Thursday, April 29, 2010

China Rising, Part 1: The Wild West

We’re sitting in a restaurant in a village outside of LiJiang.  It’s our second day in China.  The kids are eating chicken and pork, fighting over a can of Sprite, and playing mini-mysteries:  A man is sitting on a bed.  He makes a phone call, listens for a moment, then hangs up and goes to sleep.  Ellen is feeding Jamie.  And I am watching Haba.

Haba is our guide.  He’s maybe twenty-five, with a high, round nose and slightly spiky hair.   Right now, Haba has his head down.  He’s pulled something out of his pocket and is bent over it.  He’s not moving, which is weird, because Haba is wiry and active, tapping his foot, usually, or his fingers, or twisting in his seat to look around him. 

Now though, he’s simply looking at his hand, at the paper there. 


We love LiJiang.  Driving in from the airport the day before, we climb up the side of a long, green valley surrounded by brown sloping mountains.  It looks like the Shenandoah Valley, actually, but the quality of light is different, softer somehow, more defused with moisture, making the greens greener, the sky bluer, the browns more fecund. 

Haba is our local guide, and we like him almost as much as we like LiJiang.  We’re not in the van ten minutes and already he’s telling us about the various ethnic minorities in the region.  The Na’xi are the dominant group, he says, the oldest group, the ones with all the power, who own the restaurants and the buildings that store owners buy.  There are also the Bai, and the Yi.  The Bai are, according to Haba, “very elegant.”  They make silver and dress well, and are very beautiful.  The Yi are less clean, and have their own religion.  They keep to themselves, don’t marry other ethnic groups.

Haba is a Pumi.  The Pumi, he tells us, are descended from nomadic tribes, maybe even Genghis Kahn.  They came to the valley 800 years ago.  They are very strong, and ruled the region for a long time.  Now, though, they live in the forests, and are so impoverished that the government doesn’t hold them to the 1-child policy, fearing that to do so would mean eradication of the race.  Pumis, Haba tells us, eat mainly potatoes and corn. 

We’re enamored.  Ten minutes outside of LiJiang, the proud crest of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain appearing on the horizon, brushed by plumes of evening clouds, I lean over to Ellen and say, “Let’s cancel the rest of the trip and stay here for two weeks.”

She nods.  “No kidding.”


The next morning, Haba takes us into the “old town” portion of LiJiang.  This part of town is filled with attractive buildings made with dark wood.  Red lanterns hang from many of them, and on some are carved bright red characters.  There are canals in LiJiang, and flower boxes brimming with blossoms.  It’s early April, and we’re in the mountains, so the trees haven’t leaved yet, though you can see a light green tinge at the ends of branches. 

In other words, it’s a nice place.

We walk through the town, glancing at the souvenirs—Tibetan prayer bowls, painted wooden carvings, fans, kites, and hand-woven shawls—then watch some ethnic dancers for a while.  They’re mostly women wearing blue skirts over pants, maroon tops, and intricate patterned leather shawls over their shoulders.  If anyone’s every doubted Asia and North America used to be connected, watching these women dance would erase those thoughts:  the costumes, the shuffling steps, the low singing exactly resembles a pow-wow.  

Eventually talk turns to our itinerary.  Haba mentions that the music show we were supposed to see that night isn’t very good for kids.  “Too boring,” he says, waving a hand.  “Many people tell me this.”  There’s another show, he says, with dancing, much more colorful, much livelier, much better for children. 

This sounds great, of course.  The only thing worse than a show that starts after the kids’ bedtime, is a show that starts after the kids’ bedtime and bores the living crap out of them. 

“What about the cost?” I say.  “Is it the same price?”

No, Haba says.  Ninety more.  About 13 bucks, US. 

I glance at Ellen.  This isn’t much by US standards, but in China, it’s a ton.  Our meal the previous night—all eight courses of it—totaled 150 RMB, and we included Haba.

“90 each?” I say. 

He nods.

“Hmmm,” I say. 

“To tell the truth,” Haba says, “this whole trip, it’s not very good for children.  There are many better things to do.”

Like what? 

He lists a number of things:  horseback riding, boat rides, the dance concert, some big park that everyone likes to go to where there’s a really old fresco.

I look at Ellen again. The company we’re working with is family friendly, we know, but it makes sense that they might have missed something, that after they set up the tour, they went back to Beijing and missed a whole lot of things that came later. Horseback riding sounds like fun, especially if we can go into the mountains that surround the city.

“If you want, I can do a package,” Haba says.  “I’ll set it all up.   Everything for 400.”


After we booked our tour, the company we were working with sent us a bunch of materials to read as we prepared for our trip.  We ignored most of it—we were seasoned Asia veterans after all, having had diarrhea in at least three different countries—but a section called “Safety Tips” caught our attention.  Among other things, it told us, “Passports should be kept with you daily.  Hotel safes are only as safe as the front desk clerk is honest.  That is, the access to the safes is greater than you may realize.  Hotel housekeeping and desk clerks usually have key-entry access.  Therefore, do not leave passports or valuables in the in-room safes unless you have no other options.”

Reading this, Ellen and I looked at each other.  We’d kept our passports in every safe in every room in every hotel we’d been in thus far in Asia.  In addition, we’d left huge wads of money, multiple books of traveler’s checks, three pounds of raw heroine Ellen had stolen from the bullet-riddled corpse of a nun working for a Hong Kong triad, and Ba-wa, Lucy’s stuffed puppy. 

But there was more.

“Pickpockets and slashers (slash your bag/purse) exist at most tourist attractions in Beijing and street markets.  Beware of this.  Carry money in private bag under clothing.  Carry backpacks in the front of you when at crowded markets.  Lock zippered compartments.  Beware of those who wish to have photos taken or sell you things in the Summer Palace as a diversion.  No harm will physically come to you, it just may be that money is stolen or a camera.”

“Wow,” I said, reading this.  “I’ll shave my body.  That way we can duct tape our passports to my chest.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Ellen.  “We’ll use staples.”

The literature went on:  “Watch for fake money at the Summer Palace and throughout China.  It is best not to buy things while at the Summer Palace—there is a switch of the money and your change could be fake.  They will tell you your money is bad and then give you a bad bill back!”

And:  “Be careful at restaurants.  Pay in cash only, as credit cards will be copied and sold to Malaysian drug syndicates.  Waitresses have also been known to follow small children into the bathroom, corner them, and demand candy.  Please remove all Reeses-Pieces from your kids before you come to China.”

And further:  “Wear metal underclothing.  Grandmothers in China tend to hate people like you, and will stick a shiv into your sternum first chance they get.”

“Damn,” I said to Ellen.  “Told you we should have booked those tickets for Iraq.” 


It doesn’t help, of course, that we live in Hong Kong.  Hong Kongers are so honest you can leave your baby holding the keys to your Rolls-Royce sitting in a $40,000 gold-plated stroller next to your laptop and new digital camera, and come back six hours later to find it all still there (except for the baby, who’s likely  crawled off for some curried fish balls). 

Seriously, you can be at an intersection where the sign is flashing “Don’t Walk.”  You look to the left.  No cars.  You look to the right.  No cars.  You look to the let again:  still no cars.  Indeed, now you notice tumbleweeds and a pair of squirrels playing Monopoly in the middle of the road.  You look at your fellow Hong Kongers.  They just stare straight ahead, watching the “Don’t Walk,” sign. 

They don’t walk. 

What’s more, Hong Kongers aren’t quite sure what to make of their cousins to the North. 

Actually, let me rephrase that:  Hong Kongers are afraid of the Mainlanders. 

