(#15 in the Annie series)
To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.
(a quote I carried in my travel journal throughout China)
“Tell the sky you don’t want it to rain.”
Nikki just said that to Annie. It’s 11:30 a.m. on the day we depart by train for Hong Kong. “Let’s hope for better weather in Hong Kong,” Nikki says to me. “Or at least in Hong Kong you can walk for miles and never go outside. We can show you the malls and the glitzy side of Hong Kong.”
It is, after all the rainy season here, and one expects this. But we’ve had days and days of blue skies, very little pollution (I was prepared for a lot more) and no rain until yesterday, the 12th day of the trip.
Nikki and Annie are sitting in the big chair by the window of room 1140 in the Guo Men Hotel in Guangzhou, Nikki’s feet on the ottoman, and she and Annie are chatting, mostly in Chinese, though Nikki is working on English, too. She has been asking Annie, “Where is my nose?” in English, hoping Annie will point to it or at least swing her clenched fist on her bent arm in that direction. Sometimes she does, but Nikki can’t tell if that’s on purpose.
We have just come back from breakfast out—dumplings from one of the little shops on a nearby alley where Nikki has bought a lot of our meals. (Here, it’s not Chinese takeout; it’s just takeout.) Dumplings in China are a breakfast food, and the family that owns this shop stands outside. A woman puts a bit of pork mixture into soft pillows of dough and folds them so precisely you could mail them. She puts the dumplings into circular bamboo baskets, and a man puts each basket into the steamer. I couldn’t tell how long it takes to cook, but I imagine not long, and you have fresh, steaming dumplings. You pick them up with your chopsticks (no forks or knives here), and you transfer that warm bundle to your mouth, which explodes with happiness because THIS is what dumplings should always taste like. This has completely redefined “dumpling” for me. This is change-your-life food, and it is, without question, one of the best things about my Chinese experience.
This time we thought we’d eat out… side. The shops in this alley have a number of outdoor tables, but a pourdown swept us inside where we had a good view of the proceedings (dumpling making and buying) on the covered walkway outside the shop. As we watched people hurry by with their umbrellas up, I told Nikki that in Hawaii people say that if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes. It took about 15, but that pourdown passed. It’s the tropics here, too, and Nikki says that in the summer rainy season it can pour all day.
After breakfast we knew Annie would enjoy a good, long stroll, so we walked over to Starbucks, not far from our hotel. Nikki had been craving good coffee, so in my newfound I-can-order-in-China spirit, I tried to order Nikki an Americano—mostly coffee and a little milk—but instead, I ended up with a macchiato—mostly milk and a little coffee with a caramel drizzle on it. Oops. The lady asked me in English, too, “a little coffee and milk?” and I said yes, and obviously, I had it backward, though I thought I had it right. But Nikki is nothing if not a good sport, and she drank it. Annie wanted to try the macchiato, too, so she got a sip, which she seemed to like, but she really enjoyed the cinnamon cake we got her. (New middle name for this kid: Annie CAKE! Cardoza.)
I had the green tea latte, which Nikki says is different here than at home. I quite liked it.
We have our room at the Guo Men Hotel till 3:30 p.m. today. Elsie the translator will meet us in the lobby at 3:45 to go in the van with us to the train station, which is very nice of her. She will also bring Annie’s passport with the U.S. Visa in it, which is crucial and the thing we’ve been waiting for, the reason we’re still in Guangzhou.
But in between the morning pourdowns, we walked under blue sky, fat clouds and sun. After we’d crossed a major road with eight lanes of traffic moving in two directions, we found a nice little narrow garden area where Nikki pushed Annie, and I followed, taking photos. “The Chinese love their gardens,” Nikki says, taking an opportunity to plant something green wherever possible, and this is a particularly nice one.
The walkway was still damp, which made if feel as if the humidity was rising through our feet, and I got a whiff of Hawaii. Some of the same gigantic ape (elephant ear plants, pronounced “ah-pay”) and philodendron flourish in both places, though I imagine they have different names, maybe even different varieties, in China.
