A Baby From China

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2003

After years of filling out forms and wading through red tape, my wife (Yafei Hu) and I were finally ready to go to China and bring back our adopted daughter.

We left for China on Sunday, August 30, 1998, at about 3 p.m. We arrived in Nanning (capital of the province of Guangxi, which is on the southern coast of China) on Tuesday, September 1 at about 3 p.m., after stopping in Boston, New York City, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. At the airport in Guangzhou, we met two couples in our adopting group: Amy and Joe, and Jeff and Linda. From the Nanning airport, we took a hotel van to the hotel, a ride of about 40 minutes through a rather scenic, tropical Guangxi landscape.

The Nanning International Hotel is somewhat elegant, though it's a false elegance--lots of imitation marble, showy chandeliers, etc. There are several restaurants in the hotel; we usually ate at the Chinese restaurant (as opposed to the Western-style restaurant), where the prices were very reasonable, and lots of local people were eating. We met our guide, Xiulan, a woman about 62, and two more adopting couples in Xiulan's group: Fran and Heidi, and Joe and Kathy. So there were five couples altogether in our group.

No sooner had our luggage been placed in our room than we were told that the babies had arrived, and we should go to Xiulan's room to meet our baby. In Xiulan's room, there was a crowd of orphanage-workers, adopting parents, and babies. Yafei was handed Louisa Ying Hammond, whose orphanage name was Guo Ying. She cried at first, so Yafei walked in the hallway with her. Louisa kept looking around for the orphanage-worker who had been holding her, hopeful of being reunited with her, crying when those hopes seemed to vanish. We kept walking her; that reduced her anxiety.

After about two hours of crying, she began to calm down. She slept quite well the first night. Yafei, however, slept little; she kept checking on Louisa, making sure that her breathing didn't stop. Her breathing is quite fast and quite loud. Everyone thought she was an unusually pretty baby, but Yafei worried at first that she never smiled or laughed. Yafei cried, and said she wished that we had gotten Louisa six months earlier. But after a day or two, Louisa started to smile and laugh, and Yafei stopped worrying.

On Wednesday, September 2, we did some paper-processing in Nanning. On Thursday, we took a 3-hour van ride to Beihai, Louisa's hometown and the city in which Louisa's orphanage is located. Good view of the countryside as we drove along. Lots of rice paddies, fish ponds, banana plants, sugar cane, numerous water buffalo, and often mountains in the distance.

Accompanying us in the van were two other adopting couples (Joe and Kathy, and Joe and Amy), a young female translator (whose services we probably could have dispensed with), and the orphanage director, a pleasant guy with a background in Chinese medicine. He told us that the babies in the orphanage lived in air-conditioned quarters, even though his own office wasn't air-conditioned. He showed us the orphanage from outside, but we didn't go in. It's a rather new, rather handsome building. Lots of women working there, tending the babies. They were very eager to see the babies again; some were almost overcome with emotion. There were only 26 babies in the orphanage.

While in Beihai, we lunched at a seaside restaurant. Before we got to the restaurant, some women from a nearby restaurant stood in front of our van, blocking our progress, trying to steer us into their restaurant. Strange salesmanship! Finally they gave up, and we reached our intended destination.

We were served a big plate of crabs (which we scarcely touched), a big bowl of fish soup, a plate of snails, a plate of mini-lobsters, etc. Everything was still in the shell, still laced with bones, a challenge to eat under the best circumstances, almost impossible to eat with a baby on your lap. All in all, an unpleasant meal, though we could watch boats moving up and down in the South China Sea as we ate. Foreigners must be a rare sight in Beihai, because people from neighboring restaurants watched us for a long time.

Before heading back to Nanning, we stopped at a store that sold pearls. Joe and Amy bought a pearl necklace, which they planned to present to their newly-adopted daughter, Sara, on her 16th birthday. Joe and Amy had thought through all aspects of adoption; they had even made a will before coming to China, stating who should care for Sara if both of them died. And they hadn't even seen Sara when they made the will!

While two couples accompanied us to Beihai, two other couples went to Wuzhou, where their babies had lived. Wuzhou is on the eastern edge of Guangxi, approximately 10 hours by car from Nanning. We heard later that the long drive to Wuzhou was a horrible experience, "a trip from hell." Even a short drive in China is an unpleasant experience because the drivers are aggressive, blow their horns constantly, and take all sorts of hair-raising chances. Furthermore, the roads are usually bumpy, and crowded with motorcycles, bicycles and buffaloes. The van that drove to Wuzhou had no shock absorbers, and Fran said he feared that the constant bumping--which continued for 10 hours--would give someone a spinal injury.