“Been to Shenzhen yet?” a colleague asked me a few weeks ago.  He was referring to the busy metropolis of 20 million just across the HK border.  Shopping is plentiful and cheap in Shenzhen, and almost everyone we know goes up there regularly to load up on tailor-made suits, designer watches, and household furnishings.

No, I told my friend.  We haven’t had a chance to go there.

“Don’t take the kids,” he said. 

I looked at him. 

“It’s dangerous,” he said.  I raised my eyebrows, and he nodded.  “That’s right:  kidnappers.”

In a way, this made me want to go to Shenzhen all the more, if only to see some kidnapper trying to explain to a childless Chinese couple that, really, their neighbors wouldn’t notice if suddenly there appeared a blonde-haired, blue-eyed six-year-old in their yard. 

To an extent, Hong Kongers’ fear of Mainlanders seems entirely justified.  Mainland China has the feel of the wild west:  crime is higher there, and more violent.  Bing, our guide in Beijing, told us that almost every businessman who’d made a killing since economic reforms started has since been indicted for one thing or another.  Graft is everywhere:  in the government, in sports, even in academics.  Perhaps this is not surprising:  the average yearly income in China hovers around $1,000 US.  I know eighteen-year-olds who get better allowances.

Paradoxically, last year China gained more billionaires than any other nation in the world, and now has more of this breed than any country other than the US.  Ten years ago, when I first visited China, Beijing was thick with bicycles—hundreds would pour past as we strolled along the side-walk, wheels spinning, bells ringing, riders erect in the seat.  Now, almost everyone in the city owns a Volkswagon, a Ford, or an Audi.  You can encounter a traffic jam anywhere, at any time of day.  Bikes are non-existent. 

And then there’s the notice in the room guide at our hotel in Beijing.  Just after the list of phone numbers (Dial *12 for Room Service; Dial *7 for laundry; Dial *8 for the hookers in the barbershop) and just before the hours of the fitness center was a short statement: 

“Please note that guns should be secured in room safes at all times.  Firearms left unsecured will be confiscated by the cleaning service.”

Let me be frank about this:  I’ve been to the Soviet Union.  I’ve been to East Africa.  I’ve been to Texas.  And never—NEVER—have I seen a notice like this. 


Which brings us back to Haba, in that village outside of LiJiang, at the restaurant where we’re eating lunch.  Haba, who is bent over a packet of paper, staring at it silently as Jamie eats mushrooms and Lucy asks me if, maybe, the man on the phone in the room is calling his mother to find out if she can scratch his back. 

“No,” I say to Lucy, though I’m still watching Haba.  Why’s he just standing there? 

After some thought, Ellen and I had declined his offer to add on additional family-oriented pleasures in and around LiJiang.  It all sounded very fun—especially the paragliding with Tibetan monks—but we’d already spent a bucket-load on the trip, and $300 US more just seemed like a lot on top of it all.  This seems silly, I know—we’re from the West, after all, and we make more money than the Chinese—but we live in Hong Kong which isn’t the cheapest city in the world, and we have three kids, and it’s not like I’m a doctor or a lawyer or some rich Tea Party supporter. 

Haba took our rejection well, just shrugging and ambling on through the market.  At lunch, though, he comes over to tell us that, if it’s okay, he’s going to leave us with the driver for the afternoon.

“There’s another group that’s going up the mountain,” he says, referring to Jade Snow Dragon Mountain.  Then he gestures apologetically.  “It’s been slow for four months, and now, all of a sudden . . ..”  He lets it trail off.

No problem, we say.  We understand that he needs to make a living.  We’re just going to spend the afternoon wandering, anyway.  We don’t really need a guide. 

“But what about this park or whatever?” I say.  “The one you mentioned with the frescoes.  Is that worth seeing?”

“Oh yes,” he said.  “It’s beautiful.”

“So what if we wanted to see that?” I said.  “You know, as something extra? Would we be able to get tickets?”

“No problem,” Haba says.  “I can give you some.”

“But we’re not sure,” I tell him.  I’m thinking of the 400 RMB package he mentioned earlier.  This park, these frescoes were part of it.  “Can we just pay you if we use them?”

“No problem,” he says again.  “I’ll leave them with the driver.”

And then he unzips his fanny pack, reaches in, and begins to rummage around.  Eventually he pulls out a few strips of paper, connected at one end, and looks at them. 

And then he freezes. 

I watch him, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  Lucy has abandoned the 21-questions game, now, is making better use of her time by poking her baby brother with a chopstick.  Ellen is trying to get Jamie to eat a piece of beef covered in tomato juice.  Will is ignoring his food, concentrating on a small brass contraption he bought that works as a crude lock. 

I take all of this in, then reach for a piece of deep-fried yak cheese dusted with sugar.  It tastes a little greasy, but sweet and okay, too, and I chew, glancing back at Haba.  He’s still staring at the packet of paper, the fresco tickets, I assume, the one’s he’s going to sell to us if we decide we want them. 

I stretch my neck, try to raise the angle a little, get a better look at what’s in his hand.  It works.  Up higher, I can tell they are tickets, five of them, stapled together.  Attached to the top, also by staple, is a piece of white paper containing two carefully printed words: 

Ellen Satrom.

I sit back down.  I look at my food.  I can feel my face turning red.  I glance at Ellen, trying to catch her eye, trying to see is she knows what’s going on, if she sees why Haba is standing there, staring at those tickets, frozen in mid-gesture.

They’re our tickets. 

They’ve always been our tickets, included in the price of the trip.

He’s been trying to sell us our own tickets.  

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Imagine a man, standing on a slack wire.  The wire stretches from two poles, ten feet off the ground, and bows so that the man is perhaps 4 feet above the wooden stage. 

Now imagine that man walking on that wire.  He steps forward, lowering the wire before him, and raising it behind.  Then he steps back, raising the wire in front of him and lowering it behind.  He turns nimbly on one foot and goes in the opposite direction.

Now imagine that man laying back on the wire, legs stretched out and cross, arms on his chest.

Now he undulates in prone form, causing the wire to swing back and forth in 12-foot arcs.  Back and forth, back and forth he goes, so that when he’s at the back of the stage you can see the top of his far shoulder, and when he’s toward the front of the stage you can see the bottom of the same shoulder—he’s that high in the air.  It’s that much of an arc.

Now imagine him getting a ladder.  “A ladder!” you say.  “How wonderful that a man could stand on a ladder on a one-inch slack wire four feet off the ground!”

Well, yes.  But even more amazing is that he doesn’t stand the ladder straight on the wire.  No, he leans the ladder toward the back of the stage at a 40-degree angle.  Then he places one hand on the far end of the ladder and the other at the near end of the ladder, just over the rope.

And very slowly, he raises first one foot, then the other, above the wire, angling them toward the audience, toes pointed, counter-balancing the weight of the ladder with the weight of his body.

And there’s more.  Done with the ladder, he is handed a unicycle.  Which he stands on the wire.  And rides, of course. 

On his face.


Sometimes I get sick of my own voice.  Sometimes, I imagine I’m my “audience” (if you can call my Mom and six ex-convicts an “audience”), reading yet another one of my over-long posts, and getting to the end and reading some cute line about my daughter, or about my falling in love with China or about some great deal I got or some poetic realization I had—sometimes I imagine myself as that audience, reading that post, and I roll my eyes and gag, thinking, “Oh geez, here we go again.”  More hyperbole.  More sentimentality.  Who do I think I am, Disney?

Or worse than Disney, really.  At least Disney killed Bambi’s mom.  I wish I had the guts to kill Bambi’s mom. 

That sounded better in my head. 

