The Ladybug Chronicles, part IV

One of my goals during our trip to China to fetch the Ladybug was to post pictures to Flickr and to update the site with stories from the Far East. Unfortunately, I neglected to remember the fact that I can’t remember to do anything on time, and so I didn’t. Nevertheless, I’d still like to document the voyage (no matter how late) simply for myself, so that I can remember all the interesting details when I tell the story to the Ladybug years down the road. So, I present The Ladybug Chronicles.

Day 4: Beijing up close

Sunday, November 12, 2006,  was the first “official” adoption day in China, in that it began with the Orientation meeting, and the last “official” day without kids, in that tomorrow we would get the Ladybug. Orientation is the meeting wherein we were changed from giddy tourists into panicky pre-parents, as the brass tacks and grimy nuts and bolts of the final adoption procedures were laid out for us with frightening clarity. Les, our amusing British adoption representative, walked us through aspects of China and Chinese adoption, and then briefed us on what to expect in the next few days ahead: the baby hand-off, the documentation and passport process, the works. And while we were delighted to find out that we could be meeting the Ladybug for the first time as early as noon on Monday, our initial excitement was tempered by the fact that we needed to be up and out of our ritzy five-star hotel at 4 in the morning to catch the flight to Guizhou.

Les also announced that, in contrast to every other adoption hand-off he’d been involved with, all families heading to Guizhou would be given their daughters by their respective Chinese foster mothers. I gotta admit, I was more than a little unsure about that. On the one hand, I was terribly excited at the chance to meet the woman who cared for the Ladybug during her first seven months, and to thank this woman for giving us our beautiful, healthy, wild-haired, soulful-eyed daughter. I on other hand, I was nervous to the point of puking about taking away the Ladybug from the only mom she’d ever known in exchange for a pair of strange smelling, funny talking, pale-face parents, as well as having to be there as her foster mom gives up the gorgeous little child she’d come to call Mei Mei, or “little sister.”

The first half of the orientation ended with a pop quiz: one by one, Les projected a single new picture of the soon-to-be American daughters, challenging families to find their child based on only their referral pictures. One by one, pictures of beautiful little girls appeared on the screen; one by one, the entire audience of adoptive parents oohed and aahed the precious children; and one by one, parents sheepishly announced that they didn’t know whose child it was.

Except for the Ladybug, that is. The minute her picture popped on the screen — a pink lump of skin in an oversized sweater, with a pair of big brown eyes looking out from under a mop of curly black hair — the Queen B and I announced “That’s ours.” In fact, several of the other families shouted “That’s the Ladybug!” Not even eight months old, and she’s already famous. Among tens, at least.

The highlight of orientation, though, was the red book. As the pop quiz ended and parents began to wonder about the new picture of their kid, Les handed to each family an ornately embroidered, red silk book. Inside our book, on the first page, was a picture of China superimposed with a picture of each of the children we had just seen, a “group portrait” of all of our new daughters. The third page included an updated personality profile, indicating her feeding preferences (soy milk, apple sauce, and bananas), favorite activities (playing with toys, watching TV commercials, and listening to music), and how to comfort her when she cries (hold her tight). No problem there. It also says that she’s shy and sometimes scared of strangers, and that her foster mother calls her by the pet name of Mei Mei.

But the second page took our breath away: four new pictures of the Ladybug! In one day, the number of pictures of our kid more than doubled! The pictures showed the Ladybug dressed warmly in a yellow sweater and knitted jumper, standing (standing!) in her crib, and playing with a toy. The Queen B was so excited to see the new pictures that she literally bounced around the hallway, squealing €œI got new pictures! I got new pictures! € with unbridled glee. It might have been a tad embarrassing, if not for the fact that every other new mom was doing the same thing, as the hapless dads watched on, futily trying to swipe the red books back so they could see too.

With euphoria in the air, our group piled onto a tour bus to visit two last sites of Beijing, a final bit of sightseeing before the big day. The first was the Temple of Heaven, which many locals view as the true symbol of Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is actually a sprawling tree-line park smack in the middle of downtown Beijing. Running north-south along the central axis of the park is the actual Temple complex, consisting of three main Temple sites and a number of smaller buildings along the periphery. Though originally built as the site for the Emperor to make ceremonial sacrifices to Heaven, the Temple of Heaven nowadays is the place to go to see Chinese folks doing ordinary Chinese things: practicing martial arts, playing musical instruments, singing Chinese songs, knitting and talking and enjoying the history of their home.

