I’m trying to get into the habit of reading again and have been posting one-sentence reviews of the books I read on Goodreads. If you have an account there, let’s be friends! But it’ll have to wait until I go to Thailand, because Goodreads is blocked in China. We can’t have people discussing sensitive books, now can we! For the past year, I’ve mostly been reading memoirs and travelogues to get an idea of what my own writing is up against. I really should have started this quest earlier, as it’s helped show me what I’ve done wrong in certain areas. Now a part of me wants to go back and re-do Yes China! one more time, but another part says, “It’s different. Leave it alone.”
The first relevant book I read was Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. Reviewers tend to rag on Troost for being too harsh on China, but I have to wonder if these are people who either haven’t been to China themselves or haven’t gotten over their honeymoon phase with China. I thought that most of Troost’s observations were spot-on and that he was more curious than he was condescending. It helped that he had a good sense of humor about his own failings as a tourist. What hurt the book was the length; it was about 100 pages too long. It seemed like the farther west he traveled, the more long-winded his story became.
Michael Levy in Kosher Chinese was just the opposite. He left me wanting more. Well… I could have done without the forced Jewish overtone and numerous basketball chapters, but as a Peace Corps English teacher, he struck a good balance between life as a teacher and life as an expat. It still felt like he was reluctant to reveal much about his teaching experience, though. I notice this in a lot of “teacher abroad” stories, and I’m beginning to think it’s less about the classroom being boring (I enjoy reading these sections, anyway) and more about not painting themselves as inadequate teachers (which is what I made the mistake of doing).
I could kind of see this in To Travel Hopelessly by English Teacher X. While he, too, didn’t share many details about how he taught, his behavior was pretty deplorable. For example, he showed up to class one day still tripping on LSD from the night before and would even have sex with some of his 16-year old students. I’ll admit, I enjoyed his book more than any of the others I’ve read. His journey across Thailand, South Korea, and Russia is quite the thrill ride. But I also walked away from it hating him more as a person, whoever X is.
I can’t say the same for Sam Baldwin’s For Fukui’s Sake or Elayne Clift’s Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand. Neither of these authors shed a lot of light on who they are. Baldwin, in particular, spent most of his book describing all of the outdoor activities he participated in while in Japan: climbing mountains, skiing, rafting on a remote lake. You could tell these adventures meant a lot to him, but for me… I wasn’t there and couldn’t care less. I’d rather read about his school hosting a sports event in the middle of a typhoon. That was by far my favorite chapter. There just weren’t enough moments like this to keep me interested.
Then there’s Clift, who took up an entire chapter in Achan talking about walking the dog. Who gives an eff?! That’s the biggest problem I have with many of these travelogues; they are way too detailed in their boring, day-to-day routines. You do occasionally get a fun anecdote out of it, but I really don’t need a play-by-play of every marketplace. That’s why I rewrote my own book in a more essay-like format (although the teaching chapters do still suffer from this syndrome). To be fair, Clift has essays in her book, too. The second half of Achan is full of political and social articles about the injustices that happen on a regular basis in Thailand. Such a drastic shift in tone left me feeling swindled, and this ended up being the hardest of the lot to finish reading.
Currently, I’m working through No Sense of Direction by Eric Raff, and there are still plenty more in the queue. Any misconceptions I had about my book being original are long gone; I realize now the travelogue is an overdone market. Several books have been written on China alone, many of them equally (if not more) tongue-in-cheek. I haven’t even gotten to Peter Hessler’s mega trilogy yet, but I enjoy giving some of the lesser known authors a chance. It makes me wonder, though, if I will have a story worth telling once I start teaching in Thailand, or if I’ll simply be “walking the dog” and trying to make more of it than there really is.