On your international adoption journey, there are two calls that will change your life. The first is the call informing you that you have a potential match. And the second, perhaps the absolute best call, is the one to inform you it is time to meet your child. For months, if not years, you have been diligently gathering and filing paperwork, certifying, and apostilling documents, all leading up to the moment when you will welcome the newest member of your family. The call to finally book your tickets and get on that plane is at once exciting and daunting. Knowing what to expect, and where to begin, can be instrumental in helping you prepare. Two international adoptions from two different countries later, here is what I have learned.
Adoption Travel is not Like Other Travel
One of the things that drew me and my husband to international adoption was that it is international. We both have a love of different cultures and had previously traveled quite extensively across East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. We were no strangers to adventure. For our honeymoon, we spent three weeks backpacking across Ecuador, part of our trip using mountain bikes to reach remote villages nestled alongside dazzling volcanoes. How hard could it be to figure out China? We dove in, fully confident we could book everything ourselves and travel independently.
Looking back, we could not have been more wrong. Thankfully when we shared our plans with our adoption agency, they pointed us in the right direction and connected us with an adoption travel specialist. Here’s the thing, adoption travel is not like other travel. Even if you are accustomed to doing things on your own, when booking your international adoption trip take advantage of the experts offered to you by your adoption agency. Do some research and find out what perks might be available to you. Can you upgrade your flight? Many international adoptions take place literally half a world away and even if you aren’t able to upgrade on your way over, it is definitely worth it to upgrade on your way back when you will have a new child with you. If you can upgrade to the executive level at a hotel and have access to an ongoing buffet, do it. Many airlines and hotels will permit members to donate their points to you, so ask around and use whatever you can find. Hire a driver if you can so you will have access to transportation whenever you need it. Anything you can think of that will make your journey easier. Though my husband and I prefer to stay off the beaten path when we travel and to experience a country like the locals, for both our adoptions we booked hotels in the more touristy part of the city where we knew the hotel staff would be able to communicate with us in English, we could safely walk around, and room service was readily available.
If you have not done so already, join one of the incredibly supportive international adoption groups on Facebook. There are groups for China, India, South Korea, and Columbia, to name a few. Here you can connect with other adoptive families who have either recently traveled or are about to travel to meet their child. Hotels, neighborhoods, and restaurants change all the time and these groups will be more than happy to share any updates or recommendations they may have.
Packing Will Become an Olympic Sport
For a couple that was used to backpacking, packing for an international adoption trip seemed like we had to include everything but the kitchen sink. Depending on where your child is residing, you may need to pack for two different climates. You will also need to bring clothes and toys for the child, medicine, and some snacks. But here’s the thing. On both our adoption trips (to China and India) we had access to huge department stores where we could procure almost anything. In fact, it was wonderful to be able to buy our children’s favorite snacks and formula so we could bring them back to the United States with us. We were also aware that the plastic and bottles may taste different so we bought utensils and bottles in-country to bring back home. Complete packing lists and recommendations will be provided by your adoption agency or can be found on any one of the above-mentioned Facebook groups, along with their recommendations of what to leave at home.
Meeting Your Child May Take a Few Days or Weeks
Depending on where your child is living, it may take a few days to travel. I will never forget my son asking if we had finally arrived in India after two plane rides (for a total of 21 hours), one bus ride, and a nine-hour car ride. One pro tip, though you may not have as much leave time from your job as you would like, arriving at least one day early in your child’s country of origin can be a lifesaver. Jet lag can be brutal and even the best of us can be downright loopy after 20 to 30 plus hours of travel!
When the time comes to meet your child, your adoption agency will likely have guided you through what to expect. Some countries may require more than one trip (such as South Korea) and you will not leave with your child until the second trip. In other countries, you may meet your child one day and then leave with them the other. This was the case when we adopted our daughter from India, and I will admit that we were not prepared for this. You may meet your child at a government official’s office, or you may meet your child at their orphanage. And sometimes you will not know where you will meet your child until you arrive in the country. Like all things in the international adoption travel process, you should be prepared to remain as flexible as possible and to follow the customs and guidance of your guides in-country.
