10 October 2011

Book Review: Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

I originally read this book when it was released in hardcover back in 2008, but seeing the softcover version on a display last weekend at Barnes & Noble triggered me to go back and revisit it. I remember liking the book the first time through; how would it hold up?
Troost - who’s been published in the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post - doesn’t want to be called a “travel writer”, as his other books about exotic locales were written after living for extended periods among regular citizens in places like Vanuatu and Eastern Europe. While ‘ethnography’ might be a more-appropriate word for his other two books, here this books’ entire premise is Maarten traveling from place to place in China over several months, having wacky adventures, and writing a small essay about it. That’s a travelogue, and because he visited a different city each week he just doesn’t achieve the depth of cultural understanding found in his other works.
I’m not knocking the approach; if a publishing company wanted to make me an offer like that I’d jump immediately. (I even have an itinerary sketched out, and essay outlines for all the other parts of weninchina.com.) But then again I’m not trying to write a humor book or a picture of a people in transition.
Now, having read through the book again, I’ll still say it’s a fast-paced, fun, light read. There are 24 chapters, but the tone Troost uses is dry and conversational and one could finish the whole book in less than a week of evenings after the kids have gone to bed.
Looking over the notes I took, however, gives me the idea to make a Chinese Travel Channel Special Bingo - Troost hits all the obligatory observations and statements you’ve seen in every documentary and guidebook. Here are my entries for Chapters 2 and 3:
  • Crazy driving / astonishing traffic
  • Children peeing in inappropriate places in public areas
  • Food made of animal bits we don’t eat in the West anymore
  • The Cultural Revolution was really evil
  • Blowing Noses
  • Crossing the street is dangerous
  • Chairman Mao
  • Crazy ads on TV
  • Luxury goods on ostentatious display
  • June 4 is a mystery for Generation Y
  • Smog in Beijing / dust storms
He circles all the way around the country, out through Shaanxi and Sichuan onto Tibet, then down through Yunnan to Guangzhou, up through the Yangtze Delta and finally into the northeast, ending with a boat ride along the Yalu River at the North Korean border, wishing to go back to the States.
I have to compare this book now to Kosher Chinese reviewed in an earlier entry. Both books are alternatingly funny and poignant, both are light reading, but Lost could have been Kosher if Troost had stayed put in one place for a couple months instead of taking the Grand Tour and hanging out with other Westerners. Take for instance how each author covers the gap between Han and non-Han ethnicities: Lost shows the absurd ‘surface’ of Han tourists in Yunnan having fun looking at Westerners interact with Bai people, whereas Kosher follows several young hill-tribe girls in Guiyang over two years, gets to know them and shows how the cards are stacked against them even though they keep trying. Both stories are true, but the latter one really helps you learn about what’s actually going on.
A book of just ‘surface’ observations can be fun, but too much at one place starts to feel like snarking, even though the author has only good intentions. Lost on Planet China is ultimately a highlight reel; a spice to add to your reading meal - entertaining in controlled doses, and with a balanced diet of other China media - but not a standalone dish.

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07 October 2011

Book review: Chinese Folk Tales, Volume 1; adapted by Zhao Jie

Our daughter is now attending a Mandarin immersion school here in the Twin Cities, and each Friday is a library day. For this past week’s reading she chose this compilation of 8 short stories, printed in both Chinese characters and English. Published in 2005 in Beijing by Dolphin Press, this softbound book features full-color traditional illustrations on every page (which is why our sweet kindergartner chose it.)
These are legitimate and old folktales, although we aren’t told from when, what part of the country, or what religious/political order. They aren’t arranged with any particular theme or arc; each story is self-contained, and there’s no discussion by the translator or publisher to help non-native readers understand the context and “moral” of any story. Having read *some* Chinese history I can identify a few characters, but these stories just raise questions and leave me with nowhere to go to learn more.
The second issue is with the quality of the translation; this was clearly done in Beijing, in an academic setting, quickly, by someone (or a team of someones) who hadn’t spoken English conversationally with Westerners. The vocabulary swings from college-level to preschool-level without warning, phrases are awkwardly stuck together, and dialogue sounds like it came from the 1960’s. Characters are not clearly identified, and titles are not explained. Word choices are often dull: several stories refer to “devils” when we would use more-precise words to describe monsters, like demon, phantom, or satyr. Another story tries to explain how the Jade Emperor severely and negligently fouled setting up how the rain would fall, causing extreme flooding, but the words used literally make it sound as if he made a .03% accounting mistake.
The third issue with several stories is the almost random inclusion of implied or outright violence - political retribution, attempted assassination, and choking death. And let’s not forget the story of Yan Song, who basically prostituted his daughter to the Emperor’s court in order to gain political power (although that word isn’t used, the meaning is still there.) While I know Chinese society has adapted differently and is used to a different level of behavior - and that we can’t judge the past through today’s morals - the book is clearly intended for a Western audience.
Parents will need to pre-read each story before telling it with children - to use age-appropriate words, think up explanations and questions to get their child’s response, and to decide how they’ll phrase what goes on in certain scenes to still convey the main idea without getting dragged into explanations they don’t necessarily want to have at that time / age.
Was the book interesting? Yes, I learned more about a few New Year’s traditions, and heard a story about one of Taoism’s Eight Immortals that I found quite funny. But is this a book I’d recommend? No; for a casual read with kids, or to try to learn more about Chinese stories and customs, there’s just too much work for not enough insight.

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