Planning a trip to China? Whether you are just going for vacation or plan to spend a year or more working there or teaching like I am doing, it can be intimidating to spend any amount of time on the other side of the world. One thing you can do to feel prepared is read some books relating to China. My pre-departure reading list consisted of stories about expat life in China, novels by Chinese and Chinese-American authors, and a few Chinese classics.
- Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel DeWoskin — Although much has changed since the early nineties when she visited, DeWoskin’s memoir-like account of her own China experience will keep you hooked from the beginning. Working in Beijing at a PR firm, DeWoskin takes on a side job as an actress in a popular soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing. Although the end takes a darker turn than the humorous and sexy account I was expecting from the cover, I still thoroughly enjoyed this work. It prepared me slightly for the celebrity status white foreigners enjoy (or are subjected to) and some of the stereotypes that accompany it. It is a bit out-dated but worth the read.
- Home is a Roof over a Pig: An American Family’s Journey in China by Aminta Arrington — This is another true story (or collection of stories) by a woman who uprooted her life, this one bringing her husband and young children with her and living in a less metropolitan area than DeWoskin’s Beijing. Arrington chose to move to China to teach English and to give her adopted Chinese daughter first-hand exposure to her own heritage. The most useful lesson I learned from this book was to watch out for the “us vs. them” mentality that can develop when you get a little frustrated with some the differences between Chinese day-to-day life and what you are used to. Arrington describes some complaints she and her husband caught themselves saying, such as “a Chinese man cut in line at the store today!” and then points out that by saying “a Chinese man” instead of just “a man” (after all, of course it was a Chinese man. They’re in China. If it was a foreigner that would be the exception and a cause for specification), she is directing her judgement at a whole country and culture, one that she voluntarily chose to live in. I have those moments here often too, and I always think back to this scene to remind myself to think of those around me as individuals not representatives of their entire nation.
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan — This is one of the most famous works of one of the most famous Chinese American writers. Tan’s novel explores the lives of four Chinese immigrant women and their daughters, the complexities of their relationships, the disconnect between the two generations, and the undeniable importance of family. Because it is a story about Chinese-Americans, it may not be totally relevant to an upcoming excursion to the Middle Kingdom, but there are some insights to be gained about Chinese culture from reading about how it interacts with Western culture in immigrant communities. There are also plenty of flashback scenes that take place in China, bringing history lessons to life on a poignant and personal level. In any case, this novel was significant for introducing the Chinese-American experience to the mainstream American reader. I’m not sure I can say that there has been a book yet that has done the same for the Chinese experience.
- Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang — If there is anyone who could introduce modern Chinese literature to the average American, it would be Eileen Chang (or, Zhang Ailing if you use her Chinese name). Lust, Caution was written in Chinese, so you will be reading a translation. It tells the story of a love affair set in Japan-occupied WWII-era Shanghai. A young student named Wong Chia Chi falls for the rich and powerful Mr. Yee. But her motives in getting close to him were not all that innocent, and now she is forced to choose between her love and her country. As much a spy thriller as a star-crossed romance, Lust, Caution is a great introduction to Chinese fiction for American readers. If you’re too lazy for even this short novella, there is also a movie adaptation directed by Ang Lee (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame).
- At least one of the four Chinese classic novels. They are: Water Margin a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, Romance of The Three Kingdoms, and A Dream of Red Mansions (there are many different variations of the titles due to different translations). All four of them are big undertakings as they are lengthy reads, so I suggest picking one to read and watching movie or TV adaptions of the others. The only one I have read in its entirety (twice!) is A Dream of Red Mansions. You can check out my feminist analysis of it here. I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with at least the basic personas in Journey to the West, especially because this year is the Year of the Monkey and there are pop culture references to the Monkey King Sun Wukong everywhere.
- The Analects of Confucius or the Tao Te Ching — No introduction to China-related literature would be complete without one or both of these classic works of Chinese philosophy. The Analects are snippets of Confucius’ wisdom that his students wrote down around 500 years before the common era and they serve as the basis for the Confucian school of thought. The Tao Te Ching, or “way of the Tao” was written by Lao Tzu around the same time and is the foundation for Taoism. Both works are collections of short sayings, so they are easy to read, though perhaps not so easy to understand. See if you can get a nice annotated copy to get the most out of your read (or better yet, read them for a class and discuss with your professor, like I did).
What would you read before heading to China? Are you tempted to pick up any of the ones I listed? Let me know in the comments!