Guangzhou Gauche

He sucked on and chewed at the lid of that wide-mouth bottle the rest of the day.

He couldn’t help it.

We finally we quit telling him not to when we realized he couldn’t help it. By that time he’d cleaned it cleaner than new, anyway.

I suppose he was meeting some deep, never-met need. Probably never got to chew or suck on things as a baby. I imagine he had no idea what he was chewing on today.

One can only hope deep-level healing was going on as well.

‘Cause today was rough.

In hindsight, I would totally have said “forget them” about the two minutes.

He’d already fulfilled 13 out of 15, and his heart was in a fine place. This “consequence” of walking hand-in-hand together with me was simply the result of ignoring a simple “no” minutes earlier in the White Swan Hotel. A little concrete demonstration of the contrast between freedom and not-freedom really helps him listen better the next time.

So, holding hands, we walked the crowded Sunday streets of Shamian Island, the cool corner of Guangzhou where the adoption world once ruled (in the days before the foreign embassies pulled out). It’s full of non-Chinese architecture and peaceful walking streets and Western restaurants and feels unlike anywhere else we’ve been in China. We have fond memories from there from our first adoption, and had fun today re-enacting some of those pictures from 2008.

Although it isn’t the totally oddest of sights because of Everett’s small size, certain people do notice and do a double-take at the sight of a foreign man holding the hand of a Chinese boy that big out in public. I especially noticed the prolonged glance of what looked to be a young European guy with his camera, and thought to myself:

I wonder what that guy’s thinking. I’ve seen plenty of white men myself who traveled to Asia for nothing but unsavory reasons…

But hey, what matters is our son, and we’ve got to do what’s best for him. Who cares what strangers think (a mindset that in some situations doesn’t come as easily to me as it does to Tammy), right?

It must have been 11 or 12 minutes into our fifteen when, while handing back Tammy her camera, I inadvertently dropped Everett’s hand. I realized it only afterwards, at which point I grabbed his hand back with a loud, “Whoops! My bad—I dropped your hand! Two more minutes.”

Maybe my suddenness or my loudness in laughing at myself made him think I was angry?

Maybe I triggered some sort of flashback?

Maybe he got frightened by being taken so suddenly from Tammy’s side?

Possibly it was only him missing home and his normal schedule.

We wish we knew.

[We only learned later that what was bothering him the most was all the attention and picture-taking being focused on someone else instead of him. He’s outrageously self-centered and insecure.]

But his descent started from that moment.

I tried to coach him through it:

“Everett, you can do this.

“It’s only 2 more minutes.

“Don’t cry. Really. No one is angry. Your time is just about finished. You can control yourself, you can do it!”

The encouragement got stronger because angry tears were starting to spurt.

We sat down on a concrete edging around plants. Street musicians played nearby, drowning out his sounds. Good.

But lots of people were all around, and some began to notice this gathering storm. There was no mistaking their concerned looks. Bad.

“C’mon, buddy. You can do this. You’re not in trouble. Daddy’s not mad. No one’s mad.” By now, Tammy was also sitting right next to him, on his other side.

“Dann, we’re going to need to get him out of here. There are a lot of people looking at him already. He’s getting louder.”

The crying had become screeching.

“You can do this, Everett. You can control yourself. I believe in you—you’ve come so far. Look around at all the people. You don’t want them looking at you. You don’t want me to have to carry you out of here like an infant, and I don’t want to, either. I don’t want you to be embarrassed. You can do it. We love you.

(We were actually probably saying “we love you” at an almost-every-other sentence rate, as we do in these situations, because that’s what he doubts the most, especially in trauma.)

But it was too late already. Angry growling, clenched fists. Grabbing his pants, his skin. Pinching, pulling, yanking. I opened his right fist and patted his palm gently, hanging onto hope we could still talk him down. But when his left fist broke free of Tammy and clobbered the side of his face, I knew the time for talking was past. I picked him up and held him like I still do my young daughters, and began to walk past the crowd. I could see that the first side street ahead was probably farther than I could carry him, so I scanned for any possible quiet nooks we could duck into along the way. He fought to break his wrists free of my grasp but couldn’t, which only increased his protests. A tiny turn-off to our left proved to be an immediate dead-end. Then a promising abandoned porch area fronting an unused building fizzled when there were people all around it.

We passed every pocket of gawkers and finally reached the side street. I turned left, only to be discouraged at the crowds hardly being any smaller. These people all, too, now turned to look at us. The screeching had become wailing. I stood Everett on his feet near the side of a building, sheltered a bit on one side by a Corinthian pillar. It was by no means the private space I’d been looking for, but nor could I carry him any farther without a break.

