Vacation to Home - My Family Travels
Visiting China

The morning is just light enough to distinguish blurred human figures already bustling through the streets of Beijing. I lie in my bed listening as the voices outside grow louder, the air inside laced with mosquito repellant. While life six floors below me is stirring with street vendors and the scents of frying sesame buns wafting from their pans, the only sound in my grandmother’s apartment is the slow, deep breathing of my sleeping family. The 15-hour time difference between Beijing and San Diego seems to affect only me.

Just one month after turning 17, I am sorry to say that my trips to China, where most of my family reside, have totaled to four in my lifetime. Looking back, I marvel at the fact that I have only seen these people—my extended family—four times in my existence. Change their last names and I would call them strangers. But what is it that makes this foreign group that lives across the globe so well-known to me? “We’re family,” was my cousin’s reply when he refused my gestures to return the gifts they had piled upon me. “Our belongings are your belongings.”

From the moment I got off the airplane, nauseated from the ride and by the sticky, humid heat, I was greeted by vaguely familiar faces swirling and smiling all around me while crowds of loud, shoving people pressed upon us. Am I hungry? Tired? Am I still airsick? Their closeness to me made me doubt we ever left China the last time.

Each night of our stay, three generations of our family came together, making each dinner seem like a banquet. Ladles of steaming bamboo and chopped pork from the stir-fried dishes were heaped into my bowl, even when I swore I couldn’t handle another bite of Peking duck.

There is a zero-distance relationship between Chinese family members, even when they haven’t seen each other in four years. My relatives did not find it uncomfortable to comment on how I compare to my sister, personality-wise and academically, nor on my weight since our last visit. While this trip to China was an adventure and experience, it was also a return to a home that I recognize unconsciously; my rooted ancestral surroundings.

At a quick glance, the streets look like an ant hill: streams of black-haired, hurried people that, to an outsider, all look alike. And sometimes, these ants collide, starting a furious, screaming battle on the spot.

All the while, it was hard not to notice the changes affecting the country, from the flood of McDonalds that replaced some of my mother’s favorite childhood niangao dessert shops to the paradoxes that appear when traditional China and industrializing China meet. In the bright yellow and green ploughed fields, farmers still harvest wheat and rice in their triangular straw hats, later offering their crops to me in the marketplace, smiling through the gaps in their teeth. But just a few streets over, in the skyscraping Bai Sheng mall, I saw sleek, elegant men and women with designer bags and Blackberry phones, the new generation of the rapidly developing nation.

To the country of China, I am a foreigner. I cannot recognize the strange lines and shapes that represent the language on street signs, nor can I speak fluidly in Mandarin, resulting in awkward, broken up “Chinglish.” When I plan a trip back, it is as a tourist, unused to the customs there. Yet when I return, in the midst of a family I’ve seen four times in my lifespan, I feel more at home than I have anywhere else.


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1 Reply to “Vacation to Home”

  • JillianRyan

    I am an editor with Family Travel Forum. One of the SATW judges wanted to share this comment with you: From Kit Bernardi, Freelance Travel Writer: This essay nicely weaves in factual information within sensory descriptive text – time difference between San Diego and Beijing, the need for mosquito repellant where she is staying, her age, etc.

    I like the in-between sleep and awake state that the author uses to introduce the subject. Readers awaken to her surroundings through their senses of smell, sight, hearing. This in-between state is mirrored in her own situation in life between the U.S. and China, an existence extending four generations.

    I like how family is defined — where distance melts away time passed and technological developments. How they are concerned about family members having eaten enough. Observations comparing siblings and family traits. And, despite the changes affecting China (McDonald’s, cell phones, sky scrapers, etc.) she feels close to these people who “smile between the gaps in their teeth.”

    Author ends with realization of who she is in the context of China. I would like to know why, in a sensory way, she feels “more at home than I have anywhere else” in the country where she describes herself as a “foreigner.”

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