And we said yes

This is one of the first pictures we ever received of Xiao-Jie.

“Hi Kristin, this is Ashley at WACAP…kind of an interesting situation came up and I wanted to run some information past you. If you could give me a call back as soon as possible, that’d be great.”

It was one year ago today when I got that call. I was in the produce aisle of the Metropolitan Market in Kirkland, looking at Pink Lady apples and drinking a 12-ounce Americano. I was in workout clothes. I’d just been to barre3 class. And earlier that we had decided to decline our latest referral. It was number five.

When I saw our adoption agency’s number pop up on my phone that day, I put my phone back in my pocket and kept trudging toward the market. I was expecting yet another pep talk from Ashley, our adoption coordinator, about how we’d know when it was right, etc. But the whole process — reviewing children like they were dogs on Petfinder  — was becoming unbearable. I didn’t want to talk.

I don’t know why I checked my voicemail while choosing apples. But when I heard the message, it was like an electric shock. My stomach turned to ice, despite my hot coffee, and my hands started shaking. I parked my cart and dialed the phone. Ashley picked up on first ring. And she told me about a little boy named Xiao-Jie.

I can’t remember if I’ve described the process for Chinese adoption, and I’m too lazy to go back and read all of my posts to see. So here’s the deal: Families can either find a child, or they can wait to be matched. We went the latter route. Our first match was for a special-focus child, a little boy who’d been on the Shared List for several months without a match. These children usually have significant or complicated special needs, and are the most vulnerable.  For this little boy, we were given a month to make up our mind. Within that time, we requested (and received) medical updates that we then had reviewed by Dr. Julia Bledsoe at the University of Washington’s Center for Adoption Medicine. 

Then, there’s the Shared List, maintained by the China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption. The list is shared with many adoption agencies, who can all see the same children’s files at the same time. Adoption agencies “lock” a child’s file for review for a specific family on their wait list. We were shown four such files between August and Nov. 19, and we declined all of them.

The problem with the shared list is the time element. Families have 72 hours from the time of a file lock to make up their minds and send a letter of intent. So if you have questions about a child, it’s very unlikely you’ll have the answers you want in time to make this momentous decision. That’s why we said no to those four other little boys: We didn’t have enough information. And to be fair, the Chinese government wants to find homes for these children. I understand why they have hard-and-fast rules. It’s just hard to make a decision about the rest of your life when you have 18-month-old medical information on a 3-year-old child.

Xiao-Jie was 2 1/2 when we heard about him a year ago. He was born with a cleft palate, and another family in our agency had just said no to him. They were heartbroken, but their 72 hours were up, and they hadn’t received their requested medical update in time. But between the time that they declined his file and his next appearance on the Shared List, the orphanage had sent his update. So when Xia0-Jie popped up, WACAP locked his file again. And called us.

I gave Ashley permission to send us the password-protected file, and finished my grocery shopping. I was still shaking, and my heart was thudding like I’d just run a race, but I willed myself to continue my errand as normal. Just finish up, drive home, and be calm, I told myself.

Before I drove home, I texted Steve: We got a new referral. It sounds really promising. Steve’s response: Already? We just turned one down. Me: Let’s keep an open mind. Him: OK. Let’s see how it looks.

My determination to stay cool lasted about two blocks. As I drove down State Street and passed the Kirkland Transit Center, I started crying uncontrollably. “Come on God,” I yelled to  my empty car. “Please let this be the one. We are good people, damn it! We are good parents! Please! Let him be the one!”

I opened the email from Ashley waited an interminable minute for the files to download. When I opened those first pictures, I knew — just as everyone said I would.

I’ve never had a biological child, but I imagine that moment when you see your new baby for the first time is not dissimilar to how it felt for me to see both of my children’s pictures for the first time. It’s such a specific mix of wonder, and awe, and trepidation, and exhilaration and so much fierce, wild love crashing like a wave. It took my breath away because I knew what it meant — I’d felt it once before, when I saw Bini’s picture for the first time.  I saw his face and his eyes and I knew with absolute certainty that I loved him, and wanted him more than I’d ever wanted anything.

I scanned Xiao-Jie’s medical files with baited breath: Cleft palate, repaired at 9 months, height (small), weight (small), developmental milestones. I looked at pictures of the palate repair. And then I called Steve.

