The most horrible travel day of all time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are never traveling on an airplane ever again.

One day ’til China: Three bags full

The world's heaviest suitcases. I see extra fees in our future.
The world’s heaviest suitcases. I see extra fees in our future.

Well, hello. Tomorrow I’m going to China.

It’s been a long road to get here, and I’ve written about most of it. I wrote about being unsure about adding to our family, and then, the day that I learned about the Waiting Child program, through which we were matched with our son. Before him, though, there were others that we didn’t say yes to, and those faces are impossible to forget.

In just a few hours, we’ll get on a plane and finish this piece of the journey. Everything changes tomorrow. And I feel calm. I didn’t feel calm about two hours ago, but I’ve since cleaned out my refrigerator and made the bed in the guest room and left instructions for the dog sitter and sorted out my wardrobe issues. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling ready. I’ve also had a margarita.

By some miracle, Steve and I have managed to cram two-and-a-half weeks worth of stuff into three incredibly heavy bags. For those of you shaking your heads at our packing ineptitude, listen up: We had to pack for almost three weeks and for two very different climates. We had to pack gifts for 10 people: orphanage directors, nannies, kindly concierges. We had to pack toys and pull-ups and clothes for Kid X. We had to pack Bini’s stuff. We have two iPads and my laptop and sticker books. And, of course, there’s snacks. We’re on trains, planes and automobiles for many hours, and I can guarantee you that Bini will tell us he’s “starving” on top of the Great Wall. And though I’m an adventurous eater, I’m not at all sure I want to eat sparrow or snake soup. So for me, two-and-a-half weeks of almonds and raisins.

I feel like I should be sitting here, contemplating my life as it is now, and savoring its (relative) simplicity. I should be admiring my clean house, and its intact furniture. The ease of getting just one child fed, bathed and to bed. I have no doubt that I’ll have approximately 457 “what the hell have we done?” moments over the next two-and-a-half weeks. But I’m just excited. I’m impatient. I’m ready.

Late this morning, after volunteering at Bini’s school, I went to Barre3 for a workout. Afterwards, I was hungry for lunch, and knew that the refrigerator had only condiments and two sad carrots. I lingered outside a green juice place, and went in. I was chatting with the owner and mentioned that I was going to China the next day. I showed her a picture of Kid X, and told her a bit about our adoption experience thus far. She asked what cities we were traveling to, and I told her: Beijing, Xi’an and Guangzhou.

“Guangzhou is my hometown,” she said, delighted. She went to fetch a business card and wrote down her number. “I want you to call me or text me, day or night, if you need anything. Anything at all,” she said, handing it to me. “My family is there, and I have lots of friends there, and they will help you if you need it.”

I took the card, touched by her kindness. I had never met this woman before, and had rarely been into the shop. I thanked her profusely, as I left with my gluten-free, egg-and-carrot-pesto sandwich.

“It’s no trouble,” she insisted. “Remember, call or text me anytime, day or night. I will do anything I can to help you.”

Look, I know that angst and kvetching is way more interesting to read about than gratitude and happiness. That’s all I’ve got right now, though. Along the way, we’ve encountered so many kind people — the friends who showered us with gifts and hand-me-downs, the strangers who became friends via our adoption agency’s Facebook group, the incredible volunteers with The Sparrow Fund, who sent us pictures and videos of our soon-to-be son. And then, this woman today. Nobody wants anything in return. They just want to help. It feels awesome to have so many people rooting for you as you do something scary. So, thank you.

(Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be back to my old self before you know it.)


Two days ’til China: Stress dreams, speed-shopping and koalas

Bini decided that writing would chill him out tonight. I can't deny that I was a little bit thrilled.
Bini decided that writing would help him wind down tonight.


I had a really horrible dream last night. I’m fully aware that dream-sharing is annoying, but indulge me. It’s my blog, and you’re reading it, for some reason.

I dreamed that when we went to China to meet little X, he was the size of a 9-month-old baby. Which would be fine, except that he’s almost 3. And he started shrinking. It’s hard to tell timetables in dreams, but I’d say a couple of days had passed and he was small enough to slip under the furniture. I held him cupped in my hands and took him to doctor after doctor, but none of them knew what was wrong.

