Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 Year in Review

1. Two ruptured disks in April. Obligatory FAQ: "How did you do that?". FPA: putting on my pants. Really. Heard a loud pop followed by intense pain. Laid down for 30 minutes and then gingerly walked around. Foolishly attempted to put on pants again, felt and heard an even louder pop. For the next nine days I could not stand for more than two to five minutes at a stretch. Pain killers and muscle relaxers were the only way out. Followed by steroid injections, physical therapy and loss of regular workouts. But, in some freak alignment of the planets, this injury is not aggravated by swinging a golf club and vice versa.

2. Spent more time with the kids. It's still a jumble of schedules, meals, bedtimes and too much TV, video games and computers. But thanks to a great boss, and some good professional accomplishments, had the most comfortable and rewarding year since moving to Houston.

3. Two week Alaska cruise / tour in May. Luxurious double suite on cruise ship, first class travel. Granted cruising requires mingling with the general public - people of the land, you know, morons. However with just a little effort we smoked out a few nice folks from all walks....the Jackie O look alike who is a capital projects manager for Intel and her luthier / semi-famous musician husband - the two were about to move to China for two or three years as ex-pats. The retired IT VP from Chicago (the Bears baseball hat never left his head), who we had dinner with at an Italian restaurant in Fairbanks on my birthday. Better Italian food there than in Houston.

Highlights: Hike up the mountainside in Ketchikan, hike and raft trip in Skagway, Glacier Bay, whalewatching/sea lions/eagles in Juneau, Denali tour, flight to Mt. McKinley, soaking tourists for $500 playing $1/$2 limit hold em in the cruise boat casino.

4. Nora and Alex swimming. Nora started US Swimming in February, then had her best summer season by a long shot and qualified for All Stars. Alex also made Al Stars, but my favorite of his accomplishments were his three or four top 5 finishes. Mostly in breast, but one in back. Once he starts USS this coming year, he should be a top finisher in summer league.

To be continued.....

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hotpot Chinglish

We had a great meal of Sichuan hotpot tonight at home. The kids got quite excited by the whole process. For cooking details and a history of hotpot, see my cooking blog:

What cracked me up was the expected mangling of English on the back of the package of hotpot mix. (I know, it should have made it from scratch - but I've done that and wanted to compare the imported Chinese versions to my home-made efforts).

While in China, most Americans encounter twisted variations of English phrases multiple times per day. On China Airlines, the back of every headrest is embroidered with (not printed, embroidered) the phrase "Fasten Sest Belt During Flight".

Here the wording on the back of tonight's hoptpot package:

"Hot Pot-specialty and symbol of the "Mountaing City" Chongqing. It is well known for it's edible style and embodied Bashu culture. It's peculiar rlavoring skill, favourable fame, stable quality and numerous chainstore. Moreover, it has won "a golden medal of Italy International Fair" and "China Famous and Special Condiment Products" and "ChongQing The Best Famous Hotpot" and "Chongqing Famous Trademark". ChangGuang brand flavouring for Hot Pot is crystallization of Cygnet scientific formulation, practical experience and continuous improvement for 10.

Do understand that this transcription has been c
arefully compared to the package and this is EXACTLY what appears.

In my office we strive for continuous improvement of 21. We used to go for 11, but you know who over-popularized that concept.

By the way, the hotpot was not bad.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Treo 700w Rest In Peace

Tom M.'s Treo 700wx passed away last night in a Houston office following a short illness. Mr. M. confirmed the death, but did not release a specific cause. It is believed that failures in AC/DC power conversion contributed to the Treo's demise.

The Treo 700wx first came into Mr. M.'s hand in October 2006 when it was learned that Lynn C. owned a Windows model Treo, but no analyst on the WES team had access to such a unit. A WES analyst at the time helped troubleshoot a problem Ms. Caddell had by simply reading an online manual for the device. Shortly thereafter Mr. M. acquired several Treo 700w's for the analysts and even himself, in order to better share in Ms. C.'s mobile computing experience.

From October 2006 to December 2007 The Treo traveled on business and pleasure with Mr. M. to locations including West Huntingdon, PA, Green Lake, WI, Lajitas, TX and Anchorage Alaska. The well used device was best known for it's random beeping and inability to complete calls in the Kingwood area; rather, it preferred to send callers directly to voice mail.

The Treo was preceded in death by a Treo 650p, a RIM 942 and many other demo devices which mostly failed miserably. No immediate successor to the Treo has been identified, so Mr. M.'s communication while off site will be impaired for the next day or so.

An Incredible Bowling Story

As a kid in Chicago, in my neighborhood anyway, you bowled. Saturday afternoons - 3 or 4 hours. Only now do I know it was an inexpensive way for parents to lose their surly pre-teenagers cheaply for an afternoon.

My Dad - big bowler - 200+ average. Me - learned the game, got decent, grew up and realized that bowling is great if you’re a member in good standing in Local 494.

Jump to 2005. I fly from Texas to Chi to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday. I am the one to suggest that the three brothers bowling with the old man would bring a tear to his eye. Off to Lisle Lanes.

It’s bowling for blood right off the bat. First game not bad, and get into a groove by the end. Second game. Strike, Strike, Strike. Owww. Oh my god. Something snapped in my arm. Arm goes limp, ball drops in a tremendous thud. Can’t move my arm from the elbow down.

At lightning speed I recall prior orthopedic problems and correctly determine - I just tore my bicep off the bone in my forearm (if arm can’t move this way, what makes it move? Not too hard to figure). Shock sets it. Not figuratively, literally. That and a couple quick beers and there’s little pain involved (that’s the cool thing about shock - it happens for a reason).

Based on years of (correctly) choosing not to bowl, I end up torquing my muscle in such a way that I tore the tendon off my arm - BOWLING.

I end up in a cast for 8 weeks and now have a huge scar on my arm. For the rest of my life I have to admit that I had a serious injury….while BOWLING.

I hang my head in shame and return to my gin and tonic.


  • Number of people who live within 1 mile of my house who have torn their bicep tendon off while bowling: 2. Me and Delton Hayes.
  • Number of people who live within 1 mile of my house who have torn their bicep tendon off doing something semi athletic: 3. Add Jeff Martin, fellow WM'er. Softball.
  • Number of people I know who have torn off their bicep tendon: 4. There was some sales rep from a software company. Can't remember exactly who, though.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

TV Shows With "zo" in Their Title

We upgraded our Dish Network receivers last week. Major trauma for the kids who had a bunch of shows recorded on the DVR. Reality is that they'd likely not watch most of what they saved anyway.

In the course of recreating their favorite shows to record, someone (Nora) made a small error while trying to set a timer to record Zoey 101, a tween favorite (elite California coastal prep school - all the kids too cool for themselves, blah, blah, blah). Nora accidentally set up a timer to record anything with the letters "zo" in the title.

The first day or two I saw a couple shows recorded and was surprised by the kids choices. The shows were not the usual fare. When some Spanish language shows appeared, I suspected something was amiss. Last night I discovered the "zo" problem.

But it was actually pretty cool to see what got served up by the DVR based on a couple random letters. In fact, it was so cool, I decided to capture the results. I even watched one of the shows last night, and saved the others.

