Thursday 30th of March 2017

From Nanchang to Our Home: An Act of Faith

Having a child, whether through biology or adoption, is an act of faith. The story of Mei Mei, our second daughter, coming into our home was one of holding onto our faith that it would work.

The beginnings were inauspicious. We started the paper chase for our second child from China in October 1995. The I-600 went to the INS at the time of the U.S. government shutdown. Our dossier went to China in April 1996. Unbeknownst to us, the paperwork was sent to the ministry that was shut down while government officials worked out turf and authority issues. We thought, based on our experience of adopting Lianne in 1994, that we would travel to China in late summer or early fall of 1996. That was not to be. Our dossier had to be retrieved from one ministry and resubmitted to the other, after being waylaid for a few months in the U.S.

When I tell acquaintances our wait was nearly eight and a half trimesters, they laugh and say, "Why that is almost the same as having one of your own." Ignoring the "one of your own" part, I say: "No. Trimesters." They mentally stop in their tracks, then say, "Oh, sorry, I misunderstood."

Our second daughter's orphanage name was Lu Dongmei. We named her Julie Dongmei, but we call her "Mei Mei" because Lianne, our then four-year-old Chinese daughter, started to call her that months before we received the referral. Before Lianne picked this name, we did not tell her Mei Mei can mean little sister in Chinese, or it can mean beautiful plum blossom flower. Perhaps at some level Lianne knew. The name Mei Mei stuck.

Mei Mei's referral came at the end of July, but travel permission did not arrive until mid October. We finally held out our arms to receive our second daughter in Nanchang on November 6, 1997, two days before her first birthday. Mei Mei looked at all of us, sized us up, and then looked directly at Lianne. She grinned from ear to ear and offered her new sister an outstretched hand, beckoning, "Let's be friends. Can we go play now?" A treasured moment, forever emblazoned in my memory. In my gut, I knew it would all work out.

But first the bonding process had to begin. It was tougher than I had ever imagined. The door closed, the orphanage officials went away, and we were a family with a one-year-old child who was a stranger to us. To her, we must have seemed stranger still. After all, we had done this before, this adopting. With Lianne, who joined us at six months, the bonding and settling down had been nearly effortless. With Mei Mei, it was not. In retrospect, I wish I had known more about toddler bonding issues so I could have understood Mei Mei's behavior through her eyes. It would have vastly rearranged and lowered our expectations and made us better parents to Mei Mei from the start. And it would have reduced our stress level, which would have helped the whole family.

We met Mei Mei ten minutes after checking in at our hotel. (The other family traveling with us received their daughter five minutes after checking in!) Bringing nearly total exhaustion (or so I thought) to Mei Mei's first night with us was inauspicious. That first night Mei Mei did not want to sleep. She sobbed till she could not take a breath. If we put her in the crib, she would arch her back and scream bloody murder. I thought she would tire herself out, but it took about five hours before exhausted sleep came. And then we learned a reality about our new daughter that we could not know would last for months: After she tired herself out crying her eyes out, trying to fight going to sleep, she cried in her sleep. Only rarely does she wake up when she cries in her sleep.

When we first met her, she had a little bit of a rattly cough. Within a day she had a horrible wet, wrenching cough. I started the antibiotics from the Texas medical kit. We gave it three days to work, but the cough worsened fast, and her breathing was clearly labored and restricted. There was no time to wait until we got to Guangzhou and the medical clinic at the White Swan Hotel. In fact, with the congestion she had and the possibility of an ear infection, flying was out of the question. So we took another leap of faith. We went to the Children's Hospital of Nanchang.

Maria, our escort/translator, was terrific and helpful in every way. However, she was a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine and did not know the word for antibiotics. Although our traveler's dictionary contained the word, it soon became clear she had no idea what it meant-what distinguished an antibiotic from an analgesic or an antacid. We needed to find an English-speaking medical practitioner. We asked, but there wasn't one.

A spry Chinese man of about 30 spotted us in the lobby of the hospital and took us under his wing. He told Maria where and how to register, where to go for treatment, how the whole intake system worked. Soon we were on our way to our "appointment." We climbed two flights of stairs and found ourselves at the end of a line in the hall, with about 30 families with kids ahead of us. We began to take our place in line, but the spry man signaled us to follow him. He pushed to the head of the line, which ended in a room about eight feet square. The line spilled into the room. The doctor sat on a wooden stool at a tiny table, sporting a pile of dark wooden tongue depressors, the little rubber tomahawk for testing reflexes, a stethoscope, and a few other items. No instrument to check for ear infections was present (nor was there one later at the White Swan clinic).

