Dec 19, 2015

Homeward Bound

(Note: this may be a long entry, but I think it sums up our return home quite nicely. Worth a read if you have 5 minutes to spare.)

Waking up Friday in China was like any other day since arriving just over two weeks ago. Angela and I were up around 5:30, and while Angela hit the shower, I checked email and other online things after fighting with the hotel WiFi and finding a VPN connection that would both connect and give me access to Google services (e.g. email, blog, Android, etc).

By 6:30 we had Sera awake and grumbling about it still being dark outside. Or at least that's what we assumed she was saying -- this whole language barrier thing has upsides (we can just nod like we care when we assume she's complaining) and downsides (no idea when she wants something specific).

We headed downstairs for our last Chinese breakfast. My plan was to eat something light and avoid any "mystery" foods, but when one of the other mom's questioned a roll with something fuzzy on it, I stepped up and offered to try it out. Turns out the fuzzy stuff tasted like salty carpet lint and the sticky white stuff I originally thought was a custard was actually mayonnaise. Nasty -- should have stuck to tea and fruit.

At 7:30 we were on the bus heading for the airport when our guide ("Jason") took a phone call. It was the airline informing him that our flight from Guangzhou to Beijing had been cancelled. Great way to start our journey home. We stood around in the airport while Jason worked with the airline to get us a different flight that would allow us to make it in time to catch our international flight out of Beijing. He was finally able to get us on a earlier flight. Good for making it to Beijing. Bad for requiring us to now rush through the Guangzhou airport to get to the gate on time.

Jason hurried us to the baggage area. Then he told us we needed to hoof it to the terminal. I was carrying two winter coats, a sweater and three carry on backpacks so that Angela could pick up Sera. Angela (who had been telling be to be calm most of the trip) was so flustered that she tried to navigate between a group of Chinese travelers and tripped over a suitcase that was in her blind spot. Down went mama and Sera to the floor, landing flat on Sera's back. She smacked her head on the marble floor and (rightly so) began screaming in pain. The Chinese strangers gathered round her speaking unintelligibly while I caught up to her to help her up. The young boy that was adopted by the family traveling with us had a seizure, likely as a result of the stress of the situation. Jason was trying to get everyone settled, all the while urging us to press on to make our flight in time. Good times.

Once we were back in motion again, we hurried as quickly as we could (while staying together and being more careful) to the right gate. We arrived to a long line waiting to step out on to the tarmac to board a bus that would drive us to the airplane. Apparently our new plane was pulled into service last minute to combine two flights into one. The result was that we were on a double-decker flight holding 750 passengers. It was almost triple the size of the plane we would fly overseas later, and we were boarding it from a set of stairs on the tarmac.

Getting to Beijing was mostly uneventful. We were separated due to the last minute change of plans so while Angela sat with Seraphina, I was sitting with the dad and new son of our travel partners, two rows further up. When we were preparing to land in Beijing, I heard Sera begin wailing. I assumed it was due to the whole seat belt thing we had dealt with on a previous flight, but it turns out she was upset because the flight attendant took her meal before she was done with it. She only calmed down when another mom offered her some Skittles to get her mind off her missed meal. Are we home yet?

In Beijing, we had to get our checked bags and re-check them for the international flight. We tried to go through the transfer area, but were told we would have to wait an hour before they would process our reservations and issue boarding passes. Later we would learn that we could have gone upstairs and checked in at the normal counter and spent our time at the gate with access to food and rest rooms rather that on a seat in the transfer area with none of those "luxuries". On top of that, we thought that the advantage to the transfer area was that we wouldn't have to go back through a security checkpoint. Wrong. Live and learn.

We finally had boarding passes, but we had to get to the right terminal. It was also about this time that Sera decided she had to have water. Of course there was none to be found where we were and we had to get to our next gate. We spent several minutes trying to find the right way to the terminal. When we finally got upstairs, we made the mistake of heading for Terminal 1 instead of 2 (nothing was printed on the pass). 15 minutes later, with a wailing child in Angela's arms and me carrying a ruck's worth of weight in 3 packs, we made it to Terminal 1 only to learn that our flight was in Terminal 2 where we had just come from. Are you kidding me?

We got Sera a bottle of water (you can't safely drink from water fountains in China) while in the wrong terminal. She took a sip -- yes, one *sip*) before adding it to her bag for something extra for me to carry back to Terminal 1. I was ready to go back to bed. Unfortunately we were only 7 hours into a 30 hour day. Back to Terminal 2 we go followed by a return through the security checkpoint.

At long last, we made it to the right gate. I'm pretty sure it was the furthest gate from the ticket counters. With the added trip to Terminal 1, I'd guess we walked about 2 miles. Now to sit and wait for the plane to begin boarding. While waiting, we grabbed deli sandwiches and drinks from a nearby bistro. Things settled down for a bit while Sera was kept entertained by her surrogate big sister (the family traveling with us). It was a nice respite from the frenetic pace we had set for ourselves up to this point.

The time finally came for our 14 hour, overseas flight. We were seated at the rear of the plane and when we finally got Sera settled in her seat, she began complaining for headphones to use with the entertainment screen. We had to wait for the attendant to get us a set while trying to explain that Sera had to wait. Stress. Once she had the ear plugs, we had to tell her the system would not work until we were in the air. Stress. She would keep pressing buttons on the screen until inevitably tapping the one that called the attendant. We would have to un-tap the request...several times. Stress. The ear buds were too big for her ears and wouldn't stay in. She kept bugging us to make it work but there was no good solution. Stress. When we finally rigged a way to use the elastic from the eye mask (for trying to sleep on the plane) to get the buds to sort of work, Sera would twist around to talk to the passenger behind us and they would fall out again. We would repeat the process several times over the next 13 hours. Stress.

Sera managed to sleep for a good portion of the international flight. This required her to lie down across her seat with her head on Angela's lap. That left her legs to lay on me. Apparently it was inconvenient for her to just place her legs on my lap. Instead she had to prop them against my shoulder. Then on my arms. Then in my face. Then tangled in my headphones cord. Then pushed into my side. I tried leaning the opposite direction to avoid some of the abuse, but I had the aisle seat so the other side meant drink carts hitting me in the shoulder or bodies shoving by on their way to the restroom. One heavyset lady passed by several times and never once tried to pass gently, she would just walk straight up the aisle, allowing her wide hips to rub past my head. Oh God, when would we be home?

Thirteen hours is a long time to sit on an airplane. The time is even longer when in coach, unable to sleep, and dealing with a child that doesn't speak your language but is old enough to "have an opinion". I managed to watch 4 movies, eat two meals, and play 3 games of Soduku, and get about 90 minutes of fitful dozing on and off. That left me with about 2 hours of just sitting around thinking about how much fun I was having.

Seraphina did pretty well with the landing. Except that she apparently had had too much to eat and was not feeling well. To her credit, she was able to let us know how bad she felt prior to spewing the contents of her stomach into the sick bag in the seat pocket. The rest of the descent was spent trying to comfort her while she complained (I assume) of the taste in her mouth and the dribble on her chin. Angela managed to get out a wet wipe for the latter, and I convinced the attendant to give us a little water to rinse her mouth out.

Next up was US customs. The line moved pretty well, but there were a lot of people to check through and we had the added issue of handling the adoption paperwork that would grant Sera automatic US citizenship now that she was on US soil. We were guided to a special line for this purpose which was also for the elderly and the handicapped resulting in longer wait times. It was at this point that Sera wanted to get something out of her back pack. I was all for her taking one of the three most-used items from the front pocket, but she wanted in the main compartment. I discouraged that since it typically involved removing all contents to get to the one item she wanted, followed by one of us putting everything back. Not a good time for that fun. Sera wasn't happy about that (shocker) and proceeded to let us know about it. It started as a general whine and progressed into a full-tilt tantrum. This included wailing loudly, wreathing on the floor, kicking off her shoes, and general displeasure for all the security line to hear. I'm pretty sure every eye was on us. Well, on her actually. Except for mine which were focused on the security check point that we had to reach. Several people came forward to try to console her and I'm sure a few of them wondered why I didn't just give in. But I can't bring myself to give in to a spoiled child having a tantrum in public. That would just convince her that her method works. You're on my turf now girl -- life's going to suck until you learn the boundaries.

