Exactly Two Months After 9/11: New Life

While the world was still reeling and the dust still settling in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we boarded a plane to fly across the world. Many people we knew who had booked overseas flights canceled after the terrorist strike, but we didn’t. We couldn’t. The clothes – size 12 months – had been laid out on top of the suitcase for weeks. We had bibs, shoes, toys, and an endless amount of paperwork ready to pack. For those six weeks between the falling of the twin towers and the day we stepped on the plane, I listened to the grieving families and survivors in television interviews and endured the angry tirades of people around us who believed that we should go “kick some butt” (can’t count how many times I heard this). It was a confusing, angry, frightening time. We all wondered what the world was coming to, while at the same time mourning the reality that it would never be the same.

And in the middle of all of it, we packed our bags and left our grieving country for two weeks. Our world would never be the same either.

Not once did we think about sending only one person from our family to pick up our daughter. The four of us were going, and we would fly across the ocean with that one beautiful face in our mind’s eye. It’s still amazing to me how love has the power to cast out fear, even when fear is completely justified. September 11, 2001 will always be inextricably linked to that joyous time when we met our daughter and sister. It swirls together and reminds me that life continues, even in the pitch black hours. Exactly two months after 9/11, on 11/11, we celebrated her first year of life – a day early. This little girl had been born in a world where the odds were most certainly stacked against her, in a country where it would require resilience for a female baby to survive. And survive she did. She fought her way to that first year and so we strapped a little party hat on her and celebrated. She loved the cake and clapped her hands to the birthday song. I was so proud of her and so certain that whatever ugliness the world might throw at her – at all of us – that there would always be the promise of new life.

And I still believe it.

The Joy and the Grief of Gotcha Day

Tomorrow is “Gotcha Day.” Honestly, I’ve never been wild about that title, which denotes the day when an adopted child was placed in the arms of a waiting mother or father. The term has always seemed a bit casual, almost flippant, and somewhat insensitive to the birthparents. But I digress. We observe it, albeit nominally, because for Alison the day after Gotcha Day is the real celebration – birthday. She is ALL about the birthday. Even Christmas, with all it’s kid-centered hoopla, is anti-climactic compared to the intoxication of birthday. It’s ironic, really. We have no stories about the day she was born, but we can tell endless stories about Gotcha Day.

So in honor of the day that means little to Alison and everything to us, here is the short version of our Gotcha Day 2001 story:

The four of us (two kids, Kyle, and I) ate Spaghetti Bolognese with a few other families in the lobby of the Majestic Hotel in the Gaungxi Province capital of Nanning. We counted down the time until 8 p.m. when nine babies were going to be carried into the hotel lobby by nine orphanage workers and placed in the arms of nine families. The workers were driving the babies five hours from the city of Guiping. They were late.

While waiting, we were treated to several China adoption formalities: we listened to a speech by the orphanage director, which I’m certain was wonderful, but I can’t remember one word of it. We filled out more paperwork to top off the reams of paperwork we had already filled out in the past 18 months. We presented to the orphanage director a collective gift from our families – an air-conditioner, which seemed appropriate. Still, we waited. We sweated. We smiled at the Chinese adoption officials who were there. We watched the door.

Time continued to pass and we engaged in more mindless activities: checking our cameras, chatting with one another, spending time rearranging items in the bags we brought. The bags were stuffed with toys, pacifiers, blankets, burp cloths, bottles with formula, bibs, and anything else we could think of to offset the moment of hand-off. These were not infants, but rather 12-15-month old babies who would surely know the difference between a familiar Chinese face and a strange white face. We all knew that the moment of “gotcha” might not be so pretty.

More time passed and the door opened slowly. It was a hotel maid who looked at us in horror as several people stood up with their cameras pointed at her. She turned abruptly and left. We sat back down and continued to sweat.

Sometime long after 8 p.m.,the door opened again and a parade of orphanage workers carried in nine black-haired baby girls who were dressed in matching outfits: a vest, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and socks. Some of the outfits were blue, some pink, some yellow. The babies looked stunned. I quickly found Alison, but she looked nothing like the content, chubby five-month-old in the referral photo. On Gotcha Day she was thin and wide-eyed. Immediately the adoption official and our Chinese guide began calling out names and handing a baby to each new mother.

