My 4-year-old flailed on the floor of the pet store, screaming that he wanted a toy. I ignored his wailing and bought shells for his new pet, Squirty.
At some point, Squirty, a hermit crab, will outgrow his shells and decide it’s time to move into a new one. My son could care less about Squirty at this moment. Somewhere in the store, he had spotted a superhero toy. I’m not sure what it was. I suspect it was actually a dog toy.
“We are here to buy something for Squirty, not you today. I can’t buy you a toy every time we set foot into a store,” I said, knowing my explanation might not get through during the height of my son’s angst.
Still, maybe the message would sink in later. Simon continued wailing as I scooped him up, carried him to the car, and buckled him into his car seat. “I want a superhero toy,” he said, tears streaming from his eyes. His face was bright red.
I had grand ideas when we stopped at the pet store on our way home from a weekend in Vermont. This would part of learning how to be a pet owner, a lesson about being responsible for something other than himself. OK, his pet is the ultimate in low maintenance. Squirty lives in a two-inch long shell and lives on miniscule amounts of water and this food we bought called Hermit Crab Food Pellets. Squirty does not require walking or grooming. In fact, he prefers if we leave him alone. But since he is not living near his food supply, Squirty needs us to survive.
We had 90 minutes left of the car trip. Simon spent most of the next 30 minutes fussing that he still wanted a toy. Lately, anywhere we have gone, Simon has expected me to buy him something. Too often, in recent weeks, I have relented. On a trip to the Museum of Science in Boston, he ran into the gift store and pointed at a large ladybug he wanted – for $6. I led him to a section with smaller, cheaper toys. He chose a $1.99 ladybug. At a children’s musical, he got a $10 flashlight toy. At the Fourth of July fireworks, I bought him a light-up star wand. I flushed red a few days later when a friend raised her eyebrows at seeing Simon with the toy. She had seen me buy him the first one the previous week.
My husband started to hem and haw about the expectations I was setting. I was becoming chagrined at my lack of willpower. Since Simon was 2, my husband and I have tried to downplay materialism and play up the importance of helping others, even while knowing that the concept of charity is hard for a young child.
For Hanukkah a few years ago, we bought him his first tzedakah box to collect coins for charity. I also got him a book about a young boy who regularly collected change to help others. This past Hanukkah, we counted the money Simon collected and went to a grocery store and bought canned goods. As a family, we delivered two bags of food to a local pantry. Since then, I have nudged Simon to add money to his tzedakah box. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t because he prefers to put it in his own piggy bank.
At the pet store, I set the expectations clearly before we walked in, telling him we were there to buy necessities for Squirty.
In the car, as we left the pet store, Simon was persistent. He stopped fussing and tried the polite approach. “Please, can I have a super hero toy? Please, please, Mom,” he said.
I thought of a compromise. “Well, maybe we can count up the money in your piggy bank and see if you have enough for a toy,” I said.
This morning, after breakfast, Simon surprised me by raising the subject again. “Can we count up my money and go to a toy store today?” he asked.
Today is one of the three days he goes to his day-care. “We can count it, but we’ll have to go after school,” I said.
I taught him to sort his money into piles of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. He tired after sorting half of it. We counted what he had sorted.
“$8.55,” I said. “That’s more than enough to get something. Should we give some of the rest to people who cannot afford to buy toys or food?”
He nodded and went downstairs and got his tzedakah box. Sitting on his bed again, he put several handfuls of change in it.
“Mom, where does money come from?” he asked.
“Well, it doesn’t grow on trees. Where do you think it comes from?”
“The bank,” he said.
“Not exactly. People have to work to get money. That’s why Mommy and Daddy work. That’s how we can buy you food and toys,” I said.
“Mom, if we didn’t have any money would other people use their money to give us food?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“Mom, when can we go to buy more food for people who don’t have it?” he asked.
“Soon,” I said. “First, we have to count up the money in your tzedakah box, then go to the store to buy the food for them.”
He returned the tzedakah box downstairs and put his piggy bank on his dresser. Then, he stood on his stool and peered at Squirty, who huddled in a corner of the aquarium.
“I want him to move into one of his new shells,” Simon said.
“He will,” I said, “when he is ready.”
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Linda Wertheimer blogs at Jewish Muse.
