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.
Read Part 4 HERE.
Read Part 5 HERE.
It smelled like an old gym sock in our hotel room.
Ms. Liz went all “Little House on the Prairie” with some of her laundry in the bathtub. Now we were trying to get her knickers to dry out. It didn’t help that southeast China is more humid than Lebron’s armpits in the third quarter, but after three days of her under things hanging in the bathroom, they were not even close to being dry.
This may have been the biggest quarrel we had for the entire two weeks.
“It’s not like we even needed to do laundry,” I lamented, sniffing the funky drawers.
I immediately regretted that decision.
“I had a shirt that I wanted to wear again,” she pouted.
“Right, that’s why you had to wash all that other stuff, too,” I replied. “Admit it. You just wanted to do laundry in the bathtub like all the other poorly prepared moms. We deliberately packed enough clothes so we would not have to do laundry, and here you are going rub-a-dub-dub gross clothes in the tub.”
“Maybe,” she conceded.
“Alright,” I said. “Let me figure this out.”
And I did. Redneck ingenuity kicked in. I grabbed the crappy hotel hair dryer and one of Liz’s hair ties. Then I snagged one of Liz’s shirts. The shirt went over the business end of the hair dryer. The hair tie held it in place. After ten minutes, the shirt was dry. Repeat process. Pair of jeans. Undies. Bra. Over the span of a couple of hours, all the laundry was dry … and still smelled like moldy towels. Into the dirty clothes mountain they went. By this time, we had an entire large suitcase overflowing with dirty clothes.
“Well, glad you got to clean stuff in the bathtub?” I asked.
Have I ever told you what a good mad face Ms. Liz has? Top notch, if I do say so myself.
Oh well, it was time to meet the other families and head out.
We all took a vote, and going to the zoo won. We had to occupy the kids’ time for one more day in China while they printed up passports for the rest of the kids.
“Ummm, yeah, I’m all noodled out,” I said to our guide. “Since Jason already has his passport, can we bounce out of here a day early?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that,” she said, smiling.
It was at least worth a try. China is a hoot and all, but sleeping in your own bed and not sharing a hotel room with a teenager is nice.
Our usual hoard of children and parents clambered onto the bus, and off we went.
“You were smart to skip the downtown trip we took last night,” one of the moms confided on the bus. “The subway was crazy. People kept stuffing in. So-and-so almost lost their kids. We were packed in so close that no one could move.”
Our guide pitched this idea as “fun”. It was all about going to some monstrous sky scraper and taking pictures. The minute I heard “crowded Chinese subway,” I was out. Let’s see, being boxed in, crowds, a culture that does not believe in covering coughs or sneezes, and helping keep up with other people’s kids … hard pass.
So, while others endured the subway, the Whirleys had a quiet dinner and then taught Jason the game of Go Fish. The boy caught onto the game quickly, giggling every time he made a pair.
“Mom, do you have an ass?”
“Jason, for the last time, it’s pronounced ACE.”
The subway was one bullet dodged. That meant only a few more days of good behavior/avoiding international incidents before I was back home and could be my usual, depraved self. I figured the zoo was a pretty safe bet.
When we arrived, Jason was pressed into service, ordering everyone’s zoo passes. Jason helped all the families through the ticket process. While extremely reserved, he went out of his way to ensure everyone was taken care of. After paying for tickets, Jason pulled my sleeve and pointed to his tablet.
“This tickets too much money,” it read.
“Yes, I agree,” I said, nodding.
The price of admission was worth it. After all the horror stories I heard about Chinese zoos, I half-expected to see scientists connecting electrical leads to chimpanzees or trying to transplant a koala’s head onto an elephant’s body.
Instead, we found a clean, well-run zoo with healthy looking animals.
Our first stop was a train ride that meandered through exhibits. Camels, yak and kangaroos were the first stop. Jason snapped away furiously with his tablet, taking pictures. Next came the elephants. Tons more pictures. African antelope. Pictures. Rhinos and hippos. More pictures. Lions and tigers. PICTURES!
“Dad, look!” Jason said at the end of the ride, showing me the pictures he took.
Blurry brown thing … could be a kangaroo. Big blurry gray thing, had to be an elephant. No idea what that is supposed to be. Blurry orange stripey thing, tiger. Picture of my feet. Picture of an out-of-focus tree. Picture of Mom’s ear.
Whatever Jason lacked in photographic training, he made up for with volume.
“Hey, bro, wait for the train to stop so your pictures aren’t blurry,” I coached, showing him good pictures I took on my phone.
He just raised an eyebrow and went back to snapping pictures at supersonic speed.
Next came the dinosaur exhibit.
It was blatantly clear that the creators of the dinosaur exhibit were big fans of the Jurassic Park franchise. There was not a single dinosaur not featured in the films, and they were all identical replicas. They even had the one that spit venom. Instead of venom, it hawked little spurts of water at the tourists.
