Our sweet friends the Whirleys hosted and advocated for Jason, a then-12-year-old orphan from China, in December 2016. In March 2018, this family traveled to China to bring this now 14-year-old boy home forever. We asked Hunter Whirley, an amazing tell-it-like-it-is Army combat veteran, to share with us the journey to Jason from an adoptive father’s perspective. Warning: This is not yo' mama's travel log. This is Hunter's [sometimes spicy, sometimes sassy but always straight-up] story. We're so grateful to him for sharing his unique perspective.
When Supermom asked me to write for her blog, my first reaction was: “You sure about that?”
So may this be on her head, allowing the sordid storytelling of a redneck Texan, former Army dude who someone allowed to adopt a Chinese teenager. [Editor's note: We'll take it and even barely sanitize it in order to gain your valuable adoptive father's perspective! ;)]
Just getting to the point where we could travel to adopt our son Jason was a colossal pain in the rump. Full medical background check (mine was particularly interesting due to all of the things I broke in the Army), three criminal background inquiries, coming up with about $35,000 to fund this little excursion and completing enough paperwork to satisfy the Chinese and American governments. But, we got 'er done in what’s considered a short time: about a year. Many thanks to Ms. Beth and Supermom. They were instrumental.
The Whirleys first met Jason when we advocated for his adoption. We were going to ease into this adoption thing, and it seemed that the teenager needed a family. Short story turned even shorter, we decided to adopt Jason. Everyone in the family agreed that he would make a fine Whirley.
So after a year of paperwork and payments, my parents drove out to watch our two biological wild men while we collected the third to complete the trio of troublemakers. The boys were really upset: “How long will you be gone and we’ll be all alone with Nana and Granddad? Are you sure you don’t want to stay longer? They’re way nicer than you and mom!”
This began the worse part of the adoption process, the flight. My wife and I both have bad backs, my knees are shot and I cannot sleep on planes unless medicated. After a couple of small connector flights, Ms. Liz and I settled in for a 13.5-hour hop from Chicago to Beijing. I caught up on every newly-released movie I wanted to see on that flight. Ms. Liz managed to get a little sleep. It’s always cute to watch someone you love sleep on a plane. Mouth open, a little drool on her shirt, head bobbing and snoring. So cute, it’s a shame my wife would not let me post pics so everyone could enjoy.
Finally, we reached Beijing. I think the thing that impressed me most about Beijing was how fast their screening process for foreigners’ entry proved. Literally ten minutes, and welcome into China. U.S. customs and immigration could learn a thing or two.
As I had not slept in 40 hours or so, I had no trouble falling asleep. We woke rejuvenated and headed to the breakfast buffet, a really first-rate affair that allowed me to demonstrate how fat Americans can kill it at a buffet. The kid running the omelet bar was awesome. I told him what I thought was “good job” in Mandarin and gave him a big thumbs-up.
Turns out I was a little rusty and the omelet dude had no idea what I was saying. Still, I count it a success as I was re-honing my Chinese skills ... and I did not create an international incident.
Our little group of three families met in the lobby for a day of sightseeing in Beijing. We saw the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
The Forbidden City was HUGE. The architecture was amazing. While most Europeans were trying to stack poo high enough to make a hut, the Chinese were engineering immense structures complete with water features, heated floors and perfect yen/yang symmetry. I was impressed. (As a footnote, I don’t know how historically accurate it was, but Mao’s face was on the entrance. I guess he leased it for a while.)
It is worth noting that our guide, Nelson, was a fantastic tour guide and teacher. He taught us the history of the Forbidden City’s architecture and the ruling families that inhabited the home. Nelson also taught us how Chinese characters are formed and how to make out what some of the elaborate designs mean. He was polite to everyone and keen on showing us all a good time. He made sure the kids were entertained … and he also sounded like the goose out of Kung Fu Panda, which I found hilarious.
“Hey boooooy, how you do?” he would ask one of the kids in the group.
“Gurrrl, how you do gurrrl? You tired of walk? Great Wall nice place for walk. Lot of walk.”
[Editor's note: We also had Nelson as our guide in Beijing, and Hunter is not exaggerating or mocking this guide we both loved. Nelson's English was amazing! And so was his slang. If only I could say, "Hey, girl!" in Mandarin!]
That afternoon we saw the Great Wall. It is amazing what an unlimited work force can do over the span of a few hundred years.
That night we ate at a noodle shop just around the corner from our hotel. Best. Noodles. Ever. They were piping hot, seasoned to perfection, vermicelli-sized things. Nelson taught us how to eat noodles the Chinese way. You just stick your face down close to the bowl, poke a wad of noodles at your mouth and start slurping. Turns out my Chinese table manners are better than my western manners. My hearty slurping and bad posture made me a natural.
One of the other families was clearly in culture shock. Their two small children were not adventurous eaters. I felt for them. This was going to be a long two weeks. Still, Nelson tried to comfort them as best he knew how.
“See booooy, you can slurp noodle here. Is fine.”
Slurps a big string of noodles.
“Hey guuuuurl, you need fork? Can get fork if chopsticks too hard.”
Slurps another big chopstick-full of noodles.
