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.
Read Part 3 HERE.
A good night’s sleep works wonders. After a day of travel, we needed it.
But we were up, this was a free day. As Jason already had his passport, we could do whatever we wanted while the rest of the poor adoptees had to wait in line for passports. So for starters, we hit up the breakfast buffet.
Today, we learned two very important things: 1. Working a fork and knife is tricky etiquette, and 2. Donuts are frikkin’ awesome.
Seriously, when I handed Jason a donut off of the buffet, he looked at it like a UFO. “Dad, you sure about this?”
Yeah man, eat the donut.
The donut could not have disappeared faster if it had hit Oprah’s plate.
“Did you like it?”
There was something a bit off-putting. For the life of me I could not figure out the hotel’s affinity for beef products. They had things labeled “beef bacon” and “beef sausage.” Any red-blooded American with more cholesterol than blood swimming through his veins knows that this is wrong. I mentioned this to Ms. Liz.
“Look at the placemat, hoooooney,” she said, obviously making fun of me.
The placemat said that all pork products were made to order.
“Remind me to order some real daggum bacon tomorrow morning,” I said to Liz.
It was a good breakfast … but when bacon is an option, ya darn well eat the bacon.
So we decided to more adequately explore the hotel.
The Garden Hotel was aptly named. There was a huge, impeccably manicured garden. Most impressive was the four-story waterfall.
I was happy to see that they had a beautiful gym, a great pool (way too cold to go into). I tried to push Jason in, but he is used to my shenanigans and screamed, “No, no, no!” while flailing at me and backing up.
Hey, he was smiling, he knew I was playing.
I’ve seen nicer hotels, but they were in Vegas.
Liz, on the other hand, looked like one of the Beverly Hillbillies fresh off of the truck in Hollywood.
“Would you look at this? And that? Ooooh, what about those?”
“Hey, Ellie May, tone it down, ya’ gotta look cool in these places,” I told her.
“You be nice to me. I’m having a good time,” she pouted.
And we continued to have a good time. We hopped a cab and went to Shamian Island. Liz dubbed the island the “Savannah of China.” I thought this was appropriate. Large, pretty trees overlapped walkways, waterways crisscrossed the roads. Picturesque. All manner of little shops and cafes lined the streets.
We visited a shop owned by one of the sweetest ladies in China. She absolutely loved all of the adoptive families travelling through her city. She chatted up Jason as hard as she could, but remember that Jason, strangers and small talk are not friends. Still, she got Jason excited, showing him around the shop, talking to him about his new home and family.
“I tell him he is lucky boy,” the shop owner said. “I tell him God love him and he have good new family.”
God bless you, lady. I noticed the large cross that hung from her neck.
“Let me show you something,” she said, dragging me to the front of the store. “This my husband. He make art.”
And he did! Her husband, a tiny fellow, spilled some ink on the table and diluted it with a bit of thinner. Then he dabbed the side of his hand in the ink and started blotting it on a small piece of paper. Stuff started appearing. A mountain. Clouds.
Then he dabbed a finger and started making trees. Then he took a nail dipped in ink. Birds and fishermen took form. Five minutes later, a completed picture of the Chinese countryside slid across the table to Jason.
“See, easy,” the little fellow said with a smile. “You want to try?”
Jason shook his head, knowing he was in the presence of a man who had perfected his craft.
We bought stuff there. A lot of stuff. Pictures, gifts for our bio sons, friends and parents. It was also handy that we would not have to tote these things from hotel to hotel. This was our last stop.
It was a solid morning, but I had afternoon plans.
“Today will be your first time in the gym,” I told Jason as we walked back into the hotel.
The boy shrugged, having no idea what I just told him. Still, we descended upon the gym like lions walking in amongst lambs. Chest day, best day!
A small Chinese guy was doing some sort of Pilates with weights, mixed with a jazzercise routine.
Jason and I warmed up. With his joints and as a newbie in the gym, Jason went light. Extremely light. We worked on form. I worked on “Hulk smash.”
The Chinese guy looked at me as I repped it out with the largest dumbbells in the gym. Let’s see, kilos to pounds, 30 kilos are like 66 pounds. It is a hotel gym after all. No big weights.
Still, Jason and random jazzercise guy looked at me like I was bench pressing a planet. In America, no one would look at you twice. I guess that’s the difference when you are considered a giant at 180 pounds.
Jason worked out like a champ. Chest and triceps. Good work for a gym virgin.
After our workout, I showed Jason pics of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He laughed. How dare he! So much to learn.
The first thing to learn is if you want to be big, ya gotta eat big. I was starving after gym time. After walking around for a bit, we settled on a Thai place.
Holy buckets, Batman, the food was amazing.
I ordered some beef stuff that was okay. Jason ordered fried chicken with a key lime sauce. By this point, the Whirleys had fully embraced China’s family dining. We snacked off of Jason’s plate as his was the best. He didn’t seem to mind … especially since he pigged down most of the noodles on the table and we ordered him dessert to share with Mom.
Jason was also star of the dinner. He went way outside of his comfort zone and ordered for all of us. HE ACTUALLY TALKED TO STRANGERS! He ordered, made sure we all got what we wanted and settled the bill. My man! That confidence is growing. I would attribute that to gym time … and hanging out around me, who behaves much like John Wayne, only with less manners.
Still, a good day in the books.
The next morning brought bacon, and when you ask for bacon at The Garden, you get a platter of bacon.
