In his latest travelogue, J. Maarten Troost recounts his journeys through China, where, not surprisingly, he finds that life in a developing communist country of nearly one and a half billion people can be tricky. While it’s not necessarily a novel premise for any narrative (toss the naïve traveler into a foreign land and see what goes down), Troost is quick enough on his feet to keep the prose lively, and insightful enough to note poignancy where it exists.
There are genuinely hilarious moments in Lost on Planet China, and the best of those occur when Troost is truly surprised by something he’s encountered. He notes, for instance, a young boy peeing on a wall in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the moment is as bizarre and memorable for the reader as it seems to have been for Troost.
Because Troost is such a perceptive traveler and writer, the prose falls short when he relies on cultural clichés for comic effect, and those moments are many. The cheap jokes — about phlegm or eating dog or pushy, elderly Chinese women — fall flat. In describing a long train ride from Tai Shan Qingdao, for instance, Troost recalls meeting a fellow passenger who goes by the English name Cinderella. “I asked her to teach me Chinese phrases like ‘I’ll have the dog special,’” Troost writes, “and ‘I think President Hu Jintao is very sexy.’” What’s frustrating about a moment like this is not that it represents any kind of implied bias (one could hardly be an enthusiastically battle-worn traveler if he were possessed of deep-seated bigotry), but that Troost is a good writer whose reportage is cheapened when he pops off a lame joke.
Thankfully, as Troost becomes more familiar with the routines and customs of Chinese travel, food and commerce, his perceptions become more forgiving and less familiar as ugly Americanisms. (Though, to be fair, Troost is a “half-Dutch, half-Czech, Holland-born Canadian citizen.” What kind of –ism that makes for, I’m not sure.) Ultimately, even with the cheap asides intact, Troost’s book is an entertaining and intelligent look at a rapidly changing country, a country that lately seems very much at the center of things.