We didn’t meet Xiao-Jie until 4:00, so that meant we had all day to stress out about it. We went for a swim at the hotel and just generally hung out. Everyone was nervous and excited – even Bini.
Before we went to get him, Sherry and Steve went to the bank to get the money required to pay the adoption officials. As we sat in the stuffy car, I couldn’t help feeling like I was on the precipice of something really scary, and it was too late to step away from the edge.
Last June, after we moved, I told Steve that I didn’t want to adopt again, because I know myself, and how much I need my private time. But I also remember the panicked, visceral feeling I had when we found out the Ethiopia program wasn’t an option for us anymore. I wasn’t willing to give up and not adopt again. We kept pushing things forward and now, here we were. I’d told myself – and others – that we could handle whatever the adoption gods handed us, but now, it was time to walk the walk. And I was terrified, not only about losing my freedom, but also that the orphanage had not been candid about the extent of XJ’s needs. That we’d be saddled with a very sick child because, of course, we weren’t going to leave him.
The adoption office was at a hotel-like office building, on the 12th floor. It seemed incongruous to me that abandoned children would be brought through the luxurious, library-quiet lobby up the painfully slow elevator and into a dingy, nondescript room where their lives would be forever changed. They had no control over what was about to happen to them, and we didn’t have much control, either.
We waited for about 20 minutes for XJ to arrive. It was excruciating. Bini watched Steve pull out a large stack of Chinese bills and count them.
“Are you buying Xiao-Jie?” he asked.
Steve and I looked at each other. We had always told Bini that we didn’t buy him from his birth mom — which is true. All the money we paid was to compensate our agency, and for all of the administrative fees in the U.S. and Ethiopia. But here we were, about to shell out a lot of money at the same time we took custody of our son.
“No,” I said. “This money goes to pay the orphanage for taking care of him, and all of the people in China who are making sure the paperwork gets done.”
“What people?” Bini asked.
Steve gestured around the office, humming with clerical people. “Right here. And, at the consulate. They need to get paid.” Bini didn’t ask anymore about it, but I could tell he was filing it away to ruminate over later.
Sherry brought over some paperwork for us to sign. She also told us that we needed to decide on XJ’s American name RIGHT THAT MINUTE, because that was the name that would go on the all-important documents for the consulate. The documents that got him a Green Card and allowed him to enter the U.S. Steve and I hadn’t decided on a name yet, so we looked at each other blankly.
“We don’t know what his name is,” I said lamely.
Sherry looked at me like I was insane. “You need to decide.”
So, we put “Theo” on the document, and once we hung out with him, we knew that totally didn’t suit him. But, that’s the name that will come on the Certificate of Citizenship back in the U.S., and we have to pay some stratospheric fee to change it.
After about 20 minutes, I dashed out to use the pit toilet – or as Sherry described it, “Chinese” – toilet. And then, we heard voices and everyone turned to look at once. Here came a group of nannies, carrying children in their arms, and XJ was second through the door. I saw his little face and without feeling myself move, I was on my feet and reaching for him. My thoughts, which I remember clearly: He looks just like his picture. He’s beautiful. We almost didn’t do this.
XJ looked confused, and cried when his nannies handed him to me. I held him and told him over and over “mei guan xi,” or “it’s OK.” To their credit, the nannies melted away so that Steve and Bini and I could meet each other in relative peace.
When I see pictures of that day, I am beaming. I know XJ’s expressions well enough now to know that he was scared. It felt like a major victory to get him to crack a smile, and he did start to warm up fairly quickly. We handed him some food – drinkable yogurt and some Bugles, and that helped with the thaw.
Bini was the key, though. He’s a kid, and an engaging one at that, and he was gentle and sweet and showed him the toys we’d brought: squishy balls and wind-up frogs. XJ would look from me to Steve and then settle on Bini, which was fine with me. If he bonded with anyone on this trip, I hoped it’d be Bini.
There were two other families there – a single woman adopting a little girl who looked a lot like a girl we’d seen in pictures with XJ. She was inconsolable: thrashing and screaming and flailing her limbs. I felt so awful for both of them. I hope that everything settled down, but I’ll probably never see them again. It’s so strange to think that I shared this incredibly intense experience with two other families and I’ll never see them again.
The other child had a very pronounced cleft lip and another malformation under his eye. Bini was a little scared of how he looked at first, but the Italian family adopting him – they were so smitten. They’d brought their three other kids, and they followed their new sibling around the room and hugged him at random. It was gorgeous.
They also brought balloons, which turned out to be a huge win. Their new son and XJ — who’d definitely been together at the orphanage — squealed and raced around the room. Well, XJ couldn’t really race, but he walked fast. Sherry told me later that she’d seen three-year-old kids from orphanages who couldn’t walk at all, and that XJ was “perfect.” Nearly all of the kids she sees have special needs, and she works with a dozen families a month.
All three kids were bundled up like they were Arctic explorers. Seriously. When upright, they were tiny heads on Michelin Man bodies. I’d been told to expect this, and also, not to be too quick to peel off the layers. The children weren’t used to it. XJ had on an undershirt, another shirt, and a sweatshirt, as well as long johns, light pants an a heavy pair of corduroy split pants. Split pants are designed with a split over the crotch and butt, and it’s a very common practice in toilet training. Except that XJ was already toilet trained. We were confused, but decided to go with it for a few days.
We were allowed to ask the orphanage workers some questions, which we’d written out the night before.
“What kind of food does he like?” We asked, and Sherry translated. The workers shrugged and replied.
“He eats whatever is served. He’s a good eater.” Sherry told us.
“OK, how does he sleep?” I asked. Again, the back-and-forth.
“He gets put to bed at 8:00 and it’s lights out. He sleeps all night until wake-up time at 6:00,” Sherry explained.
“Does he prefer to walk, or be carried?”
“Carried,” Sherry translated.
“Does he play outside much?” Steve asked.
“No. They mostly play inside. Because of the air.”
We asked a few more questions, but it was becoming clear to Steve and I that we weren’t going to get any answers beyond what we’d read in the initial report. It’s not that the nannies weren’t caring, or that the orphanage wasn’t a particularly good one; they are, and it is. But XJ was one of 10 children in a room, and there wasn’t time to cater to individual needs or preferences. Kids ate was was provided, and there were no seconds. Kids went to bed when the lights went out, whether they were ready or not, scared or not, crying or not. Clothes were communal. So were toys.
Sherry then whisked us over to the clerical workers to sign more papers. XJ got scared and started crying, because the girl who’d been so unhappy had been in the same chair screaming just before us. Sherry spoke quietly to him in Mandarin, and we managed to get a footprint and our fingerprints. And then, we could go.
It was surreal leaving that building with another child. We stumbled into the diffuse, smog-shrouded sunlight and when our driver saw us, he gunned it and hurried over to open the door and get a look at our boy. XJ did great in the car, but he was in shock — wide eyes looking out the window and then back at us.
When we pulled up at the Sheraton, several hovering doormen rushed out to help us out of the car. The hotel staff waiting in the lobby scurried over to say hello to XJ, to ask if we needed anything, to press the elevator button up. Everyone now knew what the white adults with the black kid were doing in Xi’an.
Coming next: How to survive ten days in a Chinese hotel room with a kid you just adopted. And his brother. Hint: Lots of yelling.