BOOK EXCERPT: How Taiwan Changed a Xinjiang Mother

BOOK EXCERPT: How Taiwan Changed a Xinjiang Mother
Photo Credit: shankar s. on FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0

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My mom’s trip to Taiwan was a major turning point in her life, opening up a new travel-obsessed chapter. In her old pictures she’d be looking askance, lips shut, not a trace of a smile. Now she looks right at the camera, mouth wide in a smile. She even throws up a peace sign every now and then.

This is an excerpt from the book "Jottings of a Life in Altay" (記一忘三二) by Li Juan (李娟). An unabridged Chinese-language version of this excerpt can be found here.

Since my mom returned from her trip to Taiwan, she’s wanted nothing to do with the mainland. Whether it’s that Ürümqi (capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) is too noisy or Hongdun village is too dirty, there’s no shortage of complaints. And the second she’s done complaining, she’ll change her clothes and go right to cleaning the cow pen or sweeping out the chicken coop, same as always.

It’s been half a year since she’s been back, and no matter who she starts chatting with she’ll still find a way to work Taiwan into the conversation.

If someone says some vegetable at such and such shop is good, she’ll say Taiwan’s vegetables are better, and from that point she’ll bring up her seven-day trip around the island.

If someone says it hasn’t rained in a while, she’ll mention how Taiwan rained on her trip.

If someone says they don’t feel well, she’ll talk about how sick she felt in Taiwan.

The problem is, in a town like Hongdun you only ever see the same people, the same farmers who have at most traveled once or twice to Ürümqi, let alone somewhere like Taiwan. What’s my mother trying to prove by bringing it up all the time? But being simple farmers, they’ll still listen in wonder to my mother’s stories as if they’re hearing them for the first time.

Photo Credit: Cliffano Subagio CC BY-SA 2.0
Certain areas of Taiwan are still hotspots for Chinese tourists.

This all stemmed from my mom’s 40-year school reunion. You can guess how it went – 40 years on, after the niceties, all anyone wants to do is compare successes. My mom was a mess when she came back – out of all of her old classmates, she said she looked the oldest; had the most gray hairs. Worse, her classmates filled the night with stories of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand – my mother hadn’t been anywhere. She had nothing to talk about.

When she came home she immediately went and bought some hair dye, but something still wasn’t right – she seemed depressed. Finally I got in contact with a friend that worked at a travel agency and set her up with a tour group to Taiwan. So one day in the beginning of winter, with her tote bag and a new pair of shoes, my mom set out on the trip that would prove to be a turning point in her life.

The first thing my mother did when she returned was throw me a stick of Chanel lipstick, saying coolly “Only two hundred yuan (US$31.60). Cheap, huh? It would be at least three or four hundred here.” This is the same woman who cringes at the thought of shelling out two or three yuan for a bottle of mineral water.

Turns out that was the extent of her splurge. While everyone went all out at the duty free shops, my mom was standing arms folded by the entrance when another woman called out to her, “What, are you blind? Look how cheap this stuff is! Buy this back home and you’ll go broke!”

But to my mom it was still expensive: A bag for eight thousand? Eyeliner for five or six hundred?

What did these women need all of this makeup for anyway? I booked my mom the senior tour group, didn’t I?

Then another woman shared her opinion: “Money’s money! You can’t bring it with you when you die, might as well spend it now.” As frugal as my mom is, in the end she gave in. After searching the duty free top to bottom, she finally chose that single stick of lipstick. That’s it. She could afford it and she saved face. Win-win.

Other than that she did buy a couple of souvenirs here and there, knick knacks from the stops on her tour. Luckily her tote bag was big enough for it all, though not long after I did see the same stuff at some of the markets in Altay, the closest city to my mother's village, for more-or-less the same price…

In Taiwan, it was my mom’s first time to experience the vastness of the ocean.

“It’s too dangerous. There’s not a fence or anything – those waves could sweep us all away! Swim, you say? Look how deep that water is, what’s swimming going to do for you?”

She even told me that, when the other women weren’t looking, she took a sip of the ocean water. “It was so salty!”

“And the wind was so strong! There was this little food stand, and some people actually went in and ate while others waited outside. Amazing!”

“What’s so amazing about that? It’s just food by the beach.” I asked.

“I mean, it’s amazing that his business was so good!”

Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee
The mountains of Altay in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

She had read Zhu Tianyi’s “My Mountain Companion” (我的山居動物夥伴) and was utterly fascinated by it. She would say “Whenever we got to mountains, I would search and search for him. I wanted to find him and say hello. I saw those same rocky, winding paths and I would think maybe he’s down one of them. I told all the other people on the tour about that book.”

She would talk about the bus driver’s dog. She said the dog was with them the whole time, and on the bus would sleep at its owner’s feet. Whenever they got somewhere the driver would bring it down and it would just jump right back onto the bus like it was afraid.

Once while parked there was a stray cat that walked up to the door of the bus, and the dog started barking like mad. The driver took it down and put it right next to the cat, the dog stopped barking and immediately ran back onto the bus. I don’t know what the point of the story was, but my mom told it at least five times.

She said “I wish I could have brought our little Sai Hu (our dog’s name), she’s never been to Taiwan.”

“How was the tour guide?”

“Great! He really worked hard, and we all took good care of him.”

“The driver?”

“The driver was great, too. Always on time, we never had to wait.”

“How much did you tip everyone?”

“Tip!? Like I have the money for that!”