As dozens of eyes followed us, staring at the six-foot-tall, chunky foreigners with two Chinese girls in tow, the spry man threw down on the tiny table an unlit cigarette for the doctor. Rapid-fire conversation ensued. I was immediately motioned to sit down with Mei Mei. I held up the bottle of pink antibiotics she had been taking, read the label, and pointed to her chest, which was heaving with the labored coughs. I hoped, but did not assume, he understood me. He nodded wordlessly. The doctor started to get one of the bamboo tongue depressors, which clearly had been washed many times. I quickly pulled out a sterile packaged tongue depressor from my fanny pack, which he used while Mei Mei screamed at him. The eyes around us widened. He listened to her chest with a stethoscope and wrote out a prescription and some instructions. This all took about 15 seconds. We were on our way, the stares following us, with lots of emphatic, punctuated chatter.

It turned out that the prescription was for cough medicine and a course of four shots of penicillin, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. We were escorted by the man to a "pharmacy" window where we were given the black, bitter-smelling cough medicine in a six-inch-long test tube-type vial with a cap, and then we were directed to the shot counter. This was a bank of sliding, closable windows (like an old-fashioned bank) about 75 feet long and 12 feet high, with a white-uniformed nurse stationed at most of the windows. In front of the window was a shelf, waist high, about two feet deep, with a vinyl pad on it. We watched the routine: the parent pulls the child's pants down, the child is backed up to the window and sits or stands on the pad, the shot is given in the child's backside, and that's it.

We offered our syringe from the Texas medical kit, without seeing the syringes they were using. The nurse obligingly opened it and pronounced the needle too fine: she could not use it. (Near as I could determine, the penicillin may have been too thick in its solution to come out of the needle.) Agonizing decision time. Do I let my daughter get a shot from a syringe that may or may not be sterilized? I tried to ask, but with the noise, the crowd pushing in around us, the question or the answer got misheard or confused between me, the nurse, and/or the translator. Another act of faith. There was no choice. We could not fly to Guangzhou with such a sick child and risk puncturing her eardrums.

Rows of blue chairs were available for sitting, complete with matching potty/collection basins about every tenth chair. Held by their parents, the little diaperless chapped bottoms gave up their urine and bowel movements, mostly missing the traditional split pants, while dripping or plopping into the overflowing blue collection basins on the floor. The flies swarmed around us on this warm day. The stench made me nauseous. The collection basins, used by the hundreds of children in the hospital for treatment that day, were overflowing with urine and stools. In four visits for the shots, I never saw anyone empty the basins or hose down the tile floor. The function of the open-air atrium became clear: to let the flies out and the fresh air in.

It turned out that the first injection was not a full shot, but a skin test. They injected a little penicillin under Mei Mei's skin and told us to wait for 30 minutes. Once I saw what was happening, I understood they were skin testing her for an allergic reaction to penicillin. We do not even do that in the U.S.! I felt again a small bit of comfort that things would work out.

A nurse checked and OK'd the skin test, and we got back in the pushy line so Mei Mei could get her first full shot. Again, the wide-eyed stares from the crowd as we peeled off several layers of clothing from her skinny 15-pound, one-year-old body-including the unfamiliar Huggies Ultra-Thin disposable diaper and her onesie.

The course of penicillin put Mei Mei on the road to recovery. It also did what antibiotics usually do to little kids. It totally upset her intestinal system. If there wasn't enough reason for Mei Mei to cry at every turn, now she had another good reason. Her little body exploded with diarrhea even while she slept. An undernourished child, she had been eating all the food she could squeeze into her little tummy. Adding insult to injury, now the upper end of her digestive system failed her. We could not keep food in her. We worried about dehydration, as she would not drink the soy formula we brought or the Chinese milk based formula, even with sugar. After a few days of increasingly rejecting all food, the only things that we could consistently get into her system were watered-down Gerber's rice cereal, a little flavored Pedialyte, and an unknown liquid the doctor at the White Swan prescribed to help settle her tummy.

Her medical exam at the U.S. Consulate was on the day President Clinton signed the bill to stop requiring small children to get all their U.S.-required immunizations in their country of origin. (The change didn't go into effect until later.) Next, we spent 32 hours in transit home with an already sick child who had just gotten four immunizations. Thankfully, a store in the Hong Kong airport sold diaper wipes; we'd gone through a record number in the eight hours we spent in that airport. The highlight was in the restroom: just as I was in the process of removing one full diaper, she of course had more diarrhea. So I did as I had seen Chinese women do: I held Mei Mei over the big trash can. On their way in or out, Chinese women gathered in a group nearby, watching and chattering away. I am sure they must have been exclaiming at this tall, foreign woman with the Chinese child. Several ventured forward, as I wiped the poop off the floor, to ask if she was "really" my daughter or had I adopted her. The scene was not conducive to an in-depth conversation about adoption.

