Guangzhou, the introduction

The Garden Hotel, from above.
Guangzhou, through the haze.

Whew, it’s been awhile since I shared my story about the Chinese toilet. My parents and brother came to visit, it was Bini’s birthday, XJ has been snoring like a buzzsaw and we’re not getting any sleep, etc. That’s a post for later. I’m long overdue in posting about our travels, and we’re in the final leg, Guangzhou.

I should also note that we’ve renamed XJ to Evan, which is how I’ll refer to him forthwith. OK, back to the story.

We arrived in Guangzhou on Friday, March 13 (which yes, I just realized was Friday the 13th. Nothing unlucky happened, just a crappy airplane flight). It was nighttime, after 8 o’clock, and both boys were tired and cranky. We were met at the airport by Helen, who is quite possibly the nicest guide in the world. Except for Sarah and Elsie, who are also based in Guangzhou.

These aren’t their Chinese names, of course. All of the guides explained to us that they chose their American names while studying in college, and what’s kind of sweet is that they’re all these old-fashioned names, like Helen and Elsie and Sarah. Not a Brynlee or Kyleigh in the bunch.

I usually got polite, slightly piteous looks when I told experienced China travelers that our itinerary included eight days in Guangzhou.  Guangzhou — called GZ by those in the know — isn’t usually on anyone’s top five list of places to see in China. It has 14 million people just in the city limits, and it’s a major transportation and trading hub. But it’s not very pretty. It’s vertical, in the same way that Hong Kong and Shanghai are, and it’s modern. It has a sprawling skyline and a humid climate and it’s close to both Hong Kong and Macau. We were there because it’s also the location of the American consulate — the final stop for all families looking to leave the country with their adopted Chinese children.

Helen, who was that rare combination of cheerful and calm, shepherded us to a van and we were off. She told us a bit about what to expect in the coming days, and asked us how Evan was adjusting. We asked her to tell Evan a few things for us, in Mandarin: That we still weren’t home yet, that we’d be in this hotel for a few days and then we’d go home on a big airplane flight. That we loved him, and that he was a good boy. His face lit up at that one. “He likes praise,” Helen said.

We pulled up to The Garden Hotel, which from the outside, looked like a Vegas hotel. It felt a lot like Vegas on the outside, too, with the upscale mall across the street and the pedestrian overpasses crisscrossing the busy, wide streets. I was very curious about The Garden, which is where tons of adopting families stay. In the adoption community, The Garden is beloved for its Western beds, its spacious suites, its unflappable housekeeping staff, its varied and plentiful breakfast buffet and its expansive grounds. We spent a fair bit of time roaming the hotel in the ensuing days, for lack of anything better to do.

It was nearly 10 o’clock, but the entry of the hotel was a hive of activity, with staff scurrying about and people wheeling their luggage in and out. The lobby was enormous and ornate, with no fewer than three restaurants and a half-dozen fancy-looking stores just in the immediate area. For the first time since we arrived in China, I saw people of different ethnicities, and nobody gave our little rainbow crew a second glance. I saw Eastern European men decked out in club gear, a Middle Eastern family with piles of luggage, and lots and lots of Chinese kids and their new Caucasian parents.

The Garden Hotel, from above. I'm not sure how Steve got this picture. Maybe in his private helicopter?
The Garden Hotel, from above. I’m not sure how Steve got this picture. Maybe in his private helicopter?

Most of the kids had obvious special needs, like cleft lip, or microtia or Down’s syndrome. With others, it wasn’t clear what their need was, but the vast majority of families there were adopting children with some medical issue. Parents who want a “healthy” child can wait up to five years to be matched; after submitting our dossier, we waited five months to be matched with Evan. But I digress.

We took the elevator up up up to the 27th floor. Along the way, Helen told us that we could have breakfast downstairs, or in the executive dining room, on the 30th floor. “Most families on the executive floors find that dining room to be quieter,” she said with a smile.

I want to just clarify here that I didn’t realize our suite was going to be three times as big as my first San Francisco apartment. I knew it was a suite, that there was a separate bedroom and two bathrooms. But I didn’t realize that there would be a large living room and dining room, a wet bar, a walk-in closet and vanity area, and a big master bath. Three TVs, including one over the big jacuzzi tub.

“Wow,” I said to Steve as we toured the suite. “If you have to be in Guangzhou for a week, this is the way to do it.”

There was a knock at the door and a housekeeper wheeled in a crib for Evan. No cot for Bini, which irked me. We’d asked for a cot for him in all three hotels, and it had been this big issue. “What if we put the sofa cushions on the floor and it’ll be like camping out?” asked Helen. Bini was game for that idea, so the housekeeper scurried off to get a set of sheets, and then made up the cushions like a bed.

After giving the housekeeper a big tip, we unpacked as much as we could, wrestled the boys to bed and crashed out. We had the medical visit the next day, which was legendary in adoption circles for being hectic, tear-filled and characterized by long waits. “The medical” was another in the long list of official things we had to do before we could have our consulate appointment on Thursday, and get the heck out of China.

The Chinese Toilet Story

While this is not the toilet in my Chinese toilet story, mine looked very similar. Except way grosser. (Image courtesy of
While this is not the toilet in my Chinese toilet story, mine looked very similar. Except way grosser. (Image courtesy of

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.

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.

15 things I learned on a Shenzhen flight to Guangzhou

This was not our airplane. Or, maybe it was. I just needed an image. Thanks, Wikipedia.
This was not our airplane. Or, maybe it was. I just needed an image. Thanks, Wikipedia.

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:

  1. Some men apparently like to cut their whiskers with nail scissors. On an airplane. Or, at least the man sitting next to me did.
  2. 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.
  3. Flights just change gates randomly at the airport. And, if you don’t speak Mandarin, it can be challenging to figure that out.
  4. You are NOT ALLOWED to play games on your iPhone during flight. iPads and handheld game machines are, for some reason, totally fine.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. The in-flight magazines contain reassuring employee profiles, such as “Zhang Xin: A Competent Pilot.”
  8. 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.
  9. Another way is to show him how to lower and raise the window shade.
  10. 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.
  11. Another way is to feed him an in-flight meal of chicken, rice and part of a roll.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. I will silently pray to sit with Bini on every subsequent flight, because he’s comparatively easy now.
  15. 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.

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.