Two single women, a daughter and her mother, a generation apart, discover more than exotic sights when they explore China together.
I woke up from a nap at the W Hotel in Hong Kong as my mother burst through the door, a backpack the size of a Saint Bernard strapped to her back. “Do you have a Saint Bernard in there?” I asked, helping her off with the 70 pounds of essentials she determined she needed for a month in China. She was a flurry of kisses and bright colors. We hadn’t seen each other in about a year.
“We need a drink,” I said. My mother, possibly the only person I will ever meet who is truly up for anything, enthusiastically agreed. We were both tingling with excitement. Our once fantastical decision to spend a month together traveling through China ― after almost 10 years of living on different continents, me in Toronto and her in Bangkok ― was now a reality.
And then suddenly we were just two single ladies, a generation apart, sharing a king-size bed, drinking lychee martinis and lightly ogling international businessmen in a fancy hotel bar.
My mother sounded wistful, and she turned the conversation to the overwhelming uncertainty in her life. She doesn’t own a home and, restless in Thailand, she wasn’t even sure which country she wants to live in. I quickly came to realize that though we are 30 years apart in age, we were at very similar places in life. I heard my own voice echoed in her uncertainty about which choices would bring about the most fulfillment.
But for as long as I have known my mother, she has been carefree and spontaneous, an unpredictable lover of life always seeking out new experiences while maintaining her fierce, at times even defiant, independence. I knew that this downturn in mood would be brief.And so we set off. We spent our days in Hong Kong, peering up the full expanse of towering skyscrapers, shopping in small boutiques and riding in double-decker buses. We tried on high-heeled boots we couldn’t really afford, and encouraged each other to buy completely impractical but gorgeous little things.
From there, we moved onto the snowcapped mountains of Shangri-la, where we marveled at a golden monastery atop a mudstone village and made our wishes at a huge hilltop prayer wheel. We walked for hours on cobblestone streets, sampling fresh, hot red bean-filled donuts and snacking on all manner of meats that come served on a stick.
The Terracotta Warriors of Xian left us breathless, as we tried to take in the massive underground tomb. We sometimes ate dinner sitting on tiny stools with bowls drawn close to our mouths. And sometimes we found the finest digs in our backpacks and hit the town, my mother watching carefully as I tried my first bite of yak.
When we arrived at the St. Regis Shanghai, after a rather rough ride on an overnight train, we were introduced to the young butler assigned to our room. Most people would have dismissed Isaac or simply given him a list of tasks. Not my mother. “Isaac’s going to take us to see some contemporary art,” my mother announced, smiling widely, when I went up to the executive lounge after my much needed shower to meet her.
Isaac took us to No. 50 Moganshan Road, or M50, a former textile mill now filled with contemporary art galleries and studios, and we spent the afternoon ducking in and out of the minimal spaces, all high ceilings, glass and white wash. We drank cappuccinos in a courtyard café, watching Shanghai’s bright young things pass by carrying fabric and books, and Isaac blushed when we teased him about the froth on his nose.
It was one of the loveliest afternoons of the whole trip, and I credit my mother’s lifelong habit of informality. It’s not unusual to leave her in a shop and then come across her down the street, an hour later, having coffee with the same person who was just trying to sell her a teapot. In a nutshell, everyone’s invited to play her reindeer games. She doesn’t just become acquainted with people; she wants to know them.
I recognize that my mother is a unique woman. In her mid-50s, she moved to Bangkok without knowing anyone there. She took French lessons and Pilates classes. She’s as likely to spend an evening at a caviar tasting as she is to spend a weekend exploring Phnom Penh on the back of a motorbike. My mother gets food poisoning more often than anyone else I know. It could be attributed to the fact that she lived for so many years in Bangkok, where mystery street food abounds and shellfish is often stored in direct sunlight. But I think it has more to do with the gusto with which she throws herself at life. She’s just so eager to taste everything.
I have dedicated a lot of time to worrying about my mother. Where will she live? Does she ever get lonely? What will happen in 20 years, when she can no longer sling her leg over the back of a motorbike and go? But single and in her 60s, I also realize just how much life continues to excite her. She drinks in new experiences, everything from learning how to scuba dive to being chased by wild dogs in Myanmar.In her, I have one of the best possible role models for building the life that you want, on your own terms, without waiting around for someone else to make things happen – an encouraging message when you’re single in your early 30s and so many messages are telling you that “settling down” is the answer.
They say that all daughters eventually turn into their mothers. I already have my mother’s expressive eyes, her soft, weathered hands, her love of dark chocolate, and her compulsion to take long solitary walks. I hope that I also inherit my mother’s tenacious excitement for life and her courage to do everything she wants to do without waiting for anyone’s permission or for convention to turn in her favor.
Finally, we made it to Beijing. My mom left China before me. I was supposed to meet up with friends and spend the last few days eating Peking Duck, dancing in clubs, and then showing up, hung over, at the Great Wall (mission accomplished).
On her last day, my mom and I stood on an ancient street lined by hundred-year-old stone and wood hutong houses, and once again, I watched her awkwardly navigate her overstuffed backpack.
“I think our next trip should be on motorbike across a warmer country,” she said unexpectedly. “Maybe we could have a travel show and we could stop and cook something every now and then. We could go to Vietnam.” I was both surprised and yet not surprised by her suggestion.
“A cross-country cooking travel show on motorbike?” I asked, helping her into a cab bound for the airport. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“Exactly,” she said, failing to detect my sarcasm. “You know, you’ve got to be a little crazy to enjoy yourself.”
She hugged me tightly and got into the cab. Three days left in China and I was already dreaming of Vietnam.
Copyright © Sarah Treleaven/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.