Shakes on a Plane

A domestic Chinese flight can deaden the synapses rather quickly if your only two entertainment options are a Chinese-language newspaper and an in-flight video on the Beijing bus system (also in Chinese with helpful Korean subtitles). I watch, munching warily on a pork bun, as a woman reveals the secrets to opening a bus window. My mind wanders to thoughts of meeting Penelope tomorrow.

The name Penelope stretches back to ancient Greece and means “weaver.” In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Penelope’s soldier-husband Odysseus fails to return home from the Trojan War. Penelope weaves a tapestry which she says she must complete before she even thinks about marrying another man. So, each day she weaves the tapestry and each night she promptly unravels it. (Those sneaky ancient Greeks.) The name signifies a loyal, capable and clever woman.

One evening months before the trip, Bernadette and I meet around the dining room table to discuss naming our future daughter. We agree to compile separate lists of names we like and compare notes.

Minutes before we meet I jot down a few names I like on a sheet of paper. I bounce downstairs, into the dining room, and suddenly feel like the sixth-grader who finished his book report in home room before first-period English. Bern, on the other hand, is the class geek who’s footnoted every other sentence of her book report: There she is, seated at one end of our rectangular dining-room table, surrounded by baby-naming books, print-outs of articles she found online and an array of manila folders. She points to the opposite side of the table. I feel like we’re about to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. “Is a rectangular table OK or should we be seated at a round one?” I ask. No answer, so I sit. After a few minutes of paper rattling, she asks: “So, what’s on your list?”

“Siobhan?” I whisper. I say it cautiously, as though I’m suggesting we set the dog on fire or vote Republican.

“I don’t know if picking an ethnic name like that is a good idea. That’s going to confuse a lot of people,” she says. It’s a good point. It’s not like we’re heading to Dublin. Of course that means my pen starts scratching out half the names on the list. What do I know about naming a child? I wanted to parent four boys so I could name them Matthew, Mark, Luke and Mookie.

We verbally dance in circles like pigeons in the park over a hunk of bread crust until we narrow our choices down to two names: Penelope and Olivia. We print out two photos of our daughter with the prospective names underneath and tape them to the kitchen wall. We introduce ourselves to each other (and to imaginary others in the bathroom mirror) as “Penelope’s Mom” or “Olivia’s Dad.” Within days, we mutually gravitate toward one name. “I like Penelope,” Bern says one morning at breakfast. “It fits. I can’t explain it, but it fits.” She’s right. And I’m not writing this just because I know one day she’ll read this post.

The response to our name selection proved interesting. Most of our family and friends under the age of 50 loved it; those older than 50 tended not to. (One friend, considerably past 50, said, ‘Penelope?! Is that a family name?”

When I cell-phoned my mother that Bern and I had decided on Penelope, I employ a cheesy morsel of pop psychology. “So, we gave it a lot of hard thought, we decided to name the baby Hazel,” I told her.

“HAZEL!?!? Where in the world did you get that from?”

“We just like the name, that’s all.”

“Do you want that girl to grow up to be somebody’s maid?!” she blasted. “You can’t be serious.”

“OK, I’m not. We’re going to name her Penelope.”

“PENELOPE!?!? Where in the world did you get that from?”

Not exactly the response I was anticipating. “We really like the name. It’s a classic name but not too common. And she looks like a strong kid so we want a strong name that will fit her.”

“You’re kidding, RIGHT?”

“No, Mom, we aren’t” Sigh.

And now, more than 18 months of conversations, adoption paperwork and waiting (and waiting and waiting) are nearing an end. Tomorrow — Monday, July 20 — will be one of the biggest days of our lives. I have no idea what to expect. We’ve been told that if our daughter cries, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be a good signal as it indicates she bonded with the orphanage directors and her foster parents, and will likely form new attachments with us. I’m — eager? anxious? — to see how this plays out.

Beijing Before The Fall

Saturday, July 18, 2009:

A brown-streaked sun sinks slowly beyond the Beijing skyline as we rocket along the Badaling Expressway. Tina, our driver, darts in front of a bus, weaves into the bicycle lane almost clipping an elderly man in a sweat-stained T-shirt, then whips behind a dented minivan the color of a pool table in a smoky bar. Part New York City cabbie, part Hollywood stunt driver, she’s talking furiously in Mandarin to our tour guide as she jerks our van around a pedestrian who’s foolhardy enough to step off the curb. My eyes dart over my right shoulder, expecting to see a cascade of arms, legs and twisted metal in her wake.

John, our tour guide, offers some reassurance: “Don’t worry. Tina is second best driver in all of Beijing. Best is ambulance driver.” My wife Bernadette is white knuckled and green in the cheeks and when I glance at her I suspect she’s either doubting my sanity (OK, that’s nothing new!) for suggesting a few days in Beijing or worried she won’t survive this trip.

Beijing is a last-hurrah honeymoon of sorts. In two days, we’ll fly south to Fuzhou to unite with our adopted two-year-old daughter who we are naming Penelope. We wonder constantly how our meeting will turn out, what Penelope will be like and whether she’s potty trained. OK, I’m more curious about that last one because I’m a little weak-stomached for soiled diapers. I gag when I get downwind of one our gassy beagles.

We’re apparently in a hurry to get to a buffet dinner of mystery fruits and ox tongue before catching “a mystical and amazing acrobatic show.” Well, that’s what it says in the brochure. Actually, I am anticipating something “mystical and amazing” because my friend Mark assures me that Chinese people can fly. This knowledge is based on numerous viewings of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I wonder why I bothered purchasing a plane ticket for Penelope when she could simply fly alongside us on the trip home.

We arrive safely at a hotel buffet and are promptly escorted to an empty dining room. I load my plate with a plethora of animal parts in brown sauce, leafy green vegetable-type things and flaky pastry. Bern stares at my plate for a moment and promptly turns green again.

“Really? You’ll eat that but turn your nose up at pork roll?” Bern asks.

“Well, that’s because pork roll is disgusting,” I reply, tossing a chunk of fried ostrich tongue down my neck.

Her fork hovers over a scallop. “Say, why do you think Tina and John never want to eat with us?”

I pause, wondering if the tickling sensation at the back of my throat is the ostrich tongue. “They probably want to talk shop. Bitch about gas prices, incompetent drivers and so forth. Or, maybe they just want yap about the capitalist swine that they are stuck driving around on a Saturday night.”

Before long, we’re back in the van. We narrowly miss flattening a man in a straw hat who’s driving a wagon loaded with corn. We plop down in our seats in the theatre seconds before the show starts. Turns out that Mark was right: Some Chinese people can fly. The acrobats leap through the air, bounding, bouncing and balancing across the stage for the next 90 minutes.

Later, back at the hotel, Bern flops into bed, and I decide to walk the Beijing streets one last night. The air tastes like warm tapioca. The sidewalks are writhing with city dwellers and tourists struggling to escape the heat. I walk half a block when a girl dressed in a business suit sidles up besides me. “You look for lady friend?” I chase her away but it’s not long before I’m approached again. “Are you lonely?” This scene will play out a half dozen times before I spin through the revolving doors of the hotel lobby. I stare through the windows and watch two teenage girls smoking under a street light.

I learn later that many of the prostitutes are former orphan girls doing what they can to survive. And, I’m grateful knowing one orphan will never wander the Beijing streets.