1. Zoey 101 - 2 episodes. This is what Nora wanted to record in the first place. "Logan receives a care package from his father in Japan. The boys investigate who is pulling the fire alarm in the dorm." Actors: Craig Robert Young (ya think his parents wanted him to act, or is this a stage name?). and Sean Flynn Amir (Irish mother, Arabian sheik father?).

2. Zola Levitt Presents - "Bible teaching with an emphasis on prophecy, Israel and the Jewish roots of Christianity". I have heard of this show since around my childhood. I think it's been on since then, and if not, it's long running. Never seen it though.

3. Chalk Zone - Episode 1: "Wrestler Thor Throat plans to rob a bank. Rudy discovers evil chalk. Snap and Blocky find baby chocolate bunnies." Episode 2: "Rudy and Snap take Penny to see a night club act. Rudy and Snap get their eyeballs taken over by eye pods. Martial arts master". Kids show.....but what age. Love the eye pod pun.

4. 64 Zoo Lane - 2 episodes. No further description.

5. The Twilight Zone - 4 episodes. Score!! I haven't seen the Twilight Zone for years. Anytime I stumble across an episode I'm taken aback at how powerful these little plays are. Simple staging, clever and/or weighty topics, sometimes bordering on intellectual, and almost always thought provoking. And they were popular with the General Public too.

TTZ Episode 1: "A man sells his soul for immortality."
TTZ Episode 2: "Hostility greets a traveler bearing a gift."

TTZ Episode 3: "A ventriloquist thinks his dummy is alive." STOP RIGHT THERE - this was the episode that scared the living bejesus out of me when I was about 10 or 12 years old. I think I was babysitting at home (must have been about 12 then I guess). Scared me so bad I almost called my parents, but knew they'd kill me for a) watching that kind of show, and b) getting so scared that I had to call them as a result. I'm 100% confident I didn't pee my pants, but was definitely more scared than that. And
that episode randomly (and I really mean random here) comes back to haunt me. I saw this episode again in college or young adult life, and clearly remembered being so scared of it as a kid. Watching it again, it wasn't that big of a deal. Can't wait to see it now - but I'll be sure to not let Alex see this one until he's older.

TTZ Episode 4: "A professor learns his daughter's fiance is immortal." I watched this one last night. Awesome. I just now realized that the first episode recorded is about immortality. I wonder if it's the same character earlier on.

These shows are almost perfectly "tight" - every line, every shot has meaning to the story, you just need to put the pieces together. Even the descriptions of the episodes are brilliant in their clarity - a simple terse sentence, making an elementary statement about what will be a captivating teleplay. Look at all the questions and imagery that are brought up by a phrase as simple as "Hostility greets a traveler who is bearing a gift". Hostility? Really? But he's bearing a gift. I wonder what the gift is? Immortality? A relic? Money? Why is he traveling? Does he bring this gift to many people / places, or is this a one time shot? What if the gift is bad? Is the traveler the grim reaper? Of course he'd be greeted with hostility. But the story could never be that simple.

Back to the shows:

6. Premiere League Fan Zone - English Soccer: "Blackburn Rams vs. West Ham United". I think West Ham is owned by the richest businessman in England, or at least he's the richest soccer team owner.

7. Un Tracazo de Dinero - "Dos amigos son lestrigos de una ejucacion, decidon irge a la capital y en el camino ecuentran dos maletas, una con drogos y la otra con dinero". Uneducated friends go to the capital and share a house with two bad guys, one with drugs, the other with money?? Never took a day of Spanish in my this is likely way off.

8. Have You Seen Your Zoo Lately? OK - that's enough already.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Return to Wuhan

Tom and Nora McGuffey Visit Wuhan China

My daughter Nora and I returned to her birthplace of Wuhan, China the summer she turned ten years old. It was my second trip to China in two years, so I would not be surprised by the dramatic changes in Chinese cities in the decade since Nora was adopted as an infant. Though we didn’t know it, neither of us were fully prepared for our visit to her orphanage and hometown.

Upon arrival in China we spent a day in Guangzhou at the White Swan Hotel to get over jet lag and to enjoy “breakfast with the babies” at the hotel restaurant. Since there are typically 200 or more adoptive American families in Guangzhou simultaneously awaiting immigration clearance, breakfast at the White Swan is a hectic scene. Newly adopted babies, toddlers and even older kids are everywhere, surrounded by their new parents and siblings. Nora was even given a gift of the “adoption Barbie” doll that the newly adopting families receive from the hotel.

The flight to Wuhan was short, roughly the distance from Houston to Chicago. Looking over the countryside from above, we saw new highways being carved into the gently rolling hills, but less evidence of industrial growth across the landscape than expected. The airport was quite familiar, as it had not been renovated since our first visit, unlike the airport in Guangzhou which rivals the architecture of the Hong Kong airport on a slightly smaller scale. We arrived in the full heat of summer, amid the glaring noontime sun – quite a contrast to our 1995 trips to Wuhan airport in dreary, drizzling fall weather. Both inside and out, the run-down and heavily used facility seemed familiar. Like most communist-era buildings in China, it was of utilitarian grey concrete and plain ceramic tile with few adornments, excepting the madding crowd and intense volume of voices and vehicles.

Nora and I easily located Nancy, our interpreter/guide for the next two days. She was accompanied by a driver who brought us into Wuhan proper in a non-descript white van. As the airport faded behind us, I was again surprised by the lack of industrial development in the outlying areas, something which I was never able to fully understand during my visit.

This surprise was countered by the expected urban development within Wuhan city itself. We were headed toward a Hotel Sofitel located within a major business district. Like in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, this area was heavily populated with soaring new glass and concrete office buildings, seemingly all labeled as banks of one sort or another. Another connection back to 1995 were the many buildings under construction. All were shrouded with scaffolding, mostly comprised of bamboo poles lashed together, even at twenty floors or more above ground.

An amusing sidelight was when our driver tried to avoid a busy intersection by cutting through a side street, but was ticketed for going the wrong way on the one way street. There was extensive arguing and bargaining with the cop, and the requisite crowd of onlookers, many of whom were interested in the weigouren (foreigner - me) in the back of his van. In then end, he got the ticket.

To The Orphanage

The orphanage was our first stop after lunch at an impressive and cavernous local restaurant where Nora and I ate dumplings, fresh pea shoots and lotus root. Business people at the large tables around us smoked excessively and drank hard liquor during lunch.

Wuhan is comprised of three towns, Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, which were originally independent of each other. The orphanage is located in the Wuchang section, the oldest and most historically significant part of the city. It was in this area in 1911 that the first uprisings against the Qing Dynasty emperor occurred, lead by Sun Yat-sen. Because Hanyang stands at the mouth of Han River where it flows into the Yangtze River, it has been important port city as far back as the Han Dynasty in 200 BC. And as long as 300 years ago Hankou was one of the top four trading towns in China. In several stages from the 1920’s through the 1940’s these cities were merged into today’s Wuhan.