Summer, which had been lurking in the intense humidity and the hazy skies, pounced with a vengeance today, bringing out yet another surprise from its meteorological bag of tricks – the monsoon backlash.
The day started well enough – Simon came to the hotel and whisked us off to the Guangzhou Zoo. He took us for a short ride on the city’s subway. On the descent into the cavernous station, we saw advertisements for pricey men’s cologne and haute couture.
Once on the car, we grabbed the overhead straps. Madeleine Bao Yi, too short to reach up, rejected the parental handholding alternative, spotted a tiny space on a nearby bench and made a beeline for it. She wedged herself in next to a young couple and chatted with the woman. We’re not sure if this is tomboy boldness or plain old practicality, but it is what we have come to understand – in five days – as Bao Yi’s way.
We entered the zoo at the south gate and immediately ran the gauntlet of souvenir vendors. Men selling skinny balloons twisted into animal shapes targeted us and approached with verve. Given that Bao Yi loves her balloons, we knew we were in for rough seas ahead.
The 2-yuan toy (approximately 35 cents) was the match that ultimately lit the fuse of a minor meltdown. We eluded the balloon men, only to be snared seconds later by an older woman who placed a cheap bubble gun in Bao Yi’s hands. I grabbed it and gave it back, saying, “No thank you.”
Bao Yi’s expression plummeted from shocked disappointment to outrage. On came the waterworks. We knew this was our first opportunity to set some limits with our new daughter.
Things had begun to taper off in the boo-hoo department when we found our next Waterloo – a small amusement park within the zoo called Happy World. Bao Yi saw the small train ride that went through a giant molded polymer alligator and wanted that above all else. We had just begun our zoo walk so Laurent decided that there would be other novelties to come and shook his head “no.”
This time, we got wailing – and plenty of it. Add to that the unsolicited parenting tips from a vexed older sister, and the trip to the zoo was suddenly a downer.
Then the rains came.
Within 30 seconds, the steady rain had escalated to a driving downpour. The locals moved quickly for cover, and we followed suit. Our safe harbor from the lashing rain was a small cement-block building with open lattice sides, and for the next 90 minutes or so, we shared it with 75 other people.
A stick-thin young man leaned against the wall to eat a snack kiosk carton of steamed noodles with chopsticks. A young mother rocked back and forth while her toddler drowsed in a body sling. Lightning streaked across the sky. Children moved about, snacking on wafer cookies. An older woman with very few teeth chattered to her husband, who stared blankly at the rain. A grandmother jostled a smiling infant who was wearing the newborn uniform of choice in China: the onesie with the open bottom. Thunder boomed overhead. And somewhere in the throng, a child honked incessantly on a cheap plastic trumpet his parents had bought him.
Bao Yi’s mood brightened unexpectedly as the rains came down. She amused herself for quite some time by dancing on the patio with her umbrella, evoking the best of Gene Kelly. After a while, she found that getting wet was also a lot of fun. By the time the storm had passed, she was damp and laughing again.
The zoo was a losing battle, so we wended our way to the exit. We zoomed past the elephant area, and I did get a glimpse of the fur of a lioness, but that was about it.
Near the hotel, we went to lunch at a typical Chinese fast-food noodle shop and watched the rain from our booth. Bao Yi whimpered that she did not like sitting in a wet skirt. Laurent tried to flap the fabric and give the impression that he was air drying it, but she wasn’t buying that.
I’ve got to hand it to Laurent. In many ways, he is the more motherly of us in the first days and weeks of bonding. It was the same way when we first got Grace. I guess he is more fearless, and willing to take language risks that I wouldn’t take.
Tomorrow Bao Yi will go through a routine medical check-up before we explore New Town Guangzhou.
You might think that Jean Paul Dhelo would have been the sort of person most angry with Thomas Lubanga, the warlord sentenced today by the International Criminal court to 14 years in prison for using children to fight in a brutal conflict that terrorized the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2007, not long after Lubango had been sent to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes, Dhelo ran a rehabilitation center for child soldiers for just outside the dusty, grim town of Bunia. He had seen it all: boys as young as nine and 10 who had killed; young girls who had been forced to work as sex slaves for commanders; children of both genders who were shell-shocked, traumatized, and violent.
But when I spoke to Dhelo about Lubango that year, on a reporting trip for the Monitor, he expressed ambivalence.