Steve sounded hopeful, but still wary. Once again, the clock was ticking: It was 11 a.m. on a Friday, and we had to make a choice by Sunday. We couldn’t make a choice without a medical consult, and those were $450 a pop. We had already paid for several consultations, only to end up saying no. How many more times were we going to do this? One more, we agreed.

I called the Center for Adoptive Medicine repeatedly, and got voice mail. I left two messages, and wrote an urgent email, but then, I remembered my reporter training. I found the cell number for Dr. Julian Davies, one of the other consulting docs at the Center for Adoption Medicine, and I called it.

Dr. Davies asked me to forward the file, and we set up a consult for 3:00 that day. I arranged for a friend to pick up Bini at school and keep him, and tried to go about my day. I couldn’t, though.

I spent two hours in front of the computer, looking at Xiao-Jie’s picture, checking his measurements on the World Health Organization’s website, and researching cleft palate. I called the Cleft Palate Foundation in Chapel Hill, N.C., and spoke at length with a very kind woman whose name now escapes me. I followed links and more links and ended up nearly in despair about the what ifs. I signed up for a Yahoo group on cleft lip and palate. I went crazy with the waiting.

At 3:05, my cell phone rang. Dr. Davies was cautiously optimistic about Xiao-Jie, but told us that cleft palate in isolation can signal brain abnormalities and other complications. He gave us a list of questions to have answered by the orphanage: Did Xiao-Jie have pain or weakness in the legs? Are bladder and bowel functions normal? Did he have any markings (fatty lump, a hemangioma, a dark spot or deep dimple) on his spine?

We submitted the questions to Ashley, who told us what we already suspected: It was unlikely that we would receive a reply within the allotted 72 hours. We could accept the referral, and if the update came back signifying additional needs that we didn’t feel equipped for, we could change our minds. It was frowned upon, obviously, but it was an option.

Steve and I had decided not to tell anyone about Xiao-Jie yet — even Bini. I’d made the mistake of showing him one of the previous little boys, and he was very upset when we declined that referral. My dog, Kona, seemed to be catching our keyed-up vibe, and relieved herself all over the upstairs hallway. In fact, I was on the phone with Ashley while blotting one of five urine spots. Steve and I were united in our nervy excitement. All weekend, we’d lock eyes and, without a word, ask and answer: Are we going to do this?

Ashley was out of town on Sunday, and we had instructions to call Lindsey, another adoption coordinator in the China program, to give her our answer. At 11 a.m., I asked Steve one more time: Are we doing this? And then I made the call. Yes, we wanted to accept the referral. Yes, we wanted Xiao-Jie.

The next week was Thanksgiving, but still, we told no one. We went to a friend’s house for a big Thanksgiving party, and everyone there knew that we were trying to adopt again. Everyone asked us how it was going, but we both kept mum. I already loved Xiao-Jie, and I felt protective. And I think Steve and I both wanted this one so bad that we didn’t want to jinx it by saying it out loud.

On Dec. 1, we got the update from China. Dr. Davies reviewed it, and sent back this response: “Thanks for this … nice update on his development, with typical speech for his situation, felt to be smart. They have not noted any associated congenital anomalies here, but are describing absence of symptoms and typical function – when he gets home we may choose to do some screening imaging tests.” When he gets home.

Last night, I didn’t sleep downstairs, even though I was on Eggs duty this morning. I didn’t mind if Xiao-Jie, who we now call Evan, woke me up at dawn. At 5:30 on the dot, he appeared at my bedside in his footed puppy pajamas and said, “Mama.” Even though I was exhausted, I let that word — that one little word — sit inside my heart for a moment. I sent up a silent thank you to God, for listening to my pleas one year ago, and for allowing me to be Xiao-Jie’s Mama.

We hired a babysitter!

We did not hire Mary Poppins. But we did hire someone great.
We did not hire Mary Poppins.

Last week, I hired a babysitter.

You might be puzzled about why something so ordinary would merit a blog post. I’ll tell you why. My search for a babysitter was only slightly less difficult than keeping track of all the characters on “Game of Thrones.” (What about that season finale? Sheesh. Didn’t see that coming.)

Our longtime babysitter, Anna, came to us through a babysitting agency. She’s seen Bini through toddlerhood and into primary school, and she’s genuinely fond of him. She seemed like the obvious choice to get me some free time and Steve and I some much-needed date nights. But when I called the agency last month, they told me Anna was in Poland, and they weren’t sure when she was getting back.

I panicked, but then threw myself into the babysitter-search process. If you’ve never done it, you just don’t know. You just DON’T KNOW. It’s a nightmare.

