Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: an expatriate family's four years in China, Lonely Planet's celebration of expensive adventures around the world, and prize-winning intercultural essays collected in The Chalk Circle.

Home is a Roof Over a Pig: An American Family's Journey in China
By Aminta Arrington

Tai'an is a city of 1,600,000 in Shandong province, about midway between Beijing and Shanghai. In 2006, when Aminta Arrington and her husband and three small children moved there, Arrington hoped to discover "the real China."

That was what I had wanted. A China of raising children, taking crowded buses to work, sitting on stools playing Chinese checkers, hand-washing laundry and hanging it out the window . . . A China that would astound me with its history and civilization, and force me out of my American conveniences and show me a way of life unchanged by the centuries.

Arrington's memoir of her four years in China is candid and detailed—encompassing both an expatriate's education and a lived refutation of the clichés she had declared on arrival. Americans are always setting off for foreign lands, searching for the real Russia or the real Tuscany; in most cases, this is little more than a quest for hipness, the hope of avoiding looking like one more dumb tourist. But if, like Arrington, you spend four years in the provinces, your family squeezed into a tiny apartment, you and your husband working in the local university, your children attending local schools, everyone catching colds, suffering diarrhea, struggling with language, with neighbors, with food—well, hipness soon becomes the least of your concerns.

Home is a roof

As a teacher, Arrington found herself tiptoeing through all kinds of diplomatic niceties: Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Taiwan, the role of religion. Exchanges with students over the requirement of studying Marxist theory in the midst of unadulterated capitalism are telling.

Throughout Home is a Roof Over a Pig, Arrington offers brief explanations of Chinese language and writing; she translates dozens of Chinese characters, both traditional pictographs and Mao's modernized versions. The book's title refers to the character for "home"—a roof above the pictograph of pig. In ancient times, a family's pigs lived alongside them in the same dwelling.

Arrington's memoir is a family saga, an examination of cultures, and a cautionary tale for anyone planning a one- or two-year sojourn in a distant land. There were times I could have stood a little less reportage of domestic squabbles and trials—the children this, the children that. And Arrington ends each chapter with a salutary lesson—a device that a more seasoned writer would have avoided. In truth, the story she has to tell—an American family adrift and alone in Asia—is sufficient unto itself and makes for an engrossing snapshot of present-day China. One map, no photographs.

Lonely Planet's Great Adventures
By Andrew Bain, Ray Bartlett, Sarah Baxter, Greg Benchwick et al.

The publishing juggernaut, Lonely Planet, annually produces so many guidebooks, travelogues, and anthologies that it's hard to imagine a corner of the earth without one of its titles staring at you from a bookstore window or the interior of a yurt. How can a planet be lonely when millions of travelers are crisscrossing its every square inch—most of them with an LP guide in hand?

Great Adventures is a handsome 320-page coffee-table book, filled to bursting with stunning photographs of oceans, deserts, ancient cities, and, especially, perilous mountain overhangs, beneath which there always looms a bottomless abyss. The two-page opening spread of a craggy overlook in the French Alps will leave acrophobics reeling in panic.

Lonely Planet editors have nominated seventy-five far-flung itineraries in their compilation, divided into themes like "Hike," "Dive," "Bike," "Climb," and so on. As usual with such a book, you don't read Great Adventures, you flip through the pages seeking armchair thrills, or, if you're hardy and rich enough, you pick up useful tips for capturing the next quarry on your life list: dog-sledding in the Yukon or sighting a mountain gorilla in Uganda. Accordingly, the chapters of Great Adventures have titles like "Swim with Whale Sharks," "Paraglide Mont Blanc," "Climb the Nose of El Capitan," and "Raft the Colorado River." For those readers who are older than, say, twenty-five, or who are not triathletes, alpinists, or Richard Branson, one chapter looks promising: "Amble England's Southwest Coast." That beautiful little word, "amble," shines like a welcome sign at a cozy pub. And yet, when you read the fine print, even this chapter involves trudging up and down 1,008 kilometers of trail, with a cumulative ascent of 35,000 meters.