Amidst a horrendous traffic jam, we crossed the Yangtze River over the three mile expanse of Wuhan Second Chang Jiang Bridge, which opened in 1995. Chiang Jiang is the Chinese name for the Yangtze River, literally translated as “long river”. The First Chang Jiang Bridge opened in 1957 and was the first bridge built over the Yangtze to accommodate railroad traffic from northern to southern China. Prior to the bridge being available, railroad cars were ferried across the river taking up to a full day.

In 1995 we crossed the Number One Bridge just once, to reach the airport. But we were near the base of the bridge one morning on an excursion. At the time we were surprised to see the bridge guarded by military staff armed with automatic weapons. After 9/11, Americans can better understand the importance of key infrastructure and the diligence needed to protect it. That day, we also stopped briefly on the banks of the Yangtze River, where I dipped 5-month-old Nora’s toes into the water. Back near the bus, we bought water chestnuts from a local vendor, not even knowing what they were until he pulled out a sharp knife to peel back the tough skins. As compared to the same root that comes packaged in cans or in American Chinese food, it was a delicacy.

Bad luck continued for our Wuhan driver as he headed toward the orphanage. The neighborhood streets were convoluted and the driver was somewhat confused about exactly which street we were looking for. Stopping many times for directions, he never got clear answers. We were surprised that the orphanage, which we know is a fairly large campus of several buildings, was not something that many locals were aware of.

The closer we got to our destination, the surrounding buildings became more decrepit and the streets were in great disrepair. As we stopped for the final time to discuss directions with locals, I felt a bit uneasy about our surroundings. There weren’t many people, but the few we saw were indigent even by Chinese standards. Several middle aged men appeared to be rather tough characters and their expressions while observing us (or more precisely, me) were a bit menacing. This was the only time in three long trips to China that I felt threatened in any way.

Greeted by Caregivers at The Wuhan Children’s Welfare Institute

We finally pulled up to the base of a steep hill where we were greeted immediately by a woman in a white medical coat. After a short introduction we walked up the slope to the first level of the complex, perched on a plateau with a view far across the city. The four story building was impressive with white exterior tile and reddish-orange trim and roof tiles. The majority of the surrounding landscape was concrete, except around a few pieces of stationary playground equipment. As with cities like Houston or Phoenix the oppressive heat makes grassland expensive to maintain. But I felt sorry for the children who were a couple miles from the closest large park.

Once inside, we were seated in a large, modern conference room. We were joined by a woman in her late forties who was described as one of Nora’s caregivers. For quite a while I led myself to believe that this might have been Nora’s “foster mother” who brought her to our hotel in 1995, as there was a resemblance. With further reflection, I no longer suspect this. Unfortunately, I do not recall the names of the two female caregivers. For readability, allow me to refer to the first caregiver in the white coat as Ms. Han and the second woman as Mrs. Wu.

We all sat one at end of the conference room on upholstered chairs in front of a coffee table. Mrs. Wu pulled out a “100 day” picture of Nora – the same picture we were given by Nora’s nanny. Mrs. Wu told us that she remembered caring for Nora as a baby. While this astounded me, I realized that our visit was planned well in advance, so there was ample time to review files and jog memories. In fact, review of Nora’s files was certainly necessary in order to grant approval for the visit.

Consider how school teachers can remember their students many years afterward. Especially if given the chance to review an old class list or photo, a teacher would easily remember nearly every student. Probably most of us can picture grade school classmates whom we’ve not seen since 8th grade. So my initial skepticism was appeased.

Mrs. Wu pulled out a small gift-wrapped box and handed it to Nora. Inside was a silver necklace, a gift from her own daughter who is Nora’s age. Of course we had small gifts for the caregivers, but I no longer recollect what they were.

Wuhan Children’s Welfare Institute Director Li

When a very small man as much as ten years my younger entered the room, I was surprised to learn that he was the director of the orphanage. We greeted and he sat stiffly in front of us in a hard backed chair. He spoke very deliberately to Nancy our translator, who related to us a history of the orphanage. Started in the 1920’s by a religious mission group, it was taken over by the government in the early 1950’s. In 1997 a Taiwanese group donated the funds to build the current buildings, leaving a small portion of the original building intact.

Director Li told us that Wuhan Children’s Welfare Institute was the largest children’s institute in Hubei province with over 300 children in residence. He indicated that the facility accommodates the most severely handicapped and ill children who are transferred to Wuhan from other orphanages in the province. Many times he told us of the need for more money to be able to run the orphanage effectively.

He said they had trouble transporting children from their grounds to hospitals for treatment and were in great need of an ambulance. At first this didn’t make sense to me, but later when we saw the critical nature of some of the young children, it was apparent that an ambulance-caliber vehicle would be needed for proper transport.

The discussion with Director Li ran about 15 to 20 minutes. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Nancy began to use the word oxygen instead of orphanage. Earlier in the day she had it right, but we had already established that she had never worked with adopting families or returning adoptive families before.

Nora and I were both confused, and first believed we were just hearing her wrong. But after a few repetitions of the word oxygen, I realized what was going on. Not wanting to embarrass her in front of the others, I didn’t correct her. Later, in the hallway, I clued in Nora as to why Nancy kept saying oxygen. To this day we chuckle when we sometimes call the orphanage “the oxygen”.

A pre-condition of our visit was that we make a donation to the institute. Just prior to our arrival, we had purchased two large floor standing air conditioning units from a local store, which were to be delivered later in the day. These units look like very thin refrigerators and vent both cold air and exhaust (safely) into the room, unlike the familiar window air conditioners seen in the U.S.

Having remarked on the duct work visible around the conference room, I was told that the buildings had central air conditioning, but that it was too expensive to use. Thus, portable air conditioners were used to cool off key areas.

Director Li filled out a certificate of donation and we posed for pictures as he presented it to me. This was a very formal procedure for a simple donation, but it reminded me of the protocol we experienced in 1995. While in a dimly lit, run-down conference room the morning before we met our girls, we signed documents with a local official. We were all prepared to present a gift to the official after signing. Thinking either it wasn’t important, or that everyone else already knew, I didn’t mention to our traveling partners that when presenting a gift one was to hand it over using two hands, not one. When it was our turn, I stood and held out the gift with two hands. Recognizing this sign of respect, the official quickly rose out of his chair, accepted the gift with two hands and kowtowed to me. I thought of this incident as Director Li and I smiled, shook hands and bowed back and forth at each other far too many times that afternoon.

It was then time to present Director Li with our gifts. The first was a double frame with a picture of Nora as an infant side by side with a recent picture of her with our family. We also shared a ceramic dish decorated with the red, white and blue design of the Texas state flag. He turned it over and quickly found the words “Made In China” on the back, pointing them out to me.

Touring the CWI Facilities

Just before embarking on a tour of the oxygen, we were joined by a portly woman in a lab coat who was introduced to us as the medical director. She too recognized Nora and described her as a well behaved, happy baby. In describing her as an infant, she made a reference to Nora having a problem in which “something” covered a large portion of her head. I asked what she meant, but through the translator was unable to get a comprehensible answer.

We wandered down dank hallways, which even when painted gave the sense of bare concrete. Though it was mid-afternoon on a sunny day, the hallways seemed dark owing to the limited number of windows and because interior lights were turned off to save money. With an estimated temperature of around 100 degrees, the lack of lights and windows seemed to somewhat relieve the oppressive heat.