“We welcomed children from all those groups,” he said. “And in each group there was a leader.”
He said he didn’t understand why Lubanga was the target. And he didn’t really know what good would come of prosecuting him.
Human rights activists today are hailing the International Criminal Court’s sentencing of Lubanga. The move, they say, is a victory for children’s rights, and it sends the message to other military leaders that recruiting children to fight will turn them into international pariahs.
Indeed, this is a message of growing importance. Despite a nearly two decades of increased attention by the UN and advocacy groups, many analysts say that the role of children in conflict – both as fighters and victims – is on the rise. Think Syria. Or the Lord’s Resistance Army.
But upon reading the news about Lubanga today, I couldn’t help but think back on the conversations I had those years ago in Ituri province, where the people were so ambivalent, the needs of children so great, and everything masked behind the proceedings of the international court and the fate of one man. (Who, although it’s a complicated story, was of debatable importance in the grand scheme of the international conflict in eastern Congo.)
According to UNICEF, the children most likely to be forced to be soldiers come from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds. And in eastern Congo, you have more than your fair share of poverty.
When I spoke to women on the the other side of Bunia from the child soldier rehabilitation center – a part of town that was of another ethnicity, and therefore more inclined to dislike Lubanga in a conflict that was divided along ethnic lines – they told stories of the warlord coming into their village and demanding that all children 10 years and older join their army. Those families who resisted were attacked with machetes. But even Charlotte Ayogo, who clearly anti-Lubanga, wondered about the amount attention paid to this one person. While the international community was focused on Lubanga, she said, more children in her neighborhood were dying because they had no access to clean water.
Children living in extreme poverty are our problem. So are children forced to be in wars.
Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, longtime children’s advocate, and the former first lady of Mozambique (which saw its share of child soldiers during a decades-long conflict), wrote in the preface to the 2004 UN’s Child Solders Global Report that she didn’t know how to answer children who ask her when the world would actually act to protect them.
“.. the haunted eyes of child survivors ask all of us how we can live in a world where children can be brutalized and murdered as part of adult conflicts. I have no answer for these children. No reasonable or convincing explanation for why we have collectively failed to protect them from the atrocities of war. No justification for generations of broken promises.”
She continued: “It is heartening that the Security Council has condemned the use of child soldiers and outlined measures to end the practice. But this is not enough. Governments and armed groups must be held accountable for their actions, yet assisted to take concrete steps to get children out of conflict and back to their families.”
And then, read this part closely:
“This must include efforts by ‘the silent partners’ – those organizations, corporations and governments in Europe, North America and other parts of the world that provide military training and resources that assist waring parties in conflict zones. They must ask themselves how they can fulfill their personal, their human, and their State obligations to the care and protection of children while they continue to sell weapons and provide assistance to those shown to abuse children in their armed conflicts.”
This is us. Because these conflicts that seem very far away are often fueled, at least in part, by our addiction to natural resources. The poverty has more to do with global economics and our own choices than we would like to think. And the world-wide moral responsibility is huge.
The conflict in eastern Congo, for instance, is complicated and contested, involving a tinderbox of poverty, ethnic tensions, and valuable natural resources such as gold and coltan. But the role of international corporations, which have supported different sides in the conflicts to get better access to resources, has been well documented by rights groups. Other organizations have found bullets linked to the US, Russia, and other countries.
The international court’s decision today on Thomas Lubanga may well be celebrated. But more importantly, for parents everywhere, it should be a call to look globally and consider what we can do to fight some of the most crucial, desperate challenges to children across the world.
The answers are not easy, nor simple. But we must take responsibility to grapple with them.
As we were having breakfast in Maoming this morning, I kept a close eye on Grace, checking to see how she was gearing up for the day’s activity. Back in May, she, Laurent, and I discussed at length what it would mean to take this opportunity to return to her orphanage. Grace made the final decision, and we figured the trip into our itinerary.
She was unusually quiet and pensive at the table while Bao Yi was happily feasting on mini corn cobs steamed in milk, steamed dumplings, watermelon, and slices of ham.
The van ride to the orphanage was only 10 minutes, but it was a world away.
The van pulled into a small brick courtyard, which was surrounded by a six-story cement and steel building accented with pink tiles. Laundry was hanging over the iron railings and rust stains wept down the façade.