In some cases, you may meet your child at a government official’s office but still have the chance to tour your child’s orphanage. If you are able, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the chance to see where your child spent the first months or years of their life. When we adopted our son from China, we were not given the opportunity to meet our son’s caregivers. But in India, we spent a full two days at our daughter’s orphanage. We met her friends at the orphanage, we saw where she ate and slept, her favorite toys, and watched how she liked to play. We also had the unique ability to watch our daughter’s caretaker interact with her so we could see how our daughter liked to be held, fed, and most importantly comforted. And though such a visit might not always be possible, the more information you can gain the better. Many adoption agencies will work with you to develop a list of questions to ask your child’s caretaker, and your guide can translate this for you. Whether you are just in a government official’s office or are able to visit your child’s orphanage, or even their foster family, take as many pictures as you can. Each photo will serve as a contribution to your child’s life book and will become instrumental in the telling of how your child’s first months or years.
You Will Have Lots of Downtime
Once your child is placed with you, you will journey to the United States consulate (unless your child resides in the same place as the consulate). It is important to remember that even though you will still be in the same country, the sights, sounds, smells and even the language of the city where the consulate is located may be vastly different from the city or town where your child resided. In the consulate city, you will need to complete medical appointments then report to the consulate to essentially finish the I-800 process. Once the I-800 process is complete, the consulate will issue your child’s visa, and you may return home. This whole process typically takes about a week and may last even longer if you travel during a state holiday.
For both our adoptions, we took advantage of the time between the consulate appointment and the issuing of our child’s visa to explore our child’s country. Be adventurous and try new foods (though always drink bottled water and never eat any fresh fruits and vegetables unless you can peel them). If your child loves dumplings, try dumplings. If your child eats daal by the bowlful, try some lentils. Explore the culture. We visited temples, we walked through markets, we wandered through beautiful botanical gardens, and observed daily life.
Buy pieces of art for your home so you can begin to incorporate your child’s birth culture into your own. Find memoirs for your child. I recall one family we traveled with bought a present for each birthday until their daughter turned 18 because each year they wanted her to have something that would remind her of where she was born on her birthday. Another friend of mine bought silks in varying sizes so her son would be fully donned for the next few Chinese New Years they would celebrate as a family.
It May be Different Than You Expect
All of that said, during your first few weeks together as a family, it is important to take your cues from your child. In our first adoption, we struggled. Our son was inconsolable and hit by so much grief that we had no idea how to comfort him. Days blurred together and we hardly left the room. We were grateful for room service and for the comforts of our hotel. Outings consisted of walks up and down the hallway, and when my son grew bolder, a trip to the lobby. I worried about what our lives would look like back home. Would we ever be able to leave our house? Would my son ever stop screaming and clinging to my husband for dear life? But an important mantra to remember is, “Your time in-country is not real.” It is not a reflection of what life will look like at home—at all. While the first few days, weeks, even months may be hard, it will get better. For us, a change in scenery made all the difference, and when we arrived in Guangzhou (where the U.S. consulate in China resides) things improved enough for us to get outside and experience some of what the city had to offer. But if we had to have remained in our hotel in Guangzhou for the duration of our trip, that would have been okay too.
Your First Trip Will Not be Your Last
This brings me to my last tip. No matter what happens in-country, your first trip to your child’s country of origin will not be your last. When you adopt a child internationally, you gain a whole country. Culture and identity are intertwined, and for the internationally adopted child, they not only have lost their birth parents, but they have also lost their country. As international adoptive parents, it is up to us to preserve this for them. Finding ways to help your child connect with their culture is part of the job of an international adoptive parent and one major way to do this is with a heritage tour. A heritage tour is a visit to the child’s birth country where the child and their adoptive family explore the cultural aspects of the child’s birth country. It can be an exceedingly beneficial way for a child to connect with their cultural identity, and as an added bonus, many heritage tours welcome numerous adoptive families so children may share their experiences with their fellow adoptees.
vI hope that the information above has helped you with your international adoption in some way. As you prepare for this new and wonderful journey remember to be positive. International adoption can be a little tricky but sure does pay off. Enjoy it as much as you can so that you and your child can share fond memories for years to come.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.