Our first destination was a nursery visible from the hallway through several large paned windows. Despite the building being only eight years old, it gave the impression of a hospital ward from the 1940’s or 50’s. Inside we found about thirty children in industrial style cribs, also appearing to be decades old. We were specifically asked to not take pictures in this nursery, which made sense given the age of the children – from weeks old to about 18 months.

Babies were both standing and lying down, with only a few of the youngest sleeping. Quickly we came upon a highly inquisitive child about nine months of age grasping the edge of a crib. Bright, engaged eyes followed our every move and facial expression. Unfortunately it was hard to return our gaze to this child. Her head was grossly swollen, close to double the normal size of a child that age. I was told of the medical condition involved and that the child would likely not live more than a few years. I forced myself to return eye contact and made pleasant faces, smiles and some small waves with my hand. Not being sure of the immediate severity of this affliction, I was reluctant to make contact with her hand or arm. Admittedly, I was also a little afraid. But through those brilliant eyes I could see the completely functioning brain of a fragile child who couldn’t realize there was anything physically wrong with her body.

I leaned over to Nora and whispered to stay calm and patient. I told her that although these are some very sick children, most of them are very glad to have visitors.

In the third of four cribs in the central area of the room was a child we were also not prepared for. He was another 9-month-old with untreated cleft palate. His upper lip was non-existent, and skin and nose area appeared to be pulled up exposing what should have been top teeth, but instead was a reddened jumble of unfamiliar flesh and bone. I told Nora it was okay to look away and move on toward the other cribs, where there were no more babies with such severe problems. Having no medical background or prior exposure to such a condition, I was taken aback even more strongly than with the first baby. But, quickly realizing what this condition was, I reassured myself that with several surgeries this child would be very close to normal since I have seen evidence of many successful cleft palate treatments in China in the past.

The remainder of our nursery tour was less dramatic, though we saw several babies with heart defects and other serious internal problems. But most were healthy and happy pre-toddlers, who were receiving tender care from the three nannies in the room.

The medical director excused herself, but not before I collared her and the interpreter for another moment to try to clarify an earlier comment that Nora has “something covering her head” as an infant. I indicated that we were told that Nora had no current or prior medical conditions when we adopted her. It seemed to me that she was thinking of a different baby. But she persisted and was convinced that she was recalling my Nora. Still slightly concerned, we bid farewell. I looked at Nora and pictured her lifetime of good health, trying to convince myself that this knowledge didn’t matter much, receiving it so long after the fact.

Our tour continued upstairs where we saw rooms for the kids. Sleeping rooms were institutional, practical and not decorated in any way. Each contained one or two beds and a single cabinet. We didn’t see any large rooms with multiple beds, though I suspect there must have been some dorms of that style given the number of children on site. Nearby, we were also shown several small music practice rooms with classical Western and Chinese instruments inside.

Next we were brought to a large dance studio where we found over a dozen girls and boys in matching Snoopy tee shirts. The far wall of the studio was entirely covered with a Ronald McDonald mural. All of this took us by surprise, being in sharp contrast to the institutional nature of what we’d seen so far. The kids were in the middle of a dance class, but stopped to visit with us. We made only small talk through the interpreter, as I was fearful of asking an inappropriate question and making anyone uncomfortable. I wished we had prepared for this interaction better and had some questions on hand. We had brought several small gifts for each of the kids, including bright green bracelets from Waste Management in the style of the Lance Armstrong bracelets. They seemed to enjoy these most.

We proceeded to the remaining section of the old orphanage where we took a peek into a kindergarten classroom. These children were not orphanage residents, but rather neighborhood kids who came for this class conducted by the orphanage. I suspected that this provided additional income to the orphanage, but could not divulge the specifics from our guides.

We returned to the conference room, took a few more pictures and allowed Director Li to implore me again to raise money for the orphanage. With the best intentions I took his message to heart, but knew that I was already overextended with community and charity work, so would likely not be able to arrange for his ambulance.

As we walked toward the front gate, we were presented with a large envelope containing 8x10 glossy pictures of the orphanage and important sites around Wuhan. Director Li inspected the back of the Texas dish several more times, and I feebly tried to explain that my display of Texas pride should override the country of manufacture of the dish. He just seemed more confused.

We received very warm farewells from Mrs. Wu and Ms. Han, but immediately began to feel an unexpected and intensely strong emotional drain from the visit.

Incredible Strokes of Luck

Nora’s adoption documents indicate that she was found on Zhongnanlu-jie Street in Wuhan. I vaguely remember consulting a map in 1995 to determine the approximate location of that street, but we came to the conclusion that it was not nearby. One thing we regretted from our 1995 trip was that we didn’t try harder to find this street. For this trip I was armed with the street name and as soon as we met Nancy I began pestering her to find Zhongnanlu Street.

As we were returning from the orphanage we traveled a very busy major thoroughfare. Out the window I spied the words Zhongnan Lu on a bus stop sign. Upon seeing the next bus stop, it turned out we were actually on Zhongnanlu Street at that very moment. It was one of the major streets through that section of Wuhan, densely packed with a vast array of small shops and businesses. The sidewalks were thick with pedestrians and each bus stop was crowded with commuters. Ironically, it was a short walk away from the Lijiang Hotel, where we stayed in 1995, and we should have easily found the street.

While driving a major thoroughfare toward the orphanage I had noticed a large plaza with a sizable building toward one end. The building was vaguely reminiscent of the sports arena across the street from the Lijiang Hotel. I’ve always had a good sense of space and location, even in new cities, so when we neared this area on our return trip, I asked our driver to make a few turns in that area. Lo and behold, it was the same arena, and after a turn southward we were in front of the Lijiang Hotel.

Despite being truly exhausted from the orphanage visit, we stopped briefly and went inside. Some minor remodeling had been done, but otherwise the main lobby features were immediately recognizable. I quickly climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor and found the conference room where we first met our babies ten years ago. Continuing down the hall, and raising suspicion among staff since I was so singularly focused on showing ourselves around, we entered the room. Dark and small, possibly carved into a smaller configuration than the original room, it contained a conference table and the modern stackable chairs found in any western conference room. Gone were the grey oversized upholstered chairs and militaristic décor. I was a little disappointed by the change, but we took a quick picture and departed for the hotel. I convinced our guide that we should return the next day for lunch in the hotel restaurant and a walk around the neighborhood.

The Provincial Museum and Yellow Crane Tower

On our second day in Wuhan I was looking forward to visiting the provincial historical museum and the Yellow Crane Tower. Besides being the two biggest tourist attractions in Wuhan, they were sure to bring back fond memories of the first few days with our new babies ten years earlier. But before traveling back to the Wuchang area, I wandered around the streets near the hotel to view the early morning scene. As in all large Chinese cities there are more people around than one would ever expect. People of all ages and walks of life were rushing to work, shop, exercise or just out for a stroll. There were definitely more automobiles on the streets than ten years ago, but walkers and bike riders were still the majority. For hauling goods, motorcycles were the norm, side by side with a large contingent of human pulled carts.

