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.