We may only be two in the family, but my sister and I grew up with an older brother figure: Zhang Le. Before Nancie was born, I used to call him by the honorific Xiao Gege (“little big brother”). Le was three years older than me and impossibly cool, introducing me to PC games like Monkey Island as well as cartoons like SilverHawks and The Scooby-Doo Show.
The Zhangs were our oldest family friends and quickly became our preferred travel companions. We would pile into our minivan for camping, hiking, canoeing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, and annual visits to a local “sugar shack” – a type of farm where maple syrup is made, with sleigh rides and maple toffee on snow. If it’s a stereotypically Canadian activity, we’ve done it – albeit with rice cookers and packets of instant ramen in tow.
We also took extensive road trips to the Maritimes and down the east coast of the US, with us kids always squished into the back row. Though Le and I made my sister sit between us until she was old enough to complain, I always felt like the middle child in that dynamic. Nancie told on me, I told on Le, Le got in trouble with his mom, Le complained to our mom, and our mom scolded Nancie and I for being babies. The dads stayed out of the firing line.
In the summer of 2007, we drove to Quebec’s Côte-Nord to go whale-watching on the Saint Lawrence River and visit the island of Anticosti, a pristine stretch of evergreen forests and seaside rock formations. Nancie was a full-blown teen, Le was about to do his Master’s in Toronto, and I was due to start journalism school in the fall.
The first night, we stayed in a cabin on the lake. While the kids toasted marshmallows on the shore, the grownups played cards indoors. We spotted a leech and watched it wriggle around for a while; dusk fell, turning the sky an inky blue. All was quiet except for the crackling of the campfire, the muffled hubbub of our parents’ gambling addiction, and the distant, plaintive cries of a loon. We would spend the rest of the trip combing beaches for interesting rocks, cycling through nature reserves, and fishing for char and lake trout from a dock.
One evening, while the parents were playing cards yet again, Le surprised me by asking if he could write a message in my travel journal. I handed it to him, thinking it would be something stupid. It read, “The three of us are getting older, so this will probably be one of the last trips we’ll take together. And that makes me sad.”
I didn’t know what to say. We’d bickered for years in the back of a minivan, counting the days until we turned 18 and didn’t have to share a seat anymore. In that moment, I wished we could go back and keep elbowing each other behind our parents’ backs a while longer. But all I could manage at the time was “Aw, thanks Le.”
I still think about that trip and hold out hope that our families will meet up for another holiday. Maybe next time, the three of us – Nancie, Le, and I – will be the ones doing the driving and scolding while Mom, Dad, and the Zhangs kick back, play cards, and enjoy the grandkids.
Photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p9 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com