I got down to his level, made some eye-contact, and continued my encouragement. I told him it was at least a little bit better of a place than we’d been…but it didn’t matter. The coaster had crested the hill and there would be no slowing it. The screaming turned feral and his eyes held mine and spat hatred. I tried to give him back a tiny measure of his dignity, even control, and let go of his wrists, patting his upper arms instead. Before I could react, multiple blows rained like lightning on his head. So I re-locked one wrist and blocked the path of the other. Only to have him whale the concrete pillar with bare knuckles. So I took both wrists and kept up my verbal coaching and encouragement, though by this point (as always) I was into English only, because what’s registering at a point like this is only (we’ve surmised) the sound of a soothing voice.

Then, Smash!

His head full-speed sideways into concrete. 

Now I had to get him away from the wall; but I didn’t attempt to hold wrists and head, and what I knew would soon become legs, all in a standing position. I just held him in a sort of light hug with one arm and patted his head with the other, which, oddly, he permitted, though his you-think-that-was-loud-I’ve-got-louder! screaming now received top concentration.

And I had a sort of out-of-body experience. 

In my periphery were the stopping, staring, silhouetted people. Watching. Wondering. There was the screaming Chinese teenager, or pre-teen. Screaming. And there was me. White guy in shorts and a blue shirt getting wet with slobber. Standing. Hugging. Patting. Chewing a piece of gum rapid-fire and staring inscrutably into space.

For whatever reason, I never did look around to estimate just how many people were watching us.

I just stared ahead and had odd thoughts:

Is this really my life?

I am really standing here doing this, aren’t I? 

Am I really standing here doing this?

I would have thought that if ever I were told that I would be standing on a crowded street in China doing this I’d feel like dying, hating every second of it. 

Odd that I don’t

Not that I mean I’m liking standing here doing this—far from that—but it’s closer to weird” and further from “absolutely hateful” than I would have guessedI simply know: this is what he needs, so that means I equally know: I don’t have any choice but to stand here and take it, come what may

And, as far as these onlookers I’m choosing not to look at, their stares are probably just soooo beyond the kinds of things that would normally make one consider “what people will think” that it’s almost unexpectedly easy to deal with.

Am I still standing here doing this? Wow, I’m really chewing this gum hard, aren’t I? 

The young European guy walked by again, even though we were a block and a half from the first spot:

“Is he OK?”

“Well, no, actually he’s not. Recently adopted, you know. But he’ll be okay.”

The people watching had grown to be too many again. Plus I’d regained my strength.

“Everett, we’re going to walk. We’re going to try to find a place where there are less people and give you a chance to calm yourself. Let’s go.”

We walked hands-in-hands, and up towards the end of the street there was a spot that was less crowded than any spots had been up until that point (keep in mind this is a relative statement, an opinion colored by many years of living in China). We sat down on more concrete edging around plants. The screaming de-escalated somewhat, though I still couldn’t let him have his hands.

That European guy again!

“It really just doesn’t look right, what’s going on here. I mean, what’s the matter with him?”

I knew where he was coming from. He’s from a culture where people step in when a stranger is in trouble. That’s my culture, too. I wasn’t upset with the guy.

“Really, I know it looks bad, but he’s been my son only for a few months, and this is actually not that abnormal a thing for a kid who has been institutionalized for many years. It’s just that it usually happens at home. He will get through it.”

“But what are you doing to him? Why is he crying so much?” This question came not from the European, but from a Chinese girlfriend/translator who had suddenly materialized. He must have gone to get her so she could quiz Everett, though none of them could have possibly known what I did: Everett wouldn’t be speaking to anyone. I spoke to her instead. In Chinese. I repeated the same things I’d already said. Assured her that he would be alright. Their concerned looks did not go away, and it became obvious just how much of their concern was not only for Everett, but about me.

I patiently repeated myself again, adding even more details I hoped would help them. The most important thing, I insisted, was for people to not stand around looking at us. If they left, we could get on with getting finished. They eventually felt comfortable enough to leave us (or go off and get the police, that is, which I wouldn’t realize until later). But they had no sooner gone than a new crowd had formed off to the other side.

“So what’s with him?” asked some guy who looked to be about twenty.

“You know, I just finished telling someone else the answer to that very question, and it’s not like I can sit here all day and explain it over and over to everyone who asks. This boy has recently been adopted into our family; he lived for years in an institution; he cannot…” I decided I needed to widen my audience: I raised my voice and turned my body so I could be heard not only by the questioner’s crowd, but the other little crowd off to his right, and the largest crowd of all directly behind me.

