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.
As fans gird themselves for the cataclysmic marital revelations expected to emerge at any moment from the impending divorce of actors Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, I can only think about the spiritual insanity awaiting little Suri.
Suri, 6, is just one year younger than I was when my parents divorced and decided to leave the choice of my religion to me. We were in process of moving out of New York City to New Jersey. In my case, a religious riff was also in the mix. I became the spiritual football as my parents beat each other up both physically and emotionally.
My maiden name is Goldenthal. My father, God rest him, was Jewish, my mother a Roman Catholic. I celebrated Passover and Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah. My mother gave me a little gold cross and my father bellowed, “If Jesus died today, would you all wear little gold electric chairs around your necks?”
It was the 1970s, a crazy time in the church when nuns were suddenly spotted on beaches in bathing suits or singing with a guitar. My mother, partially excommunicated when she married a Jewish man was being reinstated as the divorce took place. The loophole was that the marriage was then considered never to have taken place in the eyes of the church. I was told by my local priest that I was “illegitimate in the eyes of the church.”
I didn’t understand the term "illegitimate," or much else happening at the time, so I decided to look it up in the dictionary: “not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules: ‘an illegitimate exercise of power by the military;' (of a child) born of parents not lawfully married to each other."
I wasn’t a military exercise and I’d seen the wedding pictures, so I mentally morphed the definition, applying it to my immortal future as “spiritually illegitimate.” Within a week of that event, at age 7, I was told to choose between the two religions as divorce talk in our home got louder.
It was Mission Impossible – asking a child so young to make that choice.
In the Catholic religion I was rapidly approaching the rite of passage known as First Holy Communion. To this day I can’t sort out if my parents actually meant well for what ensued, or if they had made the conscious choice to use me against each other. Now, at age 47, I don’t know, don’t care.
In my case humor has always been my best defense, so we come to the story of what happened the day my father spiritually weaponized me by taking me to visit the Hillel Yeshiva School and St. Mary’s Catholic School, both in New Jersey.
“I told your mother you get to make your own choice about which religion you want to be,” he explained as we drove his old metallic brown Plymouth, first to the Jewish school to see the rabbi. On the way he told me about Solomon and the good parent who chose the child's welfare over her own. He was clearly on the role of "good parent" here and it was pretty clear I was expected to be Jewish at the end of the afternoon. No pressure. (Before we left the house mom reminded me of how many presents I got last Christmas. Again, no pressure. Hanukkah meant eight pairs of socks and Christmas was Barbies.)
I was 7 years old and a New Yorker with a massive vocabulary and attitude, yet I was terrified. When the rabbi asked if I had any questions about his religion, I squared my chubby little shoulders, shook my curly brown hair out of my chubby face and asked, “How do I get into Heaven?”
The kindly gentleman gave a little shrug and broke the unfortunate news, “Well, you don’t.”
I don’t? I don’t. Was I wearing a sign that said I was spiritually illegitimate? Had word made it in from the Arch Diocese of Trenton that fast?
“Only a child born of a Jewish mother can go to what you think of as Heaven,” explained the rabbi.
I remember holding back tears that might have come from humiliation, disappointment or rage. I shot back furiously, “Well Jesus was born to a Jewish mother! And they (Catholics) let you be bad your whole life and if you say sorry at the end you’re in! Everybody is in. Not that I’m gonna be bad. Just saying.”
Then (with my face burning red with shame) I was led to a small room and given a test of my academic prowess, which I failed in the true spirit of Santa Claus in the film "Miracle on 34th Street." I made sure to spell even my own name wrong.
In the totally silent Plymouth on the way to St. Mary’s my father asked, “Why? Why on God’s earth would you purposely fail such a basic test? You made me look like an idiot!” At the next light he back-hand slapped me across the face. It couldn’t be seen on top of the red already there.
At St. Mary’s I passed the tests. I began classes there that fall – a Goldenthal in a sea of O’Kids. I spent more time arguing religion than learning academics. Every time I came home crying, or was sent home for arguing with a nun over whether or not we should associate with “Jews,” my father reminded me, “That’s what happens when you make the wrong choices in life.”
He was right, but the choice was never mine to make. It wasn’t kind and it wasn’t right. They did make me into a weapon – one set on spiritual self-destruct. I could never fully believe in any religion, having been backstage at two productions my entire life.
I look at the Holmes-Cruise divorce and all I see is a brewing religious war and one tiny casualty.
We just couldn’t let this bikini onesie news item go by without commenting: Parents of Southaven, Miss., were outraged this week, according to news reports, to find a baby onesie printed with a woman’s curvy midsection covered by a skimpy red polka doted bikini for sale at their Gordman’s department store.
Inappropriate, many parents said. Disgusting, others agreed. Why would you want someone to look at your 18-month-old daughter and think sex object?
