Connie Wang Shares Her Perfected Travel Packing List in 'Oh My Mother!'

By documenting their travels, the memoirist paints a picture of a mother-daughter bond defined by the freedom of not belonging.

connie wang oh my mother
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist.
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist.
In the travel memoir Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures, out May 9, author Connie Wang attempts to understand her one-of-a-kind mother, Qing Li, by recounting many of the warm, difficult, funny, complicated, and wholly memorable trips they've taken together over the years. With each poignant essay, Wang tells the story of a woman who is at once stubborn and enchanting, and definitely never fails to surprise. The below excerpt details Wang's foolproof packing list, which she regretfully fails to share with Qing before they embark on a whirlwind European adventure.

The trip would take us through London, Paris, and Rome, a greatest‐hits tour that would finally bring Qing to all the European destinations she had read about in novels and seen in black‐and‐white pictures of women smoking cigarettes in fascinating clothes against decaying backdrops: Buckingham Palace, Notre‐Dame, the Colosseum… We’d go to places where we could get dressed up and see fine things in person. With only three days in each city, our consumption would be fast and furious, a smash‐and‐ grab affair that would hopefully leave us delirious and depleted, but in the happy sort of way.

We’d need to travel light but look acceptable for a sweeping range of foreign environments in which what you wore determined how little you would be bothered. We’d be on our feet all day, but walking shoes—worn with walking clothes—would be a missed opportunity for fashion moments. The weather, too, would be inconsistent: European springtime brought about chaos in which rain, frost, heat waves, and perfect weather were all equal possibilities.

This was exactly the kind of trip I excel at when it comes to what to pack. I had always been a daydream planner since those early road trips, agonizing over outfit combinations with an unyielding discipline to two masters: economy of space and maximal style. (In college, when I first encountered Joan Didion along with the rest of the women in my dorm, it was her packing list—not her descriptions of naivete and youth, of counterculture, of self‐respect—that got me hooked. Here was a woman who knew the power of the contents of a suitcase, who was not afraid to rewear the same piece many times, who planned for and looked forward to discomfort, who understood that a skirt and flat shoes were like an invisibility cloak. I remember thinking that I could not have dinner with her or hold a conversation with her, but I could certainly travel with her.)

I had my own qualifications. Every Fashion Week required full‐peacocking looks without obvious overlapping of items (but given the small rooms we stayed in, everything had to fit in one checked suitcase and one carry‐on), and I had gotten more efficient with every season, eventually reaching a point where I never brought a single thing I didn’t wear and never had to scramble to dash into an H&M to find something I had forgotten at home. Once, I spent a month on the road during a sabbatical from work, and I fit everything for a five‐country tour into one hard‐shell carry‐on.

This is all to say that I am very good at packing, mostly because I adhere to the following commandments:

  • Nearly every top should match with nearly every bottom.
  • Expect to rewear every item constantly, but strive to make each outfit unique.
  • No matter what, never bring more than three pairs of shoes.
  • Leave at least a third of the suitcase empty for souvenirs.
  • Err on the side of conservatism—always have a way to cover your shoulders, upper thighs, arms, and head.

I had even, at one point, come up with a convoluted formula to calculate how many tops and bottoms and one‐pieces I would need based on the number of days the trip would require and the number of permutations the items made possible. I’ve shared versions of this packing list with friends and colleagues, who have always seemed more interested in the philosophy than in the actual practice. But on the off-chance that this will be helpful to a chronic over‐ or under‐packer, here is my personal packing list:

  • A small number of basic tops that are nice but not formal. Striped oxfords, your favorite T‐shirts, and a ribbed turtleneck all qualify.
  • A smaller number of charming bottoms that are un‐ fussy in fabric, like a dramatic pair of denim, a flounce wrap skirt in a wrinkle and stain‐resistant fabric, or a pair of flared corduroy trousers.
  • A thin outer layer (depending on the climate, I usu‐ ally go for a black cardigan or a lightweight Uniqlo Heattech puffer jacket that squishes down into the size of a fist).
  • A single uncrushable dress (Issey Miyake Pleats Please is a personal favorite).
  • Given chillier weather, two substantial outer layers: one long and one short, making sure that one of them is slightly fancier than the other. I like a mackintosh in a swishy, wipeable fabric and a barn coat; or an oversized teddy‐bear shearling and a leather jacket.
  • Two to three pairs of reliable broken‐in shoes, includ‐ ing party sneakers, thusly named because you wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear them to a casual party (my go‐tos are Air Max 97s) and nice but neutral flats. Optional: a practical but audacious pair of heels to level up a semi‐nice outfit into a really nice one.
  • A small crossbody bag for daily essentials, a nice canvas tote for occasional schlepping, and a soft clutch to use as a pouch for electronics or toiletries (until you need it to be a clutch).
  • No more underwear than you think you need (you can always buy more from the drugstore, in a pinch), one bra, three pairs of socks, and one set of pajamas.
  • A swimsuit, a large scarf or shawl, a pair of sunglasses, and one flashy pair of earrings.
  • A soft outfit (matching sweats, a big sweater, and thick leggings) that you should wear on planes and trains, as soon as you return from a long day out, or for past‐ midnight lounging by the hotel bar (with heels and earrings, if the vibe necessitates it).
  • Makeup in stick form, skincare decanted into small jars and tubes, eyeglasses and 10 percent more pairs of contacts than you think you might need, and an old‐fashioned toothbrush and American tooth‐ paste.
  • Chargers (but no electronics other than a phone and an external battery for it).

Save for truly extraordinary circumstances (a black‐tie gala, a days‐long camping excursion, going to Mars), packing this way works for nearly all manner of countries and cultures. It gives you the best shot of being able to walk five miles to have aperitifs at a Michelin restaurant and tour the Colosseum right afterward. It allows for luggage space to bring home bulky treasures, but the approach is not so spartan that you have to wear the same outfit each time the sun goes down. It has served me well, and I only wished I had warned Qing about its virtues before we left for Europe.

From OH MY MOTHER! by Connie Wang, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Super Rare Inc.

Connie Wang is a journalist, writer, and editor. Previously she led Refinery29's editorial team as executive editor, where she explored how race and status inform our culture and politics. She has won three Front Page Awards and has written for outlets including the New York Times. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she was born in Jinan, China, raised in Minnesota, and lives in Los Angeles.