About 10 minutes into the tirade, the officials must have realized it was in their best interest to fast track up through the system. We were paraded to the front of the line and had several officers working to complete our paperwork. On the other side, I let her have the pack once we were seated at a bench with a few spare minutes. She took out a book, held it to her chest for a minute, dropped it on the floor, and indicated she was ready to move on to the next adventure.

The transfer security checkpoint line was ridiculous in Detroit. We had an hour until our Charlotte flight, and spent 45 minutes waiting in line. During that time, Sera pulled apart the two wires on the headphones causing them to span about 15 feet and constantly getting tangled. Go ahead and start the sainthood paperwork for Angela. I would call it miraculous that she can deal with the agony of repetitively correcting the same problem over and over. She would untangle the cord and wrap it up and hand it back to Sera. Sera would unravel it, drag it across the carpet a few steps and get it tangled up again, then complain that it was messed up. Angela would repeat the process. Sera would repeat the process. And so on. I would have taken the cord and tossed it in the trash and let the girl scream for another half hour. Who knows, maybe we could have fast-tracked the security line too.

Like Beijing, Detroit thought it would be funny to put the connecting flight at the farthest point from where we originally landed. I left Angela to deal with the girl while I took the 100 pounds (how it felt) of useless carry on items to the gate. It was a walk that took about 15 minutes, with the assistance of the moving walkways and continuously weaving in an out of other travelers. When I got to the gate, I unceremoniously dumped the bags and coats on the ground, sweaty and stinky from 26 hours of stressful travel. I enjoyed about 5 minutes of daughter-free time before Angela caught up with Sera in tow. Sera went to her backpack and learned that the water could not pass through the previous checkpoint. Her world was again collapsing because her water bottle was taken from her. Cue the tantrum.

I think that if we had not been in a public setting, I might have had a small tantrum of my own and thrown Sera across the hall. Probably a good thing there were some 500 people all staring at us instead. I picked up the brat rather abruptly which freaked her out enough to stop complaining for a few minutes. I marched her around the terminal looking for a water fountain. I asked a janitor for directions and realized he didn't speak any English. Of course not; what was I expecting in America? I marched on and gratefully came upon a cart at another gate offering free water to its passengers. I asked the employee at the desk if we could take one despite being on a different flight. She said that if it was for "the sweet, adorable girl in my arms" then yes. I'm not sure, but either someone performed a magic trick and swapped the person who I had been carrying, or this woman was wearing some *thick* rose-colored glasses. In either case, I thanked her and gave Sera some water. She took a sip and returned the bottle to her pack. Why I oughta...

As soon as we were on the plane for Charlotte and taxiing away from the gate, Sera needed to use the bathroom. Sorry kid, we have to remain seated until the plane is in the air. Sorry parents, that is not the answer I wanted to hear. Grumpy kid in the seat between us. Whimper. Sniff. Whatever.

I closed my eyes and pretended I was somewhere alone. We were in the first row of Comfort+ seats, right behind first class with immense leg room, and Jack Daniels was in my near future. La, la, la, la. As soon as we could move about the cabin, Angela took Leah to the rest room. The drink cart blocked them from returning to their seats. I'm not sure if it was intentional on Angela's part, but I had most of the trip to Charlotte sans child and with a cocktail in hand. I might make it home in one piece after all. The attendant seemed concerned that my two travel partners were not in their seat most of the flight. I assured him they were most likely safe. I thought about asking for a second cocktail, but thought that might make me look like a bad father.

After roughly 30 hours of travel, we landed in Charlotte. Following a long, slow walk with Sera from the gate, we turned the corner to head for our bags and were greeted by the three families that had been looking after our other kids while we were gone. They were waving sticks with Sera's face on them and holding up a "Welcome Home" sign. There were pictures taken in abundance and lots of conversation about Charlotte current events. The men all took one look at me and gathered that it was a stressful day. There was some consoling as we gathered the bags. Plans were made for getting Angela and Seraphina home directly while my two boys helped with the suitcases. My oldest son and I took the shuttle back to our car for a Sera-free ride home.

Aside from some screaming from the new girl when the dog got too close (Seriously? Our dog is as gentle as they come. Maybe just a slight bit curious about this new addition to the pack.) our return was most welcomed. I had some ice cream and a glass of milk before heading to bed. This 32-hour day was one of the most stressful in a while. It came at the end of a long two weeks in a foreign land dealing with all the frustrations of being out of our element. There were several times I thought I wouldn't make it, and on more than one occasion I told Angela that we were done -- no more adoptions for me.

But it was all worth it.

Dec 17, 2015

Countdown to Departure

It's Thursday afternoon and we are less than 24 hours from returning home. All the official business is done; we receive Seraphina's visa this afternoon and then all that's left is packing and getting a good night's rest. Tomorrow is a long day. It will begin at 6:30 AM China time (13 hours ahead of Charlotte) and continue until 10 PM Friday night in the Charlotte airport. Considering Angela and I typically don't get much sleep on airplanes, we are looking at pillow (hotel) to pillow (home) time of about 32 hours!
Sera has too much stuff. She began packing 24 hours early.

Here's the rough schedule:

  • 0530 (Guangzhou) - wake up
  • 0630 (Guangzhou) - bags packed and ready to go; breakfast
  • 0730 (Guangzhou) - board bus for airport
  • 1130 (Guangzhou) - flight to Beijing departs
  • 1400 (Beijing) - arrive in Beijing
  • 1740 (Beijing) - depart Beijing on international flight
  • 1815 (Detroit) - "only" 35 minutes according to clock despite 14 hours in air
  • 2000 (Detroit) - depart for Charlotte
  • 2150 (Charlotte) - welcome to Charlotte!
  • 2400 (Charlotte) - hopefully we are in our own bed by midnight 
We will have the company of another family from our adoption group traveling with us to Detroit. They live in NW Ohio and brought their 10-year old daughter with them for this adoption of a boy. She has been like a surrogate big sister in Leah's absence and will hopefully be a nice diversion for the long flight overseas.

One other interesting note is that Seraphina will officially become a US citizen as soon as we land in Detroit. That is one of the benefits of both parents going to China for the adoption.

That will wrap up another China adoption for the Smiths. One of the first things we will have to address (following a birthday for our oldest son and Christmas) is a visit to the pediatrician to get things moving on the leg. The temporary, artificial leg she received at the orphanage is too small for her foot forcing her to put her foot in on an angle and letting a ugly looking bone spur on the side of her foot rub against the mold. At the very least, she will need a new, temporary solution. But after spending almost two weeks with her, I have come to the conclusion that she will be better off moving forward with the AKA as soon as possible. We'll be sure to let all know how that goes.

(yílù píngān -- safe journey)

Dec 16, 2015

6,000+ Words?

Sometimes I just don't have enough material (or interest) to devote an entire post to a specific event while in China. Here are some miscellaneous pictures that didn't make the cut for an individual post, but deserved a little space on the blog anyway. If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this entry should be good for a six thousand or so.

Thorny exterior houses fleshy, white fruit which tastes like a muscadine grape
Sera's favorite breakfast item. Drinkable yogurt. She puts away 3+ per day
1) Nature is everywhere in China, even alongside elevated roads
2) QR codes are everywhere too -- TV commercials, billboards, headrests on bus...
Seraphina made the medical visit look easy. Didn't even shed a tear for the TB shot
Vending machine for liquor! $16 for a fifth of whiskey and no ID check.
Not sure where her new look comes from? Showing off the good leg in public draws stares. We just shrug.

