Off to the land of my birth!

I’m one day away from an epic adventure: returning to China, my homeland.

I was born in 1959 in Southeastern Guangzhou, not far from Hong Kong. When I was 2, my mother and I smuggled out of Macao to Hong Kong in a false-bottom boat to join my father, who had found work there. Five years later, just after Mao launched his cataclysmic Cultural Revolution, we immigrated to the “Gum San,” the golden mountain called America. (See my column on coming to America.)

I had been back to Hong Kong once, on a hurried assignment with USA Today in 1986, following new immigrants coming to America. But never to China.

On June 20, my daughter Regan and I are leaving for a month-long odyssey, staying in 12 cities, scaling three mountains, cruising the Yangtze, playing panda handlers, and exploring the new Shanghai Disney. (See our itinerary below.)

(Here’s the post-trip report!)

(Did you know that China is about the same size as the United States? Imagine selecting the must-do highlights for a first-timer to America over 30 days!)

Our first week will be devoted to a family heritage journey through Hong Kong, Taishan and Guangzhou.

Chan fam Grandma Soo grew up in this house
We’ll be visiting this house that my mom and grandmother lived in, built by my grandfather.

We will be rooting out relatives, villages, graves and schools, 16 locations in all, including our home in the New Territories, the rice mill mom and dad bought for their nephew, and the Guangzhou hospital where I was born.

Mom did not want to go, lamenting it was too far, too tiring, and too many of her circle are gone. So I’ll be relying on my pitiful Cantonese and some cousins who allegedly have some English.

Every experience, every sight, every moment will no doubt inspire the memoir I keep talking about writing.

This trip was first planned for March. It almost didn’t happen at all.

To get into China, you need a visa from your regional Chinese Consulate. In our case, Houston. You have to fill out forms in triplicate with precise details about yourself and every step of your visit, which surprised us as we thought China had become so welcoming.

It’s standard practice to use a third-party visa service to assist, which we did—a poor choice I will restrain from naming.

Turned out the consulate had issues with my application. Remember, I smuggled out as an infant so I have no paperwork regarding my original citizenship.

Even though I have an American passport, we were required to provide more information and fill out extra forms (written in Chinese) to probe my background. The visa service provided no help: “This is the first time we’ve had this situation,” they said. “It’s out of our hands.”

Randy and Regan’s visas were no problem. But days passed with no communication or progress on mine. And suddenly, it was the Friday before our Monday flight. We were forced to cancel flights, hotels and tours. The financial losses were painful, but worse was the heartbreak as our wonderful trip fell apart, out of our control.

One week after our original departure date, my visa arrived (good for 10 years!). We were so disappointed when the visa service took no accountability and did not take this situation as an opportunity to improve.

Since then, Randy has had knee replacement surgery. We rebooked but reluctantly decided it was best for him to stay behind.

So this is going to be a momentous mother/daughter bonding expedition. Will I still have a problem with my visa? What if the tour company is a bust? How much dim sum can we stand? Will we still like each other as much as we do now, afterward?

Stay tuned!

Our itinerary

map 5.16
Our key stops in China, starting in Hong Kong and ending in Beijing. Lijiang is further west and not shown here.

6/20 Depart: to Newark, then Hong Kong
6/21 Arrive Hong Kong having lost a day
6/22 Hong Kong
6/23 Hong Kong
6/24 Hong Kong
6/25 Bus to Taishan
6/26 Taishan
6/27 Van to Guangzhou
6/28 Guangzhou
6/29 Train to Guilin
6/30 Guilin
7/1 Li River cruise to Yangshuo
7/2 Flight to Chengdu
7/3 Panda handler for a day; flight to Lijiang
7/4 Lijiang
7/5 Lijiang
7/6 Flight to Chongquin for Yangtze cruise
7/7 Yangtze cruise
7/8 Yangtze cruise
7/9 Flight from Yichang to Shanghai
7/10 Shanghai
7/11 Shanghai
7/12 Flight to Huangshan
7/13 Huangshan: overnight on top of the mountain
7/14 Flight to Xian
7/15 Xian
7/16 Flight to Beijing
7/17 Beijing
7/18 Beijing
7/19 Beijing
7/20 Depart to Newark; then home!


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