At times like this I want to write a piece of cutting social commentary, something rapier-like in its wit and breath-taking in its undermining of contemporary American or Asian or American-Asian culture. I want to drip acid on metal until it makes an edge both cutting and beautiful, but more cutting than beautiful. I want to drop a bomb and really piss people off, and swear too much and shock folks by telling them something they’ve known all along, but were too scared to admit, even to themselves, until I came along with my refusal to wrap the world in sepia tones and gingerbread crumbles.

I want to be Augustine Burroughs with more social conscience, or William S. Burroughs with fewer drugs.

Oh well. 


I mention the slack-wire man because he epitomizes our experience in Beijing watching the China National Acrobatic Troupe:  every moment surpassed the moment before.  First we were amazed by the contortionists balancing (obviously glued together) wine glasses on their fingertips, toes, backsides, and noses;  then we were stunned by the tumblers who could run across the stage, leap into the air, pull a full somersault, land on their toes, and leap through a hoop ten-feet up; then we were mildly amused by the fourteen-year old kid tap dancing and juggling 9 balls and the woman balancing two open umbrellas on one foot while turning another one with her other foot while spinning two clothes on her fingers.  The six men scampering up thirty-foot poles and sliding down, face first, halting only an inch from the ground were pretty amazing, as was the closing act:  twelve women riding bicycles around the small stage, first in single file, then side by side, and then with all twelve on one bike. 

No kidding. 


And I mention the China National Acrobatic Troupe because it epitomizes the experience of our two-week tour of the mainland:  sure, the Acrobats were great, but so was the Great Wall, and the terracotta warriors.  Then there was the silk-rug factory where the kids got to actually weave silk rugs, and the art museum in Xi’an where the kids were taught the eight strokes of Chinese characters and got to spend almost an hour doing calligraphy.  There was the show we saw where the kids got to pose afterwards with actors in traditional Chinese makeup and costume, and the show we saw where men spit fire five feet into the air and dancers switched masks—“faces”—so quickly we spent most of the night lying awake in bed trying to figure out how the hell they did it. 

And there were the pandas.  Have I mentioned the pandas?  Friggin’ Pandas everywhere (well, not actually friggin’, but you get my point). 

One of my many quirks—I hate lettuce, toast, and circuses—is that I’m not a fan of zoos.  For one, they smell.  For two they keep cute animals in circumstances I wouldn’t put a—well, a dog in.  But more importantly, every time I go to a zoo, Ellen assures me I’ll get to see tons of exotic animals that we otherwise only get to read about in kiddy books. 

“Elephants,” she’ll say, “and giraffes, and crocodiles, and panda bears.”

“Yeah right,” I’ll sniff.  “Like we’ve ever seen a panda bear in our lives.”

“Sure we have,” she’ll say.  “Lots of times.”

Well, maybe she has, but every time I’ve gone to a smelly, koala-torturing zoo, all I see at the panda cage is the back of some guy’s Nikon as he holds it up in the air, randomly snapping photos of palm trees and bamboo fronds in hope of catching something black or white or black and white that he can later tell his friends is a panda.  

“See it?” Ellen will say.

I’ll grunt.  “Of course not.”

“It’s right there.”


“Next to the tire swing.  See?  It’s eating some bamboo.”

I’ll lean to one side and stand on my tiptoes, figuring if a five-foot-seven woman with a two-year-old on her head can see a damn bear that really isn’t a bear, then I should be able to as well.

But all I’ll see is green and more green, and a cement wall where someone (likely the panda) has scrawled, “What R U staring at?  The real animals are on Wall Streat” (sic).

“I don’t see anything,” I’ll say. 

“It’s right there.   Oh, see?  Look!  It’s standing up!  And walking!  It’s balancing a pole on its nose and reciting Shakespeare!”

But all I’ll see is dark fronds, some sort of watering dish, and what might be a used cotton ball.

All of which changed when we signed up for our tour and went to Cheng Du, one of only three natural habitats in the world left for pandas.  There, I saw between 20 and 30 pandas, ranging in age from two-year-olds to fully-grown adults, in the span of just a few hours.  We’re talking baby pandas taking naps on top each other; toddler pandas trying to knock each other out of a favored seat; grown pandas wrestling not six feet from us.

And there were the panda hugs.

Okay, maybe not hugs.  These are live, wild animals, after all.   Big animals, with teeth and claws sharp enough to chew bamboo.  So we didn’t actually hug them.  But we got in the cage with them while they were busy chewing cane, and the kids got to pet them and get their pictures taken with them. True, these pandas weren’t the cleanest pandas I’ve ever seen.  It was spring, after all, and muddy, and it takes a lot of Herbal Essence to clean a damn bear (even when they aren’t really a bear)—but at least they didn’t smell.  And they were kind of cute, sitting on their hind quarters, resting the bamboo on their bellies and chewing away, holding their food with those wonderful opposable thumbs (which explains why pandas are the only critters who can play the french horn). 

And they were real.  Real  pandas.  And we were right there, with them.

Which was pretty cool.  Really cool.  Cooler even, than a man on a slack-wire. 


My dad always says it’s better to be lucky than good, and most of my life I’ve lived by this expression, adding, “dumb” and “cranky” to the list just for good measure.   Which explains how we ended up on this particular tour.  We’d already been to China three times at this point, but each of those trips was short and focused on a single destination or a pair of closely-related cities.  Ellen and the kids had never done the “grand tour” of China, per se, but the thought of trying to negotiate three or four different hotels in three or four different cities that we’d have to get to via three or four different airports made us just feel tired.  Maybe if we knew the language; maybe if our kids were older, or maybe if at least two of them weren’t prone to “accidents” on a regular basis and the third unwiling to eat anything that didn’t have the words “peanut” and “jelly” in the name. 

In short, we knew we needed to be on a tour. 

Which is too bad, because we’ve never been tour people.  We hate being dragged through places so quickly you can’t spend money on crappy souvenirs, and we hate being polite to people we barely know at the ungodly hour of noon. 

This in mind we went into the process of finding a tour agency pre-determined to be unimpressed.   And for a while we were:  this organization was too glitzy, that one too slick, this one set up solely to rip off people wearing adult diapers.  Eventually we narrowed to the search to a couple groups that said they specialized in tours with small children, but after getting an e-mail from the FBI suggesting that we reconsider some of our recent on-line activities, we pretty much gave up.

Until we got lucky.  I’m not sure what search terms we used, or who did the search, but somehow we ended up on a site titled, “Our Chinese Daughters.”  Looking at it, we realized it was an organization that specialized in tours for the adoptive families of Chinese baby girls—those daughters given away by families—often rural, often with other children—for a myriad of reasons relating to social pressures, the one-child policy, and a host of other issues.

“Holy crap,” I said, looking at some of the packages they offered:  “The Grand Tour,” “The Ethnic Minorities Tour,” the “Panda Hugs” tour.  Each of them promising unique experiences for everyone involved, and the opportunity for the returning Chinese daughters to “fall in love with China.”

“We don’t have a Chinese daughter,” Ellen said.

“We could dye Lucy’s hair,” I said.  “She’s been saying she wants to.”

“I don’t think a blue-eyed girl with pink hair is going to fool anyone,” Ellen said. 

“But look!”  I pointed to the screen.  “On this tour you get to learn a 10,000 year-old dance.”

“We don’t have a Chinese daughter.”

I turn to her.  Sometimes you just have to go real slow with Ellen—she’s an editor, after all.  “Listen,” I say.  “She’s our daughter, right?”

Ellen eyes me for a moment, then nods.

“And we live in China, right?”

She rolls her eyes. 



“I’m just saying!”

What we end up doing is writing an e-mail to the Our Chinese Daughters Foundation and asking if non-adoptive families are also welcome.  They say yes so we sign up, send them our money, and get back into our daily routine for the next month or so.

