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.

But you know, things aren’t all bad.

In fact, things are pretty great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Nine days ’til China; sleep until 10

In nine days, we’ll board a plane to Beijing. Five days after that, we take custody of our new son, and our lives change forever.

I’m scared.

I’m happy, of course. Thrilled, in fact. But I’m also scared. I won’t just have one child anymore. One child, I realize, is a relative breeze. Right now, nine days before Beijing, I have only one little person to look after, one person to get packed off to school, to do homework with, to drive to basketball practice. I have free time, which I spend doing freelance work, or walking my dogs, or cleaning my house, or going to Barre3,  or seeing friends. It’s nice. And it’s all going to change.

I’m not usually so great with change. I can be pretty uptight. But I’m feeling really zen about all this. No, we didn’t have airplane tickets until four days ago, and no, I don’t yet know what we’re going to name our new son. I don’t have any idea where we’re staying in China. I’m winging it on the whole language-difference thing, too. But I do know that over-preparing and expecting the worst is a joyless way to live life. I should know — I have 44 years of experience doing it. This time, with the help of pharmaceuticals, I’m just rolling with it. That approach is much easier. I rather like it.

When we adopted Bini, I didn’t write anything down. I thought I’d be able to conjure up the sights and smells and emotions of that visit, so I didn’t document any of it. I really regret that. Because although I can pull up the memories, the details are fuzzy. I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to write, even if the posts aren’t perfect, and even if I don’t have much to say. I want to remember this.

Yesterday, I went to work out and didn’t feel one iota of guilt because Bini is 6, and, save for the constant back-talking, he’s pretty easy. Last night, Bini went to a friend’s house for a sleepover, so we had eight friends to our house to play Cards Against Humanity. We drank mojitos and laughed until nearly midnight. I’m guessing that’s our last late-night social gathering for awhile.

This morning, because our son was at said sleepover, I didn’t rise at 7, as I normally do. Well, that’s not true. I got up and let the cat out, because he was meowing repeatedly next to my left ear. Also, I was worried that the dogs might pee in their respective crates. So I got up at 7, let the animals out, and went back to bed. Until 10:15.

I haven’t done that in … well, I can’t remember. The last time I slept past 8:30 a.m., I had the flu. It felt delicious and slightly naughty to just luxuriate in my giant king-sized bed BY MYSELF. (Steve went to fetch Bini.) I suspect that sleeping in will be infrequent, at best, in two weeks time.

I just finished putting my only child to bed. The routine is that he gets a story, and then closes his eyes to try and sleep. Steve or I stay with him and read our Kindles until we’re sure he’s asleep. Bini’s been increasingly clingy since the trip to China got closer, so we’re being extra comforting. He wants to read books from when he was much younger, he lapses into baby talk. He knows everything is about to change, too, but he’s excited that he’ll be there for the whole ride. I am too.

And we said no

Exactly one month ago, I got “the call” from our adoption agency. There was a child, a three-year-old boy, that we had been matched with. Was I interested in learning more?

This was, simply put, a shock. There’s a whole process for Chinese adoptions, and we weren’t finished with a big piece of it: the dossier. Typically, the family sends off their dossier and waits for a match, and we were getting the match before the dossier. If we wanted this child, we needed to haul ass.

The dossier is the official package of stuff that a family and agency presents to the adopting government. It’s like the final term paper of international adoption. It’s got your home study, your letters of reference, your letters from the police department, affirming that you’re not felons, birth certificates, marriage certificates, financial statements, immigration approvals. I had to write a letter stating why I don’t work full time. Most of these documents need to be notarized — and God forbid the date of the letter doesn’t match the date of the notarization — and then authenticated by the issuing state’s Secretary of State. Lot of moving parts. All we had, one month ago, was our home study.

I’m going to back up for a second: In mid-June, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to adopt anymore. The move and sale of our house had turned me into a psycho, and I worried — rightly, I think — about whether I wanted to inflict myself on another child. And then, there’s the issue of my age. Everyone likes to avert their eyes and flap their hands at me when I mention this, but the fact is, I’m no kid anymore. I need my sleep. I’m not as patient as I once was. And, frankly, I want to go back to work. If I do what I did with Bini — stay home and raise him — I’ll be almost 50 when I re-enter the work force.

Steve understood. We set up a meeting with Dr. Julia Bledsoe, a UW pediatrician specializing in adoptive medicine, to talk through the list of medical correctibles that our agency was seeing. Dr. Bledsoe and her partner, Dr. Julian Davies, are experts at reviewing a child’s file, assessing the child’s needs, if any, and the impact on the family.

Dr. Bledsoe, Steve and I spent an hour going through this long list of birth defects and crossing out the ones that felt like too much for our family. It was a highly distasteful task, but she was firm: You have to choose a child that works for your family. There are people who adopt the children with cerebral palsy, the ones missing arms. You do yourself and your other child an injustice if you take on more than you can handle, just because you feel guilty. So, we came up with a list of things we could handle: Unilateral cleft lip and palate. Club foot. Strabismus. Minor heart defects. Missing or malformed digits. Mild liver damage. We emailed this list to our adoption coordinator and settled in for a six-to-seven month wait.

We got the call about this little boy a week later.

It was hard to be objective when I saw his pictures. He had such a smile, and a glint behind his eyes that reminded me of Bini. He was on the smaller side, and he had been been brought to the orphanage as an infant with “liver damage.” We sent the files off to Dr. Bledsoe and arranged an early morning call. She felt that the file was incomplete, and wrote a letter asking the Chinese orphanage for more information, particularly about his liver levels. We went back and forth for a month, and while that was happening, we worked like slaves to get our paperwork ready. We expedited our vital documents, spending hundreds of dollars to do so. We were serious about adopting this little guy, and we were hopeful that this last round of blood tests would give us the answers we needed to move forward.

On Wednesday, I was walking down Boylston Street with friends, waiting to do one of those goofy duck tours, when our adoption coordinator called with the retested liver functions, per our request. This was it.

I looked at the test results, and my heart just crashed to my feet. His elevated liver levels, which we’d hoped would come down, had not. I forwarded the file to Dr. Bledsoe and waited. We got the return e-mail while sitting at the California Pizza Kitchen at the Prudential Center. This little boy had a significant special need, one impossible to diagnose without a liver specialist. I looked at Steve and he looked at me. I ordered a margarita. He ordered a beer. And after lunch, I called our coordinator and said no.

I said no to a child. I said no to a little boy who I’d already — against my better judgment — picked out names for. I’d already pictured him in my house, cuddled up next to Bini, hearing a story about Superman, or whoever the superhero du jour might be. I had already pictured taking him to Music Together, and to the park. I was ready to teach him English and be his advocate. I was ready. But we said no, like he was a dessert choice on a menu. It makes me sick, this process.

I posted my angst on a closed Facebook page for other parents doing what we’re doing and got lots of support. “You will know when you find the child right for you,” was the upshot. But that just seems so fundamentally wrong to me. If I had birthed this child, would I have said no? Would I have passed him along to the next family? To make matters worse, this little guy’s profile went out in the adoption agency’s newsletter yesterday, a featured child. When I saw his picture, I thought: That’s my son.

“This little boy has a significant special need. It is really unusual,” is what Dr. Bledsoe wrote in her assessment. I keep thinking about that. I suppose, intellectually, we did the right thing. This need wasn’t one of the ones on our list. So, we say no. It’s very cut and dried. Except when it’s not. Except when you can’t stop thinking about a little face, an impish grin, and those eyes.