A basketball and rock journalist comes to Beijing with his wife and kids, gets set up in a luxurious expat-filled gated community, and basically has a lot of free time, because his wife happens to be the Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He writes a column for the WSJ and then a book about his time in Beijing because everyone’s writing a book about China so why not right? Doesn’t quite sound quite substantial, does it. But Alan Paul did one special thing in China that many people have never done, and that’s form and front a blues band, be acclaimed as Beijing’s best rock band, and tour the country. Big in China is Paul’s account of his four years in Beijing as a stay-home dad to his 3 kids, and rocking at bars and doing shows at nights with Chinese and American bandmates. As expected, it seems like an ideal life, but not quite. Being the father in a family where the wife is the main breadwinner is humbling and can be humiliating, but Paul handles it well. He mentions this near the beginning and there is no hint of jealousy or envy from him at his wife’s status.
Big in China was easy to read and had a lot of breezy and even predictable parts. There’s nothing particularly controversial or provocative. The fact that Paul and his wife lived in a Singaporean-owned gated compound and had a maid and cook did a lot to cushion them from the rigors of daily life in China. But even so, it seems that Paul really liked China a lot. Whether it was his interactions with the people, jamming with his Chinese bandmates, or traveling with his family to far-off Sichuan or Guanxi, his affinity really shines through. But mainly it’s the personal stories, whether about himself and his family or his Chinese friends, that make the book worth reading. That plus Paul’s willingness to share the tough and unpleasant experiences, like his father asking him when he would “get back to reality” and return to the US, an unsubtle hint that Paul’s life in Beijing was like living in a bubble. The majority of us will never live as comfortable a life, or do something as cool, as Paul was able to in China, but there’s no reason we can’t find his book enjoyable.