There’s No Place Like Home: Touring Taishan

Although my parents grew up in small villages on the outskirts of Taishan, they were very familiar with the city. When they were kids, it was a “pretty big deal” if you made a trip to Taishan.

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As our family friend from Zhuhai drove us into Taishan, my mom pointed out the hospital that I was born in. From an early age, I was told stories about how I was born in China before immigrating to Manitoba, Canada with my mom, when I was nearly one years old. The hospital seemed calm and quiet, as we rumbled by in our van.

Our hotel was close to the river and after we settled in, we began exploring our surroundings. I was surprised by the number of palm trees that lined some of the streets to create a lush, green walkway. However, despite the awning effect created by the palm leaves, there was little reprieve from the heat as the temperature continued to hover around 29-31°C with relative humidity levels of 80%+.

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Palm trees lining a street in Taishan. Photo: Tang Choy.

Taishan would be our “home-base” for the remainder of the trip (i.e. after embarking on day-trips, we would be coming back to the city in the evenings). My sisters and I got to know one of the main shopping areas – a vehicle-free street filled with small shops and boutiques.

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Major vehicle-free shopping street in Taishan. Photo: Tang Choy.

With a conversion rate of approximately 1:5 for the Canadian Dollar to Chinese Yuan (abbreviated as CNY, RMB or by the sign ¥), we quickly got used to “mental math and shopping.” We picked up clothing and tech items at great prices.

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Whenever I visit another country, I make a point to check out grocery and convenience stores to get a better sense of food items that locals might purchase. Our visit to Vanguard’s and Hui Jia did not disappoint. From cucumber flavoured chips, to purple sweet potato oatmeal, and dried chicken feet, it was neat seeing the different foods beckoning local taste buds. It was also interesting to observe brands, like Quaker Oats, tailoring their flavours to a specific market.

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In addition, you could buy beer at Vanguard’s for the equivalent of $0.50 CDN.

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Tsingtao Beer in a Chinese grocery store for 2.50 RMB – the equivalent of $0.50 CDN. Photo: Tang Choy.
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Though the window shopping alone could keep us busy for a week, a trip back to Taishan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the villages. My last Taishan village visit was during the summer of 1995. I was young, curious, and fearless. I stayed with my uncle and his family, played with other kids in the village, and caught frogs for fun. In present day, it was bittersweet seeing many of the homes empty. Most of the former residents had abandoned the village to live in larger cities, and improve their lifestyles.

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A village in the Taishan region. Photo: Tang Choy.

As we walked around the village, we spotted an older, shirtless man at least 100 feet away (because of the heat and humidity, it’s not uncommon to see a man with his belly exposed or without a shirt – especially in the more rural areas of China). Before we uttered a word, the man shouted, “Is that Terry?!” My dad often bragged about being known by everyone “back at home” – he was right.

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My dad, Terry (far right), and his friends from a village in Taishan. Photo: Tang Choy.

My parents still refer to a partially abandoned village in China as being “back at home.” What does “home” feel like for you? How would you define it?

Read more about the Choy family’s travel adventures: The Red Lanterns of Guangzhou.

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The Choys are Going to China

When my mom called me earlier this year and proposed a family trip – my reaction was mixed.

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On the one hand, I was excited about the idea of getting away for a few weeks with my parents and two younger sisters, Chui and Angie. Growing up in Boissevain, Manitoba, my parents owned a Chinese restaurant and worked long, tireless hours seven days a week. Although talk of a family vacation often came up, the years went by and a trip never materialized.

After an extremely busy last few months at work and school, I was also ready to take a mental break. However, at the same time, I had reservations about a family trip. The five of us had never travelled together for more than a day at a time, how were we going to survive 2 weeks of “fam jam” time? Would this actually be a “vacation”?

I quieted the voices in my head, and told my parents I would look into taking the time off from work. Once I received the green light for my vacation time, my mom eagerly told me that she had been in touch with my sisters and everyone had agreed on China as the destination. Within a few weeks, our flights were booked and I received a travel itinerary in my inbox.

As the reality of the trip started to sink in, I pinpointed my top “must-dos” to prepare for the trip:

  • Passport renewal
  • Chinese Visa application
  • Vaccinations

My Canadian passport was nearing expiry, and I decided to renew it before applying for my Chinese Visa. I quickly looked up the photographer that I went to a few years ago for my passport photos, and was pleased to see that he was still running his shop in Toronto’s Chinatown. Although the location is pretty bare bones, the photographer’s energy reminds me of Willy Wonka and his prices are unbeatable. Three passport photos for less than $10? Sign me up!

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After getting both my passport and Chinese Visa photos done, I renewed my passport and started reviewing the Chinese Visa application process. The website recommends applying at least 1 month in advance (but no earlier than 3), and I would vouch for this. Due to some challenges that I had in getting the required documents for the visa (since I was born in China but had Canadian citizenship), I ended up visiting the Chinese Visa Application Service Center 6 times before I was able to finally get my visa. Luckily, I received my visa in time for my trip, but the process left me drained.

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The Chinese Visa application process for me required documents (i.e. Chinese passport) that were decades old. Photo: Tang Choy.

I touched based with my doctor’s office and didn’t end up getting any additional vaccinations, before leaving for China. As part of my final prep, I borrowed a few power plug adapters from friends and confirmed our flight arrival times. My middle sister, Chui, and my parents would be flying from Winnipeg, and I would meet them in Vancouver for a layover, before flying together to Hong Kong. My youngest sister, Angie, who had just wrapped up a two-year teaching contract in Jakarta, would be flying directly from Indonesia to Hong Kong.

June 25, 2017 rolled around and I lightly packed a large suitcase (hello, shopping!), and took a deep breath. Here we go.

Read more about the Choy family’s travel adventures: Dizzying Heights from The Peak of Hong Kong.