The Restaurant Three Blocks Away


We only ate out of the hotel four nights. Rain and relative ease (otherwise known as a menu in English, even in the Chinese Restaurant) kept us in, but three blocks away the food was about half as expensive and twice as good. Tonight we revisited some favorites: sautéed eggplant cooked in a clay pot; sautéed green beans; barbecued pork; stir fried vermicelli.

This was not a highly recommended restaurant in Lonely Planet, or any another guide, but the flavors were dense and distinct, and the dishes were fairly complimentary. The portions were satisfying without being overwhelming. And after our third visit, we were treated like friends.

We learned that the new daughter does not like shrimp, scallions, and Szechuan peppercorns. Katherine points out that there is no Lo Mein, Moo Shu, or General Tso’s tofu (favorites at home). Go figure.

I recognize that we will be hard pressed to replicate these tastes and flavors back home. But we will look!

Last hurdles

Tomorrow morning we head to the US consulate in Guangzhou to apply for a visa for our new daughter. The consulate in Guangzhou is the final stepping stone for anyone in China who wants to immigrate to the US. Every family that adopts a child anywhere in China goes through the consulate in Guangzhou.

We are somewhat fortunate that Shi Hui is from Guangdong province, and that all are in country bureaucratic hurdles took place in this same city. Yes, that meant we were not traveling about the country and that we did not see more of China, but to be honest, the sight seeing opportunities were slim. We were otherwise occupied.

So, tomorrow at 8:30, we head in passports and application in hand, and we should receive Shi Hui’s travel visa by 3:30 on Tuesday. Fingers crossed for a smooth morning.

Enough already with the rain

We have seen versions of this sky every single day since we arrived except one: the first day. Guangzhou is a port city, nestled into the head of the Pearl River delta. In this way, it is not so different from Philadelphia, the city in which I grew up. It is also a southern city, more like Tampa in its seasons (9 months of summer).

The rain is not ever present, but always at the door, and could come in at any hour, and stay, like an uncle, for 10 minutes or 10 hours. I look forward to some sun.

Alex, I’ll take “The Other Challenge Is” for a million

Just to be clear, focus number one is on the new daughter, but a fairly immediate if secondary focus is on daughter number one (Katherine), and a somewhat more distant focus is on the family dynamic (baba-mama-jei jei-mei mei).

Shi Hui is kind of a catalyst for change in the family. And when I write “catalyst,” perhaps I should venture into hyperbole. Shi Hui is a little like the lit stick of dynamite one throws into, well, pick your destination of choice. We may have known that in advance, in fact I think at least the adults were pretty clear about the explosive possibilities of adoption. But (metaphor shift), like any journey, the destination does not preclude twists, turns, and several bumps in the road.

One thing is for certain–any twists, turns, or gaping pot holes are coming into sharper relief. Is this bad or good? Well, like weather on a journey, it is neither good nor bad. Weather just is. Try telling that to a 13 year old though. Her nose is firmly placed in the instagramic world of tragic teenage hyperbole. Almost anything has the possibility of being the worst ever (However, any joke about bodily functions stands a fair chance of being the funniest ever). It is a journey. We are away from home. And the weather, quite frankly, has had us cooped up more than we would like.

Of course I am a deep well of calm. Hahahahahahahaha. I like to think that I have the occasional self awareness of my faults (not enough awareness for those I am traveling with, who keep me well informed in case I have forgotten). It is a journey.

Saturday in the Park

So we went to China to adopt a daughter, and all we got (as a souvenir) was a box of rain. It has rained every day we have been here. The weather report has called the rain: “heavy,” “heavy at times,” “drenching,” “cloudy with a downpour.” Or the forecasters have given up and simply written “rain of varying rates.”

Saturday’s forecast was “heavy” with the obligatory Accuweather exclamation point. And so, there was no, or very little rain.

Our day inside a museum was scrapped for a trip to the Guangzhou Zoo, with its white tigers, pandas, and howling gibbons.

20140511-090118.jpg The zoo was a mix of old and new zoo cultures: cages with cement structures and glass walls for easy viewing; grassy, hilly, tree-filled expanses where the lemurs hid from view. In other words, very much like the Philadelphia Zoo, or any other zoo built in America in the 50’s that began reinventing itself in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s.

Then we went swimming. The Chinese phrase for go swimming sounds strangely like “Yo Yo Ma.” Shi Hui is not yet a swimmer. The pool at the orphanage was smallish, and only two feet or so deep. She loves to sit on the side and play catch, or ride on mama or papa from one side to the other.


