Monday, July 25, 2011


It was a bittersweet departure - leaving Jen to face greater adventures on her own filled me with joy and I knew that she would continue to make leaps and bounds with her command of the Chinese language. The trip had been successful - we had accomplished all we had set to do and had all grown with the experiences. I very much treasured the time I had with Robert and Jen, knowing that these times are few and far between.

I was however, eager to leave the heat and humidity, and greatly anticipated the clean air, clean water, and personal space in California. I left with a greater appreciation for China and all that it had accomplished. It is a country not to be feared, but to be respected and embraced, for the people have so much to offer the world. Our globe has truly been flattened and the distinction among our cultures is merging more and more rapidly than one can imagine.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Robert left early in the morning. Jen and I had promised to visit my aunt one last time. I had offered to bring vegetable buns but she insisted we come for boiled potstickers, which she said were cleaner as they were packaged neatly in a colorful bag.

This 90 year old woman had prepared soup for us, not a bit bothered by the warm temperature and humidity. I stood in her tiny kitchen, preparing the potstickers and watched as the thunder and lightning led to pouring rain. "It is rain that keeps company around," she stated happily. She told us story after story as we ate, and I observed Jen's discretely placed tape recorder on the table. She greatly enjoyed our photography session, wanting to see how she looked in each picture on the back of my digital camera. Finally, it was time for us to leave. We carried books she had pulled off the shelves for us to take back, and little "treasured" things she had gathered for us. We were not allowed to hail a cab at the streetcorner, "Too unsafe", she admonished, and called a taxi for us. Nothing could stop her from walking us down the hall to the elevator with her walker and telling us not to use the elevator on the left because the door sometimes doesn't open, and getting a last glimpse of us as the elevator doors closed.

Our last night in Shanghai, too hot and tired to wander far, we took a cab to Shintiandi, the new nightclub/restaurant area for dinner. We sat at a long shared table and enjoyed steamed dumplings and soup noodles. The young people next to us were clearly Chinese Americans and we chuckled to hear their Chinglish, and conversations about their experiences in China. I wondered if our Chinese sounded like that as well. It was a perfect way to end a fruitful trip to China.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


The previous evening we had left Ningbo by train, after spending three hours in a very warm and stuffy train station, waiting for time to pass. It was a window into the average Chinese person's life - fighting the crowds, putting up with the environment, and taking a cheap mode of transportation. In some ways, life has improved dramatically as I recalled much earlier train trips with fellow passengers bringing live chickens in cages and big round sacks of clothes tied up in a sheet. I remember shoving and pushing to get on to the platform, lest the train leave you behind. Asking for directions of those in the ticket line, I was still confronted by blank stares and one smart aleck who told me I was in the right line to buy a ticket to anywhere, even America if I wanted to. But there were also some helpful young people who were eager to be of assistance.

The train ride was three hours, a considerable improvement in travel to Shanghai since the completion of a new bridge. Our previous trip to Ningbo ten years ago, took two days via Hangzhou.

Steamed vegetable buns were the reason for staying at this hotel - a half a mile away from a sidewalk window that sold the very best shanghai steamed buns. I often have a longing for these buns and have never been able to replicate them at home. I bought several for breakfast. Today would be the second part of our genealogical adventure; I would introduce Robert and Jen to my mother's family. Family stories always make me realize how our lives are carved by simple decisions we make along the way. The dramatic differences in the lives of my mother versus those of her siblings, who remained in China during the cultural revolution. Who could have imagined how significant those life choices were to be in framing their futures. My aunt's husband, a scholar like my father, was punished for being learned, and forced to pull a cart like an oxen, injuring his neck from the heavy rope. My aunts and their families faced tremendous hardship escaping from the Japanese to Shanghai. Survival was tough, food and clothing was scarce, and many of my generation were denied the opportunity for an education - when they returned back to the cities, they were deemed to old to go to school. My mother left the country early in her adult life and never realized she would not see her family again for over 50 years. Is it even possible for a family to reconcile these differences? How can one begin to understand each other after so many years and such disparate experiences? A childhood together, an adulthood more than worlds apart.

