One of the biggest trips of my life was only big in retrospect. It was the summer of 1998, and I was a typical fourth-grade girl: a Rollerblading Backstreet Boys fan with mad crushes on her female teachers (so maybe not that typical). My parents and I lived just outside LA, and they ran a restaurant that consumed their every minute. That summer, the plan was for me to spend three months in Shanghai with my grandparents and extended family. Even though I’d been born there and had been back once or twice, at age 9 I didn’t have a real sense of the time and distance that involved.
We showed up at LAX, a massive airport, me pulling a rolling suitcase packed with maybe two pairs of overalls and a few tank tops, my mom carrying the one expensive thing she owned: a heavy Louis Vuitton duffel bag, whose strap I promptly tore off by yanking it by just one handle. We climbed into our seats in coach and sat there—me at the window, Mom right beside me—snug as a bug for around 15 hours. When we touched down and left Shanghai Pudong Airport, I realized the city still felt like home to me. The atmosphere was just so familiar: incredibly humid, lamb cooking on skewers, people smoking everywhere—hey, smells like home!
When most people think of China, they see deeply rural, country areas like in Mulan, even though Shanghai is one of the fastest-developing places in the world. Since I started going there, I’ve seen skyscrapers shoot up like weeds—lovely, massive buildings rising along the Huangpu River. A bit further out, in Jing’an Qu, where my grandparents lived, it’s not at all fancy: basic apartment buildings, clotheslines hanging between third-floor windows, folks chatting out on the stoop … a really strong sense of community. This was the vibe when we got to my grandma and grandpa’s place, where all four of my grandparents and all of my cousins greeted us like celebrities: “This is my granddaughter—she’s from Los Angeles.”
Since my cousins and I were all born under the one-child rule, there are only three of us, and it was clear from the moment I arrived that we’d get really close that summer. (And since there was no shortage of kid clothes, it didn’t matter that I’d underpacked.) That first afternoon is a bit of a blur, but I remember going out to lunch with family and then my mom leading me into an alley and up some ominous stairs to a room filled with fake designer purses, where she likely replaced her torn Vuitton duffel. At dinner, we went out with my mom’s friends, of which she has many, and everyone talked and laughed until it was time to head back to my grandparent’s apartment. My mom helped me settle into the bedroom I would share with my little cousin for the next few months. After all the flying and excitement, I was beyond wrecked; I barely mumbled “goodnight and goodbye” and passed right out. And what did my mom do? She picked up her bag, headed back to the airport, and flew straight back to Los Angeles.
That’s why this trip stays with me. My mom flew almost 30 hours, there and back, just to make sure that I was safe and happy in that world. After the summer, when she picked me up at LAX, I came off the plane layered in jewelry my grandma had given me—three necklaces, jade bracelets, pearls, rings, all this bling—and my mom said she didn’t recognize me. That fourth-grade version of me, just back from Shanghai, is very much alive in the billboard photos of me that my mom is still so stunned to see around LA. When she was the age that I am now, she left a comfortable existence in Shanghai so I could have a fresh start in the U.S. She’s the classic Asian immigrant mom: kept her head down, worked hard, and still rarely travels, beyond the trip to and from the restaurant. So, today, my measure of success is not money or fame; rather, it’s that my mom gets to travel, that she can be my plus-one as we both see the world. Someday soon, when she retires, I’ll be filming in Paris, or maybe Italy, and the two of us will go sit at some piazza or bistro, have a coffee, and laugh at it all.
Actress and comedian Sherry Cola stars in: Joy Ride (July 7) and Shortcomings (August 4).