A minor sprinkle sent us scurrying back inside at Shi Hui’s insistence. Why wait for thunder, when raindrops will suffice as a warning?

This time, no heavy rain, and so, back to the park, and Mei Mei (younger sister) had another adamant request. The “Rapid Torrents” ride. For 20 yuan a ticket papa, mama, and Mei Mei rode the one rise one fall log flume. Giddiness. Busch Gardens? Get ready.


Our day finally wrapped up with a search for clothes. I know, you’re thinking clothes for the new daughter, but no. Our adoption agency counseled bringing a small amount of travel wear, and planning on doing laundry once at the hotel. It’s a bite the bullet circumstance, since it costs 60 yuan to wash one t-shirt at the hotel. What, you don’t know the value of the yuan? 1 dollar=6 yuan. One time for laundry, and no, there are no coin operated laundromats around the corner.

Unfortunately, Ellen under-packed by about two days for her and Katherine, so instead of laundry? Clothes shopping. It’s less expensive to buy t-shirts and sock than wash them.

We started our mile long trek through the Yuexiu district by heading right out of our hotel, passing our favorite restaurants until we were in parts nearly unknown. Phones with gps and street maps? CHECK! We gave up on the clothes and decided just to head back to the hotel. Someone finally began to drag, and hitched a ride.


When we were 100 yards from the taxi entrance, what did we find? Clothing shops. 100 yards to the left. Rule of thumb? Go left.

Into the Past

Friday morning we traveled to Zhongshan City, a small city of 3 million, the birth place of Sun Yat-sen, and my daughter. Our destination was the Zhongshan Children’s Welfare Institute at 8 Shashi Highway, which I have been looking at on google earth for months.


Shi Hui bounded in, ready to show us all the people she knew, all the rooms where she spent her life. It is difficult to reconcile her enthusiasm with the surroundings, and for this I can only credit all the caregivers. She leapt into the arms of each one, then explained to them, “Baba, Mama, Jei Jei.”

She wanted to show us her room and her empty bed, the room where she did homework, her kindergarten classroom and teacher, the pool (which is open 2 months of the year), and her seat in the dining room.


Then we ventured into her school. Once again, she took me by the hand and led me up three flights of stairs to her class. The teacher greeted us, and had Shi Hui take her old seat, then showed us a video of the class, and then led a lesson to show us how Shi Hui worked in class.

A note on the class. At some point in the past two years Shi Hui was moved into the special education school adjacent to the orphanage, primarily because of deficits or delays in math processing. She was the only girl in her class. The class was made up of students with a broad range of cognitive delays, deficits, and difficulties.

Shi Hui worked along in the lesson about families and buildings. The lesson was designed for written language recognition, but also to teach family roles. The teacher showed a photograph of a mother, home after a long day of work, and the daughter was giving her a massage. As if.

The teacher also showed us a file on our daughter, full of certificates, and some homeworks (A+).

At the end of the class, the teacher asked us to take pictures of her with us. She explained that she was happy that Shi Hui was going home with us to a place where she would get the support she needed as she grew up. She teared up as she told us this.

Some random China observations

Great Firewall of China. All the Facebook postings Ellen and I make are through a firewall work-around site. So is my morning New York Times reading. So is gmail, if accessed on the web and not via an app on the iPad or smartphone. One of the reasons I started the blog is that I can use WordPress in China. Bing works. Google not so much. Forget Netflix, YouTube, streaming (I imagine that the Netflix issues have as much to do with the hotel network bandwidth, but who knows).

Prices. Dinner for four: clay pot roasted eggplant, roasted 1/2 goose, vegetable fried rice. 25 dollars. 10 minute taxi from Shamian Island to our hotel. 3.50. Can of Guinness at the 7-11. 2.50 (yes, 7-11s are all over the place; tinier, by far, than the stores at home, but everywhere). The price of things at the hotel is higher and in line with what one might be used to at home. Case in point: coffee and a juice at Starbucks? 6.50. All you need to do is walk.

15 million. Guangzhou is a city of apartment blocks. Why? 15 million people live in Guangzhou. Quick, quick, run to the google and check populations for cities in the US. I can wait. And it’s not the biggest city in China. We drive along elevated highways through the city and building after building is an apartment. Laundry inevitably dries on the balconies on the third story, on the twenty third story. Older apartments are torn down to make space for new ones. 15 million.

