University of Alberta professor and writer Leilei Chen was born and raised in China, but admits she’d always held an idealized vision of Canada. When a doctoral scholarship brought her to Edmonton, that vision was shattered by Canada’s social problems and historical racism – even the weather didn’t measure up to her red-leafed dreams. Canadian realities made her consider her homeland and how the “seemingly antithetical” countries actually shared many similarities. She credits her travels for her “more nuanced and critical vision” of both countries. In Re-Orienting China, Chen examines books by six contemporary travel writers on post-1949 China, weighing in on their work and ways of understanding “otherness” with a critical eye, particularly when she senses an us vs. them divide.
Chen states a lack of scholarship re: travel literature about China, and she addresses the issue of subjectivity in the genre, concluding that travel writing is “ideologically loaded.” In her exhaustive reading she found that “women writers who travelled in Communist China” were more inclined to “sensitivity, self-reflection, and comparative visions of home and abroad.” Her focus is on “the process of cultural translation,” and she maintains that one simultaneously learns about and transforms “self” while travelling. “I look for the connections and the commonalities … and examine the transformations that result from [travellers’] interactions with that foreign place.”
Two of the six writers Chen studies are Canadian, and Jan Wong – readers may recognize her from the Globe and Mail – is among them. Wong’s book Red China Blues (1996) examines her time as a Canadian student at Beijing University during China’s Cultural Revolution. She thought the Communist system would bestow “freedom and equality on every member of the society,” but in actuality she found her time in China difficult, overwhelming and “personally traumatic.” Her university roommate, she learned, was “assigned to spy on her.”
American Peter Hessler wrote about his two-year experiences in Fuling as a Peace Corps volunteer: he determined that it was important to learn Chinese if he was to understand the culture and make friendships. Canadian scientist Jock Tuzo Wilson had his stereotypes challenged in Peking, and says American mass media pre-shaped his opinions.
Based on Chen’s commentary, the book I’d be most interested in reading is anthropologist Hill Gates’ book, Looking for Chengdu: A Woman’s Adventure in China. She writes authentically as an American woman who makes many mistakes along the way, and she even ponders abandoning her career focus on China.
Though much of Re-Orienting China concern’s Chen’s academic analyses, I also learned facts about Chinese culture, ie: eating all the food on your plate indicates to a host that you’re still hungry, and you’ll be served again, and that the Chinese only reluctantly identify themselves on the phone.
This book’s important because, as Chen says, travellers are the “translator[s] of culture,” and if we want to have meaningful dialogues across cultures in this increasingly globalized society we live in, it’s wise to understand, through various perspectives, how we’re all in this world together.
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