Shamian Island & Our Lady of Lourdes

On Tuesday afternoon, we joined a few other families in our group for a trip via Guangzhou's subway system to Shamian Island where we had stayed on our previous two visits to adopt Jeremy and Leah. We had two personal goals while on the island:

1. seek out one of the tourist shops to order a custom painting with Seraphina's name spelled with various natural imagery (e.g. plants and animals) including a mouse, the Chinese zodiac animal of her birth year, and her Chinese name in pinyin characters. We already had pictures for out other three children, and while some may think of the paintings as just another tourist gimmick, this was one we wanted to have for a complete set.

2. Visit the old Catholic Church on the island which we had attended Mass in on previous visits to Guangzhou, but could not make it across town in time on this visit.

Our Lady of Lourdes has done VERY well since our last visit back in 2008. I can't help but wonder if they received several large donations from visiting adoptive families to put into repair. The last time we were here, the outside was in need of new paint while the inside had problems with cracks in the walls and just a general dirtiness throughout.

Not this time. Now the walls look freshly painted and the outdoor area is cleaned up. They appear to have acquired the building next door to use as a family center and they built a Marian grotto in the one corner of the small front yard. While we were visiting, they began a Divine Mercy chaplet (MP4 link) which included English audio. We may not have had an opportunity to get to Mass while in China this time around, but it was nice to be around for a portion of the chaplet.

This is one of the things I love about our Catholic faith -- regardless of where we are in the world, there is always a familiarity when we walk into the Church.

Pearl River Cruise

Tuesday night, the group climbed aboard a bus to head down to the Pearl River for a dinner cruise. Since the "standard" buffet included items such as fish intestines and chicken heads, our guides (in their infinite wisdom, opted for a more "American" meal. In addition to the food we had delivered, we were given a plate of watermelon and cherry tomatoes. I'm not sure what the significance of that particular combination is, but Sera sucked down the watermelon while I popped a couple of tomatoes in my mouth. A few minutes later, our guide came by and mentioned that the little veggies were washed in tap water and we were advised not to ingest them to avoid illness. Would have been nice to know that 5 minutes earlier (but so far no ill side effects).

We had a good time watching all the lights on the surrounding buildings and bridges as well as several of the other boats that passed by. One favorite was a dragon boat that looked like a pirate ship with a large dragon on the front. Of course, everything was outlined with colored lights, making it look even more spectacular in the twilight.

At the far end of the trip, we came alongside the White Swan hotel. This was the hotel we stayed in on the previous two trips to China when adopting Jeremy and Leah. Apparently they no longer wish to host adoption families, opting instead to entertain business clients. That's a shame as we would have paid a little extra to stay on the island during our last week in China.

Dec 13, 2015

Time flies when you're

I'm showing no entries in 4 days. Has it been that long since the drama at the aquarium? Last Friday seems so long ago. I had to confirm with Angela, but I think we just lazed around the hotel in Zhengzhou after a late breakfast. With the hotel hosting several international dignitaries for some big meeting this week, we had to deal with hefty security checkpoints making movement around town difficult. As I understand it, the families that are in Zhengzhou this week are on lockdown in their hotel rooms for three days -- they must be escorted to breakfast and may only go when none of the "important" people are dining. Thank goodness we left before it got really tough.

Saturday was our travel day to head to Guangzhou, our final stop before coming home. We were up bright and early to get a quick breakfast before boarding a bus for the airport at 7 AM. The flight was at 11:30 AM but security checkpoints meant lots of delays. Seraphina did well for most of the flight which was a relief as we were unsure how she would handle the new experience, especially after tears the first time we took her on a bus and a taxi.

I say "most" because we did have issues on takeoff and landing. No, not involving fear. The issue involved what I have coined the "princess attitude"; something we are already familiar with from the other daughter we have back home. It seems princesses don't like *having* to do something like, say, sitting upright in a seat with seatbelt fastened and tray in its upright position. Yeah. So pretty much the entire ascent and descent were spent with a child trying to assume a rigid, prone position in every imaginable direction other than upright while Angela (sitting in the middle) kept readjusting her and re-fastening the seat belt. After the ascent, I was optimistic (that'll teach me) that going down might go better but it was the same thing. This time, after having less success on Angela's part, I smacked Sera. The result was a child sitting in her seat albeit with plenty of wailing. When one of the other dad's sitting nearby asked if she was having problems with ears popping, I just gave him a look, and said "Not exactly." Perhaps not my finest moment, but it got the job done. Sigh.

It was dinner time before we were settled into the hotel and we opted for a McDonald's meal since it was right next to the hotel. Sera got a kid's meal with chicken nuggets, fries and a boxed milk. It included a Snoopy toy in the typical plastic bag. Angela and I finished our meals in short order, mainly because we hadn't eaten since breakfast. Sera has eaten 1 of 4 nuggets and a few fries. She spends most of her time goofing off or yapping. We sat around for about 45 minutes more while she ate a few more bites. Each time we made to leave, she fussed about still eating. Sigh.

When she finally decided she was full, we went to throw away the leftovers which resulted in a hissy fit. (Side note: in China it appears guests leave their trash on the table for the employees to throw away. I got strange stares when I took my own trash to the bin.) Sera then proceeded to place her leftover fries and nuggets in the bag the toy came in before placing the toy in as well. When she tried to place the opened, partially consumed sweet & sour dipping sauce in as well, we nixed it. This caused a minor what-for and the removal of fries to finish off the sauce. Nothing like a 2-hour dinner at McD's to burn some time. Sigh.

Sunday started off pretty nice. When we got to our hotel room the night before, it included a playpen. We planned to collapse it to make more space, but the princess got upset. She *wanted* to get in the playpen. What's this? She was a willing accomplice in being contained? Prayers answered. Not only did she sleep in the pen, she overslept until almost 7:30. Best night of sleep since we've been in China. May have to get one of these again when we get home.

Rather than visit a Buddhist temple with the group (Angela refused on the grounds that if we couldn't attend Mass, we certainly weren't visiting a temple of another religion) we stayed at the hotel. We met up with another family doing the same to instead go to a museum a block from the hotel housing the 2,000 year old remains of an emperor. The other family had a contact here in Guangzhou who paid the entrance fee so we got to see an archeological dig site and waste a few more hours.

After that we parted with the other family when they stopped for lunch and continued our walk around the "block". Not sure how blocks work around here, but we wound up taking a 3-mile tour around the city, all the while keeping our eyes on recognizable landmarks in hopes of working our way back to the hotel. When we finally got back, mom and dad were exhausted from carrying a toddler (7-year-old, but I digress). We had skipped lunch and I had to get to a 4 PM meeting to fill out paperwork for the US visa. Following that, we did dinner in the hotel and called it a night.

Now it is Tuesday morning. We are headed to a medical facility for a checkup for Sera. We are told it will include a TB test that comes with a shot in a room with doctor and nurses, but no parents. I expect that will go over like a... well, I'll let you fill in the rest. We have a dinner cruise on the river tonight which we are looking forward to. The rest of the week includes getting the visa for Sera and waiting for the TB results before beginning the journey home on Friday morning. So ready to be home -- oh, did I mention that already?

Dec 10, 2015

Mean Daddy visits the Aquarium

Thursday and Friday are basically "free" days as we wait for the children's passports to be completed and mailed to the hotel. Like America, passports usually take a few weeks to receive, but CCAI has something worked out to get the adoption passports pushed through super quick.

Thursday we opted to join some of the other families for a trip to the city's aquarium. I must admit I was expecting something much less impressive, even when first arriving at the smallish, weathered building by bus. But once we stepped inside, I was greeted by a nice display of fish, lizards, turtles and arctic animals.

The first stop was finding a toilet for Seraphina as soon as we entered the building. As with any place you take a toddler, bathrooms are never as close as you need them to be. Communicating in a foreign language only added to this issue as this was not the kind of place expecting Americans to walk in the door.

