4 Ways I Traveled - Mom's Companion (Part 2)

10:36:00 PM mandy 0 Comments

lavlilacs Mom's hometown village Auntie's photo wall

Call me sentimental. Call me curious. Being born into and raised by an immigrant family is something I didn't have a choice over, but wanting to learn more about and understand the culture they hold dearly is. Where did my parents and Aunts and Uncles grow up? How many distant relatives have I not met before? What traditions and rituals do my family in America not follow anymore? Who did they hang out with before they had to leave them all behind?

20 something plus years. That is how much time passed since mom and I was last in China and her hometown of Taishan 台山. The toddler me that my parents had to lug from place to place the last time 'round doesn't remember anything we did or saw. If not for the photos they snapped and developed and the rare memories they sometimes reminisce on, I wouldn't even know of that point on my own timeline.

lavlilacs Mom's hometown village house

Now that I am older, being able to visit with her again brings a new sense of appreciation. Most of the homes in the village my maternal family grew up in are small, old, empty, and some even abandoned by immigrant families and the younger generation. There are a few newly built multi-stories which stand to represent the success of a handful. My mom's village home is somewhere in between: small and lived-in looking yet somewhat new-ish compared to the even older homes nearby.

It is hard to imagine that 7 plus people once occupied the space some 30 odd years ago. The single bed and wardrobe, the bathroom with a squatting toilet, and the wood burning "stove" all point to my family's humble beginnings that I honestly have taken for granted. The times when my grandparents, mom, aunts, and uncles had to work on the rice paddies or when they had just enough to eat are concepts that are foreign to my cousins, my brother, and me, who grew up in a world of excess.

lavlilacs Mom's hometown village Taicheng, Taishan, China local street market
Pedestrian Street Buxingjie Taishan China

Traveling to all the different places on the tours is exciting, no doubt. Everything that I got to experience was completely new and refreshing. But there isn't anything like going to a place where there is a personal connection. Being able to walk the same paths my parents once did and zigzagging through the alleyways in the village to reach the now ancestral house feels like an adventure all on its own. Hearing how one spot looks more or less like they remember, while many other parts of town are completely made over makes me wonder just how much everything would change by the next time I get to visit again. Seeing the views from the rooftops and balconies in both my maternal and paternal family homes respectively gets me emotional and nostalgic for my parents even if they don't necessarily show it themselves.

lavlilacs Pay respects to paternal ancestors at family home lavlilacs Pay respects to paternal ancestors

Since my parents hadn't visited in over two decades, the first order of business the first full day we were in Taishan was to pay respects to the deities and ancestors on my paternal families' side. Even without my dad there, it was my mom's duty as the first daughter-in-law to do so anyways. The day began with a visit to my paternal grandpa's and uncle's home in Taicheng 台城, where we bowed and made offerings. Then we headed off to the literal hills in a more rural part of Taishan to visit my paternal grandma's and other paternal ancestors' burial grounds. We were joined by a crowd of distant relatives of my dad's, whom I had no recollection of, along with an array of roasted meats and joss papers in hand. From the bits and pieces I got, they were various Great Uncles and Aunties and cousins of sorts.

This was a new experience for me and something I can only recall via pictures in old photo albums. Although there is a special time of the year where Chinese people usually go to clean the burial sites and pay respects, qingmingjie 清明节, it isn't something I have ever experienced as my grandma is the only deceased close relative I have and with her being in China and us being in America, the day is near impossible to observe. The roasted whole pig, chicken, and duck were laid in front of the headstones while an elderly Uncle in the group lit the candles, incense, and joss papers. Afterward, everyone else there did multiple triple bows to show our respect. Our night was capped with a family reunion dinner of sorts at a restaurant in Taicheng.

lavlilacs Mom's hometown village firecrackers
lavlilacs Pay respects to paternal ancestors at family home lavlilacs Pay respects to paternal ancestors

