The Occidental Tourist
As I sat next to the window in one of the passenger cars of the train, the sun poured down like honey. It was the beginning of August 1996, and I was officially traveling with a group of American Tourists under the erroneous auspices of The China Women's Travel Service, to vacation in The People's Republic of China. Unofficially, I was one of three single Caucasian women in a group of a dozen married Caucasian couples, who were in China to be united with our adopted Chinese daughters. We were a motley assortment of registered nurses, lawyers, graphic artists, school teachers and stay at home moms who were touring this ancient land with at least three thousand dollars of crisp new one hundred dollar bills taped to our abdomens and pastel colored diaper bags strapped over our shoulders.
We were all stars in our own personal home videos, featuring some version of "Baby Boom meets Ellis Island in China"! Our travel group had first met in Los Angeles about 40 hours earlier at The International Airport and we flew together on a United 747 to Hong Kong. After spending the night in the airport hotel, we were all bussed to the train station for the next leg of our trip; a journey to Guangzhou China to spend the night at the famous "Baby Hotel", The White Swan.
As the "super fast express" train roared to a top speed of 30 miles per hour, it swayed rhythmically back and forth. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack it droned, as my fellow companions and I journeyed from British Hong Kong to The People's Republic of China. The train car, in which we were all riding, had a creaky wooden floor and quaint lace curtains at the windows, which lazily swayed side-to-side. I felt like I had entered an old black and white western movie from a lazy Saturday afternoon of my youth. Amazingly, Our travel itinerary had indicated that the 'high-speed train' trip from British Hong Kong to Guangzhou China would take precisely one hour. Mindful of this fact, a fellow traveler quipped, "At this rate we should be in Guangzhou in about four hours". We Americans laughed nervously.
As the train left free British Hong Kong and entered the communist domain of The Peoples Republic of China, the train stopped and a cadre of Chinese soldiers carrying loaded MK-47's boarded and marched single file through the train. As they filed past me, I thought that they looked like little toy soldiers, sporting military caps a wee bit big for their heads while their knobby knees peered innocently out of their military green shorts. As I watched the soldiers march past us, tears welled as I remembered the boys I had known who had flown to south Vietnam and who watched soldiers similar to these through gunsights. I was awash in grace and thanksgiving over my 'tour of duty', for it was of red sea-parting proportion as the much-feared communist China of my youth was miraculously transformed into the unforeseen midwife of my middle age.
The train slowly chugged its way into the ancient station in Guangzhou. In anticipation, the Chinese travelers began packing the aisle of the train, as they prepared to disembark. In China, it is not the custom to queue up in single file for any reason, rather people huddle together in a human mass and pour like molasses through aisles and doorways.
We were relieved and a little startled to discover that while we all flowed out of the train and through immigration, there were no customs officials present in the cavernous gray-stoned station. Curiously, the same thing had happened to our group when we had all arrived at the airport together in Hong Kong. Amazingly, we all found our luggage and poured into the crowd of Chinese exiting the station. Vivian and Sha Mei, our assigned Chinese guides from the adoption agency, were waiting to usher us to small European buses. I was unprepared for the many beggars who flocked to us and grabbed our arms, while chattering away begging for alms. It seemed like a Fellini movie, men and women missing teeth and limbs and tiny malnourished children, imploring us with their dirty, sad faces for help. Our guides swiftly dismissed them and we boarded the bus to Shamian Island to The White Swan.
Once inside the hotel, the sight of a dozen Americans carrying Chinese babies greeted us. Our eyes drank in the sight and we all brightened with the thought that this too would be us in just a few days. We all checked into our rooms and we were greeted by some other Americans who invited us to have dinner with them and their babies and Vivian and Sha Mei. It was an invigorating experience. While I waited an eternity for my order of fried rice to be prepared, the waiters brought over a living 4 foot long black snake to the next table the table of older Chinese men and women oohed and aahed at this soon to be culinary delight. Actually this sight proved to be helpful for when my rice finally arrived, I had lost my appetite so, I happily guzzled bottled water and tried not to look at the people eating the now dead and cooked black snake. I talked with the new families and admired their sweet little babies and mentally counted the hours until I would be united with my daughter. The evening flew by and soon we all said good-bye to our new friends who were preparing to return home with their new families the next morning. We too needed to be up early to begin our in-China paperchase for our babies.
