China adoption diary: over the pole, the odyssey begins

Part 1 – China adoption diary: The Belsie family begins their journey to adopt their second daughter from China with a 12-hour, 7,000-mile flight over the pole and down through Siberia to Beijing.

Courtesy of the Belsie family
The Belsie family – Laurent, Grace and Gretchen – share with Modern Parenthood their experiences traveling to China to adopt their second daughter, Madeleine Bao Yi.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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