We returned over the Number Two Bridge without a repeat traffic jam and arrived at the provincial museum around nine in the morning. I was certain that there was an error communicating with Nancy, as we were nowhere near the eighty year old grey stone building we previously visited. But we were both certain of the name – Hubei Province Historical Museum. I soon learned that the old museum had been torn down and a modern facility was still being constructed. One third of the museum was open and it contained a set of enormous bronze bells dating from over 2400 years ago. That sealed it – we were definitely in the right place.

In 1978 over 15,000 relics were dug up near Suizhou city in Hubei province, belonging to a local marquis named Zeng Hou Yi. The museum now contained a far more modern presentation of the contents of the marquis’ tomb than the musty old museum. In fact, it included the marquis’ tomb, which was an enormous wooden vault the size of a small house. Inside, it contained the marquis’ coffin, coffins for 21 slaves (buried alive, unfortunately), a dog, a horse and an enormous stash of household goods, musical instruments, weapons and ritual items from the era.

At this point, try to picture a slightly jet-lagged 10-year-old, still shaken from the emotional visit to the orphanage the day before, who had absolutely zero interest in regional Chinese history. You can image how little fun she was having that morning.

We bought a few nice gifts for Nora’s friends and teachers and headed to the Yellow Crane Tower. This too was not recognizable at first. We first encountered a bank of shops perched above a large unfamiliar parking lot. From there we entered a small but colorful midway of additional shops selling trinkets. It was a colorful sight, but certainly not anything we saw at the Yellow Crane Tower the first time we were there. This area emptied out into a plaza with a small man made pond and stone pagodas. While pleasant, it was still not our tower.

Continuing forward, we finally saw the pagoda towering above the trees. It was a few steps to the side entrance and ramp that I remember climbing with Nora in a Snügli on one of our first days together. The tower and yellow crane (atop snake and turtle) statue was a little more interesting to Nora, but not a lot. And it was HOT. The tiniest breeze up on the 5th floor of the pagoda was the only relief we got.

There have been pagodas on this site since 223 AD, which have been destroyed by fire or invasion and rebuilt many times. Models of previous towers can be found inside, along with stunning mosaic murals of the fictional Yellow Crane and other art. There are several legends attributed to the yellow crane and the tower with over three hundred poems written about them, including ones by famous poets such as Cui Hao, Li Bai and even a 1927 poem by future Chairman Mao Zedong.

Back to the Lijiang Hotel

Our next destination was a return to the Lijiang Hotel, at which we arrived just in time for lunch. All the restaurants in the hotel served only local Chinese food and Nancy tried her hardest to convince us that we didn’t want to eat there. But we love the local food and it was so important to enjoy some time in that hotel that we prevailed. Nora enjoyed noodles and several bowls of rice. She even ate quite a few chicken pieces that were prepared in a very spicy sauce that reminded me more of Sichuan province than Hubei.

There were no fewer than three waitresses hovering near our table at any time. I talked to them for a while about Nora and our visit to Wuhan. I asked them what they knew about adoption. They said they had heard that American women are afraid of the pain of childbirth, so they adopt babies instead of going through labor. I told them I have never met an America woman who had done that and had never heard of that practice. They assured me it was true. Actually, the pain of childbirth is a common fear among Chinese women, given their slight build. These girls simply took the local viewpoint that rich women can afford to avoid childbirth and projected it upon American women.

After lunch we walked around an enormous plaza that was immediately to the north of the hotel and the arena. Though there were some trees and a few grassy spots, it was mostly paved in concrete – making it difficult to appreciate in the 100 degree plus heat. Even though we initially wanted to explore the nearby neighborhood, we simply took one complete walk around the plaza, noticed a small amphitheater for musical performances and quickly crossed the street back to the hotel and our car.

Once there, we met a woman begging near the hotel entrance. Nora has a big heart and wanted to give her some money. Unlike some of the “professional” beggars we encounter routinely in Houston, this woman was clearly in need. I was quite proud of Nora wanting to help this woman and this scene was one of the highlights of the entire trip to me.

On To Other Parts of China

Nora and I were drained by this short visit to Wuhan. We relaxed as we drove through the countryside for several hours to reach a cruise boat on the Yangtze River in Yichang that would take us through the Three Gorges and into Sichuan Province where Nora’s sister Amy was born.

I may have brought Nora to China a little before she was ready. Yet we clearly met our goal of giving Nora a better understanding of her birthplace and birth country. As we traveled into other areas of China and we met other American families and kids to play with, the trip got more enjoyable for her.

Despite the challenges in the orphanage, jet lag, language barriers and “historical museums”, Nora and I both look back on our trip and smile about the best parts. We remember with certain clarity the moments that were uncomfortable at the time, but were important parts of experiencing China and understanding where our family comes from.

Two Poems Inspired by the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan

Seeing off Meng Haoran for Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower
by Li Bai

My old friend has said goodbye to the west, here at Yellow Crane Tower,
In the third month's cloud of willow blossoms, he's going down to Yangzhou.
The lonely sail is a distant shadow, on the edge of a blue emptiness,
All I see is the Yangtze River flow to the far horizon.

Yellow Crane Tower
by Cui Hao

The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don't know where my homeland lies,
The river's mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.

Two Poems by Chairman Mao Related to Wuhan and the Yellow Crane Tower

Yellow Crane Tower (1927)

Wide, wide flow the nine streams through the land,
Dark, dark threads the line from south to north.
Blurred in the thick haze of the misty rain
Tortoise and Snake hold the great river locked.

The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither?
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors.
I pledge my wine to the surging torrent,
The tide of my heart swells with the waves.

Note: Chairman Mao was a prolific poet, and owing to his position many of his poems became well known. Swimming became one of the most famous of Mao poems. But critics rated his poetry skills as average. Notice that the first two lines of the second stanza of Mao’s poem are almost identical to the first two lines of Cui’s poem. While maybe not plagiarized, Mao’s lines are too similar to Cui’s to be original thought inspired by the same pagoda.

Swimming (1956)

I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in courtyard.
Today I am at ease.
It was by a stream that the Master said --
"Thus do things flow away!"

Sails move with the wind.
Tortoise and Snake are still.
Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stones will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

Note: The “bridge….to span the north and south” is a reference to the Wuhan Number One Bridge. The “Walls of stones” refer to the Three Gorges Dam. While Mao expected both bridge and dam to be quickly built, the dam project didn’t begin construction for decades and will be fully completed in 2009.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Just Remember You've Been To This Place Today

A Father and Daughter Make a Return Trip to China

Return Trip Expectations

Wang Ya was the seventh and last child brought into the conference room in Wuhan’s Lijiang Hotel in 1995. My wife Margie and I were near breathless as we waited for one the nannies to announce that our new daughter, soon to be named Nora Jane Ya McGuffey, was the five-month-old child in her arms. Finally, a smartly dressed woman in a western-style suit called out “Wang Ya? Wang Ya?” and handed Nora to us. This past summer we were fortunate to have the opportunity to bring Nora back to visit China for the first time since her infancy.

