Travel Journal

Goodbye Qingdao, 5/16-5/17 (the breakdown)

(Thursday 9 June 2011) by Joanne Chang
I wake up at the Gloria Hotel in Qingdao with a mess of emotions rumbling inside me, trying to claw their way out. My brain hurts, every part of my body is tense, and I need to get out of here. E arrives to take Mom sightseeing and I head to the beach, crowded today with even more bride models and photo shoots, couples pretending to be in love, none of it real. I walk. I walk at full speed along the water and through the city for three hours straight. I cry. Over the last few days I've been hit by swells of emotion with no way to release them, no outlet to express them. I have desired to speak, to understand, to express gratitude and joy, but have not found the means to do so. I have realized very painfully this enormous gap between me and my parents that exists solely because of me, my lack of interest and acceptance of who they are and where they come from. Where I come from. How awful it must be to give birth to a child who does not speak the same language as you do, who does not understand you, who blames you. I have given up relationships with my grandparents, on both sides, who I will know only through stories now, and they will never know how regretful I am.

I get back to the hotel in the late afternoon, and Mom is there waiting. I start talking, babbling, crying. She tells me these realizations are good, that it's not too late to learn, that it was never my choice to be born in a foreign country faced with these decisions. She doesn't dispute anything I say, but offers hope that things can change. It feels great to let it all out, and suddenly I find calm. I have to, have to, have to, learn Chinese. This is not like having to learn Spanish. This is my family and my future. This will change my life.

In the evening we decide to search out one last relative -- Lao Ye's sister had 4 sons and at least one of them lives in Qingdao (we had met the wife of another son in Huang Xian). We have an address but no phone number, and the cabbie isn't sure where it is, but we take a chance and adventure far, far away, getting dropped off at what should be near the street we're looking for. It's a bit of aimless roaming, several disregarded questions for help (btw, it's really fun to hear Mom speak Shandong dialect, she kind of sounds like Snatch too), and an attempt to participate in the community park dance class, before we find a couple who leads us straight to our destination. Mom goes up a pitch-black stairwell while I wait under a streetlamp outside, and what do you know, they're home! Photo albums come out, tea is served, biscuits are pushed and together we meet this cousin, wife and grown son for the first time. They are hospitable beyond expectations, offering us dinner (two, three times) and delighted by this surprise visit, relatives catapulted from America onto their doorstep. It's a lovely visit. And a reality check. As I watch their son prepare tea and watermelon in the small, worn-out 1-bedroom apartment that would be considered low-income housing in the U.S., I imagine visiting my parents in a place like this. And I imagine the place they do live in. The contrast is stark, and not much more so than our relatives in Huang Xian, but in this calmer state I'm able to observe it. All of the comforts we take for granted -- lighting, heating, toilets that flush -- were only degrees away from being somebody else's luxuries. I wonder how they see it, I wonder if they know how we live. When we leave they walk with us to find a cab, and I feel gratitude for having found them. Though we forgot to get their phone number. Doh.

The rest of our time in Qingdao is nice and relaxing, just the two of us palling around. Seafood dinner on Old Street, a walk in the park, a stroll down Red Wine Street with the underground Wine Museum which doesn't feel like China at all. First, the street is empty. Where are all the people? Second, there are several fancy wine shops where you can taste wines from Australia, Argentina, France and even Canada, but you can't taste wine from China. Third, coffee at the (empty) Connoisseur Cafe is $6, which is more than a coffee at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. It's an interesting concept poorly executed, and we consider the possibilities of making it work. Qingdao is truly an awesome city, we have family here, there's no doubt opportunity abounds in China, and what if we could start a business together? In the moment it seems not too far-fetched. Everything seems possible.

That evening we leave Qingdao for Shenyang, full of new experiences, new relationships, new ideas. Closing the chapter on Mom's family history and journeying on to explore Dad's.


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