When the Dan and Patty Paolini family traveled to Hefei, China last year to adopt their three-year-old daughter Marissa, there was never any question that daughter Kelsey, one month shy of four years old, would travel with them. “We are what you might call activists for allowing parents to take existing children with them on adoption trips,” says Dan. “We don’t believe that all parents should have to take their children, just that they should be allowed to if they choose. Adoption is about uniting a family. If it’s appropriate for existing children to travel, they should be able to go.”
Initially, Kim Breuer had planned on making her January 1996 adoption trip to China alone. Her husband Glynn is an officer in the US Air Force and could not go. “I just accepted it as a matter of course that, yes, I would go alone. And I didn’t mind,” Kim says. “Then someone at our agency suggested that I might want to think about bringing someone along for support and to help. I’m glad they did. My husband and I thought it would be a good idea to bring our then almost-12-year-old son Stephen and what a wonderful idea! Not only was he a terrific support mechanism for me and helped with Emilee, but I was glad to have the time to spend alone with him for two days in Hong Kong prior to entering China.”
When Terri Eaton and her husband Daniel were planning their adoption trip to Yugoslavia to adopt their four-year-old-daughter Teodora last December, they had initially planned on not taking their six-year-old son Kevin due to the expense. “Later we decided that the expense was worth it for several reasons,” says Terri. “Kevin’s idea of an orphanage was Mrs. Hannagan’s on ‘Annie.’ We felt that he would adjust better being a part of the process, rather than for us to leave him for two weeks and come home with another child. We felt that he’d help our new daughter see what appropriate family behavior is. We felt that since his relationship with his sister will probably be the longest relationship he has to anyone in his life, it would be important for them to be together from the beginning. And finally, he needed exposure to other cultures.”
When John George and Selma Sweben traveled to China to adopt their infant daughter Hannah, they planned for their four-year-old son Sebastian to come along from the beginning. “We considered it a family affair. We wanted him to experience the adoption and see where she was from,” says Selma. “At first our agency was very hesitant, but they were quickly won over during the trip. We felt confident that Sebastian would be fine because he had a lot of experience traveling internationally, he adapts very easily to new situations, and is self-confident and flexible.”
The Paolinis involved Kelsey in the adoption process from the very beginning. “We taught her that China was on the other side of the globe, that it was day there when it was night here (and vice-versa), and that she had a sister there she had never seen,” says Dan. “We described, in as much detail as we could, everything that we expected to happen on the trip. This included the differences in the language, food, customs and appearance. We also coached her that many people would be interested in her, and that we might run into beggars and homeless people who would come up to us and ask for money. This was all very helpful.”
The Paolinis prepared Kelsey for the long plane ride by “practicing” on long car trips. “We told Kelsey that the trip was a pretend airplane ride, so we couldn’t stop until we ‘landed.’ We wanted her to have an idea what ‘long’ meant,” says Dan. The Paolini family began measuring car rides in units of “Barneys” (a 30 minute tape), “Sesame Streets” (a 60 minute tape) and “Daniels” (a four hour drive). Daniel is Kelsey’s brother from Dan’s previous marriage. “We told her that China would be about four ‘Daniels.’”
The Breuers similarly prepared their son Stephen. “We read up on China a lot, watched movies, got as much information as we could. We also made it clear he was going to be in an airplane for 12 hours, so he chose toys and activities to take along to keep him occupied. We talked about what he would do if he started to get “edgy” from sitting so long. We had him learn a few simple Mandarin phrases, like ni hao and others, and encouraged him to use his knowledge, which went over really big with the Chinese!”
Because Stephen is school age and would be traveling during the school year, preplanning also included a visit to his school. “We had a visit with all of Stephen’s middle school teachers to explain to them what he would be doing and that we wanted all the school work that he’d be missing. Basically Stephen brought his “school” along with him.” Kim says they made it very clear to Stephen that he would be working on his missed school work while in China when he had the chance. The Breuers also approached his history teacher with the suggestion that Stephen be allowed a project based on the trip in lieu of missed work, which the teacher readily agreed to. “Stephen maintained a travel journal and received credit for 50% of the missed work in history class.”
Preplanning was a bit different for the Spino-Kurzer family, who adopted their daughter Katya at 13 months from Russia last June. “We had several failed adoptions earlier. This time, we didn’t spend much time preparing Ezra (almost 5 years old), out of fear that it would fall through again. It would be difficult to explain yet again what happened,” says Paulette.
Kelsey Paolini’s biggest responsibility during the adoption trip was to be patient and to understand that Marissa would need most of her parent’s attention. “We really stressed this, and with only a couple exceptions, whenever Kelsey would start to lose control, we reminded her of her responsibility and she was able to get control,” says Dan. Kelsey was also responsible for helping to watch her sister Marissa, and more importantly, she was responsible for teaching her sister how to do things like use the toilet and take medicine.
