through agency meetings and a fair amount of cyber-correspondence. I was amazed by how much luggage some of them had, and felt proud that we'd managed to restrict ourselves to one rolling suitcase, one rolling duffel, and one rather small carry-on. Oh, yes, and an umbrella stroller, over which we'd waffled until the very last minute.
Waiting at the gate, snapping photos of our travel mates, I paused to consider what we were about to do. I, the ultimate white-knuckle flyer, was going to take a journey involving eight airplane flights and a ridiculous itinerary: Chicago-Detroit-Beijing-Nanchang-Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Seattle-Minneapolis-Chicago. Rod and I were going halfway around the world to meet a child who might... or might not... look like the Hong Jiao Jiao we'd grown to love from her photo (and, of course, from our dreams of her). She might hate us. She might withdraw. She might be seriously ill. She might grow into an adult who was angry and bitter about her life. Reading apc and talking to other adoptive parents had prepared me for all those eventualities, and more.
But our desire was stronger than our fears. Somehow, we still dared to hope that there might be a happy ending. As the jet to Detroit rolled down the runway, Rodney squeezed my hand. No turning back now. Tonight, we'd sleep in China. Tomorrow, we'd meet our child.
Chasing Ali, Part 3/6
Our flights consumed Friday, Aug. 8, and we lost most of Saturday to the international dateline. At 13 or so hours, the trip from Detroit to Beijing seemed agonizingly long. I watched two of the four in-flight movies, read chunks of a Margaret Atwood novel, wrote in the journal I'd been keeping for Ali (begun, ironically, only a few days after her birth). It wasn't a bad flight, but for those who dislike flying, no flight can really be enjoyed--only endured. When you want something badly enough, you bear what must be borne.
Traveling with us were a couple of old China hands: Tom Buoye of BAW, FRC's China liaison group, who served as our translator; and Susan Schroering, the agency's intercountry adoption coordinator. (By chance or by choice, their seats in the back of the plane put them far from us jittery adoptive families!)
We arrived in Beijing Saturday evening feeling strung out. I was disappointed that we only had one night there and no time to explore the city.. We'd waited so long for Ali; I'd have been willing to wait a few days longer. But the agency staff had time conflicts that dictated the current schedule, including the need to meet up in Guangzhou with a family that had been assigned a child from a completely different province. The Great Wall and Tiananmen Square would have to wait for our next trip.
A short van ride to the hotel, near the airport but far from the city, showed us scores of people on bicycles, construction projects that looked like they'd been going on for decades, and lots of shed-based roadside businesses. We stayed at the Movenpick, a Swiss-owned hotel with a Star Trek themed dance bar and a live camel chained on the front lawn. (Perhaps something to do with Beijing's history as the terminus of the Silk Road?) We were so fried that all we had energy to do was change money, eat a light supper, and crash. I slept surprisingly well, considering the events to come. The next morning's breakfast featured delicious European-style breads and pastries. Other than some Asian touches in the decor (and the pot of congee on the buffet), we could have been in Bern or Vienna. Rodney's comment: "I feel like this is the sanitized, Disneyland version of China."
Our trip through the Beijing airport for the two-hour Sunday morning flight to Nanchang was marked by body-to-body jostling. O'Hare the day before Thanksgiving is deserted by comparison. Tom, an American college professor based in Oklahoma, repeatedly cautioned us to stay together in the airport and not to let anyone cut in front of us. After much passport-passing and baggage shuffling, we were bussed to a Fokker 100 operated by China Eastern. It was hazy on the tarmac, with temperatures and humidity in the 90s, but the air felt no worse than an ozone-heavy midsummer day in Chicago.
The flight was smooth and uneventful. I'd envisioned people schlepping crates of live chickens and puking into airsick bags as we rode a Soviet surplus aircraft leaking grease from every weld. Obviously, my notions about Chinese domestic air travel were some years out of date. The crew was polite and efficient, though after my huge breakfast I wasn't hungry for the lunch they served. This included something sealed in a foil bag marked "Airline Pulp"... the contents of which I'll never know.
We arrived in Nanchang in the early afternoon and were met by a van from our hotel, the Qing Shan Hu. Our trip into the city gave us our first look at the Jiangxi countryside, complete with water buffalo. I steadfastly gazed out the side windows, knowing better than to face the view in front. The Chinese style of driving consists of getting your vehicle into whatever unoccupied space might be available; the concept of "lanes" doesn't really apply. Constant honking alerts others to give way. I was feeling a peculiar sense of calm, though I kept looking at my watch and thinking, "We'll meet Ali in three hours... we'll meet Ali in two hours..."
The hotel featured a grand lobby and a quick check-in. We were hustled up to our rooms for luggage delivery, then called into Susan's room for a conference. The babies were already on their way, an hour ahead of schedule. I didn't appreciate spending my last pre-parenthood moments listening to an itemized list of what to do if we felt there was something "wrong" with our child. Any golden glow was quenched by yet another reminder that this STILL might not work out. I understood that the meeting was necessary; I just hated the timing. We raced back to our room and frantically prepared a bottle, hearing babies crying in the hallway. Almost immediately, there was a knock at the door. This was it. I still felt an unnatural calm as Tom ushered a thirtysomething Chinese woman holding a tiny girl into the room.
Alice Jiao Jiao at last.
She was dressed in a blue terry sleeper, clutching a hard boiled egg. Any lingering disappointment I might have had regarding her age evaporated; this angel was plenty tiny, perhaps 14 or 15 pounds. She looked clean. Someone had given her a buzz cut on both sides of the head. And there was a mole on her left cheek, about the diameter of a pencil eraser. It was cute... but the baby in the referral photo had no mole. Tom was translating, telling us the baby had an ear infection, giving us a quick run-down of her usual menu and sleeping schedule. There was scant opportunity for questions. At some point, he told us, "Take her; she's your daughter," and the baby went willingly to Rodney's arms. I asked the orphanage representative to pronounce the baby's name ... partly because I wanted to hear how she said Jiao Jiao, partly because I wanted to verify that this was really the child we were supposed to get. A quick photo by Susan, and we were alone with our daughter.
We spent the next few hours getting acquainted with little Jiao Jiao. I'd expected to weep at our meeting, and I actually wanted to. But the pressure of being "the parent" somehow made me focus on the baby's condition rather than emotional release. Jiao Jiao watched our every move. She wolfed down a bottle of soy formula and ate her egg. She made eye contact readily and grinned occasionally at our efforts to entertain her, though she seemed quiet and weak. A game of "drop the keys" elicited a giggle: an encouraging sign. I cuddled her precious, warm little body against my chest and breathed in her scent: a pleasantly spicy aroma rather than the powder smell so common to American babies. She seemed to like being held, and I had been so braced for a vigorous rejection.
We pulled out the referral photo and compared it with her face. Other than the missing mole, they might be the same girl ... or not. A year can make a huge difference in a child's appearance; there was really no way of knowing for sure. Her name, written in ball point pen on her forearm, did match the Chinese characters on the referral documents. I said, "I don't care who she is; she's a great kid."
Removing her clothes (purchased at Sears, presumably by a previous adoptive parent), we saw that Jiao Jiao had a terrible rash on her thighs and belly--and that she had lost a considerable amount of weight. The skin on her thighs was baggy; we couldn't figure out any other explanation. Her ribs stuck out so much in back when she twisted around that we briefly thought there was something wrong with her spine. She had a congested-sounding cough. Still, she didn't seem too terribly ill--no sign of fever, scabies, lice, or the other contingencies for which we were prepared.
We went down to dinner in the hotel restaurant early that evening, comparing notes with the other families. Our child was the second-smallest of the group, which ranged in age from 14 to 17 months old. Three of the five children, including Ali, had some kind of minor respiratory problem. None had any skin problems but Ali. All looked nervous, and none seemed very mobile. The sixth child in our group, a special-needs girl from a rural orphanage, had spent most of her life in foster care and took several days to adjust to her new family. We saw little of Hannah and her folks for a while, though we certainly heard her heart-rending screams in the hotel corridor. (At 12 months of age, with a supposed heart murmur, she was clearly much more vigorous than the other five children.)
The dinner provided our first taste of Tom's great skill at ordering Chinese food. I don't remember everything we ate, but all of it was delicious. Cups of special herbal tea were replenished by a waiter pouring water over our shoulders from a velvet-covered pot with a yard-long spout.
With four teeth on top, three on bottom, and three molars, Ali was clearly ready for real food. In the ensuing days, she showed us that the small amount of baby food we'd taken along was boring, and we stuck to table food (though only a few bland things at first), rice cereal, zwieback, and formula for the rest of the trip.
