Great Expectations: Meili's Story
We had every intent of having a normal trip to China to pick up Meili
Kristen-Lu Kaslik (aka Qiuxiu Lu). We hoped for it to be the typical
experience, because our focus was on her, and not on the more
entertaining aspects of traveling to a foreign country. It wasn't to be
We had built up many expectations of the trip and China during the time
we worked on this adoption. When you read 60 messages a day on a China
adoption email list (APC), you cannot help but have expectations. In our
case, much of what we saw and experienced *did not* match our
expectations. Much exceeded our expectations, but some also surprised us
in the other direction. It turns out that China is undergoing change at
such a rapid rate that information about the country even only a year old
may be obsolete. But more on that in due time...
Our story starts about two years ago, when the topic of adoption as the
way to build a family first came up between Melanie and me. After a bunch
of research (ok, we went to one meeting), we committed to the process as
our first and only choice. At our ages, we didn't care for the risk of
childbirth, and, truth be told, neither of us had the burning desire to
procreate a little us.
We also quickly committed to China. I cannot claim much prior knowledge
of that country beyond news reports, but we were both intrigued by it and
interested in it. Also, we fit all of their criteria for a healthy baby,
which is the only time we've matched all of anybody's criteria for
For us, the paperwork and the wait were easy. Our agency--La Vida--did a
superb job insulating us from rigors of document authentication, etc.
Melanie discovered La Vida, by the way, after meeting a post-adoptive
parent at church. It was Melanie's first visit to that church, and we are
forever grateful to Donna (and her baby Lacy) for sitting in that pew at
that time. Kismet. We've been thrilled with La Vida, and recommend them
without hesitation to anyone considering agencies. They know what they
With our dossier sent to China 9/3/97, we settled in for an 8 to 10 month
wait. Rather than be manic and impatient, we decided to let time pass as
peacefully as possible, and let the process run its course. This worked
We spent the time learning about China and reading all the posts to the
APC list. Our favorites were the stories, which taught us a lot about
what to expect once in China, and left us arguably better prepared than
others in the travel group. But in some ways it made us too prepared. To
wit--the first day we had Meili, we dressed her in long pants and a long
sleeve shirt, even though it was 90 outside, be/c we didn't want to run
afoul of the little old ladies we'd heard about who make sure your baby
is properly covered. Well, we saw no little old ladies, and just
succeeded in making Meili miserable. After that, we resorted to common
sense and dressed her the way we pleased. One person did try to tell us
she was underdressed, but we just smiled, nodded, and went on our way.
Lesson learned: don't overthink things.
Melanie spent the waiting year on a project for which she earned my total
admiration. She taught herself Chinese!!! Not only that, she did it from
a book, without tapes or tutor. The big question for us was, would anyone
understand her (and she, them), or would it be wasted effort? We were to
find out soon after landing in Beijing.
Our group was travelling to Beijing on 7/24. But Melanie and I and
another couple wanted more days in Beijing to explore. Unfortunately,
travel approval came so late that the other couple had to just stick with
the group. Melanie and I found out 7/20 that we'd fly out of Newark
7/21, and meet with the group three days later. We would be mostly on our
own, but would have a guide during the day.
The Korean Air flight from Newark to Seoul was not bad, even at 18 hours.
We slept probably 8 of those hours. We flew Business Class, and recommend
it for all who can swing it. Korean Air provided attentive service, and
we are quite happy with the choices made by our travel agent, Parker
Travel, of Denver. We arrived in Seoul surprisingly well rested, and
raring to go.
In Seoul, you don't go through customs--you just hang around for the
connecting flight to wherever. This makes you what they call a "Transit
Passenger." I remember our confusion at the time (seems silly now), and
hope knowing the term saves someone else the confusion over where to go.
Anyway, you get in the transit passenger line, they check your passport,
run your stuff through x-ray, and you go where you wish in the terminal.
The other benefit of Business Class is that you can wait in the airline's
lounge, which is much more comfy than the general terminal, and has
unlimited Gatorade in Korean cans. Too cool. Don't underestimate this
We landed in Beijing on time after a three hour flight. We had actually
made it to China!!! It was so hard to imagine two years ago that this
moment would really happen, and now it had!
In Beijing you exit the plane onto the tarmac and board a shuttle. An
American couple stood next to us, and Melanie asked if her backpack was
really a diaper bag and were they adopting (they had "the look"). It was
and they were.
"Where are you from?"
"Where in NC? We're from PA, but will be moving to NC next year."
"Black Mountain, near Asheville."
"Oh my God! We're building our house in Asheville!!"
We go to the other side of the world, and the first people we meet belong
to the adoptive parents' group in the city to which we're moving! Go
figure. Oh yeah, a smart tip from them: to save writing address over and
over for people like us, they packed a sheet of address labels! Very
In the terminal you fill out the arrival form, get your passports
checked, claim your luggage, and pick a line for customs. We didn't know
whether or not to declare our camera equipment (maybe this would be
obvious to you, but all alone at that time in that place, we didn't
know). We spoke to a guy who said only to bother if you have commercial
equipment. It was good advice and we breezed through customs without any
search of our stuff.
Outside customs, the scene was not as hectic as we'd been led to believe.
