Friday, February 20, 2015

What I wish I had known before traveling to China

Because I wrote so much about our trip to China on my blog, I thought I would share my recent post to a group who are looking for information while planning a return trip. As a parent trying to make one of the most important trips of our lives, I delved into every resource I could find. I hope this will be beneficial to you if you are planning a trip, whether it is to China or something much closer.

I feel for all of you who are just now doing their research and planning! I was right there with you last year and in the end, wished I had known just how well we would be taken care of so I could rest easier. These tours are professional. Maybe some have details that others don't. I had to go with one that fit our schedule and our budget, which was Sun. I did not know you could vary from the planned itinerary though, but if I had, I still would not have changed a thing or I would have made myself crazy trying to plan it. We had someone in our group who could not physically do all the activites so Sun had them with fewer stops and on the more active days, chose tours that were easier.

Here's what I wish I had known -

Paid more attention to how to communicate from China - I still don't know about snap chats, skype, getting sims cards there, etc. In some ways though that was a relief. I needed to focus on what was in front of me and not my phone.

If you have an android get ready - your phone, internet will work in wi-fi, but you can't dowload apps because the play store is google based. My brilliant daughters had everyone else download some app so they could talk remotely but never realized that I would be unable to do it after we got to China, so I communicated via them to everyone at home.

I don't consider myself a picky eater, but I got seriously hungry sometimes, but only because I was focused on getting my daughters the foods they loved and missed so terribly from "home", so the night we went to the duck parts deli and any night where everything was very spicy, I didn't find much that I could eat! So maybe I am picky and I should have tried it, but without me eating any they had more, which they loved! I tried McDonalds one night and remembered why I don't eat there even here and at KFC they rarely had chicken! They had their "burgers" but they were out of chicken. I think I remember that one of those two restaurants got in trouble not long after that for serving meat of unknown origins so it was just as well. Please don't bash me for not trying the food. I get sick to my stomach easily and did not want to throw any kinks in the trip.

I would have packed less cotton t-shirts. Those took forever to dry! I probably had us pack too lightly but having hurt my back just before we left, I had to be really careful about what I could carry, but wish I had packed more underwear. There is none in China if you are more than a size 0! OK, slight exaggeration, but I got tired of hand washing! And the laundry costs were way more than I remember from 6 years before. I bought a couple of lightweight dresses from old navy that were ready to go by the next morning. They were probably a poly something blend, very lightweight, cheap, and easy to throw on and go. I also would have made sure I had a pair of shorts the day we rode bikes so as not to embarrass my children quite so much, but it makes for a great story now that the only thing I had to wear was a shorter skirt!

One really important thing - buy it when you see it! You expect to find the exact same things everywhere but we did not. Jade was scarce in Nanchang. I never saw some incredible kites like those I saw at Xi'an. And the street market at Yangshuo was the only place I saw musical instruments.

There is no perfect age to take your kids. Part of my consideration is that I am older (later 50's) and I adopted my kids when they were older (6 and 11). They are both now 17. I had originally told them we would go when they were 14 but realized that would be a dreadful mistake for the daughter adopted at 11 in case she thought I was taking her back. She had not been here long enough to believe that her life truly was permanently in our family and she was well aware of the significance of turning 14 in the orphanage.

We chose not to visit the SWI, neither had fond memories or people they wanted to reconnect with. They were old enough when adopted to still have "fresh" memories of that life. Jeff in this group shared his tour guide from Nanchang, Sissi, who was marvelous. The cost was high in my budget, but she took care of so much before and after that she was well worth it.

OK, this is a lot longer than I meant for it to be, but we want to share how amazing she was. Both daughters had long term stays in foster families. Sissi found those foster families, who had moved often, fielded one of their endless calls concerning our arrival, hired a van that allowed us to transport the entire foster families to a restaurant for lunch each day. The last night there she took us home, had a traditional tea ceremony, then cooked us dinner.

The most incredible part of our time in Nanchang was that she helped us find the "finding" spot for one daughter. The street name had changed since 1998, but she knew where to find it. From there we tracked down the police officer who had actually found her. I will never be the same. He says he did not remember it as there were so many during that time. But we were interviewed for a news story and just the whole thing was incredible. I don't share many details from it as it is way too personal for her, but i have my pictures and my memory and for the first time in this long post, I am at a loss for words on the impact this made.

Just be ready for anything, be open to everything, take more money than you expect to need, and love every minute of it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve

Realizing that it has been more than six months since I last wrote, to say the time has flown is a terrible understatement.

We had a fantastic trip to China with Nanchang being our next to the last destination. The time in Nanchang was so emotional/critical/amazing that I feel I am still processing the details. My daughters asked that I not share the pictures of their time with their foster families and of course I will honor that. What I had not been prepared for was the impact it had on me and that is what I feel I am still working through. At some point, instead of showing their "reunions", which has become very popular among videographers/documentary makers/film makers, I will tell about the trip from my perspective. But that will come later.

