Thursday, July 26, 2007


I've been thinking about this post for weeks without knowing exactly how it would begin. So many kind people have encouraged me to keep writing about our experiences bringing Henry An home to America that I wanted to make sure I told the real story of what we have been through so far.

I think the word that sums it up best is this: water. If there is one word that best describes Henry An and his relationship to the world it is water. He has a deep and endless love for water in all of its forms. It is ingrained so deeply into his personality it's a wonder he isn't actually a river or stream running and crashing through a deep forest somewhere. If he is nowhere to be found, he can usually be located at a water source: the bathroom sink, the wading pool in the back, a washtub filled with water also in the backyard, in the bathtub at any possible moment, at a little fountain running on the deck, gripping the hose, watering the plants with Mollia. He simply can't be in or around water enough. It is a true love but also a living thing that seems brings him peace during this time of transition.

And water is a word that accurately depicts our sense of being somewhat adrift in this new world where we have two children, one of whom speaks English, the other of whom speaks only a few words. We pretend that he has more language than he does, but ultimately we realize he doesn't. We are all dreaming of a common language, especially Henry An. It's so obvious that he longs to be understood, and so some of what we've been through has been difficult and painful. A four-year old who cannot make himself understood is easily frustrated and inconsolable. Together, we have had many trying moments, to be sure. But something about them is different than when Mollia and I alone struggled to soothe or console Greta when she was younger and when we were just guessing at what might be wrong. Now, we are a family, a loving group of individuals working together to find balance and harmony. So while the work is nothing less than full-time plus, it is a new kind of work that demands subtlety and intense observation and patience and lots of love. Mollia and I both get very tired at the end of the day and particularly at the end of the week, now that I am back to work. I continue to remind her that it won't always be like this. We won't always be a family struggling to simply communicate and work through conflicts in such a complicated way. Soon, we will be a family that shares a language that will color and deepen our daily rituals.

So, we have been trying different ways to bridge the gap. Nothing works quite well enough, I must say. Language is pretty much the only thing that substitutes for language. Everything else is simply one big misunderstanding. What is frightening, perhaps, is that since he can tell us next to nothing about how little we are understanding him, we don't even know yet how badly we are screwing up. So, you see what I mean about feeling lost at sea at times.

But then there are the moments of revelation, like when he started saying "Mama" to Mollia over and over, like he was just discovering the word and the meaning of it in any language for the first time. Now, he shouts it at the top of his lungs, "Mama!" like a declaration of his existence. And there are numerous other words he knows but is reluctant to try, because he is shy.

More than any of us, perhaps, Greta wishes for this barrier between her and her new brother to be torn down. Her dream of having a brother to play with feels incomplete when she is constantly gesturing or speaking to him in pidgin Vietnamese/English. Or maybe it isn't so incomplete, take a look at this shot:

They really are like true siblings most of the time, alternately conspiring against us and then squabbling over who had a toy first. I consider this to be a fairly crucial sorting out period where they are trying on different parts of this new relationship. Neither has been a brother or sister before, and now they have been thrown together without your typical infant introduction. It's clearly not easy for them, but I'm impressed at how determined each one seems to be to make this work. At some fundamental level, they seem to know that they have one another, that they belong to each other, and that is both reassuring and a little bit scary for them at times. Mollia and I have to remind one another to try to be patient with them during this process. It can be exasperating at times, but when you see pictures like this one:
You know it's all going to work out in the end.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

We Are Family

It's the beginning of week two since we returned from Vietnam. The first week was primarily devoted to recovering from the brutal jet lag that plagued us all. It's one thing for one person to be to be short on sleep and suffering for a few days. You take a few naps and that's pretty much all there is to it. It's something else entirely when a whole family, including two young children, one of whom is brand new to the family, not to mention this country (oh, and we only have a few words in common between us), are all sleep-deprived together. There were a couple of white-knuckle moments, I must admit. But two or three days after we returned, we could feel ourselves starting to be reconstituted and that gave us all some measure of hope and allowed us to be patient with one another. It was a couple of days after that, though, before I started to feel like myself again.

Henry An is doing well. In addition to being naturally funny, he is not easily intimidated. For example, he made friends with the pets right away. He was slightly nervous of our dog, Georgia, on the first day. However, on the second day, he went right up to her and started stroking her back and bent down to give her a kiss. He seems less certain about the cats, but he likes to chase them down and pet them. For a child who has had little to no contact with pets, he couldn't be doing much better.