My aunts were fiercely independent and strong willed, and even in their late 80's, determined to be self sufficient. The oldest of my mother's sisters, travels around town in a small walker, the handlebars cushioned by wrapping in layers of black plastic. She hides her purse and purchases in the space under the hinged seat. She was waiting for us by the street so we wouldn't get lost. The second sister lives along in a 2 bedroom apartment filled with books of her late husband. She showed us her wedding album; she was a girl of startling beauty with a face of joy and hope. From there, we went to dinner at the restaurant of my uncle's family. My cousin spoke of the times in his childhood when they would receive bundles of clothing we had sent. I remember helping to pack those bundles. It was a time when we were told to clean our plates because there were starving people in China. They have worked hard and now enjoy a very comfortable life. We ate Asian fusion dishes and the young adults talked a common language of iphones, ipads and youtube. Funny how the divergent lives have converged once more to commonalities made possible by technology and globalization. Shanghai, always cosmopolitan, is now akin to the western world.

It has been an interesting visit and will take time for us to fully process what it has meant to each of us.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ancestral Roots

Nine years ago, I had come to Ningbo with my brother and parents to find the Chang ancestral village that we had heard and read about. At that time, I had felt totally out of place as a Chinese that wasn't really Chinese, but really excited to be so close to where we all began. We were full of hope and anticipation, but didn't really know if the village still existed, or even where it was. Suspecting only that someone at the Ningbo museum might have a clue, I had led the family in that direction. How fortuitous that an elderly gentleman at the museum happened to overhear us talking in the office and said that his home town was next to a village he believed was Changhuashan. He only knew how to get there by bus. We managed to find a cabdriver willing to help us locate the place. Today, my heart sank when I called this same driver, and he said he had sold his business and was no longer driving. My only hope was that I would be able to safely retrace our steps and that this trip would not be in vain. This visit, aside from visiting Jen, was the sole purpose of Robert and my trip to China. I was however, one step ahead of last time, I had the phone number of elderly Mr. Chang who owned the small general store there. I had no definite plan, only two companions that were curious about the mystery of their background and eager and willing to take whatever mode of transportation necessary to get there.

We flew from Beijing to arrived in Ningbo, finding it to be lush and green with waterways running like canals through the city. The growth here was evident as well, however Ningbo did not share the same landscape of tall high rise buildings and crowded streets we had seen in Beijing, and had a feeling of openness. Late in the evening as we walked the city's boardwalk, a miniature replica of the Shanghai Bund, we saw promenades and the huge outdoor mall with fountains that were dancing in synchrony to Lion King and other pop songs.

My kids have taught me to go with the flow when traveling - my original plans for getting a driver had fallen flat - I should have known that cars at a 5 star hotel would not be cheap, but 1,400 rmb? It was more than our plane fares from Beijing! I told him I didn't need a big black Audi; after all, I really didn't want to arrive in to Changhuashan looking like a wealthy American. Plan B was to try to take the bus, which Mr. Chang seemed to say, stops in front of his store. But I really didn't understand his Shanghainese Mandarin on the phone and couldn't verify that this was true. In the end, we decided to hail a taxi and negotiate a rate on the spot, perhaps for him to wait for us, or to find a return taxi in the nearby village.

Truly times have changed, and today, we have Google maps to help us with our adventures. Thanks to my brother, Calvin's research and thoughtfulness, an email arrived with Changhuashan clearly marked on a city map.

In the morning, we stuffed ourselves on the elaborate breakfast buffet the hotel offered. Very mother-like, I had advised them to eat heartily in case we didn't have a source for food until we returned in the late afternoon. A waiting taxi driver was eager to make the trip for 80rmb, quite a discount over an Audi car! He did not suggest paying him to wait and said there were plenty of cabs to make the return trip. The driver immediately identified us as being foreign and when questioned said he doesn't just drive cars, he pays attention to people and how they speak. It was our umm, umms that gave us way, he said. Locals are loud and vocal in responding. I vowed to be more vocal and tried hard to avoid grunting in agreement. To our surprise, Ningbo had expanded such that Changhuashan was very close to its outer edges, a short distance from the main road on a small highway - we arrived 20 min. later following several phone calls to Mr. Chang via cell phone.