Jason proved keenly interested in dinosaurs.
“Dad,” he said, pointing at the tablet.
“Will they have real dinosaurs?” the tablet read.
“Not unless they’ve figured out something that Americans haven’t, buddy,” I said, shaking my head.
Still, it was pretty cool. The final display was of a T-rex battling a Spinosaurus (all in keeping with the Jurassic Park theme). Overhead mood lights flashed, the T-rex opened its mouth, Spinosaurus lurched forward on badly engineered machinery, animatronic dinosaur sounds boomed over speakers. Oh, the horror. Jason was amused. All the other kids dragged their parents out of the room as quickly as possible.
Want to talk about horrors? Next came lunch.
After seeing our choices at the zoo café, I considered wrestling a chunk of chicken away from the tigers in a nearby exhibit and starting a fire. Meal choices included: huge wiener on a stick (dirty dad jokes were made), grayish-colored meatballs of dubious origin (more dirty jokes), large wings of chicken (some feathers still attached), and, my favorite, beer.
The womenfolk looked at their choices with disgust. Someone had to be the brave one, so I ordered. Having perfected gesticulating through years of deployments, I pointed at food items and said in a loud voice:
“I’ll have two beers, one huge wiener and lots of balls!”
And so it began. Wieners and balls for everyone.
I noticed most of the ladies did not eat much for lunch. They mainly poked gross meat products on sticks at their kids.
“No honey, you eat it. Mommy’s not very hungry. She ate a lot at breakfast.”
Jason ate without being prompted. Good boy. I figured that I needed to set the example as we had so many kids around, so I consumed everything I ordered for lunch: two beers.
The godsend who saved lunch was the lady who rolled an ice cream cart into the picnic area.
“Who wants ice cream?” I shouted.
All the kids and half of the “adults” nearly trampled me in efforts to get something edible. I shelled out money for the frozen delectables. Best money spent of the day.
Up next was a tower of giraffes. Yes, that is the correct term for a bunch of giraffe. There were scads of them. Even better, you could buy a branch and feed them. Everyone in our group took turns feeding the long-necked mooches. Giraffes jockeyed for position around the shrieking, branch-waving tourists like a relapsed Weight Watchers group descending on an all-you-can-eat buffet.
One kid got licked by a giraffe and started crying. Liz was jumping up and down giggling, “I got to pet it. I got to pet it.” Dads shelled out wads of cash for more branches. One kid peed himself. Another kid tried to run away.
After we pried everyone away from the giraffes, the next stop was Asian elephants. Jason loves elephants and rushed up to the protective railing to see zookeepers fling bananas at the pachyderms’ open mouths. Just about the time Jason reached the front of the crowd, a different zookeeper made a hand signal. The elephants then sucked up a trunk full of water and sprayed it into the crowd. Jason took the full force of the blast. He literally had a six-inch-long elephant booger hanging from his glasses. All the little girls squealed and ran away. Jason just stood there laughing, covered in watery snot. For the rest of the day, I kept my distance. Teenage body odor, swamp water and elephant sputum made standing next to Jason worse than whiffing week-old roadkill possum.
“No, no, you stand over there! Downwind! Ugh, you smell so bad I can taste it.”
Next came one of the zoo’s prized exhibits, the koala bears. You want to talk about getting worked up over nothing, it was a koala exhibit. What many people do not know is that the koala’s main food source, eucalyptus, is a downer and that the little furry marsupials spend their entire lives stoned. Koalas are essentially fat tree cats. They sleep all the time, only waking up long enough to get hammered again.
The women were smitten with the fat little stoner furbies. Dads and kids were bored out of their skulls.
Of the same ilk were the pandas. Once you’ve seen one panda, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Liz must have taken 200 pictures of pandas.
“This is so boring!” I griped to Liz.
“How can you be bored?” she exclaimed.
“I grew up watching furry, overfed animals nap,” I explained. “They’re called ‘uncles’. Furthermore, this animal sucks so bad at life that veterinarians have to ensure its existence through carefully monitored breeding programs. Any animal too lazy to do that one thing, that one AWESOME thing, has pretty much earned its own extinction.”
“There’s something dead inside you,” was all she said.
Something that struck me about the Chinese zoo was that its layout was ingenious. At the transition point of every major attraction was a gift shop that you HAD to pass through. Brilliant. After just seeing the cute whatever, there was a big souvenir shop containing stuffed and plastic toys of the whatever you saw. Kids of all nationalities went bonkers, tugging at Mommy and Daddy’s sleeves, pointing and pleading.
“Buy it, please buy it. I’ll be good forever. For the rest of my life.”
