A [Chinese] Family Affair

Many people said ‘oh I’m gonna come visit you while you’re abroad’, except for my mother. I think her exact words were ‘no way you’d get me to visit you in China’. And then eight months later I get an email from my cousin saying ‘I’m planning to visit you, should I invite mom?’ I thought, well you can invite her but she’d never agree to it. It was one of those things that felt too good to be true. Mom agreed to come visit, and turns out she’d been saving to do so for a while. The next couple months flew by and every time we talked about the process to get them to China, I felt a pit in my stomach. I had a bad feeling that this wouldn’t work out and it would just be another cruel joke life played on me.

The week leading up to their arrival was filled with texts and calls from my mom saying things like: ‘I read there’s no real toilets, I read you have to carry your own toilet paper, I read there’s no soap, I read kids wear split pants, I read there’s no personal space, I read they’ll take pictures of me, I read….’ and me responding, ‘yes, mom that’s all true. I’ve told you this already.’ But I guess being told and reading that you’ll be experiencing it for yourself is something different. In my head I kept thinking, boy I hope they’re ready for this.

I waited until the plane took off from the US to really get excited about my family coming to visit me. It’d been ten months since I’d last seen my mom, and even longer since I’d seen my cousin. I had arrived in Shanghai the day before to go to Disney with some friends, so I got a cheap hotel room and stayed the night. I was too anxious to sleep so I spent the night eating cheesecake and watching Mickey Shorts. The next day I planned to go pick up my family in the afternoon, check into our much nicer hotel, and treat them to a nice dinner. Well…cue the pit in my stomach…there of course was a storm in Shanghai that day and their connecting flight was cancelled. I found out while they were still in the air on their first flight, so I had to keep this pit in my stomach for the next few hours until I could contact them to figure out what was going to happen next. When I finally got in touch with them, they had been put on a later flight for the same day. Thankfully they weren’t stranded in Hong Kong. Since it was storming most of the day I spent it lying in bed in our really nice hotel room watching TV that was actually in English! When the rain finally let up I made my way to the newly opened TacoBell in Shanghai to be disappointed by their lack of vegetarian options, but pleasantly surprised by the margarita. Yes TacoBell in China serves liquor. After a stop in the Shanghai Disney Store and some window shopping in a couple of the huge malls in the area, I headed to the airport to wait for my mom and my cousin. Naturally they were pretty exhausted, and after the long metro journey to the hotel, we decided to have room service and plan our week ahead.


On their first full day in China, we headed to the Pearl tower. Silly me for not realizing I was finally in Shanghai on a real weekend and not my usual mid-week trip. It was much more crowded than I expected, and my family got a quick taste of what it’s like to be in Chinese crowds. See mom, I told you they take pictures of you -and they’re not shy about it, and they don’t care about your personal space, and yes he did just spit on the floor -inside. I thought the pearl tower was cool, but I’ll never do it again, and probably wouldn’t have been too upset if we missed it. Especially after learning there are many other skyscrapers in Shanghai that also offer observation decks. For lunch we headed to a famous Dim Sum place called Din Tai Fung. We ordered some fried rice, which they quickly learned is not the same as American fried rice, dumplings, also very different, and steamed buns. Mom got her first chopsticks experience, and it was quite amusing. I especially enjoyed when the waitress brought Mom a fork after watching her struggle from a distance. I definitely enjoyed the experience more than they did, but i’ve also been here for many months and have forgotten what Chinese food back home tastes like. They quickly learned its definitely not the same. After our Chinese lunch, we headed to Yu Yuan Gardens. I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again; my favorite thing is finding these gardens and really peaceful places right in the middle of these busy cities. You would never guess that by the area, and just behind this huge market, there is a huge beautiful traditional Chinese garden. It’s such an amazing thing to see. You walk through the gates and suddenly everything opens up. Of course you can see the skyscrapers when you look up, but they seem so far away, there’s no noise or distractions (other than the tons of people who also visited that day). I really enjoyed the gardens. You could spend all day getting lost in the gardens, literally. And we did. No really, we actually got lost and couldn’t find the exit. Once we managed to get out we headed to a rooftop restaurant for dinner with a view. We ended up at GoodFellas Terrace. A rooftop associated with the top rated restaurant in Shanghai, and not too far from the Bund. We got there just before the big reservations, and just before the sun started to set. I really enjoyed the meal, but I think my family still knew what real western food tasted like to enjoy it as much as I did. I loved the view of the Shanghai skyline and it was a nice end to a hot day, to watch the sun set and enjoy drinks with a view. By the time we left it was fully dark and we walked over to the Bund to get a view of the skyline reflecting on the river.

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The next day we headed to Shanghai Disneyland! We got a much later start than expected so we didn’t have too much time to explore the park. But I made sure we got to do the things that were exclusive to Shanghai Disney, like Tron and the much more interesting version of Pirates.  We also watched the very disappointing Shanghai Disney fireworks. If you’re going to Shanghai Disney, go see The Lion King instead, much more entertaining than the night show which includes maybe three fireworks. It’s made mostly on castle projections, which don’t get me wrong are really cool, but don’t have the signature fireworks a Disney park is known to close the night with. I’m sure that’s probably to do with the air regulations made for the smog filled skies of Shanghai. To end the night, I realized just how much I dislike the Shanghai subway system. Yes it goes literally everywhere you’d want to be in Shanghai, but Shanghai is so big that it takes at least an hour to go anywhere, and the subways close so early it’s not guaranteed you’ll make it the full subway ride with the dozens of transfers you have to make. We were on a race to beat the subway clock, and it required some running, but we made it.