We went to bed early, nestling Ali in the small swinging cradle provided between our twin beds. But she had a fitful night, tossing and moaning, despite a dose of Pediacare that seemed to relieve her congestion and hacking cough. By 2 a.m., I noticed that the incessant honking drifting up from the street had finally stopped. Ali woke screaming at about 5 a.m., burning up. The rectal thermometer, which she accepted without protest, stopped at 103. We stripped her, sponged her with water, and dosed her with children's Motrin according to our best estimate of her weight. The fever came right down, and she seemed grateful for our ministrations. At 5:30, as Ali napped in my arms, a street-cleaning machine came by, playing tinkly American Christmas carols. I laughed in spite of my weariness. She woke again around 7, slurped a bottle, and was ready for solid food shortly thereafter.
We dragged ourselves through the shower and down to an American breakfast. (Good scrambled eggs and toast; peculiar ham.) Tired or not, we had lots to do. It was Monday morning: time to start the paperwork that would make this baby ours forever.
Chasing Ali, P art 4/6
Our first stop on Monday, Aug. 11, was the Civil Affairs ministry: a nicely paneled room on an upper floor of an aging office building. We waited our turn, chatting with adoptive families from other agencies. Ali ate zwieback and napped in the baby sling; she seemed tired but not extremely ill. (She ran a low-grade fever off and on till Wednesday, when we observed visible ear drainage. We called our pediatrician back home and then started amoxycillin; though it took a stateside round of Suprax to completely knock out the infection, she never had a fever again in China.)
In a pattern that soon became familiar, Tom pressured us to have all the needed documents in order and have our money counted and ready, including approximately $200 in registration fees, the $3,000 orphanage donation, and $110 for Ali's passport and passport photos. FRC prides itself on well-prepared groups, seeing this as a point of honor with the Chinese authorities. Though we sometimes tired of being hounded about having paperwork in the right order, we appreciated the fact that the entire official side of the trip was marked by clockwork precision. We were well-prepared, and we suspected Tom and Susan were doing lots of behind-the-scenes work to make sure there were no surprises.
The registrar seemed polite and harried, like many government officials we've met in the U.S. The orphanage rep who had delivered the babies was there with her own paperwork, and she stamped Ali's footprint and our thumbprints on some documents. Our interview was perfunctory and brief, with questions already thoroughly discussed on apc. Tom had coached us to answer truthfully but succinctly. Why did we want to adopt a Chinese child? Were we satisfied with this child? Would we promise to take care of her and never abandon her? How long had we been married? (Our answer, 18 years, elicited a shake of the head and a big grin from the registrar.) How many people in our immediate family? What were our plans for our daughter's education? Would we teach her to appreciate Chinese culture? We were given a pretty commemorative plate, made in Jiangxi province, and were urged to bring Ali back to China for a visit someday.
The next step was a van ride to the provincial notary office, located in a much shabbier building (again, on an upper floor). We answered many of the same questions and paid a notary fee of approximately $500. The officials were polite but terse, and the interview was routine. The adoption was over almost before we knew it; though we didn't have the documents yet, Ali was officially our daughter. She celebrated by falling asleep in the van on the way back to the hotel. My sense of calm was still pervasive. Ali had been our child in our hearts for so long. All the official business seemed like a paltry, earthbound affirmation of a bond that transcended legalities.
A celebratory lunch at the hotel again featured delicious food, including several vegetables and a local specialty, Nanchang country meat. I was concerned that Ali hadn't had a bowel movement, other than a tiny hard one, but she vigorously rejected baby food prunes. An attempt to put her down for a post-lunch nap failed, and we spent much of the afternoon playing with her and holding her. She sat up well but didn't seem to be able to roll over, much less crawl or stand alone. She seemed to need a lot of cuddling; we needed it, as well. We began to notice what we assumed was a self-stimulating behavior: a habit of playing bits of fabric or paper between her fingers, over and over again. We ended the long day with instant noodles in the room, after which Ali spent a mostly quiet night.
