Monday, March 31, 2008

March 31, 2003

An email message I sent from Nanning, China, on April 2, 2003:

Hi everyone!

It's no accident it's taken me 2 1/2 days to get back to the computer. It's 10:30 p.m. here in Nanning. Kevin and Madeline have crashed, and I'm running on adrenaline down here in the business center of the hotel. Since our first meeting is at 10 tomorrow (a late one for me), I can stay up another hour or so.

We had an uneventful flight to Nanning on an aging 737 operated by China Xinhua Airways. We arrived about 6 p.m., and it was 90 degrees in the shade, with 200 percent humidity. (Since the Chinese don't care much for air conditioning -- they have it, but they don't crank it up like we Americans do -- Kevin and I have been hot, hot, hot! Especially lugging around a 20 pound "velcro baby." I've dropped at least 10 pounds in the past week, as has Kevin. Nanning reminds me a bit of the Florida panhandle, flat and semitropical. The city itself reminds me of Baton Rouge for some reason.

The first 48 hours have been a little rough. They handed Madeline over on Monday night at the Civil Affairs Office. I knew Madeline instantly on seeing her. Her nanny grinned at me and pointed to me and said something to the child. Then, the nanny pointed to Madeline's cheeks and to her own. Both of us have dimples, and the nanny knew that from the photos of us I had sent to the orphanage. It was so cute -- they had all the babies dressed alike in little red and black matching Chinese-style pajamas.

Madeline was just taking it all in when her nanny burst into tears. Well, that started Madeline crying, and the next thing you know, I had both a new baby and a young Chinese woman in my arms comforting both of them. We went back to the hotel and they shot the pictures for the adoption certificate -- two sweaty but happy parents and one screaming infant in our case. Madeline was inconsolable for the next three hours and finally cried herself out and went to sleep on our bed

The next morning, she was sullen and clingy, obviously in mourning. She was clingy and quiet all day, wouldn't let me out of her sight (and still won't), and she wouldn't eat very much. We went to the Civil Affairs office and completed the adoption, then went to the notary.

We also met with the orphanage staff. One of the nannies told me she had actually been the one to name her An An, which means, in Cantonese, "safe and sound." You see, Madeline was found at three days old on the steps of a Qinzhou police station approximately 10 minutes after she was abandoned there. Her birth mother made darned sure she'd be safe and sound. Pretty amazing, isn't it? God works in wondrous ways.

When we returned to the hotel in the afternoon, Madeline felt hot, so I took her temperature. 100.5. I called our guide, Alice, and asked about a pediatrician who practiced WESTERN medicine (thank you very much). I wasn't taking any chances.

Well, I know we signed up for an adventure by adopting in another country, but a trip to a third world hospital? Heaven forfend! But we did it. And it was a very nice hospital. Apparently, Nanning has a well-regarded medical school with a sterling hospital. It was attractive and clean, and we were in and out of the emergency room in an hour. The bill was a whopping 52 yuan, which is roughly $6.50. That covered a doctor visit, lab work and three prescriptions. Alice came along to translate.

Madeline had a viral infection, but is rapidly improving. She smiled for the first time at the hospital (the nice young doctor flirted with her) and has really come along since then. She's obviously feeling better and her temp is down. She's acting like a normal year-old child now, flirting, laughing and cooing and stealing food off my dinner plate. This morning at breakfast she stole my watermelon cubes and ate them with gusto. She practically stood on the table when she saw a banana we had gotten her from the buffet. The kid is a bottomless pit.

If Madeline's eating, Mommy is not. She is too busy feeding Madeline. This might be a good thing. I needed to lose more weight anyway...

Off to bed.

