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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Photo Montage of Our Adoption Journey

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 6 months since we became a family. I had many good intentions to keep our blog current, but family life took precedent. Our life together has been more wonderful than we could have imagined. Zachary is an amazing boy. Every day is a new adventure with him.

As a special Christmas gift, I put together a photo montage of our adoption journey. It brings back many wonderful memories of our first months together.

We're looking forward to the new memories we'll make over the coming years.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Family Day

It’s been several weeks since we first met Zachary. It’s been hectic (and a little overwhelming at first), but we are all extremely happy. Now that we’re over the jet lag and have settled into a good routine, I’m able to look back and reflect on our family day.

The night before we met Zachary, a mixture of nerves and anticipation made it very hard for both of us to sleep. At 4:00am on June 29th, we gave up trying to sleep and decided to get up and do whatever we could to make time pass quickly. We tried to make ourselves busy, getting the hotel room as kid friendly as possible and ensuring we had everything we needed in his diaper bag for our first meeting. The hours seemed to pass very slowly. At about 8:30am, we caught a subway train to the Holt Adoption Agency so that we could meet with our social worker and visit the hospital where Zachary was born.

After meeting with our social worker, we took a taxi to the hospital together (about 30 minutes away). As we exited the taxi, our social worker said that it was traditional for us to present a small gift to the hospital for the tour we were about to receive. We were glad to get something for the people that took care of Zachary when he was first born. We went to a store next to the hospital. Our social worker suggested that we get a fruit juice gift pack. She bartered with the store clerk (this is very common in Korea), and got the gift for $10,000 won (about $9).

Zachary was born at the Injung Hospital in Seoul. It is a maternity hospital.

First, our social worker introduced us to the hospital director who would give us a tour of the hospital. We went up to the second floor. First we were shown the nursery area. They had the curtains drawn, but opened them to show us where the babies currently in the nursery area.

We tried to soak it all in, imagining what it would have been like to see Zachary there almost a year earlier. After that, we walked to the maternity area where all the babies are born. It was a large room with many beds, all separated by curtains.

After seeing the hospital, we thanked the hospital director and left the building. As we waited for a taxi, the emotions of what we had just seen started to sink in. We thought about what it was like for him and his birth mother the first few days of his life. Despite our happiness, it made us very sad to think about the separation of Zachary and his birth mother.

After a quick trip back to the hotel, we headed back to the adoption agency for our first meeting with Zachary. In Seoul, most of the subway stops have multiple exits. At the Hapjeong stop (the closest stop for Holt International), there are 8 different exits. When leaving the station, we got confused and ended up taking the wrong exit. We ended up at the wrong end of a large intersection, so we had to wait a few minutes for the signals to change so that we could cross the street. One thing that we noticed while in Seoul is that people very rarely jay walk or cross the street without a walk signal. After crossing the intersection, we walked down the street to the adoption agency. As we approached the building, we saw a taxi sitting in front of the building. A woman that we recognized exited the taxi…it was Zachary’s foster mother. We couldn’t believe the timing. If we hadn’t taken the wrong exit at the subway station, we would have missed them entering the building. When his foster mother saw us, she recognized us immediately. She was holding Zachary and started saying “omma” (mommy) and “appa” (daddy) to him as we walked up to them. Zachary was wearing a one piece shorts outfit and a hat. She pulled up the hat so that we could see his face. It was love at first sight for us (he was still trying to figure out who we were). We entered the building. Zachary’s foster mom went to the left on the first floor as we went up to the second floor to meet our social worker.

After telling our social worker that we had just met Zachary and his foster mother as we entered the building together, she showed us to the room where we would formally meet them and get to spend some time together. The room had two small couches with a coffee table between them. We decided to sit on the couch on the left so that the video camera had the best view of our meeting. We got everything set up, then waited impatiently for Zachary and his foster mother to enter the room.

At a few minutes after 2:00pm, our social worker came into the room with Zachary and his foster mom. We wanted to rush immediately to him, but we knew that this might be too much for him to handle. We had talked about this before our meeting. We wanted to take it slow and let him warm up to us before holding him. We wanted this to be on his terms.

After just a couple of minutes, Zachary seemed to be doing well, so our social worker suggested that his foster mom hand him to me. I took him in my arms and set him on my knee. He looked at me curiously, not sure what to make of me. Thankfully, he wasn’t scared and didn’t cry. I held him as we talked to his foster mother (through the interpretation of our social worker).

He warmed up to us very quickly, smiling and laughing in the first few minutes. After about 5 minutes, I handed him to Laura so that she could have some time with him.