Of course others wondered, “What’s the big deal? It’s a cheeky onesie.” (There will be no universal opinion about these matters in parent land, I can assure you that.)
The clothing item in question is part of the Wild Child brand of the Bon Bébé clothing line, which also includes onesies with sayings like “What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s” and “No dating allowed.”
This, you know if you have children or have ever looked for a baby present, is part of the wide and perilous genre of the “funny onesie,” a mind-boggling array of (often expensive) cotton bodysuits labeled with clever sayings, jokes, references and other innuendos.
(And a tip for the baby gift buyers here: You can go really, really wrong with these sorts of onesies. One person’s funny is another’s inappropriate. And a lot of people don’t have a great sense of humor when it comes to slapping labels on their kids. So that “Daddy and I like boobies” shirt? Give it a pass.)
Now, there are some important issues surrounding the bikini onesie controversy of this week. Sexualization of children’s clothing is a problem, as witnessed by the regular incidents of “OMG, did I just see that?” in parent shopping land.
Think of the French company Jour Apres Lunes’s “loungerie” line for girls 3 months and up, complete with photo spread of little girls in heavy makeup. Or the padded bras for 7-year-old. Or the – I promise I am not making this up - crotchless panties for the elementary school set. (At least one store were these were sold, called Kids N Teen, removed the undergarments after parents complained. Um, yeah.)
The fact that these items even exist – and, according to retailers, often sell well – is a sign of how unmoored we’ve become about kids and sexuality, and what “sexy” means to children. (In large part, it means more purchasing. "Sexy," advertisers have learned, sells well – even to tots too young to understand its adult meaning.)
But also at issue with the bikini onesie is something a bit more mundane, but also important.
What a lot of parents find distasteful about the bikini onesie – and a number of the other “funny” ones out there – is that you’re basically using your kid as the butt of a joke. They don’t know what they’re wearing, or why people are laughing at them. They’re a prop. And to a lot of parents, that just doesn’t seem so kind.
Especially when it involves a bikini.
Part 2 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.
The day of sightseeing in the relentless heat was grueling, so dinner (we caved for Pizza Hut) was, in part, a celebration of survival.
Enjoying “home” cooking while abroad, even if from a franchise, can have moderate restorative powers. I’m not sure the pepperoni pan pizza was “all that,” but almost an entire pitcher of 7-Up brought me back from the edge.
Reviewing the menu, we realized this was not a normal Pizza Hut. Side tab indexes led us to a wide variety of not-even-close-to-pizza selections: boneless Bavarian-style pork knuckle, escargots, and New Orleans chicken and gristle. According to the picture, I think “gristle” translates unhappily as “bacon.”
Grace tucked into her pepperoni pizza with zest. Now she is face down in bed, snoring. And yes, Laurent is sitting upright at the pillow, also snoring.
Today’s plan was to visit the Great Wall in the morning and hit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square after lunch. Fifteen minutes into the journey, our microbus encountered a traffic jam on one of the city’s famous Ring Roads where cars came to a standstill. The exit ramp was choked, so people got out of their vehicles to look around for other options.
Between our driver and guide, Tim, the two came up with an alternate route to the Wall that led us past the Olympic Village and then on a merry chase through hot and dusty little towns consisting of clusters of businesses with corrugated tin roofs and nothing else – places that looked remarkably interchangeable with many Mexican towns I’ve visited. One notable difference is that the streets are not filled with roaming, strangely shaped dogs in China.
This is the beginning of the high season for tourists at major cultural attractions such as the Great Wall. When you juxtapose a breathtaking, man-made wonder of the world with a horde international tourists, you are bound to get some distortions around the edges: shameless souvenir vendors and hawkers of frighteningly over-priced bottled water.
Laurent and Grace wended their way up to the first tower. I went part way but soon realized that the heat and throngs were working against me. I stayed at a lower point and watched the people, focusing mainly on fashion. What do people wear when touring the crowning architectural jewel of imperial China?
One accessory (besides the facemask) in vogue is an arm sleeve worn from just above the elbow to the wrist, like a Cinderella-style long glove with no hand. I guess it functions as a sunburn shield. But I saw examples in fancy sheer material spangled with sequins. Is this necessary?
I saw Beijing’s modern take on Betty Boop – a waif with the classic bangs and bob haircut. She wore cotton candy pink jeans, stacked fuchsia heels, and a white eyelet blouse – and she was as fresh as a daisy. There’s something mysterious to me about Asian women. They don’t sweat – ever. Today, I looked and felt as though I had single-handedly baled a whole field of hay by hand. Many people were staring at me. “I come from German peasant stock,” I wanted to shout.
On the men’s fashion front, the best I could spot was a T-shirt, worn by a cheerful middle-aged Chinese man, emblazoned with: “Run faster or get eaten.” The new Chinese economy in a nutshell.
There weren’t a lot of Americans roaming around, but I did overhear one exuberant blonde with a Southern accent who was toting a camera with a bazooka-sized lens booming, “The faces. I just love their faces.”
