Travel Journal

The Pilgrimage, Qingdao, 5/12

(Friday 3 June 2011) by Joanne Chang
I don't know how to write about Qingdao. In fact I've been putting it off for days, overwhelmed by the task of truly capturing what happened during those days. It was a pilgrimage to my mother's homeland, from the mountains where her father fought and the village where she was born, to the home she left when she was four, to the land her father lost long ago but still on his deathbed called home. It was a reawakening of culture and heritage, an introduction to family I never knew about, an immersion of language and generosity, curiosity, and love. It was a confrontation, me against my child self, the girl who rejected everything Chinese in hopes that one day her yellow skin would turn white, her black hair blonde. It was a journey in all directions, and I am still scattered by it, but I will try to get it right.

*****Part 1, Welcome to Qingdao*****

The night bus from Nanjing arrives in Qingdao at 5 a.m., and upon the insistence of Mom's cousin (Auntie, or "E") that her son pick us up, we are promptly greeted and delivered to the Gloria Hotel in Badaguan district. A few hours later, E meets Mom and I at our hotel, and we head out. E is the daughter of one of Lao Lao's 5 older brothers (Mom's mom). Her dad learned how to climb up vertical walls for fun. She is a sweet, compassionate woman in her early 70s, dressed modestly in old slacks and a sweatshirt, and speaks only Shandong Hua -- a dialect that's different enough from Mandarin that I hardly understand a word. Here begins my introduction to a family of Shandong Hua speakers and my retreat into 10-year old shyness, quietly trying to understand, embarrassed that I can't, pretending to follow along and hoping nobody asks me anything. It's an emotional journey that builds slowly and in the end smacks me on the head, smacks me in the heart. More to follow on that.

Within five minutes' walk from the hotel we're at beach #2 and a beautiful stretch of coastline, soft white sand set against rock formations and the only blue sky I've ever seen in China. At first it appears there are 10 or more weddings today, women in gowns being photographed up and down the coast, but these are model shoots. This is how picturesque Qingdao is. Beautiful and serene with fresh clean air, sun, sea, mountains and a tidy cosmopolitan city in the middle of it all. Skyscrapers and sculptures, castles and colonials (the Germans occupied in the early 1900s, followed by the Japanese), Red Wine Street, China's famed Tsingtao brewery, and the site of the 2008 Sailing Olympics. We meander down the boardwalk, eat street crepes and calamari, E buys me a coconut to drink and Mom and I get our zodiac signs blown into sugar lollipops. In this moment she resembles the little girl who used to love getting those pops, walking down the boardwalk holding her little monkey, talking excitedly and smiling.

One of the main reasons we came to Qingdao was to visit her old home, the one her family moved to after the Japanese were defeated in 1945, and the one they fled in 1948 when the threat of Communist takeover was imminent. This is also the place where she and E last saw each other, where E's family took refuge when their nearby village was no longer safe. It used to be a large 2-story house, and it used to sit on several acres of land overlooking the sea, but the house has been reduced to what used to be the kitchen and the yard is now filled with other peoples' homes. The guy who lives in the kitchen is home, and is the nephew of the son of the person who purchased the property from Lao Ye, Mom's dad, in 1948. He is gracious enough to let us in, to let us peek at the place that sadly is nothing what it used to be. I snap pictures of Mom under the same tree where she and Lao Lao, her mom, once had a photo taken -- I know the photo well, it's been on Mom's dresser since I can remember and is the only photo she has of herself in Qingdao, until now. We leave the property and walk down to beach #1, and I wonder what emotions she's going through. Her parents have passed and this was their home, forced out by a new government that threatened their lives (Lao Ye was a Kuomintang government official, if they didn't leave he'd surely be assassinated). But if there is any sadness in her, it doesn't show. She looks happy and relaxed, she looks like she's home.

That night E and her husband, Dr. Li, take us to a fancy schmancy buffet dinner on the top floor of a hotel, with a rotating dining room overlooking the city to the sea. Dr. Li is an oral surgeon, highly regarded and sharply dressed, an interesting contrast to her casual threads. The spread is incredible, fresh seafood, scallops and clams made to order, salmon sashimi, eel, calamari, wild mushrooms, make-your-own soup and free-flowing pitchers of Tsingtao beer. I feel beyond spoiled, what a contrast to the places I've become used to and I'm sure this costs a fortune. We eat and talk (they talk, I pretend to understand) until we are stuffed with Dr. Li and I guzzling most of the beer, thus beginning our food tour of Shandong, the first of many decadent family meals that give China my "best food in the world" prize. (My how I've grown from the girl who used to order burgers in a Chinese restaurant, eat Chef Boyardee instead of joining the family for Dad's stir fry.) Later, Mom fills me in on parts of the conversation, that in the 50s and 60s because all jobs paid the same crappy wage, E and Dr. Li had to take a night job breaking stones manually to support their families. They didn't get a raise for 10 years.
I'm humbled by what they have been through, what my parents could have been through, how different my life could have been.


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