Our second full day in Taishan brought us to my maternal family's village in Sam Lok Lei (Sanleli in Mandarin) 三樂里 in Shuibo (Shuibu) 水步. For whatever reason, we didn't do the same rituals as the day prior with my maternal family's side. We had a shorter ritual at the ancestral house instead: bowing, burning joss papers, and lighting firecrackers. People came over to the house to sit around and eat some good luck crackers and candies. Afterward, all that was left to do was wait for the big village feast my mom had planned. Perhaps it is a cultural thing or maybe just something expected of returning immigrants, the big village eat-out was meant to be a get-together, giving-face of sorts. If that makes any sense at all. As a way of showing, hey you moved to try to have a better life in America and now that you are back for a visit, a meal and red envelopes are the least we could get. On the surface it sounds very superficial; I have overheard that those who opt not to do the whole shebang usually receive a lot of gossip and ill-thoughts from the community. But once that layer is removed, isn't it just a nice gathering for people like my mom to see old faces again after a long time away?

The size of the feast is truly dependent on the individual. My mom was very generous and had a dozen or more tables in the outdoor space with a catering company and all, while my mom's cousins had a more modest gathering in the small courtyard next to their village home with the village members helping out with bits and pieces to get the meal ready. I have to admit that I did fall asleep during most of the preparation for my mom's sponsored feast. I was, however, awake for my uncle's dinner preparations and was in awe by the setup they had going. There was an outdoor food prep station by the outdoor watering faucet. Bricks, or were they stones, were propped up to house a wood burning fire and humongous wok. There was even a water kettle boiling on top of a coal briquette!

Taishan China Sweet Hard Yuan 硬圆 Taishan China Wedding Cookie Chow mai daan Chow mai jeen Chaomijian 炒米煎

Two things I would probably never see, or very rarely, unless I was in Taishan are the sweet steamed ball thingamabobs and the poop-lookalike cookies shown above. Many people may be more familiar with glutinous rice balls that are usually served in savory or sweet soup. But in my family, on very rare occasions, I remember my maternal grandma kneading maybe glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, and sugar to get the sweet ball like treats. These aang yuan or hard ball 硬圆 (an unfortunate literally translated name) are steamed and when cooled has a nice chewy texture to it. Grandma hasn't been making them in recent years so I was very excited to see these at my Great Aunt's house when we were visiting her.

The unfortunately shaped treats, on the other hand, were completely new to me. My mom calls it chow mai daan 炒米 something in Taishanese and claims it purely a spoken phrase. *EDIT: Bestie C's mom cleared the mystery. It is called chow mai jeen in Cantonese (chaomijian in Mandarin) 炒米煎.* I still do not really know what it is or how it is made. The only things I got out of the adults who made it was: it's a biscuit/cookie type food, made by the groom's parents for pre-wedding rituals, it is shaped by hand, and it is a super traditional custom that not many people do anymore. I was able to try a bit and can't say I liked it that much; it was very oily and grainy. But hey, they're keeping the tradition alive, right?

Fried tofu with mushrooms and broccoli Steamed abalone with vermicelli Steamed scallops with garlic
lavlilacs paternal family reunion lavlilacs Mom's classmates reunion
lavlilacs maternal family union

Going around Taishan with my mom more than made up for all the good food that I missed out on whilst on the bus tours. Of the 15 or so days we were there, I would say 75% of it ended with a big feast for dinner. My mom's main reason for traveling to Taishan, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong was to meet family and friends she lost contact with over the years. For her, it meant endless days of chatting and catching up, while the food was just an accompaniment. For me, it accumulated in endless days of eating and just sitting around listening to their chats or messaging with my Besties on WeChat if the timing was right. There were many occasions where we had dimsum in the morning, feasts for lunch, and feasts for dinner. Talk about gluttony!

I would have preferred to explore the city on my own. Yet I had a lot of opposition from mom, relatives, and her local friends whenever I brought it up. To them, Taishan wasn't particularly safe. They were weary of all the motorbikes and cars on the streets. Some were afraid of the potential petty thieves who could apparently tell non-natives apart in the bat of an eye. Apparently, they've had altercations with them even as natives. On top of all that, I was iffy on wandering by myself without the help of any working English-based and detailed maps in China, i.e. Apple Maps and Google Maps. Plus it did not help that I had badly sprained my ankle the first full day we were in Taishan. With all the resistance, I just took it as a time do what the bus tours didn't allow me to do: eat good food until I was stuffed and relax.