No one wears hats. Have I seen a beard? (No wonder my daughter recognized me so easily.) Young people dress stylishly. There is a large feral cat population in the Yue Xiu park. Seat-belts in the front seat. Fart jokes are universal. HBO Asia plays American films that are not on the American HBO schedule. On a four lane highway speeds are designated for each lane. Everyone says hello to my daughter (she gives them no choice). A older Chinese man walked in the park wearing a Hampton VA t-shirt. In the pool, nearly everyone swimming laps does the breaststroke (with pretty good form). There are no napkins on the tables of Chinese restaurants.

It is time to get the girls up for our trip today.

Rainy day schedules

Shi Hui has only been in our lives since Monday. And of course our circadian clocks are still out of whack. Our days have taken a different shape.

Ellen is out by 8 pm. Katherine, depending on whether she had napped or not, heads to bed between 8 and 9 (unless Beverly Hills Cop is on, in which case, 9:45). I am the night owl, pulling in around 10, but up by 5:15, and reflecting and planning until a little after 7, when the new world awakes.

All this is made more challenging by our fourth consecutive day of rain. The first day of clouds alone for a week are forecast for Monday. The rain means we are cooped up close in adjoining rooms. We watch the radar for less damp patches, so that everyone can walk. No movement in the world is no bueno for this crew.

Tomorrow is a big day. We travel to Zhongshan to see Shi Hui’s orphanage, and her friends and caregivers. That said, even free days are full. This one will just be more so.


Our room looks out over the hotel pool. Let me say that for the most part, we have been looking out the window, because it has been raining off and on every day since Sunday. So we look out the window.

“Yo yo ma!” Shi Hui exclaimed late yesterday morning. Well, that’s about what our western ears heard. And indeed, a man was swimming in the pool. Quick exchange on the translator program on the iPad, and Shi Hui, Mom, and Dad were off to the pool.

The shallow end was deeper than she was used to. Shi Hui is a splasher not a swimmer (YMCA, here we come). But she sat expectantly on the side, and got less and less worried when Ellen carried her into the water, until finally her arms were extended in the all too familiar, “I’m ready right now for you to carry me out again” gesture.

And we brought a ball. Yes, play time, but also pragmatic dad time. Catch. Throw. Catch to the right. Catch to the left. Ball lands short and splashes? Laughter. Ball sails wide to the right? Jumping up and chasing. Ball bounces off the top of the head? Laughter. Basic motor skills? Check. Semi-advanced motor skills? Check. Resilience? Check. Fun-having-ability? Check. Check. Check.

It started to rain, which to the practiced swimmer is just more water, but somewhere, Shi Hui must have learned about rain and lightning, so she gestured us out. Seriously.

On the way to the lockers there is a foot bath, and the water is cold. I put my feet in a clutched myself, shivering mightily. Shi Hui laughed at her silly papa, and then extended her arms up. “If it’s cold, you had better carry me.” Of course.

Blunt Assessment

A few weeks ago at the church where I work, one of the congregants asked, “What if it doesn’t work out? How will you take her back?” A blunt, but fair question. We are, after all, adopting an older child; Shi Hui is weeks away from her tenth birthday. The questions on many people’s lips is, “Why is she still in an orphanage?” or “Why hasn’t she been adopted yet?” which is really the question, “So, what is wrong with her?”

Our adoption coordinator, Kathy, who works for the provincial adoption authority, explained that they don’t just do international adoptions. About half of the adoptions they arrange are domestic. However, in cases of domestic adoption children who are challenging are occasionally returned. She explained that this is hard for the children. International adoptions are, not exactly favored, but there is a sense that international adoptions are significantly more irrevocable. The promise we made again and again in our paperwork and in interviews was that we would not “abandon, abuse, or discriminate against” our adopted child.

Back to the question, look, it is a fair question. I cannot say that we have entirely avoided it ourselves. In the process of finding Shi Hui, Ellen worked with a man who examined the “waiting child” lists, and there were children who presented more challenges than we were prepared to meet. In Shi Hui’s case, her “finding” document tells us she was picked up beside a man-made shrimp pond in the Shiqi district of Zhong Shan City and that she had “cleft feet.” She was four days old.

She was four days old? Here are a couple of pictures of our daughter from years ago…



I kept seeing that smile, and it is in nearly every single photograph we saw of her, and thought and think, “Four Days Old? Are you fucking kidding me?” Whatever deeply embedded indignant protective daddy instinct I had was unleashed then and continues to thrive fairly unabated.

Which is not to say that I am not pragmatic. Minute by minute every gesture, every sound, every reaction, every action goes into the great Brennan supercomputer. At some point, later, later, I will write about Sensory Processing Disorder, Cognitive Development, Emotional Development, Attachment–no not in me, in my daughter. For now, besides being hyper-protective, I am also hyper-vigilant, which is to say, a dad.