The familiar Chang gate stood imposingly in the middle of a very busy street filled with stalls, carts and goods laid on the ground. Mr. Chang, grinning from ear to ear was waiting. We had arrived. Further up the road was his old general store and Mrs. Chang greeted us heartily with fresh watermelon and cool green pea soup. In his 70's, Mr. Chang remembered hearing stories of my great grandfather and how he had built the school and taught the villagers how to avoid cholera by building latrines and keeping the creek clean. We were VIP's and the day's tour had been planned to the utmost detail. A visit to the old school building to see my grandfather's plaque, a tour of the new temple and then a sumptuous lunch at the village's only restaurant - and a fancy black car waiting to drive us around!

We were given incense at the school house and I did my best to model for Robert and Jen what I thought we were supposed to do with it, bowing 3 times and putting it in the holder. We had attracted a crowd of people watching us. What were they thinking? Who did they think we were? Us silly Americans? Rich Americans taking pictures and not saying much? I wanted to remove the laundry hanging in front of the stage, thinking it was a far cry from how a village's ancestor should be treated but realized that although this village was named Chang, to these residents, it was just a village name. Most of the original families had moved on, and the village now rented both "garage manufacturing" space, farm plots, and living space to outlying rural people who needed a better life. They most likely had no idea who my grandfather was and why this building was here. It was probably what my great grandfather and grandfather would have wanted, that the village continue to provide livelihood and a safe place for families to thrive.

In the fancy black car squeezing through the very narrow alleys, and attracting a lot of attention, we were taken to the restaurant, where little dish after little dish appeared of local delicacies - salted raw crab, salted dried fish, shanghainese shrimp etc. We were still full from breakfast and tried to give the appearance of eating heartily while nibbling lightly. My limited Chinese vocabulary didn't allow me to carry on a complex conversation in Shanghainese Mandarin and so we answered many questions related to how much cars, airplane tickets, iphones etc. cost in the US.

After lunch we walked through the village, admiring the new school building and new apartments. There was an old run down house where we had previously been told my great grandfather had lived with his mother and siblings for safety during the Japanese occupation. We were never really sure if he had actually lived there, or if it was a good story to tell us, but this time, we were told to take pictures because it most likely would not be there the next time we visited. Jen wanted to spend more time talking with the villagers unescorted by village officials, but in hindsight, it would have been like Obama knocking on neighborhood doors asking them how their lives are. An American girl wandering the alleys, knocking on doors asking them how the village was treating them - I don't think so!

At the end of the day, Mr. Chang's son in law, driving the big black car returned us to the hotel. The Chang family, from parents to daughter to inlaws had spent a lot of time today, hosting us and making us proud of our little village. Mr. Chang said we were the only family that has returned to Changhuashan and I believe seeing the 4th generation return was an honor for the village officials and Mr. Chang's family. For me, it was a day to treasure and I was very proud, not only of my heritage, but of the next generation that has it in their hearts, to care about their family's history. I have fond memories of my grandfather, how he would smile at all of us and tell us how our family members were highly educated and good people, and how proud he was of all of us, and I knew that today, he was smiling down on us.

I was surprised that the village was still similar to what we saw 9 years ago, since at that time, I had a hunch that urban development would have changed it into modern apartments and malls. Isn't it funny how brick and mortar somehow tie us to a place? I wondered if the village would have the same appeal to me if high rises replaced the crumbling homes. The village officials reassured us that the temple will always remain, as it is a symbol to the Chinese of their ancestry, and an important place of worship. For now, my mission had been accomplished and my obligation fulfilled and I left Ningbo with a sense of peace.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Olympic Village

Olympic Village is impressive - acres of forest, green grass, and park land surrounding 3 main structures, the Aquatic Cube, the Bird's Nest, and the Olympic Stadium. Busloads of Chinese tourists flood the streets to take pictures, wander the grounds, and play in the huge indoor water park that resides in the Aquatics Center. At night, the Cube glows blue and the Bird's Nest's woven metal shines bright white.

These are masterpieces of architecture, as are so many of China's new buildings. At night, as we were whisked through the streets by cab, we craned our necks to see all the skyscrapers and oohed and ahed at the patterns of light reflecting off the shiny surfaces, the unusual shapes and designs, and the combinations of buildings that seem to play off each other to create a palette of structures like we had never seen before.

