Travel Journal

Beijing, China, 5/21-5/26

(Thursday 15 September 2011) by Joanne Chang
Our very last stop in China is Beijing. Mom has to get back to work on Tuesday and after much deliberation I've decided to go home too. It's a difficult choice, as I had prior determination to continue onto Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors, then head south to Yunan province to experience the tribal villages and visit the UNESCO world heritage site of Lijang. I also toyed with the idea of going to Tibet, and ending my trip in Myanmar. But life is calling to me in different ways. After the last weeks of traveling with Mom to seek out long lost family and trace our history, after traveling with my sister before that, and George, and Lisa, after seeing Angkor Wat next to poverty-stricken villages, and after completing a 10-day silent meditation retreat, I feel I've experienced as much as I can possibly experience and have it be meaningful. Travel now, for the sake of travel, would be lost on me. ain't over yet!

When we arrive in Beijing, my cousin Ryan (Mom's little sister's son) is there with his girlfriend Sharon to pick us up. She's dressed nicely in a skirt and heels, and I feel grubby, and they take hold of our luggage as we walk to the car, a nice car, and drive us across town to our hotel. Ryan booked the hotel for us, the Renaissance, a favor from a colleague who owes him some favors. It's a four star hotel, nicer than anywhere I've stayed during my 9 months of travel. Take that plus the VIP pickup and I feel instantly spoiled, such contrast to the places we've come from. After a quick change of clothes we head across the street for hot pot -- a place where we each get our own little hot pot with our own choice of soup base (spicy? curry? ginger?) and different yummy dipping sauces for any protein or vegetable you can imagine. I love it, individual hot pot. San Francisco should have something like this. They also have sao bing (sesame pockets) made with some kind of wheat-rice flour that are so tasty I can't believe I've never had this version before. Sao bing is my favorite.

Our first full day in Beijing we go to the Bird's Nest, home of the 2008 Summer Olympics. It's really neat, massive, and structurally awesome. Looks like a bird's nest. The Olympic square is sprawling like everything in China, an endless stretch of pavement with the nest on one end and the water cube (swimming arena) on the other. We sit in the bleachers of the cube and imagine what it was like during the games. They've since turned another part of the water cube into a water park for families (I'm sure the entry fee is hefty!), kids splashing around where Olympic athletes used to warm-up.

For lunch Ryan and Sharon take us to a fancy restaurant called Shanghai 1930 (hey, we've got one of those!) for Peking duck. The food is yum yum yummy and the bill reflects it, but maybe it's time to let the money thing go and just enjoy. Still, it's hard to spend the same money on a cup of tea that can feed two people full of noodles & dumplings on the street. Still, it's nice to use a clean bathroom with toilet paper. After lunch we stroll through the new upscale shopping center across the street (which wouldn't be complete without an Apple store), and I spy a San Francisco Ritual Coffee sign in a cafe window. Wow! Ritual has found it's way to Beijing. The coffee craze is about to hit China.

Later that afternoon we go to see my Uncle Tom, Dad's younger brother, who's been living in Beijing for many years. We sit and have tea around his dining table, and listen to his stories. He reminds me so much of my father it's uncanny -- the same laugh, the same subtle mannerisms, it's like I'm looking at my father. I don't think they talk very often, and I wonder how it feels to have a brother that is so much like you, such a distance apart. Uncle Tom asks me if I'm married (strange he doesn't know?), and I tell him I'm divorced, and he tells me all men are scum. So, he's a bit more boisterous than my father. Dinner conversation at a nearby seafood restaurant turns gossipy and I wonder what Ryan and Sharon think of our Uncle Tom. When we leave he says he wishes he could come with me and Mom tomorrow to visit his parents' grave, but he has things to do. He'll call us. (Oddly, I don't have any pictures from our visit with Uncle Tom. Somehow didn't think to take them.)