Hong Kong car service situation Hong Kong taxi situation

Maybe the toughest part of being my mom's travel companion was all the bags. I was able to condense my pre-trip stuff into a 25" medium-sized suitcase, a 21" carry-on, and a book bag. Mom, on the other hand, had three 29" suitcases, a 21" carry-on, and a big satchel bag filled to the brim. She definitely isn't the most efficient packer. While I could deal with wearing a piece of clothing multiple times, my mom is the complete opposite. Everything is worn once and once only. We also were going to multiple climate zones in a span of 2 months which meant there was a need for a little bit of every kind of clothing available: tanks, tees, shorts, sweaters, jackets, etc.

Then there was the situation with her generous gifts for family and her close friends she was meeting. There were a lot of Kirkland mixed nuts, bags of pistachios, boxes of Trident gum, boxes of cookies, American ginseng, and other likes. I could not for the life of me understand why she had to buy so many things to bring with her. When asked why all she had to say was "it's respectful and are souvenirs". Traveling multiple countries and cities while trying to maintain my stress levels with all the big suitcases was definitely a challenge.

Hong Kong to Jiangmen China ferry

At least I was able to experience riding on a ferry from Hong Kong to Jiangmen, China because of the luggage situation. The most popular option to get to Taishan from Hong Kong was to take a 4-5 hour bus. The headaches we would have potentially had involved us needing to drag all 6 suitcases off the bus with us through the customs at Shenzhen and then onto the bus once again to reach our final destination. With the uncertainties of lines and anxiety levels, the both of us decided it wasn't worth the risk. The ferry, however, allowed us check-in our bags before boarding and only having to deal with customs once we docked and landed ashore. After that, we were free to meet whoever our ride was to get us into town.

Baiyun Mountain Guangzhou China

Being with my mom and my mom only for a couple months was a breath of fresh air. As a kid who didn't get to spend much time with her parents because they usually had to work long hours and who's family just doesn't really communicate the same way "normal" families do, it was a rare bonding time between us mother and daughter that I would gladly repeat again.


4 Ways I Traveled - Chinese Bus Tours (Part 1)

11:36:00 PM mandy 0 Comments

Suppose taking a trip is as simple as confirming travel plans, packing bags, and flying to a new city in a new country. Forget all the other nuances like deciding what the best places to eat are, which hotel would be the most ideal, or where the most popular attractions are. Does such an easy way of exploring really exist?

Traveling abroad can be really daunting. Potential problems vary depending on the destination in mind. If I go somewhere foreign, will people there speak or at least understand English? How much universal sign language and hand-flapping should I brush up on? What kinds of transportation are there to take? Which is the cheapest and safest?

Bangkok Thailand Grand Palace

Of course, these sorts of scenarios shouldn't ever keep anyone from gallivanting through the big world we call Earth. Our phones are a great resource nowadays. If not, the good old trusty travel guide books are a safe bet as well. Otherwise, the simplest answer for those who are hesitant of their own abilities and prefer a guided experience is a bus tour. This is the preferred method for my mom and many other older immigrants who haven't really traveled much before and have in recent years had the capabilities and wish to do so. It is also the solution to the biggest hurdle that might stop them from actually booking the trip: language.

Changping China Juyounguan Great Wall

I cannot attest to all bus tours because there probably are many different styles and many different price points within the travel category itself. My experiences mentioned here are going to be specific to Chinese budget bus tours abroad.

These are the kind of tours that are booked mostly through a travel agent at one of the many Chinese travel agencies that are open in the Chinatowns throughout the world. (Yes, I am going to make that bold statement because all the fellow bus tour members I have met in Thailand, Taiwan, and China did, in fact, come from all over the world. Whether they were from the USA, Canada, Australia, or Malaysia they all found their way to where we were because of a travel agency in their respective Chinatowns.) Somehow, the deals are always undeniably captivating: BOGO Free, BOGO 50%, ~$200 roundtrip flight to Asia + food + room & board + mandatory tour around Shanghai and neighboring cities, etc.

When promotions sound like that, how could one possibly resist? Sometimes a couple hundred dollars could land a person thousands of miles away. Participants don't have much to worry about since tour guides almost always speak Chinese, whether Cantonese or Mandarin varies and English is a plus not a must for tour guides. Everyone is bussed from one location to the next. Hotel and food are already part of the itinerary and mostly paid for. What a steal and it is headache-free!

