Right after Big in Beijing, I finished another book about an American also doing something out of the ordinary in Beijing. This time, instead of singing and forming a band, the author starred as a foreign temptress who seduces a Chinese guy in a popular Chinese-produced TV show. Foreign Babes in Beijing is Rachel DeWoskin’s account of life as an actress which catapulted her into Chinese stardom. The show, which the book’s name is taken directly from, was about two foreign girls who fall in love with Chinese brothers and do their best to settle into Chinese life while taming their weird and wacky foreign ways. The cover of the book suggests a rather steamy sex-filled tell-all, but Foreign Babes in Beijing is actually filled with reasonable commentary on Chinese-American culture clashes and life in Beijing back in the nineties. Besides acting, the writer also worked at a PR firm part-time as well as hung out with Chinese artists and musicians. It’s eerie when Rachel describes the behavior of her Chinese colleagues at the firm, I could swear Taiwan is the same. From making quick and broad assumptions on first impressions to whispering right behind a person’s back, nothing seemed alien to me. It’s another example, I suppose, that at the core of things, Taiwanese are just like their mainland cousins.
Moving on now, is a book that is also quite controversial but in a different way. Far from being a Foreign Babe in Beijing, Troy Parfitt was like a Foreign Bear. Roaming around China from Harbin to Llasa, growling, grumbling and berating at mainlanders left and right, Parfitt’s Why China Will Never Rule the World is a 400-plus page account of his (mis)adventures in China on two trips that lasted a month in total. It’s a fun read, filled with some very interesting historical facts and decent prose. Parfitt travels across China, hitting up the main cities as well as Hong Kong and Macau. He also does Tibet, Sichuan, Guanxi, and Hunan (to visit Mao’s hometown). Finally, after he couldn’t take any more of the mainland, he goes back to Taiwan, where he had been living and teaching for 10 years, and does a trip around the island.
Parfitt, you see, wanted to see for himself the marvel that is China that is always being billed in the West as the next superpower. Now, the book is chock full of interesting encounters and sharp observations on places and Chinese behaviors and attitudes. But, and yes this is a big “but”, what prevents the book from being a stellar one is Parfitt’s reaction to China. Anybody who’s been to China can readily tell that it’s still a developing nation with a lot of poor people, and that the behavior of some people aren’t exactly very civilized. Parfitt notices this all right, and combined with some negative experiences, he basically vents right from the beginning of his trip, even before he actually enters mainland China as Macau is the first Chinese city to feel his rage and scorn. Though his critiques are sometimes entertaining and apt, he veers into almost blatant insults and ridicule on many occasions. Parfitt also mixes his critique with commentary on the state of Chinese culture, society and the future of China, which he perceives as being full of problems, falsities and uselessness. Again, while some of it has some truth, he overreaches and his critiques become broader and broader. Any negative experience sets him off, leading him to expound on the fallacies of Chinese civilization. This is supposed to be a travel book, but it’s kind of hard to really enjoy if the writer is heavily biased, especially virtually right from the start of the trip. Incidentally he praises Nanjing, which I also harbor a similar feeling for.
Yet, the biggest flaw is the book’s main purpose- to prove that China will not rule the world. Leaving aside the fact that it’s a misleading and foolish question, as no nation, not even the US at it prime, ruled the world, it’s how Parfitt tried to test this question that leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a good travel book, but Parfitt intends it to be a revelation on whether China is as great and magnificent as it’s made to be. As I wrote above, he’s get fed up of China, and of course, he believes China is in no way or form, a superpower that will rule the world. That’s not too bad, because many people, including myself also feel the same way. The only problem is, who are the people saying this? None other than Western academics, writers, politicians, businessmen, and consultants, none of whom are interviewed, quoted, or referenced by Parfitt in the book. It’s one thing to go to China to check out the country, which is a good idea, but it’s another to confront random Chinese and test a Western-created hypothesis on them, instead of the very Western professionals mentioned above. Simply put, Parfitt should have tried to interview these Western professionals, like he did with the Chinese Confucius Institute director, and put his question of why and how will China rule the world.
The last part of the book is about Taiwan and not surprisingly Parfitt is much more complimentary about Taiwan, its people, and aspects of society. Given that he lived here for 10 years and that he couldn’t stand China, this isn’t surprising. But what is surprising, and what I do give him some credit for, is that Parfitt is also critical about Taiwan, such as about behavior and attitudes that are also based on its Chinese roots. The education system, the architecture, and the tragically inept handling of a serial murderer on the loose in 1997, come in for harsh criticisms. Too often, there are people who seem to view Taiwan and mainland China as opposite sides of the Chinese cultural spectrum, simplifying Taiwan as possessing the good and genuine Chinese culture and the mainland bad or non-Chinese traits. Parfitt seems to be able to go beyond this superficial divide, not that I agree with some of his critical judgements, and see that Taiwan is not immune, or itself displays negative aspects.
I got this book from Parfitt himself after I requested it, and he was kind enough to send it.