LOUYANG, CHINA - While walking along this ancient city’s lovely riverbank, admiring the legendary Longmen Grottoes along with the wide-eyed Korean and Japanese tourists surrounding me, I suddenly realize I am a stranger in this land of my ancestors’ birth.
I may look Chinese, but I’m as Canadian as maple syrup.
And as this Chinese-Canadian stranger walks among locals who seem to know I’m not one of them, I come to appreciate how my grandfather must have felt when he landed in Canada in 1953 from China.
He was supposed to meet up with his father but discovered on his arrival that his father had passed away unexpectedly.
Only 20 and all alone, my grandfather, who couldn’t speak a word of English, took over his father’s restaurant in Saskatchewan and bravely forged ahead — eventually moving to Toronto where he planted family roots that still grow today.
Now I find myself alone in this massive land called China — trying to connect with ancestors on a cultural journey that started in Beijing and was meant to introduce me to the things and places I had learned about as a child from my grandparents and parents.
Everything seems to have a connection to my childhood. Like the Shaolin Temple, founded in the 5th century and made famous by the monks who perfected martial arts (kung fu) here.
This place inspired my father to get involved in kick-boxing. He was part of the first kung fu club in Ontario and he visited the temple, located near Dengfeng, when he was young.
Martial arts masters still come here to pay their respects to the legendary figures who pioneered the sport at this temple, which rests in the shadow of Songshan Mountain.
During my recent visit, I see fighters dressed in traditional monks’ robes demonstrating an impressive array of martial arts skills, from body contortions to weapon flaring, flying around the stage and drumming the floor in unison with their fighting sticks.
I wish my dad was here to see it with me.
Above: A old man makes our writer fell right at home while old women catch up on their reading.
Although the Shaolin Temple has become something of a tourist trap — where fake jade bracelets and Buddha statues abound — there’s still enough of ancient Shaolin for visitors to appreciate. But it’s the connection this place has with my father that truly excites me.
Some other highlights of my China adventure are:
• Kaifeng City, with its Iron Pagoda, a tower of bricks erected during the Song Dynasty.
Helen, my tour guide, takes my hand and walks me around the 1,000-year-old masterpiece, telling me that it has survived over 38 earthquakes, six floods and many other natural disasters. We spend the afternoon wandering through a rock garden and a Chinese theme park.
• Zhengzhou, the capital, largest city and the political, economic, technological and educational epicentre of Henan province. It’s a gorgeous modern city that is also recognized as one of the eight great ancient capitals of China. Its Henan Museum is truly fascinating; its collection of more than 130,000 relics keeps me spellbound for hours.
A definite highlight was getting a “foot massage,” which actually turned into a “full body massage” lasting two hours, with complimentary food and beverage thrown in. It cost about $15 Cdn.
• Beijing — It was like saving the best for last. The Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, the world’s largest Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; the city’s exciting night market where I put my bartering skills to the test; crispy, delicious Peking duck; deep-fried scorpions on sticks – China’s capital has it all.
The experience I will remember most about this trip, though, was a visit to the Great Wall.
The plan was to climb up, snap a few photos and call it a day. But when I got up, I felt the rush.
Above: Chloe dances on the Great Wall.
In front of me were the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen, beckoning me to the next watchtower and the endless path beyond.
It was irresistible.
At times as I walked, deep in thought, imagining how proud my grandparents would be if they could see me now.
Familiarizing myself with Chinese culture, seeing the ancient sites I had heard about when I was a child, learning of China’s rich history — these were all incredible experiences for me in China.
My only disappointment was that I spent too much time trying to find just one person who looked like me — to no avail.
Maybe that’s because my family originally came from Guandong in southern China. Guess I’ll just have to go there next!