Tuesday, Aug. 12, found us eating an authentic Chinese breakfast, including bland congee (rice porridge), sticky rice dumplings, boiled peanuts, steamed bread, and some type of lima-like bean in an oily sauce. Different, to be sure, but tasty. We started the morning visiting the provincial arts and crafts museum, where beautiful porcelain and other arts were displayed. We then saw Nanchang's main tourist attraction, the Tengwang Pavilion. This much-rebuilt edifice, originally erected in celebration of literature, was full of fascinating exhibits. We were treated to a short performance of Chinese music and enjoyed watching the boat traffic in the misty rain on the Fu River. A small card explaining who we were and what we were doing with a Chinese baby, translated for us by a Chinese friend, proved an indispensable item on our street rambles throughout the trip, provoking smiles and thumbs-ups from the local residents.
After lunch at the hotel, Susan and I walked to a nearby open-air market in search of fresh fruit ... still looking for a way to loosen up Ali's gut. I viewed suppositories or enemas as an absolute last resort. The stalls held everything from wriggling shar pei puppies to cheesy plastic binoculars. Susan bargained for some interesting small collectibles; calculators speak a universal language, and a proprietor flashing a calculator is inviting you to haggle by inputting your offer. I purchased a few plums and what turned out to be two of the best peaches I'd ever eaten in my life. Dunked in boiling water and peeled with a clean knife, they were white-fleshed and succulent. Ali ate half of one upon our return; Rod and I savored the remainder. (Her constipation obligingly ended with a bang the next morning.) A quick hotel dinner, then a late-evening group party in Susan's room capped the evening. We were beginning to unwind, safe with our girls at last.
At 5 a.m. on Wednesday, we rose and made our way to People's Park, across the street from the hotel. Thousands of people were there, practicing tai chi, playing badminton, doing gymnastics, learning ballroom and line dancing, even walking backward for exercise. (Supposedly there's also a caged panda in this park, though we never saw it.) For once, the stroller came in handy since the park is quite large. If we paused for a moment, we attracted crowds of inquiring onlookers. We spent the rest of the morning on a souvenir-buying trip, hitting Nanchang's porcelain shops as well as a big department store, where it was clear Western customers were rare. We snapped up great bargains on Yixing teapots (not a local item), painted Jiangxi porcelain, and a writing set for Rodney. Ali sipped watered-down juice from a bottle and sweated profusely in the muggy heat.
Lunch was at the Sunshine Restaurant across from the hotel. Specializing in seafood, it featured tanks of fish and other sea creatures, with a digital display of market prices. We ate some of the freshest, tastiest boiled shrimp I've ever had, as well as a garlic-sauced steamed fish and other specialties. Politely oblivious to the fact that our children were trashing their carpet, the restaurant staff passed around little packets of tissues. Tom explained these were a special gift for us because we were their honored guests. Ali slept heavily in the afternoon, as did mom and dad. Some of the group went back to the Sunshine for supper, but we ate a late meal in the room, then had an informal get-together with our travel-mates. Ali posed eagerly for the group's cameras, generating comments about her being the official Cindy Crawford of the bunch (due, no doubt, to the beauty mark).
Thursday morning, Aug. 14, saw mommy heading back to the notary's office to proofread our adoption documents. Rodney watched Ali and gathered our belongings for our afternoon flight to Guangzhou. We got our first look at Ali's abandonment certificate, which was disappointingly vague. Later that morning, we received her passport, a vaccination record, and an eggshell-thin vase as a gift from the orphanage. We also were given a surprisingly complete set of medical reports, from checkups done almost every month at a major Nanchang hospital. Our suspicions about Ali's weight loss were confirmed; somewhere between 10 and 13 months of age, where there was a gap in the medical record, she'd lost more than three pounds. No information was available regarding why, however. Her weight at the last exam, two days before we got her, was 6.8 kilos or just under 15 pounds, very close to my original guess. (A week later at the Guangzhou clinic she was up to 7.2 kilos, and by the time we got to the pediatrician, five days after returning home, she weighed almost 18 pounds.)
A farewell lunch at the hotel with the orphanage director and deputy staff offered more tidbits about Ali's past, including the interesting fact that most Nanchang orphanage children go to foster care from 6 to 12 months of age. We couldn't get any more specifics, but we wondered whether Ali's weight loss might have been related to a grief reaction at being separated from a foster family. Foster care might also have contributed to her eagerness for eye contact and physical closeness. Whoever taught her to love these things has our lasting gratitude.