We found our guide within 15 seconds and headed into the city. Our guide
was Mary, and she was wonderful. It's a difficult job to guide just two
people, because there is no one to spread conversation around with--it's
just you. Still, I believe we learned more interesting details about life
in China than we would have in a group.
The drive into the city was our first real exposure to life in China, and
our first impressions surprised us. We drove on roads that were like any
superhighway in any American city, complete with the green road signs. I
guess I hadn't expected such new, big, smooth roads. We did learn later
that many of the roads were new, making the driving experience a lot
different from even a year ago. In terms of traffic, buildings, and
people, this drive reminded me of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New York
We checked into the Song He hotel, which was on par with many Comfort
Inns or Quality Inns at which we've stayed. Checking in, we tried out our
first tentative, "Xie xie" ("Thank You"), and got "You're
return. Hey, they didn't laugh--so far, so good. In fact, it became
standard practice for us to make a comment in Mandarin, and get an
English response. Kind of funny, if you think about it.
Great White Tourists
Mary took us to the Summer Palace and Tianamen Square that first
afternoon. Each were interesting and worth the visit. At each we were
among the only non-Chinese. Yet we weren't stared at too much or
approached too often. We did have a few people ask us to pose for
pictures with them, but not nearly as much as I'd expected from our
research. Also, I'm kind of tall and expected to stand out a bit, but
Melanie got most of the picture requests, and she's average height, thin,
and w/ brown hair. (But she IS awfully pretty!) Go figure.
Some of the interesting things we learned from Mary that aren't part of
the standard script: Every February 2 is Dragon's Day. It is custom to
avoid doing needlework on that day, lest the needle poke the dragon in
the eye. Even the poorest people supposedly observe this custom.
Also, red dresses used to be the thing for a bride to wear for her
wedding, but that is now being replaced by white. And something about
parents not being able to attend their kid's wedding, but I cannot
remember the details of this.
Also, with Mary's family as an example, we learned just how rapidly China
is changing. Her grandmother has "small feet," what we've known as "bound
feet." She cannot walk and is 90 or so. That's one generation. Her mother
does not have small feet, but follows other traditions. When Mary gave
birth to her daughter, her mother forced her to stay in bed for one
month, without bathing, watching TV, reading, etc. Just imagine!? Another
generation. You know that Mary, who put the "mini" in skirt, has a
computer, and is thoroughly modern, will not force that tradition on her
daughter. That's a lot of change in three generations, especially
considering the lack of change in prior generations.
There are small red cabs and yellow mini-mini-minivan taxis all over the
city. This is new in only the last couple years, as they've gone from
near zero of these taxis to more than 50,000 if I understood right.
Driving used to be for only professional drivers, but now it's for almost
anyone. Yet with all those taxis, we could not get one to stop for us at
Tianamen Square at rush hour. So we walked in the drizzle (the smoggy sky
was a sickening yellow and *tasted* foul) for about 3 miles. Actually,
that was fun, be/c we saw more of the street life than if we had been in
Eventually a cab did pick us up, but then tried to scam us by driving in
circles. Mary made him stop and they had words. It was fun to hear. He
(intentionally?) stopped by the biggest puddle around, and we left
without paying. We saw the grit and grime of the city first hand,
something we would have missed in the comfort of a group bus. And even
though we were carrying about $8000, we felt totally safe and
comfortable--more so than we even do at home (can you now guess why we're
That evening we had dinner alone. It was our first chance to fend for
ourselves. We were very careful the whole trip to order safe foods (don't
eat fruits that cannot be peeled, only drink bottled water, etc), so
imagine how my jaw dropped when Melanie asked for "a glass of ice water."
She quickly realized what she said and changed to tea, but it was
definitely a moment!
We managed to order what we wanted using very little English. Some of the
delicacies on the menu included drunken shrimp, fried jellyfish, and
deepfried intestines. We weren't THAT adventuresome. At the end of the
meal, we didn't know how to get the bill or even get the attention of the
waitress. After awhile we drank some tea, because they always came over
to refill the cup when you drank some. It worked, and Melanie said, "Wo
yao fu zhang" (I want to pay bill), and started to explain further with
hand motions when the waitress said, "OK" and produced the bill. Maybe
you had to be there, but it was just too funny to us to work so hard at
the Mandarin and get English responses. However, we were thrilled that
her study of the language was paying off. I was very proud of her.
A Monk's Blessing
We visited the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple the next day. I have
to admit that for me, if you've seen one temple you've seen them all. But
it was still fun and we learned a lot from Mary. If I understood right,
one of the things we learned was that a guide might make about 800 yuan
per month, or $100. And you complain about YOUR salary?
We took taxi's everywhere, and here also things were not as we expected.
We had heard that Chinese driving was crazy, with people driving pretty
much whichever side of the road they wanted to. Our experience was that
it was much more orderly than that. Yeah, there was a lot of horn
blowing, and you had to force your way across lanes and hope the other
guy would stop. But we didn't see the manicness we had heard about.
Driving on the freeway reminded me of Philadelphia's Schuylkill
Expressway, only much slower (maybe 40 mph). Driving in the cities
reminded me of Manhatten or Boston, only again much slower.
As we drove, we also noticed many advertising billboards for companies
we'd all recognize: Compaq, Sun Microsystems, Motorola. China was looking
pretty capitalistic to us. Continuing that theme, Mary told us that for
her 4-year old daughters birthday, they went to a special
place..........McDonalds! I think this is a sure sign the apocolypse is
near. China is changing so fast that it's hard to keep up with, and I
think that in their rush to modernize they risk losing many of the
traditions that make it such a unique and fascinating culture. It made me
a little sad.
