Over four and a half years. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve been back to the US.
As I prepare to return to the US for a short visit, the staggering amount of time that has separated us looms before me.
I never thought I would be away for so long. Years ago in the US, I often heard stories from Chinese students, of how their visas — and the potential to be denied re-entry to the US during their studies — snuffed out any plans of heading back to China. I remember being shocked to hear that they hadn’t seen their family and friends back home in three or four years.
One year of absence, give or take a few months, was about all I could bear when I first came to China. And once, while working in Shanghai, the one and a half years I ended up waiting to see my family already tested me, and left me aching within.
But since then, life has schooled me in the many ways that the best laid plans — such as regular, yearly international travel to see family and friends back home — can be dashed. Maybe circumstances have rendered the price tag for an international flight far beyond your tight budget. Or a pandemic dashes any further hopes of flying back home.
Being grounded for four and a half years reminded me that international travel is a privilege, not a right.
Now that I will travel home to the US very soon, it feels more like an imaginary story, rather than reality. How do you make up for all that lost time in just a short couple of weeks? What can you say to someone you haven’t seen face-to-face in over four years?
It was over a week after the tragic shooting in Atlanta that left eight dead, including six Asian women, and yet Georgia was still on my mind as my husband Jun and I prepared dinner.
“You remember our dream of doing a road trip around the US?” I mentioned to him while chopping veggies. “It’s hard to imagine doing that now.”
I felt a wave of anxiety as I recalled our cross-country drive in the US in the summer of 2016, which involved camping at small state parks scattered across the nation’s heartland, and even a night of sleeping in our car during a rainstorm. The idea of spending the night outside in a flimsy tent in a space where other people could see us — and, especially, my obviously Asian husband — suddenly appeared risky, in light of the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents.
I’d already had this concern long before the incident in Atlanta, having followed the reports from Stop AAPI Hate and news of the most extreme violence, including Asian elders pushed to the ground and even dying from related injuries. Atlanta only heightened my apprehension.
This doesn’t mean I won’t eventually travel back to the US to see family and friends. Eventually, once the pandemic is fully controlled and there aren’t the many other barriers that make travel impossible or impractical, I’ll make plans for a visit. But the idea of embarking on a pleasure trip for two — just my husband and me — doesn’t appeal as much now. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to appreciate the majesty of, say, the Grand Canyon when you’re worried that your spouse might get assaulted because of his race and national origin.
…this need not necessarily be sentiments held only by mainland Chinese but Asians elsewhere, particularly those who are Chinese-looking. A Booking.com survey finds that nearly 70 percent of Asian travelers said friendliness of locals would factor into their decision-making process, with 84 percent saying “personal safety” would influence their choice of destination.
The report also said travelers ranked Asia as their most preferred overseas destination, followed by Europe and then North America.
I wonder, how many people in cross-cultural and interracial relationships here in Asia, like me, have also been rethinking the ways in which they might travel overseas with their Asian families in the West. How many more of us will put on hold those “dream travel” plans over safety concerns, opting for destinations within Asia or closer to home?
Much like the Eiffel Tower’s dazzling light show, Paris glimmers in the eyes of many, with countless people dreaming of travel to this alluring French capital. Author Suzanne Kamata did, inspiring her to see Paris as a young woman, and now her teenage daughter Lilia wants her turn (“a girl after her mother’s heart” as Kamata writes).
But Kamata’s memoir Squeaky Wheels, built loosely around how the two eventually realize a once-in-a-lifetime mother-daughter trip to Paris, along with other travels, offers a very unique perspective. It’s one that goes beyond how Kamata is a white American woman married to a Japanese man, raising their bicultural and biracial children in Japan.
That’s because Lilia is deaf, so she communicates primarily through Japanese Sign Language, and also has cerebral palsy, which in her case has meant largely navigating the world in a wheelchair.
Like many mothers, Kamata has a fierce devotion to her daughter and she’s resolved to help Lilia realize her rosy-eyed dreams as much as possible, including travel. Getting there, however, means negotiating the less-than-ideal and even discriminatory accessibility issues that invariably arise when you have a wheelchair and sign language involved.
Kamata’s determination and sense of adventure, combined with honesty, vulnerability and a good dose of humor, make for an endearing narrator. And Lilia’s bright disposition (“She exclaims rapturously over butterflies, heart-shaped pancakes and the first cherry blossoms of spring”) shines throughout the pages. With the two together, Squeaky Wheels delivers a captivating journey that’s also eye-opening, inspiring and a delight to read.