Morning came and we packed our suitcases happily, knowing that when we again stayed at The White Swan, we would be with our babies. After a breakfast buffet that would rival any in the U.S., we boarded a bus and were taken to the Center for Foreign Adoptions in Guangzhou. Vivian and Sha Mei helped us complete the paperwork and then it was time to be interviewed by the Chinese government official. After completing this important step, we were bussed to a restaurant for lunch and visited with one another. Curiously, our guides did not join us but instead ate in the kitchen. Then our group was divided, with half of our group traveling to a north China location and the other half of us going to southern China. At the airport, we waited for quite a while before we could board our plane to Zhanjiang, China, which is about 500 miles east of Vietnam across the Gulf of Tonkin.
Finally, we boarded our plane. After we were airborne, the stewardesses served each of us an interesting package of horehound colored candy that tasted like sweetened herbal cubes of tar. After that, we were all given a package of dried pickled prunes. The prunes looked like an aborted science project, so I discreetly tucked mine into my carry-on diaper bag and I feverishly hoped that I would not become so hungry as to be tempted to actually consider eating them. After a one-hour flight, we landed and were bussed to The Silver Sea Hotel in Zhanjiang.
Once we all checked into our rooms in the hotel, we all noticed the carpeted floors of our rooms had what appeared to be brown ketchup-like stains on them. "The Chinese must love Room Service", I mused to myself for I laughingly had thought that the numerous rusty brown stains must have been made by ketchup covered errant pieces of food. Sometime later, while unpacking and walking barefooted across the roadmap of stains, I laughed at my ethnocentricity; "The food stains must have been made by soy sauce not ketchup; where did I think I was, Toledo? Later, I proudly relayed my stroke of insight to a fellow traveler, and was promptly advised that the carpet wasn't stained with soy sauce. It was rather, darkened spittle stains, as the Chinese had a custom of expectorating on floors irrespective of carpeting. Ever the optimist, I did not let this dissuade me, I just mentally archived this tidbit of information right along with the black snake dining experience and resolved to refrain from walking barefoot.
Our little group, which now consisted of three other married couples, Sha Mei and myself, all ate dinner together and went to the hotel gift shop where I bought a year of the pig souvenir, the year all of our daughters were born. We then went back to our rooms... and what a surprise awaited us there. While we were at dinner, the hotel staff had rolled metal blue cribs into each one of our rooms. We excitedly got on the phone to call each other and share our excitement. Unbelievably, I slept well and was up at 5:30 am to make my instant coffee while I showered. The hardest part of getting ready for me was to brush my teeth with boiled water. Before I had left for China, someone had given me the advice to hang a wash cloth over the faucet to have a visual reminder that I could no longer fill my glass from the faucet. This helped remind me and I successfully avoided any mistakes. We boarded the bus at 7:00 am. It was overcast and hot with a slight drizzle. Sha Mei said the bus ride would take about 2 hours with no stops.
One of the travelers had brought along a cassette player and we listed to Sting's Album Fields of Gold, over and over again. We talked and laughed and one of the guys in our group videotaped our ride. We passed several luxurious 'extreme home' styled mansions that sat in the countryside right next to wooden shacks. We saw several duck farms, where colorful mandarin ducks were raised and force fed a diet of rich gruel for the famous delicacy, Peking duck.
The most startling event of our bus trip occurred when we passed by a countryside peasant. He lay dead and crumpled in the dirt dressed in black pajama like shirt and trousers, and a blond thatched coolie hat. Nearby lay his old bicycle, now crooked into disuse. A small crowd of people had gathered around this man and we all wondered what he was preparing to do. Saucer-eyed we looked at each other in silence as we whizzed by the scene. Soon, the bus left the paved highway and we rode for what seemed a long time over a dirt road. It seemed as if "jumping the rough terrain" would never cease. To stay put in our seats, we all had to hang tight and hang on. It was absolutely thrilling to be back on the one paved highway to complete our trip! Although the highway itself was not without it's own marvels, for a little later in our journey, we saw straight ahead of us, a huge metal tower. It was right smack dab in the middle of the highway, a huge metal tower about three stories tall. Incredulously, the highway just ended at the tower. The driver had to swerve off of the highway to avoid colliding with it. Happily for all of us, this fact did not bother our driver at all and to our great relief, the paved highway resumed after a swift jog to the left on the dirt shoulder.
