In his first two books, Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages, J. Maarten Troost wrote about his life living with his diplomat wife in the far reaches of the Equatorial Pacific. Strangely, these books earned Troost the moniker, “travel writer,” despite the fact they are more memoir than guidebook to traveling through those places. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone actually planning a vacation to remote islands where the U.S. government tested loads of A-bombs during the Cold War. In his third book, Lost on Planet China, Troost officially earns his “travel writer” status, for he details his journeys throughout the gargantuan country.
Early in the book, Troost begins discussing the extent of the pollution running rampant throughout China: it is everywhere, in the air, in the water, on the streets. Apparently, so polluted is China that its pollution reaches destinations as far away as the Great Lakes. Troost cannot even climb Tai Shan, a massive and sacred mountain, without experiencing the pollution-induced overcast weather. Sadly, Coleridge’s Xanadu this is not. Troost does, however, quickly adjust to the poisonous atmosphere — his coughing fits decrease, his eyes water less, and he is able to study and document China’s other aspects.
Also early in the book, Troost describes what he calls the different “lenses” he needs in order to view certain aspects of China in its “truthful” sense, as opposed to the imagined sense the government sells to whoever cares enough to pay attention; he calls this the “Chinese context.” View a China-produced Nestlé water bottle label through your ordinary eyes, and you see that it is purified water as unpolluted as that which flows from the Adirondaks; but view the same label through your “Chinese context” lenses, and you see that the water might be from some ultra-polluted, parasite-ridden tap in Beijing. Why the facade? Because the Chinese government knows that the key to success is a pristine image, even if that image is laughably transparent. And apparently, this is working, for despite the many horror stories that continue to surface about Chinese-manufactured products (lead-ridden toys, poisonous dry wall, etc.), the U.S. and other leading world powers continue to buy Chinese goods. A transparent facade is easy to believe, it seems, when the price tags are cheap. Troost exploits this facade as often as possible, and often ironically: for instance, he describes a train car compartment filled with government suits, who are all smoking despite the large “No Smoking” signs posted everywhere on the train. A timid stewardess attempts to remind the suits of this; Troost notes that the suits say something to her in reply, and moments later she returns with ashtrays. The facade is that China is a country devoted to “The People,” but the reality is that the government does essentially whatever it wants. Such is the way with republics these days!
But Lost on Planet China is hardly a political diatribe. Though Troost never passes up a chance to ridicule the hypocritical Chinese government, and though he spends some time lamenting the loss of Tibetan culture, he remains faithful to his “travel writer” status and focuses mainly on the experience of journeying through the country.
After describing life in the megalopolises, where crossing the street is hazardous to your health (if the speeding cars don’t kill you, the smog will), Troost moves on to describe the countryside, such as the stripmallish sections of the Great Wall and the afore-mentioned smoggishly hazy Tai Shan. He eventually discusses his travels in parts of the country where the pollution only slightly affects one’s experience. He climbs another mountain, for example, and embarks upon a trail above what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge: he details a natural experience so sublime that he becomes almost Romantic — this is as close to “Kubla Khan” as we will apparently ever get. And so, despite his snarky descriptions of the government and rampant pollution, Troost does leave us with many positive images of China, such as the sublimity of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Ultimately, however, Troost leaves a sour taste in our mouths; for despite the friendly people he meets (including two helpful Chinese women named Meow Meow and Cinderella — yep) and the beautiful vistas he takes in, he gives us unpleasant images that sadly trump all the pleasant things he tells us about. Most lasting is the image of the boy he finds while walking with an immense crowd along the pier jutting out into Quingdao Bay:
Then, suddenly, the crowd parted as if it had stumbled upon a lane divider. There before me sat a boy, not more than seven years old, though it was impossible to tell with any certainty. He was an albino with skin that was nearly translucent. He had no arms, and his ragged shirt had been pulled down to reveal the rough scars from where he arms should have been. His skin had been burned raw by the sun, and he sat there rocking and moaning with a plastic bowl before him that contained a scattering of coins.
Who was this boy? Who had done this to him? The scars on his stumps suggested that he wasn’t born armless. Who was sending him forth to beg on a pier? It would be far from the last time that I’d find myself pondering a display of mind-boggling cruelty in China, and it was why, despite the whiz-bang, China-is-the-future vibe I felt in this coastal city, I’d likely never have warm and fuzzy feelings for the country. (112-113)
How could he have warm and fuzzy feelings for China with images such as these always haunting his memories of the country?
Suffice to say, the content of Lost on Planet China is engaging, whether it pushes your political buttons, entices you to go backpacking through China’s remoter regions, or just plain tugs on your heart-strings. You will not become bored reading this book. Troost’s writing style helps this, for he is witty and immediately likeable. Though the books is close to 400 pages, you will zip right along as though it were a hundred pages shorter.
A book that documents one’s travels throughout modern-day China could be burdensome and overwhelming, but Troost pulls a Michael Palin on us and gives us a travel narrative that is at once humorous, informative, and insightful. Though I still question whether Troost’s earlier books should have earned him the “travel writer” moniker, Lost on Planet China unquestionably raises him to this status, and deservedly so. I eagerly anticipate any and all forthcoming Troost narratives.