Pretty Woman Spitting By Leanna Adams – A Book Review

First – HEY, MY INTERNET WORKS! So I have a couple of old posts that I’m just gonna put right here right now…hope you like them. My work these days frequently brings me to Chengdu where I get to stay in fancy hotels with uncensored internet. I know, I know…you’re very impressed at how fancy I am. Seriously though, I’m pretty fancy, but moving on. I hope this means I can get back to trying to post a little more regularly. Now, on to the book review!

I would have never read this book except that a friend gifted it to me on the Kindle store. I would have lost interest in it immediately upon realizing that the target audience of Leanna’s book is China newbs, which also made it an odd choice of gift from that particular friend who is the embodiment of “bitter expat.”

Oh well, I read it anyway and it would have been awesome for someone who hadn’t yet visited China. Leanna doesn’t try to pretend that her book is full of deep insights into Chinese culture, which in my opinion earns her a lot of credit. She wrote her book after teaching English in Anhui….for one semester. That’s it. She was in Anhui for 4 months and wrote a book about it. I thought it was strange that she even got a publishing deal since every white person who comes to China thinks “I should write a book about this!” We all think our experience is unique enough that the rest of the world should know what we’ve done and seen! The market is flooded with that kind of literature. I think her angle was maybe a bit unique in that she was specifically targeting China newbs without any pretense of being an expert. She even included a packing list at the end of the book! I shouldn’t be so condescending though. There was a time when I would have read that book and really enjoyed it. For that reason, I would recommend her book to people who haven’t yet been to China. I think she does manage to understand China and Chinese culture better in four months than some of the foreigners I know who have been here for years. One aspect of China that she described very well was the warmth of the Chinese people and how they will treat a guest. She describes going home for a long weekend with one of her students to see his hometown and describes the embarrassment of realizing that in spite of being from a poor family, his parents insisted on paying for her room at the nicest hotel in town and bringing her for meals at expensive restaurants. We’ve all been there! Being simultaneously horrified and deeply touched is something anyone coming here should prepare themselves for because it’s inevitable.

Another aspect of Leann’s book that I give her credit for is the way in which she didn’t shy away from discussing some of the things that bothered her about China, but then again, she wasn’t one of the idealistic foreigners who comes here with a head full of visions of gong fu masters and women in qipaos running around serving tea. The title, “Pretty Woman Spitting” is obviously from the chapter where she talks about the constant spitting and how gross it is. Again, not horribly insightful, but still something to prepare yourself for if you’re not used to it. She also discusses to some degree how disrespectful people can be at times about trying to capitalize off of foreigners. The prime example of this that she uses in her book is an experience that I think most of us will never have here (hopefully). *Spoiler alert* An Australian colleague passes away from a brain aneurysm while in Anhui and because of the rapid progression, there was no time to transport to another hospital or go home. She describes the frustration of trying to get the doctors and nursing staff to be straightforward with them about the woman’s condition. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it and a funeral had to be planned. The colleague’s family wanted to take her body out of the country and have a funeral at home, but the local authorities got involved and delayed the process of getting her body out of the country and decided to hold a TELEVISED open casket funeral in the meantime. The school didn’t bother to notify her students, but instead hand picked a few students who would look good on TV. Leanne seemed to suspect that the purpose of this was to get publicity for the school or the town. There could have been a lot of reasons for televising a funeral in spite of the family’s wishes, but either way it doesn’t change the fact that someone capitalized on this horrible event that should have been private.

Ok, I guess when it’s all said and done, I liked the book more than I would like to admit, but maybe because it was also kind of nice to remember what it was like when I first arrived in China when everything was fresh and new and interesting. Perhaps I should say this book is a good read for anyone preparing to make their first trip here or for those of us who have just been here long enough to forget what that first trip was like.

追风筝的人 - The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner has been my favorite book since the first time I read it in English. It’s a beautiful, touching story and the author, Khaled Hosseini has a gift with words and describing things that I really think is quite rare. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s the story of Amir, who grew up in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and the close friendship he has with the son of the family servant. Eventually, the relationship sours because of some regrettable actions on the part of Amir. Amir and his father end up leaving Afghanistan for the US when the war finally starts. Years later, as an adult, Amir is contacted by an old family friend who is now living in Pakistan and is asked to come for a visit and told that “there is a way for him to become good again.” The book was made into a movie in 2007, but the movie is quite terrible. It seemed as if the director didn’t actually understand the book or only read the Cliff Notes version because the movie skipped over parts that were very integral to the story and important in explaining the relationships of the characters. 

