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.
Read Part 1 HERE.
Read Part 2 HERE.
You wanna talk about a jam-packed day? Here we go.
First up was a visit to the Museum of Qinghai.
Impressive is an understatement.
While my ancestors were trying to figure out how to better bludgeon each other to death with blunt objects, Jason’s folks were establishing international trade routes and getting rich spreading cutting-edge technologies around the world.
In the museum were 5,000-year-old pottery artifacts showcasing a socially advanced society. People were dancing and making merry on this one artifact. Heck, even in this day-and-age, some Baptists aren’t even socially advanced enough to dance. (Before anyone gets too wound up, I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church.)
The museum’s display of ornate bronze, sculptures and silks impressed even me, and keep in mind that I am about as cultured as a stray dog. There were 1,000-year-old daggers, spearheads and battleaxes. They still looked plenty capable of cleaving someone, but no one would allow me to try them out.
However, the thing that absolutely blew my mind were the before and after pictures of Xining’s urbanization.
Fifteen years ago, the city was no more than a town full of sprawling mud huts with small parcels for families to farm. However, the government directed the farmers to move. The mud huts were steamrolled, returned to the soil. Modern steel and aluminum refineries were built. Skyscrapers were erected. In only 15 years, HUNDREDS of skyscrapers were built. Farmers became factory laborers. More people moved into the city in search of jobs. By Chinese standards, it is still a small town with only 1.4 million residents, but to me, it is a modern marvel of industrialization.
Don’t get me wrong. Were I a small farmer and the government pushed me off of my land and steamrolled my house, I would be livid. But that is not the Chinese way. Only the government owns land in China. Its citizens only rent it. So when Big Daddy Mao says move, you darn well move. There is not a choice for civil disobedience. This enables such quick changes to the geographical and industrial landscape. In the span of 15 years an entire industrial complex was developed in Xining, with dozens more high rises currently under construction.
Where I live, it has taken the county more than three years to widen a three-mile stretch of road.
I’m not saying I would prefer the Chinese method of governing, but I will say that it is effective.
You know what is less effective?
Clothes shopping for a teenager with dwarfism. That was our next stop after the museum.
Stone took us to a local store he liked, and just in the nick of time. Jason was in the last pair of clean undies and hadn’t figured out how to fashion more out of the oodles of Legos he brought. I could see that Stone and I adhered to the same methods of shopping. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt. Underwear. Check. Shirts – throw handfuls of shirts in basket – check. Socks. Check. Pants, errr, well, crap. This is where we hit a wall.
First, the kid was somewhere in between adult and kid sizes. There was a pair of Hello Kitty sweat pants that would probably have fit him, but when I held them up for Jason (with a big grin on my face), he shut that idea down. More importantly, Jason’s legs are a bit shorter than the average person’s. Finding anything to fit the waist and the leg was murder. We were able to pick up a pair of gym shorts and a pair of jeans that looked like something my grandmother would wear.
Lots of elastic.
Note: I was able to establish a decent wardrobe for the boy in America, but it took hemming a few pairs of pants. I also tried to explain to Jason my theory of dressing for success. It’s called the “James” theory. If you are going casual, you say, “What would James Dean wear?” If you are going more formal, you think, “What would James Bond wear?” It’s a never-fail method, but I don’t think I was able to translate it well. However, I have convinced the boy that we DO NOT wear socks with sandals … now if only I could convince his grandfather of the same.
Shopping stressed all the men out, so Stone took us to the local pet market. It was like something out of PETA’s nightmares. Sure, you could get one more goldfish into the tank, but you’d have to take out three floaters to do it.
“Oh, you want fish? Take this one. Real good fish. I teach to swim upside down.”
The canaries and pigeons were pretty much the same story. Good luck picking out the one you want!
“You point at what bird? That bird? I no can get. All other fly out. Here, you take this bird.”
