Michael and Kelly Strzelecki

OUR CHILI BABY

Infants from China's Hunan Province are called chili babies. The winters there are long and harsh, and the people eat lots of spicy chili peppers to keep warm. Local folklore contends that since the mothers ingest so many chili peppers during pregnancy, the babies tend to be feisty, stubborn, brave, and strong-willed. This is the story of our journey to get our chili baby, Chen Zi Li, who was born in the Hunan Province on February 15.

Our China adventure lasted from July 31 to August 11, and included stops in Beijing, Changsha, and Guangzhou. Fifteen families traveled in our group, and we were accompanied by trip coordinator Gail Liu and various tour guides and interpreters.

Our flight to Beijing went through Los Angeles, and was aboard China Eastern, a Chinese carrier that supposedly had been in existence for only three weeks. My optimistic side reasoned that they had a perfect safety record; my pessimistic side prayed for safe passage to my daughter. Our anxieties were not only for the flight, but for our two weeks in a country so shrouded in mystery and secrecy.

Beijing turned out to be a beautiful city -- clean and stately. The buildings were of interesting architecture, and the streets and parks rich with life. Beijing was not built vertically like so many American cities, but rather sprawled over many miles. Bicycles were the preferred mode of transportation, so abundant they seemed to swallow up the cars and buses. The amount of new construction in Beijing -- in fact, in all of China -- was startling. Enormous concrete shells of buildings under construction sprouted up everywhere, some reaching 30 stories. Most were webbed in a veil of bamboo scaffolding, the bamboo poles tied together with twine and wire. Construction workers navigated the bamboo scaffolding with the grace and ease of trapeze artists.

Our lodging in Beijing was the four-star Peace Hotel, an attractive modern high-rise with a marble lobby, high ceilings, and spectacular views of Beijing's modern district. We arrived late at night and I arose at 3:00 in the morning with a serious dose of jet lag. At the first hint of daylight, Kelly and I donned our running clothes and jogged the streets of Beijing -- an exciting and scary experience. We wended our way through back roads and happened upon Tiananmen Square, the place where world communism pulses strongest. Right where we stood, so did Mao Tse-tung in 1949 to announce the formation of the People's Republic of China to a throng of millions. But now, instead of revelers waving red banners and portraits of Mao, the people before us flew kites, tossed frisbees, practiced thai chi exercises, or just meandered about placidly. China seemed at peace with itself. Later that day our group toured the Great Wall, which proved at once awesome and disappointing. The wall itself is an impressive artifact, spanning over 3000 miles of very rugged terrain. It was built 900 years before the birth of Christ to keep aggressive Mongolians out of present-day China. But today, the brash commercialization of the wall undermined the experience. Literally hundreds of tour buses filled its parking lot. We passed through a quarter-mile-long souvenir gauntlet before reaching the access point. And once on the wall, hundreds of vendors hawking junk pestered us incessantly. We hiked four miles on the wall, but rarely escaped the wrath of cheap souvenirs being shoved in our face.

The following morning we concluded our Beijing stay with a tour of the Forbidden City, home to the emperors of several Chinese dynasties. For centuries, this walled city within Beijing had been off limits to everyone but the emperor, his eunuch slaves, and his concubines. Recently, the Forbidden City was opened to the public. It is opulent and expansive, covering many square miles, and included hundreds of ornate red buildings with gold roofs and gilded trimmings.

TO BE CONTINUED...


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As we headed to the airport to catch a plane to Changsha, our trip coordinator Gail dropped a bomb on us: we would receive our daughters that evening. They would be delivered to our hotel. Our group became flush with emotions, and the wonderful news left us all silent, weepy, and a bit nervous. Arriving in Changsha, we went directly to the hotel. We arrived at 7:00 pm. Gail told us to shower and get a good meal, because the babies would be coming at about 8:30 pm. We found our room and there was an empty crib inside. My emotions churned.

At about 7:30, as I was rummaging through my suitcase, I heard the faint cry of a child outside my door. I paused and heard a louder cry. I quietly peeked outside and standing in the hallway just outside my room was a long line of nannies, each holding a Chinese baby in her arms. The babies were an hour early.

I yelled to Kelly who was in the bathroom, grabbed my camera, and ran out into the hall. The scene will be forever imprinted into my memory. At one end of the hall, the line of nannies held the babies. At the other end was a loud commotion. People were huddled in a group. Light bulbs flashed. Video cameras purred. More people came spilling out into the hall. People were crying, and one woman was holding a small Chinese child repeating ‘I love you, I love you so much!' The first baby had been delivered.

Over the next 20 minutes, the babies were delivered one after another, and the tears continued to flow. The nannies wept, saddened to give up the children they cared for. The parents sobbed, their emotions stripped raw from months of anxious waiting. Zi Li was handed to us at about 8:00 pm. She glowed with contentment and joy, and appeared to be in good health. Her skin was deep yellow and silky to the touch. Her face was pure and angelic. Her eyes were exotic. Her head was shaven, giving her the appearance of a petite Tibetian monk. For the remainder of our stay in China, our group referred to her as the Tibetian princess. It took almost two years, but we finally had our daughter.

Adoptive parents celebrate their child's birthday, and they also celebrate what is called ‘Gotcha Day,' the day they hold the child for the first time. Zi Li's Gotcha Day is August 3.

