Published on August 6th, 2020 | by Suzanne O'Brien1
Breakfast in Guangzhou
The sun rises over the distant Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, creating a smoky glow that filters into our room. I creep to the window and look down twenty-four floors to see groups of elderly Chinese people streaming into the park for morning Tai Chi along the Pearl River.
Yesterday, I slipped out before Mike awoke, exploring the Shamian Island’s broad pathways shaded with ancient trees and grand buildings. Every moment seemed monumental. I was frantic to record every sight, smell, and sound for later.
Today I am operating on fumes and I wonder how we will survive if we even manage to leave the room.
Behind me, something stirs. I shift to the counter, pour bottled water into the hot pot and plug it in. My hands are shaking. Is it lack of sleep? Dehydration? Or the overwhelming sense of finally being here? I measure out a small amount of creamy powder to put into—where’s the bottle?! It must be in the bathroom. I stumble halfway through the still-dark room, scoop in hand.
Mike sits up in his twin bed on the far side of the room. “Everything okay?”
“Shhh!” I say in a loud whisper, nodding with my nose at the crib in the window corner. A dark head, short hair sticking out, peers over the edge. I reach into the bathroom, grab for the bottle, and rush back to the hotpot. Her wide brown eyes are solemn as she watches my fumbling preparations. She grips the rail of the crib with long, slim fingers that look like they belong to a concert pianist, not a fifteen-pound, year-old baby.
She turns and eyes Mike as he attempts to distract her with red, blue, and yellow stacking cups. I pour in warmed water then shake the bottle with my back to her. Add in some cool water just to be safe.
Before I can get to the crib, she spies the bottle. Her serious gaze turns to tears in an instant. “Amas!” she cries, thrusting her onesie-clad body into the corner of the crib.
“Hang on, little one,” I scoop her up in an awkward one-armed move. She is twisting. I almost drop the bottle. Her cries grow more urgent.
“Amas! Amas! AMAS!” I have no idea if this is a real Cantonese word, but I don’t need my translation book to know it means “More, now!” This first word of our shared language pierces my heart. She’s already teaching me how to be a mother.
She makes contact with the nipple on the Haberman Feeder, a specially designed bottle for babies with cleft palates that the Gillette medical team advised us to use to ensure proper nutrition. She takes one suck and doesn’t stop until the bottle is half empty. She is breathless. So am I. Mike is smiling.
We decided on adoption to create our family because both Mike and his brother were adopted as infants. Mike didn’t know what it was like to be female, Chinese, or have a cleft palate, but he knew what it felt like to be adopted and that was pretty powerful. (I am the only being in our household of people and pets who is not adopted.)
Our agency had ties with China’s well-established program, and we embarked on our parenthood journey with the goal of meeting our baby at the White Swan Hotel on the Shamian Island in Guangzhou, just like thousands of American moms and dads before us.
By the time we finished all the paperwork and home studies and physical exams and background checks, we were two years into the process and it seemed like everyone else had decided that China adoption was the way to go, too. Our agency estimated that our wait to be matched with our child would be between eighteen months and three years. Five years after deciding to become parents, we were matched with Harriet in July and received approval to travel from Minneapolis to Guangzhou in November.
We had been a family for less than twenty-four hours. It felt like twenty-four days.
Less than a half hour after holding Harriet in my arms for the first time in an office building on the mainland, our new threesome and another bewildered family from our U.S. travel group were whisked to a Guangzhou version of a Super Target. Multiple floors with endless rows of products that we knew we needed but couldn’t identify. Bright lights and constant grating loudspeaker voices urged us to…to do what? We knew only a few Cantonese phrases: ni hao (hello) and the ever-useful xie xie (thank you). Our Chinese guide, Molly Moo, a slim, no-nonsense young woman from Hunan, led us down the aisles and plopped items into our carts with an efficient manner just shy of impatience. Mike pushed the cart as I worried aloud over not having brought more cleft bottles.
I admired the tiny, slender fingers gripped in my too-hot hand, willing the moment of sensory overload and awe to lodge in my memory. One day, Harriet might like to hear how we marveled over her calm demeanor as we pushed the cart through the chaos of the Carrefour hypermarket.
Back on the island, each moment of bonding was eclipsed by a new skill to learn, a new question to ask our guide, a new worry to note. We took turns venturing out to bolster our drinkable water supply at the convenience store across from our luxury hotel. We returned to the oddly comforting Starbucks housed in an aqua-colored colonial building that might have been at home on Key West. We stepped back, humble, as Chinese grandmas elbowed us out of the way to pull Harriet’s pant cuffs to meet her socks, even on the 80-degree November days.
Would she want to know the spectacle we created strolling through Qing Ping market? Immersed in capturing images of plastic bowls filled with live scorpions and eels, we were startled when a group of local girls paused their shopping and asked to take a photograph with 6-foot-4-inch Mike.
We agonized between the highly regarded Jenny’s Place and the more convenient Shari’s Place, tiny storefronts geared exclusively to adoptive parents, with internet, laundry and necessities like rental strollers and clothing. (To be fair, I agonized. This was one more decision in a long line unknowns, like which toy to bring to China or how soon to schedule her palate repair surgery back in the States. I was a parent now and I needed to make the right call, but being in another country made things so much more overwhelming. I wondered if Harriet would feel similarly displaced in a few short weeks when she found herself across the world in her new home. Mike just said, “Jenny’s.”)
