Meeting Xiao-Jie

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.

The completely unremarkable room where families are made.
The completely unremarkable room where families are made.

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.

High-fiving while we wait.
High-fiving while we wait.

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.”

Holding my son for the first time.
Holding my son for the first time.

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.

Bini was so amazing with him.
Bini was so amazing with him.

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.

Balloons bring everyone together. More balloons!
Balloons bring everyone together. More balloons!

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.

Food is also helpful.
Food is also helpful.

“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.”

DSC03128We 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.

On the way to the hotel.
On the way to the hotel.

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.

Day two: Beijing to Xi’an, at 180 miles per hour

Soldier in Tiananmen Square. (If they see you take their picture, they'll do something Communist. Our guide didn't say what.)
Soldier standing at attention in Tiananmen Square. (If they see you take their picture, they’ll do something Communist. Our guide didn’t say what.)

Day two in China was, in a word, speedy.

It was our last day in Beijing, and we had

to check out of our hotel by 10 and then do a blitz through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City before catching a 2:00 bullet train to Xi’an. It was as crazy as it sounds but it was also a very representative look at China itself: The Communist monuments and military presence in Tiananmen Square, the iconic picture of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. And then, a super-fast and modern bullet train with “soft seats” for people with money, and “hard seats” for people that don’t. (Was this was Mao had in mind?)

Anyway, it’s all here, from my notes, which I’ve again kept as they were written.


Day two:

I’m actually writing this on day 3, because yesterday was action-packed. I started Saturday by waking up at 3:30 a.m., but that’s not as bad as it sounds because I’d gone to sleep at 8:30 p.m. Bini was wide awake at 4, and Steve and I are finding that it’s infinitely more difficult to tune him out in the hotel versus home. So, I waited until 6, and went to the gym. It was decent – not great.

The Crowne Plaza Wangfujin in general wasn’t that great. The hotel room really needed a makeover. The bathroom had a rain shower and a regular shower — very luxurious, right? Yeah, except the ceiling above the rain shower was bubbling, cracked and leaking, and the lighting in the bathroom was dim. The shower room did have a wall-to-wall mirror, so you could watch yourself get clean. If that’s your thing.

The room itself was tired, carelessly cleaned and poorly laid out. The white leather sofa was worn and discolored. The strange yellow carpet was both strange and yellow. But it was a nice respite from the grimy streets of Beijing.

I am well aware of how this all makes me sound – spoiled, entitled, high-maintenance. And that’s not untrue. But I will say that none of the aforementioned nits are taking away from the experience of being here. I point them out simply as a comparison with the hotel we’re in now, in Xi’an. But more on that later.

The line of people waiting to get into Tiananmen Square.
The line of people waiting to get into Tiananmen Square. Look at that lovely, smoggy sky!

After the gym, we went to breakfast and then hurried upstairs to pack up and go. We were to meet Michael, our guide, downstairs with our luggage for some speed sightseeing before we left for Xi’an. We put our stuff in the Mercedes van, which reeked of cigarette smoke, and took off for Tiananmen Square.

Once we got there, we were hit with thick lines of people waiting patiently to have their bags checked before being admitted to the square. Michael told us that the Party Congress was meeting in the Great Hall of People, inside the square, and that security was particularly tight. Michael vanished for a minute, and we stood waiting; conspicuous Westerners among a sea of Chinese people. The stares were unabashedly curious, and people smiled or waved at Bini to get his attention.

Michael came back and whisked us through the crowd, which seemed not to mind that we were cutting in line. He led us to a side area where police stood ready, and they waved away our extended passports as we walked through this side gate. Michael had apparently explained to the police that we were catching a train that afternoon, but wanted to see China’s great communist monuments. The police and military police seemed so young — 18-and-19-year-old kids wielding great power over a sea of patient people.

I'm not sure if this woman knows what her shirt means, but even so, I like it.
I’m not sure if this woman knows what her shirt means, but even so, I like it.

Once inside the square, we walked. And walked. Tiananmen Square is enormous – the largest city square in the world. The Tiananmen Gate has been the scene of much change and tumult over the years. In 1949, Mao stood on top of The Gate of Heavenly Peace and proclaimed the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s picture is still displayed there, and Michael said that he’d know communism had been replaced with something else when that picture was no longer there.

He also told us that while older people still revered Mao and the Party, the younger generation was largely indifferent. He said this quietly, though, and shushed me when I asked about the 1999 protests, and where the student protester had stood in front of the line of moving tanks.

From the square, we crossed under the busy street via tunnel and passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the Forbidden City. Like everything else in China, it was huge. Layers upon layers upon layers of temples and former government buildings used hundreds of years ago. We saw giant pots made of copper and gold, used to store water in case of fire during the Emperor’s reign. You can still see the scratches where soldiers attempted to get gold shavings during the Boxer’s Rebellion of 1899.

One of Bini's butt pictures.
One of Bini’s butt pictures.

Throughout, people were trying to snap surreptitious pictures of Bini, and he was getting mad. Michael told us it was impolite to do that without asking permission, so I started scowling at people and blocking their phones with my body. Bini used his little point-and-shoot to take pictures of their butts – his revenge for being made a subject of interest.

After the Forbidden City, we hustled into the van and went to the train station. It was massively huge and confusing, but Michael helped us navigate and we got on without any problems. Compared to the cramped plane flight from Sea-Tac, the bullet train was plush: Big, comfortable seats and plenty of space to stretch out. It was a long trip – four-and-a-half hours of Chinese countryside peppered with occasional middle-of-nowhere cities with rows and rows of new, drab high-rise buildings and towering cranes. Bini played with the iPad and I read. The bathrooms were gross.

