Day one: Beijing

It's a long way down.
It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.

That’s right. I’m rewinding from the story of our dreadful trip back from China (although my friend has since told me a tale about train-traveling through Russia that curled my toes). I’m stepping back from writing about the sibling rivalry (although that’s still raging) and how much I adore my new little boy. It’s time for me to write down my recollections of China before I can’t recollect them anymore.

I wrote the following notes after our first day in Beijing. I don’t plan to always go in chronological order while recounting our two-and-a-half week trip, because that’s boring. Also, I wrote only sporadically once we got to Xi’an, because that’s where we took custody of Xiao-Jie. My writing time was greatly curtailed after that.

Reading these notes is strange for me now, because I know how everything played out. But I want to keep them in the past tense, preserving my emotions exactly as I felt them — no benefit of hindsight. So, here goes.

It’s Friday in Beijing, it’s 4:30 p.m. and I’m exhausted. I wish it would be 8:00 already so I could go to sleep. Any earlier and I’ll undoubtedly be up in the wee hours of the morning. So I’m sitting under the blankets, fully clothed, and alternately checking my e-mail and reading a book on my Kindle and writing. Passing time until I can pass out.

Internet access is spotty in China. It’s kind of driving me crazy. I was hoping to blog while here, but WordPress is blocked [Editor’s note: See? I was thinking of you in China!] So is Facebook. My only way of communicating with the Western World is via text, and Gmail, which comes and goes. We met a hotel employee this morning who told us that the Communist Party Congress is happening now in Beijing, and he suspects that censorship controls have been tightened as a result.

The airplane flight was long, but we’ve definitely had longer. In order to get seats together, we had to sit in the very back of the plane, near the kitchen and with seats that didn’t recline hardly at all. I got smacked once with a drink cart while I was dozing off, but honestly, I didn’t sleep very much. I had my earplugs in and my eye mask on and my new neck pillow. I even took some sleepy drugs, but even that didn’t help.

Bini couldn’t get comfortable so he slept with his head on my lap for a while. When he flopped over to Steve’s lap, I didn’t have his toasty little body keeping me warm underneath the freezing cold air blower. It took me an hour, but I finally hauled myself up and got my jacket to drape on my lap. I probably got one hour of fitful sleep.

Luckily, it was 9:00 p.m. when we landed in Beijing, so we all crashed at around 11 p.m. local time. And then, Bini woke us up at 5 a.m. and would not shut up and go back to sleep. Have I mentioned that I’m exhausted?

We also had a very eventful day. After hitting the breakfast buffet, we met up with our affable guide, Michael, who took us to The Great Wall. It’s winter still, so the landscape was scrubby and brown and the trees were bare. But the wall itself is really quite magnificent. It just goes on and on, and we climbed and climbed and climbed until our legs were like jelly. My Fitbit dashboard – when I can see it, anyway – says I got 12,000 steps today. And that was all before 2:00 p.m.

Before our rickshaw ride through the Hutong district.
Before our rickshaw ride through the Hutong district.

Bini got a lot of attention while we were on The Great Wall. Mostly double-takes and smiles, but one young woman asked us if she could have her picture taken with him. Bini, of course, was not thrilled, and kept giggling nervously and saying no. I offered to be in the picture with him, and then, the woman’s boyfriend joined us. I had been told to expect this, but it was still weird.

After that, we went to a jade factory, which is a not-so-subtle attempt to get tourists to buy stuff. It definitely isn’t cheap. Still, we bought a few things and then had lunch at a dumpling place, which was really good but also freezing cold. I spent much of the day (except when we were climbing The Wall) being cold. Not enough layers, I guess. I did notice that the dumpling place was populated with Chinese people wearing their puffy coats, so maybe being cold is just part of the deal in Beijing in the winter.

