Sunday, August 19, 2007

A moment of peace, part II

The caretakers from the orphanages began to arrive. Even when babies are in foster care -- as all of the babies in this group were -- they are first brought to the local orphanage, and then from there to Wuhan. It's a long trip from all three orphanages -- these poor little girls were on the road for 3 hours today. There were four babies - including Elaina -- from an orphanage in Huang Mei, and three from two other orphanages in the province.

Most of us had brought gifts for the foster families and the orphanage directors, in red bags for good fortune. In addition to some California souveniers, Katrina made a beautiful little album with pictures of Elaina and of our family and home, and Echo, the local Holt representative, translated the captions. Yesterday, at Echo's suggestion, we also bought a few replacement outfits to send to the foster family for the next child they care for -- these are not rich people, and they pay for the babies' travelling outfits out of their own pockets.

We were thrilled when the orphanage directors distributed small albums. Ours has many additional pictures of Elaina, including one for every monthly checkup. It's wonderful to have a record of her early development.

Finally, the babies were brought in. Everyone peered anxiously -- it's not easy to recognize a face you've only seen in photos. We saw some babies placed in the arms of new friends, who reacted with the expected admixture of joy and shock. Finally, Elaina was brought in and placed in Katrina's arms:

As with most of the babies, she cried lustily, upset by the crowd, the noise, the unfamiliar Western faces (and odors), and the grasp of unfamiliar people -- and, no doubt, by longing for her foster mother. I took her next, and calmed her down a little by singing to her:

She's a little more comfortable with me right now -- that's typical, apparently, as the women remind the girls of their foster moms but so obviously are not, while the men are more novel. Katrina took it well, though I felt for her. She's such a spectacularly good mother and so good with kids, I know she'll break through soon.

Before we had time to get our bearings, our guides hustled us back onto the bus, which rang with loud cries for a few minutes. Eventually, though, fatigue got the better of the little girls, and they began to drop off. In Elaina's case, she fell asleep in my arms after a hit from her bottle:

She slept most of the ride back to the hotel, making those heavy baby sighs and smacking noises that I had too soon forgotten. She woke when I carried her from the bus, and looked wide-eyed but quiet at the opulent lobby of the hotel. She cried a bit at the sight of herself in the mirror in the elevator -- or, more likely, at the sight of me in the mirror.

We spent about an hour playing with her on the floor. Katrina introduced her to the joy of Cheerios, which she appreciated -- she was soon picking them up out of Katrina's hand and eating them. She enjoyed stacking cups, and particularly knocking over stacks, just as Evan used to. Now and then she would suddenly look up at us and begin to cry, crying out for her foster mother. It's heartrending. Then she would cheer up again for a while:

She had a bit more bottle, and then we tried to get her to sleep. We tried her on the bed and lying on each of us, but every minute or so she returned to weeping. Singing and back-rubbing soothed her. At this point I'm singing all my communications to her. It's a good thing I've listened to all that opera and picked up a knack for recitative; I'm running out of tunes.

Finally, she exhausted herself and fell asleep in the crib with us hovering above, like new parents again, listening for each coo and snort and sigh:

The experience has been profound, like both prior times. I don't have the words for it right now; I'm drained. More later. Katrina will go to today's paperwork meeting, and I'll watch Elaina when she wakes. She's having a good nap.

A moment of peace, part I

It's quiet -- Elaina fell asleep after crying for quite a while.

We joined the other anxious families in the lobby, piled onto the bus, and headed for the Civil Affairs Ministry. It's about a 45 minute drive, so we had time to look at Wuhan. It's very different than Beijing. First, we haven't seen any other Westerners here. Beijing had many. Second, there's much less construction. Third, it seems more orderly somehow -- not the riot of new and old, or of wildly different architectural styles.

We crossed the Yangtse over a bridge built in 1957, when, as our guide helpfully explained, China still had good relations with the USSR. The Sovs gave building advice and technical support. This did not exactly inspire confidence, given what I've heard of the quality of Sov public works projects, but we're hardly ones to throw the first stone on bridge maintenance this month, are we?