Mike now reaches across the space between our beds and turns on the light. “Here, hand her to me. You go take a shower.”
“Careful…” I surrender her warm, relaxed form. “Make sure she doesn’t fall asleep before she finishes the bottle.” Falling asleep sounded delicious after last night’s fitful uncertainty.
“Got her. Just get in there and relax.” He settles his long frame against the padded ivory headboard. Harriet nestles in like she’s always been there. Mike lowers his face toward Harriet’s and they touch noses. For a guy who wasn’t even sure about adopting a pet, he has such an easy way with our daughter.
He looks up right when I feel the prickle of threatening tears.
I wave my hand in front of my face before turning to the closet.
I pull out the top tee shirt and a pair of athletic pants from my once orderly suitcase.
“How about we try the hotel buffet? I hear it’s amazing.”
I step into the bath and turn the shower on full blast, continuing to marvel at Mike’s calm approach with Harriet. Throughout our adoption process, he had been the anxious one. Something happened when we hit the ground in China and now my jaw is in a constant clench and I am jumpy as a cat.
Toweling off, I admit the shower helped. Coffee and food are the next step to feeling human.
The medical team and the adoption agency had been adamant: it’s best to introduce only one new food each day to help the baby assimilate. During her 12 months at the Huizhou Social Welfare Institute, Harriet survived on a diet of congee, a traditional rice porridge, and formula. Yesterday’s new food, during our excursion to Starbucks, was Cheerios. I wonder uneasily what we will find for her to try today. I remind myself of Mom’s reassurance: children are resilient.
Half an hour later, we roll Harriet across the polished marble expanse of the lobby floor. A two-story waterfall empties into a koi pond. An enormous buffet area with a bank of windows overlooks the Pearl River. There must be more than a hundred people in the restaurant. A line of smiling, black-coated staff stand in front of huge potted palms. They wave us in. I pause. Are we even dressed for this place? We follow the hostess as she winds around tables and food-laden counters, settling into a booth with a view of the water. Harriet regards me with her usual solemn expression as I strap on her bib and spill out some Cheerios for her to munch on.
“You go ahead,” I say to Mike, who goes in search of omelets.
Harriet and I gaze out the windows. I point out a small junk. The dark sail flutters as the boat drifts down the river. This country is all she knows, I think. And we are taking her away from it.
“Ah?” Harriet’s voice is soft. I notice with a start that her tray is already empty.
“Hungry like your dad, huh?” I feel both uncomfortable and pleased to try out these words. I reach for the plastic cylinder of Cheerios and shake out the remaining few onto her tray, along with some crumbs. She jams most of them in her mouth as Mike slides into his seat with a heaping plate.
“Look, she’s so hungry. We should have brought more Cheerios,” I stand up and look around. We only have formula and rice cereal in our room. What if I can’t find congee?
He waves me toward the food. “She’ll be fine.”
“Be good for Daddy.” I kiss the silky fuzz on Harriet’s head. Do I almost feel like a parent?
I’m distracted by the mouthwatering smells of something savory with a hint of licorice. I hesitate next to a steam cart full of pale pink dumplings. Shrimp? The sheer array of vegetables and fruit (forbidden to us foreigners who can’t drink the water) is dazzling. Longan, rambutan, mango. Oh what I would give for that miniature banana. An artful mound of mellow orange persimmons begs to be captured on film. I tuck the image in my mind and move on with reluctance.
I find what looks like a congee station and put a small amount of the broken rice and broth into a bowl. I hope it cools properly before Harriet sees it. I’m not sure what I will do if she demands it with her usual brand of enthusiasm.
Before I make it back to the table, I see hard-boiled eggs on a nearby counter and decide on the fly that this will be Harriet’s next new food. I snatch one up and place it on my tray. I pause. What if it makes her sick? Maybe something like shredded boiled chicken would be better.
I tell myself to stop dithering and march to my seat, prepared for another “amas” moment, or worse, a rebuff of the egg.
I notice that Mike is leaning in toward Harriet.
“What’s wrong?” I drop my tray on the table. Crouch next to her high chair.
“We’ve got really a good eater here.” Mike sits back with satisfaction.
Harriet’s not choking or dying or even crying. She is laughing and has a mouth full of French toast. Clutched in each hand is a glistening piece of bacon. A half-eaten hard-boiled egg sits in front of her.
I’m horrified. Then, amazed. And finally, I get it. She will be fine.
Ten years later, our healthy, self-assured daughter has navigated the surgery, orthodontia, and speech therapy to correct her cleft palate; she has also forged a fearless nutritional style that bears little resemblance to the suggestion list from the cleft team experts. It is definitely not aligned with the vegetable-forward standards I follow when preparing family dinners. But with each pancake she flips for her own breakfast and every raw oyster she has barely slurped before asking for another, I’m reminded of what I realized that day at the White Swan buffet – as a Chinese adoptee growing up in America, nothing was going to stop Harriet from tasting the world and making it her own.