She was quiet for a second, then said sheepishly “Other people tipped. They tipped a lot, too. I just pretended not to notice.”

Before she went I gave her the old camera I used to use on the farm – an old Polaroid, chipped and held together with paint. The whole time she would ask other people to take pictures of her, always holding her tote bag.

“So is Taiwan’s food really that good?”

“Don’t bring up the food. I had diarrhea for three out of seven days!”

She said, “Those weird fruits. The second I tried them my stomach was twisting! Then at lunch there would be so many beautiful looking vegetables, but they were all sweet, I couldn’t take it. The others brought hot pepper, though. They showed me that if you mix it into the rice it makes everything at least edible.”

Finally she said, “After I was sick for three days I could barely walk around. The guide was worried and wanted to send me home early.”

“That’s awful. How could you have enjoyed yourself like that?”

“Eh, you get sick, you get better. All in all it was a good trip.”

Before she went I brought up the possibility of her getting sick. She said the only thing she was worried about was not getting a good night’s sleep – she’d always been a light sleeper.

“Who were you in a room with? Did they snore?”

She looked down, embarrassed, “She didn’t snore… Actually I snored, kept her awake all night. She had to sleep on the bus…”

“Mom you must have drove her crazy!”

“I apologized as much as I could! She wasn’t mad… she even gave me some medicine to help with the snoring.”

The plane went back from Taiwan to Ürümqi, around six or seven hours. Everyone on the plane was coming back with different tour groups, and they spent the whole time comparing:

“What kind of hotel did you ladies stay in? How was the food? Did you stop a lot to go shopping?” They basically rated every travel agency from one to 10, ignoring the fact that their tour guides were all in earshot.

Then they shared experiences: “What kind of clothes did you bring? What are the best kind of shoes for the trip? What places are unsafe? Where are the best hot springs?” Before the plane landed they all exchanged phone numbers.

My mom came back with a wish list: a new bathing suit, a backpack (apparently a tote bag wasn’t the best option), a sun visor, brand-name makeup, a trip to Scandinavia…

"Scandinavia!? Forget about it, especially since I would be the one paying for it," I said, “People go there to see cultural landmarks, mom. You wouldn’t even understand what you’re looking at. You should just go to Hainan.”

I might have spoiled my mom with too nice of a first trip abroad. She started to pour over my map of the world:

“Wow, Egypt is far! I thought it was right next to Xinjiang!”

And, “Wait, so Australia isn’t in the United States!?”

Finally her attention fell on some islands south of India.

“What the heck are these little dots?”

“They’re the Maldives, mom,” I said, pulling up some photos on my phone. She ooh-ed and aah-ed for five minutes, then took out a small notebook and scratched “Maldives” onto a blank page.

I had a bad feeling about this.

Later that day she called my friend at the travel agency, wanting to book a trip to the Maldives.

My friend tried to read the situation, “The Maldives are nice and all, but it’s more of a relaxation destination. You know, there’s not much to do there. Maybe Paris would be better for you? We actually have a deal on a Paris tour right now.”

“No, my daughter told me I’m not cultured enough to understand places like that.”

You better believe my mom sells every egg, and every cent goes toward her next trip.

Before my mom got the travel bug, she would keep a bunch of extra eggs from the chickens and give them to my friends for free. Not anymore – now you better believe my mom sells every egg, and every cent goes toward her next trip. And she’s my mom, so I have to help her out. I’ll tell my friends, “please buy some eggs, this means a lot to my mom.”

And they do. My mom saw how quickly the eggs were selling and bought 10 more hens, figuring she can get 15 to 20 eggs a day by the end of this summer. She gets 1.5 yuan per egg, and if all goes well she should rake in around 700 yuan a month, 8,000 a year. Our cows give birth about once every year and a half, and a five-month old female can fetch 4,500, a male around 3,500. I also give her a little bit every year, so a trip abroad once a year, even something like Scandinavia, isn’t out of the question.

Starting this year she’s going to start grabbing her pension, too – more than 1,000 yuan a year. And living on a farm, there really aren’t that many avenues to spend all of this money, so a couple of domestic trips a year, maybe to Qinhuang Island or Mount Emei, are totally doable.

That trip to Taiwan was the start of a new chapter in my mom’s life, and undoubtedly her happiest yet. You can see it in her photos: before she would be standing there looking away, lips shut, not even a hint of a smile. Now she’s like a new woman – looking right at the camera, face in a full blown smile. Sometimes she even throws up a peace sign.

I suggested, “Hey mom, it’s fine to wear stuff with flower patterns, but can you not have flowers on your blouse and pants atthe same time? Or, wear flower pants but not a flower shirt.”

“Well you’ve never seen the Taiwanese! Even Taiwanese guys wear more flowers than I do!”

In Taiwan, she even learned four different ways to wear a scarf. She showed me when she got home.

“My memory’s great, you know. They taught me once and I still remember how to do it.” Facing the mirror, twisting and tugging at her scarf, she said proudly, “You know, learning this was the best part of the whole trip.”

I’m thinking, “Great, I spend 8000 yuan for a trip and you learn how to wrap a scarf. Seems worth it.”

One day my mom said suddenly, very seriously: “From now on, I’m giving it all up and focusing on traveling. That’s it.”

I was surprised by my mom’s sudden burst of motivation, “Where’s this coming from? Why?”

“Because, I heard the tours get more expensive after you hit 66.”

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Translator: Dan Strakosch

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston