Not everyone of us can travel to every place in one lifetime. There’s another way though. Why Armchair travel of course. In this new feature I’ll be reviewing travelogues or books that give us some understanding of a particular place or culture at a particular time. I hope you have fun reading it. Today we go to 1986 China.
Title: Undress me in the temple of heaven
Author: Susan Jane Gilman
Genre: Travelogue, memoir
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (February 8, 2010)
When I read the words ‘China’ and ‘travelogue’ together, I instantly gravitate towards it. And the events in this book take place in 1986 when China was only recently open for travel to foreigners. We went to Shanghai and Beijing about a year back and even now, it’s very difficult to communicate because other than the hotel staff no one spoke English. We faced a bit of difficulty traveling as we had to write down the name of places in Chinese and also take the map along with us. Going anywhere impromptu was out of the question.
So when Susan and Claire decide to go travel the world for a year and choose China as their destination, I was equally fascinated and weary considering the state of the country back then.This travelogue is funny and raw and honest. Susan accepts that they both didn’t know what they were doing. They were in a land about which they knew nothing. They were afraid and lonely. I expected a typical self-absorbed backpacker travelogue where they hook up with other backpackers, have drunken nights, break the rules and finally get enlightened by the meaning of life and happiness.
We had assumed, of course, that traveling would elevate us to a higher level of consciousness, that by backpacking through china, we’d absorb great wisdom the way a chunk of bread might soak up a plate full of sauce _ that our minds would dilate with insight _and wherever we went, we’d sprout razor-sharp cultural observations worthy of great philosophers. Instead, as we trudged around Shanghai the next few days, our thoughts became nearly per-verbal: can I eat that? This is itchy. I need to pee.
I was so wrong.
First off, traveling with a non-compatible traveler, that too around the world, can be taxing. And if you are naive, fresh out of college and not broad-minded enough, it can be a nightmare. When Susan and Claire reach Hong Kong, they are tired and frustrated by the lack of descent food, descent place to stay and lack of western amenities. Soon they venture into China and they start getting homesick and frustrated not only with China but also with each other. The book, in the beginning is funny and light and a pleasure to read. But as their whining and their frustration increases, I became increasingly irritated by the fact that they didn’t seem to realize what a great opportunity they had to set foot in a place where very few people had before. They look down upon everyone and everything and behave like spoiled princesses.
The story builds up slowly but steadily until the very end where it becomes supremely difficult to put the book down until you know what happened next. Both the girls fall into a spiral of confusion and frustration until a series of terrifying events force Susan to take action. Susan is from a poor family in New York and says she’s lived in difficult and dangerous situations back home, but to me she doesn’t seem prepared one bit. I could chalk it down to her not being able to understand the language and the people but she is plain and simply selfish. I felt like whacking her several times.
But one thing you cannot fault in Susan is her honesty. She could have easily turned this into a story of adventure where they came out unscathed to tell the story to the world. But at that point she had just given up. In hindsight, she realizes what she has seen and experienced was no less unique and a privilege. And the fact that they both came out of a terrifying situation which could have turned into a nightmare was no less than a miracle.
The authors writing is fluid and she brings to life the streets and people of China in 1986. Her observations are astute although influenced by the girl she was back then. Her hindsight 20 years later helps give more perspective and details than it might if she had written the book immediately after returning to America.
Despite all my frustrations with the book, or maybe because of it and how involved I became in their lives for that short time, ‘Undress me in the temple of heaven‘ will be one of my favorite travel memoirs ever.