To China. Hunan, China, actually, which has not been on my bucket list, to tell you the truth. I toyed with the idea of heading there some years ago when my friend and former student, Nikki Cardoza, ensconced herself as a volunteer for ten years (a whole decade!) in China, most of that time living in an orphanage, caring for sick and dying children, as well as some with disabilities. She’s that kind of big-hearted person.
During her China years Nikki would come back to Sacramento once a year for a little R&R, and I’d take her to lunch or dinner to catch up. She was living on practically nothing, which she claimed was easy to do in China. All she wanted was some new T-shirts since her old ones were (and I believe I’m quoting her accurately) “covered in baby barf.” Besides caring for kids, she’d shepherd around volunteers who came from all over the globe to help at the orphanage. They’d work for a while, then she’d tour them around Hunan a bit.
“You should come to China,” she’d say. “I can show you around.”
I’d say, yes, that would be an adventure, wouldn’t it? But I tend to gravitate toward easy travel, restorative travel. The California coast. Canada. Hawaii. And though I actually do work in Hawaii (editing guidebooks… best editing gig of my life), it’s hard to claim that I’m suffering. (I’m so not.) So, with one thing and another, I just didn’t get myself to China to see Nikki.
About four years ago Nikki returned to Sacramento. When she first came back, I took her out to feed her, and she said, “I have to do three things. I have to finish my bachelor’s degree. I have to get a job. And I have to buy a house.”
I looked at her serious eyes under her dancing curls. “And then?” I said because I knew there was more.
“And then I’m going back to China to get Annie.” Her smile broadened.
“Annie?” I said, imagining that Nikki had fallen in love, which she actually had.
“There’s a little girl in the orphanage named Annie,” Nikki said without a trace of irony. “I want her to be my daughter.”
Annie was then three-ish or so. The orphanage folks didn’t really know, as Annie had been abandoned under an overpass and brought to them. She came, as a lot of the kids do, without a birth certificate, so they gave her a birthday on the day she was found: May 22, 2009. They guessed she might have been a year old then.
“That’s great!” I said.
“There’s one thing,” Nikki said. “Annie has cerebral palsy.” She let that sink in for a few seconds. “She doesn’t walk, and she’s in a wheelchair. Her speech is a bit garbled. But I think that with therapy here, she’ll make good progress.”
I nodded, thinking that there could be no better parent to bring a Chinese girl with a physical disability to the United States than Nikki. She is fearless, never afraid to speak her mind and stand up for the underdog. Still, there are not many people who would do this. She doesn’t think of herself as extraordinary, but I do.
And true to her word, Nikki has finished her degree (at Sac State, in government), gotten a job (working for a lobbyist) and bought a house (a condo in the Pocket area). Now she’s going back to China for Annie.
And so am I.
About six months ago, when it looked as if the adoption was finally going to happen, Nikki asked me to go with her, to lend a hand on this journey. And, to my surprise, I said yes. I started looking up things about China on the Internet. Nikki gave me Chinese phrases to learn with phonetic spellings. I’ve been singing “Tomorrow,” the song from “Annie,” in the shower. It seems like it’s her song.
So on June 17 we will fly to China, which at 13 hours will be the longest direct plane flight of my life. We will land in Hong Kong, stay with some friends of Nikki’s, then train to Hunan province, to Changsha, more precisely, where Nikki will retrieve her daughter, who is seven-ish now. We will take care of paperwork with the Chinese government and then with the U.S. government, head back to Hong Kong and fly home. All in a couple of weeks.
We got together last night for dinner and talked about it. Though there is more paperwork and cost involved than for any of her other trips to China, Nikki is as calm as if she were bound for, oh, say, Hawaii to lie on the beach. I am excited, a little nervous as we head to a place that will be hot, humid, smoky and loud, a place of very hard beds and very hot food. None of those things is on my bucket list. Clearly, this is not my typical kind of travel. It’s a trip with a mission.
I feel that I’m getting a ringside seat at a different kind of birth. (Nikki calls me her birthing partner; there’s a baby shower for her this weekend.) I’m getting to watch a family be born in a place in the world I would not go otherwise. I get to be Aunt Jan again (a role I cherish) to a new small person I already adore, as does her mother-to-be. I plan to open my heart and eyes and take it all in, allow myself to be surprised by the sights and sounds and, yes, smells of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. I plan to be awed by it all. Even the smelly parts, the loud parts.
The sun’ll come out tomorrow… so you gotta hang on till tomorrow… come what may…
I will write about it here as we go along, Nikki and Annie and me. Stay tuned.