In honor of Mother’s Day, journalist and author Connie Wang calls in to talk about her new book of essays, Oh My Mother!, centered around travels to places like Paris, China, and Las Vegas (one Magic Mike show included) with her mother Qing. And later, we hear from a whole host of listeners, both mothers and daughters, about their own trips.
Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu, and welcome to Women Who Travel. Mother's Day is coming up, which means that this week I am joined by journalist and author Connie Wang to talk about her new book of essays centered around travels with her mother, Qing.
And later, we ask for listener dispatches about daughter and mother trips. We're sharing some that reflect how travel can be bonding, healing, life changing, allow for reflection, and sometimes just be plain good fun.
Sonal: We were getting ready to go to the airport. She did not want to leave.
Jamie: There's a different kind of closeness when you do activities together, when you stay overnight together in a farmhouse in a small town in Japan.
Sonal: Mama, your people are so happy.
Diane: Here's my adult daughter reaching back for me to give me comfort and guidance very much like I used to do for her when she was a little girl. It was a beautiful moment.
LA: First, though, here's Connie on her book, Oh My Mother!
CW: Oh My Mother! is a direct translation of a Chinese phrase, 我的妈呀 (Wǒ de mā ya), and you say it when you- you want to say something like, "Oh my god," it's sort of like an expletive. It's something you say when, I describe it in the book as when you're on the cusp of losing it or putting it all together. Not to equate my mother with god.
CW: Although, she might get a kick out of that.
LA: I'm sure her ears have pricked up somewhere right now.
CW: [laughs]. I know, she's like, "What's that?"
CW: [laughs]. Yeah. But, I mean, travel is just a series, a long, long series, of oh my god moments, right? Or, "Oh my mother," moments. It is just oh my mother through like, just like moments of ecstasy or just like moments of just total despair.
LA: The book is centered around Connie and Qing's travels throughout America and Europe. There's plenty of humor borne out of their escapades. A little bit more on that later. But the storytelling also focuses on bigger themes like family and heritage. One chapter is called “Accidental Immigrants”.
CW: So my parents and myself, I was born in mainland China, and during the mid-1980s, mainland China started opening up to the outside world and allowing a lot of their grad students to seek higher education abroad. My dad specifically was part of this first wave of students who were seeking graduate degrees, masters and PhDs in the United States. And the plan was never to kind of like always be in the United States. In fact, like at that time, he had never been outside of the country before. Most Chinese people had never been outside of the country before.
And so, when he went to the United States, my mom decided to come with him. It was a great opportunity. She was like, "Why not?" Like, "This is gonna be fun." But while they were here, Tiananmen Square and those protests happened, and my dad decided to participate in the parallel protests that were happening in Lincoln, Nebraska, among the like Chinese students who were studying there at the time, and the things that the students were protesting seemed so arresting and appealing to him, freedom of ideas, the critical thinking, you know, not going along with groupthink.
And so, he protested, his photo was taken, I think it was published on like the fourth page of like the local Lincoln Star newspaper. But somehow, a clipping of it got sent anonymously to my grandparents in China, and- and that was a sort of threat basically that like we have an eye on your son, we know what he's doing, we really cut off the protest in Tiananmen Square. So now what, you know?
And so, my parents decided for their own safety, for their own opportunities, that they would stay here and took advantage of the green card program in the United States had offered because of Tiananmen Square. And then, we became naturalized citizens. And so, we became accidental immigrants, it was the- the longest trip of their lives. [laughs].
LA: Your book is so much a story about you, and it's also so much a story about Qing. And as a writer, I feel like that's such a daunting responsibility, to tell the story of someone else through your own words. And how did you talk with your mom about writing this book?
CW: It was like mutual writing process, and ideating process. We were both reading a lot of books during this time, and I was passing along a lot of memories to her that were about the immigrant experiences, and I thought that like these memoirs might be things that she would identify with and would speak to her. And I think after the third or fourth one, she was like, "Can you send me something different, because these are really bumming me out."