At the Lama Temple (official name: Yong He Temple), they have a Buddha
that is 22 meters tall, carved out of a single piece of sandlewood. Man,
was that impressive. In the Hall of Longevity there were two monks at the
alter. Suddenly they turned to Melanie out of all the people there and
gave her two peaches and a Chinese labelled box of Keebler Saltines and
said that she would have good luck. I'm not making this up. We left the
peaches in our next taxi, because they are on the "do not eat" list. I
hope they brought the driver good luck, and not just flies.
In driving around the city, one of the buildings we passed
was.......drumroll please......the Civil Affairs building where they
match our children to us!!!!!! Way cool. I think I got a picture of it,
and if so, will post it on the internet for all to grab.
We also passed the American Embassy, which gave us good chills. Embassy
row is really pretty, and at the end of it is a really neat place--the
silk market! This was a couple hundred outdoor stands each about 6 foot
square with all kinds of clothing, scarves, quilts, etc. Shopping advice:
this is the best place in all of China to get those cute silk pajamas
that so many adoptive parents get for their kids. We paid about $6 for
stuff that others paid $25 for elsewhere in the country.
In all we got 3 silk prints (120 yuan), a BEAUTIFUL panda quilt (60
yuan!!), and two silk robes, a silk dress for Melanie, and silk pajamas
for Meili (550 yuan). All told, about $90.
All of these prices were negotiable. Mary said she couldn't negotiate for
us, because the vendors were getting mad at her, but advised us to pay
only about 50 percent of the initial price. To give an example, the
negotiating for the robes/dress/pajamas went like this: "you pay 1005
yuan," "bu shi (no), 400," "#%#!@%@#%$%---900," "500,"
"OK." Some negotiations were in English, some in Chinese, and some by
punching numbers on a calculator. I even got to try out one of my few
Chinese phrases, "Duoshao qian?" (How much money) and was always
understood, although I was screwed if they answered in Chinese!
For the quilt, we offered such a low price that she almost kicked us out,
but we were all smiling and laughing by the end. In the middle of
discussing price, Melanie heard her mutter something in Chinese, and
spoke back to her. The woman was a bit shocked, and they continued the
back-and-forth in Chinese, until Melanie told me they reached an
agreement and to pay the lady. I said, "Uh dear, you were speaking
Chinese. I don't know what you agreed to." She wasn't even aware of it.
That afternoon we parted company with Mary after having her say some
words for Meili on video. Then we set out on a walking tour of the city.
In all we walked the crowded city streets about 3 miles, and again, felt
totally comfortable even though nothing was in English and we were the
only non-Chinese around. We had the adrenaline rush of crossing streets
where traffic never stops (just follow someone else). We also saw lots of
neat street scenes, including some serious poverty. Pictures of this
would have been wonderful, but since the people weren't staring at or
bothering us, we didn't feel right about doing it to them.
We found a grocery store and had a blast looking at products. You find so
many things there that you wouldn't have seen even two years
ago--especially internationally-logoed products, including Nestle, Pabst
(Blue Ribbon water, I kid you not!), Heineken, etc. My major find was
M&M's with a Chinese label (I'm addicted to m's)! After seeing this, I
dare anyone to make the case that China is not changing fast enough. You
had better visit there soon, because if you blink, it will be different.
We also stopped in a clothing store to buy some shorts. It, like many of
the boutiques, was as modern as you'd see in any American city. You got
the feeling that it was very new, and had replaced an older and more
traditional shop. Change was EVERYWHERE. And the stores have maybe three
times the workers that our stores would have for the same tasks. Labor is
cheap, and so there are many clerks milling about, straightening shelves,
dusting, etc. Melanie spoke with the clerk in Chinese, while I had to use
sign language. But we got what we wanted without any trouble.
A final note on Beijing. We had expected huge crowds of people--isn't
that the stereotype? We did see a lot of people, but never felt crowded.
I've felt more packed in in Manhatten. But rather than crowds, what you
notice is the relentlessness of the people. There are ALWAYS people
moving from here to there. Day and night, the flow *never* stops. I have
a much better understanding than before of what it's like to have a
billion people moving through their lives.
Joining the Group
Waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, we walked to an art gallery
run by Jiang Zemin's daughter. Supposedly she is able to bring in lots of
artists' works from around the world that a less connected person could
not. They had some interesting exhibits.
We had mixed feelings when the group arrived. By this time we were so
thoroughly acclimated to China that we just wanted to go it alone. It's
more our style. But we had made friends with one of the couples prior to
leaving, and were happy to see them again. We knew we had to become part
of the group, but still felt a bit conflicted over all the gritty details
we'd miss in a sanitized tour bus that we had captured so indelibly while
we were on our own--strangers in a strange land, so to speak.