“He cannot finish crying as long as all of you people stand here watching him! Please, move on and go about your own business. I know what I am doing. This is not unusual, it’s happened many times. He is my son.

“Do you have some proof of that?” Same kid.

Listen, you little college brat, in spite of your commendable level of valor and nobility here, what you need to do is take a long walk off a short pier.

What I actually said (after laughing at him) was: “Of course, but I am in no need of proving anything to you. This is my son. If you want, walk on up ahead and ask the foreign lady with five other kids who I am and what we are doing. But please stop standing here watching us! All of you! He will be OK.”

Another deeply concerned face had bravely crossed the open space from mob to me and was now handing Everett a tissue. She asked him if he was okay, and I half-noticed her looking concernedly at me. She got my full attention when she reached over and actually began patting him in comfort:

“Um! Please do not touch him!”

“People! I know what is going on here,” I continued to the crowds again. “I understand what is happening with him. All of you do not! He is not like you—you have a mom and a dad at home who took care of you while you grew up. He didn’t. He grew up in an orphanage, and it is not easy for those kinds of kids, especially adopted at this age, to enter a family and learn to receive love. He’s healing from a lot of past hurts. I’ll tell you what: if you care about kids so much, go to the local orphanage here and adopt one yourself!”

At this, the crowd dispersed.

Jesus-like, almost. Jesus: the master of I-can-hardly-stop-from-smiling-just-telling-you-how-great-they-were perfect responses…And me: the slobbery-front shirt, gum-chewing, don’t-like-people-looking-at-me-and-this-ain’t-fun regular Dad

Not much of a comparison. And, okay, its not like everyone totally dispersed in the blink of an eye, but still…How had this great response just come from me? 

It was Jesus in me. I don’t have that kind of wherewithal to think of such things on my feet; I’m not that guy who speaks first for justice; I’m the furthest thing from the, as they say, “mama bear” type. When I come up with great responses, it’s usually long after the altercation is over. Days after, sometimes. But this hadn’t been a matter of me scheming how to win an argument, or make myself look good (I’ve hardly been in a less enviable predicament in my life!), or craft some witty comeback. I’d simply risen to the aid of the defenseless. This was a boy who didn’t need any more junk from any more people who didn’t know him worth diddly, and in whose “care” he was receiving zero real love.

And, lo and behold… now he was done.

GZ after

The tantrum was over. We even took a picture together to commemorate finishing up still in one piece.

But it was over. All that was left now was for us to slowly walk back toward family (first stopping to restart my whole defense all over again and charm/reassure/talk faster than the two police officers who intercepted us at the end of the road) and for Everett collapse into mom’s arms.

Well, that and sucking on that bottle lid for the next hours.

“Mom?” He got Tammy’s attention maybe twenty minutes later: “Thank you.” (She still gets most of his lovin’ for the most part, but it’s a heavy, heavy burden she bears.)

“Thanks for what, sweetie?”

“For giving me a chance.”


For that’s what we’ve given him, isn’t it.

Please, though, please don’t tell us how great we are. Don’t be impressed with us. Please don’t think we’ve gone out and done something great, ‘cause we haven’t. Or even that we do great all the time with him. ‘Cause we don’t.

I’m not even going to tell you that adopting is for everyone, cause it isn’t.

But if you simply must do something… pray for us. This very minute. And for him. And—I suppose—you could go out and find and give someone else that needs it… a chance.



GZ shots

A happier time a few days prior: though screaming like a stuck pig for shots a month ago in Thailand, this time with Dad’s coaching he took ’em (three in a row) like a man.


Everett Ephraim Johnson, Adoption Finalized

Our son has come home.

One year ago today I would have told you I was not only resistant to adopting again, I was anti-…

God has a way of accomplishing his plans, though, and now one young man about to age out of the system, doomed to a life among the feeble and insane forever, instead has a family.

Apologies from our end for the scant number of photos and updates, not only here but on FB. We are scrambling with the new adoption adjustments, getting ready to leave home for a month (annual meetings, medical, and vacation in Thailand), and…now on top of that, preparations for a quick trip to Xi’an for Everett’s Thai visa. He’ll be traveling on his Chinese passport (which we don’t even have yet––hoping for today or tomorrow!) and will need a 30-day visa from the Thai Consulate in Xi’an.

So please forgive the continued paucity of pictures and updates! We’ll get them out when we can. Thanks for remembering our family during this time.