“The past is a foreign country,” author L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his book The Go-Between. Perhaps that’s why we hold on to the postcards…
In the Spring of 2006, Christina Laughlin, her husband and five year old daughter travelled to China to adopt their two year old son.
Walking groggily through the airport at 3 A.M., I wondered if I was seeing things. There seemed to be a fog filling the terminal, and I pondered if the 22-hour journey was now playing tricks on my eyes. As we descended the escalator into the baggage terminal, the fog grew even thicker, like dry ice on Halloween.
I looked around, searching for construction at this deep night hour, but found nothing. Glancing down at my sleeping daughter, I worried for a moment if it was safe for her to breathe, but resigned myself to having no remedy other than a speedy exit. Claiming our luggage, we emerged into the China landscape for the first time. It was dark, with street lamps glowing through the thick haze.
Wearily, we approached a taxi. As the driver placed our luggage in the trunk, I asked him curiously if it was always this foggy…he just stared in confusion. After a few moments of awkward silence between us, he turned and got in the driver’s seat. Praying I hadn’t just offended, instead chalking it up to the language barrier, I turned and got in.
We arrived at our first hotel in Zhengzhou that I had found online. The staff were all outside, lined up proudly with uniforms and bellhop hats just so. I asked aloud if this was a case of mistaken identity, as it seemed as though royalty was arriving. We were equal turns embarrassed and flattered, whatever the cause.
The lobby seemed charming, as they ushered us into the elevator. We crossed the threshold of our room, most of the staff still in tow, and I realized we had a problem. As I looked around, it was becoming very clear to me that this was not a standard hotel, but rather one that is usually rented by the hour for more amorous adventures.
As I glanced over the edible panties on the bathroom counter, it now dawned on me why the staff had been so elated at our arrival; we quite possibly could have been the first guests that had ever booked for an entire week straight. I almost felt too guilty to leave, such was their joy at our presence, but had to come to terms with what was about to happen. We were about to add another tiny human to our family, and the vibrating bed wasn’t the right setting. I knew we had to beg forgiveness and find other accommodations.
Luckily, we found a lovely room at the Sofitel. We tried to settle in and settle down. The reality that in the morning we would be meeting the newest member of our family for the first time was both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhausted from the long journey, my husband and daughter fell asleep. I stared out the window at the city below, watching the sun try to rise through the smog, and wondered where out there my new son might be.
I knew what was ahead for him, the trauma and confusion of losing everything you know, and I was unable to sit still. I quietly crept out of the room, and began my exploration of China, as it was within the confines of our hotel. I studied the pinyin, or Chinese characters, against the English on signs. I looked at the flowers on the brass tables, some recognizable and most strange and new. I walked by the business center, and listened to the different dialects happening all at once. I smiled and slightly bowed to strangers who did the same to me, all the while wondering what he would be like, what his voice would sound like, would he one day call me mom?
I returned to the room with some Chinese candy and trinkets from the gift shop for my daughter. She was five, and a bundle of excitement, asking the same questions I had in my mind, and about a hundred more. I silently prayed that tomorrow would not be too much for her. She doesn’t remember her own adoption, when it was just she and I, and tears silently streamed down her face as she took mine in.
I glanced at my husband, and could imagine I looked every bit as scared as he did. We smiled at each other, and ordered room service. I spent the rest of the night envisioning the weeks to come to calm myself; travelling by train through the countryside to the coastal city of Guangzhou, the Pearl River lit by fireworks, temple offerings of incense, his first bath, watching my two children play, eating dumplings on the famous Red Velvet couch that all adoptive families take a photo on for good luck, and iced desserts with cookies at an outdoor café. Another ride to the airport, another 22 hour journey, but this time, four of us, headed home.