Category : General

My mother…

I was in Beijing when I found out my mother passed away.  My wife told me.  My sister had just called her with the news, a statement repeated again and again, “My mom died.  My mom died.”

This is not a phone call you ever want to receive.

I’m in Vancouver now, making arrangements.  It’s Father’s Day.  My daughter’s birthday was yesterday.  My mother will be buried this Wednesday, which is my birthday.  Not a week for celebration (though my sister has said we’ll “celebrate” our mom’s life — which takes on an entirely different meaning in the midst of this grieving process).

I loved my mom.  A hero for leaving home at fourteen years of age, walking across China with other classmates in order to escape advancing Japanese troops.  A hero for keeping herself and her children alive during — and after — the second World War.  A hero for uprooting her life when she was in her late forties to travel to Canada where she did not speak a word of English — just to start a new life, and business. My mother always looked for new, better, opportunities.  A wicked mahjong player, too.

She was a hero for battling Alzheimer’s.

I send my love to her, always.

90 years.

A week ago I returned home to the States to visit family, and soon after flew to Vancouver to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday.  She doesn’t always seem to be aware of her family, but she did start to cry as we lit her candles.  That was a difficult moment, heartbreaking — but also heartening, because it means she’s still in there.

Tomorrow I fly back to China.  Packing now, and filled with the same old resigned dread that hits me every time I have a long flight ahead of me.  I’ll sleep.  When I wake up, Beijing.

A note from the road…

It’s good being in Shanghai again, however briefly.  I’ve been based up north for the last several years, and while that’s nice, Shanghai has a certain energy that infects a person — in a good way.

I returned from the States last week, visiting my family, and my mother in Vancouver.  Once again, I found her in an even weaker state.  So much can change so quickly, and it was hard for me to see her.  I don’t know if anyone ever stops being afraid — or feeling dread — when seeing a parent who was once robust, high-spirited, unpredictable — now infirm, unable to move on her own from a wheelchair.   It’s not just the physical weakness.

Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease.  That is the real source of terror and horror.

Goes without saying…

…that lunch was delicious.

This place is open 24 hours a day, and it’s always a madhouse.  It’s worth it, though.  Oh, believe me…it’s worth it.

Beijing restaurants win again!

“The root,” as they say.

The root of home, that is.  The village where my father was born, and lived until he was sixteen years old — at which point, he left for school.  He only returned once, after that.  Right before leaving for the Air Force academy. I’m still getting the details straightened out. My dad didn’t like talking about his early years, and now he’s gone.  It’s like playing catch-up with a ghost.

My wife and I drove to Zhang Gou Zhen Daxichun in Funing County, Jiangsu Province.  It was a spur of the moment trip, on our way to Beijing.  The village was deep in the country.  Many winding roads.  My dad needed to take a boat to leave his village, way back when.

The older people there remembered my dad, partially because he was considered a war hero for the KMT, and partially because he was the first pilot from that county.  We met his — my — relatives.  My dad’s cousin.  I could see the similarities in their faces, and that was eerie.

The world has changed so much over the last seventy years.  In many places, it would be impossible to return to the location of your dad’s birth and find it virtually the same, with a whole town that remembers your dad, or at least, knows of him.  The idea itself would be unimaginable.

But that’s what I found.  For more than five hundred years, my dad’s family lived in that village.  They still live there.  Might be another five hundred years, living there.  Talk about roots.

I’ll have more thoughts about it later.  I’m still digesting the experience.

The little church.

This beautiful church is located in downtown “old” Tianjin (where the foreign commercial center used to be, before the Japanese war).  The church, built in the early 1900’s, has been classified as a historic site, but it’s being used as a warehouse and place to toss junk.

It drives me a little nuts when I see things like that.  Places of beauty, reduced to…what?  All the old architecture of this area is equally lovely, and unique…but as with other historic sites in China, there’s little that local governments do to preserve these architectural gems.

Good Buns.