The email sums up the basic events of our first meeting with Madeline. There are a couple things that were inadvertently omitted, however. We left Beijing mid-afternoon of Monday the 31st. As some of us were waiting in the Radisson lobby for the bus to take us to the airport, an elderly woman in Mao pajamas came over to our group and started talking to us in rapid-fire Mandarin. She moved around our group, bowing again to each of us and saying the same thing over and over again. Of course, our guides were outside at that point. After the woman left, the front desk clerk explained what she'd been doing there. Apparently, she was related to someone who worked at the hotel, who tipped her off whenever a group of adoptive parents stayed there. And she'd come to the hotel to thank the parents for taking care of the little girls. A couple of times later on in the trip, we ran into other seniors who had a similar reaction to seeing us -- a gentleman in the park in Nanning and one in the Guangzhou airport, a married couple (who did speak some English) on Shamian Island near the U.S. Consulate. These people all remembered life before the one-child policy took effect and held in high regard its small victims.

The second thing I omitted is lighter. After they handed me Madeline, it suddenly hit me that I knew very little about taking care of babies. Sure, I'd read a couple of childcare books, but I had almost no practical experience with the little ones. I didn't even know how to make a bottle! The next morning, I arose before Madeline started to stir and crept out into the hallway with my bottles, liners and the bag of formula that the orphanage had supplied and figured out much formula to use in an 8-ounce bottle. I'm sure my ignorance and inexperience with babies definitely played into my decision to take Madeline to the hospital later that day for a 100-degree fever. That trip to the hospital, by the way, probably had a significant impact on my own health, but that's for another post.

I sent several emails from China to friends, family and colleagues relating the events as they happened, but looking back on those emails now, I realize they didn't capture my roller-coaster emotions. No doubt, this was because I was entirely focused on figuring out how to care for this squirming little person who'd joined my family. I realize now though that they seem a bit dry. To write about what all this felt like adds an entire dimension to the story. We left for the Civil Affairs Office within minutes of arriving at our hotel in Nanning. I remember clearly the oppressive heat and humidity, the nervous chatter on the bus, and other parents asking our Nanning guide Alice about a thousand questions as we wended our way through the streets. I remember walking into the Civil Affairs building, which was a converted hotel, and down a narrow hallway and into a paneled ceremonial room with a huge silk carpet and red lanterns and tassels hanging from the ceiling. I remember the high-pitched laughter of the group ringing in my ears, sweat pouring off my forehead and stomach acid creeping up my throat. I remember standing around the perimeter of the room and hearing babies crying in the hallway, while the provincial Civil Affairs officer droned on and on about the responsibilities of parenthood. I was thinking, "Let's just get this done!" It was labor of sorts. Interminable labor, no less. (But my video is much more tasteful than the ones people show of themselves giving birth.)

As they bring in the babies on the video, you will notice that the nanny in a burgundy blouse points directly at the camera and speaks to the nanny next to her, who was carrying Madeline. I didn't notice this at the moment, but when I saw the video for the first time, I had one of those forehead-smacking moments and realized that the nanny in burgundy was identifying me and Kevin to Madeline's nanny. Madeline's nanny then caught my eye to let me know that she was carrying my daughter, so we'd know which baby to film. Or to try to film. The man standing between us and Madeline was well over 6 feet tall. But you can hear me and Kevin talking about which baby was Madeline in the video clip.

I will always wonder about the nanny who handed us Madeline. I wonder if she (and the entire orphanage staff) knew more about Madeline's origins than we were told: that she was found at a police station. Looking back, I have good reason to doubt that story. Madeline's nanny seemed incredibly attached to her. While a few of the nannies were sniffling a bit when they handed us the babies, she was the only nanny who let loose and bawled. She cried so much that they had to take her out of the room. Before she left, however, she gave us a handful of snapshots taken over a few months. One of the photos was clearly taken in a private home.

Those photos are a gift, but sometimes they make me wonder all the more about who my little girl might be and what the orphanage didn't tell us. Madeline had no developmental delays and there's almost nothing about her that would suggest early institutionalization. I find it hard to believe she was simply, as one of our fellow travelers put it, the teacher's pet. I do know, however, that she was meant to be our daughter. I know that beyond any doubt and I find it humbling to have been given such a child to raise.

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