Stephen Breuer’s special responsibility was to see who he could be helpful to-in addition to his mom. “He did a lot of camcording and photographing for other families, helped some of the single moms when he could-anything that needed to be done. This was helpful to him too. It gave him a sense of satisfaction,” notes Kim. Kim also let Stephen exchange his own money and make his own purchases. “He loved it and was so proud! I let him buy whatever he wanted, even though I though it was kind of a so-so purchase. He bought some Chinese Leggos in Nanchang, but it’s what he wanted.”
Ezra Spino had a special responsibility when his sister Katya’s adoption was finalized in Russia. “At the registry, in city hall, we signed the adoption book,” says his mother Paulette Kruzer. “We asked the officials to prepare a sheet of paper so that Ezra could also ‘sign’ his name, promising to be a big brother. He did sign his name and we took pictures of him. Later, when he fully realizes the importance of adoption, he will have a picture of himself, a little pre-schooler, signing the Russian adoption book,” smiles Paulette.
Kevin Eaton’s responsibility was to bond with his sister Teodora. His mother Terri recalls the first time they met their new daughter. “She was instantly attracted to Kevin. He left the room for a moment and when she noticed, she picked up the toys we had brought and said, ‘My brother has left. I must go with my brother.’ When it was her nap time, she took him by the hand, led him down to her bed and tried to take off his shoes so he could nap with her.” According to his mom, Kevin was great and was a lot of help showing his new sister normal parent-child interaction. “I think his presence is one of the reasons she has adjusted so well.”
Of course, traveling to another country often means leaving behind the creature comforts of home and all that is familiar.
“Sita loved the food!” says Hertha Wong, who brought along her almost-two-year-old daughter when the family returned to China to adopt baby sister Xian. “Sita became an aficionado of soup. At every meal (except breakfast) she ate enormous quantities of soup-any and all kinds.” Hertha says that Sita also loved the White Swan Hotel breakfasts, as do most adoptive parents who have become tired of Chinese food three times a day. “Sita was used to Chinese food, although the Chinese food found in China is somewhat different than U.S. versions, even in our ‘Chinatowns.’”
Ezra Spino eats very little at home anyway, so his mother was not surprised by his eating habits on the trip. “At home, I make a big fuss about him eating vegetables and drinking milk before any candy or dessert. During the three weeks we were in Russia, I could not find many fresh vegetables and regular milk. I let him drink Fanta. He had ice cream for his daily calcium intake, and chocolate bars for snacks. He has fond memories of this trip because he remembers all the candy and ice cream!” laughs Paulette.
Kelsey Paolini has several food allergies, so her parents have always talked about what she can and cannot eat. “For the most part, while in China, Kelsey ate rice, Sprite, soy milk and bits and pieces of the various buffets. The breakfast buffets had more than enough choices to keep her content. The a la carte meals were more of a challenge, as something she liked yesterday became something she didn’t today-just like at home,” says Dan. The Paolini’s found that between Hefei, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, the hotels had more than enough choices to satisfy finicky eaters. “Anyway, even if they eat nothing but peanut butter-cheese crackers for two weeks, it’s not going to harm your child,” says Dan.
One of the things that stands out most in Kim Breuer’s mind about traveling with 12-year-old Stephen was how well her son was received by the Chinese people wherever he went. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Stephen was somewhat of a novelty to the Chinese people, who were extremely interested in him. Stephen’s “interesting” looks created many opportunities for him to interact with children his own age.
“One day, our agency’s representative arranged or us to go to the Nanchang Department Store, which Stephen particularly enjoyed. While we were waiting in the lobby for some of the other folks in our group, a group of boys about Stephen’s age spotted him from the next floor up-they were standing at the top of the escalator. They began pointing and talking excitedly and the next thing you know, all of them came DOWN the UP escalator and made a beeline for where Stephen was standing! They just stood there and looked at him. I told him to say something. He tried ni hao and they really got a kick out of that! A couple of them knew a tiny bit of English and they tried so hard to talk to him. When it was time to leave, he waved and they waved back and were all smiles.”
Kim encouraged Stephen to interact with as many Chinese children as he could. “What a success,” says Kim. “He was a bit standoffish at first, but once I got him to try and talk to them it was a real hit! In Guangzhou, he and the 10-year-old girl from our group went across the street from a sidewalk cafe where we were eating to play with some Chinese schoolchildren on a playground. They all had so much fun!”
According to Dan Paolini, once Kelsey met her sister, the potential for boredom went down significantly. The Paolini girls enjoyed walking around together through the hotel shops and local parks. The also liked swimming in the pool at the White Swan. “As for the boring times in hotel rooms, our secret was ... beach balls! We brought several inflatable ones. They took up no space, added no weight, and when used, could not damage anything. Put two children together with a beach ball and you have a party,” assures Dan.
Hertha Wong describes her two-year-old daughter Sita as a real trooper. “She loved the hotel room where she could experiment with every switch (for the lights, the t.v., the radio) and door (to drawers, bathroom, etc.),” recalls Hertha. Mom says that Sita had no problem with long waits in offices, on buses, in hotel rooms, or in airports-that is until the Wong family had a six-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way back home. “That was at the end of our trip and for the first time in two weeks of erratic running around, she fussed, cried and was basically miserable,” says Hertha.
