When I Googled “Chinese toilet” to bring you the image accompanying this post, I saw a lot of pictures. Obviously, I’m not the only person to travel to China and get all squeamish and Western about the facilities. And those pictures … man, they took me right back. So, so many vile toilets in China. But none like the one I experienced in the story to follow.
(To all the Lonely Planeteers, who are rolling their eyes and thinking I’m high maintenance — you’re right. I refuse to apologize for the fact that I prefer my toilets to be elevated. Also, not full of human waste.)
One day, we were parked in the van with our driver, waiting for Sherry to pick up one of our Important Documents. That’s when XJ started saying “Niau Niau,” which means, “I have to pee” in kid Mandarin. If you said that to an adult, they’d think you were an imbecile.
Steve and I looked at each other. The cadence of XJ’s whimpers indicated that the situation was becoming increasingly urgent. The driver, who knew very little English, understood our frantic hand signals and he hopped out of the car, scanning the nearby businesses and finding one that he thought might be of help.
I grabbed XJ and we raced to a storefront that said “Language Institute.” Our driver had a quick conversation with a security guard inside. The two of us pounded up two flights of stairs, me holding my new child, who’s crying “Niau Niau! Niau Niau!” and I’m like, I get it, buddy, just hang in there and then, we arrived at the women’s toilet.
OK, so I’m going to try and paint a picture here. Outside the lavatory, there was a trough-like washbasin, which was leaking and rusted. The air already smelled strongly of urine. I pushed through the plastic strip doors and Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the cacophony of smells in there — I can’t describe it. Trust me. You don’t want me to.
So, there were four stalls in the bathroom, where you can squat over your pit in private, but they were all occupied. At the very end, there was a pit toilet out in the open, up a wide step. XJ was practically clawing at my arms at this point so I staggered up the step, trying not to trip on the drying urine puddles and got his pants off. With one arm, I held him under his shoulders and across his chest, and with my other arm, I bent his legs at a 90-degree angle, my giant handbag dangling precariously from my elbow. (Did I mention that I have an injured rotator cuff for which I’ve done twice-weekly physical therapy session for the past six months? Oh well.)
Then what happened? Pretty much the worst thing you could imagine. I forgot to push his little penis down between his legs, and his urine stream did two things: It went up, hit the ceiling and dripped onto my hair, and it also ran down his legs, soaking his pants, socks and shoes.
Poor little guy was then wet, crying and undoubtedly concerned that his new mom could not navigate a damn hole in the ground. So, I’m simultaneously saying, “It’s OK, it’s OK” in Mandarin and doing arm origami to get the wipes out of my bag — there WAS a reason for the giant handbag — but it wasn’t possible. So, I had no choice but to place my pristine, Western knee on the urine-covered step to get the wipes and there, six inches from my face (which had pee on it), was, quite literally, a steaming pile of shit. I remember very clearly thinking: Well, this is a particularly low point.
But, one must endure, so I wiped down XJ as best I could, and beat it the hell out of there, eager to get to my antibacterial gel.
“How’d it go?” Steve asked as we climbed back into the van.
I shook my head. “That’s the most disgusting bathroom I’ve ever been in. You owe me one.”
Then we went back to the Sheraton and burned our clothes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I know I promised a post about the day after meeting Xiao-Jie, but I don’t have time. I wrote this in Guangzhou, after we flew there from Xi’an, and I thought I’d share what I learned. We were not seated all together on this flight. I took one for the team and sat with the New Kid, and Steve sat with Bini in the middle of the plane. I was in the back row with XJ, and an older man with terrible manners.
I hope this is sufficient for now. If not, too bad. I’m busy, damn it.
Here’s what I observed on a Shenzhen flight within China:
Some men apparently like to cut their whiskers with nail scissors. On an airplane. Or, at least the man sitting next to me did.
Intra-China flights are unbelievably packed. I had absolutely no leg room, and XJ wanted to sit on my lap. By the end of the interminable flight, I was sweating and so was he.
Flights just change gates randomly at the airport. And, if you don’t speak Mandarin, it can be challenging to figure that out.
You are NOT ALLOWED to play games on your iPhone during flight. iPads and handheld game machines are, for some reason, totally fine.
Chinese men like to hack up phlegm and deposit in a paper cup, which they then hand to the doll-like flight attendant. Or, at least the man sitting next to me did.
Little known flight rule: If the person behind you has their tray down, you cannot put your seat back. It is rude. (I’m going to try that back home.)
The in-flight magazines contain reassuring employee profiles, such as “Zhang Xin: A Competent Pilot.”
The way to keep a nearly 3-year-old child that you’ve just adopted occupied during a two-and-a-half hour flight is to feed him tiny bits of a Clif Bar for an hour.
Another way is to show him how to lower and raise the window shade.
Another way is to fire up “The Monster at the End of this Book” app on the iPhone until a doll-like flight attendant comes over and tells you to shut it down.
Another way is to feed him an in-flight meal of chicken, rice and part of a roll.
Another way is to let him take all of the periodicals out of one seat-back thing and methodically put them in the one next to it. And then do it again. And again.
And yet ANOTHER way is to let him shred two airsickness bags into tiny bits of confetti. And leave it for the doll-like flight attendant to clean up later.
I will silently pray to sit with Bini on every subsequent flight, because he’s comparatively easy now.
My husband needs to realize he’s going to get punched if he remarks on how fast the flight from Xi’an to Guangzhou was.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.