Jason even got excited. About a pound of beautifully crisp bacon hit the table. Ms. Liz did her usual dainty thing. Two pieces, no more. Jason and I killed the rest of the plate like a pair of cavemen.
“Ug, man eat pig. Man get big. Little man also eat donut. Little man like donut!”
The morning stunk, I mean, was friggin’ terrible. Ms. Kelly, our guide, took all of us to the pearl market. The women went bonkers. So many pearls! Such low prices! I swear they spent HOURS there. All of the boys wanted to mutiny and go home. Jason and I excused ourselves from the pearl market. We got snacks and water while the rest of the suckers looked at oyster boogers (it’s really all pearls are, if you think about it).
“Did you bring me any snacks?” Ms. Liz asked when we returned.
“Nope, we said we wanted to go a long time ago,” I said, munching on some cookies.
Ms. Liz was not amused, so I shared my snack.
The day was about to get MUCH better. Ms. Liz and I were to meet an old friend, Jess.
Liz and Jess first met in junior high. I was fortunate enough to meet both of these ladies in college. Jess was a good friend … but not the getting married, making babies-type of good friend like Ms. Liz.
After college, Jess married a good fellow named Nate, travelled all over the orient and had a little boy. They were nice enough to visit us in Guangzhou.
Nate was really comfortable with all things Chinese. He took us through the back streets, navigating on some Chinese mobile maps app, to the sketchiest looking restaurant on the block.
“I really like how they do the meat in these places,” Nate said, alluding to some kind of unique theme of cooking.
All the stuff looked like all of the other Chinese food I had seen over the past week. Fortunately, Nate ordered for all of us, which was nice. The waitress pushed the soup hard, so we got some of that. Not very good, but they had a spicy scrambled egg and vegetable dish that was amazing. Nate ordered a duck, and as he ordered in Chinese, I could not tell him that I would not be eating any oily river pigeon. I stuck with the eggs.
“There’s some really cool looking old part of town,” Nate said, looking at his phone.
So we went to find said “cool old town.”
The first place was a big bust. I mean, Chinese trailer park attraction. A holdover from communism that could use a good bull-dozing. It opened into a small open air café that smelled more like an outhouse.
The first attraction was a large trench filled with goldfish. I guess kids could pay to snatch them out of the water.
The next fun activity featured a half-inflated, person-sized plastic ball in the water. The thing had “suffocate AND drown” written all over it.
Jason looked at the thing, his eyes wide in disbelief. It only got worse.
For the finale, we walked through a park filled with dilapidated dinosaur models.
“Oh look kids, here is a pack of moldy velociraptors eating a dilapidated-saurus.”
“Also featured is the unicorn triceratops.”
“To your left you’ll see the extremely rare no-tailed T-rex.”
Nate and I agreed on two things. First, this was not the old town we sought. Second, the park entrance fees were not going back into the park.
Our fearless guide, Nate, questioned some locals. The spot was just around the corner.
The first thing I noticed in the old part of the city was the wiring. It was a maze of wires and electrical pigtails. It made me twitchy just to look at it.
“Do not touch the wires, ANY OF THEM,” I told our crew.
We came upon a bronze monkey-god thing. Apparently, in the pre-communism days, he was quite the deity. But when communism got rid of all deities, the monkey god was demoted to a children’s fiction character.
Even by Army standards, that’s a huge demotion.
At the old town center there was a traditional Chinese opera. It was one heck of a hoedown, and by that I mean they made one heck of a racket. The ensemble was composed primarily of traditional gongs, flutes, drums … and a baritone saxophone. Not sure how that one fits in, not exactly traditional, but most musicians will take any gig they can get.
The worst part, I mean absolutely horrendous, was the lady singing. It was a high-pitch, cat-getting-skinned-alive, yowling that just wouldn’t stop. I don’t know how long Chinese opera lasts, but I could only take about five minutes.
The old town was full of tiny alleys leading to art shops and cafes. It was a hang out for a lot of college-aged kids. The 400-year-old maze of alleyways and buildings seemed to have a new livelihood infused from all of the youth. Still, you can only sightsee for so long before kids get tired of such silliness and need bedtime.
So we tried to hail a cab. It was the only time in China that a cab was hard to find. Nate tried his Chinese Uber thing. No luck.
“The drivers on the outside of town are not licensed to work in Guangzhou proper,” Nate said.
“It’s gonna be hard to find a ride.”
And it sure was. It took a while to get anyone to stop. Even then, two drivers turned down our request to drive into the city. Finally, one agreed to drive us. He drove a Corolla. There were six of us.
“We’ll wait for the next one,” Nate said, gesturing at his family.
“No bro, check it out, there’s always room for one more,” I said.
I motioned for Jason to sit on my lap. Liz sat in the middle. Nate climbed in up front. Jess sat in the back seat and sat her 3-year-old on her lap. I was jealous. The kid sitting on me was a decade older and a lot heavier. [Note: In China, seatbelts and car seats are not used and largely unavailable in cabs.]
Twenty-five minutes with a teenager on your lap, sitting in an already warm taxi, is not something I would recommend. Pretty sure I left a good butt and back sweat mark on that seat. Even worse, upon getting out of the taxi I realized my right leg had not gone to sleep … it had died somewhere during the trip.
“Oooh, aaaah,” I said, nearly falling out of the car, staggering and slapping the dead limb.
Everyone was so concerned for my wellbeing. Not only did they laugh at me, some of them pointed.
So much for friends and family.