We were met by the vice director of the Maoming Social Welfare Institute, a very pleasant woman named Yin Lian Rong. She ushered us up to a conference room where we were able to ask questions, through translators, to our hearts’ content.
This particular orphanage – one of three in Maoming proper – is the one that takes in babies found abandoned within the city limits. A woman from the rural outskirts could potentially make it into the city and drop her baby at one of the commonly known “finding spots,” so there was no way to know if the baby was born in the city. We were able to see the original files and did learn that Grace had been found at the Zhan Qian gate in a certain city district.
Up to this point, we had not told Grace directly that she had been left outside in a box. She is a very sensitive girl, and the most we told her was that her Chinese mother turned her over so that she could be cared for and loved. Grace latched on to the word “abandoned” today and looked very startled. I handled it quickly, but as time goes on, she’ll put things together on her own and will make her peace with her past.
Adoption in China is changing, most notably with the lengthened wait for a healthy infant – now about 62 months from the time the dossier arrives in China and is logged in at the central office – and the move toward handling only special needs cases for international adoption. At this orphanage, which started in 1981, 60 percent of the children will be adopted, and 90 percent of them are special needs.
Because of the shift in the children’s profiles, the aunties are now each assigned to the care of only three babies whereas back in Grace’s day, an auntie could have the same 20 children in her charge for months on end. It was tough to see these children as their special needs were so pronounced. Seeing the aunties patiently interact with them and treat them with dignity was hard for me to see, but it was also necessary and rewarding.
We were on site for about 90 emotional minutes, and concluded the visit with some picture taking in the courtyard. Grace posed in a small grassy area, now surrounded by steel girders and unfinished construction, that used to be an open play yard back in her day. Through all the tour, both Grace and Bao Yi were attentive and unfazed, but it is something that they both may remember and reflect on in the years to come.
Bao Yi gave us all a big surprise en route when she took out a Hello Kitty drawing pad and started to copy the English alphabet from the front cover. She did this with confidence and pronounced the letters after a fashion.
We were floored.
Helen, our guide, said that children in some orphanages, especially in a place like Shenzhen City, are taught English as part of their coursework. If she knows her alphabet and numbers by September, we may send her to school and see how it goes. We got her to practice writing Massachusetts because she’ll need a running start for that.
When I was a kid, every summer had a book.
The summer I turned twelve was the summer of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Sixth grade was over; seventh grade loomed. Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo Radley remain inextricably bound in memory with our plaid sofa, popsicles, bare feet, and lazy hours in the world of a fictional Maycomb, Ala., childhood. The film version was wonderful — from it I retain an affection for cigar boxes as treasure troves. However, it is the cadence and color of the words on the page that more persistently color my imagination.
Which is to say that a series of summer books is an emblem of my childhood, and my idealized notion of what summer should be like.
Every summer had such a book. I remember the summers of classics like J.R.R.Tolkein, Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, George Orwell. Lest my reading habits seem too high falutin', I admit to interludes of Micky Spillane and Dick Francis, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. Am I dating myself?
Once my own children started doing summer reading, "Blueberries for Sal" and "Charlotte's Web" topped our summer book classics list. We even picked blueberries in McCloskey country, storing up food for the winter like Little Sal and Little Bear; collecting new thoughts, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk,” like the rhythm of Sal’s blueberries hitting the bottom of her tin pail.
During my years as an English teacher, I championed the notion that summer reading is akin to storing up intellectual food for the winter, not merely knocking off a book for teacher, scribbling the obligatory book reports the night before school started up again.
A summer book is an exercise in stocking mental pantries with new, big ideas and fresh imagery that we have acquired by practicing word-based imagining. When we read, our imaginative lives intersect with great minds of any culture and myriad ages, if we have the authentic language of the great writer. Today, we tend to be more image-based in our imaginings, like Pixar and Disney’s truncated, drive-thru, theme-toy versions of legends and stories. They can't come close to the open-ended possibilities that language delivers. Words are the original dream works. Am I dating myself?
Since the ubiquitous digital media require more of our visual than our verbal literacy, we might consider a response. These omnipresent messages of our age ask us to conform to someone else’s vision of time and place. Reading asks us to participate in the creation of character, place, and, to some extent, plot. We risk lapsing into passive acceptance of any point of view presented in a slick, tricky, colorful, fast-paced (read: violent) visual medium. Are we risking the loss of our own access to independent thought?
“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” says Wallace Stevens. Words connect us to the unseeable, unhearable, untouchable — the world of our own interiors. We find out what we think and who we are by grappling with words. I’m not grousing about the delivery system — I do a fair amount of reading on my Kindle, after all, and live for email.
Now that I’m an adult, I wish I had someone assigning me summer reading. I wish that I had the enforced languor of a plaid sofa, therapeutic boredom, and a few popsicles, to actually finish just one of the books stacked at my bedside; just one whole day to languish and read. It’s what summer should be like.
The media emblems of summer 2012 will be the latest Hollywood high-octane action oeuvres of Avengers and spies and aliens. But the words delivered on screen probably won’t be remembered for any great truths as much as for an advance on the sardonic punch lines of the age.
Therefore, I submit this blockbuster notion: support a mission to save civilization from the planet-killer asteroid of wasted imaginations. Read a book. I’m not grumbling about the Avengers' millions in box office lucre. For me, a summer book rationale comes down to what Eric Sevareid said: “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.”
It’s a feeling I wish on every kid, the gateway to their interiors and to the great adventure of imagining life beyond the known universe.
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA.
This has been a week for celebrity baby news. (OK, “news” is relative here, but work with me.)
Today we get word that Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick had their second child, daughter Penelope Scotland, this past Sunday, with the whole Kardashian clan present. Info still to come on whether the reality TV stars (is that what one calls the Kardashians?) will share footage of the birth, as they did with the arrival of son Mason two years ago.
This comes on the heels of a veritable celebrity pregnancy baby boom, with news from the likes of actors Claire Danes, Matthew McConaughey, and singer Adele announcing that little ones are on the way. And Reese Witherspoon, who in the past months has seemed a tad grumpy to have photographers zooming in on her midsection (I wonder why), confirmed that she was expecting baby number three.
All of this means ... I have no idea.
Seriously.why do people care so much about celebrity babies? But my, people do seem to care. The Internet is just buzzing with oohs and ahhs and “cutie pies.” Blog writers are gushing, old line news organizations are putting up slide shows, the Tweeters are Tweeting like it’s a beloved college roommate who just dropped the news of expectant procreation.
In a curmudgeonly mood, it would be easy to be grumpy about the whole thing.
But it’s a beautiful morning. The heat has broken a bit here on the East Coast. (At least where I am.) And I’m thinking, maybe there’s actually something really sweet about the baby gushing.
See, in our weirdly celebrity-fueled culture it’s easy to get negatively voyeuristic. We follow the disasters and the breakups and the leaked sex tapes; the meltdowns and the rehabs and the wardrobe malfunctions. Celebrities take up a weird space in the social psyche where they seem sort of like people but get a lot less empathy. We follow and gossip but don’t necessarily care about them.
Then the babies come along.
And even toward this sort of fuzzy not-quite-real celebrity world, people feel mushy.
It’s sort of society at its best, the way that perfect strangers open doors for you and congratulate you when you walk around with an infant; the way the grocery store cashier plays with your daughter’s toes; the way the gas station attendant makes funny faces to try to get your baby to giggle.
Babies bring us together. Celebrity or no. Maybe that's what this rush of celebrity baby love is really about.
So bring on the newest Kardashian.
No, I can’t believe I’m writing this, either.
Before having breakfast, there was a minor fracas between Bao Yi and Grace over the placement of tiny rubber bands in Bao Yi’s signature high-arching pigtails. Big Sister was not getting it right at all – the little hair elastics are supremely important. Bao Yi kept barking out instructions to Grace, who in turn came to us and said, “I don’t understand exactly what she is saying, but I do think she is asking the impossible.”
Laurent took the girls swimming after breakfast. Just the mention of swimming, “yo-yong,” makes Bao Yi crazy. She grunts happily and dances all over the place. I packed for the road trip and stowed away those things that we would leave behind at the concierge until we return tomorrow.
Our afternoon appointment at the police station was a final check that all the information regarding our family documents was correct. Laurent and I had our photo taken with Bao Yi and it was affixed to a document that we will show upon entering the United States. The photo we have with Grace, circa 2003, shows two happy parents and one sobbing baby with antenna pigtails. Today’s photo was of two poached parents – extreme humidity today – and one jolly, smiling little girl.
Once that was done, we got into the van with our guide, a lovely woman in her late 50s named Helen, originally from Shanghai, whose English is excellent. The driver pulled into rush hour traffic and we embarked on a five-hour trip west from Guangzhou on a Maoming-or-bust road trip. The purpose was a visit to Grace’s home city with a meeting at the orphanage where she spent a year and a half.
Outside the the mess of the industrial outskirts of Guangzhou, the land was mostly ponds for raising a variety of fish and fields given over to rice paddies. Everything was neat and tidy in contrast to the mess of the city. We noticed banana tress growing along the edges of the fields, and a few houses here and there, but no real population center.
As dark came, we could see mountains in the distance, and then, the sky lit up with fierce lightning all around. Boom, went the thunder. Giggle, giggle, went Bao Yi in the back seat. I got out her small stuffed kitten for comfort but she didn’t need it. This is all one big adventure to her. Little does she know she has signed on with The Belsie Flying Circus.
The entrance into Maoming was shaggy: the daily market had closed and piles of trash were mounded up along the curb for the following morning’s pickup; citizens in rain-drenched nylon capes whizzed by on Vespa motor scooters along with three-wheeled motorized jitneys with passengers huddled in the back seating area.
As we approached Maoming from the highway, I saw the relative isolation of this place and began to think about Grace’s life had she stayed here. Perhaps there would have been opportunities, but more than likely, not. Then, seeing women on the sidewalk or crossing the street made me think: What if Grace’s Chinese mother had any idea that her precious daughter was right here for only one day? Would she recognize her? What would she think if she knew she had a chance to see how she had turned out? Would she even care?
La Palazzo Hotel is another five-star place, much to both the girls’ liking. It was late when we arrived, so we ventured out and had a reasonably good dinner across the busy main drag. In menu roulette, you win some and you lose some. The whole meal was under $20, so for that we were grateful.
Bao Yi, ever particular about what she wears, was incredulous that we had only one sleeping clothes choice for her in the small suitcase we brought for all four of us.
“Yifu, yifu?” (clothes, clothes) she kept asking.
Give it a rest, s’il vous plait.
Tomorrow we head over to the Maoming Social Welfare Institute to see where Grace came from. We will meet with the orphanage director and get a tour. It could be an emotional day, and I wonder how Grace will feel when she sees with her own eyes the place she used to call home. We also hope that Bao Yi will not freak out and think she is being taken there, though having Helen with us for communicating should be a great help.
Today we made it official: Bao Yi legally became our daughter after a second brief interview this morning back at the Civil Adoption Bureau of Guangdong Province.
We returned to the same large room with the red couches and graphic pillows, but this time, the children, for the most part, seemed settled already into their new families. There was a slight whimper here and there, but it was nothing compared to yesterday’s cacophony.
We came with gift bags in hand. Our first stop was at the room with the photographer. We had our picture taken with Bao Yi for legal records. Next we proceeded to an interview room where a nice woman asked us questions like, “Are you happy with this child?” and “Do you guarantee to keep her?”
The questions seemed cold and bureaucratic, given what we had gone through to make this decision and get to this point.
Bao Yi exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman, handed over the gift bag, and went on the second interview. A young functionary settled down with authority and asked us more questions: “How long have you been married?” “Why did you choose to adopt?”
It is hard to formulate an answer for that last one. How do you put into words a kind of calling of the heart? For us, this was the way that we chose to have a family.
I have thought a lot about the innocence and trust that these adopted Chinese children show. Imagine what it must feel like to be 7 years old and leave your home (even if it is an institution), and leave with people you have only ever seen in a small photo album that arrived in the mail a month before. You just trust and move forward, hoping that the people will be good to you – and we will be, just like we told that young man at the civil bureau.
I’ve noticed in Bao Yi this thing that I can only describe as “self-containment.” It is more than self-sufficiency; at times it can take on the sense of functioning in your own world or keeping going despite others around you. I wonder if this is how children cope with being on their own emotionally. She certainly received excellent care where she was, but it is not the same as having a nuclear family surrounding her.