Finally, we shifted plans and headed to the Summer Palace of the Emperor, which included the Heavenly Garden. I can’t tell you much about it as I was engaged in surviving the heat for most of the long march. It was a very difficult time for me, but having proved I can function in 95-degree heat with moderate humidity, I can probably survive anything.
After a five-year wait, Monitor business editor Laurent Belsie and his wife Gretchen are in China to adopt their second daughter, Madeleine, 7. Their precocious ”steadfast lieutenant” Grace, 10 – adopted there in 2003 – has returned with them. Gretchen is e-mailing what she calls “Wagnerian” accounts of their odyssey to family and friends, who – in turn – suggested the Monitor publish them. Gretchen agreed to let Modern Parenthood excerpt them.
After nearly five years, we finally made it here.
Grace is sound asleep now, and Laurent, who was supposed to be “resting and reading,” has passed out on the puffy duvet.
We just returned from a restaurant a 10-minute walk from our hotel. It’s one thing to order in English at a Chinese restaurant at home, or to strut out some of our knowledge from the language classes we’ve taken so faithfully. Waitresses in the United States have a wider bandwidth of patience. Not so much here. The giant menus with color photos of squid, waxed and glazed pigeon, and other mainstream dishes helped us make our choice. It was amusing to watch Laurent try to order three bottles of water for us, working it out with the waiter.
The odyssey began in Waltham, Mass., over a day ago. I was up at 3:15 a.m., fussing with last-minute things like cleaning birdcages and stuffing odd items into the suitcases. Grace, my usual steadfast lieutenant, could not bring herself to get up until quarter to 4. Laurent squeaked out two good hours of repose and yielded to poking at 4:15. We were ready on the front porch at 5 a.m. when the shuttle arrived and whisked us to Logan Airport.
We arrived at the departure gate for the flight to Newark, but we were delayed for two hours. We sat and watched small dramas unfold around us. Grace lost another tooth while eating a breakfast sweet roll. Would her tooth make it to China and back safely in a small Ziploc bag? Would someone named Kunis Lange make it to the flight bound for Houston? And what about the passenger who had left the flyer about sleep apnea at the check-in desk?
Due to the short layover in Newark, we high-stepped it to our gate and boarded the full United flight bound for Beijing. If there was another blonde on the plane, I didn’t notice.
We settled into our row near the back of the plane, conveniently located near the thimble-sized restroom. Our best-laid plans of Slamwich marathons, my reading out loud to Grace, or finally breaking in my Christmas Kindle went by the boards. The lure of the personal entertainment screen was too strong. Grace and I synchronized watching “The Sound of Music” while Laurent hunkered down and knocked back three films, interspersed with some crumpled snoring in the window seat. I guess he deserved it after only two hours of sleep and several previous nights of pre-trip editing.
Our flight path took us over the polar region and views from the window were amazing. Amid dark blue waters, bright white glaciers. The dry brown expanse of the Gobi Desert. And, as we got closer to Beijing, a series of brown mountains, then green ones with agricultural terracing.
The distance from Newark to Beijing was just over 7,000 miles and about 12-1/2 hours of flying. Grace was a real trooper; she couldn’t seem to sleep, but managed to be content for almost the whole way. I wonder what the return trip will be like with Madeleine?
We arrived in Beijing around 1 p.m. to a relatively deserted airport. Going through immigration took five-minutes – certainly not commensurate with the trouble we went through to get Laurent the necessary visa in the first place. We had to provide guarantees that he would not do any journalism work for this publication while in China, or any proselytizing because it is connected to a religious organization.
It was very hot – and sticky.
The van that took us into the city had an air-cooling system that most closely replicated someone lazily blowing into a plastic drinking straw. The drive was an hour of traffic jams and harrowing near-misses between larger vehicles and Vespas, which weave between lanes with true teenage abandon. No one wears a helmet.
Laurent asked our guide about driving conditions in a city of 28 million, with 5.5 million vehicles on the highways. The man thought a moment, and then smiled and said, “Our drivers are very chaos.”
The afternoon scene outside the Radisson was one of energy, clogged vehicular movement, and brisk sidewalk commerce. Young women carrying silk parasols protected themselves from the sun’s rays filtered through a veil of pollution. And our walk to restaurant took us past street vendors selling all manner of goods. A Lexus backed up to the sidewalk with a spotlighted trunk offered T-shirts. After dinner, we stopped at a huge Carrefour, a French supermarket with the look and feel of a 1960s-era A & P grafted on a Woolworths. The sales section outside the grocery section offered kiosks with Victorinox, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, and something called “Paris Baguette” in bold neon.
Tomorrow we visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. Most adoption agencies schedule weekend visits to Beijing for Americans to get a peek of the must-see scenes before the even more thrilling scenes of squalling babies.