We were surprised sometimes at the interiors where the walls appear older than the building itself, and wondered if it is the quality of materials, environmental weathering, or high density of people. Public bathrooms seem to be China's demise. Even the most sparkling museums and malls have either too few, or not so sparkling restrooms. There will be a day, I believe, but that day has not yet arrived.

Robert and I spent the day in the Chinese Ethnic Minority Park, where one can experience 40 minority cultures over several acres. Buildings are lifesize replicas; some were actually transported from the villages. From Tibetan dancers and temple to birch covered teepees, and even Buddhas carved in a mountainside, we were amazed at how realistic everything was. Surprising, the park was empty and we wondered if it drew the number of tourists during the Olympics that it had obviously been built to attract.

We ended the day at a chic Taiwanese restaurant, stuffed again, we anxiously and eagerly anticipated the following day's adventure to the Chang ancestral village. In our hotel room, I read my translation of Grandpa's autobiography to Robert and Jen, and we talked deep into the night about the Chang family and our upcoming visit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Museums Revisited

We retraced our steps back to the museums that we missed the previous day, walking about as much today but being much more productive. The Ancient Observatory contained old relics from the 12th century, reminding us of China's long history in science and technology. In contrast, the Beijing Museum was a gleaming new building filled with art, history, and cultural displays. Entrance was free but registration was required. "Do you have a registration card?" she asked. "No? How about ID, passport?" Still no, but she needed a number to let us in, and settled for Robert's health insurance card number and my United Mileage Plus membership number, which we entered carefully in the blank labeled "number" next to our Chinese names!

How far China has come compared to the early bilingual signs and rudimentary displays of a decade ago! I was truly impressed and encouraged to see the large groups of schoolchildren and families. Throughout the trip, I was often struck by the care and attention being given to children by their parents. I observed patient and thoughtful conversations between mothers and their children, loving care by grandparents, and well behaved groups of young people off from school for the summer. Education is of the utmost importance and something right is happening in the raising of young people in this vast country. I met bright, hard working, and eager college students, full of hopes, dreams, and vitality.

After another full meal, we came out of the restaurant to see thunder, lightning and pouring rain. This time we had umbrellas but no taxis to be found. The few drivers parked in the lot shook their heads at us through their foggy windows. We finally snagged a cab after the rains cleared and this very vocal driver gave us a piece of his mind as he whipped through the streets of Beijing. No way was he driving in the pouring rain when he can't see through the windshield. He can't afford insurance and it is not worth the risk. People don't get out of the car when it is pouring. People don't understand why he refuses to pick them up. He'd rather sit there all night than drive in those conditions..... Moral of the night - don't even try to get a taxi in the rain!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Duck Dinner and Then Some

Beijing has become a sprawling city and the taxi ride from Jen's apartment to our hotel, where Robert and I were to be staying the duration of the time in Beijing, was about 45 min. It was a few feet outside a subway station, not far from the "tourist" area of Beijing, so Robert and I could explore while Jen was at work. 5 star hotels in China are about the price of a Best Western in the US and the Swissotel was lovely.

Can one go to Beijing and not eat Peking Duck? I had very fond memories of a favorite restaurant and the three of us, lured by the thought of crispy duck skin and pancakes, found our way to the Duck King. Together we devoured countless pancakes and duck, practically rolling out of the restaurant, too full to move. This was just the beginning of our gastronomic adventure, which was to tantalize our palates throughout the week.

Robert and I began our foodie journey searching for a Chinese breakfast the following morning. The options were many, ranging from street vendors outside the hotel selling fried eggs, the small roadside stands serving bowls of soybean milk and fried crullers, to bakeries with buns galore. We opted for a steamed buns in a somewhat dark and dingy place that was self serve. A floor to ceiling board listed a huge variety of buns and other delicacies. With my limited reading skills, I feigned ignorance and ask what was being offered. As usual, I am one who looks educated, but is by all measures,illiterate, with the reading skills of a third grader! She looked at me quizzically, and pointed to the board, of course. 20UScents for a pork bun - the cost of our meal, less than $!. An old man, skinny as a rail, was seated next to us, eating a dozen. We chuckled in thinking what could be in the buns if he ate a dozen every day, and still remained as thin as he was!