And I went, "Wait, what? I really like these." And she was like, "You know, they're just making me really sad." But I think that, Qing said, "It makes sense because all people wanna hear about immigrant stories is that we suffer," and that really struck me as... I mean, she was right, right? So many of the books written about the immigrant experience, it's about resiliency, and part of that is that you have to suffer in order to be resilient. And they were actually highly depressing books.
I was like, "But don't you see your story as one of suffering?" I was like, "You have suffered quite a bit," and she was like, "Yeah, but like that's like, it's- it's an adventure story." She was like, "Look at how awesome my life has been." Like back in China, my mom was an editor of non-fiction, you know, that's a skill that unfortunately doesn't translate across languages, so she became an accountant when she came to the United States. But she is an editor at heart, and so she was able to teach me a lot of stuff, and like, and I'm a writer, you know? She was able to teach me so much about book publishing.
LA: There's stories like family road trips, many endless resort stays earned through a timeshare, and a full week spent as adults at Disney World. There's also different trips to Europe and a Vegas escapade as mother and daughter. When you go through the editing process together, were there times when you realized the two of you had perceived experiences, trips, days differently, if one of you thought it was a good day and the other thought it was a bad day? Or just how much did your shared experiences actually kind of line up?
CW: We didn't disagree about the main, major takeaways of what happened, like if there was a fight, it was for these reasons, if there was some sort of like epiphany, it was the same sort of like takeaways that we had had.
LA: How would you describe your travel dynamic together, and how has it changed?
CW: The travel dynamic that I share with Qing is probably the most intense version of our relationship, so when it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's devastating. But we both like to pack it all in. We are not sort of like the laissez-faire, sort of like come-what-may sort of traveler, we love to schedule things. This sort of notes app that I have before we embark on anything is- is chock full of stuff. We plan it all to the hour.
So traveling with us, if you're an interloper or a third party or third wheel, might not be very fun. Qing and I are sort of masochists when we like to travel, so we like to tread off the beaten path, but we also obviously go to all of the major tourist destinations too. Because I have friends who don't like to do those things, they like to kind of replicate their day-to-day lives in a foreign setting, but that's not Qing and I.
So, like by the end of usually every single travel day, we've logged like 20,000 steps. We can barely move a muscle, and we fall asleep like literally as soon as we change into our pajamas at night. But that's the way we like to do it, we like to come home feeling like delirious and completely exhausted, but totally happy too.
LA: When you say that you're masochists, elaborate a little bit?
CW: We won't inadvertently put ourselves in danger or harm's way, but I think, personally speaking, that traveling with the expectation that you're gonna feel nothing is gonna, if you like a very soft, uh, cozy blanket of an experience, it doesn't necessarily lead to the more, most rewarding experiences. And so, that's what I mean by being a masochist, we don't travel to seek out pain, but we expect it. [laughs].
LA: [laughs]. Okay, obsessed with that. I think you need it on a bumper sticker. After the break, Connie recounts the time she and Qing attended Magic Mike Live in Vegas.
CW: The one thing I could see in the audience was my mom, she was like standing up and like videotaping the entire experience.
LA: There are so many humorous moments in the book, and sort of just like charming moments, one of which that comes immediately to mind is your trip to Vegas together. Which, from what I gather, was not necessarily something you'd envisioned for the two of you to do together, and yet you found yourself at the Vegas Magic Mike show?
CW: Magic Mike is her favorite movie, or let me go back, Magic Mike 2 is her favorite movie. She likes the first one okay, but what she really likes [laughing] is the second one, which is really just like a good, fun time, right? However many hours, two hours of just like pure entertainment.
And so, she's seen that movie so many times by herself, with friends, like in the theater multiple times, at home, so when I found out that Magic Mike was coming together with this like live male revue of Magic Mike, I was like, "Oh my god." I'm like, "I should tell my mother, do I wanna go with her? But if I go with her, this is probably gonna be like... Let me throw it out, there's no chance she's gonna say yes." And she said yes immediately, and we found ourselves there.
