My Mom told me she’d been waiting for years for me to ask the question and last summer I finally did: “Can we go to China?” I’d been working on a summer homework project, reading “The Joy Luck Club” and writing a letter to the author, Amy Tan. Suddenly it clicked with me that I had many questions, just as Jing-Mei (the main character) did, about China. Jing-Mei has just lost her Mom, and my Dad had passed away recently. It made me think about who I really am and what part China had in making me the person I’ve become….so we arranged the trip.
Preparing for and anticipating the trip was exciting, but about two weeks before we were going to leave, I started feeling like I didn’t want to go. I felt that I wasn’t ready for the cultural differences, I was fearful that China would not be very developed or modern, I worried about the food, I was afraid that people would speak to me in Chinese and I wouldn’t be able to respond and I was apprehensive about the orphanage visit. But it was all arranged, so of course we went.
“When we landed in Beijing, it was a very surreal experience.” When we landed in Beijing, it was a very surreal experience – I couldn’t believe we were really here in China. It was very late at night and we were exhausted and jet-lagged, so that probably contributed to the feelings I was having. The next morning, we jumped right in and headed off to see the sights of Beijing with our guide, Rocky Yu. He was fantastic and such a nice person! He made sure we always had plenty of water (it was very hot and humid), and was always scouting out a place for my Mom to rest for a few minutes. Rocky explained everything in great detail, but always gave us a little private time at each location, to explore on our own. We visited Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, a hutong and The Great Wall. We also saw the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, Kung-Fu and Acrobatic shows and toured a jade factory, a silk factory and visited a tea house. It was a whirlwind 3 days and certain moments are still coming back to me. I especially enjoyed the shows, riding in a rickshaw, and visiting the factories, but the high point for me was The Great Wall. For years I had heard of it and was always being asked if I had been there; it’s probably the site that symbolizes China for most people. For me, the majesty and the history of the structure were overwhelming – especially when I climbed to the third tower, up a 45 degree incline. My knees hurt for 2 days afterwards, but the view was well worth it!
Our next stop was Nanchang, where my Mom and Dad, and the rest of our group of eleven families, picked up their babies, 17 years ago. The day we landed, we toured the Tengwang Pavilion and later went shopping for orphanage gifts, for our visit the next day. We had already brought quite a few things with us, including toothbrushes, toothpaste and Tylenol donated by my dentist and doctor, but we decided we wanted to bring more gifts. So our guide called the orphanage director to ask if there was anything they needed in particular and then we went shopping for powdered milk, cookies, story books, T-shirts and baby wash. The next morning we set out for the 2 ½ hour drive to Xinyu City, where the orphanage was located. I retreated to my I-pod and the drive passed quickly. Then came the arrival.
“As we pulled up to the gate, a huge string of fireworks exploded and a small “band” was playing drums and flutes.” As we pulled up to the gate a huge string of fireworks exploded and a small “band” was playing drums and flutes. From talking to my friends who had previously visited the orphanage, I knew to expect some sort of greeting, but this was special and a really nice surprise. The most meaningful part of the visit was finding out that the woman who was my caregiver while I was at the orphanage, Mrs. Li, was also the person who found me at the gate and brought me inside. Finding this out meant a lot to my Mom, as she has distinct memories of Mrs. Li seeming sad and reluctant to let me go, when she brought me to my parents. It was clear to my Mom that Mrs. Li had cared for me and this made my Mom happy to know that someone loved me for my first 5 months. Mrs. Li was still working at the orphanage and I had the chance to see her again and show her the scrapbook we made, with pictures of my “growing up” years. She seemed genuinely pleased to see me and to see what a wonderful life I have had. We presented our gifts and the Director gave me a beautiful hand-painted calligraphy scroll. We then went to visit the children and this was the hardest part. First we saw a classroom of special needs children, of all ages. I was sad they would probably live there always, but glad to see their classroom and nice, clean surroundings. They were all happy to receive cookies and books. We then moved on to the toddlers, who were having “potty” time. They were so cute, all sitting in a row. From there, we entered the crib rooms, where the babies were being readied for nap time, and that’s when we started crying. I cried because I want these babies to have a home with loving parents, like I have, and my Mom cried because she was remembering when I was a baby and first came home. It was a brief moment and then we were able to move on, taking comfort in the fact that the babies were clean, well cared-for and cuddled. The last part of the visit was a feast prepared for us, a huge lazy susan covered with all types of food from a whole fish to the inevitable rice – and all delicious. I really felt comfortable then because I know how to use chopsticks and enjoyed picking from the turntable as it went round. We ate our fill, said our good-byes and drove into the city to visit the gate area where I was found. You see, the facility we visited was not the building where I stayed. That one had been torn down and a new one built outside the city. So that was sad, but the most we could do was stop in the general area of the old gates. We took a picture, left some of my Dad’s ashes in a small garden nearby, and returned to Nanchang with many thoughts swirling around in my head.