It’s only when we arrive in Beijing and get the list of the other families on the tour that it suddenly occurs to us how awkward our participation in this group might be.  Adoption is about as perfect an institution as there is—I know this, having spent the last ten years watching my brother’s and sister-in-law’s lives grow richer daily as their daughter comes into her own.  I mean, what could be better than a child in need of a family bringing joy to a family searching for a child to love? 

But my friend Deb, who’s son came to her from Korea about the same time my eldest was born, points out, rightly, that adoption has its unique raft of challenges.  I’m tempted to list a couple of these—separation issues, etc.—but frankly, I only know enough about them to know that I should shut up and stay away from this particular field of eggshells (certainly a first in my life) out of respect for those who know more and for whom these issues are more than just theoretical. 

In short, we—or perhaps, more accurately, I—suddenly worried that our participation with this tour might interfere with something sacred:  a family with an adoptive daughter returning to the country of her birth for the first time.  One would anticipate that this would be a powerful experience, filled with complicated mixed emotions.  At times like these, is the presence of a big, fat gweilo who thinks he’s funny really that helpful?  (Actually, is there any time when the presence of a big, fat gweilo who thinks he’s funny really helpful?).   

In the end, we needn’t have worried.  One family told us they were just happy to have another boy on the trip, that they were concerned their seven-year-old son would feel isolated for two weeks.  And indeed, the children on the trip were a wonderfully mixed batch.  Besides our three, there was one other blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid—14 years old and gentle and funny and great with kids.  There was also a very small, very feisty England-born Chinese boy who prided himself, above all other things, on being from Liverpool.  And there were four Chinese daughters—two raised in Australia, one raised in the US, and one raised in the UK. 

My sense is that there were moments on the trip that were indeed sacred for these girls—and likely for the other kids as well.  There were pandas to hug, after all, and dance performances and music shows and getting to sit at their own table with no adult supervision. 

And my guess would be that other, more complex moments happened during the “add-on” portion of the trip, either before or after the tour, where the families went with their daughters to the orphanages where the girls lived between 6 and 18 months before adoption.  Very often, this part of the trip also included visits to the “finding place.”

This is a term I’d never heard before, and I haven’t figured out yet if it’s one that haunts me or reassures me.  A “finding place” is, of course, the spot where a child—almost inevitably a baby girl—is discovered.  Very often, though, it’s also a known spot, passed along by word-of-mouth, where babies are deposited and where someone—often the police, but not always—regularly checks.  It might be outside of a government building, or in a protected spot near a parking lot.  It might be anywhere.

Visiting her finding place, one of the daughters in our group got to meet and spend a little time with the man who held her until child welfare services came around to pick her up.  He was a nice man, a mid-level bureaucrat, quiet and gentle, and when the family asked if he remembered their particular daughter, he shook his head matter-of-factly—“There were so many,” he said through a translator.

Another girl, almost four, but the youngest of our group, actually bumped into the woman who found her.  The family was at the finding spot, looking around, and their guide tapped a woman on the shoulder, wanting to make sure they were in the right place.  She said they were, and told them she’d found a girl there herself.  The adoptive mother looked at her, wondering if it was possible.  The guide asked a question or two, and then another.  The woman answered all of them correctly. 


Of course, there were other intense moments on the trip:  there was the time all the orange popsicles were gone, and Lucy nearly cried because she hates—HATES—cherry.  And there were the daily arguments about who got to sit next to Caitlin.  And more than once I handed out M&Ms to some kid or other who’d just been up too late or who’d eaten only a mango and two rice crackers for lunch.  And then Ellen kept taking my seat on the bus and telling me I was nincompoop and—well, I won’t go there because the scars are just too fresh. 

Most of the trip, though, was brilliant.  When you’re with just your family, traveling with kids is hard:  ever day is a little like Lord of the Flies, and the only way to make it better is to start a pool putting bets on which kid will cry first, or throw up first, or get eaten. 

What we learned on this trip, though, was that traveling with kids is easier when you’re traveling with other people who also have kids.  It’s like some sort of bizarre physics principle, where you’d think putting more electrons in a given space would create more energy, more chaos, more collisions—but actually, it dissipates energy. 

And all of this was made easier by the fact that the tour company we used hired excellent and highly ethical guides.  Most trips to China will involve random stops at odd spots that don’t quite make sense, until you realize that what was advertised as a museum is actually a gift shop, and that your guide and/or bus driver get a commission on anything you buy there.

None of this happened on our trip though.  And Bing, Jing, and Ling (I’m not making this up) were all great with kids, great with adults, and willing to laugh at my stupid jokes.


In the end, I’m tempted to cap all of this off with some telling moment, some detail that creates symmetry or asymmetry or that just lingers in your head and makes you think about this post two days later when you’re bored and the bottle’s dry and you’ve just told the dog for the tenth time to please, damn it, stop licking my toes!

I’m a writer, after all:  I spend my life looking for moments that resonate,  collecting them, holding them in my pocket to draw out at the right time to offer to you like an afterthought so that I can appear deeper and more thoughtful and more perceptive than I really am.  Certainly, prior to this trip, I imagined there might be lots of moments like that, lots of moments when this or that kid—perhaps in her father’s arms, perhaps not—gained some sudden flash of insight—perhaps hard, perhaps poetic—into her life and her history and her place on this earth.

And certainly there were moments like that on this trip, maybe moments I saw, maybe some I didn’t—I don’t doubt it. 

But frankly?  Those moments are none of our damn business. 

So I’ll just end with this:  nine kids, some Anglo, some Asian, some young, some old, some loud, some quiet, some high strung, some patient, some able to wield a calligraphy brush like it’s an extension of her hand, others smearing paint across the page, some good at burping, some good at blowing raspberries, some polite most of the time but rude when they’re tired, others polite even when they’re exhausted, some funny, some with funny laughs, some ready to go to bed at 8 sharp and others ready to stay up watching Iron Man one more time. 

But all of them—all of them—sitting in a theatre in Beijing, with open jaws and wide grins, watching a man gliding along a wire on a unicycle, on his face.  Or watching twelve women form a pyramid on a rapidly moving bicycle drawing tight circles on a small stage.  Or watching a boy not much older than themselves pull Elvis moves in a glitter costume while juggling first six, then seven, then eight, then nine balls.  Or watching . . .

Well, you get the point.  

Monday, April 19, 2010

Chiang Kai-shek's Revenge, or: Hurling Ourselves Into China

(A note to the reader:  A few months ago I was at a lunch meeting when one of my colleagues, a smart, sophisticated woman who’s published a lot, arrived late.  “Are you okay?” one of the staff asked.  “Yes,” this woman said.  “Just a little diarrhea.”  I glanced down at what I’d been eating—chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles—then pushed it away.

It was one of those moments when I wasn’t sure if what I was facing was cultural discord or just a cultural anomaly.  Was it normal for Hongkongers to discuss the most graphic details of their bodily functions with professional colleagues—over lunch, no less?  If so, then, great, because I’ve got some wonderful toe-cheese stories I’ve been looking to try out for a while now.  Or was this just an individual thing—one woman, smart, polished, well-dressed—who had unusual boundaries?

I still don’t know the answer to this question—certainly, no one’s mentioned bodily fluids to my recollection, but then, most of the conversations I’m around are in Cantonese.  I mention this story only because the following post deals with a recent trip to Mainland China and some food-related—um—issues.  Some of you may not actually want to read the post.  Fair enough.  The rest of you, though?  Seriously?  Time to put away the chocolate pudding.)

It’s 11:30 at night, Thursday, April 1st, 2010.  I’m lying in a shabby hotel in LiJiang China, in the Yunnan Provence.  Jamie is asleep in the bed beside me, and Will is sleeping on the floor on the other side of him.  I am lying in bed, doing my Lamaze breathing:  He he he he he, ha ha ha ha ha ha, he he he he he, ha ha ha ha.