I’ve got a cold that has been bothering me for the last seven days (onward, up to forever), but that didn’t stop me from getting out this weekend with my wife.  We have one of those indoor bamboo plants, the kind that grow in water. Usually, nothing green survives in our house, but this one is actually doing well.  Better than well.  As in, it’s outgrowing its container.

So we went looking for a new one.

This should have been easy.  Beijing is the capitol of a lot of things, and cheap, good-looking vases should be one of them.  I see them everywhere.  But the one time I need to find one?  Nothing.

We went to Pan Jia Yuan.  Up and down those aisles.  For hours.  We saw a couple that were nice, but not great.  Not, as my wife says, “inspirational.”  Pan Jian Yuan used to be a place where you could find treasures, things that are totally unique.  But not anymore.  It caters mostly to the tourists.

One bright point?  An old Beijing baked bun shop near the market. It always has people waiting in line.  The line is part of the fun.  Everyone’s in it together.

This place only bakes twenty of these buns every five to six minutes, so last time I was there I had to wait forty minutes just to reach the front of the line.  Why the long wait?  Yes, they’re good, but it’s a logistics thing, too.  The bun shop sells them for .70 cents each, but if you buy ten, you get one free.  So usually people buy eleven, which means that each time the buns are done, usually the line only moves forward two people.

I was lucky, though…this time I got to the front in fifteen minutes, and only asked for two, one for me and my wife.

A study of steps…

It’s the small things. Today when I went to the Forbidden City I received half-off my ticket price.

Senior discount.

I don’t know how I feel about that. I always love a deal, so…good?


My daughter says the Forbidden City feels holy to her, and I think there’s something to that. Every time I go there’s a hush – a prevailing heaviness that isn’t dispelled by the huge crowds. You don’t notice the crowds, after a while, because the Forbidden City swallows people up until all you see is stone and sky and red walls.

And the details are incredible. Every little piece of the Forbidden City is a work of art…including the stairs. That always amazes me. Look at this – winged cats, flying horses in the clouds – that sense of flight in the stone. Are you supposed to feel as though you’re flying when you’re climbing those stairs?

And yes, I did include one wall section – and the theme of being in the clouds, among the fantastic and mythic continues.

Well, the Emperor was the ‘Son of Heaven’, after all…so I suppose it fits.

Take nothing for granted.

I recently traveled to Vancouver to visit my mom. She’s lived in Vancouver for many years — perhaps since the Seventies — and moved there from Taiwan with my dad. They were in their fifties, and left everything they knew to start a new life somewhere else.

But despite the challenges, it wasn’t frightening for them. They were excited by the prospect of building something that would be theirs, of having their own business. They were…adventurers.

It’s something I need to think about more often than I do. I used to take for granted all the lessons I learned from them – examples of hard work, stubbornness, and perseverance.

Not anymore. My dad passed away four years ago. My mom now has Alzheimer’s, and seems to grow weaker every time I see her. It doesn’t seem possible. I don’t want it to be possible.

More pictures to follow. More thoughts about my parents, as well.

Fresh from the road.

Flew out of Beijing this morning, yesterday — however you measure time when traveling overseas, backwards and forwards.  Got a ride with a very angry cab driver.  He was angry about our luggage, angry about going to the airport, angry with the guy he spoke with on the phone — and then he overcharged us by ten dollars.  At that point, I didn’t feel like arguing with him.

But the rest of the trip was smooth.  Chinese immigration is easy.  I was traveling with my daughter, which made everything so much better.  It’s nice having family with you on these long trips.  You can stretch out without feeling as though you’re imposing on a stranger.

As usual, though, it was surreal reaching Chicago.  You’re in China, and then suddenly you’re not.  There’s no transition, and the change can be a bit jarring sometimes.  United States immigration was relatively stress-free, though no one ever asks you questions when you enter China, and every time I come back to America, I feel a bit like I’ve got a white-hot light shining in my eyes when it’s my turn to talk to the agent.

Home now, though.  Home sweet home.