In time, we came to a hotel in Mao Ming City where we were to meet our baby girls. Nervously, we all filed out of the bus and followed Sha Mei to the elevator and down the hall where the babies were waiting with Miss Peng, the Director of Huazhou Welfare Home. Suddenly, I had a sheer attack of fright and I ducked into the nearest restroom to compose myself. I found myself terrified to meet my tiny daughter. I was worried that she wouldn't like me and then what would I do? I realized that I could not stay in the bathroom forever, so I emerged and instead of going right over to where the couples were meeting their babies, I introduced myself to the five notaries who accompanied Miss Peng. I shook hands and bowed and thanked them. Soon Sha Mei came over and pointed to the last remaining baby, who was clearly NOT mine. My baby was named Guo Su Su and the baby waiting in Miss Peng's arms was Guo Zhu Zhu. I went over and talked to the baby loudly saying "Su Su"? Then I pointed at myself and said, "I am Su Su's Mom." Miss Peng and Sha Mei searched the room looking for Su Su who was happily in the arms of an admiring couple. The whole room was now aware of the 'switch' because Zhu Zhu and Su Su sounded so much alike; Zhu Zhu's parents were given Su Su, while Zhu Zhu waited for me. We all laughed nervously and Zhu Zhu's parents placed Su Su in my arms while Miss Peng placed Zhu Zhu in the arms of her parents.
I was stuporously in love soaking in her scent and her softness when suddenly, the registered nurse part of me kicked in and I filled me with a generous desire of professional anxiety. What was her temperature? Was she septic? Was her heart okay, did it have a murmur? Were her lungs clear? I noticed with concern that she had a large ugly boil on her shaved head. She appeared to be hot and tired and she seemed listless and disinterested....but how could I know for certain...I didn't even know her. I became obsessed with the fact that she was sick. She refused the bottle of soy formula that I had prepared...and promptly fell asleep in my arms. I put her in my snugli and prayed that she was alright and that she and I could both hold on until we traveled back to Zhanzjiang, where I could evaluate her fully. Then we all partially disrobed to peel off our three thousand dollar cash orphanage donation to give to Miss Peng. Next came our individual interviews with Miss Peng about our babies which was translated by She Mei. I went first and I asked Miss Peng what was Su Su like. I was told that she was very well behaved and very obedient. I asked Miss Peng if a note was left with her when she was found by the policeman in a riverside village on her birthday and Miss Peng said no. I also asked if Miss Peng still had the clothes that Su Su was found in and I was told that the policy of the Orphanage was to remove and burn the foundling's clothes because the clothing was usually very dirty.
After everyone's interviews with Miss Peng, we pooled our individual dozen or more wrapped gifts that we had each brought with us from home and gave them to Miss Peng and the notaries. Then we took group pictures with Miss Peng and the notaries and thanked them all and bid them good-bye. Our group then headed downstairs to a private banquet room to eat lunch before our 2 hour bus ride back to The Silver Sea Hotel. All of us new Moms held the babies in our snugli's and they all fell asleep as we traveled back to the Silver Sea Hotel. Since we traveled back on the same road that we had traveled to Mao Ming City, we again passed the dead peasant who had been struck while riding his bicycle. The same group of people we had seen earlier was preparing to bury him at the side of the road where he had been felled. They had hollowed out a dead tree and were planning to use it as a casket for him. The contrast in our emotions was so startling; here we were buzzing by this desolate scene where a man was going to be buried, right on the spot where he had been killed without pomp or circumstance, while we whizzed by clutching our precious babies. Such sadness in the wake of such joy, I shall never forget the solemnity of that moment. That nameless, faceless bicyclist seemed to echo the anonymous biological parents of our baby daughters, for they like he, seemed to be known only by God.
We were all excited to get back to our hotel rooms at The Silver Sea. I went into full nurse mode with Sha Mei accompanying me. I was so afraid my little Su Su, as I still called her, was septic from the boil on her head. I took her rectal temperature and I inspected every part of her. I was shocked at how pronounced her mongolian spots were! At first, I thought she had been beaten black and blue on her backside! I unapologetically reacted as a new Mom and not as a seasoned pediatric nurse, until Sha Mei advised the generous black and blue marks on her back and buttocks were in fact excess spots of pigment, called Mongolian spots. I then relaxed and scrubbed her little body and washed her shaved head. She loudly protested. I immediately started her on the antibiotics I had brought with me because I was concerned that the boil on her head was infected with staph, contagious bacteria. Sha Mei commented that she thought I looked like I was conducting an experiment rather than "mothering a baby". I had to agree and yet I knew that all parenting had to begin where we the new parent was at in life. I did not know how to be a Mom but I did know how to be a nurse, so my baby girl started our sojourn together as my patient. I relaxed as I discovered her vital signs were normal and her heart and lungs sounded clear and strong. So, once the nurse in me was convinced of my baby daughter's good health, I slowly melted into the rapture of new motherhood. I fed her a little bit of a bottle and put her down for a nap in the blue metal crib and she immediately went to sleep. Sha Mei and I decided to rest as well and meet later for dinner. I was exhausted and napped soundly!