Then, we hit the Hutong district, which is very cool. Michael explained to us that “Hutong” means alleyway, or lane, which are made by rows of Siheyuan courtyard residences. The compounds are like boxes with courtyards in the middle, and several families might share one Siheyuan. We visited one, which had been set up for tourists, and the courtyard was lovely and peaceful, despite being in the middle of Beijing. According to Michael, most young people live in apartments now, but some older folk still like to live in the traditional way because they believe that the feet should touch the earth.

We did a rickshaw ride through the Hutong, which was surprisingly awesome. Our rickshaw driver needed to maybe lay off the smokes, because he kept getting passed by other rickshaws. The drivers would hoot and holler and sometimes bang the side of the passenger area where Bini and I sat, huddled under a blanket. Bini thought it was hilarious.

It was super-hazy today, but Michael told us that it was actually a really good day for Beijing. We all have masks, but Steve is oddly reluctant to wear his. Bini likes his. I don’t mind mine, but with my sunglasses on, I look like a bank robber.

There are video cameras everywhere, and in the Hutong, I saw propaganda posters that I couldn’t read, on account of they’re in Chinese. I did get some tips on my Mandarin phrases from Michael, but he told me that it’s very likely that Xiao-Jie’s nannies have spoken to him in a local dialect, and that he won’t understand our pidgin Mandarin.

Xiao-Jie, the whole reason we’re here. I’m excited, of course, to meet this little boy who we’ve come halfway around the world to adopt. But I also know that very soon, in 48 hours, everything changes, for our whole family. Bini’s gotten used to being an only child. Steve and I have gotten used to being able to go on date nights twice a month. I’ve gotten used to carrying a handbag that isn’t the size of a suitcase.

Still, I was so bored last year, with Bini in kindergarten full time. My part-time contract job at MSN fell through because of a company-wide reorganization, and I decided not to get a full-time job with a commute. I wanted to be home when Bini got home, and, if I’m honest, I like my free time. Anyway — I knew that another kid would fill the void, and give Bini a buddy to play with. Or at the very least, give him someone closer to his age to play with.

But then my freelance work really started picking up, and the timing was such that I had to start turning away work because it coincided with us going to China. I worry that my career, such that it is, will stall. I want to get a nanny to start, very part time, in May. But what if Xiao-Jie has more complicated medical needs? What if we’re back and forth to doctors and he can’t go to preschool next year? What then?

So, those are the complex emotions I’m grappling with today, two days before we meet our new son. I am so happy to be here, so excited to be sharing this amazing experience with Steve and Bini. And Bini is having a blast. When we got back to the hotel this afternoon, he proclaimed this to be the “best day ever.”

Hey, thanks for listening. I’m going to go pass out.

The most horrible travel day of all time

How to occupy your kids while waiting (and waiting) for your bags in Beijing. Doesn't Steve look thrilled?
How to occupy your kids while waiting (and waiting) for your luggage in the Beijing airport. Doesn’t Steve look thrilled?

OK, that might be hyperbole (who, me?). But in my world, and Steve’s world, the journey from Beijing to Seattle was the worst we’d ever experienced. I just checked for adjectives adequate to describe it, and there are none. “Hellish” comes close.

So, first of all, to anyone planning a layover in Beijing: An hour and a half is NOT ENOUGH. Our case manager, who shall remain nameless, assured us that it would be “fine.” I’ve come to learn that she’s never before traveled to China, much less with two kids.

We left the hotel in Guangzhou, our final city in China, at 11 a.m. Our flight left for Beijing, where we could get a direct flight to Seattle, at 1:30. That was perfectly fine. We hung out, ate some food, and let XJ push the luggage cart around the waiting area. Fine. The flight wasn’t even that bad, because it was an Delta-partnered airline  versus the packed-to-the-brim Shenzhen Airlines flight from Xi’an to Guangzhou. That’s another interesting experience, which I’ll save for another post.

We deplaned in Beijing, on the tarmac, our arms full of jackets and backpacks and the squirmy, overstimulated kid we’d adopted twelve days prior. Bini, who was constantly pointing out the inequities between him and his new brother, also demanded to be carried. We did not comply, which made him walk very, very slowly, and the terminal bus was very crowded when we got on.

