Curious, I watch Hai take Li from Mark, handing him to Van. Van's reception of the bald, serious-faced Li is markedly reserved compared with the one she gave Lucas. She holds him only a moment, never smacking her lips against his darker, rounder head and face, nor coaxing even a smile, let alone a giggle. Despite the fact that Li has had an ear ache, Lucas is no doubt the main reason she came.
With her good-byes to both babies complete, I get ready to bid her adieu myself. That's when she quickly exchanges Li for Lucas once more and Hai asks me about the pictures for Van. I'm holding them all the while, the snapshots of the boys' adoption ceremony. As I hand them over to Hai, I offer for Van to keep them all. We have the negatives.
While unsure if my subconscious planned it out in advance, I'm relieved to have an excuse to leave the lobby for a breather to fetch Van's "tip" in our hotel room. Heading back upstairs, I ponder whether it's a sufficient amount.
Understanding tipping etiquette and gift giving in Vietnam hasn't been easy. For my plan on how to give a gratuity for everyone from drivers to caretakers to our housekeeping staff at the hotel, I asked Steve Le, a gentleman who I met at a festival who ran a butterfly booth. He told John and I to bring cigarettes and gum. We envisioned passing cartons of American "butts" across the counters to officials in exchange for timely and smooth processing of our paperwork, which hasn't been the case. We discovered smokers absent among our helpers, the bulk of whom have been women who don't often smoke in third world countries. As for the gum, every time we're approached on the street, which is ALL the time, we're offered a pack of Doublemint, the same brand we loaded up on for our trip, in exchange for American cash.
While reading of others' foreign adoptions, I noted a wide disparity between countries in the methods and preferences of gift-giving to those involved in the process. From the Russians' acceptance of "blatt," or small bribes of honey, hand lotion and shampoo, to expressions of gratitude the Chinese prefer wrapped in pretty packages filled with chocolates and soaps, we assumed we could come up with suitable purchases for the Vietnamese. But nothing seems to work better than cash or food. For example, in cases where an orphanage worker in a rural region does not get running water, gifts for the bath don't get a lot of use. And in the instance of our offer of colorful, practical baby seats for the orphanage's infants, the expression was appreciated, but the necessity was really for that of cases of noodles. I don't know what to do. When considering the thousands of dollars we've dropped on this whole process, a donation for the person responsible for my child's ability to soak up and show love seems pathetic. Her work to me is the most precious, short of our son's birthmother's in making us joyful parents, so that I feel she deserves a lot more.
Our little group is now seated at the hotel lounge. I walk over to where Van sits with Lucas on her lap, and place the envelope in front of her with a final, parting pat and smile. I'm hoping she will save opening it for later.
Whereas just a couple of minutes ago I was anxious for her departure, now, in this more intimate setting, I'm interested in finding out more about my son from her through Hai. In particular, I would like to know details about his health and hospital stay. From the horrendous coughing he's kept up, he sounds like he needs more medical attention.
During Van's entire visit, she has held a small, white terry washcloth. She's been periodically using it to dab at the constant drool on Lucas's mouth and hands from teething. Now she uses it to vigourously rub his entire sweaty head, after which he lets out a loud, barking cough. Its suddenness and force coming from such a little thing startle everyone into laughter, including John and I. It's become such a maddening condition over these few days, I think we laugh out of relief to be sharing it with others who don't seem to think it's as devastating as we do.
"Do you think you're an old man?" Hai asks Lucas, still laughing.
After a moment my fear creeps right back in. I desperately hope Lucas isn't still sick from bronchitis or about to relapse. I can't wait to bring him home for a thorough examination instead of the perfunctory one he received here. I bring up, in what I hope is a non-threatening way, how Lucas has been coughing so loud and hard that he's caused stares at more than one restaurant. Neither Hai nor Van, through Hai, responds. I wonder if I'm just being neurotic. After all, I was plenty concerned about his initial rocking behavior and that, they told me, turned out to be nothing more than "dancing." I decide if there is a problem, I'm talking to the wrong people about it.
Lucas gets fussy. Van responds by bouncing him on her knee, changing positions, then giving him a tiny sip of her coke, after which he grimaces. She laughs. I hand her the bottle of formula I've been holding since returning downstairs and he immediately lays back and opens his mouth wide like a baby bird. He gulps until the bottle's drained, and I give myself a mental pat on the back for anticipating his need. When he sits back up Van tries to get more Coke into him. This time he won't even part his lips. I'm glad. I don't like her giving him Coke.
Lucas lifts his arm for another of several attempts to taste his shiny bracelet. Van pulls his arm away fingering the gift I hoped she'd appreciate us giving him. It's a gold id bracelet with his Vietnamese name on one side and his American one on the other. She inspects it and lets out a big scowl when Lucas puts it to his mouth again. I'm a bit confused. It's Okay for Lucas to drink Coke but not lick a bracelet. Still, her reaction feels disapproving, like I'm a bad mother.
I try drawing Van out through Hai, asking many questions about Lucas. I want to know as much as I can about his tastes, preferences, habits and personality. I think it will help me make him more comfortable during this transition time. Yet time and again each of my translated questions is met with a nod or a vague one-word reply. It's frustrating.
"You know, Van says Long loves to get up in the middle of the night for a party."
"Yes!" I agree, running with this statement, "He woke up singing at one o'clock in the morning!"
We all laugh.
"Is there anything she wants us to know about him or maybe to do for him?" I ask, then wait for the translation and reply.
"She wants you to buy him a sweater in the winter," Hai tells me.
After a pause I look directly at Van who looks me in the eye for the first time. I nod, "Yes, we already have one for him." Van continues to look at me with an expression I can't quite read. Then she kisses Lucas one final time and jumps up.
"She needs to get back to the hospital to the other baby," Hai says.
I look up at Van. For some reason I want this woman's blessing, her approval, though I'd settle for a smile, something to help me seal the deal that I am the new mother, but nothing is forthcoming.
Despite all my mixed emotions during this tense meeting, despite the fact that I really did not like Van, she touched my heart. I wanted to give her more than the money, the pictures, the knowledge that I will keep Lucas warm in winter. I want her to know that she is my God's answer to prayer. When I prayed for Lucas at home, fearful he might be languishing in an orphanage untouched for hours on end, I asked Him to proved one caretaker whose heart my little boy might win over. And God answered with Van, drawing an extra dose of love out of her for Lucas. In the end, this makes me truly glad, grateful and blessed. I want Van to take this understanding with her, if only I could find a way to impart it. I don't, but maybe the Lord already has.
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