We reached the ministry and piled out, flash cameras clicking and videos whirring. Here's Katrina approaching the ministry:

We climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor of the modest institutional building and packed into a space that resembled a small classroom to wait. We could hear babies crying nearby. The cameras were at the ready:

A ministry official brought forms for us to sign -- not the final adoption forms, but a contract allowing us to take the babies home overnight to bond with them. Of course, the contracts were in Chinese. There were some good-natured calls for me to negotiate the contracts on behalf of the group. Maybe next time:

Up next, the moment of truth.


Hubei province has hundreds of lakes and rivers, some of which are now in our bathroom.

The bathroom has a marble floor and a fancy shower area: the shower area, separated from the rest of the bathroom by a glass door, has a tub and a shower that goes directly onto the floor. As it turns out, it's not engineered quite right -- the floor slopes away from the drain, and there's no rubber lip on the bottom of the glass door. So I heard Katrina finish her shower and say "uh oh!" I walked in and saw that water from the shower had flooded the bathroom and toilet area.

It's not entirely clear how much of this is our fault; I don't see how you could take more than a one minute shower without flooding the place. The front desk was very understanding. Just one of the little hiccups of a brand new hotel.

The Day

Here we are on the big day. We both woke at about five, unable to sleep. Breakfast, then off to the Civil Affairs ministry to meet the babies. Updates when we get back.

Sunday afternoon

So after checking in to our beautiful room, we went out for a tour of a local grocery and department store. The grocery was as well-stocked, shiny, and mercenary as any in the West, albeit with a slightly better variety of dried mushrooms and types of cooked sparrow. The department store was like any department store anywhere: overly air conditioned, too bright, overpriced, and so relentlessly happy that it makes me want to go home and listen to Kindertotenlieder in the dark until I can get my grump back on. It also resembles any department store in that it makes we want to leave immediately, through a reasonably low window if possible, but Katrina wants to wander around. We got out with minimal damage.

After a rest, we joined another couple for dinner at a local place that had been recommended. It had Western (sort of) food as well as Chinese. As per usual, the Chinese menu had all sorts of things mysteriously absent from the English menu, as if pizza were some Eastern secret that could not be revealed to the barbarians. I had a club sandwich, which despite the somewhat non-traditional fried egg in the middle was quite tasty. After dinner we had a concoction of ice cream, Oreo cookies, corn flakes, and whipped cream. It's better than it sounds.

The highlight of the day was the walk back to the hotel. There's a wide plaza along the artificial lake behind the hotel. It's all quite new -- our guide said that this part of Wuhan, now lined with tall buildings, was a village just 12 years ago. The plaza is a gathering place for the locals in the evening to dance and play. There were at least three different dancing groups near sets of loudspeakers -- line dancers, a group of little girls, and an older group. Rollerskaters whirled in a wide circle, grandparents looking on from the sidelines. Children laughed and screamed as they rode recklessly about in big-wheel type contraptions, including one large flying-saucer thing that played music and shot out bubbles. You had to watch your step; I saw one little shaved-head kid in a minaturized dune buggy take out the Achilles tendon of a grandma. She shouted something after the kid. Probably not "bless you."

People talked, and wandered, and ate, and played. It was like a street fair, except it happens every night. Even now, as I type this, the music drifts up to our floor, and the lights flicker off the tinted windows.

Things I've noticed, or had pointed out to me, about China

1. Infants and toddlers in split pants for easy toileting. A picture of such a child is below. Apparently parents put them on buckets or other handy commodes and make a noise in their ear (which sounds remarkably like the sound that my great-grandfather used to make to summon his dachshund). It was suggested to us not to test this sound on our babies, lest we produce the conditioned response. Americans would freak for a number of reasons; here it's seen as practical and child-focused.

2. You'd really have to search to find litter.

3. No graffiti.

4. Very pleasant herbal touches in urban spaces -- a lot of somebodies spent a lot of time making the median strips and roadsides look very nicely cultivated, and planting trees in neat lines everywhere they could.

