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.

What I’ve left out until now

The savvy reader may have pieced together the secret story of these posts so far. On a personal note, I hate it when the implicit is made grossly explicit in writing, and so I often bury my meanings in events and descriptions. I do this fairly intentionally, but also because the meanings seem so painfully and embarrassingly obvious to me. My writing has been critiqued for not making its points clear. I like to think that it is not important to “get it” in the traditional sense, and that “getting it” is of little value without some act of transformation being perpetrated on the reader. But that is a discussion for some other time and in some other forum.

This story, now, please, is about a transformation that is coming about intentionally and with an abundance of surprises. Flying North, instead of Northwest, across the pole. I mean, really people, The North Pole. Coming to a city that is rebuilding itself before our eyes. Being in a hotel with folk tales and history inscribed on its 18 story facade. Walking into a world of idioms and fables.

Ellen explained to Katherine, whom she adopted from Vietnam over 12 years ago, that Daddy may be excited because he has never done this before, that the two of them got to make a family together long before he showed up, and that he is finally getting to do this too. All true. And.

I must admit, I must admit, that although I could anticipate what would change, that although I knew, in advance, the route, the journey has wrought deeper changes in me, and my family (already) than I had imagined possible. Had I dreamed of the possibilities? I dream deeply, my friends.

Let me share these dreams. There is this tiny nearly 10 year old girl who won’t go to sleep because she is reading a book of princess fairy tales retold as Barbie stories written in Chinese that her Papa and Mama bought for her. Shi Hui and I speak virtually none of the same language, but we open Google Earth and look at the world together, places near here, places in Africa, Antarctica! She unclasps my watch from my wrist and puts it on her slender wrist and takes it off, and puts it back on mine, takes it off, puts it back on…

I am watching a good/bad Hollywood movie with my family all in the bed together. My wife has turned over, all but asleep at 8pm. My daughter, Katherine, has her head on my shoulder. I am hiding my daughter, Shi Hui’s hand in mine chanting “Where is the hand?” which she repeats back to me. “Where did it go?” More of the same. “I don’t know!” She’s still keeping up. I open my hand, “Here it is!” Laughter. Katherine asks, “Why is she laughing?” and nuzzles in a little closer. My wife snores quietly. “Where is the hand?”

Yue Xiu Park


Legend has it that 2000 years ago, Guangzhou was a city of hard working people, who suffered only because they could not grow enough food. Five immortals came to the city in the form of rams, and each ram held sheaves of rice in its mouth. They gave the people the rice, and afterward, the people prospered, finally relieved of the burden of not enough food.

The sculpture of the five rams is the centerpiece of Yue Xiu park, which is also the symbolic center of Guangzhou.

20140507-052206.jpgso, the “World of Fables and Idioms” this must be. In the midst of perpetual construction, a French superstore

20140507-052502.jpg that is built for four floors beneath the city street, and “Wall Street English” school, there is also the deep sense of something so impossibly un-modern that it holds 200 acres of the city sacrosanct.

We stopped in the park to take photographs,


20140507-053031.jpg and we were stopped by a family who wanted to take a photograph with us!


Today at 9 am, we revisited the Adoption Registry Center of Guangdong Province. We were the first family there. Like every other family, we began the process on Monday, made our donation to the orphanage and filled out the application for adoption, and today we finished the process, which included an official photograph, a five minute interview, and a visit to the Center notary. By 10 am, Zhong Shi Hui was officially transformed from a ward of China, to Shi Hui Brennan, member of the clan Brennan and nascent citizen of the USA.



I will never have another moment in my life quite like the one when Shi Hui shot out of the waiting room looked at me, shouted “Papa!” and threw herself into my arms.

We had sent pictures of our family that were put into a scrapbook ages ago (or so it seems), and it clearly had become a cherished object to our daughter to be. After the initial exuberance, which only devolved into secondary exuberance, she showed us our photos, pointing at them that at each of us in turn. “Papa!” “Mama!” “Jei Jei!” She knew us well.

And now a word on the joy of adopting an older child. He or she will know you in a way that a younger child will not. Shi Hui claimed us when she bounded out to greet us. Not only was she ours, we were very much hers, and she left no doubt about it.

Bed time

At the end of the day Shi Hui (which is pronounced something more like “Shuh way”) is not ready to fall asleep. Ellen sings to her (“Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), while I download kids’ books onto my iPad.

Then I head in for the inaugural reading of The Cat in the Hat. She wants to scroll the pages forward–and backward–but eventually we settle into the story. Afterwards, Google Earth, which conveniently shows exactly where we are. If you at home type in China Hotel, Guangzhou, our room is now in the central portion looking out over the pool (the jackhammering kept getting in the way of afternoon naps).

Of course, the next trip on the globe was our home in Norfolk, so I tracked a line from Guangzhou all the way around the world to the three story house on our street. “Your house. Your home. Papa. Mama. Jei Jei. Mei Mei.” “Papa! Mama! Jei Jei! Mei Mei!” Our girl does indeed speak in perpetual exclamations.

Then I brought up pictures of the Boeing 777 that will fly us around the world, found a seating chart and once again pointed to where each of us will sit. “Jei Jei. Mei Mei. Mama. Papa.” Katherine by the window. Shi Hui in the middle, Mama on the aisle, and Papa across the aisle. No four across seating on the 777. And, once again–with feeling–“Jei Jei! Mei Mei! Mama! Papa!” as she pointed back to those seats.

If you haven’t figured it out, “Jei Jei” means big sister, and Katherine is truly the big sister now. And “Mei Mei” means little sister. “Mama” and “Papa” kind of speak for themselves.