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A few hours and barely any sleep later, we were on the train heading to Beijing. The four hour train went faster than I expected but it was still painful to waste so much time. When we got to Beijing we took a cab, got dropped off in a mysterious alley, and were told to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Our hotel was located in the middle of this very long old residential alley, filled with crowds of old men showing off their bellies and playing their card games on the street. All the windows had bars over them, and the car tires all covered with wood blocks, people hanging their laundry from their window bars, scooters weaving in a out of the people walking, and dogs roaming the street. Everyone looking to stare as we walked down the street. All things that have become so normal for me since moving to China. We finally found the hotel after what I’m sure my mom was thinking would be the start of her own scary movie. It was a very cute and cozy boutique hotel inside red gates. The staff was very friendly and our room was definitely more Chinese than the hotel we stayed at in Shanghai, but still very nice. After we settled into our hotel we ventured out to look for some dinner. I wanted them to try Hot Pot, a favorite of mine. I found a brand I recognized close by, that is very popular among my friends. This one was pretty different and I had some trouble ordering the things I usually get with my friends, but I did the best I could. I’m still not sure if they exactly enjoyed it, maybe if my Chinese was better or we went with my friends, it would have been a nicer experience. Either way i’m glad they tried it and were able to experience some more traditional Chinese food. That night we had some free beer the hotel gave us, booked a private car to The Great Wall, and called it an early night.

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The next morning we had complimentary breakfast at the hotel, and my family got to experience what it is like trying to find breakfast food in China. It’s definitely not what we call breakfast in America, though there are some similarities. They do have eggs and cereal, but its not exactly in the same way we’re used to. After breakfast we were greeted by our private driver to take us to The Great Wall. He was so friendly, gave us water, and spoke English. We’re friends on WeChat now. An hour or so later we arrived at The Great Wall, Mutianyu section. The stories are true, the wall is pretty great. It was breathtaking, figuratively and literally. It really was an amazing sight, and amazing to think about how it was built considering its quite a hike up to where the actual wall is. We took a cable car up, which my mom loved to point out that I was terrified of as a kid. Turns out she was the one scared this time. The Wall is a pretty difficult thing to walk, just as you think you’re getting used to the spacing or pacing of the bricks and steps, it changes. It’s not very evenly spread and easy to misstep if you’re not paying attention. The steps down from the watchtowers were the worst part for me. Obviously they’re not built with handles so you just have to go for it. As i’m afraid of falling, I did a twist on the old-lady-sideway-crouch down the stairs. We spent a few hours there and it was still pretty early in the day when we finished. I’m glad we went as early as we did cause it was getting hotter by the minute. They’re not kidding when they say pack water and snacks cause it’s expensive. The 1¥ water I buy at the corner store was being sold for 20¥! After we finished at The Great Wall, our driver took us to the Summer Palace. I really wish we had more time to explore the area or I had know how big and beautiful it would be. Our driver didn’t give us much time there at all, but we still got a good taste of the beauty of it. And of course we were asked to take lots of photos with random Chinese people. That night we ate dinner at our hotels restaurant. We got some spring rolls, fried rice, some meat thing, and one of my favorite dishes- garlic broccoli.

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The next morning we made our way to the Temple of Heaven before catching our train to Nanjing. I wished we’d better planned the timing of the trip, or they were staying longer, because a week really isn’t enough time to really do everything. We quickly walked through the huge park the temple is located in (of course the temple is quite far from the entrance so it took a while). This was one of the things I’d been most interested to see since coming to China. When I worked at Disney World, I often visited the China pavilion at Epcot so I was really excited to see the real thing. The real temple is huge. So much bigger than I’d expected, it’s looks are deceiving. The temple is beautiful, the amount of details in the paintings and wood work is incredible. I was disappointed you aren’t allowed inside to see the details more closely, but I was still happy to be able to experience seeing the temple in person.Also in the park is a huge and very beautiful rose garden. I could have spent hours taking pictures of the hundreds of different roses they had. By the time we left the temple there wasn’t enough time to make it to the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square, which i’m sad I didn’t see but I still have a couple months left so I can go back if I really want to.

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The train to Nanjing was actually shorter than the train from Shanghai to Beijing, but it felt ages longer. Many hours later we were out of breath carrying our suitcases up the seven flights of stairs to my apartment. That night we met up with my friends for pizza night. Every Wednesday we go to the Irish Pub for half off 22 inch pizzas, which is always a good idea. I got to introduce my family to my roommates, friends, and some coworkers, and most exciting- my Chinese co-teacher Tracy, who I absolutely adore. Oh and the infamous Bamboo, my realtor who randomly shows up everywhere, was of course in attendance.


The next few days were spent showing my family around Nanjing. Mainly the places that I frequent so they got a taste for my life in China. We did some shopping, visited work, ate at my favorite local places, ran into Bamboo a few times, and they even got to experience getting lost again. We went to Purple Mountain and Dr. Sun Yet Sen’s Mausoleum, and went to Confucius temple area to explore the historical part of town. I would have liked to show them so much more, if only there was more time and energy to do everything. Of course now that they’ve left I found some much more interesting things in Nanjing I think they would have liked…oops. I really hoped to give them a great Chinese experience. I know they definitely did not enjoy my Chinese bed, or my seven flights of stairs, but overall I think they enjoyed getting to explore this country i’ve learned to love so much.

It’s never easy to be away from people you love for long periods of time, but it’s something I often do. I’m really thankful to have a family that may be hesitant about it, but always supports my crazy ideas in the end. Special thanks to my cousin for coming all the way to China even though I missed her wedding, and to my mom for following me wherever I go (and for bringing American snacks).

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