Greta is already a solid big sister. It's been a challenging adjustment for her to have to share everything and everyone dear to her so suddenly with someone so close in age. I don't think I fully appreciated how this transition would test her. Still, Greta is constantly impressing me with her thoughtfulness. She makes him little things - sews him a small bag to wear around his neck, draws him a picture of an animal she knows he likes - and though she is frustrated with the language barrier, she continues to try to win him over. Sometimes the disappointment of losing our undivided attention overwhelms her and she loses her composure. But I'm very grateful to see her at least practicing the art of being gracious.

The two of them are also starting to gel into a partners-in-crime duo, which, though occasionally aggravating, is actually kind of heart-warming to see.

Each day we become more like the family we imagined we would become when we started this process. Our social worker had told us that in her experience referrals always closely matched the families they are referred to. At the time she said it, it souded like wishful thinking. However, Henry An's personality is so well-suited to our family, it's hard to imagine that he wasn't meant to be with us all along. Like the family who brought him home, he is a clown. I call him the man of a thousand faces, because he's constantly got a series of lively expressions lighting up his face. I sometimes wonder if his expressive face is compensation for the lack of language. His eyebrows, in particular, are constantly gesturing. They point to things that he wants and suggest activities that he suspects are off-limits. It's highly entertaining.

His English is starting to emerge, though, in moments that surprise us. He sings parts of "Happy Birthday" along with Greta. And he's been saying her name for a couple of weeks. He says "No!" to Georgia when she comes up to him at the table, emphasized by a wagging of his finger in her face. He loves airplanes and says the word for them excitedly when he sees them in the sky. We are all suffering somewhat from the lack of a common language between us, so it's encouraging to see that he is making progress. We feel bad that we don't know more Vietnamese, but it's clear that we cannot pronounce correctly the few words that we do know.

Eventually, this feeling of being a brand-new 4-person family will be replaced by the already palpable sense that we were always meant to be together. And that will be both a relief and a loss.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Leaving Vietnam

It's 3:30 in the afternoon, Seattle time, and the family has been napping for several hours now after our marathon travel day yesterday. Crossing the international date-line makes it seem so efficient, all of the pain and frustration of traveling is somehow worthwhile when you can cram it into a 24-hour period and then manage to have the day handed back to you when you arrive home. Of course, we're paying for it a little bit right now.

But it is good to be home, finally. Living in a hotel is no way for active 4 and 5 year-olds to live. They need a home and places to play, not constant reminders to behave in public by stressed-out parents overwhelmed by the details of traveling with children in a foreign country. One of my favorite memories from our trip was when we went out to dinner on our second to last night in Hanoi. Henry An was goofing off and cracking himself and us up (have I mentioned that he's got a very strong sense of humor?). Still, it was getting little out of control and other tourists at the restaurant were starting to glance over in our direction. When the waitress stopped by, Mollia asked her, in apparent seriousness, "Could you please tell him to keep his voice down in Vietnamese?" She wasn't able to get the question out completely before dissolving into laughter. We were all laughing. It was a moment that crystallized the total challenge of our circumstances: there we were, the new parents of a fun-loving 4 year old boy in a sit-down restaurant, unable to even give our child a reminder to behave appropriately in words he could understand. Not to mention that this boy, until he met us only a little more than a week earlier, was hardly accustomed to going out to dinner, let alone knowing what his behavior should be like in this brand new setting. Given his lack of experience, I would say he did pretty darn well.

But as much as it is a relief to be home, finally, it also feels rather sudden too. It's jarring to return to this country from someplace so far away, from a country so different in culture and so needy for things we almost never imagine we might lack. It's beyond a cliche to say that in this country we take what we have for granted, but it is true nevertheless.

It was poignant for me when we flew out of Ho Chi Minh City bound for Taipei. Henry An had the window seat next to me and was looking down at the rapidly receding landscape. I realized that what his four-year old eyes were witnessing were the final moments of his first few years of growing up in Vietnam. I wondered how much he would remember of them and how much he might remember of our trip when we came to get him. And then it occurred to me, for the first time in a real way, how many more opportunities for growing and becoming the person he truly is he would have in America. As much as I came to adore Vietnam during our trip, Henry An's situation of growing up in an orphanage, well cared for as he was, was the very definition of unfortunate. And for the first time since we started this process, I felt truly relieved that we were able to do something about that. While we are hardly well-off, just providing a home for him here in America puts him in a position to do so many things that never would have been possible had he remained in Vietnam. And while I'm very grateful that to be able do something that changes another person's life story so dramatically, I continue to feel like we are the lucky ones for being able to have such a lovely, spirited, and funny boy come into our family. He is the one that is dramatically changing us and for the better. He's added a big, fat chapter to our family story, and I'm so excited to get a chance to read it.

