hen my Chinese in-laws came to Canada with my wife and I for a vacation, my aunt in Ottawa generously invited them to come and see the nation’s capital and stay on her gorgeous riverside summer home in Quebec.
They declined. My mother in-law explained, “Some countries don’t have very impressive capitals.”
I think Ottawa is a beautiful and impressive capital city. But maybe not for someone from Shenyang, a former capital of China, with the ancient palace still standing.
Instead, my in-laws had a specific and fixed list of things they wanted to see – all in the United States.
In a borrowed car, my wife, her in-laws and our infant child headed out on our American road trip.
On the way to New York City, we stopped in Ithaca for the evening, a quaint college town that shuts down early. My father-in-law said he wanted to have authentic US burgers, so I took him to Five Guys Burgers, which had a photo of president Barack Obama visiting the restaurant on the wall. My father-in-law was completely impressed.
“I’m going to tell everyone I ate where the president ate,” he declared. I did not have the heart to tell him this was a chain restaurant, and the photo was taken in a different city.
In New York, my in-laws wanted to see all the usual places with some quirky additions. We had to visit Wall Street, even though the exchange has been closed to the public for decades and trading is now mostly conducted by computer. However, when we saw the famous bull statue, I could not persuade my mother-in-law to join the queue and have her photo taken holding the bull’s brass balls, even though I promised her it would lead to a lifetime of lucky day trading.
We had to walk onto the Brooklyn Bridge, an idea I thought was stupid until I saw how much fun my in-laws had taking selfies with the Manhattan skyline in the background.
For my father-in-law, the highlight of New York was a visit to a friendly local Irish bar, where locals bought him drinks when they found out he was visiting from China. This is the kind of hospitality he offered me and other guests in Shenyang, that is too rarely reciprocated when Chinese come to the US and Canada.
Washington, DC underwhelmed them. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum only drew the comment that the Apollo command module was “small.”
The highlight was spotting former speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives.
But even that was overshadowed by the joy of smashing crabs with mallets on white plastic table clothes at Jimmy Joy’s Log Cabin Steakhouse in Maryland on the way back home.
The one big disappointment of the US trip for my in-laws was not visiting an outlet store.
Our walk up and down Fifth Avenue looking at the high-end shops did not sate their urge to buy. And I can understand why. These shops are absolutely shabby compared to their luxurious counterparts in China’s big cities.
We took a day to visit an outlet mall outside of Toronto, a prospect I dreaded.
Prada, Gucci and Burberry were all represented. To my surprise, every single one of the shops had Chinese-speaking staff. As I looked around, I realized that most of the shoppers were Asian.
I bought an Armani shirt for only US$300, and a complete wardrobe update from Saks.
My in-laws bought nothing. They had much more fun and bought more things at Costco, which was also packed with Chinese people.
A few days before their return home, they blitzed a Tommy Hilfiger in a mall near where we were staying with an 80 percent-off clearance sale, and bought gifts for everyone at home. It’s a well-known brand and a good price, my wife explained.
Although I found their preoccupation with brands and shopping unhealthy, I tried to imagine how wonderful it must be to go from being stuck on a communal farm where even light bulbs were scarce as teenagers, to having the wealth and opportunity to purchase almost anything – even the clothing brands worn by the richest people in the world.
I’m not so different from them. Although I am afraid to wear my new Armani shirt out, lest I get a stain on it, I get satisfaction simply knowing it’s in my closest and I could wear it, if I wanted to.