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.
My old Army buddy bet that I would cry when we picked Jason up. He’s a jerk.
No, I did not cry.
The morning of “Gotcha Day,” a term coined by some cute adoptive parent, we were all smiles. I peeked into the small government office in which we were to meet Jason. He was sitting there just inside the door. He had grown. Less of a baby face, his face now more like a young man’s.
At a glance, I could tell he was uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t be? Surrounded by adults in a government office. No thank you.
I think Stone had a better name for today, not Gotcha Day.
“I call today ‘Escape Day,’ because we grab the kid and escape to have some fun,” Stone explained.
I entered the room first. Upon seeing me, Jason jumped up and wrapped his arms around me. It wasn’t a bro hug, no three pats and out. The hug said it all. Then he wrapped up Ms. Liz in a big hug. She held onto him at least twice as long as I did.
He did not seem to mind.
Jason smiled, relieved to have friendly faces in the room. We plopped down onto the small couch next to him and endured about an hour of paperwork, more happy to do paperwork than I had been in a long time.
Sweet mother of pearl it was hot in there. Two ladies, receptionists of some sort, and a representative from the orphanage, Mr. Liu, were also in the room. All of the Chinese folks in the room seemed okay with the temperature. I was dying. It had to be 85 degrees.
I took off my jacket, revealing the Captain America T-shirt I selected for the day (Jason is a big action movie fan).
“Fat Americans get hot quickly,” I said to the group, smiling.
The two ladies in the room giggled.
Finally, we got all of the paperwork done and headed out to Stone’s car. Stone made the mistake of trying to chat Jason up. Jason is not one for idle chat, or talking at all to strangers. It usually takes him a solid week to warm up to anyone.
“He is so shy,” Stone said, his feelings a little hurt.
“Don’t worry about that,” I said. “He’ll probably start talking to you in a couple of days.”
“Okay, so this is how today works,” Stone began. “You will have 24 hours with Jason. If, in 24 hours you do not want to adopt him, then tomorrow we will go back to the government building and Jason will go back to his foster family. But as you have already spent a month hosting him, I do not see that happening.”
“Tell Jason if he wants to come to America then he comes with us.”
Jason nodded his head vigorously.
“Yes, he wants to go to America,” Stone said, smiling.
“Okay, I have something else to ask him, and I need your help,” I said to Stone. “Does he want to go by his Chinese name JiShan or by Jason Mark?”
We then explained that the middle name Mark had a special meaning. Our other two sons have family names as their middle names. Mark is his grandfather’s name, and the name of the missionary who raised the money for his knee surgery. Double knee replacements aren’t cheap.
“Jason Mark,” the young man said, some of his first words of the day.
“Good, then I think Jason should show you some of his town,” Stone said.
He gave Jason some instructions and dropped us off at a market. The first thing that hit me was the bouquet of smells. Some good, some questionable. Stepping into the market was like walking back 100 years in time. Random cuts of meat hung everywhere. Noodle shops. Produce shops. More fish floating upside-down. And jewelry shops.
Ms. Liz pulled us into a jewelry shop, insisting that we pick some stuff for our mothers. Without Stone there, Jason was instrumental. He conducted business, passing on money and making deals, all with MINIMAL idle chat.
Jason just seemed content to be helpful and in the company of friends. We passed by the shops and asked Jason questions through our translation device. He mainly grunted and gestured.
That’s our boy.
We slurped some noodles for lunch and went back to the hotel to meet with Stone. We were about to conduct the business of adoption, and that takes a little cash.
“I think if you convert $6,000 to Yuan, you will have enough money,” Stone told us.
“Okay, so when will we go exchange the money?” I asked.
“I will exchange the money,” Stone said.
Yeah sure, just hand over six grand to a guy I met yesterday. Whatever, the adoption service said he was good. So I handed it over.
Again, Stone proved himself the man. He quickly returned with a brick of cash in RMB, roughly $37K, with the transaction receipt. When I say brick, I mean a drug-dealer-looking stack of bills that could have served as a movie prop. Mao’s picture graced all of the crisp 100s. Interesting hairdo, balding with the sides poofed out. Nice.
With the days’ frivolities ceased, we settled down for a quite night. Jason dumped out his suitcase to reveal minimal clothes, but a maximum amount of space allotted for Legos and a toy truck the size of a breadbox.
“We have Legos at home,” I said.
Jason smiled and shrugged, taking a little time away from racing cars on some game for his tablet.
“So what car do you like best?” I asked, giving up on the Lego discussion.
This started a three-hour discussion on what cars we liked. Jason favors supercars, most of which neither of us can pronounce correctly, because Italian names are equally hard to pronounce for Texans and Chinese alike. I showed him Jeeps, the good ones, old CJs, Broncos, jacked up pickups.