In light of an interesting story I just read on APC that related a
less-than-ideal group experience, I'll add a word about our group. There
were nine families, six of which were husband and wife, and the rest of
which included parents or friends. It turned out to be a great bunch of
people with no one dominating the scene. There was lots of sharing of
supplies, commiserating over sickness, and complimenting of each other's
children. It was never testy or angry. It was probably as good a group as
can be expected for nine couples who didn't know each other and were
doing something as stressful as adoption. When we eventually left China,
it was with good memories of the other parents, and maybe with some
The Great Foggy Wall of China
The first group excursion was to the Great Wall at Badaling. For those
who have been there before, a big surprise awaits. You used to drive a
narrow, windy, scary road to reach it, but just last month they completed
a superhighway that takes you right to the base. Again, change is
everywhere. That road, however, only goes TO Badaling at this point, and
you still have to take a narrow, windy, scary road to leave.
Talk about a tourist spot!?!? The place is overrun with vendors trying to
trap you into all kinds of junk. It reminded another in our group of
Tiajuana, Mexico. It was very difficult trying to squeeze through all of
the vendors, crowds, and people stopping traffic in both directions so
they could take a photo of their family. It all seemed strangely
inappropriate, and I could never quite picture what the Wall was like
when it was just built and being used for its intended purpose.
Actually, we could never quite picture the wall, period. A heavy fog had
descended, and you could see none of the famous curvature of the Wall as
it snaked over the mountains. The most you could see was 50 feet in front
of you. You also could not go on the steeper, more dramatic section
because it would have been too dangerous in that weather. So, we set a
fast pace for ourselves and cleared the worst of the crowds in about 30
minutes. The next 15 minutes till we had to return were more fun, and we
could certainly understand how great a wall it really was, but we missed
getting a full sense of its massiveness. Bummer.
On the way back, we stopped in a state-run Friendship store. Yuk. The
neighborhood stores were so much more fun. This felt fake, and the clerks
were so much less "real", or maybe "sincere" is a better word, than
workers in the other stores we had visited. I'm glad we never went to
another. While there we overheard some in our group making the clerks
convert all of the prices from yuan to USD. Come on, guys, learn to
divide by 8. It seemed terribly, umm, unsophisticated to not even learn
how China's money worked. Later on in the trip, I overheard a guy in the
White Swan ask what his 3900 yuan bill for gifts would be in dollars. It
just bugged me that someone would spend that much and yet be such an
The drive back to the hotel through the streets of Beijing showed as much
night activity as there had been day activity. We saw 75 people line
dancing by the street light. Lots of milling about. But even though the
neighborhoods are undeniably poor, you don't sense any of the anger you
find in America's poor neighborhoods. You get the sense that things just
are the way they are, and that the general population in China doesn't
(yet) measure happiness in the way we do. And as a generalization the
people seemed happy. We saw many examples of people clowning around,
pulling pranks on each other, and laughing uproariously. I'm grateful
that Melanie and I got far enough away from the tourist spots to see
this, because some of those scenes are the most vivid in our memories of
this beautiful country.
Free advice: learn to say "no" (or "bu shi") quickly and often. Junk
vendors are everywhere and will stalk you if you even blink in their
direction. If you point at an item in a display case, it will be in your
hands in three seconds. The salespeople (and not just the street vendors)
can be more relentless and aggressive than anything I've experienced in
my other travels. Being quick to say no is the only way to keep to your
schedule, and is not rude, or at least no more rude than the pushy vendor.
Our final tour in Beijing was the Forbidden City, as in the movie, "The
Last Emperor." It was crowded, and we were all anxious to get to Nanchang
and the babies.
Nanchang or Bust
Melanie and I had separate seat assignments on the crowded plane from
Beijing to Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. Yet despite being a
capacity flight, boarding was quite orderly. This is in contrast to
stories we'd heard of pushing and shoving and an "every man for himself"
style of boarding planes. Every in-country flight was calm, with assigned
seats and general politeness.
On this flight, though, I learned the dangers of knowing only a little
Chinese, as opposed to Melanie, who had learned enough to hold simple
conversations and extricate herself from ones that got too deep. I was
seated by the window in a row with two Chinese gentlemen, when a member
of our group walked down the isle. It was hot, and Melanie was in a
different row, so I pointed to her and said to Steve, "Wo de tai tai. Wo
bu tai shufu." (My wife. I don't feel so good.) Well these two guys start
jabbering away to me, and I felt rather foolish to not have a clue what
they were saying. Reminds me of the saying, "Better to keep your mouth
shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt."
Then again, a little knowledge *can* be useful. The flight attendant
asked what I wanted to drink. I said, "Water." She said, "Cola?" I
"Water." She again said, "Cola?" I said, "Shui," and got my
Success is sweet, or at least wet!
We saw a lot of flooding from the airplane, and it was quite sobering.
On the drive into the city, we say an enormous rainbow reaching across
the sky. We all took it as a good omen for the delivery of the babies
that night (Sunday, 7/26).
Meeting Meili, or Maybe Not
I don't remember dinner, because our minds were on what was planned for
The scene for the delivery of the babies was fairly typical. One dad saw
them arrive in two jeeps, and said it was too cool. A cry goes out, "The
babies are here," and everyone rushes with their video cameras into the
seventh floor hallway. Eight nannies holding eight babies walk down the
hallway (the ninth came earlier from a different orphanage). And then the
words that proved fateful to us, "Why don't you see if you can pick out
your baby!" Aaaarrgghh.
