Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: What the Chinese Don't Eat

Xinran first caught my attention with her debut book, The Good Women of China.

In it she detailed her experiences as a host of an evening radio show called "Words on a Night Breeze", talking mostly about daily life.

But then she began getting letters from distressed women around the country, including pleas from anonymous people telling her about young women who were kidnapped in remote places and bound against their will, and asking Xinran to save them.

Many of the stories in that book were riveting and at times sad to see how badly women in China were treated even though Chairman Mao had once said they "held half the sky".

So I was hoping for more interesting stories in her third book, What the Chinese Don't Eat.

But it turned out to be a collection of columns she had written for the Guardian over the past few years.

And in many of the columns she talked about how she felt so out of touch with her culture despite being Chinese, but that's what happens when you immigrate to another country. In others she tried to bridge the gap between west and east by explaining Chinese habits and culture to UK readers.

However, towards the end of the book -- and I hope she will do a brave thing and open up her heart -- and talk about her own life in another book.

In the last entry in the book, Xinran talks about visiting her dying mother in hospital and how she never really knew her.

She explains that her mother was one of the best dancers at the Beijing military base. When Xinran was only a month old, she was sent to live with her grandparents and then when she was seven-and-a-half, she lived with her parents at the military base for only two weeks when the Cultural Revolution broke out.

Her parents were sent to separate prisons while Xinran and her brother were black-listed kids and looked after by the Red Guards.

She didn't see her parents for 10 years, and after the revolution she was sent to different cities for education and work, away from her parents.

Xinran's story is not unique -- many others in their 50s probably have very similar experiences where they hardly got to know their parents at all, thanks to the Cultural Revolution.

... what we really want is the time and energy to be brave enough to open up our past to each other. As mother and daughter , we have so much we do not know about each other. So many wheres, whats and hows from when we were separated for all those years by the Cultural Revolution. We have been scared to tell the truth.

For us of the younger generation it's impossible to even think of not being in touch with our parents for 10 years. Which is all the more reason why Xinran should tell us more of her life during the Cultural Revolution and how it changed her as a person and her beliefs today.

It would give us more insight into the Chinese mentality today and the moral and cultural breakdown of a nation.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

This book sounds so close to the one I just finished reading. "Return to Middle Kingdom" by Yuan-tsung Chen. An epic, biographical tale of Chinese revolutionary. I absolutely loved it. Thanks for the update.