“Momma!” the official would shout at the baby, pointing dramatically at each mother as the orphanage worker placed a daughter in waiting arms. Husbands and family members stood by taking photos and trying to catch the baby’s eye. It quickly became a chorus of wailing and soothing voices. The woman who handed Alison to me did so slowly and with tears in her eyes. I’m not making that up. She watched us as we walked into a corner of the conference room with our new daughter. I handed Alison a toy, and she grabbed it and held it without  taking her eyes off mine. I was waiting for her to explode, but she just stared at me. She looked sad and confused, and in a few moments tears welled up in those black eyes and spilled out and down her cheeks. She never made a sound. Just cried silently. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so inadequate and unprepared.

“It’s okay,” I whispered and gently guided her head against my chest. “I love you.” I could feel her crying, but she still didn’t make a sound.

What, I thought, have we gotten ourselves into?

After a few moments, my new daughter fell sound asleep and didn’t wake up until we took her back to the hotel room. Her screams during her bath were comforting. I wanted to know she had a voice. And she does.

For the parents, “gotcha” may seem like the pinnacle of the adoption experience – before the parenting begins. While we wait, we envision the moment in a hundred different ways. For the child, however, “gotcha” is something very different. All of our adopted children will grieve the loss of their beginnings, whether they are infants or older children. What we view as a glorious moment is the same moment that a child is torn away from everything they have ever known. For them, while we are joyously receiving, they are inwardly grieving. For many children, this grief is short. In fact, by Day Two, Alison was comfortably settled into her new family and the strange new world around her. She was passed from mother, to father, to brother, to sister and then back, multiple times over. Her cries were now louder and more demanding (good sign) and she opened her mouth to eat anything and everything we offered her (another good sign).

For other children, the grief of Gotcha Day lasts longer. But experts that know much more than I do about raising adopted children tell us that with enough love, patience, and diligence on the part of the parent, children can overcome the grief of loss. All children are waiting to be placed – and kept – in loving arms, even if they don’t act like it, and even if they cry silently for a while. We are all created to receive love. We all long for home.

So I celebrate Gotcha Day, remembering the day my daughter was placed in our arms. I respect her moment of grief, but it is overshadowed by watching her grow into an amazing young lady full of life, joy, curiosity, and love. This is the beauty and mystery of adoption. We take into our arms children who have beginnings in other places; children who may not look like us, and children that do not share our genes. We take into our arms children who have been waiting all their short lives for the moment that someone wraps them in an eternal embrace and joyfully declares, “I’ve got you.”

Initials and Finals: We’re in School!

Our textbooks

Well, I’ve officially lost my mind. Or I will at some point in the next nine months. Alison and I have enrolled in Chinese language school, which meets every Sunday from 2-4 p.m. I’m not sure which is more frightening: learning Chinese, or learning it for two hours on a Sunday. I do love our instructor, Ms. Lucy, but she has already recognized my complete lack of tonality and inability to contort my tongue and mouth to form essential Mandarin sounds. As we were practicing our initials and finals (the first and last part of a word put together to…make a word!), she would occasionally whirl around to face me and shake her head. “Please say again,” she would request as she stepped closer to watch my mouth move. On average, it took three tries for me to get it right, and even then I think she was being gracious.

Alison has begged to do this for months. I tried to find her a private tutor, but it was just too expensive. So we found language lessons at the Agape Chinese Church in Broken Arrow. Who knew? Now it becomes clear why Alison was so adamant that I take the classes with her. Sometimes what a ten-year-old really needs is to see her mother humbled. Alison, of course, is able to hit the right tone pitch perfect and her pronunciation is strangely flawless for an American kid. Maybe she’s retained some memory from her first year of life and all those Mandarin sounds and tones are coming back to her. Or the more likely reason: her brain is young. But I’ve promised to stop whining about being too old to learn this. It’s a cop-out, I know, and one that Ms. Lucy is NOT going to buy. I can already tell that our instructor is expecting me to actually begin to speak this language. And yes, I would love that too, but I’m not holding out for the day when Alison and I chatter in Mandarin together. The best I may be able to hope for is to sing Happy Birthday or count to ten together, and those occasions will roll around infrequently.

So why am I doing this?

There is something deeply gratifying about seeing your Chinese child beg to learn the language of her birth country. Her desire was probably fueled by our trip to China where she stood silent when the Chinese would walk up to her and begin speaking in Mandarin, but the initial desire was there. She IS Chinese and she will never be able to pretend otherwise. I want her to embrace who she is – an American girl who was born in China. I don’t want her to turn her back on those identities because she will never escape either of them. The duality can be both maddening and heartening, but to be at peace with who she is has always been one of my prayers for her. Seeing her desire to learn Mandarin gives me hope that she is also working toward making peace with both identities. And dare I say, she seems proud to sit in that classroom and watch Ms. Lucy help the struggling white woman who can’t pronounce pinyin to save her life. I see them together and I am reminded that my daughter has another country and culture that belong to her. I’m going to hang with this language thing because someday someday she will return to China and people will once again walk up to her and speak to her in Mandarin. I want her to be able to talk to and share stories with the people of her birth country. I want her to feel like she is one of them, because she is.