I am doing this not because I am about to have a baby (appearances to the contrary) but because five hours earlier Lucy hurled her guts out all over the outside steps of a very nice restaurant. 

I have to say, she gave us fair warning:  when we sat down to dinner and spooned some rice, some chicken, some bacon, and some French fries on her plate, she just looked at it.  For a long time.  A really long time.  Then she said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

We nodded and off she went.  We didn’t say anything because our mouths were too stuffed with food.  This was a fantastic meal, one of the best we’d ever had, Na’Xi food, from one of China’s 50+ ethnic minorities.  The starter was a soup with crunchy greens, noodles, egg, and lots of salt.  Next up was chicken, cooked in some sort of flavored oil and pasted with red hot chili peppers.  There were other dishes too, something with beef, something with pork, any one of which would have made itself a very satisfying entire meal back in the States, but which, now, two weeks later, I can barely recall.

The piece de resistance, though, was fermented greens stir-fried with dried bacon.  It was crunchy and salty, coated in a thin layer of oil.  The bacon was the most amazing thing I’d ever eaten:  maybe a centimeter thick and about three inches long, it looked like normal, uncooked bacon, except that it was crispy and flavorful, like eating monster bacon bits cooked in bacon grease, and dusted, ever so lightly, with teeny-tiny crumbs of crushed bacon. 

Sure, I ate some of the rice, and had some of the soup.  I tried the beef, avoided the pork, liked the chicken well enough.  But that bacon dish?  Man, I went to town on that ting:  I scooped up those greens and those dried strips and the occasional pepper and shoveled them into my mouth, taking a break only to sip the melon liqueur our guide, Habba, had ordered for Ellen and me.  Could life be any better? 

Now if this sounds greedy to you, well then, that’s probably because it was.  But keep in mind there was no resistance from Ellen to my gobbling down all that bacon:  she’s not a big fan of pork.  Will, meanwhile, won’t touch anything that isn’t white and the size of rice and that tastes exactly like rice.  And Jamie only has a stomach the size of a large grape, and was happily filling it with chicken.  Which meant, in effect, that the only person I had to share my favorite dish ever with was—

“Hey,” I said.  “Where’s Lucy?”

Ellen looked up from her soup.  “Still in the bathroom?”

I glanced around.  We were the only people in the restaurant except for a French couple.  Assuming they hadn’t eaten her—with the French, you never know—Lucy had to still be in the bathroom.  Her plate of fries and rice and everything else remained untouched.

Ellen and I looked at each other.  Huh.  Then we lowered our heads and dove back into the food. 

When Lucy eventually emerged she crept over to Ellen and whispered in her ear.  She didn’t feel well.  Ellen looked her over carefully.  Her face was pale, with olive green highlights around the jaw.  “Do you want to sit outside?”  Lucy nodded. 

“Don’t you want some french fries?” I asked.  She shook her head.  My heart dropped.  Lucy saying no to french fries is like Sarah Palin saying no to a lobotomy.  It just doesn’t happen.

But there it was, happening.  She sat in a courtyard just outside our window, laying her head on a wrought-iron table and closing her eyes.  

Almost everyone I’ve know who’s traveled in China has a story about getting sick.  China has some potent bugs:  hotels have signs in the bathrooms stating, “Water not for drinking!  Water poison!  Don’t drink the water!”  Our tour company went even further:  “When showering, be sure to turn your back to the spray, and to keep your mouth shut.  Should you ingest any water—even a drop—gargle immediately with battery acid in order to increase your chances of living.” 

We worried, now, with Lucy, but not overmuch:  we’d been in Asia for almost eight months, after all.  This was our third trip to the mainland, and none of us had ever been sick before.  Hell, we’d spent two weeks in Vietnam, and had come through unscathed.

By the time we finished dinner, Lucy had a little bit more color in her face and we figured she was fine.  Which she was, until we stepped out of the restaurant and she plopped down on the steps, spread her knees, and vomited between her feet. 

“Oh,” I said, ever the helpful parent.  Ellen, of course, pulled her hair out of the way, wiped her mouth with a tissue, and dabbed the sweat off her forehead. 

Lucy recovered quickly, at least until we got back to the hotel, where she threw up three more times in fairly rapid succession.  The last time, she was in the bath, splashing around.  I’d just moved Will’s stuff across the hall to my room, and was coming back to get his PJs, when Lucy said, “Daddy!  I threw up in my hair!”

“Really?” I said, keeping my voice light because I’d read once that it’s important to encourage your children when they discover new talents.  “That’s wonderful, honey.”

“Yeah,” she said, sitting up.  “It got—“ and then she paused, got on her knees in the tub, leaned over the toilet, and heaved again.

Never having toured with the Rolling Stones, this is the first time I’d seen someone sit in the bathtub and vomit into the toilet. I fled immediately, figuring if whatever she had was contagious, Ellen probably already had it, and I needed to get away so that we had at least one functioning adult the next day.

Except she didn’t.  Get it, that is.   Ellen.  Whatever it was making Lucy sick.

I did. 

I knew this almost already before Jamie and Will had gone to bed.  Every time I stood up or sat down or blinked, the room seemed to tilt precariously, swashing back and forth like an over-sized aquarium on a teeter-totter.  So I didn’t kiss them goodnight, and I didn’t linger in the hallway outside the room, reading a book by the dim lights.  No, I brushed my teeth, went to the bathroom, washed my hands, and put an empty garbage bin next to my bed.  And then I crawled between the sheets. 

I don’t think I slept at all.  Whatever it was came with a fever, so by 9:15 I was mentally arguing about the color of Lucy’s socks with my provost who was also Santa Claus and that dwarf from Fantasy Island.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad except that he kept shaking a shark in my face and saying, “Just say no to torpedoes son; nothing less ethical than a pair of 90th-ranked denim trousers.”

Even worse were the lucid moments, when I’d lie there, holding my stomach, shivering, trying hard not to think about scrambled eggs, or Tibeten yack cheese, or fermented greens with bacon, or any of the other things I’d eaten in the last 24 hours.  And trying hard not to think about Ellen across the hall, Ellen who’d handled Lucy’s vomit-sodden clothes and wiped her vomit-shmeared mouth and caressed her vomit-dripping hair.  Because if I was sick and Ellen was sick, then—damn, we were screwed.

Which lead me into even darker territory:  we were in LiJiang, after all, in Yunnan province, a hell of a long way from Hong Kong.  We had no insurance, as far as I knew, and even if we did, what good would it do in China?  Christ, we couldn’t even talk to the doctors, assuming we could find a hospital, which was doubtful, since no one in this damn place spoke English except for our guide, Habba, whom we were pretty sure was trying to rip us off by selling us a bunch of tickets we’d already paid for.   In short, if whatever we had was bad, we were screwed.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was traveling and working in Tanzania with my friend Peter, who has an annoyingly iron stomach, I picked up some sort of bug that had me lying in bed with a high fever for two days, sweating my way through dreams about tri-planes doing loop-de-loops and a British woman driving me around Milwaukee in a cream-colored Rolls Royce made out of Twizzlers.  Weeks later, when I went to the US Embassy (the one that was eventually bombed by Osama Bin Laden) to see the doctor, he took one look at my long hair, my scrappy beard, and my protruding ribcage and said, “Now I know what Jesus looked like when he was crucified.”

I laughed.  “Before or after?”

He just shook his head.  “Good question.”

That was scary.  I was halfway around the world, in a third-world country, unable to keep down food or water. 

But I was twenty, stupid, and not really aware of what was at stake. 