Following our first mini-adventure, we settled in for walking around the various aquatic displays. Many were typical of any aquarium, but then we got to the koi pond. At least that's what the other families called it. To me, they looked more like the oversized goldfish I used to see at Carowinds. For 10¥ (about $1.50) you received a baby bottle with murky liquid in it. When you held it at water level, the fish would climb over each other to get a suck on the nipple. It was the best waste of money thus far as everyone enjoyed watching the kids feed the fish. The only bad part was when the "food" ran out and Na-na wanted more. Sorry kiddo, can't spend all my change on fish food.

Next up was the coral reef. The wall was low with a big sign that said not to put hands in the water. Well of course Sera wanted to try and grab one of the pretty things she was looking at. I pulled her back and mentioned the "look but don't touch" line. If you read a previous post, you'll recall that that is one of her dislikes. She immediately stomped back to the wall for a repeat try. Again I pulled her back with a more forceful "No" but that made her all the more assertive. On the third failed attempt, I hauled her up in my arms and left the display as I explained pointlessly in English that if she could not obey the rules, she would not be allowed to participate.

Na-na began crying and thrashing about in my arms. She was loudly expressing her disdain as we departed the immediate area. This is always fun in a public place back home. It's even more fun when in a foreign country where the locals understand what your child is screaming but you don't. I'm sure it had something to do with how I was an evil kidnapper mercilessly abusing this sweet, innocent girl. Whatevs. Mean Daddy was in full effect and there was no backing out now.

Eventually mom caught up with us and Sera gladly went in to her arms continually saying (presumably) bad things about me. Eventually she calmed down as a show was about to begin. They were playing American tunes until the show started and Sera began to dance to the music (MP4 via Dropbox). She sat with one of the other family's daughters who has become her "big sister" while in China.

It seemed we were friends again following the show and we continued to tour the 5-level aquarium including a long tunnel beneath stingrays and sharks, and another show, this time a love story between a mermaid and a scuba diver. It was all in Chinese, but I think the message had something to do with mermaids only liking humans who didn't harm the ocean's animals. She preferred men who danced with sea turtles and dogfish.

The next clash was when Sera noticed other kids with a light-up plastic porpoise hanging around their necks. I didn't need to understand Chinese to know she wanted one. Now. I'm not one for adding to the junk we already have, but I was willing to consider it if we happened to come across it as we exited the building. Of course we didn't which led to more fussing, or so I assume from her frustration and yapping. It was briefly allayed when she saw one of those vehicles you can sit on and move back and forth for some spare change. Mean Daddy was just below the surface though and decided there was no point to "rewarding" a complainer. We let her sit on the motionless contraption until it was time to go.

Just before we boarded the bus, a lady came up to her trying to sell some cheap trinket. She went nuts when I herded her on to the bus trinket-less. Mean Daddy makes a third appearance. While many of the other parents seemed to pamper (aka spoil) their new children, I saw no need to be different than I am around the house. There'll be great presents under the tree in a couple of weeks -- you can live without a plastic bauble that falls apart before we get back to the hotel (I know this because it happened for one of the other kids).

Sera feeds a sea turtle
You might think our return to the hotel meant things would get back to normal (or as normal as can be in a hotel in China). You would be incorrect.

Upon our return we opted for a trip to Pizza Hut for lunch. We ordered two Pepsis and I planned to share mine with Sera. I poured her some in a small glass and handed it to her. She indicated she wanted a straw like her "big sister" had across the table. I refused since her glass was too small for a straw and I pictured a mess if she tried to use it. She once again became indignant about not getting what she wanted which (of course) pissed me off as well. After she pushed the soda away a couple times out of frustration, I poured the soda back into my glass leaving her with nothing. I assume anyone reading this can figure out how that played out.

More wailing and gnashing of teeth. I could tell our friends at the table were uncomfortable. I could see that the patrons around us were astonished. The wait staff must have been nervous as one young woman brought over an activity sheet to try to console the child having a complete melt down while her dad completely ignored her (or at least appeared to on the outside). Eventually I would pour soda back into her glass but the straw was never to be part of the deal. Mean Daddy strikes again.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sera was back on good terms with fun daddy by the end of the meal, laughing as she covered me in stickers from the activity sheet she received earlier. Back in the hotel she was all giggles and interested in "rough-housing" with dad in the hotel room. Until 4:30 when one parent had to meet in the hallway to review paperwork.

I went alone to take care of this chore assuming Sera would prefer Angela to me for an extended period, especially after how the rest of the day had gone. After about 5 minutes, Angela came out with Sera and indicated our daughter was calling for me and thought we should switch roles. Seriously? I have 3 kids at home and I know how this game plays out, but whatevs. Mean Daddy was being signaled for and Mean Daddy would answer the call.

As soon as I picked up Na-na to take her to the hotel room so Angela could review work alone as instructed, she began protesting. I ignored the pleas as we entered our room as closed the door behind us. Sera, ever the obstinate one, made to open the door and return to the hallway.

Mean Daddy: "Sorry, not going to happen."
Seraphina: "If you refuse, I'll scream bloody murder."
Mean Daddy: "Go for it. I'm not wearing my hearing aids anyway."
Seraphina: "Three. Two. One."

What came next was the mother of all tantrums. If there had been a priest nearby, I may have requested an exorcism. As it was, I felt that acknowledging the outburst would only endorse it so I ceremoniously ignored her by reading a Curious George book to myself as she flailed, kicked the bed, tore up hotel signage, and screamed her displeasure. Occasionally she would calm down long enough to catch her breath or wipe snot bubbles on her sleeve. At one point I left an opening and she made her way for the door again. I mentioned that was not an option knowing that even if she understood English she would have ignored me. When her hand touched the doorknob, I scooped her up and returned her to her "prison" -- between the two beds with me sitting at the end blocking the exit. Wailing and gnashing of teeth continued. For the better part of an hour there was no silence except when she was inhaling to unleash her fury again. Mean Daddy was heroic (at least in his mind) as he ignored all attempts to be demolished by the awesome forces of one toddler's special power -- the Terror Tantrum.

When Angela finally wrapped up what she needed to get done, she returned to the carnage of the aftermath. I removed myself as "barrier" so that Sera could finally get to her savior and begin recounting all the horrific details. It was one time I truly wish I could understand what she was saying as I'm sure it was juicy. Angela listened patiently and nodded every now and then in mock agreement. At one point Na-na went to open the door to the hallway on her own and Angela refused egress. Mean Daddy's sidekick, Staunch Mama, performed gloriously in support of the superhero! Finally, after some cool off time for both parties, mom took daughter into the hallway for some time apart with the other kids in the group.

By evening, Sera would be rough housing with "baba" (daddy) again as if nothing ever happened. But Mean Daddy had made his appearance and (hopefully) established that there will be limits in the Smith household as well as a separation of rights for children and adults. All my children have had the opportunity to meet Mean Daddy, but the three older ones know how simple it is to keep from meeting him often -- don't overstep the clearly defined bounds. I'm sure Seraphina will learn just as quickly.

It's all good. Fun Daddy is in the house Friday (today). Saturday morning we get up bright and early for our flight to Guangzhou where we take care of all the American paperwork to bring Sera home to America. One more week of hotel living -- pray for us!

Trains & Automobiles: Zhumadian Style

On Wednesday, we woke up early to take a train ride to the town where Seraphina's orphanage was located in order to apply for a passport. We hadn't done this in the past so this was a new adventure for the Smiths.

Sera's orphanage is in Suiping, south of Zhengzhou where we have been staying this week. Zhumadian is a bit further south, but being the hub city, it was the location of the government offices. (On a side note, we were told Sera spent some time in Kaifeng for some speech therapy. The significance here is that Leah is from Kaifeng.)