All around me were the disembodied heads of people who’d been nice-but-skeptical about us adopting a child with a special need: “I knew this was a risk .. I wanted to tell you … It was clear from his pictures that something was wrong … Should have kept your family how it was …”

Friends kept pestering me for pictures, so I ignored my phone and stayed at home, holding and bathing and feeding my shrinking child. I thought about how I loved him and felt a responsibility to raise him, even though he wasn’t what I’d expected. I woke up to the alarm, at 7:00 a.m., disoriented and shaken.

I slipped out of bed and woke Bini for school, letting Steve sleep for a little while longer. I was so troubled by my dream that I told Bini about it over breakfast.

“That’s a weird dream,” he said. “Are you worried that X is shrinking?”

“No,” I said. “I think I’m just nervous.”

“I’m nervous too,” Bini said. “But I dreamed about breaking a board with my foot.”

You don’t have to have a psychology degree to interpret what my dream was about. We’ve never met this child, but we already love him. We’ve promised to take care of him and be his parents. And I’m worried that he will have needs that exceed what we can handle. What I can handle. We know he had cleft palate, and that it was repaired. But we also know the risks. Cleft palate in isolation can signal other birth defects, and though we’ve asked all the right questions and gotten all the right answers, we won’t know for sure until we get him home. I can’t deny that I’m scared.

Non-sequitur of the day:  I actually started packing. I went to the mall for a little speed shopping, and solved most of my clothing concerns. My wardrobe for China consists of the following colors: Black, white, gray, navy blue and one red t-shirt. I bought a scarf. I have packing cubes. Things are in the suitcase. It’s go time.

Other non-sequitur:  Bini has been having trouble winding down for bed lately. I can’t imagine why. Tonight, as I was peeling him off the ceiling, I asked if he’d like to pick some books to read until he fell asleep.

“Actually, I want to write,” he said. “Could you get my clipboard from downstairs?”

When I peeked in 15 minutes later, he had written three pages about koala bears, including a diagram. He did indeed seem calmer. And I’m kind of delighted that my boy likes to write before bed, just like his Mama.

Three days ’til China: Packing anxiety, and a life-changing reminder

How am I supposed to pack for this?
How am I supposed to pack for this?

I was at the North Face store in University Village today, buying a deeply discounted two-in-one coat for China. I have so many coats and jackets, I could start my own store. But I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about what to pack. Like, hours. Steve will find me cruising Zappos, desperately searching for THE RIGHT SHOES that will look OK with leggings and a casual dress, a pair of shorts, skinnies AND boot cut jeans and that I can run in. Of course they don’t exist.

Why do I care what I look like in China? I just do. It’s how I’m made. I can’t be remade. So every time I have to pack, I get anxious.

While packing for Paris, I did so many trips to and from my closet that I logged 5,500 steps on my Fitbit. I am a collector of clothes.  And that means way too many choices when it comes to packing. I’ve been going over combinations constantly in my head: leggings + Athleta dress = flats. If freezing, flats = boots. It’s crazy-making.

My packing anxiety isn’t helped by the different climates we’ll encounter during our visit. Beijing is cold in the winter, as is Xi’an, and Guangzhou is subtropical. Let me also point out that we’re going to be there for two-and-a-half weeks. Looking at a forecast doesn’t help. The weather can change quickly here, in little ol’ Seattle, so trying to predict the weather for three separate cities is impossible. Also, I’m not a meteorologist.

So, how do I pack for this situation? (The next person who says “layers” gets punched in the throat.) I’ve been to Asia before, and know how hot and oppressively muggy it can get. But I also hate being cold. I tackled one problem today by purchasing a highly unflattering coat with a zip-out liner.

“You lucked out getting this coat,” said the cashier at North Face. “It’s the end of the season. And this is a rad coat.”

“Yeah, I love that I can zip out the liner,” I said. “I’m going to China on Wednesday, and I have to be ready for anything, weather-wise.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the different climates there, and the pollution. Then he asked if I was going for work, or vacation.