I spent the next month asking friends for recommendations and posting on local websites and even signing up for I refined my job description to include 10-12 hours of weekday child-minding, since Evan was doing so well and I’m sort of dying to start working a little bit.

I had plenty of prospective sitters come on like gangbusters: I’m super-excited about the opportunity, you seem like such a nice family and I really LOVE boys, etc. But most were ultimately flaky, and gave me references that were out of date, or blamed a “family emergency” for missing our meet-and-greet date. Others just weren’t a great fit, either because they seemed ill at ease, or because they hadn’t figured a babysitting job would require actual work.

We did find a fantastic young woman, but she was looking for full time hours. When the final candidate vanished into thin air, not returning calls or emails, I was in despair. It looked like a long, hot summer with no free time and no work for Mama.

It’s said that the darkest hour is just before dawn. Last Tuesday, I was moping about when the phone rang. It was Anna.

“Hi there!” I said hopefully. “Are you back?”

“I am back!” she sang. “I hear you might need me this summer?” I hired her on the spot.

Now, our happy ending isn’t the only reason I bring this up. Adoptive parents reading this post probably know The Rule about leaving your newly adopted child with a caregiver: Don’t. Not for six months.

I remember being at an all-day training last year and the facilitator (a social worker) talking about the importance of hunkering down and allowing everyone to bond. She further advised that it was best if one parent could take six months off to assist in that process.

In the same breath, this facilitator also told us that we must find time to take care of ourselves — get enough exercise and sleep, and to nurture our marriages. One brave soul raised her hand and asked the question we were all thinking: “How do we do that and not leave our kids with a babysitter?”

“It’s difficult, I know,” was the maddeningly vague reply.

I broke The Rule with Bini, leaving him with a sitter for four hours a week so I could run errands and drive by myself in the car. I didn’t end up in Parenting Jail, but I’ve always felt bad about leaving him after just two months. Did it affect our bonding process?

I do think that I’m a better mother if I have a little time to myself each day — to walk the dogs, get some exercise or go to the grocery store without two kids begging me for Gatorade and Pop Tarts. I come back refreshed and more focused, which is good for everyone involved.

Now, if Evan (or Bini, for that matter) had been fearful or inconsolable whenever Steve or I left the room, we wouldn’t have even considered a babysitter. We’re not barbarians. Lots of newly adopted kids are understandably terrified of new people or new environments, and in those cases it’s crucial that families keep their child’s world simple and small.

But my kids aren’t like that. Bini was always a sunny, engaging and happy child. Evan is joyful and easygoing, delighted by new things and new people. The only thing that scares him is our coffee grinder.

I asked Evan’s pediatrician in early April how he felt the bonding was going. “I think you know best how it’s going,” he replied. “He seems to be attaching really well, but you’re an experienced parent. What do you think?”

I got a similar response from the social worker at Children’s in Seattle, when we had our initial visit with the cleft team. Evan had blown away the audiologist, the speech pathologist, the geneticist and the pediatrician with his intelligence and rapid language development, so the social worker said the same thing: trust yourself.

It took a visit from our agency’s social worker to convince me that I wasn’t a horrible, selfish person to need some alone time. He came to observe and talk with us for our first post-placement report, and Evan alternated between sitting on our laps and running off to play Duplo.

“That’s the gold standard, what he’s doing,” the social worker said. “See how he brings you a Lego, and then runs off to play with it? That’s attachment. And that’s exactly what you want.”

So I hired a babysitter. She starts next week.

How to survive in Xi’an with your kid and a kid you don’t really know yet (hint: TV, yelling and alcohol)

Our last night in Xi'an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. It did the trick.
Our last night in Xi’an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. With a slice of lemon. It did the job.

So, when we last left off, Steve and Bini and I had just met our brand-new family member, and ferried him back to the hotel. We’d been bundled off into the elevator by the kind, curious and solicitous Sheraton hospitality staff, and finally, we were in our room. We’d done it.

All the home visits, the paperwork, the notarizations, the check-writing and the waiting, waiting, waiting — it was over. Steve and I had made this happen. With the help of our agency, we’d navigated the legal requirements of two countries and flown halfway across the world and been united with this little person. It’s awesome and yes, I’ll admit it, empowering. Because it does feel so theoretical, for such a long time. Even when you know there’s a child out there that’s been earmarked as yours, until he’s in your arms and in your hotel room it’s just not real. And then it is.

