Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation*

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2011

*Or How He became Comfortable Eating Live Squid

by J. Maarten Troost (Broadway Books 2008)

Lost on Planet China reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson’s books, only slightly less funny (which is not to say it isn’t funny, but Bryson sets the humor bar extremely high, in my opinion). Also like Bryson, Troost uses a kind of wicked humor that makes the reader a bit reluctant to actually go to China. He makes it sound like a not very nice place, in a humorous kind of way.  For example, having acknowledged that Chinese cities are polluted, Troost writes on page 51, “…in no way was I ready for the swirling filth that constitutes air in Beijing. It was, frankly, apocalyptic.” And again on page 217, “We’d been discussing the air in Guangzhou, because it simply could not be ignored. It was worse than Shanghai. It was worse than Qingdao. It was worse even than Beijing. The air in Guangzhou is brown. No, not brown. Yellow. No, not yellow. The air in Guangzhou is sick. It is unwell. The air has been poisoned and now the air is noxious. Today, the average life expectancy for a traffic zop in Guangzhou is forty-three.” And so on, with a lot about people hawking up gobs of phlegm in the streets.  It doesn’t make me want to start planning a Chinese vacation anytime soon.

Actually, I have been to Beijing, twice, in 2003 and 2004.  I have to admit that I didn’t really notice the pollution.  I guess I must be very unobservant.  It probably helped that I was not there during cold weather when coal is being burnt everywhere, and (I was told) when you take a shower, black stuff runs off your body in streams. But I didn’t really find Beijing to be significantly worse than New York, air-quality-wise. And I never saw anyone spit in the street. Nor have I ever seen any of my Chinese students spit in public. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen–just that maybe it isn’t as common as Troost would have us believe.

Anyway, Troost, accompanied part of the time by his Republican friend Jack, manages to visit all the cities listed above and a lot more, including Lijiang, Lhasa, Hong Kong, Macau, Xi’an, Shenzen, Dali, Zhongdian, Chongqing, Dunhuang, and more places you’ve probably never heard of (I hadn’t).  In one of my favorite chapters, he describes their hike to Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River, despite Jack’s poor physical condition and his own fear of heights ( to say nothing of the “colossal amounts of donkey crap along the way”).  Of Tibet, he does not mince words: “Outside of China, it’s possible to believe that Tibet is simply a colorful province in a larger country. Inside Tibet, however, it can only be seen as a military occupation of a foreign land.” (p. 307)

It’s not a great advertisement for China, but it’s a funny and very interesting book.


One Response to “Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation*”

  1. Brad Wirz said

    Sounds like an honest travel book on China, which is exactly what this reader wants and needs. China is on my short list of destinations, so I’m adding this to my wishlist right now. Thanks for the review!

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