Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lost on Planet China

by J. Maarten Troost

[subtitle: 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]

Troost, in no way a China expert but a veteran traveler, spends several months in China, from Beijing to Hong Kong, from small villages to Ferrari dealerships in Shanghai.  Troost does his homework and gives a good account of some of the history behind the places he visits, such as how the Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, exterminated his enemies’ families “to the tenth degree.”  His own personal observations, such as just how pestilential the polluted air of China’s cities is, are of more value than statistics about China’s carbon footprint.  Troost is a highly amusing and empathetic writer and has produced a very good resource for someone’s first book on Western travel in China.

If, however, if it is one’s tenth or twentieth travel book on China, this book offers mostly the same old same old: the language uses ideograms instead of an alphabet; Chinese people have no sense of personal space; they hack big nasty loogies on the street; they eat dogs and cats and live octopus; they drive at unsafe speeds and never stop laying on the horn; they don’t form orderly lines.  And so on.  Troost has no understanding of the Chinese language and at one point gives misinformation on how dictionaries are used.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone would go to, say, Poland knowing nothing about it and come back confident enough to write an entire book, starting with such wide-eyed ignorance as “their language has a lot of k’s and j’s and l’s!”  Yet this is exactly what every new Western traveler to China does.  This is a well-written and often funny book, but a non-essential addition to the endless parade of “China sure is foreign” books. 

three stars

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