We took a subway from the Hilton to the train station and then boarded the train for an hour ride. Sera did great the entire time, enjoying some chips and "browsing" the magazine in the seat pocket. Apparently she has watched adults read magazines so for her this involves methodically turning to each page continuously (never stopping to actually look at any content) until she reaches the end and then putting the magazine away. Speed reader.

Our guide, Rita (in picture above in red coat) was rushing us from vehicle to vehicle which was somewhat stressful combined with a child who wanted to walk but couldn't because of the speed expected of us. However, the hustle and bustle was necessary since we were constantly stopped by police to check passports. Whatever conference is coming next week to Zhengzhou has everyone on high alert. Apparently Americans adopting Chinese kids fits every profile in the book.

Leah's first breakdown of the day was when we tried to climb into a taxi to get from the train station in Zhumadian to the passport office. Angela climbed in first while I held Na. She broke into tears and started yapping. When I finally got in to the taxi myself, Rita said Na wanted Angela and was scared of me. Strange, as she plays with me all the time in the hotel room, with or without Angela in sight. Personally I think Na wants the three of us to be around at all times. While she manages with just one of us, whenever there is a perception that one of us is "leaving", she gets visibly upset. This makes it interesting when one of us has to use the bathroom.

At the passport office, we met up with Na's caregivers (in black and gray coats above). They are the ones that brought her to the Hilton on Monday and were needed to sign the paperwork making the transfer complete. One of the ladies gave Sera a bag with some of her clothes as well as a doll which was a going away present. Sera did great with the short reunion and gave each of them a hug when they parted ways.

Last stop before the return trip was a trip to the orphanage where two of the other children in our adoption group were from. To get there, we had to take a minivan through town. I wish I could have gotten video of the drive as no words can do justice to how the Chinese drive. Lines are wasted on these people. We wove between lanes often and many times would straddle two lanes if the driver was unsure which gave the best advantage. At stop lights, he would pull up on the right of another driver already in the shoulder, then rev the engine just before the light changed and merge into the shoulder before merging back in to an actual lane. And merging consisted of a flick of the turn signal before moving to left or right -- no need to use the mirrors -- bigger vehicle (or bigger balls) usually gained the pole position. To get to orphanage we had to take a few side streets, these were unpaved with manhole covers sticking no less than 8 inches above the ground (or sometimes 8 inches underground). The minivan would weave between obstacles as necessary, sometimes playing chicken with oncoming traffic. If two vehicles got too close, a simple "beep-beep" would be made simultaneous to a quick tap in the brakes. At one point I thought we were driving through a war zone as we had to navigate huge piles of rubble as if on some giant moto-cross track. At one point we were driving on a wide sidewalk; another we were driving through a mud puddle so wide I was convinced I would be pushing before we made it across. I have been to most every big city in America and not one comes remotely close to how the Chinese drive.

Once at the orphanage, we had about 15 minutes to take a quick tour. This was apparently one of the better funded institutions in China and it makes me wonder about the others. The hall ways were cold and had that institutional smell of ammonia mixed with urine. The rooms were nice enough with fairly new cribs and a small area with rubber mats, a wall mirror and a TV. A few toys were scattered about. Not much to see aside from the pictures lining the walls of the children who had been adopted and were in photos with their forever families.

The return trip was more of the same with a stop at a police station to sign one other document. The second hand cigarette smoke in the tiny building was so bad, I opted to step back outside to inhale the polluted air instead.

Another week in China still? God bless us.

Dec 8, 2015

Likes & Dislikes

Today was a fairly calm day. We had to take a bus to two government buildings to get the adoption finalized by the Chinese government and to have the forms notarized. After that we were on our own for the afternoon while most of the families went to apply for their children's passports. We will join two other families to do the same thing tomorrow which will require leaving the hotel at 7 AM to travel by subway, train and taxi to the remote town Seraphina's orphange is located in. We anticipate that being an emotional day, especially after learning of one of Seraphina's dislikes as detailed below.

1st American meal: BK nuggets and fries

Things Seraphina likes

  1. Watermelon. I always thought "congee" was a porridge-like dish made from rice. I am beginning to think it is the Chinese word for watermelon though as this is the 2nd child that prefers the juicy, red fruit to a bowl of white mush.
  2. Touching the ceiling. The ceiling in the hotel room is about 10 feet up. Sera constantly asks to be lifted up so that she can touch it with her hands. I'm basically doing chest presses to the tune of 10 per hour. The laughter however makes the pain a little more bearable that doing the same with a kettle bell.
  3. Taking a bath. This girl tries to climb into the tub whenever she is in the bathroom. We have to repeatedly tell her that she has to wait until before bed time. She has taken more baths in the past two days (2) than most of my kids prefer to take in a week.
  4. Balloons. I thought they would be a nice distraction for little cost after seeing another parent with them on Gotcha day. Unfortunately I made the mistake of blowing one up and then stretching the material to make the ballon "whine" as the air was released. I thought it would annoy her but instead she now insists I blow up balloons over and over so that she can make them whine herself thereby annoying her parents. Well played, Sera.
  5. Cleaning up. Grandma will be pleased. Seraphina is very good about putting one toy away before getting another one out. When she eats a piece of candy for finishes a water bottle, the is good about putting the trash in the basket. When she gets ready for bed, she folds are her clothes and puts them in the suitcase first. We're hoping her habits will rub off on her "roommate" (aka sister) when we get home.

Things Seraphina does not like

  1. Look but don't touch. She is mesmerized by the Christmas tree in the hotel lobby with decorative presents stacked all around the base. We allow her to look at the ornaments but will not let her touch them since she is reluctant to let them go once she has them. Keeping her from touching resulted in a minor breakdown today as she tugged and loudly voiced her displeasure, forcing me to remove her from the lobby.
  2.  Downtime. If she's not sleeping, Na-na wants to be active. Sitting still is not an option (unless she's eating). Needless to say, Angela and I are often trying to sneak a little nap time in whenever possible. We are happy when 7:30 PM rolls around which is bed time. We're quite glad the orphanage instilled that habit in her.
  3. Buses/travel. Today we got our first tears from Sera. She completely lost it as Angela held her and stepped on to the bus to go to the government buiding. It took several minutes to calm her down. We assume she associates something bad with going places, and expect we will have a repeat performance tomorrow as we head to her "home town". Hopefully she will look back one day and see that it was a "trip" that brought her home to her forever family.

That's it. I was thinking of a Top 5 list for the good and the bad, but thus far there really isn't anything she doesn't like. Not to jinx ourselves, but aside from her medical needs, this has been the easiest adoption yet. Maybe we're just getting comfortable with the process after 3 previous adoptions, or maybe she's just that angelic. In any event, I think "Seraphina" was an applicable name.

On a side note, I was reviewing some of the posts from our trip to adopt Leah which included our stay in the same city we are in now. In it I mention how blue the skies are in Zhengzhou. My how things have changed in the past 7 years. The skies are now filled with a yellowish-gray haze that persists all day. Air pollution is thick and you can practically taste it. I once thought the Asians wearing face masks with a little ridiculous, but I would be open to wearing one this week. We try not to go out too often because it is so bad.

I also have to grin when I read in the same post about the other families back then adopting children with "bigger" issues than Leah had -- among them were 'adopting an older child' or 'one with missing limbs'. I suppose God was laughing when I typed that, thinking "if you only knew". Check and check.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) looks to be a busy day. It may be Thursday before I have a chance to post again so go back and review some of the older posts from past adoptions. It's interesting to see what's changed and what has stayed the same. Like a cream-colored henley that I wore when we adopted Leah 7 years ago which I packed again for this trip.

Dec 7, 2015


Monday was Gotcha Day. The day we would get to meet Seraphina for the first time in person. A day filled with nervous excitement, wondering how our new daughter might react when she sees us as well as how we would likely react when we met her.