The bullet train: A civilized way to travel. (Except for the gnarly bathrooms.)
The bullet train: A civilized way to travel. (Except for the gnarly bathrooms.)

We pulled into the train station at 6:30 p.m., and were met by our guide, Sherry. Where Michael was personable and friendly, Sherry was all business. She led us to the waiting van and shuttled us to the Sheraton. First impressions of Xi’an were not terribly favorable: traffic-choked highways, dusty, nondescript city streets and air thick with smog. Unlike in Beijing, we saw very, very few Westerners. Except at the Sheraton.

The Sheraton seemed to be way overstaffed: There were greeters at the elevators, in the lobby, lining our way to the restaurant, where there was yet another army of uniformed staff waiting to greet us, to pour us half cups of coffee, to present the bill.

That first night, we staggered into the upscale Chinese restaurant on the 3rd floor, which was, again, lousy with staff and too few customers. I ordered a Cosmopolitan, which was on the drink list, and our server went to check with some invisible person to see if they could make that. Answer: no. So I ordered a Margarita (spelled “Margerita” on the drink menu) and it came in a wine glass. Hell, at that point it could have been in a shoe and I’d have drunk it.

We went to bed nervous, knowing that the next day, we’d meet Xiao-Jie.

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 thesaurus.com 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.

But you know, things aren’t all bad.

In fact, things are pretty great.

My little muffin, trying out the swings.
My little X, trying out the swings.

Little X (who yes, still lacks an American name) is a true delight, a scrumptious little ice cream scoop of giggles and mischief. Steve and I are completely in love with him. He’s experiencing a lot of things for the first time: pollution-free air, sustained, one-on-one attention, dog kisses, peanut butter.  It’s so cool to watch him explore, and see his face light up.

Steve is off work until April 13, and so we’re both getting a lot of time to bond with him. Each day, we learn a little bit more about each other. Little X does not like strawberries but he will eat bananas all day long. He loves the song “Happy,” which proves that Pharrell has indeed achieved world domination. He likes stacking things. He likes pizza.

Communication can still be a challenge. He understands Mandarin and speaks a few words, but some of what he’s saying is just kid babble, according to our guide in China. We’re not sure if that’s because he lived in an orphanage for three years, or because of his cleft palate. Steve and I have learned a few key Mandarin words — “No,” “Potty,” “Wait,” “You’re cute.” We’ve also taught him a few signs.

We talk to him constantly, and I do think he understands most of what we’re saying. He sings the ABC song (although some of the letters are unintelligible), and he knows how to say “Big Brother, where are you?” among other things. He likes to walk around the house singing: “Xiao-Jie, no no no,” probably because he’s heard it a lot. He always accompanies this song with a devilish little grin. He’s definitely a smart cookie.

Bedtime is hard, as I noted yesterday. We’re trying a bunch of different things, but bottom line, he needs to sleep. It’s our job to make sure he gets enough rest, and let me tell you, this kid will nap for three hours if we let him. So it’s not a question of not being tired. His meltdowns around bedtime seem more mad than scared, but we’re seeing the adoption medicine doc we’ve consulted with all along on Wednesday, so we’ll hopefully get some solutions there.

kefir_mustache
With a kefir mustache. What, you thought I’d let him drink Mountain Dew?

I’m a little nervous about that appointment. Though little X seems to be perfectly healthy, other than his small size and repaired cleft palate, he hasn’t seen an American doctor yet. Our neighbor is an ER doc, and he says that X seems bright-eyed and engaged, and reaching out for Mom and Dad when he feels unsure. These are all really good signs. But I’m sure we have many more doctor visits in our future. Bini, who was absurdly healthy, had to see an eye specialist and a hearing specialist once we got home, just as a matter of course. X may need additional surgery, and he will almost certainly need speech therapy and orthodontia.

Four months ago, X was just another compressed file from The China Center of Children’s Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA). We’d seen five other such files before him, so when the phone call came in from our agency that November day, I let it go to voice mail. We’d said no to yet another little boy earlier that morning, and I just wasn’t up for a chat. I listened to the message while wheeling my cart through Metropolitan Market, and I just knew. I raced home, crying all the way. “Let this be the one, damn it,” I yelled to God, or whoever was listening. “We are such good parents. Please, let this be the one.”

Steve told me later that if X hadn’t been the one, he was going to suggest that we stop. But the compressed file was my precious, beautiful little X, who is (finally) sleeping upstairs. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that he existed all this time, and we didn’t know him.

Pondering the ducks at the beach.
Pondering the ducks at the beach.

Sometimes, I catch Bini watching me interact with X, and I wonder if he’s remembering what I remember: I was not as patient with him when he was a toddler. I can give you all the excuses in the world, but bottom line, I did a lot of things wrong. I didn’t know how to slow down, or reflect back his wonder, or talk in gentle Mommy voice. I have few regrets in life, but that’s one of them: That I couldn’t stop being selfish long enough to be the mother that Bini deserved in that first year. I get a second chance with little X, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bini got the short end.

Speaking of short, we have a short list of American names for X, but nothing is sticking. His Chinese name is Xiao-Jie, which means “Little Hero.” I would love to keep it, but I do think that might be a challenging name here in the U.S. This was disputed by a snotty little 14-year-old we met doing a heritage tour in Xi’an, who told us that we absolutely shouldn’t change X’s name. We had to decide on an American name when we took custody, for the paperwork. But that name, Theo, completely doesn’t suit him. He calls himself Xiao-Jie, and that’s what he responds to. I feel a little bad about renaming him, and I think Steve does too. So we just haven’t.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the flight back. I know everyone wants to hear about that seventh circle of hell.