Ms. Liz almost went into fits over the puppies. There had to be a huge puppy mill alive and well in the province. Oodles of puppies were piled onto each other. In America, the place would have been raided and people escorted out in handcuffs, but hey, this is China. You can buy a pure bred dog for under $200 … as long as you have a permit from the government.
That’s right, Uncle Mao even controls whether or not you can have a dog.
Well that was a little bit of a downer, but a BIGGER downer is being guilt tripped by an orphanage worker. Darn it, Mr. Liu!
So at this point, we were off to the orphanage, a place we declined to tour as Jason did not grow up there. Still, Mr. Liu said that we simply MUST. That is where all sorts of formalities would take place, the biggest of which was meeting Jason’s foster parents and the orphanage director (his big boss). We also had to meet with several members of the media who were sent to cover this adoption story. Then there was the minor business of dropping our gangster-sized stack of bills in Mr. Liu’s hand for our charitable donation to the orphanage.
Upon arriving at the orphanage, we were herded into a small day room on the first floor of the orphanage. Jason’s foster parents were already there. His foster father, a factory worker, seemed relaxed, almost happy for a reason to miss a day at the factory. From the little Jason spoke of his foster father, there was not much of a relationship there. The man worked all of the time and Jason rarely saw him. Jason’s foster sister was there as well, another orphan the family had taken in. At 4 years old, she was absolutely adorable and oblivious to everything going on.
The little one hugged her big brother, excited to see him again. She nearly ran away from me when I went to greet her. Heck, in that part of the country, I very well might have been the first pasty-pale, blue-eyed foreigner she’d ever seen. Instead of engaging in all of the talk (not one of Jason’s strong suits), he decided to play with little sister while the adults talked.
Jason’s foster mother looked like a glass ball of emotions. She had raised Jason since the age of 1, to include travelling across the country to accompany him for several major surgeries. She had invested a lot into this kid. Handle carefully.
And lucky me, I got to sit next to Jason’s foster mom for our meeting. We told her of all of the fun we had with Jason, how his little brothers were looking forward to having him back, how he would have a great education and the finest health care.
She was still holding her tears back. I cannot imagine raising a child for 13 years and then handing him over to strangers. We will be forever grateful for the goodness she showed in raising Jason.
For many foster kids, a foster family merely makes sure their charges receive the minimal required for survival. She made sure Jason felt like part of the family. Her two older biological children called Jason “didi,” little brother. Still, under Chinese regulations, Jason could never “officially” be their child. He would forever hold the stigma of “orphan” if he remained in his native land.
Still, Jason’s foster mom warmed up to us during the short meeting.
“I will tell you some stories of Jason,” she said, Stone interpreting. “We got Jason some chickens to raise when he was younger. He had to keep them in a cage on the back porch of our apartment. One day when Jason was feeding them, the birds got out of the cage. They jumped off of our six-story balcony. To this day we joke about Jason’s suicidal chickens!”
Jason laughed, we all laughed.
Still, the good lady had something that she wanted to explain.
“I told Jason to pack more clothes and things, but he wanted to pack all of his toys and I wasn’t going to argue with him on our last day together,” she said, handing a bag full of Jason’s clothes over.
I died laughing.
“I told him we have a ton of Legos at our house, too,” I said.
We all laughed at the priorities of a teenage boy.
The orphanage director told us it was time to wind things up. We all exchanged gifts, shook hands and moved into the lobby for one last picture. Here, Jason’s foster mom held him for a long time. The last hug for a long, long time. She managed to blink back tears until she made it outside, careful not to let her boy see her cry.
Jason, Ms. Liz and I were ushered back into the little room. The members of the media, three ladies who watched the entire interaction between our two families, asked us some questions. There were so few adoptions in the province that this would make a couple of local newspapers.
Oh boy, time to put my best diplomat hat on.
To my relief, the ladies asked very polite, state-sponsored questions:
“Why did you want to adopt a child with disabilities? Will the boy go to school? Will he have medical care?”