Now I've gotta explain that the referral photo of Meili (aka Qiuxiu Lu)
was seven months ago, and showed a very full head of thin, straight hair
and very chubby cheeks. Truth be told, she looked rather like a homely
linebacker. Can you guess by the way I beat around the bush that we
picked the wrong baby. We went for the one we saw with the most hair, not
seeing the little angel hanging out in the back of the crowd. We even
said, "Qiuxiu Lu?" to the nanny, and she nodded. So--this is sooo
embarassing--for two minutes we fawned over someone else's child and
ignored our own. And yup, it's all on video. Can you forgive us? Can
*Meili* forgive us?
When we were finally pointed in the right direction, we had the shock of
our trip. First, her hair was not thin and straight, but long and thick
and wirey. She was not football lineman material, but was wonderfully
petite--possibly the smallest of all there. And lastly, she was CUTE.
Forget cute, she was beautiful. What happened since the homely referral
No one who has seen Meili and the referral photo is willing to bet money
that they are the same person. However, all of the authorities insist it
is. We aren't sure in either direction, and aren't worried about it in
the least. But it is a mystery and a curiosity.
We could instantly tell several things. One, this baby was very alert and
lively. Our biggest fear had been that we'd get a catatonic baby, and not
know what to do to assess the seriousness of the non-responsiveness. This
was obviously not our case. Second, she had a serious rash around her
hairline, and we wanted to diagnose it. And third, she preferred men to
The interview with the orphanage director uncovered that she had been in
foster care with a male caregiver. This situation has been discussed on
APC several times before, and that helped us understand her preferrence
to be held by only me. It still made it difficult on Melanie--how can you
*not* feel rejected?--but at least we intellectually knew the dynamics of
what was happening.
She was wearing a one piece, short sleeved, split seat, thin cotton
number. It was filthy. We compared her rash to the pictures from the
Texas Medical Kit but couldn't draw a conclusion. Was it scabies, our big
fear? Meili spent a lot of time clutching and clawing at the rash, and
seemed in real agony. The director and the nanny said it was just heat
rash, and 3/4 of the babies had a similar rash, but something about
Meili's was much worse, and Melanie in particular was not comfortable
with that answer.
We decided to give her a bath. As long as she was miserable, might as
well make her more so. Much to our surprise and delight, she LOVED the
bath, and seated on her little foam cushion, splashed in the water until
it got cold. Yeah, we have a water rat!
She didn't take to the soy formula we brought, and Ann and Chris saved
the day by loaning us some of their milk formula. She took right to that
and fell asleep for seven hours. So did we. Referral photo be damned, we
were already quite smitten by the baby they handed to us. This was really
Making It Official and Other Indignities
The next day (Monday, 7/27) was the day to complete all of the
in-province paperwork. Meili would let only me hold her, but she spent
every waking moment eyeing Melanie and positioning herself so that she
could see her. She also slept easily and often in my arms, and typically
in the strangest positions.
The notary process was interesting, and not at all intimidating. (A
special hello to the APC family we met there--sorry I cannot remember
your name.) We got the idea that the officials really wanted this to go
smoothly, and very much wanted you to have nice, normal answers to their
Nice, normal answers...
Of course, it turns out that Melanie and I couldn't quite provide that,
so they had to work harder with us to find their comfort zone. Two
questions gave them pause, and the only reason I pass on some private,
personal information is that it may help the next family. First question
that caused concern: "What do you do for a living?" "I'm retired."
stopped the Civil Affairs officer dead in his tracks and he stared at me
a while. Gulp. Then he looked at our paperwork and asked how it was that
I could retire at 41. Well, I founded a computer company, built it, and
sold it. So for now Melanie and I are devoting our time to family
matters. He thought a while, and then smiled and said how lucky we were.
This was repeated with the notary. Then her last question to us was how
long were we married. "1 1/2 years." Again she stared at us a while as if
we weren't supposed to have said that. Then she asked why so short and
had we lived together for many years. She really wanted us to give an
acceptable answer so she could approve us without a mess, but no, we
hadn't lived together for many years. But she nodded her consent when we
told her that we had known each other since high school and had been
friends for more than 25 years. Whew, she could work with that answer,
and we were processed without further problem.
Back at the hotel (the very nice Jiangxi Hotel), we decided to "force"
some mother-daughter bonding by sending me to the store. By all accounts
it went fine and I got a break from hours of clinging (forgive me, I'm
not used to that). They played and I shopped. Walking the streets of
Nanchang, I was stared at a lot more than in Beijing. But I found a
wonderful grocery store that had everything we needed. On the way back a
street sweeper passed by playing Christmas carols!?!? We saw this exact
scene again in Guangzhou. Go figure.
But all was not well in Mudville. Meili was being driven crazy by her
rash. Watching her claw at herself and her clothes was agonizing for us,
but we didn't know what to do. Aloe was applied, but didn't have any
immediate impact. The problem seemed to be that her wonderfully thick and
bountiful hair was trapping sweat, and her scratching was exacerbating
the problem. Our wonderful guide Mary suggested a solution: a buzz cut!
So Mary made an appointment at the hotel hair salon, and down we went.
The staff fawned all over Meili, because she has the personality to charm
people wherever she goes. I sat in the chair and held Meili on my lap,
Melanie ran the video camera, Mary helped hold her head, the beautician
did her thing, and Meili screamed bloody murder. And we have the whole
thing on tape! We wanted to save some of the hair for her scrapbook, but
we didn't be/c we didn't know if it had bugs or not (it didn't, but we
didn't know then).
