Thursday, November 12, 2020

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 by J. Maarten Troost

I'm a little bummed after reading this. I loved this author when I read him in high school and college many, many moons ago when I was not a thirty-something-- I thought he was so funny and his madcap journeys to the far corners of the world were like getting to travel vicariously without any of the annoying things that make travel so unbearable: long flights, checking your baggage, finding hotel accommodations, figuring out what to eat, etc. Now, though, I'm beginning to second guess young me because this book doesn't really hold up as well as I remembered. Like, at all.

Before reading this, I urge you to check out some of the negative reviews for this book written by actual Chinese people who have good reason to be upset with the way Troost portrayed the people and the culture of China. That was how I found them: because something about his writing was really rubbing me the wrong way and I wanted to see if it was just me. 

LOST ON PLANET CHINA is a travel memoir of a Dutch/Czech man who now lives in America but decided to travel to China. He's written other travel memoirs about Kiribati and Vanuatu, and there is an almost colonial vibe to all of his writings, I'm realizing now: like, oh, look how craaaaAAAAazy the natives are, while he parades around with all of the smugness of a white dude on vacation and tries on the various trimmings and trappings of their culture as if it is a funny hat. Cases in point: most of this book is 1. talking about how dirty China is, 2. talking about how oppressive China is, 3. making fun of the food, and 4. making fun of how greedy the Chinese are, and 5. making fun of people.

1. China does in fact have a huge pollution problem but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a fascinating video I watched on YouTube that was all about Chinese factories working to satisfy the needs and desires of global capitalism. I believe there's an entire province whose factories focus exclusively on Christmas decorations which are then exported to Western shopping centers. For many years, also, much of the U.S.'s waste was exported to China: plastics, e-waste, and other things. But now that China is becoming an emerging global power, they raised the purity standards of materials that they would accept, so a lot of U.S. plastics don't actually meet the standards to export anymore. Some of the dirtiness comes from other factors, but a lot of the pollution that he bitches about in this memoir was aided by the United States. I don't know about the peeing on the streets or the hocking of loogies being a Chinese-exclusive thing either; I live in San Francisco and I've watched people drop trou and shit on the buildings, and pre-COVID there were plenty of people who spat on the sidewalks.

2. I don't deny that China does have a totalitarian government but the way that Troost writes about it fails to capture the strange dichotomy of China that I've read about in better books and by talking to friends who actually came from China. One book that I really liked was SHANGHAI FREE TAXI, which is a Chinese travel memoir written with respect (in my opinion) that really focuses on the people who live there. Troost's is largely self-referential and doesn't really move from himself, which is a shame because I felt like the parts where he was writing about the actual Chinese people he encountered were some of the best parts. His tour guide, who he calls "Meow Meow" (I'm guessing it was probably Miaomiao) was a really interesting persona and I would have liked to have learned more. It feels like a lot of people see the totalitarianism of China as an inevitability, and if not fighting against it, are jaded and complacent because they have to be. There's a grim scene in here where the Chinese police come to drag a protester away and it's chilling because he kind of jokes about/makes light about it, but after reading SHANGHAI FREE TAXI and learning about the "black jails," this made me so uncomfortable because what happens to arrested protestors in China really isn't a joke. Which actually takes me to the Hong Kong chapter, where he's like, "Wow! It's so nice here! It's like Europe!" And he mentions their English colonialist history before their return to China but says basically nothing about the protests or the resentment about that, which felt like a pretty glaring omission from the narrative.

3. The food part was a little ridiculous, since he's traveled so extensively and it feels like he'd probably be used to weird food at this point? It felt like just another reason to be disrespectful, especially since he didn't even really talk about how it tasted. If I'm going to travel vicariously, I'd like to know how cow veins and pig knuckle taste, especially if it's surprisingly good! (Or bad.) That said, I was genuinely horrified by the portion of the book where he ripped apart a live squid and ate it. This is something that personally sickens me and I will never do, because it feels like such a blatant act of animal cruelty. Eating squid and octopus like this is especially cruel because they are INCREDIBLY smart (some of the smartest animals on Earth), so you're torturing these intelligent living creatures who are probably aware of what is happening to them and terrified and it honestly makes me want to cry.

4. Going on and on about the bargaining and the cheapness of the Chinese, which is at conflict with their desire for luxury goods and status was the only thing he said that really reflected what friends and family have told me about their experience in China. The scene when he bargains his way down to a cheap stay in a hotel was genuinely funny and I think it worked because it felt like a joke that everyone was in on, because he was actually playing along with the social mores of the culture instead of doing that "this is so ridiculous and beneath me that I'm just going to laugh instead" thing, which can either give his books a subversive, pithy humor or be outright offensive depending on what he writes. China is in a period of incredible flux and I think that conflict between tradition and innovation is one of the most interesting things about China and its people, and it's one of the things I've loved reading about in the books I've gotten about China that really show that growing divide between the new generation and the old.

5. I get that writing a comedic memoir is probably very hard and the line between humor and insult is margin-thin and doesn't always evolve with the times. I did keep in mind that this memoir is over ten years old, so of course it's going to feel dated. That said, the way he made fun of their English and their names, the way he cheekily waved at the North Koreans at the border (ugh), and the numerous Nazi jokes he made about the Naxi people, and all these other things... it felt irreverent and not in a good way. It probably also wasn't so great to make fun of the Chinese's anger over the Nanjing massacre, which the Japanese apologized for after this book was written (several years after).

Parts of this book were really good. I thought the parts about the history, the little vignettes with the random Chinese people he met and walked around with, and the parts where he actually went along with the culture and settled down were really fun. Parts didn't age well at all, like a line making fun of the Chinese for wearing masks (welp) and the Nazi jokes, and parts aged a little too well, like this line where he says that rather than China becoming more like America, America is becoming more like China. I was thinking about that line a lot, because it was one of the deepest parts of this book-- especially now. I guess this is the perfect example of why it can sometimes suck to reread your faves.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

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