More pictures added today. Click on link for "Our Pictures" above.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

We're Coming to America -- Today!

My apologies in advance for the Neil Diamond reference, but that song got stuck in my head as I tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep this morning. I still haven't quite licked the jet lag I arrived with. It's a fitting song for a our situation, I suppose, but probably a bit too Vegas, which is, unfortunately, why I like it so much. I'll need to keep this short before my insecure wireless connection kicks me off the net again.

By some miracle, Mollia was able to get us on a flight back home today. The flights on EVA Air are incredibly booked this time of year, and we were told to not even hope to get a flight before our scheduled departure date on Sunday. But Mollia was having none of that, so we're on our way home. Or will be soon.

We're waking up today in Ho Chi Minh City after an evening flight from Hanoi. We're in the same exact hotel room we stayed in last week. It was fun to bring Henry An back to the room where we first brought him from Tam Binh. He's doing very well and showing more and more personality each day. He is quite a character, as you will all soon learn. I couldn't have imagined a more perfect son for our family. We feel incredibly lucky to have him.

Okay, I said I would keep this short. Check back in a few days to see new pictures and maybe a movie or two. See you all state-side.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Visa "Interview" A Success

The purpose of our trip to Hanoi was to apply for An's American visa at the U.S. Embassy. The process involves a $380.00 fee and an interview. I was a little bit concerned about the interview, since we were asked to complete several confusing federal forms and to also bring copies of our tax returns. This was our last hurdle in being able to bring our son home. So far, the process had been very smooth and I was hoping our good luck would not run out on us. I was assuming that the Embassy would be a stately and impressive building. But it really looked like a nice office building with beefed up security. Once we were in the waiting area, we paid the fee and were told to wait for our names to be called. When we were called, the clerk behind the glass went over a few of the forms we had already submitted and asked me sign them. Then, he told us our visa would be ready by tomorrow at 4:00 pm, provided there were no Vietnamese power-grid failures. That was it. A two-hour flight for a less than 5 minute exchange with a clerk behind bullet-proof glass. I would have been outraged if I weren't so relieved that it had been so painless and that the completion of this step meant we could go home.

We are currently trying to book a flight out before our scheduled departure date on Sunday. Our agency is preparing us to not get our hopes up too high, as our airline tends to have very full flights going back to Seattle. If we can't leave before Sunday, we'll make the best of it and do some sightseeing.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Little Bit About Henry

Henry, our agency representative in Vietnam, keeps joking about there being a resemblance between An and me. Built like a pugilist, with the physical confidence and fighting spirit to match, and possessed of an irrepressible sense of humor, Henry is not exactly who you would expect to meet when in country to complete an international adoption. But he is exactly what one needs. He is utterly effective in the face of the Vietnamese bureaucracy, which is frozen in a lost Soviet-era time. When we went to pick up An's Vietnamese passport a few days ago, the clock over the desk was actually stopped at 10:35. Given the stale inefficiency that hung in the air, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been that way for days, weeks, or even years. But Henry is an equal and opposite force, making things happen wherever he goes. The man was born with the gift of gab and a preternatural ability to network and relate. I keep wondering how he ended up in this kind of charity work. It's much easier to imagine him managing prize fighters at a gym or running a car dealership.

The clerks behind the desks noticeably smile and become more animated when Henry arrives. One of the clerks took a look at An's passport photo and then looked across the desk at me and remarked to Henry in what I took to be some wry Vietnamese comment (that Henry later explained) that there seemed be some resemblance between An and me. Henry started laughing and asked me if I was sure this was my first visit to Vietnam. They both chuckled heartily at this and clerk cheerfully moved my paperwork to the head of the line.

It's his heart, of course, that drives him to work the systems to help these children find loving homes. He's devoted to all of them and we've been very grateful to have him by our side during our trip.

New Pictures

I added some new pictures to our web album today. Our hotel in Hanoi, The Lucky Star, is less than half the size of the hotel we stayed in in Ho Chi Minh City. But it's got much faster and more reliable wireless service. More updates to come.