As usual, Angela and I were up before dawn. I'm not sure if we're having a hard time adjusting to the new time zone or if the events of the next few weeks just have us jittery (probably a little of both). In any event, we began getting ready around 4AM which gave us time to chat with our boys back home for a bit before heading down for breakfast. We shouldn't fail to mention how thankful we are for friends to look after our children while we are overseas to adopt our 4th. The Riders, Cannons and McCormicks have been most generous in opening their doors (and hearts) to watch after our kids. While the kids (and us) are not totally happy about being apart for two weeks, we could not have asked for better friends to get them through the separation time.

After a delicious buffet which included mounds of veggies for me (what is this strange craving I have for healthy food?) and a chocolate-covered donut with sprinkles for Angela, we returned to our room to grab the few things we would need for the exchange. The plan was to take a bus to the meeting location at 9 AM. After all the families had assembled in the lobby, our guide informed us that the building we were supposed to be going to was under renovation so the meetings were being re-routed. Instead, the kids were bring brought to our hotel where they would meet us for the first time on the floor we were staying. Strange that this information wasn't known until the last minute, but great that we would not be in a business-like setting while trying to bond with the new additions to our families.

All the families sat together in the hallway waiting for the children to arrive. We were told that they would be coming at various times since they were from various orphanages. The majority of the children arrived before Serpahina so we had the opportunity to observe as others met their kids for the first time. I thought Angela was going to break down on a number of occasions (and rightly so), but she managed to hold her emotions in check as she offered to take pictures of each family as they embraced their children.

The hallway was a bit chaotic when we heard commotion from the elevator area. I caught a glimpse of Seraphina just before the social workers corralled the new arrivals back around the corner so that the children could be properly introduced. When Seraphina and her two guardians turned the corner, Na made eye contact with Angela and ran straight for her shouting "Mama!". She turned to look at her care takers as she pointed toward me and said "baba" (daddy) and then opened the Hello Kitty backpack she had brought with her and pulled out the photo album we had sent ahead of time. She flipped through every single page pointing at us and our kids, each time naming them correctly as mommy, daddy, sister and brothers. I couldn't tell through tears whether Angela was sobbing by this time so I assumed she was managing on her own.

Angela also had brought a backpack filled with goodies and handed Na a stuffed panda bear that her and Leah had picked out. Na was excited to receive it and gave it a big hug. Then she reached into her pack and pulled out some hard candies and eagerly insisted Angela and I both have one. After she was sure we were "fed" she grabbed another bag of cookies, had her caregivers help to open them, and proceeded up and down the hallway offering each child one. It was overwhelming to see her jump into caregiver mode herself, stopping to "console" any crying children (although amazingly there were very few). By this point Angela and I were both laughing as we tried to keep up with her. But even though she was very friendly to everyone in the hallway, she never mistook any of the other adults for "mama" and "baba", always calling us by name as she made eye contact.

Once the initial paperwork was signed and the fees and gifts were handed out, Na's caretakers prepared to leave. It was obvious they were as emotional as we were, and while they forced smiles knowing the child they brought would be well cared for, it was obvious that Na-na (as they called her) would be missed in the orphanage. Our new daughter called out to them in Chinese as she waved. Angela heard the word "mama" and thought Na was referring to the caretaker as her former mother, but a guide told us that Na was actually saying, "I found my mama so it's OK for you to go now." Another round of teary eyes for everyone.

We thought at this point Sera might become sad as the adults she had known all this time left without her, but she seemed very much calm and content knowing she was with her mom and dad. She continued to "check" on the other kids while we were in the hallway, handing out snacks as needed. She happily sat with both Angela and I on numerous occasions while playing with the activity books we had brought for her. The only time she had a remotely negative reaction is when I picked her up and kissed her on the cheek. She wrinkled up her nose and made a disgusted look and pointed at my beard. She started chattering in Chinese and reached for Angela and touched her smooth cheek before pointing at my face again. I assume she is not a fan of scratchy kisses. For now she only lets Angela pick her up, but had no problem playing with me. She enjoyed sitting on my back as I did a few pushups in the hotel room in lieu of a workout in the gloom.

At no point the rest of the day did the mood change for Na-na. She played with the sticker book. She cooed over the pink blanket Leah made for her. She put together two puzzles with help from Angela. She pulled snacks out of her pack continuously and seemed to always have something to chew on. She drank water from plastic bottles often. She asked for help when she had to use the bathroom. She played with every electronic device she could get her hands on, taking pictures of Angela and I (not bad), "fixing" the cord we removed from the hotel phone (uh-oh), and turning on my phone then navigating to/playing Angry Birds (wait, how'd you do that?!). At lunch, she ate some buttered bread, a part of Angela's sandwich and a healthy amount of french fries. This girl knows how to use fries as spoons for ketchup and ate every last drop of the sweet, red stuff the waitress brought us.

She does not like it when other kids act mean toward her. One child tried to push her away when she reached out to touch his toy. She made a mean look and rattled off something in Chinese, demanding to be held. But she was over it and moving on to the next activity once comforted. We are told she does not like spicy food and is allergic to kiwi. I guess Leah gets all the kiwi to herself when we get home.

She is very good about sharing and cleaning up behind herself. We can't tell how much Chinese she knows as she always repeats what we say whether in Chinese or English. She seems to have already learned some English -- when we say to throw something in the trash, she knows right where to put it. Before bed, she happily climbed into the bath tub and allowed Angela to bathe her - including washing her hair - without a peep. I'm not sure my older kids wouldn't still complain about shampoo in their eyes!

Having adopted two children from China previously, I am preparing myself for the "let down" -- the point at which the new reality sets in and Seraphina recognizes that things are different. That is how it went with the other kids. That's how I imagine I would be in a similar situation. But so far, it doesn't seem like Na-na (the name we are continuing to use for now) will have problems. She has been fantastic thus far, going to bed rather easily and sleeping through the night.

We will need to address the deformed limb quickly. I originally thought we would need to wait for awhile, but if she continues to be so agreeable, I see no reason to put off the inevitable. It is obvious she will benefit from surgery and the prosthetic leg. Also, she is *TINY*. I can not believe she is seven years old. I'd swear she was 4 or 5 and if I thought we could get away with it, I might be tempted to say she's 5 in public and deal with the ramifications later in life.

But for now, life is better than we could have hoped. We have a new daughter who seems very happy to have found her forever family and we are down to 11 days before returning home to be reunited with the other three children we miss dearly. If all continues like this, the Smiths should have a very merry Christmas.

Dec 6, 2015

Security on Lockdown in Zhengzhou

Summary: Long day of travel Sunday with little to eat and a whole lot of security checks.

We left Beijing after a quick breakfast. The security checkpoint at the airport took almost an hour. Apparently they are using Windows 98 on the baggage check -- I'm guessing based on the blue screen of death I noticed on the large CRT monitor when they finally let me get my things following a VERY frisky lady patting me down. At least she was wearing latex gloves.

The flight to Zhengzhou was uneventful after that and gave us a chance to meet two more couples who were adopting older children like us. We were the only three families flying to the next stop; the others opted to leave earlier in the morning to take a high-speed train instead.

After we collected our bags, we headed for the airport exit to meet our new guide when one of our members was stopped by local police. She looked in our direction which led to all of us being pulled aside for a spot check of passports and a general grilling of our reason for being in this city with its severe air pollution. After several minutes of scrutinizing our visas and requiring phone numbers and addresses of every place we'd be stopping while in town, they (seemingly reluctantly) let us go.

We piled into a small bus for the 1-hour ride to the downtown Hilton hotel. About 30 minutes into the trip, we passed a toll booth and on the opposite side, the bus was waved down by military police. I really wanted to get a picture of these men dressed in black with bullet proof vests and automatic rifles, but based on the way the heated conversation with the bus driver went and how they stormed on the bus demanding to see passports, I admit I was just a little intimidated. We would later ask our guide about China's concern for terrorism and she claimed threats like that didn't exist in China -- I can see why with that show of force towards 3 couples looking to adopt.