We met briefly afterwards in our hotel room with the director of Zi Li's orphanage. She told us that Zi Li was born on about February 15, was abandoned on the streets of Chenzhou, and was delivered to the orphanage on February 20. She also told us that Zi Li was healthy, but had spent the past 10 days in a hospital with a severe diarrhea. Zi Li's nanny sat in the back of the room during our meeting and cried. We were certain that Zi Li received special care in her orphanage.

In our minds, we replayed over and over again the moment when we would first hold Zi Li. But we never gave much consideration to what came next. We retreated to our room, closed the door, and sat down. And there was a baby with us. A little helpless baby. Neither of us had ever fed a baby, nor knew how. We had only a handful of diaper change experience between us (all by Kelly, thank you). And neither of us had any idea how to deal with a crying child. Luckily, Zi Li made things very easy for us, almost as if she was stepping us through the parenting process. She slept through the first night (and most night afterwards). She didn't fuss too much when hungry, allowing us plenty of time to figure out how to mix formula. And she politely reminded us that we need to change her diaper on occasion, but offered no urgency in the matter.

The next morning, following lots of paperwork and an interview with local authorities, Kelly and I officially became Zi Li's parents. We spent the remainder of the day getting her a passport and preparing for our flight the next day to Guangzhou. Taking off from the Changsha airport, we were afforded one last glimpse of our daughter's native province. Lush rice fields interspersed with colorful plots of red sorghum stretched to the horizon. Peasants harvested the crops and water buffalos roamed freely. Zi Li comes from a beautiful province.


continued from part 2...

We spent the final week of our journey in Guangzhou (formerly called Canton) processing Zi Li out of the country. Guangzhou was unique from other Chinese cities we visited in that it had a capitalistic feel. Neon signs colored the evening sky. Modern skyscrapers housed banks and other financial institutions. American fast food joints peppered the downtown district. There was even a Nike superstore. Guangzhou offered proof that reform is very much alive in China.

We stayed at the swank White Swan Hotel, considered the finest lodging in China. The hotel was located on Shamian Island in the Pearl River and had a 30-foot-high waterfall in the lobby dropping into a large fish pond surrounded by lush, tropical greenery. Shamian Island was where Europeans settled during the Opium Wars of the 1800s. The colorful 150-year-old colonial buildings there are now in decay, the masonry crumbling and the paint peeling.

Processing Zi Li out of the country was an arduous task. It involved many hours in crowded lines in sweltering heat. The temperatures hovered around 100 the entire time we were in China, and air conditioning was only found in our hotels. Zi Li received a full medical checkup our first full day there, including several inoculations. Later, we next applied for her immigrant visa, and then had an interview with the American consulate. We had Zi Li blessed at a Buddhist temple and visited various monuments throughout the city. As time permitted, we shopped for souvenirs on the streets around the White Swan.

Quingping market, a short walk from our hotel, was the low point of our trip. The open-air market is where the people of southern Guangzhou shop for food, and is not for the weak of heart. Gutted dogs hung from the rafters in plastic bags. Half-dead cats were piled high in bamboo crates. Monkeys rattled their cages, unaware of their fate (monkey brain is still a delicacy in the Orient). Large bins of cockroaches, worms, animal organs, and starfish attracted hungry patrons. Lizards skewered on sticks lined the aisles. One vendor sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk had two tiger paws and several bear paws spread before him on a blanket. Falling cleavers sent blood and animal parts flying through the air, and the fetid stench stole my appetite for days afterward.

Which brings me to the subject of Chinese cuisine. As vegetarians, Kelly and I expected no problems navigating China's vegetable-rich restaurants. We were wrong. Chinese restaurants must have 10 kinds of cabbage, but few other vegetables. And the food was always funky and a bit suspect. We entered one restaurant and our interpreter requested a translated menu. The first entree was double-boiled deer penis; the second was braised beaver. We politely nodded and quickly exited. We ended up at a western restaurant and I conservatively ordered french toast. It came deep-fried, and I nearly regurgitated my first bite. It tasted like every smelly, rotten fish that had ever been deep-fried in that kitchen. Luckily, we had a western restaurant in our hotel that served a very mediocre pizza. We ate many that week.

Our babies attracted crowds wherever we went. Swarms of Chinese gathered around constantly, affectionately clapping their hands or hoping to touch the children. Chinese people truly love children. Kelly and I carried a laminated card written in Chinese characters explaining that we were adopting this child. Each person that read the card responded with thumbs up, slaps on our back, or by saying ‘thank you' in broken English. The Chinese people understood that we were saving their children, not stealing them.

As much as we enjoyed our two weeks in China, Kelly and I were anxious to get home to start our lives together as a family. The emotions I felt on our flight home were not only for Zi Li, but for her homeland as well. China will always be my daughter's homeland, and therefore an important element of my life. I feel lucky and proud that my daughter came from such a beautiful nation, where the people are so kind and gentle, and the culture so fascinating. Maybe that's why we decided to call Zi Li by her given Chinese name, which translates to ‘naturally beautiful.' (Her full name remains Kirby Zi Li Strzelecki, however.)

Kelly and I plan to return to China someday to further explore Zi Li's homeland. We'd like to travel throughout the Hunan Province and visit her orphanage. We'd like to meet the people from Chenzhou, her hometown. Until then, we hope to learn how to read and write Chinese, and maybe even learn some of the spoken language (a truly daunting task). We were blessed with a beautiful, healthy child and are proud to be an Asian-American family.

Michael and Kelly Strzelecki

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