Found: 100 Good Wishes Quilt Squares

I made a discovery only a few weeks before we left for China. It was a brown box hidden far under my bed that contained within a Rubbermaid bin. You would think I was hiding it from myself. I do that quite a bit – put something in a special, hidden place to keep it safe and then completely forget where it is. We’ve lived in our house for only five years, and so this box, which I’ve had for ten years, must have been moved without me knowing what was in it. I’ve given up trying to figure out my losing and finding cycle. There’s no telling what’s hidden in my attic that I’ve forgotten about.

Back to the contents of the box: Almost 11 years ago we were waiting for our referral from China, which means we were waiting for Alison. We didn’t know her yet, and there were about 60 other parents who were also waiting for their little girls from China that I met through an Internet chat list. We spent quite a bit of time talking about our future daughters, giving one another advice, lamenting our wait (which considering wait times now for referrals seems ludicrous). It was a time when thousands of Chinese baby girls were being adopted every year by families from across the ocean and so traditions were born. One of those was a 100 Good Wishes Quilt that waiting families would provide one another. Actually, we provided each other with the material for the quilt and a wish for the baby. The process was simple: send each family on your list two 5″x 5″ quilt squares (one for a scrapbook, one for the quilt) and a wish for the baby. During one three-month period in the summer of 2001, I received 31 quilt squares (not everyone participated) and 31 good wishes for Alison. About a week after the last package came in the mail, we received our referral and the quilt project was put in a box, stored in a bin, and became something that: “I’ll get to next year.” Eventually I lost track of the box, and when we moved into our house I was certain the box had been lost in the move.

Ten years after I received all those good wishes, I found them again. And only a few weeks from the day that we returned to China to take our now ten-year-old daughter to visit her birthland. Irony abounds. I opened the box and began to read the wishes. Here’s a sample:

If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world. – Chinese proverb. We wish you light, beauty, harmony, order and peace throughout your life. 

That wish was from Doug, Linda, Laura, and their future daughter. I’ve lost touch with everyone on this list since we received our referrals. I remember logging into the chat room every day in the fall and seeing the subject line: REFERRAL! We received our referral on October 1. As I read through the wishes each family gave our daughter, I realize that these prayers have been drifting above us all this time. Life has not been perfect and there have been bumpy places in the parenting road, but we have always felt held, guided, and blessed as we raise each of our children.

So now I will be working on a quilt. Well, not me exactly. I don’t sew (do buttons count?), but I’ll find someone who can help me stitch together the squares of good wishes – although now it won’t be a quilt for her crib, but will be placed at the end of the bed of a little girl who will soon be a young lady. Better late than lost forever. I better check the attic soon. Who knows what I’ll find up there.

The Red Couch Ten Years Later

As promised, here is Alison once again on the Red Couch. She is just as she was ten years ago – happy to be surrounded by the other little girls and very content to sit and be photographed. But yet, she is different than she was ten years ago. That’s an obvious statement, but when I look at this image, the years flash by and I see the little baby growing into a young woman far too quickly. Ten years is both short, and very long. I am a different person than I was then – we all are – yet it seems like not so long ago that Alison was bald and sleepy and quiet. She is now a little girl with a full head of hair, always on the go, and talking, talking, talking (lots of silliness and long stories). Every now and then, I long for just a few moments with that little baby. It’s not because I don’t love the big-girl Alison, but because I realize how fast it all sped by me and how much I allowed myself to miss. I know that this is a normal feeling because I longed for those moments with Colin and Erin when they were this age. It was a time of their childhood when I suddenly realized that the child was fading away, and the young man or woman was about to take the place. There are beautiful moments with adolescents and teenagers (yes, you heard me right), but we can’t go back in time. The days of holding Alison in my arms while I read a book to her, rocking her to sleep at night, and carrying her across the parking lot on my back are over. I’ll be honest, some days I grumbled about these things, especially if it was a hot day and the asphalt was radiating heat, or if I was busy and didn’t have time to lift her up as she stood at my feet with her arms outstretched. Now, I’d take back those moments without blinking. But they are gone. So it serves as a reminder to me that someday very soon she will be hurrying out the door with the car keys in hand, or holed up in her room for the evening to text, facebook, and talk on the phone. She won’t be so excited to accompany us to the movie theater or laugh at our jokes. Now that we are back from China, I am even more aware of this: the days are long, but the years are short. So I’m making the most of the days as I listen to the silly stories, or watch her play with her sweet lab puppy. I’m enjoying that she still loves to go to the movies with me and help me with crafts and in the kitchen. She still likes to play crazy water games instead of soak in the sun by the side of the pool, and there are some days when she is little girl enough to forget to brush her teeth or make sure her clothes match. But it’s racing by, so I’m learning to live in the beautiful moments of today. So of course I’m taking her to the movies today (Kung Fu Panda 2) and letting her help make the whole wheat macaroni and cheese for dinner. And we’re both going to ignore the jet lag. It’s part of the adventure, right?