The biggest surprise is that she was even more beautiful bald! She has a
wonderfully shaped head (a conclusion we did *not* draw from the referral
photo), and you could see all of her features now that they weren't
hidden by hair.
As the hours passed, though, the scratching and the rash did not improve.
If anything, it was worse. Yet our concerns weren't taken all that
seriously, it seemed. I was willing to accept that it was heat rash like
the other babies had, but Melanie, bless her, was not and kept pressing
Finally it was our turn to be examined by the Chinese doctor that
accompanied our group. He listened to her heart and had us remove her
clothes so he could check her all over. He saw how she was clawing at her
rash, so he checked it more closely. Then he excused himself. He came
back in a minute with Juntao, our absolutely wonderful facilitator.
They looked at her again, and spoke for a minute in Chinese. Then Juntao
said the words that still stop me cold:
"We think you should take her to the hospital."
Three Hours in Hell
Aside from the rash, Meili was well adjusted. Here are my notes from
earlier that day: "Meili is alert, active, has good motor control, can
grasp objects, can follow objects with eyes and hands. She is strong,
loud, clinging. She loves to stand (w/ help) and can be lifted in the
air. She hates changing clothes and diapers. She doesn't like to be on
her back. At lunch today, she held the bottle herself. She can almost
crawl. She sits easily." I mention all of this to point out that for this
9 1/2 month old little girl, all else was normal.
Yet we were still headed to the hospital in the middle of the night.
Juntao told us to not waste time dressing her, but just wrap her in a
blanket and follow Dr. Li. Our lives would be in the hands of a doctor
who spoke about as little English as Melanie spoke Chinese. Thank God for
what she *had* learned though, be/c I was no help with language.
We grabbed Meili, a blanket, the Texas Medical Kit, and the diaper bag,
and headed out into the darkened streets. No taxi would pick us up in
front of the hotel, so we walked a block through the underground to catch
one on the other side of the street.
That taxi ride was all that Chinese driving was cracked up to be. We
whizzed through narrow city streets overflowing with night life. The
street scenes were utterly fascinating, and we saw them up close and
personal from all sides of the road, if you get my gist. It felt like a
James Bond chase scene, and we couldn't help but giggle a little. We
weren't too scared yet, but we were awfully anxious, while Meili quietly
took it all in.
Fear quickly set in once we reached the hospital. It was dark and dingy.
We paid an 8 yuan fee and went upstairs to the waiting room. That was
about 30' by 20' and held maybe 50 people at this time of night (9:30).
And it was filthy. No, not strong enough. Disgusting, vile, gross. There
were only a couple of light bulbs working, but it was enough to see
things for what they were. This included pails for public urination and
defacation, and there was plenty of that. It was the foulest place I have
ever seen, including TV scenes of Calcutta.
There were two lines, and Dr. Li chose to wait in the line for the
specialist, rather than in the shorter line for the generalist. An hour
later we were still waiting, though at least we were able to sit in
chairs while Dr. Li dealt with the lines. At one point a woman and her
family approached us, showed us a ticket, and started babbling something
about what our number was. At first we thought she was being nice, but
later concluded that she was accusing us of cutting line (we weren't even
IN the line, but sitting against the opposite wall).
Dr. Li told us that the wait would be at least another hour, and did we
prefer to see the generalist, who had a shorter line. The wait was not
important, only Meili's health was. We answered that we had to trust his
professional judgement (even though our trust was waning by the minute).
He left to move us into the generalist line, and we waited some more.
Suddenly I yelled for Melanie to grab the diaper bag, stand up and follow
me. Only when we were safely in the middle of the room and she was
looking away from where we had been sitting did I tell her that a big
$@^%!^$% rat was running along that wall. I wish I were making this up,
but I'm not. We weren't going to sit again no matter how long it took.
Dr. Li finally called us into the exam room, which was attached to the
waiting room with no door for privacy (or rat protection). The doctor was
a young female who listened to Meili's front and back, checked her
diaper, and looked at the rash. She walked around the corner to the exam
room with the specialist, and Dr. Li took us there via the waiting room.
The doctor there was a dignified looking, 50ish woman who immediately
started yelling at Dr. Li. He talked back, and even though we didn't
follow a word, their body language was crystal clear. She was accusing
him of circumventing protocol by switching lines and getting the
generalist to refer us back to her. There were 15 or so other patients in
line, half in the exam room and half in the waiting room. A guy came in
and started yelling and pounding on the table. We got the sense he was
accusing the doctor of giving us preferential treatment. Other people
pitched in, and it felt like it was edging toward a riot, with us as the
focus of their anger. I'm dead serious.
Melanie and I boxed ourselves around Meili and the exam table, but other
patients still crowded around and peered in as the doctor conducted the
exam. It was disconcerting to say the least. The exam table is a story in
itself. One common wood table, with no covering. And no cleaning between
patients. There were fluids on the table (I hoped to God it was water,
and don't want to know if it wasn't) that I wiped with the blanket before
I set her down.