By then, the streets were filling with people on their way to work. We explored Beijing on foot, walking almost 6 hours, and squeezing ourselves on to subways back and forth across town. As the day progressed, we were to learn that we should have rested along with all the other government workers who were supposed to be working in the museums - Mao's Mausoleum was closed, as was the Ancient Observatory and inside of the National Theatre. The Museum of Architecture was closed for renovation and we were out of luck. As a last resort, the taxi driver dropped us off at a new tourist promenade, the size of which stunned us. Miles of wide boulevards, still somewhat under construction with upscale retail stores and restaurants on both sides, complete with its own streetcar, was filled with strolling Chinese visitors.

Watching the masses of workers heading for the subway station, we opted to take a taxi to meet Jen and her friend's family for dinner. It is sometimes the most nondescript places that are the best eateries. Around the corner from her apartment complex, we had a distinctively Beijing meal of unique and mouthwatering dishes, we could never have ordered ourselves. It was delightful meeting a new friend and spending time learning about their lives as educators at Tsinghua University.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Exploration and New Shoes

I greatly overestimated the comfort of my sandals and the first order of the day was to find a pair of gym shoes. At the Oriental Plaza, there was an assortment of ladies' Adidas footwear in silver, lime green and purple. The salesman asked us if customer service is better in China. "I hear in the US, you have to go get your own shoes", he said. We reassured him that his service was much superior; my feet were significantly happier in silver gym shoes lined with hot pink that he proudly proclaimed matched the socks I bought.

Beijing's public places are devoid of benches and places to sit, so we spent several hours at Starbucks, enjoying each other's company and dodging the humidity and heat outside. Two girls next to us were puzzled about where to deposit their trash. We learned they were from Hebei, their first visit to Beijing, and not too enamored with the Starbucks coffee they just had - "too bitter", they said, and having put too many envelopes of sugar in, "too sweet at the bottom".

In the mall, I was surprised at the buying power of the shoppers. Clothing prices of US brands were comparable to what we pay and the shops were doing a steady and good business from what we could see.

We headed home at the end of the day via multiple transfers on the subway and emerged an hour later from underground to find that it was pouring rain with heavy thunder and lightning. Given that we had no umbrellas, it seemed like the best decision was to wait it out. We counted seconds between thunder and lightning, and just when it appeared to be clearing up, it started to come down in sheets. Hours later, we took a chance and left. Fortunately, the evening's remaining raindrops cleared to a lovely evening.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I was completely in awe at the expansive growth of China since my last visit 5 years ago. Jen's apartment and office were between the 4th and 5th Ring Roads, not far from the Olympic Village. This area, previously undeveloped, is now a densely populated residential area. My goal for the morning was to buy a city map and SIM card. I walked the main street for several miles with no bookstore, coffee shop, or department store in sight. Feeling somewhat sticky and warm, I returned to her apartment and decided that if I was to go anywhere in the next few days, I needed to learn the local bus system. Although somewhat intimidated by the thought of ending up in the wrong place, I was determined that if Jen could figure this out in the few days she had been there, I should be able to as well. Over and over, I read the Lonely Planet guide, subway map, and map of Beijing before venturing out. The bus schedule required deciphering but I managed to find the correct bus that connected me to the subway, which took me to the Sanlitan area, embassy row which had modern shops and a huge outdoor mall boasting names like Adidas, Starbucks and yes, even an Apple store. Feeling quite empowered in having reached my destination without difficulty, I walked the streets and the mall, losing myself among the crowds of black haired people. On previous visits, local residents pointed me out as a foreigner on first sight. With the westernization of China, I was told this time, that unless I spoke, I resembled every other local Chinese person. What was it, I wondered, that made me different in the past - my clothing, mannerisms, facial features?

Children were playing in the spouting water midway in the mall with a backdrop of a huge LCD screen showing advertisements and music videos. The Apple store was packed with young people playing with ipads and iphones. Downstairs was a large supermarket with recognizable American and European products, and neatly displayed fruits and vegetables. After work, young people flowed into the mall like SF after the July 4th fireworks. This was apparently, the happening place to be.