I telephoned the other members of our little group and only Tom and Janet from Detroit Michigan wanted to have dinner together. I go Su Su all cleaned up and together we went to Sha Mei's room across the hall. Together we went to Tom and Janet's room and got them and their daughter Wei Wei who was happily smiling in Janet's snugli. The six of us took the elevator up to the classic Chinese restaurant. The maitre d' seated us and brought the girls each a highchair. They just looked impossibly cute sitting in their chairs. I just could not take my eyes off of them but Tom and Janet were getting into the spirit of the evening by asking Sha Mei to translate various menu items. I played it safe and ordered rice and pumpkin bread which were quite tasty and reminded me of fritters. Sha Mei and Janet ordered something fairly non-descript but Tom totally freaked me out by ordering a Chinese dish containing fish brains. Fish Brains! I was so squeamish over his order, that I would not relinquish my menu back to the waitress. Instead, I used it as a barrier prop when our meals were served so that I did not have to witness Tom eating his meal. As per usual, I drank lots of bottled water and ordered Tsing Tao beer to celebrate our union day.
That night, my good night's sleep was broken only once at 3:00 am by Su Su's painful cries of hunger. I flew out of bed and made her a bottle which she sucked down in no
time flat and after a respectable burp, she fell back to sleep almost immediately. In the morning as I was slowly coming to consciousness with the realization that I was now a mother....I felt someone starring at me. I opened my eyes to see Su Su standing up in her crib looking down at me as if she were sizing me up. I sat up and head on elbow, stared back and said "Hi Su Su". She looked unimpressed and continued to check me out. After a long time of getting a bottle and getting her dresssed and then dressing myself we made it down to breakfast to join our fellow travelers. I found out that everyone else had sleepless nights. One baby appeared to have an ear infection and the others had just stayed up half the night playing with their deliriously happy parents. The only other person who was well rested besides Su Su and I was Sha Mei. We all spent a leisurely morning in the hotel with our baby's and then Sha Mei suggested we go to this nearby anchored houseboat on the south China sea for a group lunch, while we waited for our daughter's passports to be delivered.
We all piled into a couple of taxi cabs to go to this houseboat restaurant. It was beautifully painted in all sorts of bright colors. We caused a stir because we were the only Caucasians in the area and no doubt the local people were curious as to what we were all doing with Chinese babies. As the houseboat hostess escorted us to our waiting table, we noticed that not only was the restaurant very crowded but there was a live band playing
What sounded like traditional Chinese music. As we entered the room, all conversation abruptly stopped and the band stopped playing as well. Everyone stopped and looked at us. As we nervously took our seats the band burst into "Home on the Range" while all the patrons clapped enthusiastically for us. We were so touched and a little giddy hearing the music. As an encore, the band played "Red River Valley" which made all of us chuckle even more. The one nice thing about a large group dining together in China (there were 12 of us; three married couples and their babies, Wei Wei, Zhu Zhu, Bing Bing and me and Su Su and Sha Mei), is that getting your food takes forever. By the time we had finished our meal and got back to our rooms at The Silver Sea Hotel, our baby's passports were waiting for us. Su Su and I rested and then we ate an early dinner with Sha Mei and packed our suitcases for the next morning we were to leave early to go the airport to fly back to Guangzhou and The White Swan Hotel.
Carrying a fifteen pound baby around your neck and a 12 pound back-pack is an experience. But I never appreciated just how difficult it was until we all arrived at the airport and I went to the Chinese style squat toilet all trussed up like a Christmas turkey.
It was an act of sheer poetic balance to maintain my equilibrium while pulling up my denim dress and pulling down my pants, squatting while peeing, all without falling into the odiferous stream of raw sewage below me. My thighs ached, I was sweating like a pig and for a moment I was seriously tempted to wear one of Su Su's number three pampers. Somehow, I toddled back to our waiting group. I was so hot and my faced was flushed. Ever to the rescue, Sha Mei took some liquid Chinese medicine and rubbed it on my pulse points and under my nose. After a few moments, I felt better. We were now accustomed to in-country travel, so the horehound tar candy and the pickled black prunes were no longer a surprise when the stewardesses passed them out after takeoff.
