Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

I originally read this book when it was released in hardcover back in 2008, but seeing the softcover version on a display last weekend at Barnes & Noble triggered me to go back and revisit it. I remember liking the book the first time through; how would it hold up?

Troost - who’s been published in the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post - doesn’t want to be called a “travel writer”, as his other books about exotic locales were written after living for extended periods among regular citizens in places like Vanuatu and Eastern Europe. While ‘ethnography’ might be a more-appropriate word for his other two books, here this books’ entire premise is Maarten traveling from place to place in China over several months, having wacky adventures, and writing a small essay about it. That’s a travelogue, and because he visited a different city each week he just doesn’t achieve the depth of cultural understanding found in his other works.

I’m not knocking the approach; if a publishing company wanted to make me an offer like that I’d jump immediately. (I even have an itinerary sketched out, and essay outlines for all the other parts of weninchina.com.) But then again I’m not trying to write a humor book or a picture of a people in transition.

Now, having read through the book again, I’ll still say it’s a fast-paced, fun, light read. There are 24 chapters, but the tone Troost uses is dry and conversational and one could finish the whole book in less than a week of evenings after the kids have gone to bed.

Looking over the notes I took, however, gives me the idea to make a Chinese Travel Channel Special Bingo - Troost hits all the obligatory observations and statements you’ve seen in every documentary and guidebook. Here are my entries for Chapters 2 and 3:

  • Crazy driving / astonishing traffic
  • Children peeing in inappropriate places in public areas
  • Food made of animal bits we don’t eat in the West anymore
  • The Cultural Revolution was really evil
  • Blowing Noses
  • Crossing the street is dangerous
  • Chairman Mao
  • Crazy ads on TV
  • Luxury goods on ostentatious display
  • June 4 is a mystery for Generation Y
  • Smog in Beijing / dust storms

He circles all the way around the country, out through Shaanxi and Sichuan onto Tibet, then down through Yunnan to Guangzhou, up through the Yangtze Delta and finally into the northeast, ending with a boat ride along the Yalu River at the North Korean border, wishing to go back to the States.

I have to compare this book now to Kosher Chinese reviewed in an earlier entry. Both books are alternatingly funny and poignant, both are light reading, but Lost could have been Kosher if Troost had stayed put in one place for a couple months instead of taking the Grand Tour and hanging out with other Westerners. Take for instance how each author covers the gap between Han and non-Han ethnicities: Lost shows the absurd ‘surface’ of Han tourists in Yunnan having fun looking at Westerners interact with Bai people, whereas Kosher follows several young hill-tribe girls in Guiyang over two years, gets to know them and shows how the cards are stacked against them even though they keep trying. Both stories are true, but the latter one really helps you learn about what’s actually going on.

A book of just ‘surface’ observations can be fun, but too much at one place starts to feel like snarking, even though the author has only good intentions. Lost on Planet China is ultimately a highlight reel; a spice to add to your reading meal - entertaining in controlled doses, and with a balanced diet of other China media - but not a standalone dish.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.