After all that emotion, and adrenaline and huge, euphoric smiles shared between Steve and Bini and I, there he was: Xiao-Jie, in his split pants, his multiple layers and his squeaky shoes, looking around our suite with an inscrutable expression. Now came the real hard part.

I’m not going to go into the details of the everyday, so let me sum up: Bringing a new child into your lives is bewildering, for everyone involved. We didn’t know what his cries meant, or if he liked baths, or what he liked to play with, or if he hated spicy food. We knew all of his vital statistics: his height, his weight, his head circumference. But we didn’t know anything about the person. There’s no way to shortcut that process. It just takes time.

Playing in the hotel room.
Playing in the hotel room.

Steve and I deliberated about bringing Bini to China. We felt, ultimately, like it would be an amazing experience for him, both to visit the country, and to be a part of this huge change to our family. We wanted to share that with him. There were many, many times on that trip where I wondered if we’d made the right decision.

From the day after The Day, Bini was tough. Not always, but mostly. Bini kept up a constant, running commentary about everything he deemed unfair: that Xiao-Jie “got” to sleep in a crib, that we helped Xiao-Jie get dressed in the morning, that we held his hand to help him walk. We tried enlisting him as a helper, and sometimes that was effective. Most of the time, Bini gave us a look that said “nuh-uh, he’s YOUR problem” and continued with his litany of complaints.

At home, we could move to a different area of the house, but in China, the four of us were together. All the time. For 12 days. If Steve had Xiao-Jie, I had Bini. If I wanted to take a shower, I had to haul ass because Steve was lion-taming Bini and trying to meet Xiao-Jie’s needs. If Steve took a shower, I was on duty. It was man-to-man defense. And nerves started to fray.

There wasn’t much for us to do around our hotel. Steve took Xiao-Jie and Bini to a weird park one day, but XJ got tired on the way back and Steve had to carry him for many blocks (with Bini complaining that he also wanted to be carried). So we mostly just prowled the hotel, went to stores on aimless errands, or went sightseeing with Sherry.

The amazing Terracotta Warriors.
The amazing Terracotta Warriors.

We went to see the Terracotta Warriors, and that was as impressive and awesome as everyone had described. But what we didn’t know is that from the entrance, it’s about 100 miles to get to the excavation site. OK, I’m exaggerating, because that’s what it felt like. XJ walked fine, but very slowly, and we didn’t bring a stroller. So I put him in the Boba carrier my mother-in-law had bought me, and quickly learned that it made my back and injured shoulder very, very angry. That limited our outings as well: That XJ could only walk so far, and neither Steve nor I wanted to carry a 28-pound kid for hours. (Note: He’s now 30.5 pounds.)

We also went to see the Big Goose Pagoda and the impressive City Wall. These excursions would have been way more fun if we hadn’t had Bini and Xiao-Jie, but we were happy to be out of our hotel room.

On the Xi'an City Wall. I'm pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.
On the Xi’an City Wall. I’m pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.

We still had adoption-related errands to run with Sherry. We had to go back to the office where we’d taken custody to finalize some paperwork, and to the police station to get XJ’s Chinese passport. We had a driver, so we were in the van a lot, and in traffic a lot. We had a few potty emergencies. Once, XJ had to pee into a plastic grocery bag because we were gridlocked in a tunnel. There was another time, which I’ll write about later, that involved a Chinese toilet and a particularly low point in parenting.

By the time we were ready to leave Xi’an, five long days after getting Xiao-Jie, Steve and Bini and I were all snapping at each other on a regular basis. I was speed-reading “Siblings Without Rivalry,” and would start every day armed with good intentions. By lunchtime, though, I was beyond irritated and yelling SHUT UP SHUT UP at Bini. I was not the best me I could be on this trip, I admit it. Steve and I were doing the best we could to just go with the flow, but it was really stressful.

A fellow-adoptive-parent friend told me, via text, that China is all about survival, so, we relaxed our rules with Bini regarding iPad and TV time. He became an ace Madden Mobile player, and was allowed to watch “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which had long been denied him. My personal rules about alcohol consumption (Wednesdays and weekends only), went out the window. Since wine isn’t sold by the glass in most Chinese restaurants, Steve and I bought a bottle (or two) at the grocery store and started pouring at PRECISELY 5:00. That’s how we got through it: Yelling, TV and alcohol.

Next: The Chinese toilet story. Be sure not to read that one on a full stomach.

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.