Sunday, March 13, 2005

Going to China: Lessons Learned--Advice for New Adoptive Parents

I've been meaning to write this post for a while and I need to do it now before I forget. We learned a lot on our trip to China, much of which wasn't provided by anything we had read or heard before we left, and some of which is at variance with what we were told. So herewith, what we learned and what we think new parents going to China should know.

The following items are in more or less random order:

- They have ATM machines in China, at least in big cities. In Beijing and in Guangzhou we had little trouble finding ATM machines that would work with our ATM card. At the White Swan there's a machine right in the first-floor lobby. In downtown Beijing there were lots of ATMs (e.g., in Bank of China branches). The main challenge was that some machines had no option for English menus (in particular, the one on the *outside* wall of the White Swan). But even in that case the guard was able to help us figure out which buttons to push. The ability to use ATMs mean you don't need to carry as much cash into the country. ATMs usually give you the best exchange rate so it's to your advantage to use them when you can.

We didn't have to go to any smaller provincial city so I can't say if you'll find ATMs there--probably you shouldn't expect to find them, but you might be surprised.

For comparison, we did was we were told and took $5000.00 in uncirculated $100.00 bills. We used 3000 of that for the orphanage donatation and less than 1000 for various expenses that needed to be paid in U.S. dollars, including tips and fees for our guides (and remember we where there for an extra week, paying for a guide out of our own pocket for the first 6 days or so). I came back with over $1000.00 in cash, partly because I sold some yuan to our traveling companions and partly because by using the ATM I only had to actually change money a couple of times.

Anyone who tells you there are no ATMs in China is simply not with the times.

- Buy *all* your basic baby feeding equipment in China, with one key exception (see below). We found that the American bottles and nipples simply weren't going to work because the babies tend to expect a very thick mixture of formula and rice cerial and are used to a fast flow nipple. We could find everything we needed at the 7-11 across the street from the White Swan or down at the Community Store a couple of blocks away from the White Swan.

- Exception to the above: find and buy at least two (2) of the divided formula containers. These are little round containers divided into thirds with a lid with a round opening that rotates over any one of the three divisions. You then use this to put formula or rice cereal into a bottle. It makes making a bottle a snap and we didn't ever see anything like it in any store we went to in Guangzhou.

You need two so that you have one for rice cereal and one for formula. Your baby will almost certainly be used to a more or less equal mix of formula and rice cereal. A normal 250ml bottle will require one division (from the container) of each, so you need two.

Your room in the White Swan has limited convenience space for making bottles, so anything you can do to limit mess and clutter will be to your advantage.

- How to make up a bottle

On the day after gotcha day they brought in some of the caregivers from one of the orphanages and they showed us how to mix up the formula but they didn't really help us with the minute details of making up a bottle, which turns out to be more challenging than you might think.

Here's the process we've finally arrived at, after much trial and error:

1. Have at least 200ml of chilled bottled water availabe (i.e., put a bottle in your minibar fridge). At the White Swan you get two free bottles of water each day, but you can buy it freaky cheap at the Community Store down the street from the hotel and you will definitely need more than you get each day for free.

2. Boil water in your hot pot (there will be one in your hotel room)

3. Fill a 250ml bottle about 1/3 full with boiling water

4. Using your divided containers, first put in one division of rice cereal (between 5 and 7 of the little scoops that come in your bag of formula). Put in the rice cereal first because the steam from the hot water will not clog it up and you can then pour in the formula with less effort and mess.

5. Using your divided container, put in one division of formula.

6. Cap the bottle tightly and shake the bejebus out of it (careful, it's really hot)

7. If you need a bottle right now fill the bottle the rest of the way with chilled bottled water, cap it, and shake it. It should be at an acceptable temperature. If you need a bottle for later, fill with room-temp water or water from the hot pot. If your bottle is too hot the little ice buckets make a good chilling container. They also make good warming containers if you need to warm up a cold bottle.

- Take a baby sling. Buy one in the states and get somebody to show you how to use it before you leave. You should be able to find an "Attached Parents" group in your town that will be all too eager to show you how to carry your baby. Baby slings are great for fostering attachment. If your baby is a clingy baby it will save your arms. If your baby doesn't like to be held they may be more willing to be carried in or sleep in the sling. If mom and dad are not close to the same size you might consider taking two slings so you don't have to adjust them to switch baby from one parent to the other (once you get a sling adjusted it shouldn't require much change). The only sling we saw in China is a very light-weight sling, which works OK but didn't look quite as good as the heavier slings typically used in the states. You can find slings at Baby's-R-Us. There's also a woman here in Austin that makes nice (but pricey) slings: We just bought one of these slings and it's really nice. We went to China with a Nojo sling, which is pretty nice but we've since learned is limited in how small it will go, so if you're a small person with a small baby the Nojo sling might be too big.

- Don't take a stroller with you. If you decide you need a stroller in China there is no shortage of strollers, either free loaners from the various laundry services around the White Swan or very cheap from any number of stores. But if you have a sling and your baby's willing to be carried, you don't really need a stroller at all, so why bother with it?