In LiJiang, on the other hand, I am 44, a parent, and bone-numbingly terrified that we have gotten ourselves into a situation where one of our kids could end up in a nasty hospital where whatever she had would pale in comparison to whatever she might catch.

It would have been better had I been able to go to sleep, but in my fevered stupor I wouldn’t allow myself to do that, because I knew the minute I did, I’d wake up again, vomiting. 

And let’s face it, folks:  vomiting sucks.  I don’t know anybody who likes to lean over a bucket or toilet and hack and gag until they can feel their esophagus rubbing against the roof of their mouth, all for the pleasure of having something that tastes like battery acid mixed with prune juice and chicken broth churn its way up your throat and into your mouth.

That said, we all know the upside of puking.  Even Will, who’s only 9, said to Lucy—after her first hurl outside the restaurant—“Bet you feel better, now, right?”  Because it’s true:  if pre-puking is horrible, and puking is truth that God hates us, then post-puking is kind of—well—peaceful.  Our stomachs are calm for the moment, the sweat on our skin starts to cool us, and we suddenly feel our bodies drawn blissfully toward sleep.  Sure, we know there’s a good chance we’ll be heaving again in an hour or two—but for the time being, post-puking almost makes pre- and mid-puking seem kind of worth it. 

Kind of.

The problem is, I can’t get myself past the pre-puking stage.  Which means I’m trapped forever in the purgatory of anticipatory fear regarding the aforementioned heaving, esophagal-mouthtop rubbing, etc. etc.  It doesn’t help that, over the years, I’ve somehow learned how to breathe my way through the waves of nausea that would--in a less-control-driven human being—result in the inevitable upsurge and post-partum bliss. 

It also doesn’t help, of course, that I’m not just a writer, but a writer who thinks too much.  As a result, in addition to lying in bed, feeling like my lower intestines are about to hurdle out of my body through my mouth, and like the world is going to end in a my-family-will-be-die-by-the-plague kind of way, I’m also thinking about how I’m going to narrate all of this later, when we get back to Hong Kong, for the blog.

You heard me. 

This is the problem, of course, with being a blogger, or any kind of non-fiction writer, or for that sake, one of those people who spends too much time on Face Book, updating their every move—“Had cheese sandwich for lunch again!  OMG!!  Will it never end????  LOL!!!  ; ).  And I, of course, am all three of these things. 

So in addition to lying in bed, trying hard not to hack a liver out of my nose, I’m worrying about Ellen and tomorrow and our 3-hour flight to Beijing, and next week and our tour and six days worth of Chinese food—and wondering if I know enough synonyms for vomit to get through a post on this subject alone. 

So there I am, curled up in bed, going, “He he he he he heave, hurl, gag, ha ha ha ha ha upchuck, throw up, regurgitate, he he he he,” wondering just how the hell long this can go on, when suddenly I realize that things are about to take a turn.  Not necessarily a turn for the worse, mind you.  Just a turn.  In the other direction.  So, down, not up.

I could, of course, wax poetic for another page or two on all of this, um, end of things, but to be honest, I don’t have the stomach or the patience for it.  So let me just point out a few things about diarrhea: 

1)      It smells. 

2)      Bad.

3)      When you’re already sick, smelling bad things is about the last thing you want to do. 

4)      I’m never going to eat eggs again.


Finally, of course, I gave in, and let things reach their natural conclusion.  I heaved several large, bacon-flavored, water balloons worth of vomit into the bathroom garbage can.  Then, fastidious Lutheran that I am, I dumped the can into the toilet, rinsed it in the tub a few times, and flushed.  Then I washed my face, gargled, and crawled back to bed, where I collapsed into a sweaty but relieved sleep.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully.  I wasn’t sick again, though when the boys and I woke up, I still felt as though Muhammad Ali had been using my abdomen for a warm-up.  Across the hall, I could see light streaming beneath Lucy and Ellen’s door, and when I tapped, Lucy opened, her face pink, her eyes bright, her hair free of half-digested corn on the cob.  Ellen took one look at me, then put me into Lucy’s bed and took the two of them across the hall to get dressed.  I slept through breakfast and woke about mid-morning to find a Sprite beside my bed.  A few sips made me feel better, so I showered and dressed, and the five of us went out into the cool morning to walk along one of the canals to the Black Dragon Pool. 

LiJiang, for the record, is an amazingly beautiful place.  It rests just below Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, in a lush valley at the eastern-most end of the Himalayas.  The mountains are astounding:  sharp and black, with snow clinging to the cloud-dusted slopes.

The town itself feels a little bit like Disneyland.  Until the late 90s, no one in China gave LiJiang a second thought, not even the people who lived there.  But then there was an earthquake in 1996, measuring a devastating 7.0 on the Richter scale, and when the rescue teams showed up, they were shocked to find so much natural beauty.  Since then LiJiang has been rebuilt, and wandering around in the “Old Town,” center, you’re simultaneously struck by how it seems impossible that so many people in one town could sell so much overpriced crap, and by how really beautiful the canals and the flowering trees and the buildings with their red walls and black-tiled roofs are. 

The Black Dragon Pool is surrounded by a classical garden:  stone walkways lined with shade trees, orchids and song birds, an old temple where thousands of people have bought “prayer locks” and clasped them to a fence, where they’ll remain forever, devoid of key-holes. 

On the far side of the lake is a small pagoda and a decorative building or two.  All of it is very pretty, particularly when the sky is clear and you can see Jade Snow Dragon Mountain off in the distance, looking both forbidding and hopelessly beautiful. 

We moved slowly, both Lucy and I feeling a little tender.  Settling on a bench on one side of the lake, we soaked up the morning sun until a huge group of Chinese game over and shouted “Hello!  Hello!” at us until our heads ached. 

We drifted on, pausing at an ornate building with a high roof supported by tall red pillars and decorative blue and yellow trim.  We stared at it for a while, trying to figure out what it was, then Ellen pointed to a carefully lettered sign:  “Smoking Area.”

After that, we crossed an arched bridge.  The water below was greenish-rgay, even with the sun on it.  Even so, we could see the curving shadows of decorative carp.  Once or twice a big one would drift to the surface, mouth gaping, eye peering at us as if to say, “Where the hell’s the popcorn?” 

I love these fish.  I’ve come to believe that someone who has fish like this probably will live a long time, that watching something this beautiful glide and turn so peacefully is a sort of meditation, slowing the heart, deepening the breath.

Watching them now, on that sunny April morning when it was still cool and damp and you could smell the decaying leaves and fecund soil, I tried to tell myself that if pre-puking sucks and post-puking is bliss, then post-post puking is almost heaven.  Certainly, I remember this from my hard-partying college days (all three of them), when I would emerge from a night of debauchery of one form or another (thank you, Jessica Lindus, from the bottom of my heart) to a clear October morning, the leaves turning on the hillsides, the sky a porcelain blue, the chill air making you feel that much more alive.  Moments like that, everything that happened the night before just enhanced the beauty of being alive, made you almost glad for the nightmarish darkness.

Standing there, Lucy beside me, I watched the fish, trying to feel moved by their beauty, trying to feel appreciation for the fact that I was alive, that none of us were too sick, that Sprite was plentiful and cheap.  Surely, I thought to myself, life is good?  Surely, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in this amazing country, to see this amazing natural beauty—the giant mountains, the small but graceful fish?

But no.  If being sick is bad—and it is—then being sick on vacation, when you’re in a foreign country, when you’re away from the comforts of home and a doctor you know will take care of you, and food that’s not floating in grease and laced with spices that seem dark and dry on your tongue—if being sick is bad, then being sick under these circumstances just plain sucks. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

312 M&Ms Later . . .

We’re in the airport in Li Jiang, Yunnan province, waiting for a flight to Beijing. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the kids all have lollipops, which means they’re sugared up and squirming around and over each other like so many baby rats.