5. Millions of bicycles, very few locks.

6. Toys for public use left in public places, and left there in good condition.

Then, for contrast with these communitarian values, a every-man-for-himself approach to driving that would make Ayn Rand wet herself.

I'm far to cynical about government to think this is all the product of communism or statism. I suspect it's more of a cultural difference that precedes the political system now in power. Our guide and a greeter at the home we visited suggested that the society becomes more selfish as living conditions improve. But I suspect it's not so much capitalistic values destroying mutual concern as it is unchecked growth overwhelming community and familiarity. It's easier to litter if you don't know anyone on the stree.

Cosi fan tutte

So we're in the orientation meeting and Les, the Holt official, is talking. He's a British expat and an old hand at the whole process. He's describing the long and difficult series of paperwork-intensive meetings that await us in the next two weeks.

"This next meeting is very important, and the paperwork is crucial, so you should send someone responsible -- probably a mum," he says.

There are howls of outrage from the women present who heard that as "probably a MAN."

Once they realized he said "a mum," they were molified, seeing nothing wrong with the generalization.

Out-Of-Order Blogging

I never finished up describing yesterday, Saturday. After the orientation meeting, we had an excellent Chinese meal (in Taiwanese style, I believe) at a hotel restaurant. Then we piled on the bus for afternoon trips. First was Tiananmen Square. Let me say this: it's vast. Mao's mausoleum was on one side, a gate of somethingIcan'trecallnow opposite, the legislative building on the third side, and a museum that has never ended on the fourth side. The museum had a gigantic digital countdown to the Olympic opening ceremonies on one side, like the world's longest and least eventful episode of 24, in which Jack Bauer buys T-shirts.

The square was, as I said, vast. I'm terrible at distances, and too lazy to look it up, but it looked about five football fields long per side to me. It was teeming with crowds - mostly Chinese, as it's one of their most popular tourist attractions. Our guide warned us to stay away from demonstrations, and not to film anyone getting arrested or, like tear gassed or rubber bulleted or anything, but the occasion never arose. I was convinced not to pretend to be a tank and run down Katrina, which was my first impulse.

In addition to being vast, it was hot. The sun beat down without shade as far as the eye could see, and the stone pavers seemed to reflect the heat and glare back up, so you roasted from both sides. The humidity remained oppressive (though a Florida member of our group took it in stride) and there was not a breath of wind.

Our guide pointed out the heroic-image statues near the Mao mausoleum, portraying the four achetypes of modern Chinese society: the soldier (with a gun), the farmer (with a scythe or wheat), the worker (with a hammer), and the intellection (with glasses). If it comes to a fight, I think the intellectual is going to get his ass kicked, but what else is new?

Next we went to the Temple of Heaven, an extremely impressive 15th-century temple complex where the Emporer used to pray for good harvests. It's been repaired and replaced over the years -- including after a late 19th-century fire -- but the builders gave considerable respect to historical accuracy. Both the temple and the surrounding outbuildings are vividly painted, with blue and gold particularly standing out.

We returned to the hotel, packed, and went downstairs for a drink in the bar and dinner in the same Chinese restaurant. A good time was had by all -- we joined two other couples for dinner -- but the wine flowed freely and we fell asleep quite early when we got back to our room.

Hello from Wuhan!

The trip from Beijing to Wuhan was pretty easy. We had steeled ourselves for oppressive heat, but despite its reputation as one of the four furnaces of China, Wuhan isn't noticeably worse than Beijing so far. That may change in a few minutes when our guide takes us out to a local grocery and department store so that we can provision for the big day tomorrow.

We're staying in a brand-new hotel -- it's only been open a couple of months. The Wuhan Jin Jiang International Hotel is spectacular, and looks like a great place to spent the next five days. The rooms and common areas are beautiful -- on a part with a Ritz or Four Seasons -- but the price is actually quite reasonable, probably about half of what a comparable room would cost in America. Right now we're enjoying a nice view of a small lake and another hotel complex across the lake, three tall towers connected by bridges. We're also appreciating the sight of a crib in the room, which will be occupied tomorrow.

More later.