Anyway, this post isn’t really meant to be a book review so much as it is about me bragging that I finally read this book in Chinese. I’ve had a Chinese copy of The Kite Runner for years, but could never commit myself to reading it. I would start, read a few pages, then go do something else and forget about it for a few months. It probably took me 4 years just to read the first 50 pages. For me, reading Chinese has always been somewhat tiring…it takes more concentration, I have to look words up, and it just didn’t seem as relaxing as reading in English. I think I’ve figured out what my problem is. Prior to this summer, when I would read things in Chinese, it was either for school or it was something that I thought I “should” read, ie, something maybe not that interesting, but full of useful knowledge. I had developed some kind of aversion to reading in Chinese because I regarded it as a chore. Once I got back into the story of The Kite Runner, it was like reading it in English – I couldn’t put it down. Hours would go by and I would find that I’d read 30, 40, or 50 pages in one sitting (I still read slower in Chinese), which was a far cry from previous attempts where I would read a page and think “wow! I deserve a break! Time for cat videos on youtube!” By the time I finished the book, I found that not only was my attention span for reading in Chinese much longer, but I was also reading faster and retaining more. I learned a lot of new vocabulary too. This isn’t the first full book I’ve read in Chinese, but it was the first time I actually enjoyed it. 

In the future I will not force myself to read things in Chinese because I should, but rather because I want to. I also think that it helped that the book had been originally written in English by someone with a western background and then translated into Chinese. The book didn’t contain any cultural references to ancient China or something else that would have been difficult to understand or hard to find in a dictionary. 

I have a copy of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel that I am no longer afraid of. I think when I finish that and get back to Shanghai, I will try to find Khaled Hosseini’s other books in Chinese too. 

 

Book Review – The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui

Privatelifeofchairmanmaocover

The Private Life of Chairman Mao was written by Li Zhisui who claims to have been Mao’s personal physician for 22 years, as well as one of Mao’s closest confidants. I say “claims” not because I doubt Dr. Li’s accounts, but because many other people do, so I suppose that possibility should be taken into consideration. Dr. Li had initially kept journals to record his time working with Mao, but destroyed them when he realized they might be used as evidence against him if discovered. Therefore, the book was written based mostly on his memories after he came to the US. Memories of course, are fallible. Many historical episodes were collaborated and backed up by other testimonies and other historians, but Dr. Li claims that his translator Tai Hung-Chao and editor Anne Thurston took liberties with the information that they added and subtracted. Since the book was published in 1994, Tai has revealed that the publisher went so far as to add sensationalized details that Dr. Li never included in order to sell more books, mostly regarding Mao’s sex life. As one would expect, many of Dr. Li’s co-workers have come forward to denounce the book and state that Dr. Li didn’t work for Mao as long as he claimed, that their relationship was not as close as he says it was and to say that many of the things he wrote were outright lies.  Knowing all of this, I chose to read the book assuming that Dr. Li’s intentions were good and that he meant to provide a historical account of his time with Mao, but that there could be some details that were remembered incorrectly. The stories concerning Mao’s sex life and other juicy details I took with a grain of salt. They’re not important anyway, other than to demonstrate that Mao didn’t practice what he preached, but that’s evident in a lot of other areas as well. The reason why I chose to assume that Dr. Li’s intentions with the book were good is because he included a lot of information that was not flattering to himself, things that he had done that he was ashamed of and showed a lack of courage. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it.

There were three things in particular that I really liked about this book. The first thing is that the book includes a map of Zhongnanhai from the relevant time period, a chart detailing the organization of the CCP, a chronology of events and a dictionary of characters and their biographies. Yeah, ok so that’s a small thing, but it sure did make it easier to keep track of people who are mentioned on page 50 and then don’t resurface again until page 500. I referenced the CCP organizational chart constantly because I kept forgetting what position everyone held. It’s the little things, people.

The second thing I liked about this book was the insight it provided into so many of the historical events I’ve learned about in various Chinese history classes. It’s one thing to read an article listing an order of events, but it’s a completely different thing to know the background information and what conversations were happening behind the scenes. It reveals a completely new side to events and the motives behind decisions that were made. Many other people I know who study China will examine a historical event from the context of politics, economics, etc etc to try and explain it, but frequently people forget that Mao and the others involved were people, which means that human logic, emotions, or the lack thereof should be accounted for as well. Sometimes people just do things because they’re hungry or angry or both and Mao was no exception.

The third thing I liked about this book was the leadership lessons that could be taken from it. I used to work in a government organization that shall remain unnamed that was basically the same as the upper levels of the CCP insofar as how much everyone sucked at being leaders. It was not a meritocracy, people were advanced based on ass kissing and sometimes to spite others. The people in charge more often than not let their personal problems affect their work and honesty would often get you in big trouble, even if you were right and it needed to be said. The decisions that were made never took into consideration the impact they would have on people at lower levels who had no freedom to speak their minds on the matter. It’s difficult to maintain your integrity and get ahead in an organization like that, as many of Dr. Li’s experiences show. He frequently did things he knew were wrong in order to save his own ass and even though my life was never at stake when I worked for the Department of Ruining People’s Lives and Sucking Up to Incompetent Leadership (that’s what I’ll call it), I can understand that feeling of having to chose between yourself and others. The impact of Mao’s decisions and the way he made them should be an example for anyone who manages people of how not to lead. If it were up to me, this book would be required reading for anyone who is going to be in charge of other people and have the ability to impact others’ quality of life.

