Tourists rarely get to see the 'real' China. J. Maarten Troost, however, has come close. By fully immersing himself in Chinese culture, Troost has emerged with a greater understanding of this oxymoronic country. Here he shares everything you never knew you needed to know about China, such as the fact that haggling at a Chinese market is a survival skill, good manners are important but very different from Western thought, and waiting in line, for anything, is a contact sport.
He speaks no Chinese, as he admits, so the people never come alive. He recounts several encounters with Chinese people that he admits leave him totally mystified, like when a man seems to accuse him of being German and hits him in the street. But he finds no cultural translator to explain what this means. When he discovers a gay bar in a provincial city hotel -- he plays the scene for a laugh, backs out quickly, and goes to sleep. If he had actually hung out with the people there, I might have learned something.
A few of the places come sputteringly to life, but in general, his lack of engagement with China came across as annoying.
Ever the adventuresome traveler, Troost ventures from the coastal cities of Beijing & Shanghai inland to remote areas in central China and the region of Tibet. He stays in modest local accommodations and is daring with unfamiliar cuisine ordered from menus he can’t read.
“Well, I thought. Well, well, well. And what am I to do with a bowl of live squid? CLANK CLANK went the plate, as squid after squid made sad, desperate attempts to flee. I slouched down to peer at them through the bowl. It was like having my own personal aquarium.”
Did he eat the live squid? Yes, he did. And he enjoyed them. The book has many, but is not limited to this type of humorous anecdote. Troost visits Tibet and other ethnic areas in the country and shares his observations of the repression of the non-Han Chinese. He repeatedly makes the reader aware of the harsh power of the government and lack of personal freedom of ordinary people. At the very beginning of the book, Troost makes a disclaimer: He does not speak the language and has not studied Chinese history extensively. In other words, he is not a China Expert. That said, I feel that he does have some background knowledge, his observations are thoughtful and his experiences very interesting.
As a side note, Troost is an unapologetic liberal democrat, with many snide remarks about the Bush administration, which was in power at the time this book was written. I have similar leanings, so his ramblings were not at all offensive to me, but I can see how they might offend others with more conservative political views.
Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't constantly distracted by all the poop references. A friend who married into a big Dutch family once told me that the Dutch are weirdly obsessed with poop - she even sent me a picture of a toilet shelf that they sell there, so that you can analyze before you flush. I kept thinking of that toilet as I read Troost's descriptions of all the various poop he encountered - human and animal - and I have to say, it made it hard to give the text my fullest attention.
I suppose I could have made this much shorter: it was funny, I found Troost charming, but I wasn't impressed. The end.
Troost’s first two books take place on islands in the South Pacific, where he lived off and on for a decade. The switch to writing a book about six months of travel within another country (and a large one, at that) rather than about living in/getting to know a foreign country seems to have been a bumpy one for Troost. In the first hundred pages or so he veers sharply from the past (South Pacific) to his present (Sacramento, CA) to China and back again. And again. I found myself wishing the book was about Troost’s move to Sacramento after 10 years in the South Pacific, because his writing about California was funnier and much deeper than his writing about China. He admits to having little background on China, and he doesn’t speak the language. And so, how to write a book about an enormous country that one knows almost nothing about?
Sigh. Troost falls into some common travel writing pitfalls. Particularly in the first half of the book, he sinks to describing every little cab ride, meal, and hotel he stays in. He seemed to be grasping for a way to add texture and knowledge to writing about a country he had simply dropped into. There are long passages of history and other information dropped in between cab rides or meals to flesh out chapters. I read a lot of books about China, and I didn’t think much of this information covered new ground or offered a unique perspective.
This is the only book I’ve ever read about China that made me NOT want to go. (And that’s saying something, because I *really* want to go.) Troost’s sarcasm and witty asides were somehow endearing in his first book, but I found him negative and cynical in this one. He wasn’t having a good or easy time in China, and while that’s OK – you obviously don’t have to like everywhere you travel to – as a reader, I had a hard time wanting to continue reading. The China Troost was describing was awful, and he was not really likable in that China, either.
While various friends and acquaintances pop in and out, Troost is traveling alone for much of the book, which makes his job that much more difficult: He’s got to make something actually happen. I give him credit for this. He goes out of his way to sacred mountains and islands, markets and temples, and eats (usually) whatever waitresses decide to serve him. But one gets the sense that it’s all for the sake of the story, that maybe his heart's not in it.
The interminable subtitle of this book “The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid,” reveals one of the major problems with this book, and (Sorry, Mr. Troost, you’re about to become a scapegoat) with some others I’ve read about China (and other Asian countries) in the recent past. What happens is this: Westerner who knows little about China drops in, armed with all kinds of preconceived notions. In the case of China, these tend to revolve around Mao, Communism, bicycles, isolated mountain villages, and sometimes martial arts. What said Westerners tend to find upon arrival (and remark upon ad nauseam) are thriving, crowded, ultra-modern, monied cities. Cities not unlike what one might find in the West, with all their problems and contradictions, only bigger. And Chinese. So thoroughly confused are these writers by the realities of modern China that we get strange comparisons: Beijing is like Washington DC with six beltways, for example. Troost unfortunately also has trouble reconciling the China he wants to see with the China he’s seeing. After some time in Beijing he flees for the site of a sacred mountain temple, hoping to find peace and serenity, only to discover that there is little peace and serenity in China these days. He seems to feel completely confused by this displacement and is constantly seeking some frame of reference. China at various points in this book gets compared to: Washington DC, Sacramento, Vermont, Japan, Tijuana, Russia, Mars, and more. No wonder he thinks the China is “the world’s most mystifying nation.”
