Monday, February 9, 2009

Lost On Planet China

Somewhere along the line, the name J. Maarten Troost was brought to my attention and several of his books ended up on my wish list for friends and family who wish to buy me a gift. So it wasn't a surprise that his book, "Lost On Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid" ended up in my to-be-read pile.

If I had to describe J. Maarten Troost's style of writing, I would say it is a cross between Bill Bryson and Tim Cahill, two of my favorite authors so it is no surprise that Troost is now on that list. More than once I suffered bruised ribs from being punched for my loud laughing that woke up a sleeping Mrs. Abbey. More than once, I found myself giggling like a school girl as I read through the pages, something a grown man now halfway through his average lifespan shouldn't sound like. Thus I can't wait to dig into his other books, "Getting Stoned With Savages" or "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" which also grace my to-be-read pile.

China is one of those countries which interest me but not to the extent that I desire to actually go there. I picture it as this huge over crowded and poluted country where English is nowhere to be found and foreigners are treated as aliens from another planet. According to Troost's account of his months spent traveling throughout the country, I was right on every account.

The seed to visit Troost was planted while he was living on Onotoa, a tiny atoll in the Gilbert group of the South Pacific when Chinese business men began appearing. The only other group to rival them seemed to be Mormon missionaries and so Troost's curiosity was picked. He eventually settled in San Francisco and after selling his over priced house before the housing bubble burst, he began to think of possible places to live outside the U.S. China was all over the radar and in the news so he set off to explore the giant country.

Because the book was published in 2008 and his travels not much earlier, this book is fresh and extremely interesting not to mention hillarious. From Troost's account of accidentally ordering live squid to accidentally soliticiting the services of a prostitute to stumbling into a hidden gay bar, this book is sure to leave you laughing. In between accounts of getting into trouble, Troost weaves a picture of China's past, present and future.

I am now solidly a Troost fan and give this book five out of five stars. If you are still not sure if Troost is for you, I leave you with one of his five rules you should know if you are thinking of visiting China.

Food can be classified as meat, poultry, grain, fish, fruit, vegetable and Chinese. Embrace the Chinese. If you love it, it will love you back. True, you may find yourself perplexed by what resides on your plate. You may even be appalled. The Chinese have an expression: We eat everything with four legs except the table, and anything with two legs except the person. They mean it too. And so you may find yourself in a restaurant in Guangzhou contemplating the spicy cow veins; or the yak dumplings in Lhasa, or the grilled frog in Shanghai, or the donkey hotpot in the Hexi Corridor, or the live squid on the island of Putuoshan. And you may not know, exactly, what it is you’re supposed to do. Should you pluck at this with your chopsticks? The meal may seem so very strange. True, you may be comfortable eating a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, yet when confronted with a yak or a swan or a cat, you do not reflexively think of sauces and marinades. The Chinese do however. And so you should eat whatever skips across your table. It is here where you can experience the complexity of China. And you will be rewarded. Very often, it is exceptionally good. And when it is not, it is undoubtedly interesting. And really, when traveling what more can one ask for. So go on. Eat as the locals do. However, should you find yourself confronted with a heaping platter of Cattle Penis with Garlic, you’re on your own.


TC said...

Upon reading that paragraph, I think I'm convinced I will never see the Great Wall.

sage said...

Troost will go on my reading list! I've been listenign to Rob Grifford's journey across China. It's good and he's funny, but not as funny as Bryson.

The Real Mother Hen said...

Actually I've come to learn that people in other cultures (take Norther Ireland or the French for example) do eat a wide variety of food. I had a Brazilian friend who eats stuff that I don't even eat. Korean and Japanese eat live squid too. But no body talks about that. Every one points to the Chinese instead. It's all about perception, sadly.

Btw, Oregonians would say it's lame to go all the way to China to try some Cattle Penis, since Oregonians are pretty proud of their 'Mountain Oysters'. Who would have thought that eh?

Ed Abbey said...

TC - Troost's account of the Great Wall makes it appear to be a great let down. I have always thought that I wanted to see it and if I am ever in the country, I probably would though now I don't think I would make a trip there just for that.

Sage - Troost humor is wry humor for the most part, something that sits well with me. I can't wait to read his other books but I'm pacing myself. I just started reading "Rock Me On the Water."

Mother Hen - I've eaten the pig variety of "Mountain Oysters" plenty of times so I know what you mean. I also lived up in the land of the frozen tundra for a time where lutefisk, fish soaked in lye, was a delicacy. That is where I developed a love of pickled fish which I can't find in these parts. I love to eat as the locals do but occasionally I draw the line as I do with balut in the Philippines, which is fertilized fermented duck eggs.

Beau said...

Ah, food is my downfall, and I've sampled much that is similar, adopting Troost's approach early on throughout my travels. Two on my "do not eat" list however: Balut, which you may have tried yourself, and Uni- or sea urchin eggs, prerably scooped fresh out of a recently split open sea urchin. Generally if it's palatable, and I don't know what it is? Then I'm good to go!

Murf said...

I wonder how much I could sell Hooch and Little A in the Chinese blackmarket. A 25 lb cat must be a pretty penny.

Does he ever go into details about what the bathroom situations are like in China?

Ed Abbey said...

Beau - Unfortunately, I learned what balut was before I tried it so I never could bring myself to taste it. However, I did closely photograph a peeled one and could see the feathers and such which only added to my resolve to pass on it.

Murf - Troost does talk about the squat toilets several times throughout the book. Judging from what I know about your bathroom tendancies, which incidently is way more than I ever needed to know, you wouldn't stand a chance in China. In fact, he said the worth bathroom he has seen in the world was on the train from wherever it originates to Lhasa in Tibet.

TC said...

I don't think I need another massive letdown on those "must see" things in life. I could have passed on the Mona Lisa. I don't think I'll be heartbroken if I never see the Great Wall.

Judging from what I know about your bathroom tendancies, which incidently is way more than I ever needed to know, you wouldn't stand a chance in China.

LOL I don't know these, nor do I really want to about Murf, but I have a feeling I wouldn't do so well either.

Murf said...

Ed - You're the one that wants to take me hiking to see how long I'd last. Must be that sadistic side to you. :-)

Chica - Don't listen to Ed. I just have certain...quirks in regards to bathroom usage.

PhilippinesPhil said...

China will always be a place I know strictly vicariously. I don't much like people anyway, and they have WAY too many of them. And this nationwide predilection for loudly clearing their throats and spitting, no matter where they are, inside or out, what's with that?

R. Sherman said...

Trying to catch up on blog reading during a slow day (for once).

I have a friend who spent three weeks on tour in China last summer and liked everything about it except the air. He was able to finally get far to the west in the country away from the crowds along the coast and said that he thought it was more like the "old China" out in that direction.

His report made me reevaluate my unwillingness to go there.


Ed Abbey said...

Phil - Funny you should mention that but Troost goes on at length about their spitting everywhere.

R. Sherman - Troost said that even the crowds out west are getting bad though better than the mega cities along the coast. He did say the air was definitely better out west and that the few times he saw the sun was out there.