The exit of the zoo was no different. Fortunately, as Jason was older, he took the whole thing in calmly. A little too calmly. Time to mess with him.
“Hey, Jason, do you want one of these?” I said, holding up a stuffed pink koala bear.
“No,” he said, laughing and waving his hands.
“How about one of these?” I asked, picking up a pink backpack.
Elephant snot boy doubled over laughing.
“Ooooh, you’d look good in this,” I said, putting a pink ballcap on his head.
“No, no, no, no,” Jason said, running out of the gift shop toward the exit.
“Good job,” one of my fellow dads said. “You may have given him a lifelong complex, but you got him out of the gift shop without spending a dime.”
The bus ride back to the hotel stunk. Literally. Nobody wanted to take me up on a group bonding exercise called “sit with someone else’s kid” since Jason smelled like the south end of a north-bound buffalo. At the hotel, we made Jason hop in the shower and into some of the precious few clean clothes he had prior to heading out for dinner.
After a quick dinner, the ladies needed some relaxation, so they went to some place to get their hair washed and feet massaged. My buddy and I partnered up and taught his son how to play Go Fish. We had rousing games. The boys had a good time, and their personalities complemented each other. Mine never talked. The other never stopped. Eventually, the dads had to stop thrashing the boys at cards and enforce bed time. Fortunately, our ladies returned safely to the hotel, so refreshed and revitalized that they immediately went to sleep.
After breakfast the next day we all had to say our goodbyes. I hugged all the kids and wished them well, even the little booger who kicked Ms. Liz. One by one, families took their last minibus ride to the airport. I would miss all of my little friends.
“Woohoo,” I said, getting on the minibus when it was our turn to depart. “We get to go back to America!”
Okay, so I wasn’t that broken up about leaving China.
Jason looked a little sad, though. Reality was setting in. He was leaving his home, going to a new country. His hesitancy was understandable.
“Hey, buddy, it’s all going to be okay,” Liz said. “Your brothers will be happy to see you. You will even get to meet Dad’s parents.”
It didn’t seem to cheer Jason up too much. There was a lot on his mind.
Waiting for our connection to Beijing, I saw things in airports I had never seen before. You could go into little booths and sing karaoke while waiting for a flight. What? Stereotypes? Never.
Also, there was a fresh orange juice machine. When I say fresh, I mean there were whole oranges in the top of the thing, and when you put your money in, a few would drop down, get squeezed and the machine would spew some pulp, seeds, orange peel and even a little juice into a cup for you. Too cool. All I have to say is Americans better get on the ball. Chinese terminal technology is lightyears ahead of ours.
A full day of travel meant we arrived in Beijing at almost 10 p.m. We were all tired and just wanted to catch a few winks before boarding our flight early the next morning. To make matters worse, Liz’s jaw had swollen and hurt a great deal. The woman has a higher pain threshold than anyone I know, so when she said, “I hurt,” I knew she meant it.
Outside of the airport, we finally got a taxi after a 45-minute wait. The cabby was rude and smacked gum the entire ride. It was at that moment that I really wished I spoke Mandarin, and I don’t think Jason would have convincingly conveyed my message if I typed it into Google Translate. Still, he got us to the hotel.
Fortunately, Liz was able to text a picture of her jaw and situational info to Supermom. Her husband is a medical professional used to dealing with maladies while in the third world.
“My hubby said it’s probably an impacted salivary gland,” Supermom replied to Liz’s texts. “It will hurt, but you will be okay. Just get to a doctor when you get back to the States.”
After the quickest five hours of sleep in our lives, we boarded the hotel shuttle for the airport. This time security was a breeze. We knocked back a quick breakfast and chugged coffee to stay awake until boarding time. One last picture was taken with Jason and his Chinese passport.
His last day of Chinese citizenship.
My boy seemed a little more at ease boarding the plane for home. When we got on the plane, Liz immediately went to sleep, only waking up to take more anti-inflammatories. Jason and I could not sleep, so we each caught up on movies.
When we walked off the plane and into customs, I poked Jason’s chest.
“You’re an American now,” I said.
He just shrugged his shoulders, tired. We all were.
And we all got to deal with American Customs and Immigration staff while tired. We declared all we had to declare, mainly that we brought a kid back with us. They were kind enough to usher us to the front of the line where they took Jason’s passport and gave him a very “official” document, a single sheet of paper that looked like it rolled off a 1980s printer.
“This will suffice until he gets his social security card in the mail. Should be about six weeks. Next!”
We caught a flight into Charlotte, where we would have to wait for our final hop. They had a nice little restaurant there, so we decided to have a snack and wait for our last flight. This was a mistake. Almost immediately after we sat down, the king of all band nerds arrived. In an already noisy airport restaurant, he turned on a speaker system and pulled out a saxophone. He then proceeded to play the crappiest hits of the 1980s and 90s. “Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls" and "Don’t Stop Believing” were dragged out and beaten to death, all with insanely long saxophone solos.
