by John Cooper
May, the month of Mother’s Day, and lest we forget the importance of our relationships with our Mothers, allow me to tell of an adventure trip that I took with mine.
My mother was elderly at the time, or just north of her prime to be more politically correct (sorry Mom, but facts are facts, are the math doesn’t lie). Like me, she also has an appreciation for travel and asked if I would accompany her on a week-long trip to China sponsored by the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce. The trip was thinly veiled as a “Business Leader’s Excursion to China” with the underlying theme of learning how to do business in China.
The first stop on the tour was the capital city of Beijing, one of the most populated cities in the world with a staggering sum of nearly 22 million. Beijing is also home to the Great Wall and the Palace Museum, otherwise known as the Forbidden City, both of which are recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
The Great Wall of China, constructed of stone, brick and wood, extends nearly 5,500 miles, and in excess of 13,000 miles by some estimates if you include all of its branches. You can forget about Donald Trump’s boast that he’ll build a fence between Mexico and the United States; a measly 2,000 miles. The Great Wall of China could surround the entire United States in every direction. A long-standing bucket list item of mine has been to run the entire length of the Great Wall, but after having witnessed its enormity, I’ve since substituted that for something more suitable and realistic; like tasting all of Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors in one sitting.
Located in the center of Beijing is the Forbidden City, the most visited museum in the world, and the home of 24 emperors and their families dating back to its construction in 1420. The complex consists of 980 buildings that were used by politicians and other influential dignitaries of the times.
In its storied history, the Forbidden City has endured invasions by foreign countries, occupation by hostile forces, withstood rebellions, fires and other manner of chaos, but the most impressive opposition was that of a modern-day Starbucks that opened in 2000, which after a few short years was forced to close due to public outcry.
We also visited Tiananmen Square, the location of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. If you remember, at its height, nearly one million student-led protesters assembled in Tiananmen Square and were suppressed by nearly 300,000 government troops. Who can forget the image of the individual who stood defenseless and stopped the advance of a column of tanks as the world was looking on?
Much had been heard about the smog and pollution in Beijing, but it was altogether another thing to see it in person. On what would normally be a bright sunny day, the pollution was so great that the entire landscape was overcast with a thick layer of gray and so dense you could actually taste it.
Shanghai is a city experiencing explosive growth at a rate of 1 million per year over the past 15 years, accentuated by an endless number of construction cranes rising high in the sky. Shanghai was every bit a modern day city full of the latest architecture and design and the infrastructure that goes with it; traffic and congestion, noise and neon signs. But Mom and I were impressed nevertheless.
About an hour west is the old city of Suzhou, which appeared to be forgotten in time. With open air markets selling anything from fruits and nuts to live chickens and ducks and freshly butchered meats, including what was reported to be monkey brains! and other delicacies. It’s generally not been my nature to shy away from daring and speculative undertakings, but I drew the line at monkey brains.
Speaking of food, there were a number of observations that we both found interesting. The first example was that the plate sizes and food portions were significantly smaller than what we were accustomed too. Whether we were at a restaurant or a banquet, the typical plate was equivalent to that of a common salad plate…and going back for “seconds” was frowned upon. As the week unfolded, we became very aware , embarrassed really, at just how much food Americans eat, the abundance of food that we take for granted, and the amount of waste we produce.
The second observation we noticed was that the food was spectacularly delicious, but very simple. Rice and vegetables were served at every meal with some type of fish, chicken or duck as a supplement. We asked a waiter if he offered any fortune cookies. “Only in America,” he laughed. As it turns out, the fortune cookie is not Chinese at all. Instead, popular legend attributes the fortune cookie to have been invented in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant in the early 1900’s.
Unfortunately, Suzhou provided the first glimpse into the daily hardships that many Chinese families experience. Poverty was pervasive throughout the country. We watched several women wash their clothing in the dirty local waterway while raw sewage poured out from unfiltered drains just feet away.
In Hangzhou we visited tea houses, pavilions and ancient temples, all of which were impressive in their own right. However, my most memorable experience there was that of a midnight shopping event. Our travel host asked if we were interested in late night shopping for “knock off” merchandise. The opportunity to purchase copies of purses and handbags of brand-names like Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Gucci – of course Mom was interested. Having no need to buy personally, but curious nonetheless, I elected to go along with her.
We entered through a side door in an otherwise typical retail store. As the doors shut behind us, and another interior door was opened on a swivel, not unlike something you’d expect to see in a James Bond movie, we entered into a room filled top to bottom with thousands of purses and handbags; copies down to the very stitch. Being one of only two men in a large group of women shoppers, we watched these frantic bargain hunters run amok. It was a first-hand sighting of women shopping in all their glory – a “Black Friday” sale on steroids.
For me, exploring China with my mom was remarkable. We toured silk, rug and embroidery factories, and learned about growing and processing tea. We were introduced to its rich history and culture and viewed its breathtaking landscape. We discovered the greatness of China and it was fascinating.
More importantly, I also discovered that my relationship with my mother had grown, from that of a parent-child to a shared, mutually-respectful adult connection. Traveling together for an extended period of time provided the perfect opportunity for that to maturate. And there’s nobody I’d rather have enjoyed the experience with than my Mom. Happy Mothers Day.