Bangkok has found its way into the works of authors including Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and James Michener, all of whom spent time in Thailand’s capital city. Recommended reading about the city, from Four Reigns to Bombay Anna to The Beach here.
Archive for the Asia Category
The year was 2000, and we arrived in April to pick apples for a couple of months before buying a barely running car to get us around. We slept in hostels, which had comment books filled with advice about where to stay – and where not to. Many of the entries mentioned bedbugs, which we assumed must be a creature native to New Zealand.
“Whatever you do, don’t stay at … (unless you want to be eaten alive by bedbugs – 122 bites to be precise),” warned one entry. By then, we had already stayed there and had each gotten a few bites, but we hadn’t thought much about it.
I didn’t know it then, but we were close to – in fact, right across the Tasman Sea from – the launching pad for an imminent worldwide explosion of bedbugs.
Many congratulations to Peter Hessler, who has been selected as one of the 2011 MacArthur Fellows! It’s a much-deserved honor for someone who has been doing such great work for so long. For me, Hessler’s books have always been a source of inspiration and admiration, and last year I got to talk to him for World Hum about his latest, Country Driving. You can read the interview here.
In a small village in central China, a man was boiling meat. This was strange because it was 1961 and no one had meat. For more than two years they had all been starving, dying, in the largest famine of the 20th century, which killed at least 45 million people, according to new archives used in Frank Dikötter’s groundbreaking book, “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962.”
The other villagers, suspicious, reported the man to local officials, who found a hair clip, ornaments and a scarf belonging to a girl who had disappeared a few days before. This incident of cannibalism was not isolated. According to Dikötter, human meat was traded on the black market, most of it taken from the plentiful dead, and sometimes mixed with dog meat to disguise it.
Wang Quanyuan was 21 years old, tall, beautiful and full of party spirit when she and 86,000 other troops set out for the hinterlands of China. It was late in 1934, when Mao Zedong and other party leaders decided to retreat from Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, who had them nearly surrounded.
Surely that young woman or the 30 others who went with her did not know that they would be marching nearly 4,000 miles over some of the world’s harshest terrain, and that a year later they would have completed one of the defining events of the 20th century, now known as the “Long March.”
Not long after we moved back to Minneapolis, I started to notice how much the city had changed since I last lived here in the 1990′s. And so, I started to take some photos and jot things down, the culmination of which you can see on this slideshow over at World Hum. Sometimes we don’t even notice this kind of change since it happens so gradually, but to me it seemed seismic. Recently, there was a story in our local paper saying that the most immigrants to Minnesota now come from Africa, and last winter I noticed we can get our snow removal instructions in English, Spanish, Somali, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese or Oromo. This weekend is Twin Cities World Refugee Day and on any given day, in the space of an hour, I can go shopping for fishballs, camel meat, Nollywood videos, plastic toy Kalashnikovs, international phone cards, pocky and then stop in for nyama choma and wash it down with a cool durian smoothie. The world really is here now.
Back in 2001, Peter Hessler looked at his hands. He’d been living in China since 1996, when he began teaching English in a school in Fuling, an experience he recounted in his book, River Town. But now he wanted to go farther into the country. Since he had at least three good fingers on each hand (as well as both thumbs), he was eligible for his Chinese driver’s license, and he went in to take his test.
The test featured questions such as, “If another motorist stops you to ask directions, you should: a) not tell him; b) reply patiently and accurately; c) tell him the wrong way,” and, “If you give somebody a ride and realize that he left something in your car, you should: a) keep it for yourself; b) return it to the person or his place of work as quickly as possible; c) call him and offer to return it for a ransom.” Of course, Hessler passed, and his license was, in some ways, a passport into a China he’d never seen—a China that is changing so fast it may never be seen again. The trips he took resulted in his new book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, a triptych of pieces about his travels. I emailed Hessler and spoke with him by phone at his home in Ridgway, Colorado.
Er Tai Gao’s new memoir isn’t exactly a coming-of-age romp through revolutionary China, but In Search of My Homeland is a beautiful, haunting and somehow inspiring book. It’s mostly, though not all, about Gao’s time served in Chinese labor camps (for writing an essay, of all things) and the events took place in a strange time, when ideas had so much power, but meant so little. Read the review here.
At the Open Book Center in Minneapolis, where I sometimes work at The Loft, I met writer Joel Turnipseed for coffee. Afterward, he insisted we walk over to Big Brain Comics, a great little bookstore, so he could get me a copy of The Photographer, a graphic novel/photography book that tells the story of Didier Lefèvre’s trip across Afghanistan in the 1980s, because it was such an amazing book. As it happens, I was reading Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between at the time, one of the best travel books I’ve read in a long time, and Stewart even mentioned running into Lefèvre again on his way across the country in 2002. But what his book has in terms of narrative, vibrancy and erudition, The Photographer has in visuals, clarity and raw honesty. Together, they give a picture of Afghanistan that you could never get from a million news items—the richness, the texture, the cold, hard edge of history. It’s all there. Turn off CNN, and pick up these two books, and you’ll find a place like you would never imagine.