“In Nanchang, a lot of grandparents were very proud to show us their babies and we exchanged a lot of smiles.” We were leaving Nanchang the next day, but had time in the morning to visit the “August 1st” Park, which provided us with pleasant, lasting memories of daily life in China. We saw people dancing, practicing Kung-fu and Tai-chi, playing musical instruments and, best of all, having fun with their children. There were a lot of grandparents who were very proud to show us their babies and we exchanged a lot of smiles. From there we left for our next stop, Chengdu. This was the part of the trip I was most excited about – I was going to see pandas and hold one!
Our first day in Chengdu, we travelled to Leshan to see the giant Buddha. We approached him from the water, by boat, to get the best overall view and it was impressive. The Buddha is carved from the cliff-side, at the confluence of three rivers, and stands 71 meters tall (about 233 feet). There are stairways going up and down each side of the Buddha, also carved into the rock. This was like China’s version of the pyramids!
“The next day was PANDA DAY!” The next day was PANDA DAY! I was so excited; I’ve been wanting to see pandas all my life and it was so great to be able to see as many as I wanted, all sizes, and even the energetic little red pandas. They were all so cute. Of course, the highlight was holding a year old cub. It was thrilling! We had to suit up like doctors and then the panda was placed in our lap. An attendant kept putting honey on his paw to keep him distracted and we took tons of pictures. My Mom wasn’t going to do it, but decided to at the last minute – and was glad she did. The panda seemed to cuddle up with her and it became one of her best memories. That night we had the opportunity to see the Sichuan Opera, which our guide had arranged for us at the last minute. It was a great ending to a great day!
“Our last stop - The White Swan Hotel, Shamian Island, the Pearl River, Victoria Harbor …” Our last stop in China was Guangzhou, to see all the places involved in the final leg of my adoption. However, this proved to be somewhat disappointing. The White Swan Hotel is closed for refurbishing, the US Consulate has moved to another location, and the medical building doesn’t do exams for adoptees anymore. So we did drive-bys on Shamian Island. On the upside, we did stay in a fantastic hotel (The Garden Hotel), toured the Chen Family Academy, went on a little shopping trip by ourselves and had an enjoyable dinner cruise on the Pearl River. The cruise was made special by the chance to meet a few adoptive families who had recently received their children. We also saw a number of “new” families staying at our hotel. Of course, my Mom took every opportunity to congratulate them and tell our story. I was reluctant to approach these families and didn’t want to intrude, but I realized later that these folks were more than eager to talk about their children. I was happy to see so many children with their new families.
After Guangzhou, we took a train to Hong Kong and spent a day and a half there. My Mom had booked a short tour so we could have a brief overview and it included a stop in Aberdeen, with a ride on a sampan. It was interesting to see the fishermen and their families living in the boats and conducting all sorts of business on the water, from buying groceries to socializing at a “lounge”. From there, we went to Victoria Peak and then Stanley Marketplace. For the limited amount of time we had, the tour was a good introduction to Hong Kong. It was fun to think I have my own Bay and Mountain (Victoria Harbor and Peak).
As we cruised Victoria Harbor that last night, for the “Lights and Sound” display, the sights and sounds of the past two weeks were flying around in my brain.
“My feelings had transformed from fear of the unknown to not wanting to leave China.” My feelings had transformed from fear of the unknown to not wanting to leave China. I felt comfortable there and will definitely return some day. China is very well-developed with modern conveniences in most places; we only had to use squat toilets a couple of times! The food was delicious and I was braver than my Mom when it came to trying new things (although I couldn’t do the pig’s knuckles!). There were a few awkward moments when people spoke to me and couldn’t understand why I didn’t respond in Chinese, but most times the guides were there to help out. And most importantly, the orphanage visit made me feel good that the children were all clean and well cared for. I did expect to see more babies, but my Mom told me we can take that as a good sign, that more people are keeping their babies – that was a nice way to look at it. I’m still not sure what I hoped for from this trip, but I do know I feel at peace now and more comfortable with myself. I think it will take a long time to process this trip – maybe my whole life – but I’m certainly glad I returned to China!