This is the second part of a story. Before reading this post, be sure to read the Dec. 16 post entitled “Beginnings.”
As if that weren’t enough, I received an unusual call in late April… a person from the adoption agency with whom we’d signed up to go to China called me, presumably to talk about the trip. Except they didn’t at all. They told me they wanted to open an office in Texas and that they’d like for me to manage it. I was a 23-year-old office assistant/caseworker at a small adoption agency, and a fairly large one called me out of the blue to offer me the “Managing Director” position at a brand new branch. It was a huge step. After praying about it, we decided it was a good opportunity, providing me with professional growth and lots of new challenges. But, they wanted me to start in June. So, now we add career change to my hectic summer. By May, I was overwhelmed. Picking invitations, selecting music, finding a reception site — all the while trying to wind down an old job and prepare for a new one. It was a lot to handle. I had very little time to think about or prepare for China. To be honest, I don’t remember doing any sort of trip-preparation at all… even though I knew in the back of my mind what a monumental trip it would be.
So, on July 24, we expectantly packed our bags. Bright and early on the 25th, we flew to Chicago, where we met our team, and on to Beijing. The flight to China was one of the first times that Jacob and I had to discuss what we were about to do. And, all I really remember of that conversation was thinking that whatever it was we were going to do (we really had no idea what it would be), it was going to be life-changing. Maybe it was because we are both fairly introspective, and this trip happened a little over 1 month before we were to be married, but from the moment our plane took off, our conversations turned towards, “What kind of couple do we want to be.”
I’m not sure if that makes sense, but to some degree, life is what you make it, and if you aren’t intentional about who you want to be, you’ll just be who you are. Not that it’s a bad thing or that you’ll be a bad person, it’s just that it is easy to fall into a daily routine and wake up in 10 years wondering, “How did I get here?!” We both knew we wanted our marriage to be about something, and we knew it would take work to make that a reality. It wasn’t until later when a friend of mine explained a Catholic perspective on marriage to me, and though we aren’t Catholic, it made a lot of sense to us; it seemed to match what we were trying to do. She said that the Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament, along with communion, baptism, etc. My memory of what she said that means (forgive me if I botch this) is that in some ways, your marriage is a sacrifice. It is an intentional coming together of two people for something greater than themselves… it is a ministry. For some couples, that might be to the youth down the street. For others, it might be to a refugee family. As we flew on that plane to China, we wondered if for us it would be orphans.
We landed in the late afternoon, and we were met at the airport by someone who I’ve talked about on this blog before and has become a best friend… Alison. She took us to our hotel and out to eat. At the time, we were overwhelmed. The city seemed so crowded and undeveloped; the restaurant so questionable. It was sensory overload. It’s funny, because we drive by the same hotel and area of Beijing quite frequently now, and it is beautiful, clean, and modern. I think it has been updated some (like much of Beijing — facelift for the Olympics!), but my eyes have changed too…
Anyway, the next morning we loaded on a bus for a 10-hour bus ride to Henan. Seeing the sites of rural China was simply surreal and unreal. I felt completely disoriented, like I was upside down. To be honest, I was fascinated, but at this point, I didn’t particularly like it. We pulled into our city quite late at night, and it was pouring rain. The orphanage staff who met us wanted us to eat dinner — the last thing that a bunch of jet-lagged foreigners wanted to do on their first night in China. I had no appetite, and the “banquet” foods (read: unique/special/unusual) they served to us as a welcome just didn’t go down that easily. We made it through the meal, fumbling with our chopsticks, until they finally deemed it acceptable for us to retire. They drove us to the outskirts of town, and we pulled up to the orphanage. We were to stay in the building adjacent to the orphanage which was a retirement home of sorts. The rain was pouring. It was so dark. I was so tired. And when we walked into our rooms, still steaming hot from the heat of the day with one small flickering light-bulb, we were simply overwhelmed. I remember quietly unpacking my bag and telling myself, “You can do this, Carrie. It is only 2 weeks.”
The next morning, everyone woke early from the jetlag. Jacob and I met up and had a quiet conversation overlooking the field behind our building. The old people were growing melons down below us, while across from us the sun was just rising over a farmer working his field by hand, and the horizon was hazy. Everything was different — it even smelled different. We could hear the sounds of the orphanage as it stirred to life… crying babies, scampering children… all of a sudden it hit me. I’m in China. The big question of whether I wanted ecru or cream napkins for the wedding couldn’t be further away. It hit me, “I’m not that great with children!” It terrified me. But, I couldn’t exactly escape at this point. Jacob was just as overwhelmed, but after an interesting breakfast of cucumbers and bread, we plodded down the stairs and waited with our group to go into the orphanage.
I think it was the smell that hit me first. It was summer, and it gets hot early in Henan province; really it never cools off. I never really knew how many children were in the orphanage — well over 150, though — and that many kids have lots of accidents. Lots of accidents + lots of heat + very few staff to clean up = overwhelming smell. The staff memeber giving us a tour took us upstairs to the toddler play room. I was used to shy toddlers… you know, the ones who hide behind their mom’s leg when they meet a new person? These kids weren’t like that. They needed attention, and they needed it now. At first all I saw was dirty faces, dirty bottoms (due to split pants), uncorrected birth defects, and horrible smells. As we were swarmed by children, Jacob and I were separated by a few feet. After a moment I looked up and found his eyes. His face might as well have been a mirror of my own. A look of terror and an intense desire to leave; to get away from it all and to talk about what color of towels we should choose for our registry. (Well, maybe he wouldn’t want to talk about that, but I did.) We had leaped before we looked, and it was turning out to be terribly uncomfortable.
Remember the WTHDWJD moment I mentioned? Well, it happened right then for both of us.
What The Heck Did We Just Do.