- Get a backpack-style diaper bag. We found a very nice one with an integrated changing pad. Much easier to carry than the bigger duffel style and it encourages you not to load it up with too much stuff.

- Don't worry too much about toys. If our experience is typical, balls of crinkly paper and similar things will be as engaging as anything you can buy. We did find some nice little toys at the Community Store if you feel compelled to get something manufactured for your bundle of joy to play with.

- Do take a supply of cheerios, such as the little single-serving boxes, or bulk O's repacked into the ziplocks. While they had cheerios at the breakfast buffet at the White Swan, we couldn't find them at the stores in Beijing and you do not want to be without Cheerio's.

- Don't overload yourself with wipes. I think we went through two of the travel packs of huggies wipes (the packs that are about 2in thick and have about 40 wipes). And of course you can find wipes there no problem.

- Expect to have to do some trial and error to find the right diaper size. At least with Dada, the age/weight guides were pretty useless. We bought a couple of different sizes and tried them until we found something we liked. Remember you can get diapers on short notice from the 7-11 (if you're going to a province it's probably wise to take a couple of small diaper packs in a range of sizes just in case).

- Don't hesitate to use the clinic in the White Swan. The personnel are very capable and very nice and will help you out. Their methods may be a little unconventional to our eyes but they seem to know what they're doing.

- In Guangzhou, Lucy's Bar and Grill will be your anchor when you want a relaxed, more or less familiar meal. However, the Golden Bowl restaurant is really good food just a block from the White Swan and will be much less expensive than anything inside the hotel, and at least as good. Everything we had there was excellent and the service is good. You can also get take-out.

- If you can, do what my mother did and get a menu from a State-side Chinese restaraunt that has both English and Chinese. This can act as invaluable menu translator when you can't make sense of even their English menus. We used this on several occasions to order things we were familiar with from home but had no idea what they might be called. Judy got hers from a take-out place in San Francisco's Chinatown, but a menu from any good Cantonese-style restaurant should work (and most American Chinese food places are Cantonese, or at least run by people of Cantonese descent).

- When shopping around the White Swan, we found that Jordan's two stores were excellent--he stocks good quality stuff and prices it fairly so you don't need to haggle. We had done enough shopping by the time we got there that I can attest to the fairness of his prices. For example, he had a kite priced at 45 yuan that I had bought in Beijing for 80 after much negotiation (doh!). There are many stores around the White Swan with lots of very cute stuff for baby and even the inflated prices are cheap by our standards, but do shop around a little bit.

- Don't hesitate to expore beyond the White Swan--you can walk along the river or venture out into the market streets on the other side of the river. It's as safe as any place can be and very interesting. The people are friendly and welcoming and you will marvel at what you find.

- The boxed DVDs at the electronics market appear to be legit--I bought a copy of Mulan on DVD for $2.00 (16 yuan) and if it's pirated it's a darn convincing copy. I was afraid it would be Chinese-only but it came up with English menus when I popped in in the old DVD player. The DVDs that are packaged in little sleeves I can't vouch for--they felt a little dicey to me, but I don't really know. These were bought from shops, not from some dude on the street, so they're probably OK.

- Electronics are not significantly cheaper there and you will have to deal with issues like voltage and plug compatibility. If you think you'll need something like a portable DVD player or camera, probably best to buy it stateside and take it with.

- We packed a little voltage regulator kit and never needed it even though we had tons of electronics with us. Most modern power supplies are dual voltage (look on it for something to effect of "110v/220v").

- We packed a bunch of Chinese plug adapters (the kind that look like American plugs with the metal prongs rotated to form a "V" shape) and never needed them. We found that the outlets in our rooms either accepted North American plugs, British-style plugs (the big ones with three really heavy prongs), or European plugs (the kind with two round prongs). Therefore, either take a couple of universal plug adapters that will go from anything to anything or take at least one American-to-British and one American-to-European adapter.

- I was able to find a power strip for cheap that accepted American plugs. This worked well. I didn't bother to pack it home.

- Expect to buy an extra suitcase to come home with. There's a place right by the White Swan (I think it's Sherry's place) where you can buy bags for less than 15 dollars. The going rate seems to be between 80 and 120 yuan for a good-sized rolling bag. These are bags that are probably good for one trip home but they should make it home. Sherry also had luggage tags, which we ended up needing.

- If your child is from Guangdong and therefore you are only going to Guangzhou and not a provincial town, the in-China luggage restriction doesn't apply, so you can plan to check two or maybe even three bags from Beijing to Guangzhou if you need to.

- Take at least a couple of days at the front of your trip to sight see in Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong. It will help you get over jet lag and let you see some wonders of the world with a bit more leisure. While the Beijing tour that GWCA arranges is good, and not quite as taxing as I expected, still it's one day to see some key things, punctuated by a stop in a friendship store for lunch, which is pretty disappointing. Take some time to see things more as a local would. Arrange a guide and, if necessary, a driver. It may cost you as much as $150.00 a day, but it's money well spent.