The next hour is a bit of a blur. In between asking the foster mother many questions so that we could find out as much about Zachary as possible, we spent time holding Zachary and playing with him. He warmed up to us very quickly. Shortly after meeting him, he was smiling and laughing. He seemed very content with either one of us holding him.

After about an hour, we exchanged gifts with his foster mother. She seemed to really enjoy the personal gifts that we got for her and the rest of the foster family, especially the locket with pictures of Zachary. As our social worker helped her put it on, we could tell that it meant a lot to her. Zachary’s foster mother also brought a number of gifts for Zachary, including some fun Pororo items (a very popular Korean cartoon about a penguin and his friends) and some of his favorite snacks.

It had been about an hour and a half since we had met Zachary. Everything was going great. Since we didn’t have any more questions for his foster mother, we decided to start gathering up everything and head back to the hotel. Laura put on his baby carrier and we put Zachary in the front, facing her. Our social worker walked with us to the street and helped us hail a cab. She told the taxi driver where we were staying and we gave him a small card with the address (just in case he wasn’t sure).

The ride back to the hotel went very smoothly. Zachary enjoys riding in vehicles. He spent the first half of the ride with his head on a swivel, trying to take in everything as we drove along. He slowly started to close his eyes as the vehicle lulled him so sleep. It didn’t take long for him to fall into a deep, comfortable sleep.

He remained asleep for the rest of the ride and as Laura carried him to the room. We carefully placed him in his crib. He didn’t even stir. We each took a deep breath. It was hard to believe what had happened over the past two hours. We had met our son for the first time and everything had gone surprisingly smoothly. We weren’t sure if it was a sign of things to come or just the calm before the storm, but we were extremely happy that we were all finally a family.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Visit to the Holt Reception Center

Yesterday (June 27), we woke at our usual time at around 4:00am, but for a change we were able to get back to sleep and didn't wake again until 7:00am. We're slowly getting used to the time change.

We decided to explore some of the areas around the hotel earlier in the day so that we would have plenty of time to get back to our room before visiting the Holt Reception Center in the afternoon. We started our day by walking down to Namdaemun Market.

Basically, the whole neighborhood consists of shops and food vendors lined up on both sides of the street selling a variety of items.

You'll find clothing, small housewares, souveniers, and a variety of other items. The closest equivalent in the United States is a flea market, though that doesn't accurately reflect Namdaemun. The market is such a popular destination that the city estimates that close to a half million people visit this neighborhood daily. We enjoyed walking up and down the various streets, losing ourselves in the maze of vendors for a couple of hours. We weren't looking for any particular items to purchase, just doing a lot of window shopping and marveling in the experience.

As lunch time approached, we decided to leave Namdaemun and look for a good place to eat. As we left the market, we found ourselves at the base of a very unique building (some people call it the zipper building).

One of the many beauties of the city is the amazing amount of unique architecture that we've encountered. Seoul is a very modern city, much of it rebuilt since the end of the Korean War. We have thoroughly enjoyed the beauty in the old architecture as well as the new.

After a delicious lunch at a Korean burger joint (Kraze Burger), we went back to the room to cool down and relax. Feeling refreshed, we headed out to visit the Holt Reception Center. Walking up the street to the main office for Holt, we started to feel the emotions of the moments that we new would follow. We were visiting the place that has helped connect us to our son. Even though it's a non-descript building, it was a wonderful sight to us. We knew that the following day, we would be meeting Zachary in that same building.

We entered the building and asked for our social worker at Holt. A woman was walking with a little boy that looked to be about 18 months. As she directed us to the second floor, she said good-bye (in Korean) and gave us a small head bow. We returned the good-bye (also in Korean) and also bowed. Then the most adorable thing happened...the little boy also gave a small head bow. It melted our hearts. Koreans are very polite. Greetings are almost always accompanied with a bow. Even something as simple as the exchange of money is done a specific way. Money should be handed over using two hands (right hand on top), not one. It's taken a little while to get used to it, but whenever we do it, we can see that they appreciate that we are trying to follow some of their culture beliefs while visiting their country.

We found our social worker and walked with her down the street to the Holt Reception Center, located about a half mile away. When entering the Holt Reception Center, we removed our shoes and put on slippers. This is another part of the Korean culture. Shoes are traditionally removed when entering homes and many other locations. We walked into the room where Holt cares for the children. Currently there are six children (5 boys and 1 girl) that are at the reception center. Through the Internet, Laura knows two of the mothers of two of the children. We took many pictures of the children so that their parents will get a chance to see them. Pictures of the children are very precious to adoptive parents. Many adoptive parents only have a few photographs of their children (we have 5). We know that we would appreciate any additional photographs of Zachary, so we wanted to try to get as many pictures as possible to give to their parents.