To talk to Nora over the phone, she is indistinguishable from any other fourth grader in suburban Houston. In person the only difference is her outward appearance, of course, having been born in central China. Nora makes occasional references to China and shows a certain amount of pride in her Chinese heritage, but fitting in with her classmates is a high priority now, so her interest in China has diminished a bit lately.

From the earliest age, we have kept Nora connected to information and experiences to preserve a link to her Chinese heritage. We’ve seen some parents provide quite a bit more than we do and some less. A return trip to China was simply another step in the ongoing process of keeping her connected to China as best we could. It might invigorate Nora to further appreciate Chinese culture and paint a realistic picture of the China that she has idealized in her head so far in her life.

In 2004 we adopted Amy, now two and a half. Using the China-based guide who handled that trip, we created an itinerary that would bring us to the places that are important to our family’s adoption experiences – such as Shamian Island in Guangzhou, Nora’s orphanage in Wuhan and Amy’s orphanage in Fuling. In addition, we would take a Yangtze River cruise through the Three Gorges, see Panda bears in Chongqing, a visit to Beijing and the usual tourist sites. We also had an invitation to a remote Sichuan village where we would meet a former student of my sister-in-law.

I expected that Nora would be fascinated by the frenetic pace of the major cities and excited to see the most recognizable sights in China like the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Three Gorges. Visiting the orphanages would provide a connection with her past. Cruising the river would be a break for us to just relax, eat, read books and play some games.

Did I expect much commentary and insight from Nora during this trip? Yes and no. I expected a running commentary, but not insight. She is bright and energetic but Nora is not highly introspective and contemplative. Overall, I was confident that Nora and I were well prepared for a great adventure – as long as she could handle the excruciating flights overseas.

Adjustments on Day 1

Departing Houston mid-morning on a Sunday in late June, I fully expected that our three-flight, 25-hour journey would be difficult. But there were enough movies, music and a little sleep to keep us from losing our wits or nerves. Despite the excitement of finally arriving in Guangzhou, we were exhausted once we reached the White Swan Hotel shortly after midnight on Monday.

Or so I thought. I awoke at 6 am to take Nora on a walk to show her tai chi, river swimmers, fan dancers and the unique wake up activities around Shamian Island. To my dismay, I learned that Nora had been up all night enjoying the cartoon channel. Wide awake on the outside, I knew she must be exhausted – and now the prospect of an early morning walk seemed bland for a weary young traveler.

Off we went, despite mild protests. Protests already? This was our very first activity in China. Weeks ago I had discussed with Nora that waking up early and walking around the island might not be that exciting, but she would see things unlike she’d never seen before - all typical of everyday Chinese life. I also promised a wild scene in the White Swan restaurant where fifty or more families would be having breakfast with their new children and making friends with whomever was at the table next to them with their new child.

When we hit the humid Guangdong air, our camera lenses fogged up so badly that we couldn’t use them. Nora was not all too fascinated with the morning exercisers and many of the areas I was used to seeing filled with people were empty or sparse. Had we come out too early? We walked around the island and returned to the hotel for breakfast. I don’t think Nora asked a single question or made a comment. One word answers were the only responses I could draw out.

Breakfast did not disappoint. There were ecstatic parents, babies, and toddlers everywhere. We saw many older siblings traveling with their families. A recently adopted toddler with one arm fascinated us, while her mother juggled two older siblings and comforted the toddler effortlessly. An eager new father brought his guitar to breakfast to serenade his infant daughter.

Nora finally got to sleep and I got to thinking about our itinerary. Far too much of what we were planning was not really kid-friendly. Nora wasn’t showing fascination or inquisitiveness. Maybe she was just tired. I began to suspect that she might also be intimidated and uncomfortable. Did I not plan this trip adequately?

On the spot, I committed to myself to make any adjustments necessary to make this Nora’s trip, not my trip, or ‘our’ trip done my way. That meant that I’d have to be willing to spend a little less time on adult-level sight-seeing, be willing to adjust schedules and attempt to find as many kid-friendly activities as possible. We’d also likely have a little more room service and HBO than originally planned.

As it turned out, some of our fondest memories are from our evening wind-down time in the hotels. There were lots of movies on cable, including some that wouldn’t have been allowed at home. A few bad words or mature situations had to be rationalized, but there were only two or three English language channels to choose from. Nora learned the rules of nine-ball billiards by watching late night Star Sports coverage and really enjoyed the one-week-delayed Wimbledon coverage. All of this was accompanied by lots of soda and sour-cream Pringles chips.

Surprises in Wuhan

We arrived in Wuhan on a sweltering day. The airport was comfortably familiar, as it had not been renovated or replaced since our trip in 1995. As we approached the city proper, it was clear how much new development had occurred. There was extensive new construction, many modern buildings, industrial parks and the expected signs of commercialization.

When we were in the area of the Lijiang hotel and the orphanage, it was as if a new city were dropped in place. The amount of change and progress in the past ten years seemed equivalent to thirty years growth in a US city.

We were not allowed to visit the Wuhan Children’s Welfare Institute in 1995, so the ride through a dilapidated section of the Wuchang district to reach the orphanage was a first. A new orphanage building had been constructed in 1997 and from the pictures on the internet it looked much like a modern hospital. However, the shining white tile exterior belied the wear and tear inside that makes even new buildings in China seem to age immediately.

We met two staff people who were nannies back in 1995. Nora felt uncomfortable by their attention and hugs – much like a child confronted by a distant relative who showers unexpected affection. We definitely sensed that the nannies were happy we could visit the orphanage. One of them pulled out Nora’s 100-day picture, a copy of the same picture we were given 10 years ago. She too had a daughter Nora’s age, who sent a small necklace as a present.

Unfortunately for me, this nanny appeared to my eye as the same woman who presented Nora to us as an infant at the hotel – described at the time as her foster mother. There has been some discussion lately about variations in the meaning of “foster care” in the orphanages, so this was not a major issue to me, just a surprise.

While touring the facility, we met the medical director who claimed to remember Nora and the condition she was treated for. We had been originally told that Nora did not have any notable medical conditions when she was referred to us. The next day we inquired further into the medical director’s statements, which were indeed verified in Nora’s files.

Director Chen was very formal in describing the history of the orphanage, current operations and that 85% of the children were physically or mentally handicapped. When we toured the nursery, that reality was painfully evident. More enjoyable was to see neighborhood children in a kindergarten class held at the orphanage. We met some of the older kids who were in the midst of dance class, and gave them small gifts that we had brought from home.

We left Wuhan CWI emotionally drained due to the difficult conditions, ailing children, Nora’s discomfort from the nannies affection and the shock of learning new information about Nora’s stay in the orphanage.

Our visit to Wuhan concluded the next day by visiting the provincial museum and having lunch at our old hotel. Nora offset a cranky morning in the museum by impressing me with trying several very unfamiliar dishes during lunch. Next was a drive through the countryside to reach our Yangtze river cruise boat.

Up the Changjiang to Fuling

The river cruise was impressive in its natural beauty. Waking Nora at pre-dawn to see the gorges was not. Fortunately we met some other kids on the cruise, played card games and watched movies on our laptop. From Nora’s standpoint the trip was getting a little better.