When we arrived in the city, our first stop was at a bank (yes, on a Sunday afternoon). We needed to exchange money for the gifts and fees required on Monday morning when we finally meet Sera in person. Carrying the amount of money we were required to bring in cash has been a major cause of stress for me. It's not every day you walk around with roughly NINE GRAND in your backpack. And with a conversion rate of roughly 6:1, I was none to pleased to be handed a tower of 100¥ bills (the largest denomination available in China) to the tune of 42,600¥. I felt like I was holding enough money in my hands to buy an entire apartment building in Zhengzhou while Chinese locals were standing in lines beside me to get money for dinner. Needless to say, I was sweating as I tried to pile the large stack of bills into my backpack without drawing attention. It may sound weird, but I will be glad to get rid of this money tomorrow so that I don't have to worry about keeping it safe in a strange country!

Once that was done, we finally made it into the Hilton, our home for the next week or so while we get to know Sera and fill out lots of paperwork to get her back home to NC. We had to meet with the entire group (the first time we met many of them) as our new guide went over the itinerary for the next few days as well as what to expect when we meet our new child.

About 30 cents for 6 oz soda
The next stop was in the lobby to meet everyone for a trip to Walmart. Yep, they have Walmart in China, although it only vaguely resembles what we think of in America. There were 3 floors. While some families had to get formula and diapers, we were there to grab a few snacks for the hotel room. We stuck with recognizable brands despite the price being higher than local competition. While there were some really unusual options, the strangest thing we picked up was the cucumber-flavored Pringles.

We passed on the spicy quail eggs
On the way back to the hotel, Angela and I broke off from the American contingent to grab some food at a Subway. It would be the first thing we ate since breakfast in Beijing nearly 10 hours earlier. Stepping into the restaurant was like being back in the states -- the smell of the bread was tantalizing (when's the last time you said that about Subway fare). I have never been so excited to eat a BMT as I was that evening. Yum.

We played it safe with cucumber flavor
Back in the hotel, we ate devoured our sandwiches, chips and a drink while watching a little TV. We laid down on the bed for a little nap around 6:30 PM and ... I just woke up. It's 2 AM here. We'll be meeting Seraphina (and hoping it all goes well) in a little over 6 hours. Nervously looking forward to the introductions.

P.S. We were told that there was going to be a large, international medical conference next week in Zhengzhou and that was the reason for the heightened security. Anyone not local (including Chinese from outside the area) were being checked upon arrival in the city. It appears that the internet connection will be equally scrutinized. While writing this post, my connection has dropped numerous times. Although it can be frustrating dealing with Time Warner or Verizon back home, this trip is a reminder that we really do have it better than most.

Dec 5, 2015

Wangfujing Church, Diocese of Beijing

Our hotel sits right beside a beautiful church. When we passed it last night, there were college-aged kids dancing outside the doors to loud electronica music so we opted not to research further. This afternoon we returned and dodged young men on skateboards to step inside. We found what is certainly a Catholic Church, but we are not sure it is in good standing with the Vatican.

The information board at the front doors (just inside an iron gate) name the Church as Saint Joseph's Church and there is a covered statue of him holding the baby Jesus outside the building. The board mentions adoration from 8 AM to 9 PM during the week as well as an English mass at 4 PM on Sundays. Three Chinese masses are early enough that we could possibly make it before leaving for Zhenghou later tomorrow morning, but without certainty of its validity, we are opting to pass on the opportunity.

Despite the uncertainty, both the outside and inside are impressive. While there are TV screens on most of the ornate columns (which presumably display the prayers/music during the mass) and a gift shop built against the back wall of the worship area, it is obvious that this church was built with great care. While we were inside, there appeared to be a prayer service taking place. It was led by a woman in front of a baldacchino but we were not sure of specifics; no English literature was found in the building. We also noted a young priest exiting the church wearing traditional clericals.

We were troubled to see the apparent disrespect for the church just outside the front doors, but I imagine it would be difficult to enforce reverence in a country where the Church is run (at least in part) by the government. It will be interesting to see if the Catholic Church in China ever returns to full communion with Rome.

Beijing on a budget

We woke up this morning ready to hit the reset button. The goal was not to fall for any scams involving large sums of money. With the help of another couple we met at breakfast, I think we managed to seize the day.

The day began with working internet and a video call with both of our boys. While Jeremy seemed happy to see us, I think it was Angela and me that were happiest about getting to see them on our screens. Despite our eagerness to add Seraphina to our family, we miss seeing the children we already have back home!

international breakfast cuisine 

Following the call, we headed down to the 3rd floor atrium for a buffet breakfast. Sunworld Dynasty did not disappoint with international options to satisfy all taste buds. I was feeling froggy, so I went with some unusual choices. The boiled green veggies and beef & mushroom soup were delicious. The steamed dumpling wasn't as good as I had expected due to some foul-tasting filling, and the seasoned, cold mackerel was a definite dud.

During breakfast we made the educated guess that a nearby group of couples was likely part of our adoption group. Prior to today we had only met 1 of 2 guides who picked us up at airport and got us situated at the hotel. We have not met other families or the 2nd guide.

Angela was the first to get up an introduce herself to one of the couples. Kylan and Robert came over to sit with us and a new friendship was born. They are from Phoenix, AZ and this will be their first adoption. They are adopting a 2-year old boy. As was the case with families met during our past trips to China, this one was a perfect match. They asked if we would like to join them for a self-guided walking tour of Beijing, and we gratefully accepted.

Tiananmen Square architecture
Around lunch time we met them in the lobby and headed for Tiananmen Square. Although we had been there with the group last time, we were happy to return with new friends for another look. We had to turn down several Chinese looking to make a quick buck as our personal tour guides before making it to a security checkpoint. It was then that we learned that Kylan and Robert had intelligently brought along their passports while we left our IDs in the hotel lockbox. The guards waved us through without a care, but our lack of ID would be an issue later.

Inside the walls we stood in line for tickets to enter the inner halls. While waiting, an older Chinese woman was clearly attempting to get her grade school-age son to stand nearby to get a picture with "the Americans". Having seen this on our last trip, I mentioned it to the group before brazenly stepping up next to the boy and putting my arm around his shoulders. The boy was a little surprised and went to move away (smart kid) but the mom waved him back to me as she took the picture. No words were exchanged, but I knew I had made it into another family photo album.

hotel's inner atrium
Maybe that event made onlookers a little more intrepid. A male and female student approached us next and mentioned that they were celebrating their classroom's 5th birthday and wanted to get a video of us singing Happy Birthday to the class. For this one I got the help of Angela and Kylan, who surely had better singing voices than me. After a beautiful rendition of Happy Birthday, the students hugged us and gave us high fives. I can't wait to see us on China's version of YouTube. I have no doubt our show will go viral.

When we got to the front of the line for tickets, the lady at the counter asked for our passports. We just looked at her with a stupid look. I showed her my driver's license and asked if that would work instead. She rolled her eyes and asked for Angela's license. We told her Angela didn't have one. The employee stared at us for what seemed like hours, then grunted and printed out two tickets. I suppose 80¥ was more important than security in the Square. I assume it was my pretty face that got us in. That or I was already famous on the internet from the aforementioned viral video.

Monkey King's robe
After an hour or so of walking around the Square, we found our way on to the top of the outer wall. This was something we had not done the last time and it was a nice addition. In the buildings on top of the wall, they had free museums with samples of the robes worn during the various dynasties as well as videos explaining how the buildings were completed without the use of nails. We left out a side gate when we all agreed it was time for something to eat.

We returned to the Apple store where we were accosted the night before, but with our new friends (aka chaperones) we pushed through the throng of natives checking out the Apple products to enter the mall. With Christmas approaching, all the parents had their kids lined up for photos. Only Santa was no where to be found. Instead, it looked like they were in line to get their pics with a giant replica of Big Hero Six. We took escalators to the 6th floor and found a place to eat that seemed to be a hit with the locals.