Stepping Into North Korea…Without Erin

Chances are, if you suffer from migraines, it would be no surprise that by the end of a very tiring three-week trip you would get one. Erin did. As we were walking to catch the bus for the DMZ tour, she saw a spot out of the corner of her eye. This means a migraine is coming on. She had left her migraine medicine back in the hotel room, so she and Kyle hurried back to get it while Colin, Alison and I headed on to the tour office. The bus was scheduled to leave at 8:50 a.m., and when we arrived it was 8:20. I talked to the tour guide to let her know that we might not be going, and she kindly informed me that the tour fee is non-refundable. We were going to pay either way, and it isn’t cheap. I called the hotel and rang the room. Kyle had decided to stay back with Erin. The moment before he picked up the phone, however, she told him that the spot had gone away and she thought she would be fine. So they hurried to the meeting place. After scurrying around to find each other, we boarded the bus about a minute before it was pulling out. That could be the end of the story of the migraine, but it isn’t. The migraine returned and Erin ending up sitting either on the bus or in the gift shop at the Joint Security Area while we visited Camp Bonifas and the DMZ. She missed stepping into North Korea and she threw up in the parking lot of the restaurant where the tour group ate before heading back to Seoul. I suppose every trip has its moments, and this was definitely one of them.

Heading into the DMZ was eerie. Erin waited at the Joint Security Area where it was safe with South Korean and American soldiers nearby. The moment we passed into the DMZ, everything seemed strangely still. There has been no development and no management of the area so it was a thick forest on either side as we drove toward the line that divides North and South Korea. There were three checkpoints (Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie), and when we stopped the bus to get out, we were given very strict and specific instructions: form two lines, do NOT take photos until given permission, do NOT wave or make any arm gestures. We were told earlier that if we were wearing a shirt with any American symbols on it – a flag, USA, eagle – we would have to put tape over it. Also, we were not allowed to wear faded jeans with holes in them or sleeveless shirts because if we looked “ragged” the North Koreans would photograph us and use it as propaganda to convince the people that those outside the country were poor and unable to take care of themselves. Also, we had to wear shoes with backs on them in case there was an emergency and we had to run. Really? Yes, really. As we waited inside the Reunion Building (it was built in 1998 to allow families to reunite after crossing the border from North Korea, but it has never been used because no one is allowed to cross the border), our guide told us that we would be unable to go into the MAC (Military Armistice Conference) Building. This building is shared by North and South Korea…sort of. If the North Koreans are in it, then they lock the door from the inside. A tour group never knows if it will be open and we were very disappointed that we would be unable to enter. This is where you actually get to step across the border into North Korea. When we came through the back of the Reunion Building, the door was open, and the guide was pleasantly surprised that we would get to go in.

The photo of the North Korean and South Korean soldiers standing perpendicular to one another (the North Korean soldier is in the heavy, drab green uniform) shows the MAC building on the left. Earlier, all the rules had sounded a little dramatic, but once I saw the North Korean soldiers coming around the corner, I didn’t question anything. The raised section of cement in front of the North Korean soldier is the dividing line. A table in the building is also the dividing line, and you can’t step too close to the South Korean soldier – which Kyle did so the guide had to reprimand him. I did snap a quick photo of he and Colin. Notice Colin sporting the same shades as the very serious and unsmiling soldier (and notice the soldier’s clenched fists, which is the way they all stood).