The afternoon brought adventure (of a sort) when our 5 p.m. China Eastern flight to Guangzhou was delayed till 9:40. The only explanation Tom could get was that "something bad happened," which of course didn't fill me with confidence. The resourceful manager from the Qing Shan Hu, who'd ridden to the airport with us in the hotel van, asked airline authorities if our group could stay in the air-conditioned VIP lounge rather than the sweltering waiting room, where seats were at a premium. "Only for VIPs," he was told. Whereupon he pointed to a prematurely gray parent in our group and said, "But we have a VIP; this man was an aide to Richard Nixon." It was a wild story, but it worked. Whether or not the officials believed it, we were allowed to stay in the private lounge for the remainder of the wait, resting on the gray canvas-covered couches and eating box lunches supplied by the airline. (The "VIP" got chicken breast and winter melon; the rest of us got wings.)
The flight to Guangzhou, when it finally left, was uneventful. Once again we flew a Fokker 100. We reached the White Swan between 11 p.m. and midnight, after a van ride through a neon-lit landscape that looked much more like Vegas than Nanchang. We hit the sack in a big hurry, knowing that the morning would bring our trip to the clinic and hoping it wouldn't also bring half a dozen inoculations for our little Alice Jiaojiao.
Chasing Ali, Part 5/6
Early on Friday, Aug. 15, we dragged ourselves out of bed and down to the River Garden Restaurant, where the White Swan's lavish American buffet is spread every morning. As much as I liked the Chinese fare we'd been eating, it was pleasant to have something familiar. Alice noshed on scrambled eggs and all kinds of melon; she was, and is, crazy about fruit.
We headed down the street for quick visa photos of the girls, then trekked across Shamian Island to the government clinic for the medical exam and shots. Organized chaos described the series of queues snaking through the clean but crowded facility. The exam, when it came, included a weigh station, quick general checkup, and ear/nose/throat exam. The doctors looked at Ali's Nanchang vaccination records and decided she only needed one shot: the MMR. She took it like a trouper, causing the doctor to remark, "She's a good baby." (We thought so, too.)
Still concerned about the angry rash on Ali's thighs and belly, which we'd treated unsuccessfully with hydrocortisone, Desitin, and Nystatin, we then visited the guest clinic at the White Swan. The staff, including a very pregnant young woman who translated for us, diagnosed the problem as severe eczema. They bathed Ali in a purple antiseptic solution: perhaps her first tub bath. Despite mommy's efforts to comfort her, she screamed in abject terror and pooped in the tub. They then gave her some kind of shot, swabbed out her infected ear, and rubbed her down with a fungicidal cream. (It did help the rash, though we're still fighting it with a dermatologist and are now using a combination corticosteroid/fungicide, along with plain old greasy emollients like Vaseline to reduce dry skin.)
Exhausted, Ali slept for much of the afternoon. The day ended with pizza from the Guangzhou Pizza Hut, delivered to a party in Susan's room, and all of us went to bed early.
Saturday, mommy woke with a roiling gut. Maybe the pizza was a mistake. I took a dose of Immodium and recovered enough to eat breakfast. Ali had another antiseptic bath, ear cleaning, and ointment rubdown at the clinic. We then took a shocking walk with Susan and part of the group to the Qingping Market. Founded fairly recently but ageless in intent, this huge outdoor market bears witness to the Cantonese people's catholic tastes in food. The herbal section fascinated me, but I could have lived without seeing the blocks and blocks of animals: some dead, some alive, some half-alive. Ali dozed peacefully in my arms as we walked, ignoring the scents, stinks, and commotion.
By the time we got back to the Swan, I was feeling lousy again. I went to bed, and so did Ali, probably aided by the decongestant and expectorant we gave her that morning at the doctors' direction. Daddy and some other group members hit the antique market, where he bought a ceremonial children's hat, a rod puppet, and a Mao pocket watch. I read my novel and nursed a fever of 101; my body was trying to kill something, so I let it run. Rod ate a room service dinner, and we all had a quiet night.
Sunday, Ali woke ravenous at 4:30. By the time all of us woke fully and got dressed, mommy felt hungry, too. The fever was gone, so we had breakfast, and then shopped a bit--both in the White Swan's arcade and at the famous Shop on the Stairs outside. We bought traditional clothes for Ali and had chops made for her and daddy. That afternoon, mommy joined other group members for a wild cab trek to various department stores in search of diapers small enough to fit the tiny bottoms of some of the babies. Without our Chinese babies, it was tough for the natives to put us in any kind of context, and we were openly stared at by crowds of startled shoppers. When we got back, daddy went to Susan's room for a long paperwork-checking meeting in preparation for Monday's bureaucratic work.