On July 4th we visited the Fuling SWI, about one hour southeast of Chongqing, where we had adopted our youngest daughter Amy last year. Margie and I had visited the Fuling orphanage when we got Amy, so there would be some familiarity to this visit. We were greeted by Director Yang and quickly joined by another American, Karen McGinty, and her six-year old daughter Molly who was from Wuhan like Nora. They were in Fuling to meet their two and a half year old daughter Mia, who walked into the conference room in squeaky bottomed shoes.

Karen was curious as to why Nora and I we were on hand for their momentous family event and assumed it was a Gotcha Day for us too. After a quick explanation of our visit, I became an extra photographer for her and a new friendship started between the McGinty’s and McGuffey’s.

We all went back to the nursery area for pre-toddlers, which was filled with about twenty babies in wheeled walkers, making for a near comical scene as they pinballed among each other. Every nanny I encountered was recognizable from our prior visit, a great sign of consistent care. In addition, there was a grandfather-aged resident helping out with the children.

The nannies were getting six children ready to meet their new parents. Nora was beaming to see these healthy, happy babies and was further thrilled when a nanny handed her a baby to take care of. A half hour later the babies were with their parents, including Hailey Elizabeth AiJun Turnage, the baby that Nora held and played with. It was a pleasure to tell Hailey’s new mom Christi that we had lots of pictures and video of their new children getting ready. Nora felt a bond with Hailey and we plan for the girls to keep in touch in the future. I wonder what Nora might tell Hailey a decade from now when she is ten and Nora is in college.

Another new family friendship developed in Chongqing, where we met the Bell family from Indianapolis. Kim and her husband Gregg had just adopted 16-month-old Lia from Fengdu, a city we passed on our river cruise. They were traveling with three of their five other children, including daughters Lauren and Kaitlin who are near Nora’s age. Another stroke of luck.

I escorted this large group into a local Chongqing neighborhood market area familiar to me from last year’s trip. We caused quite a commotion since we were in an area that few foreigners visit, let alone a party of seven, most with blond hair. We had a terrific dinner at a local restaurant that evening, encouraging the kids to try all kinds of authentic Sichuan foods. Including multiple excursions to the hotel pool, Nora and the Bell kids had a great time.

Countryside and the Big City

Following our orphanage visit, we traveled outside Fuling to a small mountain village called Shanwo, which translates to “mountain’s nest”. My sister-in-law taught English in Chongqing for several years and put us in touch with one of her former students who now teaches in the middles school near Shanwo. The details of this visit will be the subject of a future article in Adoption Today, but in short, Nora again was happiest when she was with children. Our host Zhang Fei Ao has a four year old son, and despite being closer to younger sister Amy’s age, playing with little Harry was at least as interesting to Nora as the rural village. Well, that is, until we got to the farmhouse and she found a little kitten inside.

In Beijing, we were greeted by Nelson Lie, the guide from our 2004 adoption trip and his wife Nancy. Nora met Nelson when he visited our home in Texas in October last year and his son Tom was in fifth grade, only a year ahead of Nora. Nelson and Nancy planned a visit for us to Tom’s school and an afternoon of play with Tom and another young friend. All went well, but the school visit put Nora uncomfortably on display. The Chinese students all spoke some amount of English, and did their best to welcome Nora. But Nora speaks no Chinese and only slightly warmed up when several of the excited school girls crowded onto her bench. We brought some small gifts for the children, but were surprised when each student gave Nora a small gift of their own. Several necklaces she received are prized possessions from the trip.

Right now just remember you've been to this place today

I had felt prepared for our return trip, but now think I underestimated how ‘grown up’ our itinerary really was. Though pleased that I had quickly recognized that we needed more age-appropriate activities and entertainment, it took the good fortune of meeting families in Fuling, Chongqing and our friends Nelson and Nancy in Beijing to add more and more enjoyment for Nora as the trip progressed. Possibly an organized group tour, with multiple children traveling together, would be the best insurance policy to ensure a pleasurable visit and appropriate activities for a 10 year old.

Another differing expectation is an important one to consider. Never did I expect that new information about Nora’s health and care as an infant would be revealed, nor that the orphanage and children would be in so much need of assistance. The visit to the Wuhan orphanage was expected to be a pleasant homecoming not an emotional revelation.

I thought Nora would be intrigued by the vast differences in Chinese and American culture. Every day she saw things that were unique to her prior experience, but such sights didn’t make for a day of enjoyment and pleasure. Maybe she was a little young for the kind of visit we assembled. Certainly she absorbed a lot of information, but may have felt uneasy about how it related to her potential life without adoption. Maybe she just had difficulty talking much about it.

I’m still perplexed by Nora’s lack of commentary on the trip. She shares very little detail with family and friends, though just recently has opened up a little bit. I have been hoping that Nora will look back on this trip a few years from now and appreciate what she experienced and maybe share the feelings she’s having.

One of the people we met on the river cruise was Douglas Ching, a Chinese American from Los Angeles. In a recent email message he told a story that confirms what I hope the value of this trip will be to Nora, based on his own experience.

Douglas wrote:

“I've been there [Three Gorges] when I was 5 years old, when our family went from Chongqing to Taiwan after World War II. I vividly remember one night on the river ship. My mom woke me up telling me to take a look of White King Temple near Qitang Gorge. I barely saw it in the dark and asked my mom what's the big deal. She told me this is the place that one of the kings, the defeated Liu Bei of Su kingdom located at Sichuan, implored his premier, Ju Ge Liang (another name is Ju Ge KongMing) to devote his loyalty to his heir-son before he died. This was about 1700 years ago.

But [the words for] Liu Bei pronounces like the back of a cow. I kept asking my mom what the back of a cow has got to do with a king? My mom sighed and said, ‘Son, some day in the future you'll understand. Right now just remember you've been to this place today’. Indeed, twelve years later, I finally understand what's going on when I read that famous book of Three Kingdoms at the End of Han Dynasty. And now, as our cruise sailed past White King Temple, I said a prayer to my mom. The memory of my mom and the feeling how I miss her is hard for me to describe with words.”

“Right now just remember you've been to this place today.“ Douglas’s mother said it perfectly. In different words it’s something I tried to say to Nora during our trip. Sometime in the future I’m certain that Nora will have the same experience as our friend Douglas, maybe even while cruising the Changjiang with her own children.

Monday, December 3, 2007

[[[[[ Insert witty and insightful first post here ]]]]]]

Instructions for new bloggers:
  1. Demonstrate an initial burst of enthusiasm with several soul searching and heart-rending posts.
  2. Publicize blog among friends and family
  3. Build on the momentum by demonstrating true cleverness and humor in daily posts
  4. Be sure to tell us EVERYTHING about your dog. Use verse if possible.
  5. Ditto on cats.
  6. Let enthusiasm wane slightly, then don't post for 2 years.
  7. Return with a vengeance, committing to yourself to post regularly because gosh darn it there are people out there that want to read about the random details of your life.
Or just write down some interesting stuff once in a while.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Adoption Trip for Amy

Margie and I both pictured that we would walk across the Great Wall. We never anticipated a climb up a demonic Stairmaster of variable height steps in zero-degree wind-chill. Just thirty-six hours earlier we had arrived in Beijing at the start of our second adoption trip. Eight-year-old Nora and her brother Alex were safely at home in Houston with their Grammy and we were spending a couple days as tourists before traveling to Fuling to meet Fu Xin He, the 11 month-old who would soon complete our family.