- Haggle hard with most sellers, especially people selling you stuff on the street or at tourist sites. The typical guideline is that you should be able to get a price close to 1/3 of the original asking price. For example, I was able to buy 2008 olympics hats for 5 yuan, although the asking price was 20 or more. In shops and at stalls, you'll usually have to walk away in order to get the best price. This takes a lot of energy so don't be too hard on yourself if you pay a bit more just to avoid the hassle of walking away.

- In Guangzhou, the big jewelry and pearl market is amazing. If you have time, plan to spend several hours there just to walk around and take it all in. We bought some pearls and were really happy--we found really pretty pearls for not much money. Even the high-dollar Tahitian black perls where still a very good price. Remember to haggle. I was able to get about 40% off the initial price, which seemed like a good price to me. If you plan to buy pearls or jewels and, like us, you're not that experienced in this area, it might be good to go to a stateside jewelry store or department store to see what prices are like and get an idea of what different qualities of stones look like.

- If you are into beading or jewelry making, you can find no end of amazing jade items at the antique market in Guangzhou (from the Pearl market, cross the main street and keep going about a block or so until you get to the obvious street lined with people selling small carved jade items). You can buy individual items or big bags of things.

- If you can, take relatives with you, ideally relatives with some childcare experience.

- On our return from China we had planned to do it all in one marathon go. As it happened we ended up doing it over three days, spending a night in Beijing and then in San Francisco. In retrospect we think that this staged return was the best thing to do. It took more time and was a bit more expensive (because we had to pay for a night in a hotel in Beijing--the Sino-Swiss Beijing Airport is about $90.00/night) but we felt much less wrecked when we finally got home. I think it helped stress Dada less too, since she didn't have to spend 25 straight hours in people's arms and on airplanes. This probably works best if you can stay with family or friends in your U.S. arrival city, but even just staying in an airport hotel in Chicago or San Fran or Minneapolis is probably not too bad.

- Learning to count in Chinese is actually pretty easy, compared with most European languages, and it really helps when shopping and bargaining if you can talk numbers in Mandarin. In Mandarin, all you have to know are the words for the digits zero to 10 and the words for "hundred" and "thousand". All numbers are a combination of these words. For example, "12" is literally "ten two", 22 is "two ten two", and so on. Except for the word for five (wu3), you don't really have to worry about tone issues. The only irregular aspect is that there are two ways to say "two": the number two ("er") and the word "liang", which is roughly equivalent to "a couple" in English. You normally use "liang" when you want to say something like "I want two of that thing" ("liang ge") and "er" when you are enumerating things ("yi", "er", "san"). However, if you say "er ge" ("two of") you will be understood. The word "ge" is the generic "counting word" and you use it to talk about numbers of things. For example, to say "I want three" you would say "san ge" or you might hear "yi ge" (ee guh), meaning "one of". Finally, the word for zero, "ling", is used primarily when saying large numbers. For example, 104 is "yi bai ling si" (ee by ling suh), meaning "one hundred zero [tens] four". All this information will be in any decent Mandarin phrase book.

And just to keep things confusing, there are two words for monetary units, "yuan", which is used when writing about money, and "kuai" which is used when speaking about money, plus a word that means "money" generally ("qian"). Therefore, the price "240 RMB" is written "er bai si shi yuan" but spoken "er bai si shi kuai". And the way to ask the price of something is "duo shou qian?" (do-oh sh+ow (as in "shower") chee-an) (literally "how much money?") not "duo shou yuan" or "duo shou kuai", although either of these will be understood.

We also learned that the polite way to decline an offer is to say "wo mai you qian" (whoa may yo chee-en), which translates literally as "I have no money". If you want to be really sophisticated you can say "wode yi ge hai zhi; wo mai you qian." (whoa duh ee guh high tzuh), which translates literally as "I have a child; I have no money".

For bargaining, the key phrase is "tai gui" (tie guh-wee), "too expensive". It's the appropriate response to an initial offer that is, invariably, too high. A typical exchange might be:

You: duo shou qian? [How much money?]

They: er bai wu [250]

You: (looking serious) tai gui, tai gui [Too expensive]

They: er bai san [230]

You: chi shi wu [75]

They: ha ha ha. yi bai ba [180]

You: yi bai [100]

They: yi bai wu [150]

You: yi bai

They: yi bai si [140]

You: yi bai

They: "ok ok" or they wave you off and indicate they won't sell at that price.

You walk away.

They: (running after you) ok ok

You: ok (money changes hands). xie xie [thank you]

- The White Swan and the Sino-Swiss both had in-room broadband Internet access (cable provided). Most of the time I wasn't asked to pay even though both hotels supposedly charge. But I just plugged my computer in and was on line. There's also some wireless access around but I didn't ever try to use it (the computer stayed in the room).

- If you are flying back through Beijing and have to handle your own check in, use the uniformed baggage porters--we did and they really helped. They will cost 10 yuan per cart and will be well worth it. And do not try to tip them. They do not expect tips and will get insulted if you try to tip them. They handled all the bags and made sure we got in the correct check-in line and stayed with us until we were all checked in an ready to head through security.

- When going through airport security checks in China they seem to be particularly concerned about liquids, so either limit the liquids you travel with or be prepared to have them opened and sniffed.

That's all I can think of at the moment, although I'm sure Julie will have more things to contribute.


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