On Monday, Aug. 18, a short walk out the hotel's back door brought us to the American consulate. The interview was low-key and anticlimactic, considering it was our last official business in Guangzhou. We handed over passports, vaccination records, and about $200 in fees. Tom would return passports and visas, plus international vaccination cards, the following day. When the group was finished, we headed to the White Swan's Chinese provincial restaurant for a delicious celebration lunch, including excellent fresh noodles with cilantro and garlic. All of us seemed slightly giddy at the idea that the bureaucratic maze had been negotiated. There was much laughter and joking. We all agreed we missed Nanchang's local beer, which we preferred to the universally available Tsingtao. As usual, Ali's appetite was great; even when she was sickest, she never lost her taste for food.
During her afternoon nap, Rod stood watch while I slipped out to take photos in the White Swan. The hotel is like a museum, filled with huge carvings in jade, camel bone, and various types of stone. All are for sale, so if you're pining for an 8-foot-long ship made of intricately carved jade, just bring an extra ten grand with you.
We ended the day with a hike to the Cultural Park with one of the other families in the group. This run-down amusement park reminded me of the old World's Fair grounds in Seattle; none of the rides were running, and the exhibit halls were closed. Cultural performances are sometimes given on a big outdoor stage, but none were on tap the week we were in Guangzhou. As usual, we attracted gawking, though people seemed less overtly friendly than in Nanchang. Crossing streets with the babies was an adventure; I was glad I'd brought the stroller. (Ali was so light that I hardly used it on the trip. If she'd turned out to be 10 pounds heavier, it might have been indispensable.) Our walk back across Shamian Island in the twilight prompted me to remark that the place had sort of an Asian Tennessee Williams ambience, due to the thick vegetation, muggy air, and European architecture.
Tuesday morning, after the usual huge breakfast, we left Ali with Susan (wrenching!) and joined several families on a group bus tour to some of the city's tourist sites. Sandy, a guide hired for the morning through the hotel's tour office, provided an excellent travelogue. The golden Buddhas at the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees were impressive. I exchanged a smile with a woman praying at the shrine of Kwan Yin, where women traditionally petition the goddess for healthy sons. We had no time to climb the Flower Pagoda, though a few hardy souls in our group had done so the afternoon before.
Tom got our group into the grounds of Guangzhou's small Huaisheng Mosque by offering a contribution to the cause. There was little to see in this recently restored complex, which serves a small local population of Muslims. We then visited the Chen Clan Academy, a site with elaborately painted architecture and many intriguing displays of native arts (porcelain, painting, needlework, bone and jade carving, glass etching, tea culture, etc.). An excellent souvenir stop, for those with any money left after several days in the White Swan!
After we returned, Ali napped in our room while daddy and mommy took turns dashing out for last-minute neighborhood shopping. We then gathered the babies for a group photo session in front of the lobby waterfall, followed by a major farewell feast at the Swan's BBQ buffet restaurant. Ali loved the traditional music played by a trio of beautiful young women on erhu, pipa, and zither.
In a quiet moment, I carried her out to the jetty where the hotel's boat docks and held her up so she could see the Pearl River and the buildings beyond. I felt so happy but was surprised to also feel a sense of loss--not for me, but for Alice. By leaving with us, she would become a different person. She would lose her opportunity to grow up in the majority rather than the minority. She would forever have a hyphenated identity. Though we, and her Chinese guardians, were confident we were doing the best we could for her, I couldn't help feeling a bit sad."This is your homeland," I whispered. "I'm sorry I have to take you so far away. I promise to bring you back to see it someday."
Sleepy and eager for the trip home, we returned to our room, stopping first at one of the hotel shops to buy a special gift for Ali's high school graduation. Then we hit the sack. Tomorrow was going to be a heckuva long day.