Dinner was noodle soup with a spring roll and a Coke. The soup came in a giant bowl, and remembering A co-worker's reminder that slurping was OK in Asia, I did my best with the chop sticks to shove noodles into my mouth. I had the spicy noodles with mushrooms and the Chinese don't fool around with heat like they do back home. While not unexpected, the soup packed a punch. Robert had the same and before we were done, we were both coughing with tears in our eyes from the heat. Delicious. Oh, and the whole meal -- two bowls of soup, 4 spring rolls, and two sodas -- came to a total of 70¥ or roughly $12. Yeah, I'd say the tea and nuts was a scam that we totally fell for.

As we get ready for bed, Elijah is preparing to receive Confirmation back home (proud parents, sorry we can not be there to witness). As my buddies in F3 get the Christmas party underway back home, we will be boarding a plane for Zhengzhou where we will meet Seraphina for the first time on Monday, hours after the Panthers hopefully extend their record to 12-0. Thanks for all the prayers and well wishes. We will talk again soon.

Dec 4, 2015

You spent how much?

That was a long day. Up at 6. Leave the house at 7:30. Catch our flight from Charlotte to Detroit at 9:40. Land in Detroit with just enough time to use the restroom before boarding the plane for Beijing -- a 14-hour flight. About 90 minutes to the hotel, and 60 minutes to get the internet (kind of) working. By my count, we've been up roughly 26 hours straight and are ready to crash at 8:30 PM (that's 7:30 AM back home). Our Friday is over; hope you enjoy yours.

So why the title? Well, let's just say I made some questionable purchases and now I'm doing the math and trying to decide which was the biggest mistake. Do any of these sound unusual to you:
  1. $169 to upgrade to Comfort+ for a seat close to front of plane with 4 inches extra leg room and "free" cocktails. I got a Jack & Ginger and a rum and Coke which averages out to $85/drink.
  2. I forgot to bring an ethernet adapter for the laptop. I picked one up at an Apple store in Beijing for roughly $38.
  3. Met a strange Chinese fellow who convinced us to share a small pot of tea and a bowl of peanuts in a back alley bar. Tab was 500¥ which amounts to $83.
Yeah, so $169 extra for seats may not have been the best deal around, but we did it mainly to have seats closer to front of plane with a little extra leg room. I was OK spending a little extra for the "luxury" even if the only real "extra" was the free liquor. The Thunderbolt adaptor for $38 sounds great -- I'm thinking I would spend $40-50 back home plus tax. But a small pitcher of tea (think 2-cup coffee maker) and some Planter's peanuts for $83?!? I'll never complain about an $8 beer again. (JollyRoger would be proud that I didn't leave a tip.)

We managed to part company with our new Chinese friend before he could order a 2nd pitcher, especially once we realized he wasn't going to be able to cover the bill. He claimed he taught grade school children English and wanted to work on this conversational skills. To this credit, he did a great job. But the whole time (especially when we turned off the main street into the back alley) I thought he was going to mug us. Little did I know it was the tea shop that was going to take me for all I had!

Now we're back in the hotel room. We have a free day tomorrow. The rest of the adoption group (who we have not met yet) are going to the Great Wall, but we passed on that option since we visited it on our last trip. Originally we thought we'd tour Beijing on our own, but now we're thinking we might have to stay in our room and watch movies on the laptop. If we have another day like today, we'll be broke before we meet Seraphina.

Edit: As luck would have it, I was kicked off the VPN connection while typing this and couldn't get back on Friday night. Apparently China and Google don't play well so without VPN we have no blog, no email and no Google Hangouts with the kids. Dumb communism.

And we're back. For now.

Nov 28, 2015

An Angel Awaits Us In China

"Well, you never did the baby update - at least not HERE. The only way you will update HERE is if you go BACK to China :)" 
This was one of the last comments from friends who we met in China when we adopted Leah six years ago. Well guess what? I'm updating HERE :)

On December 6, 2008 we posted our itinerary for our trip to adopt our first daughter. We flew out of Charlotte on December 10 and returned on Christmas Day. Little did we know that our 2nd daughter was already 4 months old and nearby when we were in Zhengzhou meeting Leah in person for the first time.

"Leah has been clamoring for a sister for a couple of years."

Now, almost 7 years to the day (we fly out December 3rd) we are going back to Beijing to adopt an adorable 7-year-old girl. I recently sent an email to family and close friends explaining how we made the decision to once again grow our family and a few important details about our 4th child. Here are the details for all to enjoy:

Leah has been clamoring for a sister for a couple of years -- seems her brothers don't always want a social butterfly joining them for play time. Angela has always been open to 12+ children of any nationality with any special need. The log jam was with the husband/father who wasn't sure he was ready for whatever God had planned. After much prayer and soul-searching, I finally fell in line. We opted to go back to China given our familiarity with the process and the adoption agency.

The adoption process began several months ago, but as it was mostly paperwork and meetings with a social worker, I didn't want to bore anyone with details. Only in the past couple of weeks has the process picked up steam as we received a match, did some research, approved the match and received Chinese approval.

Meet Seraphina Na Smith:

Na was born on August 10, 2008 (not quite another 8/15 birthday!). Yes, we are adopting a healthy 7-year old girl. We decided on the name Seraphina (Na will become her middle name) to accurately describe this sweet, angelic little girl.

So what's the catch? As is typical of most adoptions these days, "Sera" has a special need. Unlike Jeremy and Leah, this one is a bit more noticeable and will require surgery. Seraphina has a deformed left leg. Per the x-rays and advice from doctors, she does not have a femur (thigh bone) or kneecap. Instead her tibia (calf bone) extends from her hip with her left foot where the knee would be. X-rays suggest there is little or no bone in the foot. She will need to have an AKA (above the knee amputation) and be fitted with a prosthetic (artificial leg). Currently she wears a makeshift device that straps to her pseudo-foot.

"I specifically remember the father telling me that among all the special needs children might have, a deformed limb was the EASIEST to deal with."

Obviously we didn't make the decision to adopt her lightly. First I spoke with a friend who is an MD and shared with him the information and x-rays we were given by the agency. He mentioned the AKA which I researched online. That led me to the website of Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates in Orlando, FL ( 

On Labor Day morning I sent them an email and 5 minutes later (on a holiday!) I received a phone call from one of their employees. Stephanie spoke with me at length about children and prothetic technology. She assured me that they have worked with many families who adopted Chinese children with the same or similar disability. She explained how their business worked to treat every child as an individual case and to treat each patient as family rather than a client. She provided names of three families that would be willing to answer any questions we might have. 

Two of those families contacted me by phone before I had a chance to call them. One lives in Cary, NC and adopted a 6 year old who just turned 14. They shared pictures and invited us for a visit before the call was over. I specifically remember the father telling me that among all the special needs children might have, a deformed limb was the EASIEST to deal with. Having a false leg was not life-threatening nor did it require further surgery or impede the child from growing up and taking care of themselves as an adult. By the end of the conversation I had decided this was something we could handle.

"Sure things won't be 'normal' but since when are we called to be 'normal'?"

I imagine right now you're where I was a month ago -- somewhere between shock and speechlessness. I suggest checking out POA's website ( and youtube videos (start here: Once the tears dry up (I'm still a wreck after watching the video, but I'm getting better) I think you'll agree we (all) can handle this. Sure things won't be "normal" but since when are we called to be "normal"?

I'm sure the initial weeks after we arrive home won't be any easier as we overcome a language barrier and try to bond with an older child prior to telling her about a necessary surgery. We recognize the work cut out for us (and her) when Seraphina is in public and people are curious or disturbed seeing a child with a prosthetic leg. We anticipate having lots of questions while trying to provide lots of answers to everyone else. 

So there it is. We're finally doing what our friends apparently knew all along -- returning to China for another daughter. I had not planned to blog during this trip but so many people asked about it that I figured I should bring redbrownhound out of retirement for a reunion tour. Stay tuned!