Following a frigid day exploring the Forbidden City and the hutong (old city courtyard residences) of Beijing, we found ourselves twenty five or thirty miles north of Beijing staring up at the Great Wall, prepared with six layers of clothing. Packing for our trip was challenging, given that we would visit the same climates as Chicago, Houston and Havana all within a two week timeframe in early February. With five layers not working well the previous day in the 11 degree temperatures (ironically, as we toured the summer palace), we were surel to be prepared for the potentially high winds on the open wall.

We traversed a gentle slope of newly paved walkways amidst souvenir shops, food stands and forebodingly, a medical clinic. Within minutes we were on steep, irregular steps worn smooth by years of foot traffic. We passed red-faced school children, parents and grandparents, many of whom were pausing for breath. A few gentle souls scooted down the steps sliding on their bottoms, too worn out or unbalanced to rely on the 1930’s style handrail to clamber down. Within minutes our two outer layers were gone as we trudged upward.

Forty minutes later we had passed three guard towers and peered down the winding trail of steps with a feeling of accomplishment and anticipation – much as we felt about our growing family at that moment. When we adopted Nora in 1995 in Wuhan, it was not yet common for adoption groups to spend a few extra days sightseeing – and as first time parents we had no patience for such trivialities. But now we savored a couple of days by ourselves, our first vacation alone since February 2002 when we saw a young Chinese family with two girls playing on Silver Strand beach in San Diego. On the spot we began discussing adopting another daughter, as we always pictured our family as having two Chinese girls. Our biological surprise, Alex, delayed that vision temporarily, but now we were two days away from meeting our Amy.

We traveled easily from Beijing to Chongqing, a huge, metropolitan city at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialang rivers, about a ninety minute bus ride from Fuling. While we were thrilled with modern accommodations at a new Hilton hotel, we were preoccupied with our pending “gotcha day”, where we would meet and return with our new daughter.

We had received our referral to Amy the previous November, along with more medical detail than we had learned about Nora, and three color pictures. We had gotten only one black and white picture of Nora, no larger than 1 inch square. Amy beamed a delicious smile in one of her pictures and we wondered whether this was an indication of her personality or just a lucky snapshot.

The first group of adoptive parents of girls from the Chongqing Fuling First Social Welfare Institute started a networking group and web site ( We posted Amy’s picture on their website along with other recent referrals and immediately noticed the same bouncy seat and stuffed animal as in Amy’s pictures. Few of the girls were smiling, so we continued to hold out hope that Amy had an exceptional level of sparkle in her personality.

Upon arriving in Fuling, we wound our way down a narrow street to the SWI, as locals stopped their business to watch us. Yang Peishu, the orphanage director, invited us on a tour of the facility. We expected a bit of touring until we met our daughters, but actually went straight to a section dedicated to pre-toddlers. In it were about 20 girls, each in rolling walkers and matching pastel outfits. It appeared to be an invasion of babies on wheels. As they touched us with their wordless pleas, we also saw the loving care and attention they received from four young caregivers overseeing the scene.

Suddenly, from an adjacent doorway, Director Yang called out a baby’s name in Chinese. While we thought there was more “touring” to do, it was actually time to meet our girls. Fu Xin He, soon to be known as Amy Rebecca XinHe, was the second baby brought forward. Amy’s first look at Margie prompted the same huge grin we’d seen in her picture, so we believed (accurately) that she had a naturally happy disposition, which has been proven true ever since.

Since we were somewhat comfortable as third-time parents, we patiently learned Amy’s capabilities and preferences. She was pleasant and agreeable beyond our expectations and after just a few days we established our routines and became a micro-family on a great adventure. We joined our travel group on excursions to a silk factory, the Chongqing City Hall and a quick visit to the zoo – where we dashed in to see only the pandas then dashed out to lunch. Taking in local destinations was to be expected, but our favorite moments came interacting with locals, soaking up day-to-day life as we walked and drove from place to place and getting out into the neighborhoods on our own.

Our most consistently enjoyable times were during meals at local restaurants, with Chongqing offering up the most fascinating experiences. Mealtimes were prime settings for meeting local people – both restaurant staff and customers. It seems that everyone in China openly displays affection for children. Since most children learn English in school, we had many family-to-family conversations about everyday life and especially our babies. Without exception the people we met wished us well, even if it was without successful English/Chinese translation.

For several reasons we encourage adoptive travelers to stay away from the western style cooking while in China. First, it is likely to not be comparable to our back-home versions of hamburgers or french fries. Fewer locals will be dining nearby, cutting down the number of enjoyable conversations and interactions. And lastly, real Chinese food is simply excellent. There’s such a wide variety of dishes in all regions that just a little trial and error should turn up a favorite dish or two that can be repeated throughout a trip. For us, though, we wanted to eat as many interesting things as we could find.

Chongqing was until recently a part of Sichuan (or Szechuan) province, known for the spiciest of Chinese cuisines. The traditional local method of cooking is known as ‘hot pot’, which is like a spicy fondue. A circular cutout in a communal table fits a large pot of heavily spiced broth. Underneath it is heated to boiling point by propane heaters (or traditional wood fires, though this is now rare). Meats, vegetables, seafood and even sticky compressed rice is heated in the spicy broth. While most hot pots are pretty spicy, it is not comparable to our jalapeno and cayenne style of spice. Rather, there are layers of multiple flavors - spices, herbs, garlic and peppers – which create a tingling sensation that becomes addictive.

When we got to Guongzhou we felt at home – or at least we were in a comfortable and familiar place. The old-world charm of Shamian Island had not changed, but the number of little shops and street vendors had increased dramatically in the eight years since our last visit. While we waited for our appointment at the U.S. Consulate, we started our days by walking the island with Amy secured in her Baby Bjorn, strolling through the Tai Chi gentry, badminton players, ribbon dancers and even a couple brave swimmers in the Pearl river.

Knowing that thousands of families pass through the same place, seemingly all staying at the White Swan Hotel, makes for a kinship among singles and couples from all walks of American life. As we simultaneously considered Amy’s toddler-hood and Nora approaching middle school, the importance of providing a connection to their homeland was never more evident. We bought the obvious trinkets and mementos, like nearly all the other families, but we knew that the doors we needed to open for our girls were far more complex.

Despite our two adoption trips, knowledge of Chinese history, and extensive reading of classical and modern Chinese literature, the fact is we’re not Chinese, yet ethnically our daughters are. To pass as much to them as possible, we savored every minute we were in China and vowed to share with our girls an appreciation for the everyday life we observed. A few thousand pictures and some well chosen video are a start. Scroll paintings in our hallways at home will be ongoing reminders. But it seems apparent that we need to connect our girls to China as often as we can, in our own way, and hopefully by bringing them back to their birthplaces, to share the wonder that we did when we first met them.