A Christmas Journey

In the dawn at the beginning of the Chinese year of the monkey, a young girl, peering into the shadows, hurried through the cold winter air with a bundle clutched against her chest. She climbed up the stairs of a small temple in Beijing and edged around a pillar to spot a niche higher up near the door. The infant girl she had delivered the day before would be found there and placed in one of the numerous orphanages across the country. If the child had been a boy, her benefactor might have allowed her to keep him. But there would be no tears today. The little one, she had no name, could become one of the chosen few to travel across the ocean to that great land of promise. The mother, who was little more than a child herself, had wrapped the infant in warm rugs, then covered her for good luck, with a tattered Chinese flag that still flaunted the rich red hue of prosperity.
Eleven months later in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, an excited Penny Morton rechecked her lists for the trip to China. It had been months since the pictures of their new daughter, Shana, had arrived by e-mail from the adoption agency.
“Phil, did you double check with your brother to oversee the house and keep the snow cleared from the driveway?”
“Yes, Penny. It’s all taken care of. He has the keys and he’ll collect the mail. I put a stop on the newspaper deliveries too.”
“Mother called again last night. She’s still fussing over a Canadian name for our baby. Oh, that sounds so good. Our baby, Phil.”
Phil grinned at the light in his wife’s eyes. The year of checking and being checked up on by the agency had been well worthwhile. Planning and saving for the cost of the foreign adoption, which included long flights and hotel costs, had soared over twenty thousand dollars.
Phil sighed. “We told your mother we would use her Chinese name as a second name and give her a name to bridge both cultures. We’ll know what name fits when we see her.”
“Always Phil the philosopher. Your mother has lots of grandchildren but my mother only has my brother’s two boys, so she’s anxious. Oh, so am I, Phil. Mother is also very annoyed that we’ll be away for Christmas.”
“We can celebrate Christmas a few days later. Just think, Penny, we won’t be alone anymore on Christmas morning.” Phil, though quieter in nature, had his own misgivings about himself as a father figure. They weren’t middle aged yet but closer to forty than thirty. You had to be over thirty to qualify as adoptive parents. He frowned. What did he know about raising a little girl who would grow up to become a teenage girl? He smiled at the pictures he had enlarged and framed from the internet. The baby had such dark hair and eyes and she was smiling in a wistful way that always caused a lump in his throat when he gazed at the portraits.
“Okay, Phil.” Penny sighed. “I think I’m ready. I’ve put the pharmaceutical supplies they told us to bring in that red satchel. “Oh, I hope she likes us.”
Phil hugged her and laughed. “What’s not to like about us? We’ll be great parents.”
Landing in Beijing, they taxied to their hotel in the downtown district. They met with their group and the agency advisor at supper before they settled for an early night in the hope of adjusting to the time difference. Their group of sixteen couples had three days to sightsee with tour guides before the nannies brought the children to them.
They spent the first day climbing the more accessible entry and refurbished parts of The Great Wall. The Chinese people boasted that the wall was over six thousand kilometers in length. The steep, forested, mountain area caused Phil to breathe very quickly after climbing one of the higher sections. They mounted the steps to a guard tower to see the way the locals said that the wall snaked across the country. Looking around at the great vistas slowed his heart rate and cancelled Phil’s thoughts of this spot being one of the worst places for him to have a heart attack.
On the second day, they traveled by tour bus through the horrific traffic jams to visit The Forbidden City. Its red walled buildings impressed at first sight and Penny gaped at the carvings of just some of the steps. Through the entry gates and numerous other gates at each side, they winded around inner and outer courtyards with bridges crossing over the moat and high wall that surrounded the world’s largest palace complex. This one site would need more than a day to absorb the architectural and esthetic delights.
The third day was warmer so they toured the Summer Palace in the morning, returning to the Back Lakes district to dine and shop and to peruse the indoor markets on foot. Not wanting the worry of large items to transport home, they bought trinkets for souvenirs. They also picked out necklaces, bracelets and rings of pearl and different colors of jade. Penny purchased a few bright silk scarves for the grandmothers and aunts back at home.
Phil was looking at another stall with a jewelry display. “Apparently the jade stone stands for purity, perfection and immortality.”
The bartering and haggling combined with the language barrier had irritated Penny who now wanted the time to pass so she could just get to hold their baby. “The stones are probably fake or cheaper cuts Phil, but we’ve purchased enough mementoes.”
“You know, I read in one of the travel guides that you could nick a pearl to make sure the color was consistent throughout or grate it against your teeth for the sound effect.”
