American Culture

Revisiting "Planet China" with J. Maarten Troost

#15: Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by L. Maarten Troost (2008)

The first time I landed in Shanghai, I couldn’t believe how big everything was. The terminal stretched off to some Whovian vanishing point. It was like that driving through the city, too—mile after mile of skyscraper, each as interesting to look at as the last. This was a city that wanted to be Manhattan but bigger, richer, busier.

But the bus windows showed me something distressing, too, as we rumbled across the coastal plain from the airport to the city: muddy canals choked with floating garbage, heaps of garbage and rubble scattered in back lots and side yards, an armada of small blue flatbed trucks jockeying for first place in a race that wasn’t even happening.

China turned my brain into an Escher landscape, constantly challenging me at every turn. I found new things to be amazed about, new things to wonder about, and new things to worry about.

China, I suspect, feels Escher-esque itself, thrashing about in the throes of an identity crisis as it lumbers out on the world stage: ancient and modern, beauty and squalor, opulent wealth and crippling poverty. Everything you can imagine about China is true—and so is its opposite. And everything is go, go, go.

I blogged extensively about my trips to China both times I was there (in 2009 and 2010), so I was eager to see what fellow traveler J. Maarten Troost had to say about his adventures, just a couple years before me, in Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.

“I had been to dozens of Chinatowns. But this was the mother of all Chinatowns…” Troost said after arriving. “I understood nothing, a sensation that disturbed my psyche. I felt profoundly out of my element.”

In China, it doesn’t take long for a first-time visitor to realize just how very delusional he has been in terms of his assumptions about the country. If nothing else, traveling through China is a profoundly humbling experience, no more so than when you realize that nearly everything you thought you knew about the country, all your presumptions and book learning, your opinions, turn out to be utterly, completely wrong.

At times, I felt like Troost and I lived the same experience. People drive “as if to kill,” he says. He cringed at the unearthly haze that hung over the landscape and “swirled in gray and brown and yellow plumes.” He was trampled in the scrum-like surges that turned standing in queue into “a forum for physical sport.” Most of all, he was stunned by the number of people.

“From the outside, 1.3 billion people is simply a statistic,” he says. “Inside China, the enormity of the country’s population colors everything.”

For example, consider the limited number of names people can choose. “There are 88 million people in China named Zhang. There are more people called Chen in China than there are Canadians in Canada,” Troost writes. “It’s become so problematic that no one knows Hu’s Hu in China.”

Troost’s sense of humor drives much of the book. He is, quite honestly, hilarious. I’ve not laughed my way through a book like that in years. But his humor is witty and intelligent, often the result of his sharp observations. It’s also a way to make some of his insights go down a little smoother because, let’s face it, there’s much in China to worry about.

“[I]t’s difficult to spend a moment in China and not be utterly awed by the scale of the ongoing environmental catastrophe,” Troost observes. Together with India, he says, there are now 2.5 billion people in the global economy that just weren’t there fifteen years ago. “The consequences for the environment are alarming.”

The sky itself serves as a constant reminder. It’s “apocalyptic” in its smogginess. He has a buddy who lights up a cigarette so he get “clean smoke.” I, too, had heard of China’s legendarily bad pollution, although by the time I got there, I could see all the way into Beijing from the top of the Great Wall, some fifty miles distant. Apparently, in preparation for the Olympics, the Chinese government cleaned up the air—not by reducing pollution or instituting pollution control measures but by simply closing down thousands of factories and moving them elsewhere.

The water, too, usually seemed on the verge of bubbling into an open cesspool. “One third of all the freshwater in China—that is, all the rivers and lakes in this enormous country—is considered unsafe for industrial use,” Troost discovered. “When the water is so vile you can’t even use it in a lead paint factory because it’s too dirty, I’d say you have a water problem.”

Later, when he sees how sparse the once-snowy Himalayas have become, where much of China’s (and India’s) water comes from, he gets worried: ‎”and I tried to squelch that gnawing feeling that we are on the cusp of unsettling times.”

With 1.3 million people, who all need food and water and jobs and space, there aren’t a lot of options. “There is not vast empty hinterland in China capable of sustaining a huge population that isn’t already sustaining—barely—a huge population,” he says.

Add to that his “creeping awareness that there are no rules in China, that so much of life in China is essentially a flirtation with anarchy,” and you might understand Troost’s unease.

I always thought of China a little like the Wild West, but as Troost observes, China is getting impatient for the West to get the hell out of the way. “The general attitude among the Chinese toward Americans is similar to that of a young, hotshot quarterback waiting for the tired, banged-up veteran to step aside so he can lead the team,” he says.

My own experience with the Chinese was a bit different. I generally found them to be warm and friendly and intensely curious about us. I didn’t travel as freely or extensively among them as Troost did, so I didn’t get the breadth of exposure he did.

Impatience and disdain or not, part of the Chinese identity crisis stems from their fierce pride in being Chinese coupled with their hunger to embrace a Western standard of living. “Not everyone can have everything in China, not yet, but every day there are more who do,” Troost says. The future looks sunny (“okay, smoggy,) for China—“barring a complete societal collapse as environmental degradation undergoes devastating feedback loops.”

Alas, the burden of responsibility for China’s catastrophic environmental practices lies squarely on us.

In the United States, we squawk about shoddy goods, poisonous toothpaste, contaminated toys. We bemoan the lost jobs. We point to the slave labor in China, like the unfortunate people, kids even, snookered or kidnapped to work in the factories. Or we lament what China is doing to the environment…. But do we decide to buy domestically made, high-quality goods manufactured in a well-regulated environment that ensures humane working conditions? We do not.

My own travels over two years were limited to Shanghai, Nanjing, Xi’an, Beijing, and a couple smaller cities (although in China, “smaller” is relative). Troost goes far and wide, including a foray into occupied Tibet. By the end, at nearly 400 pages, the book feels long, although it doesn’t ever drag; I was just feeling travel fatigue, I suppose. Troost was, too, I think. For instance, he goes to Chengdu to see pandas but then hardly writes about what he sees. He starts to get a little perfunctory by the end, finally conceding, “What is here cannot all be seen by one man. Not in a lifetime.”

I’d agree. China is just too damn big, too larger-than-life. Too magnificent.

We need to pay attention. There’s more at stake than we could possibly imagine.

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