We were back in Guangzhou and happy to be back at The White Swan which felt like home! As our group entered the hotel lobbies with our babies in tow, we saw faces of other newly arrived parents-to-be who were milling about in the lobby. I instantly recognized the looks of adoration and longing on their faces as they smiled at us. We once again settled in to our rooms. On this part of our stay at The White Swan, we noted with interest, that we were all placed on the same floor and in the same wing of the hotel, with Sha Mei's and Vivian's rooms close by. The members of our larger travel group who had gone to an orphanage in northern China were ensconced on our same floor as well. It was a make-shift baby dormitory. Just as in college days gone by, we all opened the doors to our hotel rooms and hung out in the halls going into one another's rooms at will. The other nurses and I shared information with each other and the other parents. Mostly, we shared the medication and Pedialyte that we had brought with the other parents. All of us parents, moms and dads talked endlessly about stain remover, baby detergent, what kind of bowel movements our baby's had what color they were and how different they smelled from American poop! Never before, had I thought that poop could be such an interesting topic!
The next day, we had to go get our baby's photo's taken for U.S. Immigration purposes and the babies had to have their medical examination. The medical clinic was very crowded. One of the other nurses had thoughtfully brought sterile tongue depressors for each one of our baby's. I had brought one for my baby, for our adoption agency had advised that if we did not bring our own sterile tongue depressor, the medical staff would simply use a communal one on our infants. The western style medical clinic did not observe the typical American standard for sanitation, so I took off my sweater and lay it upon the dirty and blood stained sheet covered gurney before laying my Su Su down to be examined by the physician. When we were all finished we trudged back to The White Swan for an afternoon of rest, relaxation and shopping at The Shop under the Stairs, all of us had heard so much about.
That night brought more paper work in our hotel rooms in preparation for our U.S. embassy visit the next day. Going to the embassy the next morning was emotional. To walk in a perfectly normal looking modern Chinese building and to suddenly be home in America, was an incredible experience. Predictably, virtually all of us parents had dressed ourselves and our babies in red white and blue to honor the occasion. The embassy people were all very friendly and kind and we all had enjoyable interviews.
The following day we all went sightseeing at The Chen Family home in Guangzhou while our baby's paperwork was being processed for pick-up later in the day at the US Embassy. Later that evening, I went to dinner alone carrying Su Su around my neck in her snugli to the western style European café in The White Swan. This was our last night in Guangzhou! As I looked down at the face of my gorgeous baby girl and gazed out the window at the Pearl river, I cried over the thought of leaving my daughter's native soil. I did not want to leave China even though I wanted to go home. I did not want to say goodbye to our gracious Sha Mei. I did not want to leave Tom and Janet and Wei Wei.
I was taking my daughter home and expatriating her from her homeland all at the same time and there was a pain in my heart that I had never before felt. Su Su was legally my baby and she was nonetheless, a Chinese citizen.
In my sadness to leave China, I said goodbye for what Su Su could not express: good-bye to the biological parents who formed her and birthed her, good-bye to familiar sights, smells and sounds. Good-bye to endless almond eyes and immeasurable tan faces. Good-bye to the sea of metal cribs with reed mats which held the only siblings she had ever known. Good-bye to Miss Peng and the other loving Orphanage employees who for nine months, had been the only family Su Su had ever known. For myself, I said good-bye with a lump in my throat to the magical delight of first time parenting. I knew that in forthcoming days, my sentimental fervor could only be satisfied by watching a video or looking at photos. I was leaving the land of my bliss and I would not be able to jump in the car and return to visit it whenever I so desired. A lone tear ran down my face and splashed on Su Su's shaven head as she slept in the snugli around my chest. As I circled my arms around my daugther's body I blinked through tears and looked out at the sun,as it melted into the Pearl River and recalled the words of Rudyard Kipling, "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet..." Yet in Guangdong Province China on a hot and steamy August 13 1996, East and West did meet and were lovingly united into one family. I silently gave thanks to this enchanting and timeless land and all the many glorious people in China and The U.S. whose diligence made me the mother of beautiful Zanah Rose Su Su Maggio.