We’re Outta Here!

Thursday, August 6:

I haven’t slept in 32 hours and I’m on a 14-hour flight from Beijing to Newark and I’m six-foot-two-inches tall trying to sleep in a space where I couldn’t hang a sock without it wrinkling and I’ve got some jackass in front of me who first thing he did when he got on the plane was recline his seat as far back as possible and of course I’ve got some kid behind me who’s kicking my seat but I’m thinking to myself that this is the first flight where I might actually get even with these passengers because I’ve got a two-year-old girl next to me with a healthy set of lungs and I’m betting at some point she screams on this flight and I hope it annoys the freaking beejezus out of these people and makes up for all the years I’ve had to sit by obnoxious adults on an airplane so I watch a Japanese movie called “Departures” then “Annie Hall” because I forgot Christopher Walken was in it, then the “French Connection” and finally some crappy movie that just came out called “17 Again” because I’m thinking I’ll sleep if I watch something I’m not interested in but watching a bad movie reminds me of an episode of a TV show “Ghost Whisperer” that Bernadette watches and in this one episode there’s a plane crash and the people on the plane wind up wandering the earth together and I’m thinking if this plane crashes and I have to spend eternity with these pinheads I will definitely kill myself but wait, I’m already dead so now I’m totally screwed…

Did I mention I’ve been up for the past 32 hours?

LATER, MUCH LATER: I think the feeling of exhaustion is circular rather than linear because you just reach a point when you are so tired that you’re awake. I hit that point at Newark Airport as we waited for the customs official to stamp Penelope’s passport making her a U.S. citizen. We gather our luggage. Our friends Nick and Amy and their two children meet us at the airport. Nick suggests we stop for Chinese food on the way home. Bern and I look at each other nervously. I consider opening the sliding door of the minivan and splattering myself across the interstate. Bern, more rational than I, simply begs off.

We arrive home and the place is festooned with balloons, banners, flowers, crepe paper streamers and food for the next few days, courtesy of Amy and another neighbor, Karen. We’re home five minutes when Karen, her husband James and their son show up on our doorstep. I wonder if Amy has a bat signal rigged to the top of their car but I learn later that Amy employs the much more conventional cellphone when I’m not looking. I open a nice bottle of red wine I’ve been saving for a special occasion, and we toast.

We all walk to Karen’s barn so Penelope can pet the horses and get scared out of her wits by their German Shepherd. I imagine Penelope snatching my cellphone, contacting the Chinese embassy and demanding she be immediately returned to the Mother country.

Darkness clings to the tree branches and the older children are dancing around the backyard with sparklers. I’m holding my daughter as the night begins in our first day in America.

The day is ending, yet a new day has begun.


Shamian Island (Or Let’s F–k with Jordan)

The streets of Shamian Island have a bride and groom on every corner. At first glance you think it must be the most romantic place in the world — all these gorgeous brides running about with perfectly coiffed hair, glamorous make-up and dressed in the most fashionable gowns imaginable. On their arm is a handsome young man wearing an immaculate tuxedo. They look as though they just stepped out of a catalog.

Then you notice something amiss.

It’s the shoes. The brides run about in cheap yellow flip-flops; the bridegrooms in scuffed up shoes or sneakers. Then it hits me: They aren’t stepping out of a catalog; they are stepping into one.

Shamian Island is all about the commerce. While there are several fashionable bridal shops and boutiques, the bulk of the retail business is geared toward schlubs like Bernadette and I: foreigners with adopted toddlers, wandering the streets killing time before their appointment with the U.S. Consulate. Retailers try to persuade you to kill that time by shopping for chotchkies. And of all the chotchkie peddlers on Shamian Island no one is quite like Jordan.

Jordan has a built-in radar detector enabling him to find foreign families with toddlers. He patrols the neighborhood streets — seemingly everywhere at once — encouraging parents to visit his store. On our first day on Shamian Island, a genial Jordan is waiting for us, an armful of advertising brochures and a mouthful of questions: How long are you here? What’s her name? You like Guangzhou? You want to come to my store? We politely answer his questions as we pass by. But an hour later, we bump into Jordan on another street and he asks all the same questions. Early in the afternoon, we replay this scene a third time.

The next day, we take a different route along the island and, sure enough, there’s Jordan yet again. He chases us a block, asks his questions and urges us to visit his store again. As he walks away, an idea pops in my head. Hours later we’re returning to our hotel when I see Jordan hurrying down the street. I urge my wife in the opposite direction. When Jordan returns to his post on the street corner, I turn back around. Jordan spots us and hurries in our direction. I pretend to be distracted by something behind us and persuade Bern to turn back. Jordan stands, arms akimbo in the middle of the street then rushes back to the corner.

I spin around again. Bern looks disgusted. “Knock it off. For that alone, we should go to his store. He’s a nice man.”

“Yea, but this is fun.”

Eventually, we duck our heads into Jordan’s shop and wander about. He has some beautiful placemats and chopstick sets. He does Penelope’s name in calligraphy and is exceedingly gracious when our daughter accidentally spills Cheerios on the floor. He picks up a toy cellphone, squints at some fine print on the back. “Hmm, made in China,” he says. “You know, I can’t get this here. Seriously.”

Besides shopping, Shamian Island offers Bern and I the time to learn about Penelope. I love how opening the hotel room curtains prompts her to raise her arms above her head and cheer, “YAY!” After winning freedom from the captivity of her crib, Penelope first heads to the radio, turns it on and starts dancing. OK, sometimes she’s dancing to a talk show, but I think of how I crawl out of bed grousing at the world and realize there’s a lesson for me to learn here.

Unfortunately, the second thing Penelope does in the morning is reach for the notepad and endless supply of sharpened pencils the maid service continuously brings to our room. Each morning we snatch a pencil from Penelope’s hand and hide it atop the television. Hours later, the maid service cleans the room and replaces the hidden pencil, forcing us to add the new pencil to our stash atop the TV. This process repeats several times during the day and night until we have a small pile of pencils in the room. Since the maid seemingly doesn’t understand that we’re not collecting sharp pencils, Bern sticks a crayon on top of the notepad with a note (written in crayon) that reads: “No pencils please.” We return to our room hours later to find a brand-spanking new razor sharp pencil resting on the notepad.
“Thank God, the scissors factory is closed or we’d have a real problem on our hands,” I mutter.

This is the most unfriendly-to-kids kids hotel I’ve ever seen. There are dozens upon dozens of steps in the lobby, a number of expensive breakable items at kneecap level, and a kiddie pool that’s impossible to find without a map and a guide. Or maybe I’m just cranky because I want to retrieve our paperwork at the consulate’s office and go home. There’s talk of a typhoon hitting China soon (it eventually hits two days after we leave).

Bern and I are eager to start our new lives together with our daughter back home.