“No, we’re adopting a child,” I replied, while swiping my much-swiped card.

“Whoa. That’s … that’s huge,” he said. I looked up to find him staring at me in amazement. “You’re leaving in, like, a few days to adopt a kid?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Things are a little crazy.”

He shook his head. “That’s so awesome. Life changing.”

Of course I know this whole adventure is life changing. But for some reason, being reminded by the wiry, 20-something cashier at North Face knocked me back. I felt s tiny, icy ball of unease start below my sternum, and roll down to my gut. I felt a little dizzy, so I put my hand on the counter. Life changing. Oh my God. He’s right.

“Well, I hope it’s amazing. I mean, I’m sure it’ll be amazing,” he handed me my bag of coat. “Safe travels, OK?”


Six days ’til China: Flat cookies, crap itineraries and misspellings

Flat cookies
My new oven makes crap cookies. I’m oddly fixated on this.

I don’t like to drink during the week. I have the alcohol tolerance of a 10-year-old these days, so two glasses of wine = a headache in the morning. However, I currently have what may be my second glass of La Crema Chardonnay next to me and I am throwing my rules out the window, damn it.  I’m leaving for freakin’ China in six days, and it’s just no time for teetotaling.

So, my floors got finished and my ceiling got patched. (And there was much rejoicing.) And I had my friend’s adorable little girl over for a long-promised play date. We made chocolate chip cookies and talked about dolls and Disney movies. It was lovely, although our cookies turned out flat. I usually make perfectly fantastic cookies: plump, buttery, slightly crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. But this new, commercial-grade oven can’t produce good cookies. I’m puzzled.

Before this play date, I ran thousands of errands.  Staples, Trader Joe’s Walgreen’s, Cost Plus, Party City, Ulta, First Tech Federal Credit Union and then Homegrown, to get lunch. Because it was suddenly 1:30, and I’d forgotten to eat.

I’ve been bedeviled by these gift bags we’re supposed to bring for the orphanage workers. People have told me to include local stuff, if possible, and chocolate, and lip gloss, so I’ve been driving all over creation picking these things up.  We’re also putting together a little book of laminated clip art to represent stuff like “bed,” “potty,” “eat,” and, presumably, “stop doing that” for our Mandarin-speaking child.

We’ve been counseled that the first meeting with Kid X will likely be super stressful. In Ethiopia, we met with Bini every day for progressively longer periods of time before taking custody. In China you meet at some drab government building in a room filled with other people doing the same thing, and poof! The child is yours.  People in the know have suggested bringing something sweet for that first meeting (sugar: the universal language), so I’ve got gummy bears. Also, two squishy toys. One for Bini, so he can make it look interesting, and one for Kid X.

Our adoption medicine doctor from the University of Washington wrote us a prescription for Zithromax, in case of bacterial infection, but we also have to buy a few OTC items: Eucerin cream, in case of eczema or dermatitis; Nix, in case of lice; Kaoelectrolyte, in case of diarrhea. Kid X gets his medical exam four days after we take custody, and the shit could quite literally hit the fan in the interim.

We also (finally) got our itinerary for travel today. You know, six days before we GET ON A PLANE. I am not happy. The hotel in Beijing looks shabby, although other parents in my China Adoption Facebook group defended it, so I may just be a snob. However, we were talked into flying to Beijing instead of Shanghai by our travel agency because we could take the awesome bullet train from Beijing to Xi’an. Oddly, they have us going to the Great Wall in the morning, and then hustling back to catch a plane to Xi’an. Huh?

The itinerary also has us taking custody on March 8, and our case manager told us that the earliest we could expect to do that would be the 9th. So we planned for three days in Beijing, to get acclimated. Of course we want to take custody as soon as we can, we’re just puzzled by the change.

And finally, we have no information on what kind of rooms we have — just that we HAVE them. It matters a lot to me whether we have a standard, smoking room with two twin beds or a larger accommodation, which we’d requested. Our agency had us fill out this whole form listing our desires and needs, and it appears that … no one read it.

Hey, thanks for listening.

Non-sequitur of the day: I have been misspelling the word “euphemism” for my whole life. I’m mortified.