We have held back from kissing her right away as that seemed too much, too fast, after the first afternoon of knowing her. But tonight when this little face peered out from the puffy duvet and there were unshed tears in her eyes, I just had to kiss her cheek and squeeze her hand. Day by day, she’ll understand more of who we are and why we love her so.
Bao Yi certainly knows what she likes. At the breakfast bar this morning, she and Laurent ventured over to the beverage area and were looking at the pitchers of fruit juice. She scanned the options and immediately pointed to the soy milk. (Cue in menacing chords on the organ.) She downed the glass at the table and I realized with some trepidation that when we get home, I’m going to have to pony up and start buying that stuff. I didn’t get close enough to smell it, but the look of it – sort of a dull taupe color – reminded me of the runny sauce that is left over after a papier-mâché project.
This afternoon, Laurent took the girls down to the hotel pool while I dozed in the room. The humidity was intense today and I felt drugged after the morning’s trip to the adoption bureau. Both Grace and Bao Yi were having such fun in the pool. Any excuse to wear that dotted swimsuit is a cause for celebration.
Our dinner tonight was at “The Italian Restaurant” down the street. Bao Yi’s table manners with knife and fork are improving thanks to Laurent’s patient instruction. We made sure she got plenty of meat.
The high note of the day was verifying the English translation of Bao Yi’s name. She was able to write out the characters for us yesterday, and we consulted the Chinese dictionary last night to see if we could decode it ourselves. Laurent checked with Simon this morning and confirmed that Madeleine is indeed our “joyful treasure.”
Tomorrow, after another check of our documents, we are taking a road trip to Maoming (cue the Doobie Brothers soundtrack) to visit Grace’s home city and the orphanage where she lived for a year and a half.
Sleep didn’t come easily for me last night. I could not find a good sense of calm either because of anticipation or fatigue. But I watched the dark cityscape for quite a while. Thank goodness for the camaraderie of e-mail at 2 a.m. I felt connected to friends far and wide in the wee hours of the Guangzhou night.
Grace was up early (5:30 a.m.) in anticipation of Madeleine’s arrival. She re-arranged things in the sitting area where she sleeps, and told me, “I’m going to clean up the nursery a little bit.”
We met Simon in the hotel lobby for the van ride to the agency. We carried presents for the “auntie” who accompanied Bao Yi from Shenzhen City and another present for one of the functionaries handling the paperwork. As we waited anxiously, spontaneous friendships blossomed with Americans working with other agencies. The camaraderie between strangers carrying gift bags is instant.
The large waiting room at the Civil Adoption Bureau of Guangdong Province was lined around the edges with bright red couches and graphic black and white throw pillows. We could hear some squawking behind a colorful curtain near the hallway and knew right away that some of the children had already arrived. That’s when my “nerve antennae” really went up. Aunties were arriving with groups of children, some already sobbing uncontrollably.
Laurent saw a smallish girl and thought that it was Bao Yi, but she had a different face than the one in the pictures we had been carrying around with us everywhere for two months.
And then, I caught a glimpse of Madeleine. It was definitely her – I could feel it sort of pulse through me like a zap. There she was, happy and smiling. I knew her from her eyes.
She wore white sandals with rhinestone clasps and a dress that was black and white striped on the top and polka dotted on the bottom. She wore her hair in short antenna-style pigtails. The auntie told us that Madeleine was nervous, but she showed absolutely no sign of it: She greeted us saying, “Ni hao, ba ba, ni hao, ma ma,” settled in next to Laurent, and proceeded to unpack a small gift bag of snacks for herself and her new family.
She and Grace hit it off instantly, thanks to Grace’s long hair. Madeleine started right in on styling it, plucking tiny scrunchies from her bag of possessions.
The auntie brought a stack of papers with Chinese notations about Bao Yi’s work at school and aspects of her daily schedule. We were so grateful that photos of her at younger ages were attached so we could get a peek at her earlier childhood. We were also told that she is a happy child, quite outgoing, and she loves meat.
We are quite relieved that Bao Yi speaks Mandarin, so we will be able to communicate with her after a fashion. She bonded immediately with Laurent, and has understood the things I have said to her in Chinese and answered accordingly.
What has been so heart-warming is how Grace has taken it all in stride. We talked about the impending change last night while eating take-out in the hotel room. She said she was a little scared. To see them holding hands while walking down the street is amazing and so natural. Grace came to me this afternoon and whispered happily, “This is so great, Mama!”
