For Laowais, By a Laowai

In Shanghai, The Art of Travel Fall 2014, Books-2 by KyleLeave a Comment

J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China is a hilarious account of an astute traveler’s journey through the country in which I am studying. The reason I chose this book is because the first sentence claims “there are two kinds of people roaming the far fringes of the world: Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen.” As a Utahn who is now living in China, I have dealt with both parties mentioned. The initial “relatability” caused me to continue reading, and I’m glad that I did. I do, however, have a few criticisms.

As I read more, I continued to relate to Troost’s cynical observations throughout the book. When he talks about learning Chinese, he sardonically asks “what is so deficient about an alphabet that uses a judicious twenty-six letters?” I have often asked myself this question while I have studied Chinese characters, which each represent a different idea instead of a sound that can construct a word. Although it may be ignorant to say that the character system is inefficient and that alphabet systems reign supreme, these sentiments come from frustration. Both Troost and I are intimidated by the 20,000 characters in existence, knowing we will never learn them. Thus, we cope with humor.

It is important to note that Troost’s writing should be taken with a grain of salt. A Chinese person who does not understand sarcasm would probably be offended by some of his commentary, but at the end of the day it is for comedic purposes. The target demographic for this book is definitely fellow “Laowais,” or foreigners, who can relate to Troost’s grievances. An academic “China hand” would probably lambast the lack of insight and comedic ignorance, but again, this book is for entertainment.

The book was relatable, but almost too much so. In other words, I did not really learn anything new. Instead, I simply nodded my head in familiarity and laughed at the outlandish situations described. Troost operates under the assumption that “China is the future” throughout the book, a sentiment that is cliche and overheard to a foreigner living here. He complains about the pollution and the crazy drivers in Shanghai, which are also hackneyed topics. His adventures into the more remote areas are interesting, but don’t really add any knowledge.

All in all, Troost’s book is exactly as promised; an account “from the perspective of a guy who neither speaks Chinese nor has all that much knowledge pertaining to things Chinese.” Thus, his writing is not for those who want to learn about China. Instead, it is for those who want to learn how a clueless tourist reacts to the realities of the country. The generalizations made are funny for those who know better, but could be damaging to those with no prior background. Despite this, the book added to my understanding of China in that I now know I’m not the only one who feels like it’s a different planet. Perhaps admitting and accepting the vast differences between the US and China is the first step in integrating our two countries further.

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