It was my better half’s first trip to China. Actually, his first visit to Asia.
“I want to see as much as possible. I know you can’t see everything in two weeks, but I want to see a lot.” He was, after all, going on one of those “trips of a lifetime.”
Though I’d been there before, I wanted to see it all, too. There were so many historic sites I hadn’t been to, so many corners I hadn’t explored, so many regional specialties I hadn’t tasted.
So we packed our two week trip full of action. We were going to hit up all the tourist essentials, The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Qin Terracotta Army, Giant Buddha of Leshan… we even managed to squeeze into our itinerary a stop in Chengdu, capital of that world famous Sichuan cuisine and home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where I would voluntarily (and gladly) fork over an exorbitant amount of money to look deep into the round, soulful eyes of a toddler panda, extend my welcoming arms, and be rewarded with the cuddly hug that I would remember for the rest of my life.
Oh yes, we were going.
“But when are you coming to Shanghai? What about Nanchang?” Echoed my grandparents across the Pacific.
Oh yes, we were coming, too.
No trip to China was complete without a visit to the two cities where my relatives reside. To them, it was a homecoming of sorts. But was I going to visit China or coming home to China?
I dread the inevitable question I’m always posed a few minutes into a conversation with a stranger.
“Where are you from?”
If they’re from the DFW area, I’ll say “Carrollton.” If I’m in another state, I’ll say “Dallas.”
They look at me with a puzzled half smile.
“My parents live in Arkansas. I went to high school there.”
The wrinkles on their foreheads deepen with confusion.
“But you could say I’m mostly a Texas girl. I’ve lived here most of my life.”
They give up. But by their forced, unnatural nodding, I know it’s not the answer they were looking for.
“I was born in Shanghai.”
Bingo! A wave of relief washes over their faces. And by these conversations, a trip to Shanghai, my birthplace and home to everyone on my dad’s side of the family, and Nanchang, where I spent my early childhood years and home to everyone on my mom’s side of the family, is definitely a homecoming.
Coming or going, we had a plan together for a trip that would excite our senses, particularly the gustatory senses.
Starting out in Shanghai, where the cuisine is all about light and delicate flavors (and where we’ll eat our weight in xiao long bao, or soup dumplings), to Nanchang, where we’ll sample native, semi-rustic Gan cuisine which has practically no exposure outside of China, to Chengdu, where our nostrils will run dry from the overdose of Sichuan chilis and peppercorns, to Xi’an, home of China’s largest Muslim quarter and its famous mutton and lamb heavy cuisine, and finally to Beijing, city of imperial cuisine and that oh-so-famous duck dish.
Our culinary undertakings were accompanied by many anticipated cultural adventures and one unexpected natural disaster whose aftermath resonated throughout the trip. As it turned out, our two week stint in the Middle Kingdom was the trip of a lifetime.
Onto Day 1