It struck me after we came back to our room after our stroll, as we crammed our belongings into our bags, that today we leave China, all of us possibly never to return. We will spend the last part of our trip as we spent the first part: in Hong Kong staying with Nikki’s friends, Anne and John MacPherson. It’s so nice of them to host three of us in their tiny apartment. But for now we still have to leave Guangzhou, maneuver another train station, feed and change Annie on the train, get the subway to John and Anne’s. I cannot think of all that at once. As my mother likes to say, “You can only eat an elephant a bite at a time.”
My attention comes back to the two people sitting in the big chair by the window. “Look at you, Farty McFarterson,” Nikki says to Annie, who’s laughing and passing gas at the same time. “You’re crop dusting me here.”
I love this mother/daughter bonding time. This, to me, is what this trip is all about, the essence of it all—these two becoming a family. I am so fortunate to have witnessed and recorded some of it.
There’s no doubt that this has been a wrenching experience for Annie, leaving everything she knows. Though we’re sure, as did the people who cared for Annie, that she’ll have better access to all kinds of therapies and opportunities in the U.S., it’s not gonna be easy. It hasn’t been so far—we have a few upset/crying sessions a day, sometimes when she’s hot or hungry or tired and other times… well, we can’t tell why. It doesn’t matter.
The point is that now we are truly on our way home, back to the place Annie will call home—with a pool in her condo complex and a kitty, where she will go to school and have physical therapy and become the best version of herself she can be. Whatever that is, she has the very best mom for the ride, one who understands better than most this incredible transition from one side of the world to another, who adores her, who will always be there for her, even on a gray day when the sky rains.
Elsie meets us in the lobby after Nikki checks us out of the Guo Men Hotel. The van driver arrives and parks in the street. Why the parking lot attendants don’t let him into their lot baffles us; they’ve been helping us for days lift Annie and her chair up and down the ten steps that lead to the hotel. They know what we’re up against here. China.
It’s a little precarious getting Annie into the back of the van with all the traffic going by. Nikki is concerned about whether the chair will fit. But it does, fortunately. After about a 20-minute drive Elsie directs the van driver to the back entrance of the Guangzhou train station where the fast train to Hong Kong leaves. Elsie escorts us to a service elevator that clearly is not marked for the general public (bless her) and waits with us about a half an hour till we go through the glass doors to the waiting area. It’s warm, but (thankyouthankyouthankyou) not nearly as hot and humid as the Changsha train station.
I leave Nikki with the luggage chatting with Elsie and other adoptive parents in the waiting area and, to avoid a meltdown, I wheel Annie around a large rotunda, in relative coolness. She stays happy. At one point I park her chair under a sign next to the universal symbol of someone in a wheelchair that says in English and Chinese, “Barrier-free passage.”
“Look at you!” I tell her as I step away to take her photo there. This, to me, is a mantra for Annie’s future life. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly barrier-free passage in the U.S. either, just as there isn’t in China. But on this trip we have spent a lot of time looking for just that—places without barriers that make it easier for people with mobility issues to get around. I think guiltily of the loft where my writing groups meet in Sacramento with its narrow wooden stairs (two sets of them), the only way to get in that room. I love that space, but it is by no means barrier-free. Still, I have found other ways to remove barriers, especially in writing, and giving people the freedom and confidence to write what needs to be written, sing their own songs, make their own way.
Annie has given me a new reason to think about this—not that I haven’t before—but now I’m looking for places wide enough for her chair, for the lift as opposed to the escalator, for (and I love this term) the barrier-free passages through life… for all of us.
In the photo, Annie has her head back, her mouth open in a wide chortle. I look at it now and think, “This is what I wish for you, my dear, the fewest possible barriers going forward. All the possibilities. Clearly you will run up against obstacles. But you and your mama and those who love you will do their best to find ways around them. You will thrive and grow and become the best possible you in this new place, with new people.”
I want to tell her: “We are not perfect, we Americans, not by a long shot. We are taking you back to a country deeply troubled by racial divides and outbreaks of violence while we’ve been gone, even in our own city, at our state Capitol. The Chinese must imagine that you are going to a very dangerous place. We don’t see it that way, of course. But we have to believe that you will have a better life, an easier life, a life with more promise than you had in Changsha. You are in the hands of a very good mama with family and friends who will work hard to give you a place of peace and healing and safety, where you can grow and thrive.”
Let the barriers come down for Annie and for everyone who has them placed in their way. Let us all find that place of peace and healing and safety. Amen.