Taipei Taiwan Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall Taipei Taiwan Taipei 101

Tallest buildings. Longest structures. Natural glories. Man-made beauties. Museums. Memorials. Floating markets. Night markets. Bangkok. Pattaya. Taipei. Hualien. Taitung. Kaohsiung. Tainan. Shanghai. Hangzhou. Wuxi. Nanjing. Suzhou. Beijing. Chengde. Nanjing.

If simply being to the most number of places in one trip is a priority, there is probably nothing like what the bus tour could offer. No matter if the tour is 6 days, 7 days, or 8 days, the sheer quantity of places and cities the tours can manage to fit in the itinerary is praiseworthy. On days where it was attraction-heavy, the guides would take us to 3+ photo-worthy spots. Other days, it may be one attraction and a bunch of shopping stops in addition to the travel time needed to reach a new city that is hundreds of miles away.

Hualien Taiwan Shakadang Trail Taroko National Park

The places on the travel itinerary are usually ones that are relatively famous and/or tourist hotspots. The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Great Wall in Beijing, Taipei 101 in Taipei, and West Lake in Hangzhou. Sometimes it was to a lesser traveled to yet historically significant and interesting sights nonetheless. The Shakadang Trail in Hualien and Mountain Resort in Chengde. Regardless, the common point across all tours, no matter the country it is in, is the limited amount of time spent at all the attractions.  The reason is pretty obvious. The only way to be able to visit all the places and see so much in a limited timeframe is by sacrificing the chance to slowly absorb the surrounds and move around at a relaxing pace. It is a tight line that tours usually try to stretch so attendees don't feel like they aren't getting their money's worth in terms of sights that are seen.

Thailand Culture Show Thailand Culture Show Tourist Photo Session

Shows and performances on the itineraries are interesting, for a lack of a better word at this moment. Cultural recitals, drag shows, and tease shows in Thailand and acrobatic shows in Beijing. It is a difficult topic to explain in a way without being contradictory. Having to go to performances that I had no say in picking keeps me open to other cultures. Yes, it is (usually) a representation of their customs and lifestyles and definitely unique from what I would ever get to normally see. But a majority of the performances we were taken to were filled to the brim with only other Chinese tourists. The shows were lacking the authenticity of the local art and culture that I would personally prefer. Something that people who live there are excited to see and give praise to instead of something that is more-or-less manufactured to profit from outsiders with.

lavlilacs bus tour shenannigans selfie

The greatest and worst thing that comes with bus tours is the bus itself. Greatest because if anyone is the type, like me, that can fall asleep anywhere, the bus rides will add countless hours of naps to your schedule. Which is great because wake up calls are usually pretty early in the morning. Buses can be the best because there is no worrying about safety and transportation and money, just make sure your butt is with the rest of the group when the bus is ready to get a rollin'. Then there is the bad because not all buses or tours are the same. Some vehicles might have tons of leg room while others have barely any (which is saying a lot because I am a short girl). Some tour groups are larger than others (buh-bye double seats). Then there is the absolute worst because most of the time anyone spends on a tour is on the bus itself. Whether it is being driven 30+ minutes between stops or 2+ hours to reach the next city on the trip, your butt is in for a long long ride.

Chinese Budget Bus Tours Buffet meals Chinese Budget Bus Tours Chinese family style meals

Food is one of the main reasons I travel; being able to eat and taste things that I wouldn't normally try or be able to try at home is a big driver. But on bus tours, food is more of an afterthought. All of the tour guides I met all joked that food on the tours were not to taste good but to survive on; it would not be anything particularly outstanding, just edible. What this actually meant was lots of buffet food from the hotel or family style Chinese stir-fried meals. Hungry, I was not. Yet I didn't get to taste very many local delicacies outside of what the hotel buffet line had to offer. Again, it is just an issue I personally have with authenticity to the local culture versus something tailored towards a foreign visitor. Why would I travel to a place like Beijing, Shanghai, Thailand, or Taiwan to have southern style Chinese food? The 2 exceptions to the buffet and southern-style Chinese food meals were once when the Beijing tour included a Peking Duck dinner and once when the Taiwan tour included a street-food themed sit-down meal.