I really did not think through what it would mean to go see a male revue with your mom, and typically we don't have that kind of relationship. I think that there are some like [laughing] mothers, daughters out there where that is kind of normal, it is not normal for us. So I, uh, disassociated for a large part of that show, just completely was just floating above my body, was like, "I can't believe I'm here, and in fact, I'm not gonna be here really."
And it culminated in probably my worst nightmare, which was being pulled up on stage to be part of an act. If you're familiar with the movie, there's a lot of acrobatics involved, right? And I just remember thinking like, "There's just no way those are regular audience members." We both do wear dresses, but we kinda wanted to wear like this pants sort of outfit to the thing, and apparently that is the one tell for Magic Mike producers.
I had to sit on someone's lap while they drummed, like d- during like a-
CW: ... drum solo. Which, I was like, "Okay, at least- at least there's not much movement," right? I don't have to do much. But it's like...
CW: [laughs]. I couldn't see anything, because my little head is popping over his shoulder, right? And all I can see is like my right foot just like jiggling in the air, and then the audience, and I had no idea what's happening. Like, it's like we're on a spinning little turnstile, and I'm just like trying to make... What kind of face? I have no idea what face I was making. I- I was trying not to cry.
But the- the one thing I could see in the audience was my mom, she was like standing up and like videotaping the entire experience, which was also not okay, we were not supposed to take anything, but luckily for the Magic Mike producers, that footage has not gone anywhere except for to my friends, she's shown all my friends. I will never watch this thing.
LA: I love the mental picture I have of- of Qing standing up in the crowd, as though you're in like a school play.
CW: Oh yeah, so proud.
LA: Filming it.
CW: Just beaming.
LA: So proud.
Lale Arikoglu: Um, I'm really interested to know why she loves Magic Mike so much, and why that was actually so important for her to go there? Because, you know, it's male strippers, it's ostentatious, it's silly, but it sounds like there's kind of more to it than that, at least for Qing.
CW: Yeah. I think the one storyline that really spoke to her in the second movie was Andie MacDowell's storyline, and in the movie she is a woman who is a bit older, who says this line of- of something like that- that the women of- of her age just are, become invisible. My mom, like she said something that was like, "Do you think that like Channing Tatum likes older women?" [laughs]. Or like, "Do you think that that is like something that he thinks, like that he wanted to put in the movie?"
I think that's what my mom really likes about Magic Mike. She also doesn't see it as like sort of like a titillating film, she likes it for the plot. [laughs]. Which is dubious.
LA: I love it, and I guess packing advice, if you're heading to Vegas to go to Magic Mike-
CW: Depending on whether you want to be on that stage or not.
LA: ... wear a dress?
CW: Yeah, or-
LA: Unless you want to be on a revolving drum station.
LA: Which I guess we leave it to the discerning listener.
CW: It's up to you.
LA: Speaking of discerning listeners, we asked for stories of mother-daughter trips, and you more than delivered. Here's a listener who was finally able to return to the Philippines, her homeland, with her daughter. Her goal was for them to share a powerful experience at the annual Sinulog procession, which she herself had loved as a child.
Sonal: Hi, everyone. I'm Sonal, and I am a mother and immigrant mother, to be exact, to an 11 year old who is an athlete but also has a physical disability, um, has a hip and leg condition that can often make travel limited or challenging. But recently, nearing the 20-year mark of my exile in the United States, we decided to go to the central part of the Philippines, and of course this trip involved a lot of swimming, which is good for both of us, but also involved some walking, which is not always the most appropriate activity for her energy levels and just her physical abilities.
One of the big highlights of this 20-year homecoming for me, stuck in the United States [laughing] for better or worse because I wasn't documented for a good portion of my life here, was the Sinulog festival, which is the celebration, a 300-year-old celebration, of the merging of Catholicism and Philippine tribal animism. And the most ubiquitous image during festival season is that of the baby Jesus with brown skin adorned in red or brightly-colored robes with a golden crown.