When we arrived back home, my sister and nieces, along with my parents were there to greet us. It was bittersweet to return home, knowing there was still so much to see and do in China, but reality had to set back in.

My nieces were able to stay with us a few weeks in the summer and we took advantage of that time acting like tourists in our own city, enjoying the sights that we normally just speed by. Then before we could sit down, the summer was over and the girls had to go back to school on August 5.

This is their junior year which is hard to believe, even though I say it often, to actually write it down makes it more real than having lived it the last five months. This has been a difficult semester - course wise, as they both are taking physics, government, US history, then adding on pre-cal, statistics, AP art, makes my head swim, but they persevered and passed all their finals.

Now today is the last day of 2014, a time of reflection, I guess, but I don't think I will mourn the passing of this year. It has been a good year, but also very difficult, a lot has happened in the world that forces you to fight becoming cynical, there have been losses of those too young and others so unexpected, and with each passing year I feel more the effects of my own age on my body and know I have to work harder to accomplish the same things that were easier in earlier years.

For my daughters, I have immeasurable awe and pride in all they are able to accomplish, their kind and good personalities, their desire to give, rather than to receive. I tried to explain some of how I feel about them to my sister but did not do a very good job. I likened it to having a child who almost died and then relishing each milestone, recognizing that only because of the goodness of God, they were able to be here in this life to even have the milestone to face.

We talk a lot in our family about circles of friends and how one circle connects with another, in ways, initially you did not realize, but in retrospect you see. This year we celebrated 10 years of me being a mom and Grace being my daughter. 10 years.

10 years ago I never could have guessed where my life was going and had no clue just how good it could be, and it just gets better. I do catch myself holding my breath, fearful, knowing that the life I know can be shattered in an instant, and have to force myself to take a deep breath and live in the present time without borrowing trouble from the future, worries about things that may never happen.

To you, my readers, I wish for you an even better year in 2015, to find peace, love, good health, and good fortune, and to think of us often and remember us in your prayers.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On to Hong Kong and then home!

The next leg of our journey required considerable travel again, but this time, we switched from one mode to another. We flew from Nanchang, Jiangxi to Guangzhou. Thankfully, there was a guide and driver wanting for us there, because what is considered by some to be quite simple, seemed like a rather difficult maneuver, going from the airport to the train station.  Once there, the guide stayed with us to ensure we knew exactly where to go, what time to be there, and in the meantime, where to get something to eat. Then she left after telling us what so many others had told us, Hong Kong is easy to get around because almost everyone speaks English.

Evidently, everyone in Hong Kong, except those people we met, can speak English. Or is it just that I speak way too Texan to be easily understood. The worst part was they would look at my girls and speak Chinese to them, but my girls speak Mandarin and they were speaking Cantonese, so neither could understand.

My daughters got to experience several firsts on this leg of the trip.

The first was a taxi driver who did not mind putting all our suitcases in the trunk and then holding it shut with a bungee cord. They were convinced that we would lose something along the way. They also did not know I knew how to call a taxi and could not believe that when I would step out on the curb, whistle, and hold up one hand, expecting one to appear, and they did.

This was our very first stay in Hong Kong and I was completely unprepared, for the vast difference in the “customs” of the hotel. We stayed on top of a mountain in China, a remote area, and had free internet. In Hong Kong you had to pay for it in your room, otherwise there was 30 minutes free in the lobby every 12 hours. Electricity in Hong Kong is a different current and there was no free adapter like all the hotels in China had provided when needed, but they would provide one for a charge. The mouthwash in the room even came with a price tag on it. And this was a nice hotel, not some two bit hotel. I was sitting in the lobby, trying desperately to send a message to my dad for father’s day, in my brief 30 minute window, when I was told that it was  required to buy a minimum of one beverage to sit there! UGH!

I had read on line that the subway system, the Metro was easy to use, yet the concierge urged us to take taxis instead to reach our destinations.

Our first stop was somewhere to eat, only the driver let us 2 or 3 blocks away with a vague wave of the hand of the location we needed to go. When we finally found the place, a reservation was required unless we could guarantee to be out of there within an hour. Fine by us, we normally eat faster than that and had a list of things to do. The thing I did not factor in was the terrible service and when our food still had not arrived about the time our hour was up, we left. Not a popular decision among my group I must say.

Before we had left for China, we had a long list of things the girls wanted to buy. With the speed of our trip, we had rarely found time to shop, so our next stop was the Ladies’ Market, an area of small booths all owned and operated by women. Thankfully, this taxi driver took us right to the beginning of the market so we weren’t at the mercy of me trying to read a map to find our way.

Here was a 2nd thing my girls learned about me – I know how to bargain in these markets. I was amazed at how it shocked them at my ability to get items for the price I wanted to pay. One of the first things we found was a phone case for Annabel’s phone. The price the woman quoted was retail and we were certainly not in a retail environment, so since I was holding the money, I offered a more appropriate price. After hearing how I was killing her, she of course, agreed. The girls were so impressed that we continued down through the stalls quickly picking out some of the top things on our long list that we still wanted to buy.