Our early days in China and then California showed Mei Mei to be a cheerful though watchful child. She was clearly working on learning to trust all three of us, while crying easily when anyone went out of the room or at any other thing that was frustrating her. But the nights brought on fears that would not, could not be articulated for this one-year-old. Initially it took hours of walking around or stroking her back in her crib to get her to go to sleep. She was afraid to be rocked and afraid of going to sleep. When she did sleep, it was fitful, turning and rolling, using every inch of the White Swan crib and then her new crib at home. And she cried in her sleep, not waking. It was not night terrors. Sometimes it was a whimper, sometimes sustained crying. We would wake her up to calm her down, something we later learned was moot: at night, she would cry whether she was awake or asleep. The only thing that helped, sometimes, was to take her into our bed. She would sleep, but it was still fitful, rolling and moving around.

Gradually she learned that we were a constant in her life. The sleep crying began to diminish somewhat. I told a couple of friends with children from China about the sleeping problems, and two different women who had received toddlers had the same experience. For one, it lasted ten months before it got better, and now her daughter sleeps soundly. I noticed that other parents on the post-adopt-China e-mail list were having the same problem. I found Toddler Adoption: The Weaver's Craft, by Judith Hopkins-Best, to be a book I should have read before I left. Nevertheless, it helped explain how traumatized my Mei Mei was by her move from the orphanage. The sleep problems at night, the easy crying during the day, the hitting of Lianne and others when she could not communicate what she wanted, the panic if we walked out of sight-are all common, "normal" stress indicators in children moved (probably without preparation) from an orphanage to two different hotels to a long plane ride to a strange new home, ending up with absolutely nothing familiar at all.

At first Mei Mei would not let us comfort her. She would not let us rock her in a rocking chair or hold her in our arms or on our shoulder. She would not focus on things such as toys or books for more than a few seconds, being very easily distracted. She wanted to get on our laps, then jump off, then get on and off again. Of course we worried about attachment problems. I finally learned, with the help of Toddler Adoption, to let Mei Mei find her own comfort zone. I learned how to watch her body language, listen to the tone of her babbling, and use that to figure out her needs and wants. There was no way we could force her to relax. She had to feel comfortable and trust us first. That was when the bonding really began. In some ways, it was a counter-intuitive process. Instead of hugging and kissing her and holding her tight, we needed to give her space to help her relax. We needed to create a loving environment, but to wait until she was ready to come to us.

Reading about orphanage caregivers' styles and children's reactions to stress, I realized with a start that perhaps she had never been rocked in a rocking chair, probably not in the crook of a caregiver's arm, making eye contact. When we tried this, the crying and the body language told us it frightened her. At the hotel mini-banquet the orphanage director never made eye contact with her, although he was very affectionate to her. When he took her on his lap, she faced away from his face, probably so she could eat more efficiently with the chopsticks. So when I next rocked her in the rocking chair, I let her pick a position that was comfortable to her. She chose facing away from me, just the way the orphanage director had held her. Also, instead of trying to read books or have structured play, we sat on the floor and let her pick the toys or direct the games. This is when she began to be able to calm herself down. The trust began to translate to a more relaxed going-to-bed routine. It was a major awakening to see the change in her behavior.

I also experimented with the amount of clothing and blankets she seemed to need at night. It turned out that Mei Mei was one of China's "hot babies," a child who perspires a lot and cannot tolerate heavy, layered clothing. The lighter the blankets and her sleepwear, the better she slept and the less she cried. Now she sleeps with only a cotton receiving blanket to cuddle with (not covering her) and light cotton sleepers without feet on them, causing a marked reduction in sleep crying.

Mei Mei's Chinese name, Dongmei, means a winter-blossoming plum flower. We were also told the same characters can mean "survivor," like flowers poking through deep winter snow. Bringing a child into a family requires a leap of faith that all will work out. Lianne's easy transition into our family lulled us into complacency about how easy it is to parent a transplanted child. Now five months into our new life with Mei Mei, the daytime stress indicators-including crying and hitting-have largely disappeared. Her going-to-bed routine has become easy for us and relaxing and comforting for Mei Mei. She is happy to be rocked to sleep or held on our shoulders; she loves to look us in the eye and give and receive kisses. She still sometimes cries in her sleep, but the incidence and duration are gradually decreasing.

Mei Mei is a survivor, and she is clearly comfortable with all of us. Our two daughters have developed a loving and affectionate relationship, when sibling rivalry is not in play. Lianne has worked through her own transition to big-sisterhood. Mei Mei has made us better listeners and observers and, I hope, better parents. It was tough for a while, but it has been worth it. We are truly now a forever family.

Allison Branscombe is Sacramento Regional Coordinator for San Francisco Bay Area FCC. This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of the SF-FCC newsletter. © 1999 by Allison Branscombe. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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