Chasing Ali, Part 6/6
The trip home took more than 24 hours, but thanks to the international dateline, we started and ended it on Aug. 20. Up at the crack of dawn for an 8:30 bus to the Guangzhou airport, where we boarded a China Southern 777 for the brief flight to Hong Kong. Then we endured a slow check-in at Northwest's counter, hampered by a malfunctioning computer. We finally boarded the 747 for our Northwest flight to Seattle--a relatively bumpy and very tedious 12-hour journey, during which Ali slept only about two hours (none of it contiguous). She wasn't grumpy, just awake... so mommy and daddy took turns amusing her, changing her, and walking her up and down the aisle. No movie-watching on this journey; we had to be the parents, now! We stood in the bulkheads and the galley areas near the bathrooms, where she charmed the flight crew and fellow passengers alike. A native Taiwanese, now living in Montreal, assured us that he thought we'd gotten "a great baby."
By the time we reached Seattle, our plane was late. The connection was tight, and we hustled like mad to clear customs. The INS people zipped us right through, and adoptive parents didn't have to wait with the "normal" immigrants--very lucky, considering some of the stories I've heard of customs elsewhere. The plane from Seattle to Minneapolis--a spanking new DC-10--was also delayed because such a large contingent of folks from the Hong Kong flight were ticketed on it. Ali was now exhausted and slept; she protested loudly when I had to wake her up to deplane when we arrived Wednesday afternoon. Alas, our Minneapolis-Chicago flight, supposedly leaving at 6 p.m., was canceled. Two group families flying first class made it onto the 7 p.m. flight; the rest of us were stuck till 8. This leg of the trip was mercifully short. Rod held Ali, and both of them slept. I gazed across the aisle at baby and daddy and, finally, cried as I saw the lights of Chicago come into view. We were really a family: for better, for worse, forever.
Saying goodbye to the rest of our group at O'Hare was bittersweet. To protect their privacy, I've said little about them, but they were wonderful traveling companions. We'd shared so much: strange food, scatological reports, parenting jitters, incredible joy. We parted with plans for a reunion already in the works. I can't wait to see all of them again.
We've now been home a bit more than a month, and Alice just passed her 15-month birthday. She has amazed us by gaining weight, strength, and mobility. She rolls powerfully and creeps well across the room, though it's not yet a true crawl. She likes grabbing mommy's shoulders (or hair, if necessary) and gleefully pulling herself to stand, but we haven't seen her do it with furniture. She loves "working" with her toys and seems to have a long attention span for such a young child. Best of all, her original pleasant temperament seems to be a character trait, rather than simply the product of fear or illness. She is quick to smile and loves teasing her father by offering him bites of food, then yanking them away at the last minute and giggling. She sometimes takes my hand and pats it gently against her chest while I'm feeding her a bottle, as if to reassure herself that I'm not a figment of her imagination. "I'm really here," I whisper. "I'm your mommy."
When her head is nestled against my shoulder, I am still struck breathless by the idea that she is our child. I'm amazed at the notion that two relatively cautious people, already much-frustrated in their attempts at parenthood, went halfway around the world and found a wonderful daughter. I am filled with gratitude for the efforts of all who made it happen, from Ali's caregivers and the Beijing officials who matched us, to FRC and BAW, whose professional staff gave us confidence at every turn.
I feel fortunate that our trip was smooth and enjoyable. I was prepared for things to be very different and much more difficult. And apc'ers would do well to be similarly prepared, for every journey is unique. In some ways we were smart (by selecting a very good agency). But in a lot of ways we were merely lucky. There is a huge range of "normal" experiences in China adoption, and I had not dared to hope that the journey would actually be fun. It's not a vacation, and yet, for us, it WAS fun. I'd do it again in a flash. (Rodney shocked me the other day when he started talking about going back for No. 2!)
We've reached the end of our beginning. I'm a new mommy; I have a lot to learn. But I know one thing for sure: Alice Jiaojiao is the child God meant us to have. She is ours, yet she is not our possession. It's our job to help her figure out who she is and what she's meant to do in the world, then send her out there to do it.
The story of her birth, abandonment, and early childhood in China will be integral parts of who she is, just as the years she spends with us will shape that identity. We will always remember her birth parents and caregivers in our prayers, and teach Ali to do the same. I hope the circumstances of her beginning will give her depth and compassion. Perhaps this story will help her learn how powerful faith, persistence, and love can be. Perhaps she, like us, will someday understand that joy can be born of sorrow--and that there is always a valid reason for hope.
(If you have web access, there is a site with more information on Jiangxi Province, including pictures of Xin Yu City Social Welfare House: http://www.teleport.com/~gurrad)
Rodney & Julie Higginbotham in Chicago
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