All that said, Troost seems to come into his own, and this book, after he takes a break from the “real China” and visits Hong Kong. Hong Kong operates, in Troost’s mind, more like a Western city, and therefore he’s more comfortable and relaxed. He drinks in bars with other Westerners. He believes that going to Hong Kong is like taking a vacation from China. All of this somehow makes Troost appreciate mainland China more when he returns (partly because he’s got a buddy with him he can play off of) and the rest of the book is a little more fun to read. Troost actually seems to enjoy his travels in Southwestern China (away from the growing megacities of the east) and I did, too. He ventures to cities not often written about and those experiences seemed much more substantive than the meals and transportation woes he detailed in the first half of the book. Alas, Troost cannot hold on to whatever tentative peace he makes with China. Instead he comes to the realization that things could be worse, and that’s about as close as he can get to affection for the place.
In his first two offerings Troost came across as goofy, good-natured and hilariously out of his element. Those qualities all came through when he related his experiences and that was the magic. There was also the advantage of reading about a place so utterly foreign.
In Lost on Planet China Troost spends a lot of time mentioning his goofy grin, his good-natured way of going about this and the fact that he's out of his element. Less of this book is about his interaction with the people rather than the surroundings. Troost also throws too much "this is like X." "X" being whatever country he is comparing China to at that moment.
He covers thousands of miles during his research to write this book and maybe that's ultimately where he gets into trouble. In the first two books he was isolated and sequestered in such a small area that he was able to express all the nuances that lent to the hilarity. In this, he's trying to squeeze in information about a country with cities larger than the countries he had previously written about. Maybe if he had spent all his time for this book just in Tibet he could have captured that magic.
If you've read any of Troost's books before you know pretty much what to expect when he decides to set off to China to see if maybe it would be a good place to move and raise his kids for a few years. If you haven't read him before, what you need to know is that he doesn't speak any dialect of Chinese, that he believes in traveling without a net, and that irreverent is a kind description.
His observations are witty and entertaining, but I suspect that he often doesn't bother much with historical accuracy or critical thinking of his own observations. I've given the book away already, so I can't cite specifics. None the less it is a very entertaining read, and I think gives a good representation of the size and scale and character of the country, and the impression it leaves on someone who is generally open to any experience that won't land him permanently in jail, or get him killed.
The author takes us along on his wanderings sharing his wonderment, confusion, fears, joys and anger as he experiences China. Exploring the dichotomy of the country that breeds the endangered Siberian Tigers in Harbin with the selling of Siberian Tiger claws in Qingping Market. Learning to haggle, looking not just for the ‘special price’ but the ‘Chinese price’. He attempts to understand why Mao is considered mostly good. Seeking out the minorities to dispel his assumption that China is a monolithic place. Finding the sun – and escaping the smog – becomes a quest.
He is constantly reminded on this journey that he is a helpless Laowai, a foreigner, who does not speak or read Chinese. His sense of humor is tested many times over. Yet, when he does eventually end up on an English speaking tour bus he finds it disorienting.
Very engaging, a good sense of humor, a most enjoyable read.
Definitely worth reading.
China was way down on my list of places to visit (I am not much of a traveler) but it moved down several notches after reading this book.
I have Troost's 2 other books (The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned With Savages ) and have read the first book and enjoyed it. I am used to Troost's style which is lightly sarcastic. He points out the foibles of the group he is writing about. I know this tendency upsets the PC crowd, but Troost is incredibly accurate in his observations and depictions, as well as being funny. I have lived in 3rd world countries and agree with his observations on the tropical island book, and one of our group members has been to China to teach,in several cities and she said he was spot on.
The premise for this book is that he is thinking of moving there with his wife and 2 small children and he wanted to find out what it was like, and the best place for a family. He is a self-proclaimed China neophyte and he wanted to find out what was fact, and what was old, stereotypical, and just plain wrong. Occasionally he remembers the reason for the trip/book, but mostly its just a wander around various parts of the country.
He describes his journey, the places he went, stayed, what he ate, and the people he met. He tries to work out the social reasons for what he observes. He doesn't speak Chinese and he didn't have a guide, translator or minder. He points out what he finds that conflicts with what he thought he knew, or heard, or was told.
He talks about change as the main characteristic of China, there is also incredible pollution, crowding and noise. He writes about what he observes of the people he sees and meets and situations he ends up in. Since its such a large country its hard to know how broadly it applies to others in China. He finds the Chinese engaged in a rush for money and wealth. They seem to still revere Mao, even though he was an evil killer. They ignore the Cultural Revolution. They may agitate for local issues, but seem not to be connected to the national political questions. They do seem to know what will draw the police and avoid those who cross the line and bring in the authorities.
The parts about their behavior regarding personal hygiene and what they eat and how they kill it, was gross. Though I had read articles about both by others, so I know he is not making it up or exaggerating.
He travels by car, train and plane. He goes to Hong Kong which is China-lite as the civility of the British still prevails, and to Tibet, where the country is basically overrun with Han Chinese and under military occupation. He also travels in between these 2 extremes. He finds that there are very wealthy people, middle class people, and incredibly poor and abandoned people. As a foreigner he stands out and is treated with kindness, with revulsion, and like a pet, by different groups and individuals.
The book was interesting, funny and well written. It seemed a bit slower than his other book, but it might be that there was just more meat in a book about China than there was in a book about living on a small tropical island.