The Ladybug Chronicles, part V

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 5: Gotcha Day

Monday, November 13, 2006, was the day all the waiting had been leading up to: the day we would first get to see and hold and touch and take the Ladybug into our arms. In the parlance of adoptive families, the day is called “Gotcha Day,” since from the parents’ perspective that’s the day they finally get their kid. That’s cute and charming until, of course, you think about it from the little baby’s perspective: it’s the day when strange white people come up to you and go “Gotcha!” and take you away with them. The Queen B (in a strange departure from form) agreed with me on this, and she decided to use the term “Forever Family Day,” which, despite being excessively saccharine, does a better job of conveying the purpose of the day. Plus, it was the Queen B’s birthday as well, so what she says goes.

At 4 in the morning, those families heading to Guizhou checked out of the hotel and assembled onto the bus for the drive back to the Beijing Airport. The drive there was quite easily the least terrifying of any we experienced in China, partly because our minds were elsewhere at the time, but mostly because nobody else was out on the road that that ungodly hour. By 7:00, we were safely packed onto a cramped Air China jet heading for southern China, to Guizhou.

The flight to Guizhou was pretty much uneventful, although breakfast does merit mention. The flight attendants offered a choice between a Western breakfast, which consisted of an omelet, potato cake, sausage, a fruit cup, and a croissant, or a Chinese breakfast, which consisted of a tray of lukewarm, watery rice and something resembling bread. Is that really even a choice?

A little before 11 we touched down in Guiyang, the capital city of the province of Guizhou. There we were greeted by a new adoption agency liaison, a mousy young woman named Pheobe, and our local tour guide Simon, who resembled a punk-rock version of Yao Ming. As we drove to our hotel, Simon told us a bit about Guizhou. The province of the Ladybug’s birth is green and mountainous, covered in a perpetual warm wet mist. Guizhou is mostly a subtropical climate, a vast land of irrigated fields and rainforests, humid with the omnipresent threat of rain. According to Simon, Guizhou means “precious sun,” in that there is precious little of it. Guizhou is also extraordinarily poor, one of the poorest in China, with many different ethnic minority groups eking out a living of subsistence farming in the country. The people of Guizhou are also known for their hot cuisines and hot tempers, a trait captured by the local saying that “Guizhou girls are spicy girls.”

The capital city of Guiyang is a smallish Chinese city, Simon explained, with a miniscule population of only 3.3 million people. Like Beijing, the city is a maze of massive skyscrapers (apartment blocks and businesses alike), but whereas Beijing is a diverse cosmopolitan city looking to the future, Guizhou is noticeably poorer and feels very much rooted to its past. Very few of the people speak any English at all, and ties to China’s pre-industrialized past are everywhere: ox-drawn carriages are common on the freeways, peasant farmers peddle their ware on every street corner, Chinese Buddhist influences are everywhere, and so on.

Of course, we had very little time to sight-see. According to Phoebe, the children would be arriving at the hotel starting at noon, and each of the child “hand offs” (which sounded more to me like a mob transaction than the completing of an adoption) would happen about once every fifteen minutes thereafter. Phoebe suggested that we simply take our bags to our rooms, ready the crib with whatever baby toys we brought, and prepare ourselves to me our new daughters. I don’t think the reality of this actually hit home with me, however, until I finally stepped off the elevator in our hotel and looked down the hallway to our room:

There’s nothing quite as surreal as an entire floor of a hotel lined with baby cribs and wash basins outside each and every door.

The Queen B, together with the grandparents and I, readied the room. The Queen B unpacked the baby’s essentials (toys, diapers, bottles, and so on) while I set to work writing down a list of questions about the Ladybug that we would hopefully be able to ask her foster mother during our fifteen minute meeting, on the grounds that once we saw the Ladybug in person for the first time, we’d be too starstruck and flabbergasted to remember anything we wanted to know.

