Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost on Planet China

J. Maarten Troost's Lost on Planet China is like many recent travel books aiming for amusement and a few chuckles by constant complaint rather than much real depth. Just check out its full title: Lost on Planet China: 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 (though the paperback has shortened that to Or How I Learned to Love Live Squid). The giveaway of course is that "mystifying" and the live squid hook. Travel books have always focused on the different and the odd, in some sense that's a major reason for their existence. Who wants to read about somebody going halfway around the world only to discover that whoever is there is just like us?

But Troost isn't even entirely concerned with this but rather all his own problems in China: it's dirty, it's very very dirty, Chinese don't care about foreigners, he has trouble mastering haggling, train stations are unbelievably crowded, his problems communicating, etc. He says learning Mandarin was too difficult and claims to have picked up only a few words but I suspect he could do more than that. And he describes going to get a therapeutic massage after a rough day only to discover the masseuse is a hooker - this might be just an "oops" moment but Troost has mentioned the openness and ubiquity of prostitution and "massages" that I find it impossible to believe that he didn't know what would happen. Yeah yeah traveling is tough but how much of that do we really need?

Troost isn't completely self-centered of course so overall Lost on Planet China does work as travel narrative. Bits of history are thrown in when appropriate, musings about the radical changes in China, some strange-to-non-Chinese customs, etc - all the stuff you might expect. But it's cramped by Troost not meeting many actual Chinese. He only mentions a few by name and they rarely last more than a couple of pages - we learn far more about his Republican traveling companion or Sacramento home life than specific Chinese people. This does give the book a touristy, high-spots-only feel even though of course Troost has nothing but contempt for tourists. He does take a brief sidetrip to Lhasa and finds Tibetans a remarkably (and he does indeed remark on remarking on it) cheerful and outgoing people, not surprising really.