When I first opened Great Adventures, I registered a brief pang of hope that the editors might have omitted Mt. Everest from their list—in view of the 200 corpses that lie frozen on its slopes and its being the ultimate symbol of the modern-day adventurer's naked hubris. Fat chance. There it is on page 146. Elevation: 8,850 m. Going rate: $50,000 per climber.

It was John Krakauer himself, who, in Into Thin Air, tracked down the words of a "sherpa orphan," whose father had been killed on a previous Everest expedition:

But my people went the other way. They helped outsiders find their way into the sanctuary and violate every limb of her body, by standing on top of her, crowing in victory, and dirtying and polluting her bosom . . . I have no regrets of not going back, for I know the people of the area are doomed, and so are those rich, arrogant outsiders who feel they can conquer the world.

The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays
Edited by Tara L. Masih

Editor Tara Masih takes pains in her introduction to The Chalk Circle to distinguish the term "intercultural" from "multicultural," that over-used tagline of the academy, which, along with gender studies, patriarchy, and ethnography, causes traditionalists to foam and sputter and occasionally keel over in a dead faint.

But, in truth, the twenty essays of The Chalk Circle are not mere polemics delivered in some interdisciplinary conference in the sky; they are memoirs of nineteen authors from nearly every corner of the earth. I didn't recognize a single name among them (fourteen female, five male), but, as their stories rolled by, I found myself traveling to many unknown terrains, both geographic and psychological.

In "Itam," Peace Corps volunteer Jeff Fearnside spends two and a half months in Kazakhstan, in "a village on the edge of the foothills to the snow-peaked Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains)," living with his host family, Itam, Farida, and their sons and daughter. Fearnside's sojourn in the village was a training period before being sent on his first Peace Corps assignment. Shared languages? A bit of English, Russian, German, but mostly gesture and sign. At a Uyghur wedding, Fearnside hears folk music, rock and roll, "and, more than once, the extended live version of the Eagles' 'Hotel California.'"

In 1981, Bonnie J. Morris was a twenty-year-old American studying in Israel. Food is the theme of her reminiscence; she lived "on fresh bread, fresh fruit, spinach blintzes, dairy, and smoked fish, almost never eating meat, which was not just unpredictable in quality but also burdened with religious dogma." Unburdened of dogma herself, Morris and her female dorm-mate were soon lovers, living together openly in Tel Aviv University.

I turned twenty-one in Israel, and it was a Friday night, the Sabbath, and everything was closed. I couldn't even get a bus to town. No matter; by then I was romantically involved with my roommate, and we made a candlelight meal in our dorm room, which had one of the best balconies in Building B. The palm tree rustled right where we draped our laundry—though on this night we probably tidied up in style. I remember standing at the tiny kitchen counter in a long brown dress, chopping tomatoes, my hair up, feeling like a woman, while my lover cut slices of a rum-soaked cake from a Tel Aviv bakery.

Other essayists in The Chalk Circle include the first black journalist at the Salt Lake City Tribune; a fearless young daughter of American missionaries in Thailand; a seventy-eight-year-old woman living alone in the mountains of Alaska; an American "Third Culture Kid," who grew up in Kampala, Rabat, Antwerp, and Bangkok, and who only returned to her foreign/home country when she was eighteen.

The editors note that another "intercultural" essay could easily have been written by a once obscure Chicago politician, born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya. A young man who went to school in Indonesia, returned to Hawaii, then graduated from Harvard, before embarking on his current career as head of state of a well-known large country.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His most recent article, about the Native American archaeological site, Poverty Point, appears in the current issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Home is a Roof Over a Pig

Buy Home is a Roof Over a Pig in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

Lonely Planet's Great Adventures

Buy Lonely Planet's Great Adventures in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

The Chalk Circle

Buy The Chalk Circle in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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