Two books a pattern make (almost)

The Beijing Olympics may be over, but interest in China is unlikely to wane any time soon. In South Africa, one minor manifestation of this global trend is the development of a sub-sub-genre in local literature. Admittedly, two books do not a pattern make, but following Robert Berold’s Meanwhile Don’t Push and Squeeze, about a South African writer who goes to teach English in China, we now have Alex Smith’s Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (Umuzi), about — you guessed it — a South African writer who goes to teach English in China.

If, however, cataloguing the sub-sub-genre in question requires a taxonomy along the lines of “South African travel writing: China: English teaching”, that wouldn’t quite do justice to Smith’s book. More than a travelogue, it is also, generically speaking, part “writer’s diary”, part “chick lit” and part “non-fiction novel” (the latter description is borrowed from the acknowledgements page, although there seems little evidence for it in the book).

This is a consciously literary work, in which the author frequently reminds us of her literariness. It opens with a lengthy list of bedside reading — 17 titles to be precise; as it proceeds, a thread of continuity is provided by references to Don Quixote, which a friend recommended to the author as a travel companion, and Disgrace. The latter text Smith carries around like a talisman, a cultural product to be touted to new acquaintances (she calls it “the great South African novel”, but with no explicit justification). More than anything else, what makes this a “writerly” text is the protracted narrative about the fate of Smith’s two novel manuscripts, played out in angst-ridden reflections and emails to or from publishers — passages that almost, but never quite, garner sympathy from the reader.

As for “chick lit”, this problematic label applies to the will-they-won’t-they semi-romance that dominates the middle part of the book. Lost, lonely and alienated in the drab but sprawling city of Wuhan, Smith finds in Sam (an American teacher some years her junior) a “hero of convenience” who can provide companionship and conversation and — in what seems like a naive adolescent view of sexuality masquerading as a mature approach to gender relations — nothing but “kisses”. Sam wants sex, Alex doesn’t, but after “a kettle-crashingly good kiss” Sam has his way.

There are other Marian Keyes elements. In the early stages of the book, Smith has frequent recourse to excerpts from the frilly accounts of high-society events she wrote while working for a glossy magazine. If the aim here is to contrast the life she was glad to leave behind (with its luxurious parties, frivolous conversations and conspicuous materialism) against the city she is not entirely sure she should have moved to (with its ubiquitous grey concrete, sense of isolation for non-Chinese inhabitants and borderline poverty for many Chinese nationals) then this effect is achieved. Yet one senses that, whatever irony may lurk in her references to the society-page extracts, Smith longs to adopt the lyrical tone of those pieces elsewhere.

As a sensuous person, she is wowed by opulence and grandeur and, as she writes, “I am inclined to be sentimental”. She has a fine observer’s eye, vividly describing her brief spells in Beijing, Shanghai and particularly Taiwan — where, in fact, she spent most of her time in “China”, although this part of her stay is covered as an afterthought in the last 30 pages of the text. But she cannot be lyrical about Wuhan.

The problem is that what she seeks in China is actually an outdated myth of the Orient: an exotic, rich land; a land of tradition and tea (there is tea on every page in this book); a land in which the “dragon” of China will render up to her its “pearl” in the form of some profound story that will allow her to explain or understand the country. But vast geopolitical entities such as China are not easily explained or understood, especially by foreigners.

Smith could not be accused of cultural arrogance — she refrains, for instance, from passing judgement on the rights and wrongs of Maoist China, affirming “I say nothing, I know nothing” — but she does not seem to be aware, as surely all travel writers should be, of the long history of complicity between the travel narrative and imperial expansion. This is bound up in what Edward Said called “Orientalism”, the West’s essentialising and “othering” of the East; even as a South African, Smith encounters China as a “Westerner”.

Certainly, there are many Chinese voices in the book, but these are fragmentary and almost always inflected with quirky grammar and vocabulary according to Smith’s recollection of conversations or student responses. (Although comparisons are odious, Berold’s book has the advantage of rendering his students’ written opinions in “correct” English and, inevitably, the English-speaking reader takes these more seriously.)

Smith is brave enough to depict numerous gaffes based on her apparent cultural or linguistic ignorance: wearing a catsuit and other inappropriate outfits for her first few days at work, for instance, or arriving as a vegetarian in meat-eating China without having learned the Mandarin for “vegetables”. As a result, the reader can appreciate the marked difference between the experienced and experiencing Alex. From the experienced Alex — who has numerous Chinese friends and colleagues, who spent more than a year studying written and spoken language in different Chinese dialects, who has lived in and travelled to cities on the mainland and offshore, who has read voraciously in print and on the internet — we learn much about China. But the experiencing Alex is not a character who elicits much enthusiasm from this reviewer.


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