Once in Wuzhou, our group had to endure an interrogation from the local police, who quizzed them about Chinese adoption law, their motives for adopting, etc. And the sufferings of the Wuzhou couples didn't end in Wuzhou: they had to make another long drive--to Guangzhou. On this drive, the air-conditioning ceased functioning. According to the driver, the air-conditioning had broken, but our friends suspected that the driver turned it off to save gas. Our guide, Xiulan (who had gone to Wuzhou instead of Beihai) castigated the driver, but to no avail. It was a long, hot ride to Guangzhou.

And there was no reason for it, since we were just processing some papers, papers that could have been processed in Nanning. It wasn't necessary to go to Beihai or Wuzhou. But if the bureaucrats insisted that we travel, why did our group travel to Wuzhou by van instead of train? Wouldn't a train be more comfortable? I never got a satisfactory answer to that question.

While the other couples were struggling to Wuzhou, and then to Guangzhou, we completed our Beihai trip, then flew to Guangzhou. We were met at the airport by a van from the White Swan Hotel, where we were staying. The White Swan is on the Pearl River, about a 30-minute drive from the airport. It's on Shamian Island, which is where foreigners lived in the days when Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) was the port through which China traded with the rest of the world. Shamian Island is filled with Western-style architecture. Many of the streets are lined with trees, and there's one long boulevard with a flourishing garden down the middle. Palm trees and other tropical plants are a common sight.

I was impressed by the hotel. It has a great view of the Pearl River, so we could watch the boats carrying freight up and down as we ate our buffet breakfast. Chinese boats sit very low in the water; they resemble rafts, with a cabin in the stern. In addition to a view of the Pearl River, the hotel also has a big fish pond filled with carp, complete with a waterfall. The hotel was filled with American couples adopting Chinese babies.

From left to right: Louisa, Sara, Allison, Amy and Cassandra
Our guide, Xiulan, told us that you couldn't get a meal in the hotel for less than $30 per person, but soon after I arrived, I found a restaurant in the hotel where you could get a bowl of noodles or dumplings for about $6, and you could watch the cook make the noodles by hand. First he rolled the dough, then he stretched it into the shape of spaghetti, then he dropped it into boiling water and cooked it for just a few seconds, then he cooled it in ice-water, then he put it into your dish, and added some broth, meat and seasonings.

Soon after our arrival, we began exploring the neighborhood around the hotel, and we found a very small, humble restaurant where we could get dinner for two for about $2. We carried the food back to our room, and ate there. Day after day, we went to the same restaurant, supplementing our main course with beer or soy milk. One day we wandered outside Shamian Island, to a big outdoor market called the Qingping Market. It had lots of dried foods, such as turtles, turtle shells, etc. Most of our time was spent in our room, amusing Louisa and being amused.

Adopting couples frequent the White Swan Hotel because it's near the U.S. Consulate. We went to the Consulate several times, and on one of our visits, an official told us that, since our return flight stopped briefly in Canada, we needed a transit visa for Louisa, who was still a Chinese citizen and therefore couldn't visit Canada--however briefly--without a transit visa. Such a visa could only be obtained from the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong. So we had to change our plans, check out of the White Swan one day early, and catch a train bound for Hong Kong.

The train was fast, clean and comfortable. Since 1997, when Hong Kong passed from British control to Chinese control, it has been referred to as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Hong Kong is still quite separate from China--almost a separate nation. Hong Kong still has its own currency. Hong Kong is a collection of islands, plus a nearby section of the mainland. Our train left us at the southern tip of the mainland, and then we boarded a taxi for nearby Hong Kong Island, where we had reserved a hotel near the Canadian consulate.

Our taxi driver bemoaned the effects of the current financial crisis. The crisis had forced him to take a second job, so he was driving a taxi. He said that if he had left the stock market a year ago, he would have had 8 or 9 million dollars (equivalent to about 1 million American dollars), but he was greedy for more, stayed in the stock market, and now he had lost virtually all his savings. He said that he didn't like Hong Kong, and planned to leave. He said that people in Hong Kong were materialistic--including himself--and that he didn't feel he belonged to a community. He had obtained papers to emigrate to Canada, but he had reservations about the climate in Canada, so he was trying to get papers for Australia. Meanwhile, he was struggling to pay the mortgage on two condominiums, and to pay for his son to attend school in England.

Our hotel was in the heart of Hong Kong Island, where all the buildings seemed to be 50 stories tall. While Yafei fed Louisa, I sallied forth to find some dinner, eventually getting a take-out from a Vietnamese restaurant. In the morning, we hurried off to the Canadian consulate for Louisa's transit visa, then came back to the hotel for a buffet breakfast. After breakfast, we took a train to the airport, and boarded a plane for Vancouver, Canada. Louisa was very restless on this long flight, and we spent much time walking her up and down the aisles, trying to quiet her. But she was better on the flight from Vancouver to New York. The final leg of our journey was a short flight from New York to Providence, where Mom and Dad were waiting to meet their new granddaughter. Home!