Travel Journal

Travel Mom! Shanghai, 5/5-5/7

(Monday 30 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
Traveling with Mom is pretty awesome. Despite spending two hours looking for each other at the Shanghai International terminal, when we meet she is smiling, full of energy and ready to roll. Our first task is taking the airport speed train into the city, and though I'm equipped to fumble my way through the process, I don't have to. Before I can think of how to ask for help she's already done it, and I graciously (and gratefully) hand over the reins.
When the train arrives we get a taxi and as she chats with our driver about how much Shanghai has changed since her last visit (which was never), I feel myself slipping blissfully into mother-daughter submission. Mom has arrived and I can relax.

We have 19 days together, and the itinerary is flexible but made up of a few main parts. First, we play tourist. Then we go to Mom's birthplace, Qingdao, where she'll return for the first time since she was four years old and fled Communist China for Taiwan. After Qingdao we go to Shenyang where my father's ancestors once lived and ruled over northern China (Manchuria), in the early 1900s. We end in Beijing where my cousin lives and Mom flies home. I continue onto Xi'an.

Thankfully we are in agreement that organized tours stink and decide to make our own way (which, objectively, would be incredibly painful if I were alone). We take things day by day, and it's fun to see that she enjoys spontaneous travel the way I do, that she's thrifty and frugal and a fan of the local bus. It's also clear where I get my stubborn determination to carry my own bags, my anxiety over burdening others, my erratic impatience, my independence, my compassion. We bicker nearly every day trying to carry each others' bags, worry about the others' health and stamina, fight about who treats, and want to go-go-go despite not knowing which way to turn. We both want to take care of the other, and we both want to take care of ourselves -- perhaps not the most balanced relationship, but a very loving one, and I start to understand my mother in a new way. She is like me, I am like her. After these months of self-reflection and growth, I now see her more clearly.

In the ways in which we're different, it's fascinating and entertaining to watch her in her element, in her language. She's chatting it up with strangers from cab drivers to shopkeepers, passengers at the airport, hairdressers, tourists and hotel staff. She's bargaining ruthlessly buying multiples of everything, telling stories, talking politics, and feeding me yummy things I've never had before like ling jiao, lily bulb, gingko fruit, pi pa fruit and Chinese chestnuts (which become our staple snack). She's bright and vibrant here in China, and it feels great to be in these moments with her.

Our two days in Shanghai turn into one when we decide to take a day trip to Zhouzhuang, a cute old canal town filled with tourist shops and pork stores where Mom begins amassing a pile of souvenirs to take home -- four handbags, three bamboo flutes, rice with your name on it, Dad's name on a stamp, a pile of scarves. It's fun to watch her go. Back in Shanghai on Nanjing Lu we add a few more things to her no-longer-empty luggage bag, wait in line for the last batch of shanghai dumplings at Nanxiang in Chenghuang Miao (yum yum, this is the place to go for dumplings!), and walk the Bund. Our hotel near Chenghuang Miao is great, if a bit fancy, with Mom stowing several pairs of hotel slippers in her bag (next to the many jumbo-size jars of fish oil capsules and Centrum multi-vitamins that she brought as gifts for relatives -- hilarious), while I do the same with tea bags and Nescafe, and we start making plans.

In the afternoon of day 3 we catch a bus to see Huangshan (yellow mountain), said to be the most beautiful mountain range in China and a place Mom has always dreamed of going. On the way, I doze off while she stares out the window in amazement -- plots of high rise complexes one after another, sprouting up between Shanghai and the mountains in what used to be countryside. Freeways running through the sky.

  • correction by Joyce Chang
    • ooookay... by Joanne


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