I realize that China has a staggeringly enormous population and long lines and jam-packed buses just ain’t no thing. I learned that back in San Francisco, where I sometimes took the 30 Stockton bus to work. But the level of jammed-ness on this Beijing tarmac-to-terminal vehicle was unreal. Just when we were so packed that that I could see the nose pores on the guy next to me, 10 more people showed up and stuffed themselves onto the bus.  I was the only one who found this outrageous (well, Steve also), but I decided not to cause an international incident. (I should also add that two very nice young men stood up to offer their seats to me and XJ. So, there’s that.)

We got off the bus, sweating and ensuring no one had absconded with Bini, and started looking for the promised Delta representative that would lead us to our connecting gate. He appeared, and we scurried after him through the enormous airport — me holding XJ, Bini complaining about me holding XJ — to the baggage carousel. And we stood there. And stood there. Again, nobody around us seemed ready to organize a coup, so we figured this was just par for the course. However, we still needed to recheck our bags and get through security, and the clock was ticking. I asked the Delta representative where our stuff was, and he shrugged. The boys occupied themselves by riding on the luggage carts, which was NOT ALLOWED. (No one said anything, though.)

Bini, rocking his Seahawks jersey (and a window seat) on the first flight.
Bini, rocking his Seahawks jersey (and a window seat) on the Guangzhou-to-Beijing flight.

Bags arrived and we booked it to the empty Delta counter, where XJ immediately started whining that he had to go “niau niau.” (Potty.) When we emerged, Steve was frantically searching for The Brown Envelope from the American consulate, which I had in my backpack. We cannot pass go without The Brown Envelope, and if it’s opened, you have to stay in China forever. I’m just kidding. But the warnings we got about this were always in all caps, so I don’t actually know what happens if The Brown Envelope is opened.

Delta Representative deposited us at the security line, which did not appear to be moving. At the front were five bored-looking teenage bureaucrats who had the power to keep us in China forever. I’m just kidding. But at that point, with just 20 minutes until our flight took off, it sort of felt like that. A woman at the front refused to take off her headscarf and put it through the screening machine — a legitimate beef, and I am sensitive to religious freedom under normal circumstances. Right then, I was wild-eyed and swearing and Bini was like, “Mom, did you just say the ‘s’ word?”

We eventually got to the front, and as luck would have it, we got the most recalcitrant teenaged bureaucrat, complete with drab government uniform and acne-pitted cheeks. She spoke perhaps five words of English, and kept demanding “Baby picture! Baby picture!” We had no idea what she was talking about until it finally dawned on me that she wanted me to hold up XJ so they could take his picture. She then took forever to look over our passports (deliberately, I’m sure of it), which I snatched out of her hand when proffered.

And then, of course, they had to rescan my goddamned purse because I’d forgotten to put my lip balm in a plastic bag. And so, with just 12 minutes until takeoff, we tore through the airport, running at top speed, with XJ giggling and Bini decrying the injustices of his life and me yelling, “Do you want to go home or not? Pick up the PACE! Pick up the PACE!”

XJ, before he completely lost interest in media entertainment.
XJ, before he completely lost interest in media entertainment.

We arrived at the gate to yet ANOTHER security check. I saw many other Americans by this point and they were all complaining and I remember being so relieved. YES. I’m back with my people, who will call customer service on Monday and GET RESULTS. Down the jetway and to our assigned seats, which had XJ sitting off by himself. A very nice man agreed to switch (and a few hours later, he was really glad he’d done that). Everyone was speaking English and I almost wept with gratitude.

I do want to say something here about my desire to get the hell out of China. Steve and I are adventurous travelers with many stamps in our passports — we went to South Africa on our honeymoon, for Christ’s sake. But two-and-a-half weeks in China with two kids is too long. We were ready to be done on about day 10, and we were there five days longer than that. So yes, I was ready to kiss the ground when we touched down in Washington State, particularly after our harrowing Beijing-airport experience.