In addition, Kamata effortlessly weaves into the narrative a fascinating look at Japan and Japanese culture, including as it relates to biracial/bicultural families as well as people with disabilities. Artsy readers will also enjoy the visits to museums, from Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot wonders to classic works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Rodin. And with France and Paris in starring roles, Squeaky Wheels serves up an irresistible story for anyone besotted with the City of Lights and its nation.
Years ago before my first foray into China, I agonized over exactly what to pack for the year of work there that loomed ahead of me. I had studied every guidebook, primer and even memoir I could get my hands on about the country. Yet none of them seemed to answer certain nagging concerns about what I should make of my precious, and very limited, luggage space.
Could I purchase the feminine products I needed there? Would I still find contact lens solution if I needed it? Should I bring a year’s supply of vitamins, just in case? And what about deodorant?
As trivial as these questions might seem in retrospect, details matter when you’re planning for a trip or, in my case, a long-haul adventure of work overseas. And newcomers to China who sift through the usual titles on the country — such as the Lonely Planet China Guide (at the time, the most definitive and trusted guidebook) — may find themselves disappointed on small details that, nevertheless, make a big difference in travel.
From basics such as visas, documents, money, packing and accommodations down to transportation of all kinds, staying connected, the Chinese language and keeping healthy, the book covers almost every issue a traveler might have and steers you toward the best choices for a smooth journey in China. It even includes a sample packing list to simplify your decisions on what to put in that suitcase (if only I had possessed that years ago!).
Essentially, it’s chock full of all the practical tips you’d need to know from a travel insider, and will easily pay for itself by saving you time and money. I recommend this guide to anyone either planning or considering travel to China (there’s even a chapter actually addressed to travelers on the fence about visiting the country).
Josh Summers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and never considered the idea of writing until he started traveling the world. In 2006, he and his wife set off for an adventure around Asia that aroused a passion for photography, filmography and, of course…writing. Over time, Josh has become known for a unique style of travel writing that is extremely personal, empathetic to the reader and very easy to follow. His blogs and videos reach millions of travelers each year and have inspired countless travelers to venture out beyond their comfort zone.
I get over a thousand emails every month from travelers that run across TravelChinaCheaper while planning for their trip. As much as I try to respond to these emails, it has just become too much for me to handle. What I wanted to do was create a concise, low-cost resource that I could point people to not as a way to make tons of money, but rather as a way to provide help to as many of these people as possible.
Unlike most guidebooks, which usually assume you’re planning to head to China because you purchased them, yours has a chapter titled, “Should I travel to China?” Why did you decide to include this in the book?
You’re right: a number of the questions that I hear from travelers center around their fear of the unknown. They have a desire to travel to China and they’re making the necessary steps to get there, but they’re not 100% convinced. Will they be able to get around using only English? Will they have to use a squatty potty? I wanted to be realistic about the challenges of China but also erase any unnecessary fears from the equation.
Tell us something from your book that you’ve found travelers are surprised to learn about China.
People are generally surprised to learn that China has surpassed most of the world when it comes to the adoption of mobile payment systems. As most expats in China know, we rarely walk around with cash anymore! What’s equally frustrating for tourists to learn, though, is that these mobile payment systems (WeChat, Alipay, etc.) are not geared toward short-term travelers and are pretty much impossible to set up without a Chinese bank account. So, like it or not, cash is still king if you’re walking around China as a traveler. This is the type of information that most travel guides don’t/can’t cover.
Could you share with us a few of the great tips from your book that travelers might not glean from a typical guidebook?
Sure! There’s an entire chapter dedicated to staying connected while in China. For many of us, that means finding a way to connect our mobile devices to the internet while we’re traveling. Most guidebooks will tell you that the internet in China is censored and that WiFi is ubiquitous around most major Chinese cities. It’s very generic and obvious information. What they don’t tell you is that often times these WiFi hotspots are locked behind a text-verification wall, which means that if you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t use the WiFi. This is the case for most airports, shopping areas and even some coffee shops. My guidebook gives simple tips on how to prepare your phone to connect to the Chinese network or how to access global WiFi easily without the need for text verification.
How have readers responded to your guidebook?
So far the reception has been great! I’m so encouraged when I receive emails from people telling me that reading the book was like sitting down with me to chat about my experiences in China. Whereas most emails I used to receive ended with a travel question requiring an answer, nowadays I’m getting more and more emails that are simply a “thank you for your help”. It’s genuinely satisfying.