When we got back to the room, we let Madeleine blow up some balloons. She was captivated by them. Next thing I knew, she had found one of the swimsuits we brought for her and tried it on. It was a one piece and she did not like it, so off it came. Then we brought out the two-piece with shiny polka dots. She was transfixed.
We had a deuce of a time getting her to take the suit off so we could go out to dinner and celebrate. In the end, we let her wear the top part under her dress. She has clear fashion choices, to be sure.
We had dinner at a local Cantonese family restaurant, which was buzzing with families eating from communal plates piled high with specialties. Madeleine ate with gusto, holding the little bowl right up to her mouth and going at it with the chopsticks. We assume this is orphanage-style eating, so we’ll slowly work to correct her table manners.
When the meal was over, she began to stack the dirty dishes and get everything ready for clearing – another orphanage behavior, we assumed.
When I looked through the two bags she had brought with her, one was partially filled with snacks. The other had one pair of underwear, a T-shirt and a pair of pants. The only personal effects she had were the photo album and toy rabbit we sent her – nothing else of her own.
As I write this, she and Grace are fast asleep in the same bed. Starting the first night, Madeleine Bao Yi already has what she most needs: a big sister who will love her and look out for her for the rest of her life.
Tomorrow the adoption will be official, but we’re on the right road.
It’s not like I had forgotten that or that it had become old hat to think about. It’s just that the reality set in so sharply that I began to laugh hysterically and uncontrollably. Laurent and Grace were sitting across the aisle from me, and looked on with some surprise – though Laurent knows me well enough by now to sense what this could have been. Luckily, I was sitting alone in a big row, so my cackling bothered no one.
When I was finally able to speak, I gasped out something to the effect that our 777 plane was really like a big stork. Laurent smiled and shook his head. Grace stared, and then went back to her Twistables colored pencils and drawing pad.
Simon, our Children’s Hope guide and facilitator, met us at the airport. His English is extremely good, and he evoked a casual and crumpled Ralph Lauren image in his pink and navy plaid madras Bermuda shorts and Tommy Hilfiger shirt. The two-tone crocs, not so much.
Simon has worked for Children’s Hope and other US adoption agencies for nearly fifteen years, though he does not look old enough to be able to say that.
Guangzhou is the real commercial and business center of China while Beijing, as capital, handles the politics. The city tried to reinvent itself about five years ago when it won the bid to be the host for the Asian Olympics. The efforts included planting thousands of trees to green up the place, plus building numerous light commercial sites outside the metro area so that factories could be relocated.
“We are much more practical here than in Beijing,” Simon told us.
For years, the White Swan Hotel had been the designated stopover place for adopting families in China. Since everyone comes here to finalize papers with the American consulate, the White Swan has a very steady flow of patrons. We stayed there in 2003 when we came for Grace and thought that it was the ritziest thing we had ever seen. At 35, the hotel was beginning to show its age and has been closed for major renovations.
But, there’s no boo-hooing to be had in our new digs, the Garden Hotel. The opulence is astounding. The lobby is huge and filled with gigantic floral arrangements. There are bellboys with maroon jackets and gold braid. There is a mural behind the front check-in desk that is an enormous rendering of Chinese cultural images in black and gold. Our room has a sitting suite with couch, businessman’s Lucite desk, and high tech halogen lamp. The black wardrobe has Chinese lotus blossoms painted on the doors.
Grace, ever the collector of sample shampoos and lotions, was agog with the choices in the elegant bathroom. Somehow the prized shower cap from the Radisson now seems banal.
After settling in, we met with Simon for a review of the next few days. Tomorrow we will go to the Civil Adoption Center to meet Madeleine Isabel Bao Yi Belsie.
It will take about an hour to complete all the paperwork, and then … well, we hope for the best in terms of a smooth transition.
I asked Simon if he knew whether Madeleine would come with anything, as in a small suitcase of personal items or a beloved toy. Does she have anything that belongs only to her? He was not sure, but said that he could imagine her having a small plastic bag of clothing.
Laurent and Grace went out to get some supper. They came back with take-out, and a report that there was a man on the street selling puppies from a homemade cart. It’s a good thing I stayed behind, given my current emotional state.
I got a good nap this afternoon in case I cannot sleep tonight.