Chinese Budget Bus Tours Special food upsells Turtle soup Chinese Budget Bus Tours Special food upsells Shark fin soup

As everyone's preferences are different, so are the way food is fit into tour itineraries. Some would include time at markets so that travelers could walk around and buy local snacks for the bus ride. Others would organize night market time as a dinner replacement. Certain occasions the guides would upsell meals after the included meals so that they could bring you to a "special local spot" for things like turtle soup in Taiwan or shark fin soup in Thailand.

Chinese Budget Bus Tours Shopping Stop

Shopping stops are the single most shocking experience across all the tours. There were many stops to buy jewels, jade, pearls, tea leaves, teapots, animal-skinned goods, silk bedding, and dried fruits and candies. I had mentally prepared myself to fight off the temptations of just wanting things that look nice. I also readied to dissuade my mom from doing the same. Yet the tactics and sheer numbers of shopping stops got the best of us. There is always something that looks too good to resist. Case in point for me, local food and snacks.

I should clarify what these "shopping shops" are first in order to paint the full picture. The budget tours are so glaringly cheap because of the various sponsors who probably negotiate deals with travel agencies to provide food and hotel in exchange for customers who would be willing to buy a lot of stuff at their establishments. Establishments which aren't really open to the general public, from what I could tell. They are usually in seemingly remote places where the only other people you'd see, besides the employees, were tons of other bus tour groups members. The main goals of these shopping stops were so the sponsors would basically earn back the "investment" they made on the travelers. The better way of putting this would be to say they offer good prices for luxury goods to visitors.

There have been shows and reports, especially in Asia, that talk of how sometimes the establishment would force travelers to buy things before they can pass the doors to leave. I can say that I mostly didn't experience that particular style of sales on the tours but what I saw could be almost on par. The more typical approach was to offer steep promotions. Sometimes manager types would offer freebies as a way to entice. Then the penultimate maneuver is the story.

Oh, the power of a story! Each busload of people is usually brought into their own rooms with their own manager to explain the various kinds of things that they sell. Then there is the noteworthy "this is the one and only of it's kind," the strategic "best and safest investment," or the sympathy-inducing "I didn't really want to work for the family business but my dad is ill so here I am" scenarios that happen all too frequently. When the story is paired with the freebies or steep promotions, or better yet both, that is when the magic happens. Something in the minds of the people turns them into customers. The ability to make someone believe in something that may or may not be true is really something else. The sponsors and the guides bank on the affirmation that the formula works and that all bus groups are separate from beginning to end so the stories are never shared until it is too late. Now whether to call this a form of forcing is probably arguable. Saying it is the power of a story is being nice. Calling it deceit is the extreme.

Earlier I mentioned "I mostly didn't experience any forcing to purchase" because there is one scenario where it did sort of happen to a certain degree. At a shopping stop, there were only a few couples and families purchasing. A majority didn't see a need for the product or had particular excellent self-control that occasion. Many sales girls stood around with no sales to make. Despite the lack of interest, our tour guide hadn't suggested we leave any earlier. So we stood and sat around. Perhaps a manager noticed and started pushing a bit. While travelers who came as pairs were able to shrug off the advances more easily, a big group didn't fare the pestering as well and eventually gave into buying and all was well for everyone else. The reasoning? If enough people buy enough things, it would cover for what the non-buyers did not spend.

Yet with all that said, I don't think I want to completely condemn the idea of these Chinese budget bus tours. It is definitely not my preferred style of traveling: the time spent on the bus, the time wasted for me at the shopping stops, and the low freedom to roam. However, it is extremely difficult to deny how cheap it is. While the included tour is mandatory, it is still possible to get away with buying a very limited amount of things. It is especially easy if you don't speak Chinese or don't look Chinese. In exchange for the tour, the flight tickets are usually open for a long period of time; if holiday time allows the shopping tour does not have to be the only destination! I met a couple who took advantage of the cheap package price to also stop in Hong Kong for a week or so for their honeymoon. My mom and I, on the other hand, utilized the air ticket as a way to go to not only Hong Kong, but also my families' hometowns in Southern China, Japan, Singapore, and Korea all in one go. Hint, how there can be 3 more parts to this series to come.