Since it was now closer to 9:00 and we still had not eaten, I asked the last woman we had done business with for a good place to eat, which was pretty funny, because she could suddenly no longer understand English and so I had to act it out, which provided plenty of amusement.

We were trying to find a Chinese restaurant and were surprised at how difficult that was, but we finally ended up somewhere that would take a credit card, since all our cash was spent at the market, and our waiter quickly gave us an orientation to the Hong Kong way of eating out. The dirty dish on the table, Hong Kong way, 4 pots of tea for 2 tea drinkers, Hong Kong way, and evidently chasing the mom down whose trying to find the bathroom to sell one more dish is also Hong Kong way.  Having your waiter continue to add soup to your bowl, much like our waiters add tea or water to your glass, must also be the Hong Kong way. The food was very good, but by then it was really late, so it was back to trying to find a taxi to take us back to the hotel, since we were completely lost by then.

Again, the girls were amazed when I insisted that we had to get to a busy enough street to find a cab and then having one actually stop.

Our goal for our one full day in Hong Kong was Hong Kong Disney. I had been joined a yahoo group of parents looking for help in planning these types of trips and when someone mentioned ending their journey with a trip to Disney, it sounded like a brilliant way to end ours. I just wasn’t sure what was going to happen when seeing the foster families and the emotional toll it would take on all, and I felt like we really had to have a break from that intense time, before coming home, kind of a decompression chamber.

This time we tackled the Metro, the subway system.

The girls were surprised that I could even find the entrance, much less know how to read the subway map, buy tickets, and then get us on the correct platform. They have a very nice subway system, and it is remarkably clean, and very easy to use.

When we made our last transfer, there was no doubt we were on our way to Disney, as the rings to hold onto were mouse ears, and displays of Disney princesses in bronze were on display.

The price on the tickets was higher than expected, but still a lot less than the cost of the US Disneys, but it is also a lot smaller. Being smaller was not a problem, as we were able to see and do almost all we wanted to, before we lost all our energy, and tackled the subway system back to the hotel.

When we got out of the subway, I could smell noodles cooking, but we did not see anything but nicer restaurants on the street level. The area is surrounded by skyscrapers and office buildings, so we went inside one that mentioned it had a shopping mall. The guard, with my acting ability to portray eating noodles, sent us upstairs to a very cramped and crowded restaurant, where they were able to understand we wanted to “take away”. While sitting on a tiny stool outside this busy restaurant, waiting for our food, I realized it was one of those jewels you just happen to stumble upon, as the windows were covered with awards they had won, letters received from several satisfied customers from companies such as CNN. Love these kinds of “accidents” that turn out great.

Back to the hotel in hopes of making the connection with a friend of their girls’ school, who is spending a lot of the summer with family in Hong Kong. Of course, it was back to the lobby to handle communication and our brief 30 minute window of checking email, trying to connect home, as well as their friend. Thankfully I found a “free” place to sit, rather than do like the others who seemed like zombies wandering through the lobby staring at some device in their hand to avoid the extra charge of the internet.

After a lot of packing and repacking, we had all our treasures packed and ready for our trip today. I let the girls sleep as long as we could while I went in search of inexpensive breakfast. Within a block of the hotel, I lost count of the number of Chinese medicine stores, that all open early, and office buildings, where workers were rushing to get inside. Again, one of the buildings mentioned a shopping area so I went inside and up the escalator and found about 5 noodle shops, serving big steaming bowls of noodles, among other things I did not recognize. I wasn’t sure I could act out “take away” again, but I finally found a place that was only “to go”. Since the entire menu was in Chinese with no pictures, I wasn’t sure I could guess well enough to order something. I tried asking everyone in line, but none spoke English. When I got to the front of the line, the man and woman running the place spoke perfect English and fixed me up with some spicy noodles with fish balls, and an egg on top, one of their favorites. I finally found a “McCafe” a new part of McDonalds, where I was able to get a ham and cheese croissant without the need to act it out, as there was a picture to point to!

After buying breakfast I realized I no longer had enough money to pay the cab fare to the airport and knew I did not want to exchange $100 into Hong Kong money as we were leaving. The girls scourged through their purses and wallets and came up with $10, which when added to how much I had, was exactly $300 HK and the amount I was told to expect to pay. Thankfully our driver was Mario Andretti in another life, and we made it to the airport, with the extra cost of the toll and the cost of our bags, and the price was $290 HK! I was terrified that I would have to run into the airport and exchange money to pay him off but we ended up with $10 to spare!

We are now 12 hours into our 15 hour flight and I am missing the luxury of the Business Class seats that we were fortunate to get on our way to China. My body and brain are still very confused as to what time it is, much less what day, Since we have now spent 24 hours as Tuesday and when we get home, will still have 8 more to go!

I’ll go back and fill in the parts that I missed of the trip later when I can actually access Google again! I wish Google and China had not been fighting, it would have really helped