And everyone walks around town carrying around this little baby Jesus. I'm carrying around my baby [laughing], I wanted her to experience this because out of everything that happened to me as a child, in the rough childhood that I had in the Philippines that led to my transnational adoption later on, the Sinulog festival was one of very few happy memories I had, and I wanted to go back to it and take her to the grandeur and the ostentation and the color and the barefoot dancing. [laughs]. And to see abundance of- of food and singing and people.
At the end of our trip, after, you know, we had put away out feather crowns and our floral print skirts and the T-shirts we had cut up and braided ourselves, you know, we were getting ready to go to the airport. She did not wanna leave, and of course I started to cry and she started to cry, and I asked her, you know, "Why don't you wanna leave?" And she said, "Because mama, your people are so happy." And I think that was exactly what I wanted her to experience, how happy Filipinos are, um, no matter what.
LA: Before we hear from Connie about her trip to Paris with Qing, here's a listener to took her mom to some of the popular gardens in France and England.
Laurie: Hi, my name is Laurie, and in May 2019, I took my mom on a trip to Paris and London. She's a manic gardener, so I used garden as a theme for this trip. She also loves art, history, and nature in general. I built the trip around when we could get tickets to tour Prince Charles', now King Charles', gardens at High Grove. That proved a little tricky, because I prefer to book trips way in advance, but we made it work.
We spent four days in Paris, two days in the Cotswolds in England, and two days in London. Musical fountains day at Versailles, Claude Monet's gardens and house at Giverny, Luxembourg and Tuileries and Paris, Sky Garden, and a stroll through the Green Park in London. And, of course, the marvelous gardens at High Grove near Tetbury in England. We also took in the raptor demonstration at the Cotswolds Falconry Center. Highly recommend it.
We packed in the activities [laughing], but my mom can't sit still so it worked for her. It really was a perfect mother-daughter trip.
LA: Coming up, Connie talks wardrobe malfunctions with Qing in Paris. You mentioned that you plan your outfits for these trips quite diligently, and you went to Paris together, and I think there's a problematic pair of flip flops that become a tension point, is that correct?
CW: That's right, that is. Well, before I talk about my stupidly strict packing list, a little bit of context. I, for many years at work, I would go on these epic work trips that would take me to four to five countries for months at a time, and we had to travel really light because of all of the filming equipment that we also had to bring with us, and then also because I was gonna be captured on camera, I had to be very, very smart and selective with my outfits. And then, on top of that, I also attended a lot of fashion weeks, international fashion weeks, for many years, in which like packing is like a sport, like you can only wear one outfit per day because you're gonna get photographed, and sometimes there's different brands that you have to like make sure you're representing because of client relationships. It's 3D chess. Or 4D chess? I'm not sure.
I never bring more than three pairs of shoes to any location, and the rule about these shoes is that they have to be shoes you've worn a lot about, like worn before, that are tried and true, reliable, you, they will not give you blisters. I did not tell this to Qing, and she brought more than three pairs of shoes, and her favorite shoes that she brought were just like very, very new, like fresh out of the box, she had never put them on before. And on day one, during one of our 15,000 to 20,000 steps days, she like, you know, she destroyed her feet.
And the only other viable pair of shoes she could wear for the rest of the trip, or un- until the blisters healed, and they were some of the gnarliest blisters I've ever seen before, these were not like normal blisters, they were like fruit-sized, like [laughing] it was disgusting. Um-
LA: Which I'll say, props to Qing, 'cause it means that she probably was suffering in silence for a long time before [laughing] the fruit-sized blisters broke her.
CW: Oh, uh, yes. Uh, silence and- and non- non-silent, too. She was very vocal about these blisters as well. [laughs].
This trip was in the early spring, so parts of it were very cold, and we were in Paris, which is, at least for her, a fashion mecca. And she had these like beautiful outfits with just like coordinated layers of jackets and coats and sweaters and scarves, and then these horrendous flip flops that she thought she was only gonna be wearing inside of the hotel room as like house slippers. These poor rubber flip flops that we walked everywhere in, and, uh, they really, really ruined her- her mood and her outfit [laughing].