OK. So we’re all seated, looking at each other in delight because we know this is it — the final leg, we’re going home, home, home and Grandma and Grandpa will let us sleep in and my bed is going to feel amazing and I miss my dogs and clean air. All is well until I realize that XJ, seated next to me, will not watch the seat-back video screen for more than 90 seconds. I tried every children’s show they had, but none held his interest — no doubt because he couldn’t understand what was being said. He instead busied himself with the touchscreen settings, turning the overhead light off and on and off and on, and summoning the flight attendant over and over.

Luckily, they feed you a lot on these international flights, and XJ is always interested in food. Beyond that, I practiced the fine art of doing very small, mundane things to keep him occupied. We drove his cars on the tray table. We went through the in-flight magazine, many times. And then, finally, we Benadryl’d him (don’t judge, lest ye be judged) and he crashed, head on my lap. I was then afraid to move for the four hours that he slept, which he did, quite blissfully, until we hit some turbulence. I had neglected to buckle my horizontal child and he tumbled to the ground and started screaming.

We were those people, dear readers — the one whose child screams interminably while everyone else is trying to sleep. He even woke up Bini, who could sleep through an earthquake, but who promptly started complaining about how unfair it was that XJ was “allowed” to be up. I offered XJ some snacks and got a tiny fist in the arm. I picked him up and he scratched and pinched and so I walked him up the aisle, hoping movement might soothe him. Nope. I squeezed us into the little nook between the first row and the bathroom, and tried to console him. I took him into the bathroom, where his infuriated wails reverberated off the close walls. Steve came to relieve me, and we bickered over the screams.

“I am going to jump out of this plane. I mean it!” said my mild-mannered husband. If you know Steve, you will understand that he must have been stressed to the extreme to say such a Kristin-like thing.

After about 20 minutes that have forever scarred my soul, XJ abruptly stopped his meltdown and went back to playing with the video screen. We had five hours left in our flight, and both he and Bini were awake, cranky and tired. I’m not sure how we passed the time — I think I’ve blocked it out — but XJ did have two more meltdowns. During one, the kind lady behind us poked a lollipop through the seat gap and I nearly broke down crying myself. During another, a not-so-kind lady stared hard at Steve and he barked “What?”

Finally, FINALLY we landed, but my two tired kids were not feeling cooperative, and XJ chose this moment to go limp and refuse to walk or be carried. He also had another tantrum. I was a broken woman by then, and sent everyone ahead. “Don’t worry about me. Save yourselves. Please speak kindly of me to others.”

When everyone was off the plane, I strapped my shrieking child into his carrier (which he hates) and with a heavy backpack on my back, my purse dangling from my elbow, and the other hand clutching a stupid Trunki suitcase, I staggered down the aisle and past a row of unsmiling flight attendants. XJ continued crying until the passport control area, which, if you’re an American or Canadian, takes about three minutes. But, because XJ wasn’t yet an American citizen, we had to wait in a 45-minute line where I bounced and sang to keep him quiet. When that failed, I gave him my phone.

A word about my appearance at that point. After 16 hours in transit, I was drained and grimy and blotchy with a kid who kept putting his fingers in my nose. My $125 leggings were still damp from an hours-ago apple juice incident. The Air Emirates flight attendants, cool and starched with their tiny little carry-on bags, looked at me with pity before being whisked through a super-fast VIP line.

After that fresh hell, we were escorted to Immigration, where American officials opened The Brown Envelope and we were allowed to claim our bags. About two hours after the plane landed.

Did I mention that we time-traveled? We left China at 11 a.m. on Friday, and arrived in Seattle at 2:00 on Friday. Steve is really stoked about that.

Several days later, I spoke of our terrible journey with my father, who said, gently: “It’s over now. You need to move on.” And now, dear readers, I think I finally can.

But we are never traveling on an airplane ever again.