Ghana Must Go, and Manuscript Found in Accra- book reviews

Despite its title, Ghana Must Go is actually not mainly about Ghana nor is it a book about violence or comedy. Instead, Ghana Must Go tells the story of a Nigerian-Ghanaian-American family that must cope with the sudden death of their patriarch. When a surprising heart attack ends the life of Kweku Sai, a former brilliant surgeon from Ghana, it forces his Nigerian ex-wife and four US-born children to come together to send him off. In doing so, we learn about the sad tragedy that led Sai to leave his career and family in America to go back to Ghana, which results in his ex-wife Fola taking care of four children by herself.

The book got more interesting as the story progressed, but I still found it a little underwhelming. For one, the prose is hard to follow as it is often written in an inconsistent and disjointed manner. Second, I didn’t really care much for any of the characters. The fact that Sai ran away from his family due to a personal humiliation does not make him very sympathetic. Fola is an intelligent and resilient woman but her character isn’t explored enough. All four of Sai and Fola’s children were significantly affected by Sai’s desertion, but in different ways. Two of them suffered a particularly terrible experience that is only made clear towards the end. The tensions and differences in their relationships with each other is actually one of the book’s more interesting aspects. I feel another reason I didn’t enjoy Ghana Must Go as much as I would have expected is that I thought it would be more about Africa, but in reality, the novel is an American story with Africa only playing small parts.


As Jerusalem finds itself under siege and facing an assault very soon from Crusaders in 1099, its citizens gather around a mysterious Copt to listen to his wise words. This is the premise of Manuscript Found in Accra, a short novel by Paolo Coelho that is basically a self-help book. And though it has the name Accra in its title, this book is also not about Ghana.

The book is written in an unusual way in which the main (and sole) character is a Copt who answers questions in the form of long and unbroken reflective monologues. The Copt’s answers represent philosophical takes on issues such as defeat, love, fear, anxiety, and myriad other common human emotions. It’s not your usual novel but it fits with Coelho’s style of unconventional writing that usually features hopeful and motivational messages about life. It can be considered a self-help book and in this sense, it is quite decent.


Prisoners of Geography- book review

We usually think of geography as being about mountains, rivers and seas, but geography is also a major factor in how large or wealthy or powerful countries have become. Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics uses geography in the form of maps to explain ten large countries and continents including the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa, and even the Arctic. The author, longtime foreign correspondent Tim Marshall, utilizes his ample experience to write a compelling book that combines geography with history and international affairs.

Starting with Russia, Marshall points out how the world’s largest country both benefits and is constrained by geography including plains to the west, limited access to oceans, and a vast resource-rich eastern region Siberia. The western plains is Russia’s most vulnerable area, being where invading armies from Europe such as the Nazis and Napoleon’s Grand Army have flowed through. As such, that is why it worries a lot about NATO expanding eastwards and specifically about the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US status as the world’s superpower was aided by perhaps the most favorable geographic conditions such as large coasts facing the Pacific and Atlantic, a large interior, and the world’s longest network of navigable rivers such as the Mississippi. The latter might not be too well-known, but navigable rivers facilitate significant trade as goods can be easily and cheaply moved by ships. Conversely, Marshall points out, the lack of this can hinder countries and continents such as Africa and South America. The latter’s interior also has a lot of mountains such as the Andes range, that prevents easy rail and riverine connectivity. If you’re wondering about the Nile and Amazon, those are both mighty rivers but not conducive to large cargo-carrying ships.

Europe was able to prosper greatly during the Middle Ages because of its large rivers like the Rhine and Danube which facilitated trade and commerce. However, not all European countries benefited from this. For example, Spain’s hilly interior and lack of large rivers meant it couldn’t develop as quickly as its northern neighbor France, which partly explains why Spain didn’t become wealthier than France.

Prisoners of Geography is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It is a fun read that also makes global affairs a little more understandable and the world a little less complicated.

World’s troublesome and problematic power China

There has been a lot of bad news regarding China, but the last two weeks have been even more disturbing and bizarre than usual. In September, a weird spat with Sweden broke out after a Chinese family had to be carried out of a hostel because they showed up at midnight half a day before their booking and caused a disturbance. Despite the family being recorded rolling around and screaming theatrically whilst bemused policemen stood by, they alleged brutal treatment which the Chinese embassy and state media then criticized Sweden for.

Last Sunday, a Chinese state media “reporter” caused a disturbance by heckling and then slapping somebody at a Conservative Party conference in the UK; then on Tuesday, a Chinese warship almost rammed an American warship in the South China Sea, and on Friday, the Chinese head of Interpol was reported missing by his wife after he went to China and disappeared. On Thursday, Bloomberg reported a sensational but worrying story about China secretly putting tiny microchips onto motherboards for servers used by 30 firms like Apple and Amazon, for the purpose of stealing data.

Even amid all this, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands (possibly a million) of Muslim Uyghurs have been detained by the Chinese authorities in “reeducation” camps with the campaign showing no process of slowing down.

China’s sinister reach also extends to show business as the country’s most well-known actress Fan Bingbing went missing for months before news surfaced this week that she is in custody and is being ordered to pay over US$129 million in taxes.

