Lost on Planet China is J. Maarten Troost's hiliarious travelogue based on his travels around China trying to come to grips with and understand this vast and complex country. Honest and at times unflattering, this is not your run of the mill fluff piece extolling the virtues and beauty of a country but instead shows what China is like from the eyes of a first time visitor.
Having observed that the world consists of two kinds of people roaming its extreme edges, Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen, Troost takes this as irrefutable evidence that the world's future is increasingly going to be influenced and controlled by China. Talked out of immediately moving the whole family to China by his more rational wife, he decides instead to visit China to see what exactly it is that makes the Chinese tick and such a force to be reckoned with.
With no decent knowledge of Chinese history and not being able to speak a word of Mandarin, Hu or Cantonese Chinese, Troost becomes a roaming barbarian at large visiting a mix of Chinese mega-cities and its hinterlands. Arriving first in Beijing amidst the smog, Troost wastes no time in letting us know just how bad the air quality is and other irritating aspects of travelling through China, such as the Chinese ability to jump queues, rip off laowais and constantly dispatch loogies everywhere they go.
Troost’s honest approach to telling things how he see things isn't so much a breath of fresh air, but rather an arctic gale and one which makes Lost on Planet China such an authentic and absorbing read and one which is delivered in similar fashion to his previous books, such as The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Lost on Planet China is, however, his first genuine travelogue and it is one where he delivers his mishaps and general observations in such humourous fashion that makes this book so good. It's not so much that you have to agree with what is being said, but rather by allowing yourself to travel along with and entertained by his journey, you’re guaranteed an extremely enjoyable experience.
Lost on Planet China is sure to divide readers into groups that either love it or loathe it. Take for example the opening sentences of Chapter 3: "Let's begin with Chairman Mao. So much in modern China begins and ends with the colourful tyrant from Hunan". This is just one example of inflammatory comments that are going to rise the heckles of some and for those with an axe to grind, there's plenty more to be concerned with. Devlivering a large number of gross generalisations and observations based on Troost's extremely limited experiences, anyone with a mind to, could classify his writings as xenophobic rantings. However, doing so deliberately misinterprets exactly what it is that Troost is setting out to do by writing his book - to entertain.
That China is a place with environmental, human rights and other social and economic imbalance issues is, for most of us, irrefutable. Lost on Planet China isn’t attempting to seriously pontificate upon these. It is simply a very funny travelogue providing snapshots of some of China's amazing tourist sights whilst also illustrating the associated difficulties of travelling in such a wonderfully complicated and complex country. Whilst this might not be a book that will help you learn nor particularly understand China, it is a book that is likely to make you yearn to travel there.
4 and a half stars out of 5
Credit: Banner photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo