July 2013


rawiczI nipped this book from MB while we were in Mongolia and could not put it down. It is the true story (although many have questioned its veracity) of 6 men’s escape from a Russian prison during WWII and the long trek that took them through the outer reaches of Siberia, into Mongolia, the Gobi, Tibet, the Himalayas, and eventually into India. I had hoped that more of the book would be about Mongolia, as I was in Mongolia at the time of reading, but it was in fact more about Russia for much of the first half of the book. We start at the prison, where Rawicz was taken as a prisoner of war. He had been in the Polish cavalry and went home to visit his family who lived very near to the Russian border. After several months of torture, he is eventually transferred to a work camp, one of the harshest in Russia, where he later plots his escape.

This is the type of book I lovingly call “a boy book” because it is a story about survival and beating the odds against some of the worst conditions possible. There is very little emotional description in the book, although there are parts that will make you shed some tears. However, unlike many “boy books” I have read in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Some of the old timey words in the book had me looking through the dictionary more than a few times, but otherwise this is a compelling story that you just won’t want to put down.

snowflowerAfter doing some research about Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty, a book I was unable to finish earlier this year, I found many recommendations for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. As it turns out, Lisa See was inspired to write this book after having read Aching for Beauty and writing a review about it for The Los Angeles Times. She became interested in the practice of foot binding, but also in the briefly mentioned nu shu, a secret writing used by women to communicate their feelings to their mothers, sisters, and friends without fear of their husbands or fathers finding out. This book is about the secret (and public) lives of women in the China of the past, where women were marginalized and treated more like livestock than like human beings.

I would categorize this book as historical fiction, as it recounts with great accuracy the practice of foot binding and the history of nu shu. Some of the wording and trite sentiments may seem strange to westerners who have no first-hand experience with China and the Chinese, but I found it charming because it reminded me so much of things my students would actually say. The story itself is sad and sometimes painful to read, especially the descriptions of foot binding, which I am assuming came from her research into Wang Ping’s book. Lisa See did her research and even went to the birthplace of nu shu to interview the women of the village to write a fairly accurate description of the place and the time period. She even interviewed a 97-year-old woman to get some historical perspective. It is not clear whether her story is at all based on this woman’s own life. However, the book is told from the perspective of Lily, now in her 80’s, who describes the events of her life.

The story is mainly about two women, Lily and her laotang (lifelong friend, literally translated as “old same”), Snow Flower. The two are put into contact at the age of 7 by a matchmaker who discovers that Lily has perfect feet for foot binding. Snow Flower is introduced to her to become her laotang in the hopes that both girls can win a high marriage despite Lily’s current low standing as a farmer’s daughter. If her foot binding goes well, she could have the perfect fair of golden lotus feet and marry into a wealthy family, securing safety and prosperity for her entire family for the future. In the years that follow we see how her relationship with Snow Flower develops and changes. I do not want to give away too many details as there are some surprises, so I will leave it at that.

I personally didn’t think the book was incredibly well written. I wasn’t interested in the characters or their plight until more than halfway through the book, when things really became interesting. There were also several instances where foreshadowing was used, but then nothing ever seemed to be made of those warning signs we were given throughout the book that something terrible was going to happen. It kept me on edge and had me feeling confused when these bad omens she talks about do not actually lead to bad things happening. Perhaps I misread it?

If you are interested in foot binding and the traditional treatment of women in China, I would suggest this book. It gives a lot of information, along with having a good story to follow. Just be aware that you may need some patience to get through the first bit.

I went to the Philippines recently and was looking for some fun, easy beach reads. These are a couple of the books that were suggested to me and that I actually read despite my usual distaste for all things pop culture.

mindyIs Everybody Hanging out without me? by Mindy Kaling – I love, love, love Mindy Kaling, and that love affair began with this book. Because of this book, I bought the album Blue by Joni Mitchell and fell in love with the song “California.” I also got a strong case of paranoia about one-night stands and learned that I am not the only one who cannot commit to a relationship unless it has the makings of a romantic comedy.  I would say this is a highly relatable book for most women and if you like Mindy Kaling’s humor, you will like it even more in book form – and you will be able to hear her voice in your head as you are reading. It’s a little disconcerting, but just goes to show how well she knows herself and is able to convey her voice to the world, even on paper.

