As it sounds like another round of America World adopting parents are getting ready to head out, I thought I'd compile a personal list of "Things I wish I had known, understood, or thought about beforehand." Many of these will apply just to older children, but you'll get the idea.
-Ethiopians love children. Seriously. From folks working at the Hilton to people walking down the street, everyone is nice to the children. Our kids are accustomed to being touched, kissed, and addressed directly. So if you're concerned about older children being unresponsive and distant, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.
-Altitude. Addis Abeba is situated at about 8500 feet, so even if you are in decent shape, expect to be unusually exhausted. Any cardio you can do beforehand will really pay off when you get there.
-Don't get too excited when you hear "Mommy/Daddy." Turns out those are terms of respect, and are not necessarily singular like they are here in the States. Even knowing that, it's a little jolting when your child runs up to the hotel security guard and says, "Good Morning Daddy."
-Cold things and ice are novelties. In Ethiopia they don't flaunt their refrigeration like we do here. We're always trying to be the coldest, but there I don't think I even saw an ice cube once we got off the plane. (That might also be because most of us touristas are sensitive about the water...) Anyway, drinks were cool, but not 32.5 degrees.
Our kids have an aversion to cold stuff. I think everything we've served straight from the refrigerator has been out-right rejected (today it was carrots.) But room-temperature foods have had a much higher acceptance rate (raisins and grapes were today's successes.) Even things they think they'll like, like milk, have been uncomfortably chilled for them.
-Packaging. I don't know if it's an orphanage thing or what, but our kids were baffled by food packaging and needed to see the actual food before they'd think about eating it. We found this out the hard way on the plane where everything was individually wrapped. They'd just sit there staring at their plates. So we'd open everything and then they'd decide not to eat it.
-Oh, they have opinions all right... On a similar note, we had read that children from orphanages tend to not have preferences because they've never been allowed to make decisions on things like clothes or food. Our kids certainly have preferences, just no schema for making a choice. Again, I go back to food packaging. While at the hotel, we'd walk into the convenience store and one child would point to a pack of gum and say, "Daddy, Me." Thinking like an American, I was tempted to oblige, (it's just gum, right?) but we were there for juice boxes so I shrugged it off. Next thing I know I hear, "Daddy, Me!" and that same child is now pointing at 2 pound bag of dried dates. Yeah, like I want to deal with the aftermath of that. We take a couple more steps and the same child goes, "Me, Daddy?" while pointing to a large bottle of Jack Daniels. At this point, the game is up and I point to a shelf with 3 flavors of juiceboxes; apple, peach or pineapple. This child then states "Me Daddy" and points to a bigger juicebox on a different shelf labled "Tomato." That was my crash course in parenting.
Another interesting side effect of this is that product branding is, at this point, completely lost on them. They both had requested Coke at restaurants (most likely because of the novelty,) but I've got a case of it sitting in the kitchen sitting next to the cat food and neither has said a word about it. Chris and I will continue to use this to our advantage. No golden arches for you!
Be happy being one of the Wonderfuls. There's an old joke about how even if you are "one in a million," there are still a thousand people just like you in China. I really liked the fact that through America World, we were banded together with several other adopting families. The benefit of that is tremendous. There's a lot of camaraderie and the information exchanged is absolutely invaluable. However, for me it was hard on my ego to be in close quarters with 5 other "one in a million" families. I'm used to being good at what I do, and I hate punting when other people are watching and/or getting it right. If I could do it again, I'd prepare myself more for becoming a small fish. From the moment I stepped on the plane in DC and saw that some of the other folks were traveling first class (which makes a whole lot of sense when you're talking about a 13+ hour flight,) I knew that the playing field wasn't level, and that I was just going to have to sit back in coach and take it like a man. There were many "I should have thought of that first" moments for me throughout our week in Ethiopia that I just had to accept. At one point after a particularly exhausting day, I looked over at Chris and said, "I'm sorry I'm not wonderful like the other guys." She didn't even look back and just went, "Pfft, like I would have married any of them. Good night," then rolled over. That's my girl! :-)
But when all was said and done, after all the miscommunication and stress and waiting (usually for the Gardners) and illnesses, it was a successful trip for everyone. We all played our parts wonderfully. I pray that the other adopting families will have similar success.