When my brother, Cam, and his wife, Karin, went to Fuling, China, to bring home a 10-month-old baby girl, they invited Karin’s sister, Nancy and I, the aunties, along for the trip. The four of us met in Shanghai to begin what turned out to be a momentous experience.
Neon and noise are hallmarks of Shanghai. The only respite from the sensual barrage is to be found in one’s hotel room. China is a study in contrast. Sleek skyscrapers shelter ancient temples; 21st century architectural miracles rise up into pea-soup factory smog. Cruise ships share the Yangtze with aging and decrepit river boats half sunk under the weight of their cargo. Opulent hotels and restaurants exist alongside workers’ rice kitchens, blatant consumerism and abject poverty.
It is against this frenetic backdrop that we are here to claim a little girl in Sichuan Province. After two days of jet-lag adjustment in Shanghai, we flew to Chongqing — where an airport sign advised, “If you can’t take escalator, please walk.”
Chongqing is a city of eight million people situated in south-central China, two hours west of Shanghai. At 7:30 am on November 4th, 36 prospective adoptive parents, friends and companions boarded the bus for the two-hour trip to the Fuling Orphanage. Shivery anticipation prevailed in spite of the 25-degree temperature.
A contained excitement, held in check by the weighty knowledge that the momentous reality of parenthood was finally so imminent, wired the bus with a low-voltage current of anticipation.
The chaos of Chongqing gradually gave way to rice paddies and rural agriculture, every square inch of arable land coaxed to production. Crossing the Yangtze once again, we arrived in Fuling at nine in the morning. A crowd of local residents quickly gathered as we stepped down from the bus and descended the narrow road to the orphanage. We turned off the street to find ourselves in a courtyard full of babies in walkers.
We strolled among the 30 or 40 of the 500 orphans manoeurvering their walkers with great dexterity. The sight of so many foreign faces was too much for some, who screamed in protest at our invasion. Others remained stoic and undaunted. After 10 minutes we were led into a room where babies were delivered into the arms of their new parents.
“Our baby” — Nancy and I do feel somewhat proprietorial — Hui Hui, was handed to Cam and Karin, and in that instant became Kaelan Hui Hui McKechnie. We recognized her immediately from her photo, which proved to be a good likeness of the little girl now in her parents’ embrace.
Kaelan’s initial reaction was wary, but she managed to maintain her resolute countenance and serious observation for perhaps 20 minutes before a few quiet tears slid down her cheeks and she went into self-defense mode and fell asleep.
Most of the other babies could not hold their composure and dissolved into tearful screams. The babies were not the only ones crying: emotion ran high as dreams came true. After a few introductory moments with “our” new babies, we were taken to tour the orphanage. It was organized and clean, and the staff members caring and warm. Cribs were lined up in rows, and we navigated through more babies in walkers. (The orphanage was short about 200 walkers and the parents in our group had contributed enough money to make up the shortfall.) Some of the children still raged in vocal protest; curiosity got the better of others who cooed, smiled, and grabbed our pant legs.
The babies ranged in age from nine to 12 months. The orphanage courtyard was flanked by a seniors’ residence, and elderly people came and went, some lingering to talk to the babies. A crowd of onlookers peered through the iron gate and smiled broadly at us as we re-boarded the bus with 15 beautiful baby girls.
On the journey back to our hotel, Kaelan never cried. Many of the babies wailed at the overwhelming change. It is hard to imagine a greater shock than to be removed from everything familiar in the world by aliens speaking an unrecognizable language who smelt and looked different. Only the clothing on the babies’ backs provided any connection with their previous lives.
Though there were few smiles those first hours and days, it was amazing to see the difference 10 days later when most of the families took the return flight to Canada with playful, happy, engaged infants.
New parents had paperwork to do for the babies’ visas and passports; babies had to be finger-printed and photographed. Nancy and I used the time to explore and went on a mission to find some Chinese lullaby music that we thought Kaelan might be familiar with. Nobody spoke English and the CDs were all in Chinese, of course, but luckily our eyes fell on one with a picture of a baby that read, in English, “Music for Embryo.”
Three days after our pivotal trip to Fuling we flew to Beijing. Saturday was devoted to baby health, as the children were examined by Canadian doctors; all got a generally clean bill of health, aside from minor congestion. Sunday, a mere five days after picking Kaelan up, we found ourselves climbing the Great Wall on a chilly but sunny day. We had to keep pinching ourselves to realize where we were and under what circumstances.
The next day it was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Each evening we set off from our hotel to choose a restaurant. One, the Mogao Large Restaurant, we returned to twice, not so much for the food as for the entertaining menu which included such delicacies as Slices of Camel’s Feet with Fragrant and Spicy Taste, Flour with Tingling and Spicy Taste, and Old Gansu Dish of Aftertaste.
People would often stop us as we wandered, the few who could speak English commenting that Kaelan was a very lucky little girl. There seemed to be no resentment towards foreigners taking Chinese babies; in fact, it was quite the opposite.
We shopped until we dropped in Beijing, buying children’s clothing, artwork, silk cloth other silk items and pearls.
We took an inordinate number of photos to document the miracle journey that marked the beginning of Kaelan’s life outside the orphanage. In 10 short days Kaelan became a well-traveled baby, her stimulating environment already making a noticeable difference to both her social and motor-skill development.
Like all of her fellow adoptees, she could not crawl in spite of strong leg muscles developed from being in a walker. At first she could not roll over or sit up without support. She was adept at both by the time we boarded her plane for Canada. When her parents came into the room, she would smile in recognition; she laughed at peek-a-boo and other games, and generally became more demanding as she realized that somebody was there to meet her needs.
Our 14 days were filled with drama — Kaelan’s “firsts” and the exotic and chaotic surroundings of China.
The two weeks were magical and already seem a fantasy. What an amazing beginning for lucky Kaelan and her fortunate parents. And how wonderful for Nancy and me to be part of it all.