October Hauls

11:03:00 PM mandy 0 Comments

lavlilacs 2016 October beauty haul

To say I am excited for the beauty and non-beauty products I got last month in October is probably a very big understatement. Another Sephora order was made, surprise surprise. But there is an explanation for the madness! My Aunt also came home from an almost month long trip to China and Hong Kong which meant souvenirs galore!!

lavlilacs 2016 October Sephora haul lavlilacs 2016 October Hong Kong and China souvenirs

Sephora is making it's regular appearance in my monthly haul posts. Here is my explanation justification for the recent buying frenzy from them. I had set my mind on making a very big purchase from them but in order to get the best deal possible I needed to reach that VIB status for the annual holiday 20% off in November. I know...I am playing into their tactics. But it will be the best price then and I tried my best to only buy the stuff I needed from Sephora in order to reached VIB. Anyways the wait is almost over since the 20% VIB code starts in about a week from Nov. 11-14 this year. I can't wait!

Anyways...back to the haulage. The thing I needed from Sephora this month was the Urban Decay All Nighter Makeup Setting Spray Duo that recently came back into stock online. Their setting spray has been a part of my morning routine for years! I love how it makes my face look less powdery after spraying and how well my makeup holds up throughout the day. When it came time to repurchase the duo a few months back, I was surprised to not see it sold at Sephora anymore. Who knew it was one of those "Limited Edition" Sephora things that has really been offered a long time...until recently. I held off on buying it again since 1 spray sells for $30 and I remembered paying ~$30 something for the duo in the past. It also gave me the chance to retry the MAC Fix+ setting spray.

The non-necessary purchase of the haul was the Captain Blankenship Mermaid Dry Shampoo. Since I was trying to buy as little as possible but still $11 shy from Free Shipping, I decided to give the travel sized dry shampoo a try. The Glamglow Supermud Clearing Treatment, Guerlain Kiss Kiss Creamy Satin Finish Lipstick in 325, and Hourglass Veil Mineral Primer were all either promo code items or deluxe samples I finally used my Beauty Insider Points for.

Before my Aunt left the country, I requested a few things that could either 1) be bought for a better price than what I could get online and 2) be only found in Hong Kong and/or China. She came back with a ton of other stuff and offered some to me so who am I to say no?

lavlilacs 2016 October beauty haul Nexcare Acne Patch Dressing

With the major acne breakout issues I had this year, I was majorly regretting the small amount of Nexcare Acne Dressing Patches I got myself whilst in Korea. My Aunt finalized her tickets to Hong Kong a few months ago and the patches were the first thing I requested. I used to be very indifferent towards these kind of acne treating methods. Apparently I had just been using them on the wrong kind of pimples. FYI The little buggers need to be the kind that are ready to pop and full of puss in order for the patches to work it's full magic.

lavlilacs 2016 October Taikoo Red Sugar

The second item I was really excited for was Taikoo Red Sugar. I am not 100% sure if it is the same thing but it seems like it may be. I had some really good Doufuhua or Tofu Pudding when I was in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. But the one thing I noticed they did differently from what I was used to was the sugar component options they offered me. In New York City, doufuhua is usually served with a simple syrup. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, it was served with my choice either bright red-orange sugar crystals or simple syrup. I gravitated for the sugar crystals as it was a completely new concept to me. Sweetener is sweetener is sweetener but the redness made the doufuhua look so nice! I tried to find anything similar in the Chinese supermarkets near me in NYC. But red sugar here translated to something akin to molasses-y brown sugar. If this is what I had in Hong Kong, then I may ask my Aunt to help me get more the next time she goes back.

lavlilacs 2016 October beauty haul Assorted masks

A trip to Hong Kong, or anywhere in Asia, for the matter isn't complete for beauty junkies without buying tons of masks. My mom isn't into beauty products but my Aunts are. I just wasn't expecting her to come back with a suitcase full of goodies since she always claimed to be a "buy as little as possible" kind of gal. I opted to take a couple of each to try since I still have a rather large stash of sheet masks of my own to use up.