In the morning, Mom and I have breakfast at the hotel, which is included in our (comped) room. It's the most incredible breakfast spread with everything from omelets and smoked salmon to a noodle soup bar and congee with thousand year-old eggs. They even have plain yogurt with fruit and muesli. I love breakfast so much I want to sit there all morning and eat slowly through lunch, but we have to get to the cemetery.

The cemetery is a long way away, in fact it used to be considered outside of Beijing before Beijing expanded. We take a taxi, buy some flowers, and after some searching locate Dad's parents' gravestone. It's a bit weathered and much of the engraving has chipped away, but we dust off the dirt and add flowers to make it nice. Mom tells me Nai Nai (Dad's mom) was always really good to me when they lived with us, that she'd make dumplings and pancakes from scratch especially for me and that they'd let me jump on their bed. I feel regretful that I didn't know them better. Once I got older and decided I didn't want to be Chinese anymore, the cultural barrier between us became too thick. It must be painful to see a child who used give you unconditional love, no longer know how to speak to you, nor care to.

On our way out, Mom and I stop into the administrative office to see about getting the gravestones touched up. They say maintenance is included in the cost of the site, but the reason maintenance hasn't been performed is because our contract expired. Years ago. In fact we are just in time to renew it before the site is dug up and re-sold. What!? That's crazy. Thank goodness we came, yet so sad that we are the only people to have visited in years. From America. Uncle Tom must be a very busy man. Mom is beside herself. We renew the site and head back to the city center.

Mom leaves the next day, but we have some time in the morning and she wants to buy a karaoke machine. So we head to the electronics store, and while crossing the street from one of those concrete islands she blindly walks into a waist-high orange cone fixed to the pavement, flips over it, and falls face-first onto the street. There's blood coming from her cheekbone and her lip, her glasses have flown off, and she's in shock. Luckily there are no cars coming! Strangers rush to help us, we make sure she's ok to walk, and get into a taxi. On the way to the hotel she rants to the driver, telling him how stupid the city is to put those cones there. She's fallen but she's not broken, and anger and excitement tell me she'll be okay. It's unfortunate for our trip to end abruptly with a bloody lip and black eye, but those scars will heal. Ryan arrives to take her to the airport (I can only imagine the second round of anger and excitement on the way there), and off to Chicago she goes. She emails me from the airport to tell me she's fine. I spend my final 2 days in China alone.

I really want to finish my travel journal before I get home, and I'm so behind. If I don't finish it here, will I ever? I'm also tired of running around and secretly excited to hole up in a comfy hotel room, sheltered from the intensity of this city. But Sharon says there's no way I'm staying in my hotel room all day. They take me out to dinner that night with friends of theirs, to an upscale hot pot restaurant that is seriously delicious, and I meet Sharon's friend from high school, Theresa. She speaks Italian but not English, having lived and studied in Florence. We chat in Chinese what we can, and later when Sharon gives me a list of things to do the next day, Theresa asks to join me.

So the next day, off I go to Bei Hei park to view the Forbidden City from above, then meet Theresa on Nan Luogu Jie, a cute old street lined with boutique shops, restaurants and bars. Quaint and trendy. We take a bicycle carriage ride from a nice man and Theresa treats me to sushi dinner (this is China, such gracious hosts) before meeting up with Ryan and Sharon. They have a couple surprises for me: first, the DVD store where I can buy current (bootlegged) seasons of Californication and Weeds, then to the spa for foot massages! We're at the spa until after midnight getting foot rubs. I love it. What better way to end my trip?

Then, it's May 26 and I have a flight to San Francisco at 10:30 a.m. I am beyond excited. I am saturated with love, compassion, humility and wonderment from these last 9 months of travel. They have been incredible, they have provided me with everything I needed and more. I am the luckiest girl in the world. To think that at the beginning of my trip I was still tangled up in a messy divorce, that when I arrived in Asia was still struggling to let it all go. That until today I had no idea how much a part of my mother I am, that until today I had no idea how strong I am. And all I want to do now is go home and see George. I want to start my life with him. I have nothing more to accomplish out here. I am complete.

This journal, too, is now, at last, complete.


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