Across from us stands a man, Chinese, maybe thirties, early forties. His face is dark and weathered, his hands broad, as though he’s a farmer or construction worker. He’s standing between two rows of seats, swaying aimlessly, looking around. One hand is in his pants’ pocket; the other dangles at his side. A digital camera hangs from his wrist. As it swings, I catch a glimpse of the LED viewer. It’s on, flashing images of the waiting room at waist level: rows of hard red seats, dim fluorescent lighting, a water cooler and shelves filled with kitschy souvenirs. I follow the man’s eyes for a moment, watch as he glances this way and that, his eyes darting around the room, snatching a glance at Lucy, staring toward the doors, sneaking a peak at Jamie. I’m tired, not twenty-four hours from hurling my guts out all over the floor of a skanky hotel bathroom, and here’s what I’m thinking:

“Give me a break.”


“For God’s sake.”


“Just go ahead and do it already.”

The kids get a lot of attention in China. This is particularly true of Lucy and Jamie, who both heads of spun gold. We’ll be at the Tai Po market, watching a butcher scrape the scales off a grouper. I’ll raise my camera, eager for a picture of the man, the cleaver, that wooden block made from the round of a tree—and get a disapproving frown. Lucy, on the other hand, will raise her camera and the same man will stop mid swing, grin at her, and hold up the half-cleaned fish, its gills still working.

Or we’ll be walking down the street, when a pair of teenage girls in frocks and leggings turn and point at Jamie on my shoulders. One of them will chirp, “Hello!” to which Jamie will respond by curling his face into his shoulder and grimacing.

Or we’ll be in Kowloon, going down and escalator. Coming up the other side will be an old woman in a plaid coat, her hair short and white and neatly combed. As we pass, she’ll glance at Lucy, her blue eyes, her pug nose. Then she’ll reach out one hand, the fingers wrinkled but tipped by long clean fingernails—and softly brush Lucy’s hair.

In Gweilo, Martin Booth’s superb memoir of a white boy’s childhood in Hong Kong in the 50’s, Booth talks about walking down the street and having Chinese men and women unabashedly reach out and stroke his blonde hair. “Gold is a lucky color,” he explains. “To them, touching me would bring good fortune.”

And then there’s the picture taking. Most of the time, folks are polite—this is Hong Kong, after all. They’ll tap Ellen or I on the shoulder and say, “Can I take a picture of your daughter?” Or your son. Or your children. Then they’ll kneel next to Lucy, or Jamie, or Will, or all three, and smile for a husband or wife or friend with a camera. Usually this will lead to small scene where more and more people gather around, asking for pictures. Once, at a temple in Vietnam, Will and I were strolling back from a bathroom stop and saw a half dozen people sprint—sprint—across a stretch of green lawn toward something hidden behind a stand of firs. We didn’t have to ask what it was; we both knew Jamie and Lucy had been spotted. One of Ellen’s friends who lives on the mainland swears his kids have attracted large enough crowds of camera-wavers that food vendors have rolled their carts over and set up shop.

Every anglo I know who’s experienced this phenomenon—which would be every anglo with blonde children in Asia—will eventually, over the course of a conversation about it, say out loud a thought I’ve had for a long time: what do these folks do with these photographs? I mean, I keep picturing the scene eight years from now, when this guy with the camera is sitting on the couch next to a friend, thumbing through some snapshots of his trip to Shanghai, when his friend will point a finger at one snap in particular, of a plump-cheek little blonde girl who looks like she’s ready to bite the head off a bat.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh,” the photographer will say, “I don’t know. Just some kid we bumped into.”

I’m trying hard not to be judgmental here, really I am, but this just seems weird to me. Barring running into Jennifer Anniston at the local Kroger, wearing a tank top and short shorts (her, not me), why would I want a picture of someone I barely know?

Ellen, of course, is more gracious: “For a lot of these people, this might be the only blonde person they’ve ever met—or even seen. Who knows? Maybe they grew up in a village somewhere out West and this is their first trip to the city.”

Fair enough. Jing, one of our guides during our recent trip to Xi’an (terracotta warrior land, in case you’re trying to place it), once mentioned in passing that pretty much no one had their own TVs until the mid-90s—and a lot still don’t. That in mind, seeing Lucy or Jamie with their hair that strange white-gold flashing in the sun—or even Will, with his greenish-blue eyes, pale skin and high cheekbones—must be like the one time in my life I encountered a Masai tribesman in a small village in East Africa, his tightly braided hair powdered with red clay, his shoulders taut and deep brown black beneath a plaid robe—a moment, a sight I still remember 24 years later.

When we told our friend Dat we were going to visit Vietnam over Christmas he made a point of warning us that our children would be doted on.

“They’re going to grab them,” he said. “Don’t take it personally. They just really love children over there.”

He wasn’t kidding: we’d be walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, and a group of tourists from—who knows? Southern Vietnam? Bangkok? Japan?—would grab Lucy and Jamie, squeezing them in their arms while this friend or that snapped a photo. One young woman was so physical with Lucy—snatching her up, planting her on her lap, and pinching her cheeks until Lucy squealed—that the guide had to intervene, chastising the woman and dragging Lucy back to our circle.

It was there, I’m afraid, that I began to get a little irritated. Part of it I’m sure, simply had to do with jealousy on my part—I mean, where were the hoards of skinny Asian women clamoring to be photographed with me?

Part of it, though, was simply that I didn’t like the idea of Lucy thinking she has to oblige every stranger with a camera (I mean: think about that sentence!). I’m not alone in this feeling: Ellen’s friend in China, the one getting kickbacks from the ice cream man, says he’s learned enough Mandarin to say, “She’s not a toy. She’s not a doll. She’s a little girl. Put my daughter down.”

Bad enough, I figure, that Lucy had no choice but to come to Hong Kong, had no say in what school she went to or who her friends would be—now she has to confirm her lack of agency in the universe by being a Kipi doll for a bunch of people she doesn’t even know? Call me ungracious, but I know my gender theory and I know objectification, and all of this was making me more than a little Judith Butlery, if you get my drift.

More to my liking, actually, is the way Jamie has taken to handling all of this: way back in November, we were visiting in a nunnery near Diamond Hill when a monk in a garnet robe approached and made goo-goo faces at Jamie. His response? He pursed his lips, squinted, and raised his fists.

That’s been his approach ever since. I’ve actually tried similar tactics with my deans and provost, but to no avail.

There’s a more somber side to all of this, of course. Every once in a while when we’re traveling on the mainland—waiting at a restaurant, maybe, or in line for a taxi—some slightly worn-looking woman in her late forties will be behind us, weighed down with a groceries in a plastic bag. Her eyes will be tired, staring off into nothing, almost studiously avoiding everyone and everything around her. But then something will catch her eye, some movement of Lucy’s, or Jamie meowing like a cat, maybe.

And then her gaze will lower and you can see her struggling for a moment to take it all in. Her eyes will travel from one head, to the other, and then to the other. And then they’ll do it again—one head, another, and another. And then she’ll just pause, not so much staring or stunned as—I don’t know what: overwhelmed maybe? Or simply that much more tired and broken by her life.

This is China, after all, where the one-child policy has been in place since 1978. And though Wikipedia will tell you that polls show almost 80% of the Chinese supporting the policy, I’ve yet to meet one who’s expressed that sentiment.

