Saturday, January 2, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman  (915.1 GIL Main)
Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

Every done anything on a whim?   Sometimes it works, sometimes...well…

While sitting at IHOP eating pancakes, two college friends decide to go around the world to eat pancakes. Why not start with China?  Oh, did I mention this is in the 1980s, just as China was opening up to the west.  Neither one of the girls have done much traveling.   And, to save money… they decide to go backpacking on a shoestring.

Susan Gilman writes this entertaining memoir.  In many places it is laugh-out-loud funny.  In other places, sad.   It becomes a thrilling powder keg, a real battle of wits with communist Chinese officials as they try to leave the country.  She and Clair, her fair-haired friend, decide to tackle the world, armed with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, bottled water, and tons of idealism.  Upon landing in Hong Kong, the 21-year-olds are immediately thrown into culture shock.    Their language guide book is all but useless, because most Chinese speak regional dialects. Cockroach ridden hostels.  (At one of the nicer hotels, they comment on how decorative the wall paper is, until they notice the design is moving)  Very public toilets.  Just to get a train ticket takes a two day wait.
They are the first Americans that many of the local folks have seen.  Often a crowd would gather and follow them, just like when the circus comes to town in this country.  People wanted to communicate, and would shout out whatever word they remembered:
“Nuclear Warhead.”  
“Marilyn Monroe.” 

And the food.  Back in the 80s, especially in the non-tourist countryside, catering to the poor backpacking crowd, meat was mostly bone or hide.  They splurged one time at a “nice” restaurant.  They couldn’t order, the owner brought out a whole fish.  They only wanted rice.  The fish was raw.  The owner couldn’t understand them and it became a “fish beauty pageant.”   16 fish were brought out.  They finally took a couple of bites, and never got the rice.
As they ventured deep into the Chinese countryside, they had to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance.  The lighthearted journey became a struggle, as Clair exhibits mental illness, including an attempt at suicide.  The Chinese government didn’t want this kind of a situation known and wanted to commit her.  The story becomes a desperate real-life international thriller that keeps you turning the page.
The trip transforms them both.  Susan Gilman goes on to become a journalist.  She writes the story from 20 years of hindsight, but maintains the feelings and enthusiasm of a 21 year old.  Years later, she goes back to visit and notes the dramatic changes between then and now.  
It is a wonderful story that proves most people are decent, friendly and sweet.  If it is made into a movie, I will be first in line.  I do plan to read the book several times.

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