Monday, February 7, 2011

Canadian Roots

Okay, so here’s my first confession of 2011: I am a terrible relative—guilty as charged.

For years, I’ve long avoided taking a trip to Calgary, Canada, to see some of my relatives—aunties, uncles, cousins and great nieces and nephews whose names I only knew from Christmas cards. I mean, why travel up to see them when they can travel to Los Angeles to visit us? And even if I did, I thought, what would I do? What would I see?

Well, it only took a weeklong press trip assignment to Alberta, Canada—in the dead of winter, no less— to finally get myself up here. After having to invest in a full-length, goose down parka and some toasty Sorel boots to brave the frigid winter climes, I was even more reluctant to go. But now that I am here, I’m kicking myself for not coming up sooner.

At first, I’ll admit I was a little nervous about spending the first few days of my trip with my relatives. I’d only met a handful of them once beforehand—mostly when I was only three years old. So, even though they’re family, they were practically strangers to me.

But here’s the thing: family is family. No matter where you go, they’re going to be there for you, for better or for worse— and even if the last time that they actually saw you was when you were still wearing diapers—or better yet, never.

My view from Calgary Tower --serious winter boots included.

As soon as I got off the plane, my auntie Lillian and cousin Sue whisked me away to lunch—dim sum, of course—and we were off. Soon enough, I was walking through Chinatown in downtown, peering down from the observation deck of the Calgary Tower and enjoying my very first taste of AAA Alberta prime rib beef.

The more time I spent with them and with my uncle Jimmy, the more I realized that making this visit wasn’t about seeing the sights—it was about learning about my family—and myself in the process, too.

Portraits of my great grandparents that I'd never seen before. 
My first night, my auntie and cousin showed me old photos of the house that my grandmother grew up in when she was living in China. They even gave me photos of my great great grandparents and great grandparents, as depicted in the portraits that, presumably, still hang in that same house to this day.

I also had no idea that my grandfather was a boxer. And not just any boxer, but a Golden Gloves boxer. My uncle told me how my grandpa, having emigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1940s, decided to take up boxing, purely for self defense (race relations weren’t exactly the greatest back then, to say the least). But, because of his stocky build and natural ability to throw a mean punch, he actually became a sort of amateur pugilist—in addition to running his own restaurant in Wichita, Kansas, of all places.

That restaurant is where he taught my uncle Jimmy how to cook—and in telling me that, that’s exactly when my uncle started tearing up, and so did I. I never got to know my grandpa; he died long before I was ever even born. But being able to hear these stories about him makes me feel like I do know him—at least a little bit now.

That kind of experience is something I couldn’t get anywhere else but here. More and more, I’m starting to realize that the best type of trip isn’t necessarily about seeing the big sights, or taking in the best meals (although that never hurts). It’s about the people you meet along the way—and, in some cases, those you might not ever get to meet. And for that experience alone, it’s more than worth it—even in those below-freezing temps.

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