All really easy answers. Chinese media is a little more reserved than their American counterparts. In all, I think we fielded six questions. Easiest interview ever.
With our interview complete, Mr. Liu told us that there was some kind of sickness going around the orphanage and that there would not be a tour today. He never specified what sickness, but it would have been awesome if he had dropped that little nugget earlier in the trip before we had touched everything. It was now time for Mr. Liu’s favorite part of the trip.
“Now is the time that you give him the orphanage donation,” Stone said.
I whipped the red bag out of my pack and handed it over to Mr. Liu. I expected him to say thanks, shake our hands and leave.
No. Homeboy busts out the cash in front of all of us and starts counting it.
Folks, we’re not talking a little bit of cash. We’re talking stacks of bills.
Stone later explained that this is not bad manners as it is in Western countries. It’s just how things are done to ensure transparency, to be above reproach and give a receipt for the exact amount given.
The funniest thing was that Mr. Liu kept getting interrupted while counting. His subordinates would burst into the room to ask him questions. The third time this happened, Mr. Liu lost his mind. I know a butt-chewing when I hear it, and that lady took one. He slammed down the stack of bills and shouted something that WAS NOT: “Thank you for asking that question. I appreciate your concern. I will get you an answer momentarily.”
After losing his ever-loving mind, Mr. Liu went to the door, locked it, took a deep breath, shook his head and finished counting cash. He provided a receipt and everything.
Before we left, Ms. Liz asked about a detail from Jason’s past. His biological parents left something called a “longeval lock” with their tiny son, a silver necklace meant to bring its wearer a long life. With Jason’s medical needs, poor farmers knew that they could not provide for the child. His best chance was in a government home. So they left the boy at a train station bundled up, with the lock and some money imploring whomever found the boy to take him to an orphanage. Personnel at the train station did just that. They called the police, who took Jason to the hospital and then onto the Xining Orphanage. Liz asked if they still had the longeval lock, the only thing tying Jason back to his biological parents.
I told Liz there was no way it would happen, but she still asked. Mr. Liu said he would check the records, but it was very unlikely that it was still in a file after 12 years and many changes in orphanage personnel.
Finally, all transactions with the orphanage were complete. It was the most diplomacy I had extended in a long time, and diplomacy was never my strong suit.
“I think we need a good night out,” Stone said.
Agreed! Wholly agreed, and I could use a beer and some grub that wouldn’t come bubbling back up and make my burps taste like a week-old crawfish boil.
So Stone met us at the hotel a little later. He even brought a special visitor, his adorable 7-year-old daughter. She was precious. Of course Jason spoke with her about as much as anyone else.
But that didn’t stop me from engaging the young lady in conversation. She was learning English, traditional Chinese dance and was a good student.
“Now this place is a different,” Stone said as we pulled up to the restaurant.
No kidding. We opened the door and there stood the only other foreigner we had seen in the province. The stereo played 90’s rock. The food smelled familiar. A fantastic kind of familiar.
“Oh welcome, just have a seat anywhere,” our host said in a crisp American accent.
Turns out the fellow ventured out to Qinghai Province to study Mandarin and Tibetan culture and language. Now, his whole family, to include seven kids, lived there, running the restaurant and working as missionaries.
What kind of restaurant you may ask?
The awesome kind. They served the best yak burger I’d ever tasted. Their little shop did everything well. The french fries were crisp. Everything on the burger was fresh, to include only the best grass-fed yak. They even made homemade ice cream. It was like a tiny American oasis in the middle of the Spicy Noodle Desert.
Delightful dinner complete, we flagged down a cab to retire for the evening. Looking back on the ride, it’s amazing that we made it. The cabby’s credentials boasted a 5-star safety rating.
Methinks that may have been a lie.
After turning on the meter, the cabby brought the little 4-cylinder car to a screaming, jolting start. In levels of ascending order, there’s bad driving, soccer mom, terrible driving, Chinese driving, American teenager and then whatever this guy was doing. He whipped in and out of traffic and tailgated so badly that I could read the driver’s credentials in the car ahead of us. There was no coast, only gas, break, peel out, brake harder.
“Hey, ‘Fast and Furious’, knock this @#$% off,” I said, elbowing the driver and pantomiming how he was jerking the steering wheel around.
This must have been perceived as a personal challenge or misinterpreted as encouragement. I think the driver just wanted to mess with the foreigners. He then upped his game, swerving harder, cutting more people off, nearly killing a dude on a moped. Jason was laughing. Liz had turned funny shade of light green and was blaming this on me.
“Don’t talk to him anymore!” Liz screamed. “Hunter Whirley, you cannot talk to the driver anymore!”
I will have to say, Stone never got us across Xining this quickly. Still, Liz and I were puckered tighter than a snare drum as we power-slid around a corner, the hotel appearing in the distance.
“I do not want to die in China!” Liz shouted.
The car screeched off of the major motor way and onto a side-street leading up to the hotel.
Speed Racer didn’t even take his foot off of the accelerator.
As a matter of fact, we came to such a NASCAR pit stop halt at the hotel that a bellboy jumped backward to avoid taking a bumper to the shin.
The usually composed bellboy raised his fist and shouted at the driver. Won’t do any good, buddy, Ms. Liz had been shouting at him (and me) for miles.
I gave the driver exact change. No tip. Slammed the door and said something that made Jason snicker. Dirty words are the first words you learn, anyway.
It was good that we got all of these adventures out of the way. The following day was long and boring.
For our last day in Xining, Stone took us to a mountaintop overlooking the city. Atop the hill was a 400-year-old mosque. I hope the poor suckers who volunteered to carry supplies up the mountain were well compensated, as it was a hike up to the top. Jason, with his short legs and lack of cardiovascular activity, endured the walk with a grim face. Still, as it was the last day, Jason seemed to have finally warmed up to Stone. During rest stops, the two chatted each other up. The two nudged each other and laughed.
In the middle of our walk, Stone answered his phone. It was Mr. Liu.
He found Jason’s longeval lock after 12 years of being stored in a Chinese file. The one his biological parents left him.
“We need to go get that,” Stone said, hurrying us down from the mountaintop to the car. “This is a big deal.”
Sure enough, Mr. Liu delivered. It was a beautiful locket, made from silver. Jason did not really seem too excited. Yes, his parents did leave him something, but no matter their reasons, they did make him an orphan.
Like I said, it was a lot for a kid to process.
From there, Stone dropped us at the airport. Forget Chinese propriety, big hugs all-round. As good as any of our guides were, Stone was my favorite. He knew everyone in the hotel and the adoption process, or as he said it, “I know everyone worth knowing.” He went out of his way to ensure we were comfortable and enjoyed our time. He even went out of his way to befriend our stoic teenager. If you’re ever in Xining, look my man Stone up … you know, because that happens all the time.
We spent the rest of the day on a plane en route to Guangzhou, a port city in southeast China. This is where we would meet at the American Consulate to start the process towards Jason’s American citizenship.
Testy, that’s how I would describe us that evening. Even in the Shangri La of a hotel, The Garden, we were all ready for our own space. Yes, the lobby was nicer than many I’ve seen in Vegas. Yes, the four-story waterfall was nice. Yes, the staff spoke better English than me … but when you’ve been cramped up with people all day long all you want is to be left alone for a flippin’ second. So we stuffed down dinner, barely avoiding telling each other to “stop breathing so loud.”
Liz and I could tell Jason was stressed. This was his first step away from everything he had ever known. Flying stressed him out a little bit, too. We tried to remain understanding, but the best thing for all of us would be a good night’s sleep.
We went to sleep. Jason passed out sometime that night with his tablet.
Great parenting, I know, but whatever, I didn’t tell him to stop breathing so much.