Before Covid, annual trips to China brought me closer to my grandparents

May 13, 2023 — by Kathy Wang
Photo by Kathy Wang
With their grandpa, sophomore Kathy Wang and her sister, with their matching braided hairstyles, tear up bread to make paomo, a popular Chinese soup.
 As an American-born Chinese, sophomore reminisces about the hectic activity of those visits.

As summer rolls around, many second-generation Americans are gearing up to travel to their motherland countries, whether to meet their innumerable relatives or simply explore their native country. 

Starting when I was 8, it became a bi-yearly family tradition for my parents to bring my older sister and me to China, specifically Xi’An, our parents’ hometown. Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled to China ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020 and have no immediate plans to return.

My memories of these thrilling but exhausting visits begin with my dad waking the family up at 6 a.m. to catch a flight that left at noon. My family and I crammed our overweight suitcases into an Uber,  as my sister and I obnoxiously complained about our precious stuffed animals that we were inevitably forced to leave at home. Just to confirm, we definitely don’t do this anymore because we’re now “mature, considerate” children. 

In a span of approximately 14 hours and two connecting flights later from San Francisco to Beijing and Beijing to Xi’An, we finally reached our destination: my grandparents’ small yet cozy apartment in Xi’An, a city of almost nine million people in north-central China. 

As I entered my grandparents’ apartment, I remember being greeted with a familiar scent that I could never quite put my finger on: one that approximated a mixture of old soap and garlic. As we put down our bags, my grandparents set up an impressive array of Chinese snacks, including guo ba (a popular rice-based chip), shanzha (a type of dried fruit snack) and a variety of sesame and peanut candies. This display of food made our mouths salivate.

As we woke up the next morning in our tough bamboo-layered beds, my grandparents whisked my sister and me out to a bustling farmers’ market in the middle of town. Nudging through the crowds packing the streets, we felt our stomachs rumble from the familiar aroma of oily fried street food as our ears rang from the shouts of vendors bargaining the prices of their produce.  

In the midst of this familiar chaos, my grandparents spoiled my sister and me with an endless heap of our favorite breakfast foods: youtiao (a type of Chinese fried doughnut), jian bing (a thinly fried crepe filled with meat and veggies) and finally, a variety of local grown fruits such as lychee, melons and oranges. 

On our way home, my sister and I begged our grandparents to stop by the public exercising parks — outdoor gyms built by the Chinese government — which are always crowded with elderly men and women. There, we tested the arrangement of colorful exercising machinery, rating each one by its “fun-ness.” As my sister and I swayed on a rusty swing-like machine that supposedly resembled a treadmill, our grandparents chatted with their elderly friends, casual conversation disguising amiable boasting about their “wonderful, smart” grandchildren.

After my sister and I finally returned to their apartment, we spent the rest of our afternoon binging Chinese TV shows such as our favorite, “Xi Yang Yang,” which translates to “happy sheep.” The popular animated series follows the life of a group of goats that are constantly escaping a big bad wolf that wants to eat them. While I watched TV, my grandma braided my hair into a variation of braided hairstyles. I remember whining about the braids being too tight while she told me that “pretty hurts” in Chinese.  

Later during the evening, my uncle took us to visit the famous Terra-Cotta warrior sculptures. Our parched throats ached from the dry weather as my very nerdy sister enthusiastically examined the hulking, sturdy terracotta warriors. I, being the annoying younger sister I am, couldn’t help but pester my uncle with more crucial questions like “When are we going to eat?” and “Is there a gift shop?”

To end our spectacular day in Xi’An, my relatives often hosted a gigantic family reunion at a high-end Chinese restaurant. While we waited at a large round table with a glass lazy susan, my sister and I drummed our chopsticks on the fancy china plates, only to be scolded by our parents. Once dinner finished, my sister and I fell asleep on the car ride home, drowsily dreaming of what wonders would await us in the days to come. 

As the school year ends, I can’t help but reminisce about my past summers frolicking around China with my sister. The laggy wechat calls just aren’t the same as seeing my grandparents bright, smiling faces when my family and I appear at their doorstep… and of course, it’s difficult to find an authentic Chinese restaurant nearby that actually resembles the meals back in China. Nonetheless, my China withdrawal will only excite me more for my next return trip…which I hope is very soon …

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