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.
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.
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.