We arrived at the Temple in the early part of the afternoon, entering from the northeasternmost corner. My initial impression was of a vast park with many walkways lined by tall cypress trees receding off into the horizon, disappearing into the wonderfully atmospheric mist in which the Temple of Heaven is perpetually covered. (I was later informed that the mist was, in fact, Beijing smog. Lots and lots and lots of smog. But it sure did look pretty.) This corner of the park is also the far end of a thousand-foot-log zig-zagging covered hallway called (in what is apparently a running theme in Beijing) the Long Corridor.

At one point in time, the Long Hallway connected several of the smaller kitchens, warehouses, and offices for the Temple’s day-to-day functions, but today it is the place where friends come to congregate and talk, musicians come to perform, choruses come to sing, wizened old men come to teach clueless Westerners to play badminton, and countless old ladies come to play cards. I didn’t entirely pick up the rules of the card game, but I noted that it involved (i) the frequent throwing of cards at opponents, (ii) the frequent shouting of (apparently) Chinese profanities, (iii) significant betting on the side, and (iv) liberal quantities of rice wine, although it’s quite possible that the first three observations may in fact be mere consequences of the fourth. At the other end of the 1000 feet, the Long Corridor ends, connecting to the nothernmost site of the main Temple complex itself, and the centerpiece of the Temple of Heaven: the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests.

The Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests is a massive building circular building with an ornately detailed three-tiered roof. The base of the building, painted red and detailed with golden dragons and phoenixes, measures about 100 feet in diameter and is mostly open inside, like a 120-foot tall Chinese tee-pee. It stands atop a ginormous, three-tiered mound decorated with marble railings and a nearly infinite supply of dragon heads gargoyles spitting out  to the horizon, and is flanked on either side by two massive store houses. The site of ceremonial sacrifices made by the Emperor to honor Heaven, the entire Hall is supported internally by four massive pillars (representing the four seasons) and twelve secondary pillars (representing the twelve hours of the traditional Chinese day), and was built without any steel, nails, or delusions of subtlety.

In the orange mist of Beijing’s afternoon smog, it feels distinctly otherworldly, like a flying saucer about to lift off, or perhaps like the business end of the giant drill coming out of the Earth. Its rafters and beams are decorated with the same excessively ornate craftsmanship of the Forbidden City buildings (which, given the fact that these were sites of important ceremonial duties of the Emperor, is not too surprising). However, during those brief moments when the sun cuts through the haze, the Hall gleams as if on fire as the light catches the gold paintings and details of the building.

The Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests is the northern endpoint of the Imperial Stairway Bridge, which forms a north-south axis bisecting the Temple grounds and eventually exits the park at its southern boundary. From a tourist’s perspective, the Imperial Stairway Bridge is interesting only in that it is neither a Stairway or a Bridge: it’s just a very long, flag-lined walkway that connects the Hall of the Exceedingly Long Name with the other two landmarks of the Temple.

The first of these two landmarks, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, occurs at the midpoint of the Stairway Bridge. The Imperial Vault might be best described as the Hall of Prayers’ little brother: it’s a smaller, single-tiered circular building standing atop a single-tiered marble base, flanked by two itty-bitty storehouses.

The Vault itself is enclosed inside a tall, slightly elliptical wall called the Echo Wall, which demonstrates the following curious acoustic phenomenon: if you stand inside at one end of the Echo Wall while your wife goes to the other end, and then speak in a normal talking voice, she won’t hear a thing, ’cause she will totally ditch your ass to buy pricey souvenirs since you’re no longer around to dissuade her. Neat!

Further south past the Vault is the third landmark, the Circular Mound Altar of Heaven. The Mound Altar is just that — the altar proper — and is best described thus: start of with the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests, and then remove all the buildings, so that your left with an epic but completely  empty three-tiered marble base. At the exact center of the base is a single circular stone, upon which one can stand for good luck and (assuming the Altar is relatively devoid of tourists) speak and have their voice echo back from several cleverly placed balasades.

From the Circular Mound we headed south along the final stretch of the Imperial Non-Stairway Non-Bridge and out of the Temple of Heaven. Les and Mei quickly diverted us onto a bus to high-tail it north to our final tourist stop, Tiananmen Square. It wasn’t immediately clear what the rush was, but our guides seemed determined to get us to the Square before sundown, and given the reckless disregard for life or limb demonstrated by our Chinese bus driver, accomplished this with ease.

Tiananmen Square is a huge rectangular plaza located just south of the Forbidden City in downtown Beijing. I was unclear as to the need to rush, since the Square is mostly devoid of any structures, except for the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao and the Monument to Heroes. The Mausoleum, flanked on either side by patriotic statues of Mao Zedong, is a mostly nondescript squarish building that one could easily mistake for a university library, except for the Chinese soldiers with automatic rifles who stand guard at the entrance.

The Monument, on the other hand, is a rather pretty obelisk situated smack dab in the center of the Square, and is also guarded by heavily armed soldiers. At the northern end of the square is the Tiananmen Gate itself, a huge red pavilion which, to my untrained eye, was of the same architectural design as in the Forbidden City. (In fact, the Tiananmen Gate is actually the true southern entrance to the Forbidden City, so Yay, untrained eyes!) The only other thing you’re likely to see at Tiananmen Square are tourists. Chinese tourists. Lots and lots of Chinese tourists.

For as the sky darkened with the waning evening sun, Tiananmen Square seemed to spontaneously erupt with Chinese people. From old folks to teenagers, from isolated business men to multigenerational families, the Square went from a vast and empty expanse to a churning sea of people, all pushing north to the Tiananmen Gate. The Queen B and I went with the flow, and discovered the reason for the mad rush: at dusk, the Tiananmen Gate becomes illuminated. Initially a spotlight illuminates the portrait of Chairman Mao and the Communist star above him; then floodlights illuminate the two massive banners on either side of the portrait; then more lights illuminate the pavilion upon the gate; and finally the street lamps on the square alight as spotlights fix on the Monument for Heroes.

From a tourist point of view, the lighting of Tiananmen Square is fantastic. The perpetual haze of Beijing pollution makes for a particularly atmospheric setting, with the bright beams of light dissipating like watercolors into the fluid sea of mist. But the real charge in the air doesn’t come from the dangerous levels of industrial pollution, but from the Chinese people themselves, for although I am completely unfamiliar with the particulars of Chinese history, completely ignorant of the Chinese language, and frighteningly naive in the ways of Chinese customs, it was clear to me standing in Tiananmen Square at dusk that the Chinese are deeply proud of their past and are looking forward  to their future. As it reads on the Chinese characters next to Mao’s portrait, Longevity: China forever! And then with the  final lighting of the streetlamps,  as quickly as they appeared the Chinese citizens disappeared back into the mist, leaving the Queen B, our family, and me mostly  alone in the Square.

Les and Mei then took us back to the hotel, where we packed up our suitcases and readied ourselves for tomorrow. It was simply impossible to get any rest: we were both too excited and terrified about finally holding the Ladybug that we simply couldn’t fall asleep; and even if we could, we needed to be out of the hotel by 4 in the morning to catch the flight that any sleep we’d get would feel like a cruel joke. To get our minds off that (and to tire us out some in the hopes that, if nothing else, we could exhaust ourselves into getting some rest), the Queen B and I joined my mom for a late night tour of Beijing.

Our hotel was right next to the Wangfujing, a pedestrian shopping district which, due it its many upscale stores, is popular among locals and, due to its considerable distance from any Chinese drivers, is popular among tourists as well. We strolled down the main avenue of the Wangfujing, past giant karaoke bars and stores with names like “Happy Happy Super Time Fun Emporium,” until we came to Snack Street, a massive culinary street fair lined with red lanterns specializing in Cantonese cuisine.

As this was later explained to us, Cantonese cuisine consists of the eating of anything with legs or wings, except possibly tables and planes, and Snack Street is proof of it. Anything that could be put into one’s mouth, someone on Snack Street was peddling it, from staples like beef and fish to more exotic (and downright disgusting) choices: cockroaches, scorpions, sparrows, sea horses, snakes, squids, starfish, you name it. Indeed, Snack Street is less a culinary showcase of Chinese cuisine as a never-ending horror-fest of creepy-crawling things on skewers. Les had advised us earlier on that, should we venture to Snack Street, we should probably not eat anything there, a sage piece of advice to which I can only add a most solemn “No shit, Sherlock.”

Thank God tor McDonald’s, where you can get a tasty treat… like a Green-Bean Pie…

What the hell is wrong with these people?

Finally, at 11 o’clock, the lights along the Wangfujing’s storefronts dimmed, and the throng of late-night shoppers and tourists gradually thinned. The Queen B, Nana Schu, and I headed back to our hotel for our last night in Beijing, still excited out of our skulls for tomorrow, but also blissfully exhausted…

We’ll see you tomorrow, Ladybug!


You can check out more pictures from last day in Beijing over at Flickr.

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