Jason, in a very Chinese manner, pointed and laughed.
Several groups heckled Band Nerd.
“Hey man, I really liked that part,” a guy in a ball cap said. “You know, the part where you stopped playing. It was great!”
Our waitress was even in on it.
“I hate it when this guy is here,” she said, bringing our food. “It’s loud and BAD, but he’s married to one of the managers.”
We stuffed down food as quickly as possible and left. Fortunately, our flight was on time. The 30-minute hop home was a nice change from the 13-hour Beijing-to-Chicago flight.
Jason was assaulted by his little brothers when he walked into the baggage claim area. Two little ones bear hugged big brother, chattering away at him, refusing to let him go.
Levi: “I’m so glad you’re here, Jason. I prayed every night that you’d get here safe and quick and fast!”
Eli: “Oh good, you’re here now. You can even meet and play with my new pet lizard.”
Levi: “This is our Nana. You will like her. Say ‘Nana’. She’s nice, you’ll see.”
Eli: “I’m so glad you’re home. You’re gonna have to sleep in my room on the trundle bed until Nana and Granddad leave.”
Jason clung to his brothers, not understanding much of the torrential chatter.
“Am happy,” he said, smiling at each of them.
Then Nana jumped in. My mother, who was subjected to two weeks with her wild grandsons, still seemed excited to see yet another grandson. What a sweet lady. After two straight weeks with those two yahoos, most would have questioned our sanity in acquiring another boy.
Nana calmly, sweetly introduced herself to Jason and gave him a hug. I know that this was a show of incredible restraint, that she was allowing Jason to warm up to her on his own time. In reality, I knew she would like nothing better than to wrap the kid up, snuggle and kiss him.
“Good to meet you, Nana,” Jason said, exercising his English.
Nana was impressed. She could already tell that Jason was a keeper.
Next came Granddad, a six-foot-three-inch good old boy replete with cowboy boots and hat, striding through the doors.
“Alright y’all, I been watching the cars as we’re parked in a pick-up only zone and … well hello there Jason, good to have you, grandson,” he said, wrapping Jason up in a huge hug. “It shore is good to have you home. I’m Granddad. Can you say ‘Granddad’?”
“Hello, Granddad,” Jason replied with wide eyes, taken back by the whirlwind greeting of the giant Texan.
“Okay, kids, I have to get back to the cars. Don’t want to get towed.”
We slowed Granddad’s role just enough to ask him to take Ms. Liz to the emergency room for some antibiotics. Nana and I could handle getting the kids in bed. While I understood that my mom and dad were perfectly capable of putting the kids to bed, I wanted an adult Jason knew to go with him his first night back in America.
“I’ll do it. I’ll do it for shore,” Granddad said. “Come on, girl, let’s get you to a doctor.”
Nana and I caught up while we waited for our luggage to make it to the conveyor belt. The boys bounced around like rabid monkeys. They were all excited to see each other. Miracle of miracles, all our luggage made it. Having a seemingly unlimited supply of little man power, the boys got to drag the roller bags to the car. I had already toted that junk all over China.
Nana and I took the boys home. Granddad took Ms. Liz to get her face fixed. It was an impacted salivary gland, as suspected, not some mystery Chinese disease requiring quarantine. Just some antibiotics. That’s all.
Over the next couple of days, Jason got to spend quality time with his grandparents, his first time ever meeting them. He quickly came to understand what his two little brothers have known for a long time: Nana and Granddad are WAY more fun than parents. Granddad only has two rules. Don’t hurt yourself and have good manners. Easy.
Family time was amazing. We fished, shot B.B. guns, grilled and laughed. We laughed a lot. Watching my Dad explain things to Jason in elaborate gestures was my favorite. Big hand gestures. Super animated … hmmm, so that’s where I get my uncanny ability of communication which surpasses all linguistic barriers.
That night, Levi said his bedtime prayers:
“Dear Jesus, thank you for Nana and Granddad being here. I’m sad that they have to leave tomorrow, but I am glad that they were here to be with us. Please bring Jason home to us fast, and safely, and quickly …”
“Jason is home,” Liz interrupted little man. “What else would you like to tell Jesus?"
“Oh, and dear Jesus thank you for getting Jason home to us fast, and safely and quickly. Amen.”
And that’s it. Just a little after we sent Jason back to China after hosting him for a month, we got our forever son back. He got his forever family. He’s stuck with us. Two spastic little brothers. Redneck father. Bird dogs. And one saintly mother.
God bless you all for taking this trip with us. Were it not for the help and encouragement of family and friends, Jason’s adoption would not have been possible.
THE END … or is it???