Penny glared at him. “You go right ahead and chew on those pearls, Phil, but I’ll pretend I’m not with you. Anyway, this place is way too crowded and I am tired. Oh, it seems to be taking so long for us to get our baby.”
They sat with their purchases at a kiosk to sample their individual choices of the different blends of Chinese teas and treats of steamed Chinese pastries. Penny sighed and sipped her hot jasmine brew but Phil screwed up his nose when he sampled his stronger oolong tea mixture. He should have taken that taste test they offered but had been too busy analyzing his surroundings. He figured tea was tea but not so in China. The stores catered to every taste of tea imaginable. He perched on his small chair, observed the people and asked numerous questions of their guide, Malina. Being a very tall man, he was stared at by the smaller Chinese. One group of Chinese people visiting the city stopped to question the group’s guide while looking and pointing at Phil.
“They would like me to take a picture of you with them, Mr. Morton. They want to be able to show the people back home in their village, the large tourist man from the West.”
Phil agreed and stood in the middle of the short people to further emphasize his height while they raised their arms up high beside him to show the difference.
The big day finally arrived. Some other members of their group flew south to the province of Jiangxi to wait there for their children.
They entered the hotel that afternoon and the prospective parents saw nannies waiting with the children. When their baby was placed in Penny’s arms the little one stretched sleepily.
Penny gazed down at her bundle through tears. “Oh, Phil, look how beautiful she is.”
The nanny told them, with the help of an interpreter that the baby had just been fed and explained the formula and times the child was used to.
When Phil gingerly accepted the baby from Penny, he held her up against his cheek and the child howled. Many of the other infants ranging from ten months to sixteen months had erupted in wailing noises as well.
Penny laughed. “She doesn’t like your beard, Phil. It irritates her.”
“If I shaved it would be worse. The stubble would scratch. You know how fast my beard grows.” Phil handed the baby back to Penny, who cuddled her and whispered her name, Shana, softly in her ear. The child stared woefully at Phil, then turned her face against Penny, hiccupped a few times and started sucking on her thumb.
The next few days were long and sleep was sporadic. They filled out forms and followed baby schedules while bonding with their new addition. For now, they registered her Chinese name, which included her area of birth, with the surname Morton.
On the day before Christmas, they had finalized all the legalities and were looking forward to flying out the next day. Due to the time difference, they would still arrive in Vancouver on Christmas day and then fly on to Toronto and Sudbury the following day.
“Let’s dress her up warm and take her for a stroll before supper, Penny.”
Penny had brought a miniature Santa Claus outfit over with her. She covered the baby’s thick pajama with the red flannel suit placing the cap with a white tassel on the top of her head. Outside the lobby, the guide pointed them in the direction that would be least dangerous in the traffic messes that prevailed. An old Chinese woman wrapped in shawls approached them. In the language Phil now recognized as Mandarin, the woman spoke to them in that rapid singsong style. She pointed at the baby while looking at the guide and then stared at Penny with the baby.
The guide listened to the old woman, then turned to the couple. “She says to tell you that red is the heart of China. You have dressed this infant in red to symbolize for her the good fortune that brings happiness, prosperity and fame.”
Penny beamed and nodded yes to the woman who shambled off down the street.
Waiting at the airport the next day, Penny held the sleepy baby. “I had thought that since it was Christmas, Phil, we might call her Holly, but she’s only eleven months old today. She’s not really a Christmas baby and the name, well holly berries are red, but it doesn’t suit her.”
Phil gazed over the turbulent land. It was so chaotic with the scores of people in constant motion. He thought he could hear the cries of all the mothers with empty arms, all the abandoned, little girl children. His questions had returned dissatisfactory answers. What he had understood was that only a small percentage of these children were adopted. Many of those thousands of little girls would die, some would stay institutionalized and the ones who survived would probably work in the rice fields or be out on the streets. He shook his head to chase away the depressing thoughts. “I’m sorry. What did you say to me, Penny?”
“I don’t care what my mother says, Phil. You can have the problem of another name for our daughter.” Penny rocked the little girl in her arms while she hummed bars of the Christmas carol, Silent Night. “To me she’ll always be Shana.”
Phil looked out again at the busy city, never static, disruptive, always changing. The Chinese were trying. They were focusing on the future, working on improvements. It was possible that they would succeed in a better standard of life for their people. He glanced down again at Penny and the little girl sucking on her thumb. The child gazed solemnly back up at him. Phil draped his arm around the two of them. “I know Penny. I would like to call our baby, Hope.”