LA: Devastating. [laughs].
CW: It was devastating. I mean, they also slap in so... I mean, and- and I'm using the word “slap” in like the actual sense of it, not like it slaps. But, um-
LA: You can hear her coming.
CW: Uh, you can absolutely hear her coming. And Paris is just a lot of marble floors, you know, and it's just like frap, frap, frap, frap. [laughs].
LA: I- I feel like it's so much of those sorts of things that end up bonding you on a trip. As you get to know your mother in new ways, as you get older, through these experiences you see her becoming this whole person, right? She's Qing, she's not just your mom, and that's something I can really relate to with my own mother. So, thank you for coming on and being so like generous with your time and your stories.
Connie Wang: Of course.
Lale Arikoglu: Yeah, it's been so nice, so fun. I've talked about it on this podcast before, I loved visiting Japan back in 2018. It's a place I think about and talk about often. And it was the sort of trip that I really wish I could do again, and maybe this time share with my mom, much like this listener did.
Jamie: Hi, I'm Jamie, and I went to Japan with my mom in October 2022, she's 81 years old, and my sister also went with us, so it was both of the daughters and my mom. Japan has always been on my bucket list, you know, it's been on my sister's bucket list too. And my mom, as she's been getting older, is saying like, "Let's do one more big trip."
Well, obviously the big cities are fantastic, but we went out to a small town northwest of Tokyo called Chino, C-H-I-N-O, Chino, and it's a very small town, a mountainous town. And as part of our time there, we went to a tiny little family's tofu kitchen, and we made tofu together. We all sat with the man who owns the, uh, factory and the business and his family, and we all had all sorts of tofu dishes. Fried tofu, tofu soup, tofu with this and that. It was incredible. Man, I've never eaten so much tofu in my life.
And it was just... You know, when you get that one-on-one contact with people who live in Japan and- and not just tour people, it's a whole different experience. You know, when you- when you get together and you like have dinner at home for birthdays or whatever, you develop a closeness, but there's a different kind of closeness when you do activities together, when you stay overnight together in a farmhouse in a small town in Japan. You develop a bond and you have different experiences. When you travel with an 81-year-old woman, you're gonna travel a little slower, more so than I'm used to.
I think there are a lot of benefits to traveling slower. Th- the way I've always done it is to just go, go, go, see everything, pack it all in, but with my mom, you can't travel like that. For example, we were in downtown Tokyo, and there's a beautiful park in the middle of the city, sort of like Central Park in New York, and I probably wouldn't have gone there, but with my mom, like we walked through it really slowly, and we're watching the butterflies fly around, and just sort of you had a moment to just sorta take it all in.
Diane: My name is Diane, and my daughter and I recently returned from a trip to Ireland this spring. Five years ago, my husband died of multiple myeloma. I was 52 years old, and he was 58, and this summer I turned 58, and it became clear to me that if I was going to travel, I think this was the time. Like I did not wanna run out of time.
I chose Ireland as my first trip, it has always been of huge importance to me to go. My family heritage is Irish. One of our best memories from the trip to Ireland was when we went to Newgrange. Um, Newgrange is an ancient temple mount. When we first went into the tomb, we were told by the tour guide that there was a, you know, if you were predisposed to claustrophobia, that you might wanna go in last so that you could get out quickly.
Well, that gave me pause, and my daughter wanted to be sure that I wanted to go into it, and I did. Um, but as we were walking through this very, very tight entryway, she reached back to grab my hand, and even underground, I was truck by the role reversal. Uh, here's my adult daughter reaching back for me to give me comfort and guidance, very much like I used to do for her when she was a little girl. It was a beautiful moment.
LA: Thanks for listening. We're taking a two-week break, and we'll be back in June with a brand-new episode all about the beauty industry in South Korea. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @lalehannah, and follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer, Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer, Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.