For all of the commotion, we do give the doctor credit for keeping the
situation under control and for giving Meili her full attention. We were
not rushed through, and she was professional. She checked Meili with the
stethoscope front, back, and side. But then she started to prod Meili's
stomach, and very seriously asked if she was vomiting. Now we were
totally scared. I could envision events spiraling out of control and
having them tell us that she was not healthy enough to adopt. I had
momentary thought of demanding a ride to the airport and getting the hell
out of the country (with Melanie and Meili, of course), but choked it
back. Instead we confirmed for her that there was no vomiting, and
eating, sleeping, and bathroom habits were all normal. At this point
things mercifully calmed down, and the doctor started writing a medical
report (bet that's a souvenir from China y'all don't have). We still
didn't know what was wrong, but left the room anyway when allowed. We
went with Dr. Li to the pharmacy, and the poor guy had to return to the
doctor be/c she hadn't signed the form properly. We bought some bottles
and packages from the pharmacist and hightailed it out of there.
The taxi ride back to the hotel was as thrilling as the ride there. We
reached the hotel about midnight, ending our three hours in hell. Total
cost of taxi, exam, and meds: 63 yuan, or about $7.75. Juntao met us in
our room, and we finally learned that the diagnosis was infected heat
rash--serious enough, but not adoption- or life-threatening. They
described how the Chinese herbal medicines should be applied (two
internal--for immunity and infection--and two external), and then left us
alone. We collapsed.
All's Well That Ends Well--Almost
We tried to apply the medicines that were prescribed for the infected
heat rash, but couldn't open the bottles. Seriously! They had the
strangest tops. The next day Juntao showed us how to do it, and said he
hadn't seen them since he was a kid. Meili improved rapidly with the
meds, and her worst itching was gone within two days.
That morning at breakfast Mary told us that the orphanage director had
returned because of concern that we had had to go to the hospital. That
was nice. He and the others seemed a bit chagrined as they offered that
they had intended to shave her head, but didn't because they were worried
we wouldn't recognize her. Which, if you recall, we didn't anyway. He
gave us two pictures of the orphanage, which was nice of him.
The next couple of days were normal, and we shopped, played, ate, and
visited a Temple where Meili captivated an entire busload of Chinese
tourists with her antics.
Melanie nicknamed Meili "little buddha head," only to find out that
"little buddha" is a typical Chinese nickname. Cool!
For lunch, Meili ate a whole banana, and we were so happy to see her on
the mend. Later we learned that a whole banana is about half too much. We
learned it entering the grocery store, in the hotel hallway, and at
dinner. We also learned why it would have been wise for me to pack more
than three changes of clothes, if you know what I mean.
Three Days in Hell
Apparently a smooth trip was just not in the cards for us. Beginning the
night of the 29th and lasting for three days, I, followed by Melanie and
Meili, became sick as a dog. (Where did that expression come from?) All
we can determine is that we caught the Chinese flu at the hospital
(lovely thought!), because no one else in the group picked up anything
We, on the other hand, lost three days to delirium. I'll skip the worst
details, but suffice it to say that I ran a 100 degree temp for that
time, peaking at 103. We ached something fierce. We sweated like never
before. I lost 20 lbs in those days, and I started out at only 165! After
the fever, we picked up serious congestion, and a strange, asthma-like
condition that left us unable to finish sentences or walk stairs without
panting. Back in the states, we've been diagnosed with severe bronchitis
and pluresy (sp?), and still feel the effects more than two weeks after
the symptoms started. It was the sickest we've ever been, and it took us
totally by surprise because we are always on the go, always exercising,
and *never* sick.
Melanie kept us medicated with endless meds pulled from her magic bag. At
times she reminded me of Mary Poppins by always having the exact thing
she needed in there. I had given her a bit of grief about all she packed,
but boy was I glad that she was so thorough. The odds don't favor needing
the Texas Medical Kit, plus an antibiotic, flu meds, and
sinus/decongestant meds, but we were the rare case that needed all of
them, and it's to Melanie's credit that she was so well prepared.
We skipped all the tours in Nanchang, and later in Guangzhou, too. (Get
this: we felt so crappy that we didn't even go to Shop on the Stairs!)
The only time we left the room was to pick up Meili's passport, because
we didn't want to infect the rest of the group. They were awfully
concerned for our welfare, and we had numerous kind offers of help. But
we managed alone, and hopefully also managed to not put a damper on
anyone else's experience. At the government office where we got the
passport, our surprise was learning Meili had a different birthdate than
we'd been told. It's 10/16/97, rather than 10/6/97. Apparently a
translation error on this side of the ocean.
By August 2, we finally felt good enough to fly with the group to
Guangzhou, but not by much. But our spirits picked up at being out of
that hotel room that was our prison for many days. For the first time,
the end was in sight and we figured that we might live to see home again.
I'm not exaggerating, at least not by much anyway.
White Swan, Phooey
Guangzhou is a neat city to see, and it reminded us a bit of Ft.
Lauderdale. The air stank to high heaven though, and exacerbated our
We stayed at the Dong Fang hotel, which is connected to a mall and next
to the Hard Rock Cafe and a beautiful park/garden. It is a big, beautiful
hotel, with marble everywhere and nice rooms. Our agency used to use the
much-celebrated White Swan, but stopped when they stopped group rates.
Even ignoring rates, they prefer the Dong Fang, because it is nicer in
many ways and has bigger rooms. Our bus parked at the WS on trips to the
consulate, and we spent several hours there shopping and walking around.
It is certainly nice enough, and I don't wish to detract from it, but
we've been in many nicer hotels in the US and would go back to the Dong
Fang without hesitation.
Monday was the medical exam. It was just as everyone else has described,
a cursory look by doctors at three stations: height/weight, ENT, and
Monday night we sat in the hallway and reviewed the forms for the
consulate interview the next day. The preparation paid off, as we breezed
through the consulate and no one had problems with their paperwork.
Well, almost no one...
Can you guess where I'm headed?
We were prepared. Honest. We've been on APC nearly a year and have
studied the process from all angles. We had every piece of paper
possible. The US Govt forms were filled out correctly. We had the right
1040's, all the schedules, the W-2's, the employer letter, the letter
with INS approval. Even had spare birth and marriage certificates and our
1st grade report cards.
So we sit down for the interview with a very nice lady. Melanie has a
coughing fit, and we talk briefly about the illness we contracted. She
asks no questions, but just comes out with, "You need a home study
Later, a friendly group member said how ironic it was that this happened
to the most organized family in the group. Our reaction (after picking
our jaws up from the floor) was to shrug and say that of course this
would happen to us, given all that transpired before. It made an odd sort
of sense. There was no way we were going to get through clean. Just
wasn't in the cards.
Here's the deal, with details offered so that some other family might
avoid the same problem. The update was being required because my
employment status had technically changed. I had sold a company and the
employment contract expired in March. All of this was known years ago,
and shared again with the agency in March. They decided that no update
was necessary, because there was no effect on income and no real effect
on free time. In fact, we'd worked it so that both Melanie and I would
both be able to stay with Meili as she grows up. So the conditions and
circumstances were all positive, and we thought we had things covered.
Even the consulate officer allowed that we might not really need an
update, but she was being conservative in requesting one. Jeanette Chu
could have given the definitive answer, but she was not in the office
that day (damn, we were hoping to meet her). So rather than wait another
day for Jeanette's adjudication and slow down the rest of the group,
Juntao and I set about doing a rush home study. Just the grief we needed,
The first call went to the head of our agency at his home. I must admit
to getting a perverse thrill at knowing he was being awakened at four
a.m. I like him and the others at the agency, but figured if we were sick
and being inconvenienced, then at least someone there could share our
Arrangements were made, and that night I received a call at the hotel
from the agency. We chatted a while, and it gave me the strangest
feeling, because it was our first contact with home in two weeks. We felt
totally comfortable (albeit sick) in China, and this was the first time
the whole trip I had a longing to leave. They conducted the homestudy
interview by phone, assured me that this presented no problem and would
be taken care of promptly while we slept. True to their word, the next
morning I received a fax copy of the update, and confirmation that all
the necessary docs had been presented to the consulate by 9 am and
everything was in order. I love La Vida's efficiency!
We did some last minute shopping, including picking up a very cool scroll
we had custom-made for Meili. Then it was off to the consulate to get the
visas, and off to the airport to leave for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was awfully pretty at night, except for the crappy hotel we
stayed in (The Concourse--they deserve the notoriaty). They only had five
cribs for nine families, and said they'd arrange bigger beds for those
who'd forego a crib. We volunteered, only to find out they flat-out lied
and were sticking us in a closet-sized room with just two twin beds. This
was unacceptable to me. It was the only time the whole trip we were
angry, and it took choice words to get a cot put in the room.
The next morning we left for the airport at six a.m. and began the 30
hour journey home. The new Hong Kong airport, by the way, is beautiful,
and seemed to operate very efficiently. (The visa is checked about a
dozen different times on the way home, so keep it in a convenient spot. I
stupidly kept packing it away, thinking it wouldn't be needed until
Chicago.) Our flights took us through Seoul to Chicago, and Meili
mercifully slept almost the whole time, despite our coughing fits.
Chicago Immigration was efficient and courteous. But we still missed our
connection, sat through a long delay, and finally got home four hours
All's Well That Truly Ends Well
Melanie and I are under doctor's care and improving. Fortunately we
suffered no jet lag at all, a tiny break I hope we earned given our other
traumas! We're among those who don't believe in jet lag, and I'm glad to
not have to eat my words. (Yes, we *do* believe in the Chinese flu!)
Meili is adjusted to everything but night and day. We're having a bit of
trouble convincing her that it's so much better to sleep at night, like
Mommy and Daddy wish they could. She eats everything *except* Cheerios.
She laughs more and louder every day. She is better about changing
clothes and diapers. She crawled for the first time this week! She
learned how to do the raspberries--ppppffffffttttttt--and does them at
the funniest times! She has totally charmed her grandmothers. She hates
being left alone, especially in the back seat car seat.
We're left with these feelings: It is surreal to go to another country
and bring a baby back. I know no better word for it. What happened to us
while we were in China is nobody's fault, and is not a reflection on
China, our agency, or anyone specifically. We love the country in a way I
hadn't expected, and love its people too. Our facilitator told us
something that Chairman Mao said to the effect of, "You may not like our
leaders, but you will always love our people." How true.
For all of you still waiting for your referral or travel, we can only say
what so many others have said before: Hang in there, it truly happens.
And when it does, the wait, the paperwork, the pointless flames, and the
costs all melt away. What you are left with--if you choose to experience
it fully--are indelible memories of an utterly fascinating culture and a
little person who will forever change the way you look at everything.