Yep, Dad is a redneck from way back.
“Okay Jason, time to brush teeth and go to bed,” Liz announced.
Again, he shrugged. You guessed it. No toothbrush.
What a teenager.
The next morning, we went back to the government building to finalize adopting Jason (on the Chinese side of things). Still blazing hot in the building. Even though it was 20 degrees outside, I came prepared, my jacket still in my bag. We signed more documents. We gave fingerprints. As Jason is over 12 years old, he had to sign saying that he was not being coerced or forced into adoption. He, too, had to sign and give fingerprints. He did so with gusto, smiling at his new parents.
Had Jason not been adopted by his 14th birthday in April, he would have been taken off of the list for adoption. He would have been stuck in China with minimal options, the best of which would have been working a menial job in one of the factories spewing pollutants all over Xining.
As old as he was, and with his medical conditions, he had almost no chance of adoption. The relief he must have felt at having a chance in life must have been exhilarating. That mixed with the daunting reality that he was leaving everything he knew behind.
A lot of emotions for a kid to process.
I figured all I could do as an adoptive parent of a kid who was about to have his entire life upended was to be his advocate. Take it easy. Give him his space … unless, like in Jason’s case, the kid wants to be in your pocket.
Early in our hosting, Jason picked me as his person. I don’t know why. Liz is way nicer. The boys are more fun. But still, I became his person. One year later, it was the same. He always stood right next to me: Chinese close. If he talked to anyone, it was me. I had to check every time I turned around so I would not run over the kid. Still, Jason had to make some concessions.
“Dude, I know spicy noodles are your favorite, but I am dying,” I told him at lunch time after Stone had dropped us off at the hotel.
Jason probably understood only “spicy noodles” out of that whole thing. So I resorted to charades. I acted out stomach pain. Burped. Spicy. Noodle. Bad!
Jason smiled. He got it. No more spicy noodles for Dad for a while.
So we went for American-ish sandwiches. Fortunately, everything sandwich-related is called “hambow” in China. Really easy for Americans to translate.
So we went to some “hambow” place on the same block as the hotel. Ordering “hambow” was easier in my mind, though. You point at the picture of what you want. Tell folks how many of that thing you want. All done. Easy peasy.
Yeah, no. It was easier ordering noodles at any other shop. Zeus’ beard! This thing turned into a game of never-ending charades. Fortunately, an angel of translation descended upon us as Jason was starting to get worked up into what I was guessing to be a never-ending sandwich transaction.
“Excuse me, can I help you order?” a sweet teen girl said IN PERFECT ENGLISH!
“Ummm, yes please,” we said, dumbfounded.
Minh, as her name turns out, helped us order. Then, she sat at our table, speaking with Ms. Liz in English. Turns out we were some of the very few English speakers who had ever come to her hometown.
She was a lifesaver. That game of “Can I Have a Chicken Sandwich?” charades could have lasted years.
Minh was delightful. By the end of the meal, she and Liz were best friends. Jason and I just ate our sandwiches. Jason enjoyed his. Mine was apparently made out of chicken jerky. Mostly skin. Only enough meat to entice you to try another bite, spit it out … try another and spit it out. Yuck. And what is the Chinese affinity for mayo? Ugh, that is the garnish, not the main dish.
It was at this time that Liz received the most awkward compliment of her whole life.
“Oh, I want to go to America. You are all so fashion and your figures are so nice,” Minh said, making the international gesture for bigger boobs and hips.
“Ummm, thanks?” Liz said, playing her best diplomatic cards.
Still, Minh and Liz were fast friends. They still chat on some Chinese app nearly every day. She is a sweet kid.
After lunch there was not much going on. Liz and I broke out the toys we brought to China. She brought some Legos for Jason … yeah, that box was already checked. Still, Jason assembled his new Legos in about 30 minutes. I tried to entertain Jason with the Nerf guns Liz brought. He just sat there as I shot him.
Dude! I handed you a Nerf gun and said, “Shoot me!” What is not to like about that?
Our Nerf battle turned into me just shooting my new son. That’s no fun, especially for me. Lame! The hotel of the dead didn’t have a pool, or a game room, or anything to do around it. Talk about a downer.
So we watched a China-approved documentary. It was over the life of Chairman Mao. Apparently he was loved by everyone. EVERYONE! Fighting the Japanese during WWII, setting up the new communist order, dealing with Stalin … he was portrayed as the Chinese Andy Griffith. Everyone loved him!
Interesting. My history books were a little different, but how could I discredit such a documentary? China! His face is on everything! He must be good.
So we settled down for the evening after a misguided sandwich quest, a one-sided Nerf shootout and learning one-sided Chinese history. Man, there was nothing to do in Xining, but I could not think of better people I could share the experience with.