If you look carefully at the outdoor photograph, you can see a North Korean soldier standing at the top of the steps of the Panmungak building on the North Korean side watching us through binoculars. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being there and the tension that exists. American soldiers are also stationed here, and so there is an American flag in the MAC building. It is now a plastic flag because a North Korean soldier made a point of polishing his shoes with it once. We were given all this information and I’m still thinking it through. You can hear the sadness and anger in the voices of the South Koreans when they talk about North Korea. They want reunification, but they are deeply hurt by the North Koreans hatred of them. It’s very complicated. The other photos are taken from a vantage point where you can see North Korea across the Inchon River. We bought a bottle of North Korean brandy in the JSA store and will leave it unopened until reunification. I’m sorry to say I think it may be sitting unopened for a very long time…but I hope not. On the way back to Seoul, a North Korean defector answered questions. That’s a story for another post since this one is already far too long.

We came back to the hotel around 3 p.m., rested, then enjoyed an Italian dinner and shopping on our last evening before heading home. Erin was able to join us after sleeping off her migraine. What a strange day. I guess the next time I blog we will be back in Tulsa and I promise my posts will be shorter. I have many other photos to share and more stories about our trip. You can continue to read the blog if you’re not too tired of hearing about China. I will eventually transition to other subjects, but I’ll be thinking about this trip for quite a while.

Goodnight from East Asia. It’s been an incredible adventure. Life should be full of these.

Cooking in Yangshuo and an Unplanned Stop

I have a very good excuse for not blogging last night. First, I’ll chronicle yesterday. We started early with a cooking class at the Yangshuo Cooking school in Chaolong Village, which is on the outskirts of Yongshuo. The school, although owned by an Australian woman, is real Chinese cuisine. Surprisingly, this was one of Colin’s favorite activities of our trip. Who knew? Our menu was three dishes made from scratch: stir-fried water spinach with garlic, stir-fried pork with vegetables (red pepper, carrots, and onions), egg-wrapped dumplings, a favorite snack of the village children (we used duck eggs and pork for filling), and steamed chicken with mushrooms. The prep and stir-fry took about an hour – each of us had our own wok and cooking area – and then we each enjoyed our created dishes. Delicious! We were all quite impressed with ourselves. It was hot and I’d like to say we are getting used to the heat and humidity, but it’s the kind that takes your breath away. Of course, we were sipping hot tea the entire time we were cooking. Tea is the anytime, everywhere drink. I’ve uploaded photos from our cooking adventure, as well as a few from around the village.

After we finished our lunch, we climbed on the bus for a two-hour ride back to Guilin to catch our flight to Beijing. No surprises – the plane was delayed by about 40 minutes. We were still due to get in to Beijing about 8:45 p.m., which was late, but acceptable. Our flight to Seoul was scheduled to leave at noon the next day. All was going fine as our plane cruised toward Beijing, and then a flight attendant made an announcement in Chinese. Our first hint of trouble should have been the collective response of the Chinese: they began to talk excitedly, laugh, and rustle around in their seats. The English version came next. We were being diverted to Zhengzhou because of bad weather in Beijing. And that was it. We would land in about 20 minutes, and they said they hoped we had enjoyed our flight. We wondered whether we would get another flight out tonight to Beijing once the weather cleared, or maybe we would be spending the night in the Zhengzhou airport. Hopefully it was modern and comfortable. When we landed on a strip surrounded by rice paddy, a wee bit of panic set in. There were no city lights anywhere that we could see. This was not good. We immediately called our Beijing guide, Vivian, who was supposed to meet us at the airport, and she did confirm that there was bad weather in Beijing, but said that it was clearing. We sat on the tarmac for about two hours with Rebecca making several calls to Vivian and handing the phone to the flight attendant so Vivian could find out what was going on. All the planes had been diverted from Beijing, so we were waiting in line to take off from Zhengzhou. We were relieved not to be staying there. Later, Vivian informed us that the city is the capital of Henan province – a very “traditional” Chinese province (translated, poor and backward). “Probably good you didn’t go there,” Vivian said.

We got into Beijing about 1 a.m. and to our hotel a little before 3 a.m. But we made our flight to Seoul today and we are so very glad to be here. We’re finishing the trip with a little family time in a nice hotel suite, complete with a kitchen and washer/dryer. Such luxury! We have several activities planned here, including a trip to the DMZ (the border of North and South Korea) on Friday. Tomorrow we will visit Eastern Social Welfare Agency where we will meet up with a group of Korean adoptees and tour the agency. We’ll also attend a tea-making ceremony and painting class tomorrow. By the end of the trip we should be experts on tea and art!

Seoul is very westernized, and so we enjoyed pizza and scones tonight. I’m actually tired of rice, which is something I never imagined. Everyone is still doing well. Tired, but glad to be saying….

Goodnight from Seoul.