What do you hope readers gain from your book?
In the end, my desire is that readers will walk away with a confidence that even as a first-time traveler with no Chinese language skills, they could enter China and easily travel around. The world – not just China – is a much friendlier place if you know what to expect before you arrive.
Also in that vein, I travel with a few empty bottles, which I can fill with water after clearing security and then bring on the plane, to ensure that I drink plenty of fluids and lessen the effects of jetlag.
I usually have a pair of disposable slippers (often accumulated from hotel stays in China) to use during the flight for extra comfort when those feet swell during the journey. (Additional tip — last time my husband flew Air China, they passed these out to everyone in economy, so just booking with the right airline can save you the trouble of packing them.)
I never forget moisturizer and lip balm, absolutely essential for combatting the dryness in flight.
But I’ve also discovered some additional must-haves for long-haul flights after living in China (and also, in part, thanks to my Chinese husband) — things that, to me, can be magical and life-saving. Here are 3 of my personal favorites:
#1: Feng You Jing Essential Balm Oil (风油精)
Headaches. Nausea. Stuffed nose. Scratchy throat. Any of these could turn a long-haul flight into an extended nightmare. Everyone has their remedies for managing them, but for me, you can’t beat Feng You Jing essential balm oil, known in Chinese as fēngyóujīng (风油精).
Dab it on your forehead to ease headaches. Add a few drops on your temples and under your nose to relieve nausea. Apply a little on your nostrils to help clear your stuffy nose. And yes, if you’ve got a bit of a scratchy throat, rub directly on it and it’s almost as good as having a lozenge.
Plus, it’s also handy for masking unpleasant odors you might encounter in airports or planes (especially if, God forbid, you end up being the unlucky person seated right near the bathrooms).
Chinese hawthorn fruit, known here in China as shānzhā (山楂), is already known for being a magical and healthful fruit that has great cardiovascular and digestive benefits. In particular, it has become a must-have in my home just because of its ability to ease indigestion and nausea — two symptoms that could make anyone miserable en route.
Thankfully, it’s easy to bring Chinese hawthorn fruit on the plane because it’s made into lots of packable snacks here in China. Rollups are my favorite version, but I also like the cakes and even candies, which can all be purchased online (just search Taobao for 山楂) or in any major supermarket in China. In the US, Amazon has a number of possibilities, including these haw flakes.
Another added benefit of bringing Chinese hawthorn fruit candies with you? They’re perfect for easing hunger between meals or connecting flights.
#3: Golden Throat Lozenges (金嗓子喉片)
Any veteran flyer knows just how dry it can be when you’re cruising over 30,000 feet — and that dryness can make for uncomfortable throats. That’s why I always pack throat drops. But far and away, nothing beats the magic of the Chinese brand Golden Throat Lozenges (jīnsǎngzi hóupiàn, 金嗓子喉片). They’re incredibly soothing and effective, and I’ve sworn by them for years. They’re always available at pharmacies across China (ask for jīnsǎngzi hóupiàn, 金嗓子喉片) or on Taobao, but you can also pick them up on Amazon in the US.
What are your magical must-haves for long haul flights?
P.S.: This post contains some affiliate links, where your purchases help support this blog.
When Jun and I used to live in the US, we always heard the stories from Chinese students and friends. How years would pass before they ever traveled to China to see friends and family. It was too difficult for them to return – because of the cost of travel, the hassle of renewing their visa, or both.
It was unimaginable to me.
At the time, the longest I had ever been away from my family in the US was a little over a year. Even that absence had plagued me with a deep homesickness – so great that I once sobbed quietly in a bathroom stall at work over missing the US.
I never thought the same thing would happen to Jun and me. Or that I would learn to manage the distance over not one or two, but nearly three years.
I’m taking a break from posting from May 28 until June 8. But in the meantime, I’m sharing some of my classic content — which might either be new to you, or just a great read worth revisiting. Either way, hope you enjoy these, and I’ll see you June 11. 😉
The summer kicks off the travel season, and there’s nothing better than traveling with the one you love. I dug into the archives to share a few classic stories of traveling with the one you love (and often, for love) in China.
Hitting the Great Wall(s) of Beijing. Sometimes, you hit walls in life in China. And sometimes, you hit walls on the way to the Great Wall, as John and I did when we traveled there.
Going to John’s China Hometown. John’s ancestors come from the area near Huangshan — one of China’s most impressive mountains. But his family lives in a countryside ravaged by economic development, worlds away from what his ancestors knew.
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