Reading is the next best thing to travelling

Travel is great for shattering erroneous impressions that have a geographic basis of the sort mentioned in the previous post, like not expecting curry rice to be part of Japanese cuisine.
There’s also erroneous impressions of place that stay fixed over time. Most typically amongst immigrants, especially if they don’t visit the place of their origins, and expecting things to still be the way they were so many years ago. Like China. My mom never wanted to go back. “Ewww, the toilets. They have no coffee but Nescafe. I’m too spoiled by American life.” It was very hard for me to persuade her that the hotels there were much nicer than here, the average city-slicker dressed better than I did, and they all carried cell phones.

If you can’t travel there, the next best thing is reading contemporary literature about the place. People who read Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehose would find today’s England bearing little resemblance to the settings of those books. Try Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ instead?

For me: being curious about China; being unable to visit for the longest time until it ‘opened up’; and being unable to read Chinese, I devoured anything in English I could get my hands on about contemporary China. Which until recently was mostly ‘wounded literature’: People wrote about suffering through the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-76). Nien Chang’s “Life and Death in Shanghai,” and Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” are the most prominent titles. Jan Wong’s “Red China Blues” is a good book too. These were all very informative, but got to be kind of a downer. I avoid later books on this period: they tend to be more of the same.

But what of China since then? There’s literary works by Gao Xingjian and Ha Jin. But there’s also two novels that were written by Chinese authors now in America (both women, both based in the Bay Area!) that I’d recommend for a more vivid look at China since the Cultural Revolution. One is set in China in the 80’s, in the early years of the ‘re-opening’: “February Flowers” by Fan Wu. The other is set in today’s China, the laissez-faire economic juggernaut with Wild West enterprises: “The Banquet Bug” by Geling Yan.

“Bug” is funnier; it’s almost over the top. I kept wondering to what degree the events in the story could be true. Truth is stranger than fiction after all.

“Flowers” is about a female university student coming of age. Actually the kind of awakening the protagonist goes through in college is what American adolescent girls would experience . . . in high school. Caveat: sexuality is dealt with frankly. My mom, to whom I loaned the book, found the ‘blossoming’ sections a little off-putting. She thought it was over the top and exaggerated. (She was already over here during that time period.) I argued that it the turn of events was plausible in China in those days, but I wasn’t there either.

I recommend reading both books. Especially if you’re like my cousin, an ABC who spent several years in China during the Cultural Revolution who reminisces endlessly about the little red book, and won’t return for a visit because “I’ve already been to China? Why do I need to go again?” Methinks it’s actually because he can’t contemplate a China with Starbucks and without Foreign Exchange certificates. It would invalidate his China of three decades ago.

Then there’s India. Tons of books about the India, written by Indian writers today, all in user-friendly English! . . . .


One thought on “Reading is the next best thing to travelling

  1. Great post. There are a lot of things that I’d like to comment on but I’ll restrict myself to just one …. or two.
    I agree with you that reading about a country is the next best thing to actually going there. Since most of the fiction that I read consists of mysteries and thrillers I am constantly looking for such novels with foreign settings and preferably written by nationals of that country. It gives me a pretty good idea of what living in that country would be like. Another thing I like to do is refer to foreign cookbooks and prepare a themed meal featuring dishes from that country. It ‘s fun and delicious too.
    About China: Before we went there I was not sure that I’d enjoy it. I magined teeming streets, tumbledown buildings , traffic jams etc somewhat like the street scenes I’d seen of HongKong. Nothing could have been further fom the reality. Shanghai and Beijing were as modern as could be with very broad roads, lots of skyscrapers, little traffic and they were very clean. Standing on the Bund and looking across the Huang Po River at the skyscrapers on the other side it felt for a moment as if I was back in N.Y.C at South Street Seaport staring across at Jersey City.I’m aware that these two cities ( Shanghai and Beijing)are showplaces for the regime and that the rest of the country lags behind. We saw glimpses of the ‘old’ China in some of the side streets of Shanghai and in Xian but on the whole we were very favorably impressed.It was difficult to imagine that the country was home to 1.2 billion people; it did not appear at all crowded.The one thing I can’t make up my mind is whether Chinese food is better in China or over here. Perhaps you could address this issue in a future post.
    By the way I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. I should have written to you earlier.

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