Living Abroad in China
Stuart and Barbara Strother
Going to China to make a living sounds as entrancing to some of us as landing a job at Office Depot, growing up in Butte, Montana, or joining the U. S. Army to play golf in the Green Zone. Not to the Strothers. They don't seem perplexed by the thousand or so Chinese dialects, the robbing of water resources from once pristine villages for the upcoming Olympics, the lack of free speech, international concern about the fearsome ecological damage at Three Gorges (not even listed in the Index), and the now well-known fact that super elevated smog and detritus from the east coast of China makes its way across the Pacific to damage trees, forests, and people in Western Canada and the United States.

They ignore, too, the hideously oppressive wind-fueled dust and smog in Shanghai. They tell us that the city's "famous flowering trees create 'petal storms' all around the town when the breeze blows." It's happy-face time in China.

Even the maps are politically correct --- if you are a member of the Chinese Communist Party (or a politically deaf outsider). The one on page two shows the usual far-flung states --- Heilongjiang, Gansa, Nei Mogol, Xinjiang. There's a state called Xizang that sounds like a cure for piles or an exotic tea. To the rest of us (but a parenthesis on the map ) the word is "Tibet."

Tibet also comes up here and there in the text. On page 19, after "most of the population have a general contentment about their lives and a positive outlook on their future," there is this brief understatement: "Uighurs and Tibetans resent the control of central government." On page 33, we find that the PLA (the People's Liberation Army), 2.8 million strong, was used to seize additional land (i.e. Tibet) to squash rebellions (i.e. Xinjiang Muslim separatists) "and even to subjugate its own citizens (as seen in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident)." That's it for those of us who fret about the erasing of civil rights there way beyond the west.

In the eyes of the Strothers, the big problems are ending up in the city of Ninghai "when we had asked for bus tickets to Linhai" and having their son barf in a taxi after eating bad ice cream. As I write this, I have to confess I am being rather pettish. I lived in Málaga, Franco Spain from 1959 to 1961. It was a country that had been frazzled by years of Civil War, and by the time I had arrived, was being run by the last of the "Cuatro Generales." Even twenty years after the fact, former Republican veterans and sympathizers were being held in unspeakable prisons.

The bitterness of the poor and defeated was obvious, even to a blind tourist like me, but I was living high off the hog because the exchange rate imposed by the Opus Dei: sixty pesetas to the dollar. It made life wonderfully cheap for me (glass of red wine, five cents; seafood chowder, twenty-five cents; room in a nice hotel, next to nothing).

The pictures in this Moon Guide show happy workers at happy tasks, and implies that the Americans will get the best of it. In Hangzhou --- the authors' favorite city --- you'll find "big retailers like Trust-Mart and Carrefour." If you turn sick, there's the "International Health Care Center and the North American International Hospital." The night markets "are a fun place to barter for treasures." Your problems might be limited to the time when you plug in your home stereo. Expect to fry it. In China, everything runs on 220 volts.

And expect your pets to die: the authors lost thirteen (!) in a period of sixteen months.

And if you are bonkers, forget it. China has laws that forbid entrance to "those suffering from mental disorder." That lets me out.

Crazy or not, I think one would have to have his head examined to even think of going to a country that --- although approximately the size of America --- sports 1,300,000,000 people. "Of the top 50 most populated cities around the globe, 1 in 5 is Chinese," the authors tell us: "You'll find yourself referring to a city of one million residents as a small town."

I may have been turned cynic by a very old comic book by Robert Crumb that showed a Chinese intergalactic space-ship being powered by about 10,000 Chinese operating foot-pedals, crowded together, looking suspiciously like rats in a cage.

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Since the early days of RALPH, we've always been fond of the Moon people. In two of our earliest reviews from fifteen years ago, you could find a Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula by Chicki Mallan and The Arizona Traveler's Handbook by Bill Weir (we had a great time with the last one). We were struck by the directness and honesty and general fun of the Mooners. The Strothers seem to be a different order of travelers ... those who are serious about making it in foreign lands (and we include Arizona in our world of obscure if not obscene foreign lands) .

Living Abroad in China is not bad. It's informative. It's just not as, how can we say it ... it's just not as exasperated as travel books should be ... vide Twain, Perelman, Theroux, and the always superb Sybille Bedford.

--- C. A. Amantea
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