And at noon, we all assembled on the little bench in our hotel room and waited for the Ladybug. From outside out door came the sounds of a baby crying, and our collective hearts raced faster and faster as the cries grew louder and louder as they approached our door… and then collectively broke when the cries dissipated as they continued past our door and further on down the hall. The Ladybug would not be the first to be delivered. Nor would she be the second or third or fourth…

In retrospect, it’s hard to say which wait was more agonizing: the fourteen month wait of adoption limbo, not knowing who our daughter would be or where she was, or the three hour wait in a cramped hotel room, knowing the Ladybug was there in the hotel, but unable to see or hear her. Each of us dealt with the stress in our own way. The Queen B, a multitasker by nature, fretted about the room, endlessly checking to see if all the toys were out, or all the gifts unpacked, or all the cameras fully charged and readied, and so forth. I, on the other hand, agonized over personal torments: how would the Ladybug react to her new family? How would her foster mother react? Would the sad-eyed little girl in our pictures smile for us? And so on…

Finally, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the door finally knocked, and in came the Ladybug:

Meeting the Ladybug for the first time was a bit like first meeting a famous movie star: she was a lot smaller in person, and was flanked on all sides by a heavy entourage of people. (In this case, her foster mom, two Civil Affairs officers, Phoebe, and Simon.) There, just a few feet in front of me, the Ladybug was more beautiful that I could imagine: round rosy cheeks, a little button nose, pouty rose-petal lips, soulful brown-black eyes, and a sweaty mop of curly black hair. The Ladybug, dressed in the same red sweater we saw in her orientation picture the previous day, looked altogether unsure of the event, and clung tight to her foster mom (whose name, we later learned, was Maoqing).

It’s hard for me to be witty or pithy about this (although frequent readers of the site will probably aske “What else is new?”), and so let me simply recount as best as I can. Everyone assembled into the cramped hotel room, circling around the little Ladybug. The little one’s foster mother Maoqing, saddened to tears about letting her go, handed the Ladybug to the Queen, who, in an act of compassion characteristic of my wife, simply wrapped the Ladybug and Maoqing in a giant bear hug, a special moment shared by the Ladybug’s two loving mothers. The civil affairs folks eventually moved the Ladybug to the Queen B, who hugged her tight and then gave her to me, and for the first time ever I got to hold my daughter:

During the next ten minutes, the grandmothers took their turns holding and smooching the little girl as the Queen B and I sat in the corner of our hotel room and spoke with Maoqing, with Simon and Phoebe translating for us. According to Maoqing, the Ladybug was loving and mostly easy-going, although she could have quite a temper, or as she said it, “She can be a spicy girl!” She told us about the Ladybug’s foster family, her wishes for a happy and healthy life in the United States, and her hopes that the Ladybug would one day return to visit China and her foster home there. It was a tearful talk, and I in particular felt particular powerless to convey to this woman just how grateful we were to her for the home she had given the Ladybug and the family she had given us. Eventually, the civil affairs people moved towards the door, and with some final hugs — foster mom and new parents, foster mom and little daughter — the entourage vacated, leaving the Ladybug with her new family.

To say the Ladybug wasn’t immediately overjoyed at the situation would be a gross understatement, and the first half hour after the hand-off, the poor little thing cried and cried, endlessly looking at the door and shying away from strange faces around her. The Queen B just held and held her until the cries subsided, and the Ladybug went silent, save for rhythmic gasping for air as she calmed herself, and the noise of her sucking her fingers for comfort.

During this time, as the Queen B rocked and held the Ladybug, the nanas went to work moving toys to the bed and clearing out her crib, and I dutifully followed the baby around shooting video footage. While it was somewhat frustrating to be stuck behind the camera, I was in a way grateful for it. Les warned us to prepare for unexpected emotions during the hand-off, and I was unprepared for how sad and guilt-ridden I felt at the sight of the Ladybug. Not sad about being a dad or about the adoption; rather, I just felt sick-to-my-gut terrible about separating this little girl from her foster mother, and witnessing first hand how much it had hurt them both. Yeah, I knew that this was for the better and this was how it worked, but that woman loved that little girl, and she was the only mom the Ladybug had ever known, and it hurt like hell inside to end that relationship.