The last thing I’m going to say is maybe somewhat inflammatory because I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority of people who think this. I’m not throwing this out there with the intent of starting an argument, it’s just the conclusion I’ve come to over time. A lot of people, most of the history teachers I’ve ever had included, think that Mao was a genius. A master at manipulating people and knowing exactly what to say and what to do at every moment in order to get them to do what he wanted. I completely disagree. I think that Mao was an arrogant, petty man with an unpredictable temper and maybe even sociopathic tendencies. I don’t believe that he was a genius, but I do think that he knew that fear controlled people and he knew how to manipulate people in order to make people fear him and be subservient to him. Manipulation isn’t genius. It’s cheap and lots of people do it all the time. If you ever read copies of any of his speeches you can see that what he says in the beginning and what he says at the end are often contradictory. According to Dr. Li, Mao was addicted to prescription drugs and a lot of what he said was influenced by barbiturates, among other drugs. He was easily swayed by the opinions of the brown nosing people around him, but he rarely took the advice of experts and preferred to rely on his own beliefs and superstitions even in the face of overwhelming evidence. To me, none of these actions seem like the behaviour of a genius. There. That’s my opinion on Mao.

“The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao” by Ross Terrill

The White-Boned Demon, By Ross Terrill

The White-Boned Demon, By Ross Terrill

It’s been a long time since my last post!  What have I been doing for the last…nearly 2 months??  I went to Bhutan for 8 days over my Thanksgiving break and that was awesome.  I’ll definitely write a post about that when I get a little time.  I took a ton of pics, but haven’t had a chance to go through them yet.  When I came back, crap kind of hit the fan in terms of homework.  For anyone who has gone to college in China, something you probably learned at some point was that any syllabus a Chinese professor gives you means nothing.  I thought I was caught up and good to go, but upon my return, I learned that I had a ton of papers due that no one had seen fit to mention in their syllabi.  It’s been a hectic few weeks.  I finished all of my papers, but now I’m studying for a history test…the prof gave us 50 terms to look up so he can test us on 10 of them that he will randomly select on test day.  That wouldn’t be so bad except that all of the information is in Chinese, so not only is it slower to go through and read, it’s also harder to remember.  I don’t know if I’m just dumber than other people, but I find that things I read in Chinese aren’t as easy to remember as things I read in English.

Anyway, also for this history class, I had to select a book (written in English, thank God) and then write a book review on it.  I chose Ross Terrill’s “The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao.”  Throughout the semester, Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao has been a rather prevalent character and I found her fascinating.  She seemed utterly insane, but by the end of Terrill’s book, I found myself identifying with her a lot…so, yeah…

I enjoyed the book and even though it was over 400 pages, I read it in about 3 days because I just couldn’t put it down.  I like reading about hot messes (makes me feel like I have my shit together) and Jiang Qing is definitely a hot mess.  My only big criticism of this book is the complete lack of footnotes or even a bibliography.  Ross Terrill has an excellent academic reputation, so I absolutely believe that his sources were the best available, but I would love to know what they were.  There were parts in the books where he seemed to be using a quote from someone, but without citing the source, then we can’t really evaluate how likely that quote was to have been said by that person.  Or, if it was the author filling in the gaps in information with his own imagination.

That being said, the book really was quite interesting.  I think his treatment of Jiang Qing as a subject throughout the book was similar to how she was treated in real life.  Jiang Qing was a strong female with her own ideas about what role women (specifically herself, she was no feminist as I learned…she was only out to lift herself up, rather than all women) should play in the home, in politics, etc.  She was constantly being put in the corner by men and she seemed to have spent her whole life feeling frustrated with the fact that the only way she could have any power, was to get what she could by riding on the coattails of men around her.  Her big roles as an actress had a lot to do with her guanxi with various directors and male actors and her role in politics only came as a result of her relationship with Mao.  In other words, nothing she accomplished was purely the result of her own hard work, but had everything to do with the men in her life.  I think that Ross Terrill had somewhat of a tendency to write her off as well…in his assessments of her motives and things that she allegedly said, he would often comment on her lack of credibility, but rarely did that with other characters in the book.  Jiang Qing is dead now, but even still, she continues to be written off as a silly female.  It’s quite sad, really.  It made me wonder how this book would have turned out had it been researched and written by a female.