I arranged to meet Jen here after work and the two of us found a nice restaurant to eat in, then went in search of a club playing live music, so described in the Lonely Planet. The small bar, it turned out, was filled with punk looking kids listening to heavy metal and thus we moved on to walk the streets, ending up in the Hutong area of Beijing. This converted hutong was also packed with young people out for a cheaper form of entertainment than Sanlitun on a Friday evening, looking in the gift shops, eating yogurt, and other snacks. We laughed at all the girls wearing small bunny ears on their heads, which were being sold by vendors on the sidewalks. We walked and walked and walked and the hutong winded on for probably a mile.

Beijing is densely populated and I often felt like an ant moving orderly with a flowing mass of ants, indistinguishable from the others. Is that what we look like from above, I thought? At the subway station, we wait en masse, the door opens and a few manage to squeeze in. Like ants, sometimes others are left waiting for the next opening. Body to body we stand. I don't know the person next to me but we share skin to skin contact. Across from me is a blond haired foreigner to whom I feel a bond, yet to her, I am like one with the other Chinese faces on the subway. I feel a loss of identity; I am unknown among the crowds and from all appearances, the same as everyone else. I realize there are millions like me out there and my life suddently feels somewhat expendable.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Entering China

The heavy warm air hit me like a blast from a steam furnace as we walked off the plane in Beijing. The skies were hazy and the familiar sounds of people chattering in Chinese welcomed me back to China. I exchanged my cash for a measly 5.5rmb to the dollar - a sign of the times and a reflection of the rising economic growth of China. Outside I joined the line of travelers in a fast paced process of transporting people out, among the dizzying mass of taxis and honking horns. My taxi driver mumbled bewilderment at where I wanted to go, asking me for directions and which highway he should take. I was clueless and tried to give an impression of knowing exactly where I needed to be, knowing full right that he could see beyond my "foreign Chinese". Either he was a master at trickery or he knew nothing about the area because he took me for what seemed like a long extended ride on the outskirts of the city, stopping twice for directions and finally depositing me at the entrance to a huge apartment complex. Feeling a bit like "country girl in a big city", I got out and went in the direction he pointed me to, the gatekeeper in a small white room. Section A, building 14 was written on my notes. The building before me was number 2. People pointed me down the interior drive that encircled the complex and so I made my way along the path, pulling my luggage behind me. It was a typical afternoon in Beijing. The complex was a city in itself with over 20 highrise buildings, every 4 or so buildings surrounded a small park like area with benches, swings and a few trees. End to end, the complex ran about 3 blocks covering about 1/2 mile. I passed areas with swings and jungle gyms, grandparents with young children, older men engrossed in their chess games, and clotheslines covered with drying towels and sheets, before reaching building 14.

Jen's home away from home consisted of a futon and couch in the living room area of a fairly modern 2 bedroom apartment. Earlier that morning, the power had stopped, leading to a full lesson in apartment-style utility purchase, consisting of a stop at the "utility desk" to purchase a power card. The challenge of the afternoon was to figure out where to insert this power card. It didn't work at the gas meter box, nor was it to be inserted in the water meter box. After 30 min, the AC kicked on, Jen had found all the power boxes for that floor sitting in the hallway power closet. Interestingly enough, cable tv, phone and internet, water, gas and power are all paid for in this way. No pay, no power.

I followed Jen to the bus stop where she attempted to give me a lesson in how to navigate the Beijing bus system, dependent on knowing and recognizing the Chinese characters for the name of your final destination or transfer stops, and following the connections on the posted schedules. It was a bit too much for my jet lagged brain and I mentally logged the information in for the following morning. The bus took us to her office - an impressively large and beautiful Zoological building, where we visited with her office mates. These 3 very friendly young women laughed at the similarity between Jen and her mom and pointed us in the direction of the nearest dumpling house. Between the limited reading literacy of the two of us, and Jen's phone as translator, we managed to order a huge meal of boiled and pan fried pot stickers that truly hit the spot.
I didn't last much longer than that and upon returning to her apartment, fell fast asleep.