When we walked into the room, the kids were eating some potatoes. We sat down on the floor with the children and started to interact with them. Some were shy and some were not. One little boy in particular was very intrigued with Laura. Over the next 10 minutes, he slowly warmed up to her, giving her some big smiles by the end of our meeting. He was an adorable little 11 month old boy that looked very similar to the son of one of the adoptive families that we know in Maryland. We found out that he currently wasn't being considered for adoption. The social worker told us that he had some medical issues when he was first born, but is very healthy now. We don't know why he isn't being considered for adoption. It broke our hearts to know that he may not find a family. If possible, we would have loved to add him to our family along with Zachary. We spent about 30 minutes with the children. It was a special time that we won't ever forget.

As we walked into the hotel after an uneventful subway ride, we happened to meet the couple from Luxembourg that was visiting to adopt their second son. They met their son that day and had them with him. It looked like he was doing great. Seeing the little boy made us think about what our next day would be like. In less than 24 hours, we would be with Zachary. It was a good feeling and a nice end to the day.

Liquid Sunshine

Sunday morning (June 26th), we woke up at 4am unable to sleep. We were still battling a little jet lag. It's tough trying to adjust to a 13 hour time difference, so I've decided to use that time in the morning to update the blog and make sure I'm capturing as many of our experiences as possible. It's working well, so I'll try to keep up with the routine. I know that if I don't update the blog daily, I may never get around to writing it down.

Actually our morning started even earlier than 4am. We both fell asleep early the night before. We wanted to see the South Korea world cup match which didn't start until 11pm, but new that there was no way we would be able to stay awake. A little after midnight, we were awakened by noise as we heard people cheering on the Korean team. We turned on the television to see what was happening and ended up staying up for the next hour watching the rest of the game. Unfortunately South Korea lost in a very close match. The whole time we have been here, the South Koreans have been very excited about their soccer team. There are red shirts everywhere. They even closed off several blocks around city hall where hundreds of thousands of people watched the game on the big screens. We really would have loved to experience this, but knew there was no way we would be able to deal with that much excitement late at night.

When we awoke the second time in the morning (at 4am), we flipped on the television and watched the US world cup match too. It was another tough loss, just like South Korea. Only after watching both games did we realize that if both teams had won, they would have played each other just a few hours after we arrive back in the US with Zachary. That would have been a fun match to watch together.

The weather forecast for our day in South Korea wasn't good (rain) so we decided to go visit some indoor sites. We decided to use the subway. The subway system in Seoul is huge, clean, and very efficient system. For the most part, it's very easy to use. The system has both Korean and English throughout. You can choose to purchase a card for single use between two destinations or a charge card that you can load specific denominations of money that can be recharged as necessary. Since we were new at using the subway, we decided to start out using the single use card. They machines that dispense the cards have English instructions, so getting the cards was a simple process that we completed in about 2 minutes. We walked to the entrance where you scan your card, but couldn't figure out how to enter our card to get through the gate. After passing our card over multiple areas of the machine, Laura realized that we were supposed to place the card on top of the machine in order to pass through the gate. We walked down to the loading station and encountered our next small confusion...we had to figure out which direction we needed to travel. There are clear signs everywhere, but we knew that if we hopped on a train without ensuring we were going in the correct direction, we wouldn't end up at our final destination. We took our time, making sure that we understood the correct direction to travel in order to connect to catch the next train. We caught the next train without a problem.

At our transfer point, we got a little confused because there were two different loading areas instead of one. In order to get to our loading station ended up exiting the subway system, so we had to get another single use card. The rest of the subway ride to COEX went off without a hitch.

When we arrived at COEX, we met up with Laura's friend Barbara and her niece Hayley. They were the ones that we had met the previous day in Insadong. COEX is the largest underground mall in Asia. To say it is huge is an understatement. In addition to stores and restaurants, there is an aquarium, movie theater, and kimchi museum. We just wandered around without any real plan on what we wanted to see. We checked out a few shops to see if we could find a some small Pororo items for Zachary and found a little Pororo figure that contains a liquid for blowing bubbles. I can see us blowing bubbles in the hotel room, trying to keep him occupied.

We found the kimchi museum and decided to go inside to get a little more information about Korea's most famous food. There were some very nice displays about the history of Kimchi, how to make kimchi, and various other pickled foods that can be found around the world.

