China, Part 3: Jiangmen
Chinese geography is still fairly confusing to me, even after I've been to these places. The next stop on our trip was Jiangmen, which is still part of the Guangdong province about an hour and a half away from Guangzhou by car. My dad's older brother picked us up in a car to take us to Jiangmen. It turns out my uncle is kind of a big deal: he is a history professor at Wuyi University, the major university in Jiangmen. He's been involved with getting UNESCO World Heritage status for several historic villages nearby and sometimes the local TV stations interview him about local history and culture (my dad gets Chinese TV on satellite and he'll sometimes holler at me to come over to see my uncle on TV).
A lot of people from Jiangmen eventually wound up in San Francisco and New York City during the main waves of immigration in the late 1800s and 1990s.
We arrived at the Palace International Hotel in Jiangmen, which conveniently had several restaurants in the same building. Many locals come here for dim sum or big banquets. It was here where we had our first real dim sum meal in China, and where we met our paternal grandmother and our two baby cousins who subsequently stole all our hearts. My grandma is 99 and she's one of the main reasons for this vacation: my sister and I had last seen her 22 years ago during our previous trip to China. Can you imagine not having seen your own grandma for 22 years? The geographic separation made me a little sad, especially once I finally met her again as an adult and gained an appreciation for my family tree. My first cousin has twins, one boy and one girl, who are two and a half. Towards the end of our trip, my cousin said he wanted us to give them English nicknames, and he was thinking of Olivia for his daughter. I blurted out "Elliot" immediately for his son, but probably only Law & Order: SVU fans would have appreciated it.
We played with the babies while having a very typical dim sum lunch: various baos, cheung fun, chicken feet, congee, taro cakes. Although the spread was just like what we'd eat back in New York, there was something more delicious and magical about eating dim sum in China.
The next day we visited Kaiping, the village that my uncle helped to earn UNESCO World Heritage status. In the mid 1800s, very poor Jiangmen folks fled China when they could to build the American Dream in the gold-paved streets of the US. First, the big draw was mining during the Gold Rush. Then, a lot of labor was needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad. For those lucky Chinese who were able to strike it rich in the States, they would often move back to China and build villages like Kaiping: there are many fortress-like homes with lots of Western influence (imported marble, phonographs, big travelers' trunks) and various methods of protecting their newly-earned American treasures (murder holes, nearly impenetrable doors). Not only was it awesome to see this little slice of Chinese-American history, but it was the best experience to be led by one of the most knowledgeable tour guides, my own uncle!
For lunch, we went to a nearby restaurant, nothing too fancy but pretty authentic and probably considered fancy considering the rest of the neighborhood was very rural. Another marvelous dish we had in China was at this restaurant: a platter of roast pork, but not like char siew at all. Instead of the cloying barbecue glaze on char siew, this pork had a light coat of a more savory sauce. It was a heavenly blend of lean meat with fat interspersed so evenly that even though the pork didn't feel greasy or blood-vessel-clogging, it melted on my tongue effortlessly. I begged my parents to find out the name of the dish or at the very least whether we could replicate it back in New York, but to no avail - we'll just continue dreaming about it fondly.
That afternoon, we headed to Taishan, which is also considered part of Jiangmen (Chinese geography is like one of those Russian nesting dolls). Taishan (in Cantonese, it sounds more like Toisan) is one of the biggest sources of overseas Chinese, which is one reason why you used to hear so much Taishanese in New York City. Nowadays, there are more influxes of immigration from other regions of China, but back during my formative years of visiting Chinatown I thought everyone was Taishanese. My family certainly has its fair share: everyone speaks the Taishanese dialect as fluidly as they do Cantonese, and one of my uncles speaks in such deep Taishanese that even I have trouble understanding him.
Taishan's main city was probably the grittiest and least modern of all the urban cities we visited. When I asked my parents why there are so many Taishanese overseas, they said it was because Taishan was traditionally a very poor region. It's certainly still urban, but not what I'd call "fancy" modern. We walked up a very crowded, dirty, noisy street in the middle of town. There were tons of department stores, all selling knock off or low-quality clothes with hilariously mis-translated slogans. Why a pair of overalls would be bedazzled with "DRY CLEAN ONLY" in rhinestones is beyond me. Right amidst the bustle of this shopping strip was one oasis of quiet and calm: the church where my mom's dad preached way back when. It's also a protected site, so that's probably how all the shops cropped up around but this church is that one hold-over from the old days. It broke my heart a little bit, because my grandpa passed away about three years ago, but it was amazing to step back in time in my family's history.
That night, we had sushi at a popular Japanese restaurant in Taishan. The meal wasn't as complex as the sushi we had in Guangzhou, but it was more diverse and hearty. Besides sashimi and nigiri, we also had beef, tofu, and chicken wings. It was much more cozy and relaxed, so all in all a fun dinner.
The next day was grandma's illustrious birthday party/family reunion. Okay, so grandma's birthday was a little bit later, but we thought we'd celebrate everything all at once. We had nearly 120 people in the hotel restaurant for this party! I barely remember what we even ate, because as the prodigal visiting family members we had to schmooze; bounce around from table to table, toasting literally everyone in the room; and both pose for photographs with groups and take photographs for my parents. It was a pretty hectic to meet tons of relatives and family friends that I'd never met, with my parents introducing us rapidly and calling us over to meet so many new people. My cheeks hurt from smiling, but it was genuine: I'd never been in such a big room full of love, and all these people turned up to see the New York branch of the family (and grandma for her birthday, of course).
We spent the afternoon hanging out with my cousin and his twin babies (Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, perhaps?). For dinner, we drove up to the mountains for a very special dinner: the Chinese version of...a funny hybrid between Medieval Times and Costco rotisserie chicken. There is literally a big mountain with a creek running through the valley below, and this maze-like restaurant specializes in personal-sized roasted chickens. The rest of our family thought it was hilarious to feed us an entire chicken each, but we did have to admit these chickens are way smaller than something you'd get at Costco. We each got a pair of plastic gloves to grab our chickens, which were salty and juicy. It was fun to tear right into a hot roast chicken and bite the meat off until there was just a sad carcass left!
The American delegation of the family was headed to Hong Kong for two days, before returning back to Jiangmen again. So we bid farewell to our family for a bit and jumped on a bus the next day headed to Hong Kong!