Stephen Breuer has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but according to his mom, this was not a problem on the trip. “There were a couple times that he started to get what we call ‘antsy’ - I noticed it when he was hungry,” says Kim. “Other than taking his medication as he was supposed to, I always made sure he had a snack if we were going to be away from the hotel room for any length of time.” Kim says Stephen handled the waits surprisingly well. “Being ADD, I thought that may be a problem, but everything was so fascinating for him. Also, there was a single mom and her 10-year-old daughter traveling to adopt a 6-1/2-year-old. Stephen liked to hang around with both of the girls. One time, he even went shopping with their family at the Guangzhou Department Store while I went with two other moms to the Jade/Pearl market.”
Kim suggests families taking an ADD child with them visit the child’s physician who treats them before traveling. “Stephen’s doctor didn’t feel that his being ADD was going to be a problem, he just had suggestions, like eating when hungry,” says Kim.
With any kind of family travel, unexpected problems are almost inevitable. The likelihood for such occurrences naturally increases with international adoption travel.
While in Hefei, Marissa Paolini came down with pneumonia and had to spend three days in the hospital. “This was very unexpected, but Kelsey handled it very well,” says Dan. On the first day, Dan and Patty took turns staying at the hospital with Marissa while the other parent stayed at the hotel with Kelsey. When they realized that Marissa only needed to be at the hospital for a few hours each morning for treatment, the Paolini’s convinced doctors to treat her on an out-patient basis. As a result, the family only needed to spend one long day in the hospital. “This made a significant difference for the remaining two days and should be considered by anyone in a similar situation if their child’s condition permits,” says Dan.
The greatest problems that the Spino-Kruzer family experienced centered around air travel. “We had the flight from hell going over,“ says Paulette. “We missed our connections from JFK, were put on a flight to Berlin, missed our connection to Moscow, and arrived nine hours late after taking a rickety Transearo flight. We also had a return flight from hell that led to a 16 hour delay.” When she made the family’s flight reservations, Paulette ordered a child’s meal for Ezra, but he never got it because they were put on the other flights. “The moral of the story is that you can plan and think of so much in advance, then see it all disappear in thin air,” cautions Paulette.
Paulette says Ezra handled it all in stride. “Our son is a great traveler. I’m sure it’s because he has traveled so much. By the age of four he had been to Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Israel. Plus we travel a lot cross-country. He loves to fly. He sits quietly and waits patiently for his kiddie meal because he knows what to expect.”
On the way back to the U.S., the Paolinis were caught up in the post-TWA 800 security enhancements when they left Los Angeles for their final leg home. “Although we were at the airport 90 minutes prior to our flight, as requested, we did not come close to making it on board,” Dan says. The family was bumped back to a flight that wouldn’t leave for another six hours, which meant they had to spend over five hours at the airport without the benefit of a lounge or children’s waiting area. “We survived the wait pretty well,” he says. In hindsight, Dan encourages parents to stay as focused on the last legs of the journey as they did on the trip over. “We almost checked some of the toys and activities for the last flight. Fortunately we didn’t, and were able to put them to good use in the airport food court.”
The Wong family used “divide and conquer” tactics for handling their two children during their trip. “Fortunately, between the two of us, my husband and I could each tend to one of the children,” says Hertha. “I made sure that I spent lots of time with Sita, so she wouldn’t feel displaced by her new sister. This allowed Rich to develop some deep bonding with our second daughter in those early days. Of course we spent a lot of time as a family, too.”
“Absolutely,” says Dan Paolini. “It was the best family experience we have ever had.” Dan says that having the two girls together in China was especially significant for newly adopted daughter Marissa. “I think this is important because one of the arguments for not taking children is that your new child will need all of your attention, and that taking an existing child would be unfair to the new child. I can say that, at least in our case, not having Kelsey would have been unfair to us and Kelsey for sure, but also unfair to Marissa.”
Hertha Wong would also do it again. “When Sita sees photographs of meeting Xianee at Sanshui Children’s Welfare Institute, she sees all of us there. I was happy we never had to make Sita worry or feel abandoned again. Also, we just had a great time!”
Paulette Kurzer is glad Ezra came along, too. “I would have missed him terribly and worried about him,” she says. “Also, it was important that he be part of this big decision. I am sure he will not remember anything of the trip in a couple years, but he will always know that he was there when we first saw his little sister Katya.”
“I’m sure I could have done the trip without Stephen,” reflects Kim Breuer. “But, I’m glad I took him. He was such an immense help to me. He learned to feed and change Emilee beautifully and he loved that. He also loved being helpful to the other families, especially the single moms in our group. I’m all for bringing siblings along if at all possible.”
Courtesy of Adoptive Families magazine
Mary Ebejer Petertyl is a professional writer and editor, and the mother of three children, two “home-made” and one “made in China.” She is also the author of a new children’s book, Seeds of Love: For Brothers and Sisters of International Adoption, which she wrote to prepare her daughter for their extended separation during international adoption travel.
© Mary E. Petertyl