“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton
I’ve become an old China hand, at least in some superficial ways. I’ve been to Shanghai a number of times over the years, and less frequently to a few other parts of China. I’ve seen the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors at Xian, the peculiar karst hills of Guilin, the giant Buddhas of the Longmen Grottoes, and stood with the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple for a special photo. But sadly I only am able to speak the most limited of Chinese, in stock phrases to smooth my way, and certainly not to converse at any length.
Mostly we go to Shanghai, because that is where my wife’s family lives. Shanghai has changed a lot in the 20 years or so I’ve been going there on a semi-regular basis. It’s now a city of high-rises, high-end shopping centres and high-volume car congestion. Without the Chinese characters there are many places where if you were set down unexpectedly it could be almost any modern city in the world.
Fortunately for me, my in-laws were always cosmopolitan and well-travelled, especially my wife’s mother and father, unexpectedly so in Chinese of their generation. This befitted their role as medical doctors in demand at international conferences and other gatherings.
In a way they became my second set of parents, after my own passed on many years ago. They always welcomed me into their relatively humble apartment, where in any conversation one might hear Mandarin, Shanghainese, English and French. As a Canadian, my high-school French actually became occasionally useful. And my wife’s dad spoke passable English, which certainly helped.
The reason we went back for only just over a week this time was the final ceremony to lay to rest the ashes of my wife’s mother, who died earlier in 2014. She was a social live-wire even as she turned 90 years old, but endings find us all. It’s been very difficult for her husband of almost 70 years, especially since they were closely together all those years not only as partners in life but colleagues in their profession.
I remember her most fondly for her jolliness, her sincerity and her intelligence. When they last visited us in Vancouver in Canada back when they were young folks in their late seventies and early eighties, they always seemed such accomplished travellers. Mom always liked to be photographed in front of every tourist sight-seeing mecca. Dad worried about plane tickets and travel arrangements.
There were the rituals of packing, going to the airport and final waves as they left us each time. They weren’t able to visit us in the last decade or so — visas were refused due to their increasingly fragile health. So we — my wife more often of course — went back to see them in Shanghai.
Her father now copes as best he can after his loss with the assistance of the extended family. Although his health remains relatively good, he doesn’t smile much any more.
But he’s taken up occasionally singing and humming quietly to himself, whether to lift his spirits or as a way to commune with his wife, I don’t know.
As we packed up to return to Vancouver, as we rolled the luggage into the living room and I worriedly checked that I had my passport and our tickets, Dad looked up at me with a brief, clear smile. There was acknowledgement of past moments together, of getting ready to go. We are all just travellers here.
Whenever I go away from home, I’m keen to take photographs. I always hope that like Chesterton above, I will learn to see the places I know when I return with a little bit of that same exotic feeling and a refreshed eye.
Here are a few photos from our trip. In Shanghai, there are many locals, such as taxi drivers we ran across, who resent Westerners always looking for the run-down parts of Shanghai to take photographs. They feel insulted by foreigners who don’t have a proper and respectful attitude towards the modernity of present-day China.
But the older, and not always run-down, streets of Shanghai still embody what all the sterile modernity can never do, a sense of community.
More Shanghai photos will be seen on my photo blog, The Suspended Moment, as time goes by….
One short note about the photos: we came across a park where every day in mid-afternoon there would be community dancing. The local gossip was that many affairs were initiated at these events….