Travel Journal

The Pilgrimage, Qingdao, 5/13

(Monday 6 June 2011) by Joanne Chang
*****Part 2, Lao Shan & the Family Dinner*****

Our next mission is to visit Lao Shan, a mountain range 30km from Qingdao where Lao Ye (Mom's dad) set up camp to fight the Japanese before Mom was born, leaving his home, wife and family in Huang Xian (Shandong province, not to be confused with the Yellow Mountains in Anhui). Some time later, Lao Lao joined him, sneaking between the mountains and the villages, spying and bringing him messages while pregnant with my mother. In 1944 Mom was born in a nearby village called Laiyang and hidden in teepee haystacks when the Japanese, hoping to find and kill the wife and baby of this man fighting them in the mountains, came looking for them. Somehow, even hidden in haystacks Mom knew not to cry, and they were never found. The Japanese were forced out of China in 1945, and Mom's family moved to Qingdao.

We go to Lao Shan with E, Dr. Li, and an understudy of Dr. Li's who so graciously plays host and chauffeur for the day (you would be hard pressed to find a more accommodating fellow - his mom should be proud). Connections get us in without having to pay the hefty entrance fee, and we climb up to Buddhist and Taoist temples nestled into the mountain, overlooking the Yellow Sea below. Lao Shan is situated on 87 km of coastline and Mom marvels at its proximity to the sea while contemplating buying property there (something she does every time we visit a pretty place on the water). This isn't the Japanese-fighting mountain she expected to find, or the village on the sea. Her eyes are wide. She buys a bag-full of locally grown Asian pears and we snack on them until lunchtime. For lunch, we go to a casual seafood restaurant on the coast, and Mom scopes out the tanks, ordering a huge spread. 3 or 4 stir fries, seafood stew, a whole fish, corn bread, several bottles of Lao Shan pi jiu (beer). Over-the-top deliciousness. I say something about not needing to eat dinner, and Mom says we've already been invited out by her other cousins in Qingdao. I didn't even know she had other cousins in Qingdao.

After a speedy change of clothes back at the hotel, Mom gathers up her bottles of fish oil capsules, Centrum vitamins, and L'Oreal makeup (the result of a last-minute gift-buying spree at Walgreens), and we're off to dinner. We're shown to a large private banquet room and excitedly greeted by a roomful of new family -- I later calculate this to be 4 cousins, 3 cousins-in-law, 2 nieces, and 2 nephews, all descending from one of Lao Lao's 5 brothers and 2 sisters. Mom hasn't seen any of her cousins since she was a self-proclaimed 4 year old brat, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed, fuzzy on how everyone is related and struggling to follow the conversation. As it is my Chinese Mandarin is limited, but Shandong Hua is nearly unrecognizable, especially after several rounds of "gan bei" (bottoms up) between me and one of the nephews (my second cousin), who in good humor makes jokes that I pretend to understand before being called out because, well, I don't. It is, at times, humiliating. Frustrating. Awkward. But I recognize that these feelings stem only from my own insecurities, from my own failures.

As the meal goes on I see myself sinking into shyness, returning to the nervous little girl I once was, sitting at the adult dinner table surrounded by a language I don't understand waiting to be excused. I want to participate, I want to be me. I want to connect with these people who are my family, but I don't know how. Language is my barrier now more than ever. My mother, my own mother, has the attention of everyone in the room, and I don't know what she's saying. How many times has this happened before, and never have I cared? Suddenly there is a gap between us that I've never felt before, and it hurts. The simple-minded immaturities of my past, my choices to shun the culture that defines me, are staring me down.

Thank goodness for food, and how it connects us. Girl cousins on either side of me make sure I taste every delicacy that comes to our table, encouraging me to eat until I'm about to enormous dinner spread that one should be lucky enough to experience in a food city like Qingdao. They top it off with steaming plates of the best jaozi I've ever had (ever!), and I can't help but eat 4 or 6 despite my full belly. After the meal ends we exchange gifts and say our goodbyes, and it's a strange feeling saying goodbye to family you don't know if you'll ever see again. But I will come back. I have to learn Chinese so I can come back, understand fully where I came from, and get to know my family.


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