Jiang Qing’s life was very interesting, but also sad.  She spent her whole life trying to fit in somewhere and never really succeeding.  I think that she may have suffered from some kind of delusional thinking that led her to be unable to separate stage life/fantasy from reality.  A lot of her alleged reactions to events and her ability to change personalities depending on the situation makes it seem as if she thought everything was a performance. I looked on youtube for the footage of her trial (after the Gang of Four was denounced and she was basically blamed for the entire Cultural Revolution) and it’s kind of eery how out of touch she seems.  The other people who were being tried seemed fearful, but she seemed to not really understand what was going on, answering sarcastically and being quite dramatic.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Jiang Qing, the role of women in China (sadly I don’t think much has changed), or hearing about the Cultural Revolution from a different point of view.  We have discussed the CR thoroughly this semester in history class, but always from Mao’s point of view or the viewpoint of “the masses.”  If you listen to them, then it’s easy to get the impression that Jiang Qing was evil. I’m not sure that she was evil, but I do think that she was selfish to the extent that she couldn’t see how her actions affected other people.  A lot of her actions were motivated by revenge on people who had criticized her in her acting days, but because of her selfishness and complete lack of political knowledge, she had no idea how far reaching the impact of her revenge missions really was.

Read this book and see for yourself!

Shanghai Calling 纽约客@上海 – The Movie!

This is not my photo.  I found it on the internet.  Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

This is not my photo. I found it on the internet. Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

Basic synopsis:

A slick and immoral American lawyer, Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai to head up the company’s Shanghai law office.  Upon his arrival in Shanghai, he is greeted by Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation specialist who’s job it is to help him settle in.  Since this movie takes place in China, a very relevant part of the story line is the fact that Sam Chao is an ABC who can’t speak Chinese, whereas Amanda is a blonde haired, blue eyed American who can, thereby making this not only a romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy that makes fun of all the cliches that go along with Sam and Amanda’s linguistic situation.  Chinese people all insist on speaking to Sam in Chinese, waitresses give Amanda the Chinglish menu, etc etc – it’s all funny because it’s true.  Aside from the love story, there’s a lot more going on in the movie.  Via Fang Fang, Sam’s assistant, the movie takes a look at the social and economic pressure put on young Chinese people.  The complexity of the Chinese legal system and prevalent use of guanxi is also touched on in how Sam tries to deal with a legal suit before knowing anything about China’s 国情 and after refusing to take Fang Fang’s advice on the matter.  Without giving too much away, the lawsuit that Sam is dealing with would have been an easy one in which to make the Chinese out to be the bad guys, but that isn’t the case here.  I also really enjoyed how the movie made fun of some of the “foreigner in China” cliches – the skeezy English teacher, the arrogant business man who thinks Chinese people don’t know anything, the foreigner who thinks he’s Chinese, and the I’m never going back, these are my people guy.

Shanghai Calling got some pretty harsh reviews online.  I however, really like this movie.  I suspect that the people who didn’t like it were people who aren’t in on the joke of what it’s like to be a foreigner in China.  I made my husband watch the movie with me and he’s never been to China.  We had to pause it a few times so I could explain something that seemed obvious to me, but made no sense to him.  Shanghai Calling’s only failing perhaps is that a wider audience wasn’t taken into consideration, but I think it wouldn’t have been as good if they had done that.

Shanghai Calling trailer 

One last thing that I thought was interesting from a linguistic standpoint was the technique that Eliza Coupe’s accent coach, Cheng Yang Yang used to “teach” her Chinese.  Eliza Coupe’s character didn’t speak a lot of Chinese in the movie, but enough to judge how well said technique worked.  Cheng Yang Yang obviously didn’t need Eliza to actually know Chinese, she just needed to be able to get through her lines, basically using memorization. The first thing Cheng Yang Yang did was to transcribe her lines from Chinese into a kind of Englishized pinyin.  For example, “ni xiang chi shenme” became “knee shee-ahng chir shun muh.” She then helped Eliza refine the pronunciation a little and then for the tones, she used a melody and had Eliza put the melody onto the words she was saying.  According to Cheng Yang Yang, at this point Eliza “immediately sounded like a native Chinese speaker!” Ok, well…Eliza didn’t sound like a native speaker, not even a little bit.  She definitely sounded like an American, with a heavy accent and some awkward pauses. I wouldn’t say the technique worked that well and it sounds like a lot of work, I doubt that any time was saved by teaching Eliza her lines this way.  Since Eliza’s character in the movie didn’t begin learning Chinese until college, it’s normal that she would have an accent.  I probably wouldn’t even really have an opinion on Eliza’s Chinese, except that Cheng Yang Yang made such a big deal advertising this technique.  Given all the fanfare, I would have expected better results. It was still a great movie.

Cheng Yang Yang’s technique