There was also an area where we could sample various varieties of Kimchi. At the end of the museum, we noticed a couple of children's books (translated in English) of Korean folk tales. The artwork was beautiful, so we decided to get them to share with Zachary as he grows.

After exiting the museum, we continued to explore the mall, making our way back towards where we started. It was around lunch time, so we decided to find a place to eat. Since Hayley wanted to have pizza, we decided to go to Pizza Hut. We heard they had some unique varieties of pizza and wanted to give it a try. We decided to try the bulgogi pizza. It had bulgogi meat (beef that has been marinated) with sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms. It was very good.

Having seen enough of the mall, we decided to walk around outside a little. It was still cloudy and humid, but the rain had stopped. We visited a Hyundai Department Store, thinking it would be a good place to find inexpensive items. Instead, we found that department stores in Korea tend to contain more high end items. We browsed a couple of floors then decided to leave.

We walked to the subway, trying to decide what to see next. As we stood near the subway ticket machines, a very nice Korean gentleman came up to us and asked us if we needed any help. In many of the subway stations, there are people there to help people find their destinations on the enormous subway system. We decided that our next destination would be Lotte World. The gentleman helped us by letting us know which stop we should use. While assisting us, he asked us where we were from and why we were visiting. I told him that we were adopting a little boy. I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. I know that adoption can be a sensitive subject to some Koreans. When I told him about our adoption, his face instantly changed and you could see the gratitude in his eyes. He reached out his hand to me, shook my hand, and giving me a very heartfelt "thank-you". This wasn't the first time that we had been thanked by a Korean for adopting Zachary. It was a very touching moment in a very public place. It meant much to both of us.

We thanked the gentleman for helping us, then caught the next train to Lotte World. Lotte World is also an indoor mall that also has a hotel, ice rink, Kidzmania, and an amusement park (both indoors and outdoors). We explored the mall area which ended up being very similar to COEX. As we walked into the food court area, we noticed an open area in the distance. Thinking that it was the ice rink, we dedided to go take a look. What we found had all of us staring in awe. Below us was a huge ice rink, but above us was the large indoor amusement park covered with a glass ceiling. It was similar to a small park at Disney World, complete with rides, a stage, and a large parade. It was absolutely amazing and totally unexpected. We just stood there, trying to absorb the experience. It was very surreal for all of us.

Now that we had seen the indoor amusement park, we wanted to take a look at the outdoor one. After a few wrong turns, we finally made our way outside and found it. It looks like a small version of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, complete with a castle.

If we hadn't been so tired from all the walking, we probably would have gone inside. Knowing our limits, we decided to head back to our hotels and call it a day. We grabbed a bite to eat at Seoul Station, bought a few items of food at the Lotte Mart, and went back to the room.

It was a very nice second day in Seoul. After seeing some historical sites the previous day, we were able to enjoy some more modern experiences. We've enjoyed both. The last two days have been filled with excitement and amazing experiences in Seoul. Who knows what the next few days hold for us.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Seoul City Tour

Yesterday (June 26th) we spent our first full day in Seoul. Other than our city tour, we didn't have anything else planned for the day. Always trying to be as prepared as possible, I plugged in our camera battery into the outlet to make sure we had a full charge for day and went through the camera bag to make sure we had everything we needed. I didn't want to miss capturing any of the day's moments.

After having breakfast and finishing our preparations, we went down to the lobby of the hotel to meet our tour guide. As we stood there waiting, we noticed a family and their child waiting in the same area. They kept glancing at us, then came over to talk. They asked us if we were from Norway. We said "no", and they walked away. After a few more minutes, we decided to go talk to them to find out why they asked us if we were from Norway. It turns out that they were also doing the city tour and for some reason thought that the other couple doing the tour (that's us) were from Norway. The couple was from Luxembourg. They adopted their 1st son from Korea when he was 4 months old (he is now 5) and were adopting their 2nd son on Monday. Because there were two families, we had two tour guides.

Instead of taking the subway to our first destination, we decided to take a taxi to make it easier. We originally planned to take two taxis, but were fortunate when we found a taxi van that was just big enough for all eight of us. As we drove through the city, we saw two statues with a beautiful backdrop of the mountains in the distance. I pulled out my camera to take a few pictures. I turned on the camera, but nothing happened. As I flipped the on/off switch trying to figure out what was wrong, it dawned on me that I left the camera battery back at the hotel room. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn't going to be able to capture any photos of our tour. Lesson number 1...always double check that you have everything you need before leaving the hotel. Then I remembered that our video camera can also take snapshots just like a digital camera. I pulled out the video camera and started playing around with it trying to figure out how to take pictures with it. Lesson number 2...understand your equipment before going on vacation. Thankfully the video camera is very easy to use, so I was able to capture a couple of pictures very quickly.

