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Feb 25, 2011
The Happiest Hotel on Earth - Forbes

The squeaky-mouse sounds emanate from dozens of tiny shoes scampering across the floors of the White Swan Hotel's gargantuan pink marble lobby. The noisy shoes--all the rage in China--are gifts to children newly adopted by American parents. You hear the sounds, along with the laughter, from the moment you walk in.

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A 27-storey luxury hotel in Guangzhou, rising from the manicured lawns of Shamian Island--a quiet retreat from the workaholic precincts downtown--the White Swan is the last stop on the Long March known as Adopting a Chinese Orphan. The American consulate branch that issues most visas for children going to the U.S. was once next door to the hotel, making a stay there practically mandatory. But even now that Uncle Sam has moved to the business district, the White Swan is still the prime gathering place--its retro, kidney-shaped pool with grotto and waterfall, Trump-ian lobby, and bloodred sofas imbued with the tender memories of the thousands of parents who gather here every year to bond with their new kids for the first time.

It's obvious that this is no ordinary hotel by the way everyone, from young couples to older single mothers shadowing their new charges, seems to be smiling. "I think it's the happiest place on earth," says a lawyer from Minneapolis who comes here for business. "Everyone calls it the White Stork Hotel."

My wife, Kristin, and I had spent three years getting there. Last fall, at the end of our odyssey, we took a cab through the clogged streets of Guangzhou, crossed the bridge to Shamian Island, with its white Victorian-era buildings, and were suddenly elevated above the city via the half-mile private causeway constructed in time for Queen Elizabeth's 1986 visit to the hotel.

 

We were given a royal welcome ourselves, presented with a box of baby goodies, and brought up to our suite on the 26th floor. Between us, holding our hands, was 14-month-old Wu Aoze, a girl abandoned at birth in 2008 on the dusty streets of Wuwei, a town almost 1,200 miles north on the edge of the Gobi desert. She was found lying in the street, wrapped in a blanket, her umbilical cord still attached. The orphanage staff named her "Year of the Olympics," or Wu Aoze.

Her photograph had struck us to the core, and here she was, her head shaved in the Chinese fashion. If we were grinning stupidly horizontally, her grin appeared to be vertical: She had a cleft palate that a doctor quickly dealt with when we returned to L.A., but it had made eating a chore all her young life. She weighed no more than a puppy when we first held her, but she had the unquenchable, amused light in her eyes that had attracted us from across the Pacific.

We were already the biological parents of four boys. Wu Aoze, renamed Vivian, was adopted to even the score a little. It was high time. Over the decade of our marriage, despite never having a daughter, my wife had squirreled away enough little pink dresses and dolls in the back of our storage cupboards to stock a Barbie convention.

Our quest for a daughter entailed three Kafkaesque years of grappling with the provisions of the Hague Adoption Convention and the U.S. State Department's adoption treaty with China. We took compulsory baby classes. (After four sons, my wife still managed to answer the question "Are you really ready to become a parent?" a half dozen times without punching anyone.) We hosted personal visits by a social worker (upside: first time I ever cleaned out the garage; downside: swearing the kids to secrecy about watching all those R-rated DVDs). We went to the L.A. Federal Center to be fingerprinted on not one but three separate occasions. (Our State Department believes fingerprints "expire.") Essays were written and rewritten with the earnestness of college applications; we submitted state and federal police reports for every place we had ever lived, then got all this paperwork notarized and the notary's signature notarized. Over time, we forked over some $15,000 in nonrefundable fees to various agencies without any guarantee that we'd ultimately be allowed to adopt at all. Then, in Wuwei, one final transaction: We handed over the requisite $5,000 in cash "donations" in plain envelopes to various grinning low-level local politicos seated around a grungy conference table.

Approaching the White Swan's world-class comforts, with our baby finally in hand, I understood how Mao must have felt when spotting the sanctuary towers of Yan'an at the end of his own Long March. We immediately bought Vivian her squeaky shoes in a shop behind the White Swan to celebrate.

That first morning at the White Swan's Lucullan breakfast buffet the parents flocked to the long tables featuring French toast and eggs, while their new kids crowded the one with the giant bowl of congee, the soupy Chinese version of grits. Vivian fell into boisterous step with the other White Swan kids while we found ourselves pushing tables together with other couples to exchange war stories. Over the next week, we developed a wonderful intimacy with other parents while seeking relief from the heat in the pool or strolling the pleasant, tree-shaded streets of Shamian Island, new heirs in one hand, legal Cubanos in the other.

We made full use of hotel facilities like diaper service and English-speaking attendants ready with rollaway cribs and blankies. There is a Mattel-sponsored playroom on the sublevel, with the toymaker's newest contraptions ready for use. And at 11 a.m. each day, the baby floors turn very quiet, as maids turn off their vacuum cleaners and staff members avoid knocking on any doors. Nap time.

We went to Guangzhou purely to fulfill the State Department's requirements, but while we waited the week it took for the consulate to process Vivian's visa, the city grew on us. Like industrial towns around the world, what Guangzhou lacks in tourist attractions it makes up for in hearty food, so we feasted in the city's restaurants, explored its temples, and took a night cruise along the Pearl River, more gaudily lit by neon than neighboring Hong Kong. Our new circle--among them a banking husband and wife from Fargo and a lesbian couple who had obviously gotten creative in their application to get around China's antigay adoption laws--became our new drinking-buddies-for-life, something I never experienced during the births of my four sons.

At the end of the week, four dozen of us boarded a convoy of minivans in the White Swan's driveway and headed to the U.S. Consulate to take a communally administered oath in great solemnity in an airport-lounge-like waiting room and be handed our kids' visas.

But there was one final White Swan tradition to honor. Ask Yanks who have adopted in China about the "red couch photo" and they'll almost inevitably pull one out. Everyone piles onto the big velvet sofas in the lobby for group photographs before leaving for home, snapshots that inevitably feature the good cheer of folks celebrating a bureaucratic miracle. We were just one week's installment of the thousands of ecstatic parents who come to the White Swan every year, leading small, squeaky victory parades that echo around the world.

                                                                                                                             Finn-Olaf Jones

   
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