On the other hand, I was so thrilled that the Ladybug was finally here, and that she was as beautiful and precious as I’d dreamed. Being behind the camera gave me a chance to look at the little girl who was about to become our daughter. Like all dads do, I instinctively knew that my kid was the most beautiful in the whole wide world, although I have to admit that, with her rounded face and her wild hair — pompadour on the top but shaved short around the sides and back — she looked a little like a cuddly-cute version of Kim Jong Il. When she was eventually calm, the Queen B laid the Ladybug down on the bed, and the little girl stayed there, exhausted and confused and vigilant.

We were told that Chinese parents always bundled up their kids, and the now we had proof. The Ladybug was wearing enough protective layers of clothing to survive an Antarctic winter in style, but given the tropical humidity of Guizhou and the fact that our hotel thermostat would go any lower than 80 degrees F, she was sweating profusely. The Queen B took off her thick red Pooh-Bear booties, and carefully removed her red wool sweater and yellow sweatpants (which we suspect were hand made); underneath that she had a thick pink sweatsuit, and underneath that a set of footie pajamas. As the B went on to change her diaper, I discovered the only flaw on my otherwise perfect kid: her little butt is covered with purple spots, as if the Ladybug is part purple-people-eater. They’re actually a condition called Mongolian spots, and they’re supposed to go away in time, but for now her baby butt-cheeks look like bad renditions of robin’s eggs.

Eventually the Ladybug roused herself up, and began to explore the world around her. She stayed mostly in the middle of the bed, working her way through her different toys with an air of such stern concentration that it bordered on the comical. We also discovered (as all parents do) that, while she seemed to tolerate all of the colorful, splashy, and above all expensive toys we brought for her, the things that really caught her fancy and held her attention were crinkly plastic bags. Formula bags, ziplock bags of toiletries, drop-in bottle liners — those were the real treat. Within an hour after the hand off, the Ladybug was playing with toys and, if not exactly thrilled about her new family, at least willing to give them a shot.

That was more or less the state of affairs for the next three hours: the Ladybug played with her toys and kept a constant vigil on her new family. While she cracked a smile here and there (which did my heart wonders), she was mostly intent on staring at the people around her, trying to decipher their funny sounds and funny smells and funny faces. From time to time Phoebe or the hotel staff would turn up at the room, bringing either fresh paperwork for the parents or fresh linens for the baby, and whenever the Ladybug saw Chinese faces or heard Chinese voices, sadness would creep into her eyes and she would cry, although she allowed herself to be comforted by the Queen B and I. And every now than then she’d light up and giggle, giving me hope that she was going to be okay.

By 6 o’clock, the Queen had dolled the Ladybug up in a bow, and together we collected with the other adoptive families, officially to begin our daughters’ finalizing paperwork, but mostly to see each others’ children. The Ladybug, being just shy of eight months old, was the second youngest girl there; she was just beat out by a 7 1/2 month old. As a result of their relative youth and apparent follicular differences, the two became known as “Baby Big Hair” and “Baby No Hair.” (I’ll let you guess which one was the Ladybug.) The real purpose of the meeting was official family pictures, which were needed for the finalizing procedure for the adoption scheduled for the next day. Here is the first official picture of the Clan Komplexify:

That night was a long one for the Ladybug. We returned to the room, fed her a warm bottle, and set her down on the big bed between us. The Queen B and I laid on either side of the bed like bumpers on a kiddie bowling lane, with the Ladybug the fitful little bowling ball between us. She (and by extension, we) slept very little that night. Instead, she stayed curled in a mostly fetal position, with her face in the covers. She would turn to look at me, and then at the Queen B; back and forth like this for hours. While she did not cry very much, her sadness was evident, and she would roll away from most attempts to touch or caress her. The little thing simply grieved, and while the Queen and I were blissfully happy to have the Ladybug finally there between us, we were simultaneously heartbroken seeing the little girl suffer.

Eventually, in the wee dark hours of the morning, an exhausted Ladybug and her equally exhausted parents fell asleep, finally a family after all these months.

More…

You can check out more pictures from “Gotcha Day” over at Flickr.

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