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.

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