Our first destination was Gyeongbokgong Palace and the National Folk Museum of Korea, located in the same area. As we walked onto the palace grounds, we were in awe at the beauty of the setting. The buildings and grounds were framed with a backdrop of rocky mountains covered in lush vegetation. It was everything we had hoped it would be and more. First we toured a couple of the exhibits at the National Folk Museum. We split apart from the other family and went inside with Miae, our personal tour guide for the day. We walked through the "Korean Way of Life" and "Life Cycle of Koreans". Both exhibits had excellent information and displays. We were able to gain a small piece of understanding of the Korean history and way of life. Miae did a great job adding additional information while we also began to get to know each other.

After visiting the museum, we exited onto the palace grounds. We spent the next hour walking through the grounds, enjoying the beautiful surroundings. We learned that the palace buildings are not the originals. After the reign of the last Queen, many of the buildings were destroyed or moved during the Japanese occupation. The location of the palace, it's buildings, and gates all have a significance to the Koreans. The original layout was aligned in a north/south orientation and built in it's location based on the convergence of air and water. There is a Korean word for this convergence, but I can't remember the term. When the Japanese occupation ended, Korea moved or rebuilt the palace buildings in their original (current) location.

After the tour of the palace grounds, we walked to Insadong. This neighborhood is known for it's shops and restaurants. It is what many consider a traditional Korean market.

As we slowly walked along the main street, we tried to soak in all the sights, smells, and sounds of our surroundings. It was wonderful and like nothing we had ever experienced. The crowds were small as we walked through shops and viewed the items sold by the street vendors. Miae took us down a side street with several restaurants so that we could figure out a good place to have lunch. Since we had already had Korean food many times in the United States, we wanted to get the full experience in Korea to see how it compares. She took us to a restaurant that is enjoyed by the locals. The inside was decorated almost exclusively in wood. It seemed very old and rustic...the perfect place to have lunch. Miae recommended a specific meal that consisted of at least 2 dozen different small dishes that are brought to the table and shared by everybody. I can't accurately describe everything we had, so here are a few pictures that show what we had.

The food was delicious. Miae seemed amazed that we tried everything and enjoyed it so much. Having a basic familiarity with Korean food made the meal very special. I know we'll always compare all Korean food to this one experience.

After lunch, we headed back to the main street in Insadong to do a little shopping. We had found a small shop that made name chops. A name chop is basically a rectangular block of material that is decorated and has a stamp on one end with somebody's name etched in it. We found one that had a basic scene of Korean hills on the side and had them etch Zachary's Korean name as the stamp. While walking around the shopping area, Laura noticed a woman that she thought looked familiar to her. We have a running joke that whenever we travel, Laura always sees somebody she knows. From a small town on the coast of Maine to a large city, it seems like once a trip she will see somebody she recognizes. Sure enough, it happened again. The woman she saw was an adoptive mother that she met online who was travelling to Korea to adopt her second child. In a city of millions, Laura happened to see somebody she knew. It was a little bizarre, but not totally unexpected.

We continued to walk through Insadong, picking up a few small souveniers including a silk painting of a Korean countryside and a Pororo DVD for Zachary. Pororo is a very popular cartoon in Korea. Pororo is a penguin and lives in a village with his animal friends including a polar bear, beaver, and dinosaur. We found an English version that he'll be able to enjoy as he grows.

We left Insadong and made our way to Cheonggyecheon Stream. It's a man made stream in the heart of the city that gives you the feeling that your not in the city even though you're surrounding by large buildings. It's a wonderful mix of rural and urban in a small area. It's a very popular destinations for Koreans to relax and enjoy the peaceful sounds of the water.

After relaxing beside the stream, we walked back towards the two statues on the main street at the beginning of the tour. The area is called Gwanghwamun Square. The statues are of Admiral Yi Sun Shin and King Sejong the Great (King of the Choseon dynasty). We said our good-byes to Miae, exchanged information so that we can keep in contact with her, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. When we arrived back in the room, we realized that we forgot to give her the gift that we brought from Maryland. Laura contacted her through facebook and we're planning on seeing her again so that we can give her the gift. Maybe we'll even be able to introduce her and Zachary.

It has only been one day, but I can say that we both love Seoul. It's an amazing city with a juxtoposition of the old and the new. We feel at home here. We can't wait to see what the next day will bring.