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.


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