Nelson was the man. I appreciated his vast knowledge of Chinese history, how he invited us all to share in his culture and what a fine host he proved.
At that point, it was time to rest up. The next day we would all travel to different provinces to go get our kids.
When your sense of time is already as screwed up as a football bat, 4 a.m. is a little bit easier to stomach. That’s what time we had to get up to make our flight into Xining. Had I known the goat rodeo the airport was going to be, we would have been up at 3:00.
As the Whirleys had the first flight leaving at 6:45, we were dropped off at the airport first. It was a madhouse. The languages of China are not particularly melodious, even less so when shouted in an airport before I have had coffee.
Nelson did his best for us. He left us in a line to drop our luggage at 5:45, shook our hands and gave us a look that said, “Best of luck.” From there, we would have to navigate the madhouse on our own as Nelson helped the other families onto their flights.
Our friends warned us about Chinese lines, in that they really don’t exist. In a country of 1.5 billion, you just get in where you fit in. Any gap in the line was perceived as an invitation for someone else to jump in front of you. New, alternate lines cropped up. People madly waved their boarding passes at the ticket agents in a throng of insanity. Not only were we not progressing in the line, we were moving backwards.
“Looks like we’re not going to make our flight,” Liz said, obviously discouraged.
She is such a nice person. At the Forbidden City, she was elbowed out of the way by little old ladies and kids. It’s just the Chinese way. It’s not impolite, it’s just how things often happen.
Fortunately for our flight time, I am not that nice.
“Keep up with me,” I shouted over the madness.
We were now within 30 minutes of our flight, still had to check our bags and make it through security. I calmly walked around the lines, more accurately described as a mob or gaggle, and started shoving my way through to the checked luggage desk. To her credit, Liz stayed right behind me. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a middle-aged Chinese man took exception and started shouting at me.
Oh well, lots of people have shouted at me in foreign languages. Doesn’t bother me.
At the counter, I one-armed a large suitcase over the desk, slamming it down on the baggage conveyor.
“Excuse me, I need to make a flight,” I announced to the airline agent in my best Army guy voice.
It worked like a charm. The squabbling swarm of people backed up. The guy who just shouted at me held his hands up and starting backing up. ‘Merica!
We sat down on the plane with three minutes to spare. Traveler’s tip: Show up to the airport in plenty of time and be prepared not to make friends in the process.
We made it to Xining, but my checked bag did not. I don’t believe in karma, but maybe it has a stronger grip on happenings in China.
Either way, our guide, Stone, gave the airline lady a solid telling-off and assured me my luggage would be at the hotel by that evening.
Sure, I thought. I’ll believe that when I see it.
Stone took us to the hotel, a five-star place with an immense staff … that was completely empty.
I mean eerily empty.
It was a 20-story building and we saw no one but the hotel staff. The elevators, halls and rooms were empty. It was like all of those zombie apocalypse movies, and all I had for protection was a pocket knife and rolling suitcase.
“This is Xining,” Stone explained. “Foreigners never come here.”
“Then why build a hotel like this?” I asked.
“The government said to,” Stone answered.
Yikes, this place would have been bankrupt in America.
“Let’s get some lunch and I’ll show you around,” Stone said.
Just around the block from the hotel we walked into a tiny noodle restaurant. All of the servers giggled and stared as they served us. We took pictures with the entire staff of the restaurant.
Stone was right, foreigners don’t get out to these parts much.
The noodles were good, wheat, not rice like those of eastern China. And SPICY. As a Texan I am used to spicy food, but the particular spice used in this part of China had an interesting effect on me in that I ended up burping the taste of spicy noodles back throughout the rest of the afternoon.
Car ride, burp, spicy. Drink some tea, burp, spicy.
Stone then took us to an open air market. It was kind of like open markets I had seen in Afghanistan, only cleaner. There were tables of meat laid out, fresh produce, spices and berries. But what drew most of my attention was the number of fish, half of them swimming, the other half floating belly up. There were tilapia, bass, carp, eels and all manner of creepy crawlies just sitting in tanks lining the walls. All looked like they had taken a beating from being shipped inland.
Note to self: Skip on local seafood.
After our tour of the neighborhood, we went back to the hotel. Not only was our hotel empty, it was hotter than the surface of the sun. It seems that once Chinese central air is turned on, it never stops.
Fortunately, we were able to open some windows and cool the place down, but until the temperature dropped, I spent a good deal of that afternoon next to the window sucking in fresh, cool air … and burping spicy stuff.
Liz was particularly amused by the Chinese hotel bathroom design. Unlike our prudish Western designs, the Chinese leave a big, clear glass on the bathroom. It left a clear line of sight to the shower and toilet. I applauded the forward thinking, risqué design. Liz lowered the large curtain on the window.
Oh well, I guess not everyone is as progressive as me.
We retired that night, excited to go get our son Jason the following morning. But at 10 p.m., a knock came at the door.
I was amazed to find one of the Chinese bellmen standing in the hall with my suitcase. What efficiency.
“Thank you, xie xie,” I said, handing him a couple of bills ... burp, spicy.
Stay tuned to read about the Whirley family's reunion with Jason and the days and weeks that followed as Jason became their son.