That children hold a special place in the Chinese heart is perhaps the most obvious and stupid thing I’ve ever written—where aren’t children loved, after all? But in China, there’s something different about this affection, something almost tangible but not quite. What causes it, exactly, I’ve yet to figure out: perhaps it’s the emphasis placed on carrying on the family name, and the way male children can do this. Or perhaps it’s the lack of a good care policy for the elderly, and the way children take on their parents as they grow old.

Of course, we care about name and the elderly in the West as well, but these things aren’t written into our contemporary social fabric the way they are in China: we’ve become a live in the day culture, a culture not particularly distracted by fears of the eradication of our family name. And we have Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a plethora of nursing homes to chuck Ma or Pa into when they start insisting they can sing like Sonny Bono, or take to wearing bright purple trousers in public and on their heads. Americans care about family, yes, but we often care just as much or more about career, or cars, or having a fancy home that we can’t afford but that has a built in trash compactor in every bedroom.

In contrast, family remains the fundamental social institution in China: perhaps this is simply because of a longer tradition dating back to sometime before the glaciers retreated; or perhaps it’s because of the oppressive and socially-isolating nature of an Orwellian government; or maybe it’s just because the Chinese are better and more caring people than we are. One need only think of the riots following the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes in which hundreds of children died because of poorly-constructed schools. When’s the last time Americans took to the street because of their children? Following the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, our sympathy for parents who lost their children stopped the moment we started discussing the possibility of redefining gun laws: in America, we care more about gauge and ballistic arc than we do kids.

None of which, of course, is going through the head of that woman as she stands behind us in that line for the taxis, gazing at our three children, any one of which we’re likely to be yelling at 11 out 12 waking hours a day.

What she is thinking, I don’t know. But as her dark eyes roll from blonde head to blonde head to chestnut head, her jaw tightens, slightly, and the line of her mouth becomes thin.

In recent weeks, it’s become clear that even Lucy, recently-elected chair of the Hong Kong Center of Attention Organization (HKCAO, for short), has gotten sick of all the attention. On a flight back from Shanghai a few weeks ago, we were stuck at the tail of the plane (“Just one more dumpling!” I’d said. “Don’t worry: we’ve still got plenty of time to get to the airport!”) right next to the bathroom. After the meal had been cleared, folks started lining up to clear their systems, resting their elbows on our seat backs and chewing on toothpicks. I was on one side of the aisle with Lucy, while Ellen was on the other, so I’m not entirely sure what happened, but eventually someone pulled out a camera and started snapping photos of Jamie. Next thing you know, there’s a mob scene at the back of the plane, maybe fifteen people grinning and waving digital Cannons, trying to get pictures of Jamie, with Jamie, or of the back of someone’s head looking at Jamie.

Lucy was next to me, curled up in the corner, observing all of this. She’s never been a good flier, Lucy, and she’d had a long weekend of playing with her friends and arguing with her brother, so maybe it was that. Or maybe it was something else. But when someone in the crowd finally noticed her there—her golden halo glimmering in the light bouncing off the clouds—and raised a camera, smiling, Lucy just frowned and shook her head.

“No,” she said.

And that was that.

Until we were in Li Jiang and we ran into a couple from Virginia who had four kids. They were in China for the long haul—two years down, and no end in sight as far as they were concerned. Their youngest two were blonde, and as it often does, the conversation turned to this phenomenon of strangers photographing our children.

“Our kids were really getting sick of it,” the mother eventually said. “Until we started with the M&Ms.”

“M&Ms?” Ellen and I said, wondering if we’d missed a semi-kinky chapter in The Lonely Planet Guide to China.

The woman nodded. “Every time they allow a stranger to take a picture of them, they get an M&M. We tell them they have to smile broadly, though. We consider this our little contribution to greater understanding and world peace.”

Later, I was in our hotel room packing up (who knew vomit-soaked clothes could weigh so much?), when Will and Lucy came sprinting in.

“You owe us three M&Ms!” they shouted.

“Don’t mention food,” I said. “What happened?”

“We got our pictures taken,” Will said.

“Three times!” Lucy chimed in.

“We smiled,” said Will.

“Like this.” Lucy spread her lips from ear to ear, baring her teeth like a Jack-O-Lantern on methamphetamines.

“And that didn’t scare them?”

At which point they both pummeled me with their fists until I threaten to barf all over them.

So now we’re in the airport in Li Jiang, and farmer man is standing beside us, switched on camera dangling from one wrist. He’s struggling to get up the nerve, I can tell—maybe he’s never met westerners before; certainly he’s never seen one as big and, well, green as me. I know I should help him, should nod or something, but honestly, my stomach is doing a tango with my large intestine and it’s all I can do not to curl up on the sticky floor of the waiting room and moan.

Eventually he’s saved: a mildly clownish man in a dark suit traveling with his buddies and a tinkling box of Tsing Tao grabs Jamie as he toddles past, propping him on his lap and poking his ample belly, grinning something at him in a dialect I’ve never heard before. In a matter of minutes, a crowd has gathered, mostly men, mostly in their forties, all of them with cameras, all of them taking turns posing with my three tooth-flashing children. I count flashes and clicks as best I can over the wheezing accordion and stomping heels in my gut, and make it almost to twenty before the furor dies down and we’re left, dazed and flash-blind, in our formed plastic seats.

The kids are thrilled of course, asking when they can get their candy, if they’ll have to share with the other children on the tour we’re about to join, if they each get their own bag or if we’ll get something larger and split it up. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this. At one point I swear I catch Lucy glancing desperately around the room, grin pasted to her face, trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone with a camera. That’s a bad thing, right? Doing things with strangers for candy?

There is one thing, though, that I do like about all of this: at almost every one of these mob scenes, if I step back and look around, I’ll find a stooped old man standing off by himself, hands behind his back, his neck bowed but eyes bright as he surveys the goings-on. Like with the woman at the taxi stand, his eyes will do the count, dancing from blonde head to blonde head to chestnut head—and then he’ll do it again, from head to head to head. Eventually, he’ll look up, glance around, as though hoping to share a joke. Most times he’ll catch me watching him, then nod his head towards the kids and raise his eyebrows: “Yours?”

I’ll nod.

His lower lip will arch into a pinched smile, and he’ll do the math again, nodding at each head, then glancing at me as he raises first a pinkie, then a fourth finger, then a middle finger. Finally he’ll hold them toward me, backwards, pressing his index finger down with his thumb. He’ll shake the hand, questioning: “Three?”

I’ll nod. Three. Yes.

He’ll look again, as though contemplating. Then he’ll do the count again with Will and Jamie: 1, 2—and look at me. Two boys?

Yes, two boys.

Then he’ll glance at Lucy, nod at Ellen, and look at me for confirmation. And one girl?


Then he might, depending on where we are, on what generation he’s of, on how much English he knows, say, “Happy family,” in a thick accent. And I’ll nod back. Yes, two boys, one girl, that’s the perfect mix. In China, that’s a happy family.

At this point, he’ll just flat-out grin, eyes bright, nodding his head.

Someone once asked me if I thought this was in approval of my virility, an hombre a hombre, “Way to go, dude!” kind of interaction. I don’t think so. There’s nothing lewd about it, nothing jarring or creepy, no thrust of the hips, miming a woman’s spread thighs.

Nor is it anger, or jealousy, a low-simmering resentment of a government or a policy that leaves parents vulnerable to loneliness and discomfort in their old age.

No, it’s more like satisfaction: one human being looking at one family, an essentially random selection of chromosomes and split cells and social variables that, could, in the worst case scenario, eventually make us all but strangers to one another. But not now, and not yet, and maybe not ever. No, right now, all this old man’s eyes and nods and grin shows me in this one human being looking at this one family, this one bald man and this one patient woman and these three mildly insane children, and saying, “Yes.” Just, “Yes.” And, “This is good.”