Book Review: Lost on Planet China – J. Maarten Troost

I’ve developed an interest in China over the last few years, even to the point of trying to learn Mandarin with Rosetta Stone. When I saw Lost on Planet China on the shelf I gravitated toward it because of that, and then was doubly drawn to it when I recognized the author. J. Maarten Troost is the author of Getting Stoned with Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Neither of those books is as salacious as their titles suggest, and their subtitles really describe them more: A Trip Through The Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu and Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. They’re very funny books, but they really do capture the spirit of life as a fish-out-of-water expat in the island nations on which they’re set.

Lost on Planet China is different because the author is not living in China, as he lived on the islands of his previous books. This book is really a travelogue, but still very much a fish-out-of-water story, and the book starts off with the author affirming that he knows absolutely nothing about China. While humor is present as in the other books, there’s a lot more history and politics, probably because China itself has a lot more history and politics. This makes it a different read than the others.

The subtitle of this book is “One Man’s Attempt To Understand The World’s Most Mystifying Nation” and I think the really focus is on that word “attempt.” The closest Troost comes to understanding China is captured in this quote toward the end of the book: Planet China is as varied and diverse as Planet Earth.

Throughout the book, Troost dwells on negative aspects of modern China – pollution, prostitution, overcrowding, etc., but does a good job at keeping it in context of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, while still keeping the writing fairly light. It doesn’t seem like Troost tried to find the real culture of China while he was there. I think the culture of China really lies in the people of China, and unable to speak or read the language, Troost goes into the country handicapped to the point where he’s unable to dig below the surface to the point where he could understand China at all.

While he explores far flung places, including Tibet where he finally does find blue skies and less crowding, and while I’m sure that he enjoyed this part of his travels the most, it’s also where the book stalls. The book also ends abruptly as Troost approaches North Korea with some trepidation that makes him long to return to China. The book could use another chapter to put the journey into perspective.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, and the other two written by Troost. I enjoy the humor and perspectives of the places usually only seen in episodes of Survivor and on the Discovery Channel. But I hope he goes back to China and writes a book about the people, not just the country, and then maybe we all can understand the world’s most mystifying nation a little better.

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