Life as I Blow it by Sarah Colonna – Somehow I thought this book was by Chelsea Handler when I first saw it on blowitthe shelf in my office’s English books library. Turns out, it is not by Chelsea, but by one of the writers from her show. I’m not sure this was my favorite book ever, but it is a fun easy read for the beach. There are a couple of really funny essays in there, along with a lot of stories about guys being jerks to her and some awkward sex stories.

bossypantsBossy Pants by Tina Fey – Who doesn’t love Tina Fey? This is sort of a memoir about Tina’s career. I like her ability to laugh at herself and her strong opinions about women in comedy. After reading this book I felt that Tina Fey was much more multi-dimensional and I appreciated her frankness in the book. This is another quick read, but a fun one.

prettyspittingPretty Woman Spitting is another memoir about a foreigner living in China. This one is of a young American girl who came to China to teach English for a semester. She only lived here for six months, but a lot happened during that time and she managed to see a bit of the country. The author, Leanna Adams, lived in an even smaller town than me during her time in China, giving her a more intimate look into the lives of her Chinese students.

I liked this book because it made me laugh – mainly because so many of her experiences are so familiar to what I have experienced in China. There were about 100 times while reading the book when I said, out loud, “Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.” In fact, I tell everyone I know that if they want to know what my life in China is like, then they should read this book. However, it is not all funny anecdotes, there are some sad bits as well that had me crying, so prepare yourself.

China's Papparazzi

China’s Papparazzi

A few weeks ago there was a humorous video going around the interwebs about what it’s like to be an Asian in America. The premise is that Asians get asked all the time where they are from, even if they were born and raised in America. While the original video was meant to be a joke, there were a lot of posts on my Facebook feed about it that were a little more serious. A lot of people talked about how annoying it is to be asked all the time where they or their family are from. Believe me, I know how annoying this is because every foreigner living in China gets the same treatment, along with foreigners in just about every country I’ve ever visited. Granted, in the Asian vs. Whities scenario it is caused by looking different, but even if it is your accent that tips people off that you do not belong, you will be asked about where you are from (even if you have been living in America for 30 years). Ask any Aussie or Brit you meet in the states, they’ll tell you I’m right.

For my Asian friends out there, you may find it funny that it is not just the usual questioning that we foreigners receive in Asia. In China, I have often felt like an animal in the zoo. Chinese people are constantly taking pictures of us foreigners as though we’re some kind of oddity that they cannot wait to show to their friends. The above picture was taken when my friend and I were essentially mobbed by camera-wielding tourists in Beijing whilst we sat on a cafe patio having a coffee. Yes, Beijing, one of the biggest, most developed cities in China, where there is a larger concentration of foreigners than in my hometown of Shenyang. One would think I would not be an oddity there, but that is just not so.

In addition to having my picture taken, people ask to touch my hair and sometimes feel up my arms (because they are hairy and Chinese women’s are not).  And, as illustrated in the video, they will say anything they know about my place of origin once they know where it is I am from. They will also do the thing where they say what their first guesses were about where I’m from (usually Russia or Germany). The most uncomfortable part about the confrontations are that they usually tell me that I am beautiful at some point and then start pointing out all of the specific things they like about my face. As it is not considered polite to say “thank you” for such compliments in China, I am always at a loss for words and feel even more rude for saying nothing. Also, I don’t really enjoy being told that I have a big nose, even if it is meant to be a compliment.

My point is not that your complaints are not valid, but that it happens everywhere. People are curious about other people who look different than them. Yes, it’s annoying. And, yes, I can see how it could come across as racist, especially in a country as obsessed with being politically correct as America is, but obviously the people asking are not in your shoes. They do not realize that you are asked this every single day. They are just curious and most likely think they are actually making you feel more comfortable, not less.

goodearthThe Good Earth has been one of my favorite books since I first read it at age 14, although I never re-read it until just last week. Before I recommend it, I wanted to be sure that it really was as good as I remembered it being. It was.

Pearl S. Buck, although not Chinese, lived in China for much of her life and so had an intimate knowledge of the Chinese way of life and Chinese traditions. While the world that she describes has mostly disappeared from modern China, the story is timeless and still has a very poignant ending applicable to today’s China.

The story is set in the China of the last century, with vivid imagery and a glimpse into the life of the everyday Chinese people. There is not the mystery and intrigue that was often associated with books written by foreigners about the Orient, but instead gives a realistic impression of China and its people. It is the story of the hard-working farmer, Wang Lung, and his struggles to become successful. We see him evolve from a poor farmer to a landowner and businessman. Meanwhile, we see how his success changes him and how his evolution has set his children on a different course in life. The person who remains unchanged by this evolution is his wife, the stoic O-lan, who is always in the background and who is even more hard-working than her husband. While the story mostly focuses on Wang Lung, my favorite character has always been O-lan, who never complains despite their hardships and who always has an answer for how to handle a difficult situation.

I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I will leave it at that, but I would highly recommend this book. Choose a version that has an introduction or biography about Pearl S. Buck for some additional perspective.