Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jiading

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Oct 4, 2013

Jiading: Drinking tea with Mark

Another new friend living a good life

The tower in the center of JiadingMark in the tea house with mom and dad
Mark, left, shows us some of his tea house friend’s treasures.
On the stairsJiading is a city of canals.

Just outside of the city of Shanghai is a suburb named Jiading. I’m not sure that it will ever be a big tourist draw on it’s own, but it does have a quaint little ancient town, some nice parks, and a couple of really well-curated museums. It was the hometown of diplomat Wellington Koo, Important Communist Hu Juewen, and, most significantly to our family, Mark — the owner of a lovely apartment listed on Airbnb.

Mark hosted us to the full extent of the word, taking us to late-night noodles upon our after-midnight arrival and giving us a fantastic tour of the neighborhood in the light of day. He was always available for expedition advice or just a friendly chat. And, of course, restaurant suggestions. He pointed us toward a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant that had the first dumplings that Peter was able to eat in China. (“Delicious!” was the verdict.)

On our first morning, Mark guided us through the local temples and museums with commentary and context where signage was obscure or unhelpful. For example, a piece that was just captioned “poem” was actually written by Chairman Mao, Mark told us. And he could point out other cultural details we missed, like details in the clothing and housing that meant a family had a particular social station. Forget audio guides, all you need is a Mark.

“When you have success, usually you are Confucian. When you fail, usually you are Daoist,” Mark explained the changing and pragmatic Chinese relationship with spirituality. He himself seems to have his own affairs pretty well in order: After losing his government-sponsored job because of the birth of his second son — a big no-no under the One Child policy, but Mark and his wife didn’t want to raise an only lonely (a pretty common motivation for Chinese to break this particular law) — Mark contracts from home for an American company in the mornings, and devotes his afternoons to reading and writing novels. He also noodles with a traditional Chinese zither from time to time. And, when the opportunity presents, he shows around visitors from all over.

We took tea one afternoon at his friend’s tea house. The female servers all wore hip-classical linen uniforms that were designed by another friend of Mark and his wife. (They run with kind of a boho crowd, for China.) After tea, the owner showed us around his establishment, which had classrooms in the back for teaching tea ceremonies and calligraphy, and he gave us a tour of his art collection.

Our time in Jiading coincided with the Bo Xilai trial, a media spectacle on the order of OJ Simpson over here, and one that set records in China in terms of TV viewership and Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) activity. Even Peter and I watched a little; it was the only thing on, every channel. Mark, however, was not part of the spectating horde. He told my mother, you can find more human truth in novels than on the news.

It was hard to believe we were just on the edge of one of the biggest conurbations on the planet; the Shanghai sprawl is pretty massive. But our time with Mark was wonderfully peaceful.

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.