It is clear that China is becoming more erratic and confrontational abroad, whilst undertaking disturbing actions at home. The trade war with the US is still going on, taking a toll on China’s economy but instead of trying to deescalate tensions or change tact, Xi Jinping appears to be doubling down on his repressive and strongman policies. His Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which is a quixotic attempt to develop Asia and parts of Europe and Africa, is starting to be seen for the hollow economic plan and subtle imperialism it is, forcing smaller and poorer countries into debt-traps that make them either pay off staggering amounts of debt or give up territory and assets to China.

Whereas the US and Japan have usually been critical of China, now the criticism and skepticism is coming from different countries like Malaysia, Australia and even longtime China “ally” Pakistan.

It’s easy to feel a little satisfied these days if you’re a China critic because it seems the country is finally starting to pay the price in 2018 for all its belligerent actions over the last few years. Whether intimidating Taiwan, furthering its grip on Hong Kong, expanding its militarization in the South China Sea, or imprisoning mass numbers of its Uyghur people, China has been flexing its muscles with little fear in recent times.

But the truth is that even as staunch a critic of China, its CCP regime, and Xi as I am, I also feel some disappointment. I wasn’t always a critic of China, since from my secondary school days to university up until the middle of my two years in Beijing, I actually had high hopes for the country. That was until I realized that all the economic growth and geopolitical power wasn’t doing anything good for China, that it wasn’t going to liberalize or expand media and civil freedoms, or start being friendlier to Taiwan and other neighbors. And with an increasingly repressive government and a strongman dictator like Xi, China wasn’t going to become a peaceful power but a global bully that wasn’t afraid of exploiting countries, bending international laws, and terrorising its own people.

These are worrying times for China and for the region, and for everyone’s sake, let’s hope the CCP does not prevail.

Links to recent notable news concerning China:

How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate dozens of America’s top companies

China’s internment camps for Uyghurs now out in the open

Interpol head reported missing in China

Chinese state TV reporter assaults UK Conservative party member at event about Hong Kong

Chinese warship in unsafe encounter with American destroyer in South China Sea

Fan Bingbing hit with US$129 million tax bill after being held for months incommunicado

China’s Xinjiang Muslims live in fear of disappearing into concentration camps

Islamic world starting to protest China over Xinjiang camps

Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.


China’s creeping hold on US universities

During the past few months, there has been a significant increase in tensions between China and not just the United States, but the rest of the world. While the US has been compelled to embark on a trade war with China, the fact is that China has grown increasingly aggressive, both abroad and at home. However, a lot of people might have been unaware of China’s aggression overseas since this involved industrial espionage, political interference, academic bullying, and one-sided business deals with small, developing nations.

Within China, there has been a lot of disturbing news from the restive northwest region of Xinjiang, where a huge number (and growing) of Muslim Uyghurs have been arrested and detained in concentration camps. To get a glimpse of this horror, just read an article like this one from the Guardian about Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan whose family members back in Xinjiang have gone missing for over a year since being detained.

It is tiring to keep seeing news of China engaging in efforts to bully, interfere or foreign countries, whether it be Taiwan, Australia or even the US. A lot of this is not surprising to me because having lived in China for a couple of years, I saw how Xi Jinping’s reign had become increasingly repressive and that things would worsen, not get better.

I’m picking one aspect of China to highlight here, and that is the prevalent self-censorship by academics and graduate students across the US when it comes to China. That is because China often blacklists academics and writers who have focused on subjects it deems sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, Tibet, and Taiwan. This means these individuals are denied visas to visit China, which affects their careers as they cannot enter the very country they are doing research on.

As a result, many schools, professors, and graduate students have chosen to focus on less-controversial topics or hold back on their views in order to avoid offending China. This prevalence of self-censorship is actually worse because the person being targeted is the one doing the censoring.
This is a long article but it is worth the effort to get through. Here are some choice excerpts below:

An American historian of China said, “I frequently hear graduate students and younger scholars—people with academic jobs but pre-tenure—being advised not to explore sensitive subjects in their research, so they can preserve visa access.”

The unpredictability and unevenness of how—and when and why—Beijing decides to act leads people and institutions to be overcautious, which only makes the strategy more effective.

The second, more complicated, and more pernicious part of the Little Distraction strategy is that the fixation on the Three T’s makes Americans more likely to overlook what actually are the most sensitive issues: exposing wrongdoing by Chinese leaders and criticizing specific policies; encouraging political organizing in China; calling for regime change or suggesting the Party should not rule China; and actively campaigning for the independence of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and more recently, Hong Kong.

Many people fail to see that issues involving China’s leaders and grassroots political activism—which represent the existential questions about China’s future—are the ones that actually matter.

Link said he doesn’t know exactly why he was blacklisted—the censorship system is so effective in part because one can never know for sure—but that his work on the Tiananmen massacre cemented his status as unwelcome. In the article, Link compared China’s censorship to an anaconda in a chandelier. “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’ ”

Fresh off the Boat- book review

Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.

Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.

Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.

Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.

At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.