Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, is a witty travelogue of the author’s visit to China. The subtitle is a cue to the reader to expect a book that is part political and social commentary and part funny, if not graphic, tales of adapting to Chinese food and culture.
The author, Maarten Troost, reveals that he was prompted to visit China when he met Chinese businessmen on a far-flung and tiny island in the Gilbert chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The economic reach of the country, and its possible impact on the next generation (in particular, his own children) drove him to travel to China to research possibly moving there for a while, at least long enough for his sons to learn Chinese.
The author quickly discovered that China was truly a land of contrasts. While there were large and bustling cities, there was also inordinate risk, from toxic levels of air and water pollution to wildly uncontrolled traffic. “He drove as if to kill,” he wrote about one of his taxi drivers, after noting that the driver didn’t seem like a bad guy.
Troost’s narrative is witty and opinionated. While watching live scorpions being grilled, he noted that “it would take more than (knowing they had medicinal value) for me to eat one. Some kind of sauce at least. Or seasoning. Perhaps a dry rub.” He describes a trip to a local market as being “lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare” with vendors “selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions–big and small—dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo.”
But he makes an important point about China’s growth, its economic reach around the world, and the huge challenges it faces, from limited natural resources, dangerous levels of pollution, the strain between traditional and modern Chinese thought, and its continued recovery from the reign of Chairman Mao. For those who are truly interested in China’s economic impact, there are more scholarly books, but Lost on Planet China would give anyone at least one perspective of what you might expect traveling there as a tourist.
Lost on Planet China was published by Broadway Books in 2008. It’s not in stock at local Barnes and Noble stores, but you can order it online or as an eBook, or you might get lucky enough to find it in one of the used bookstores in the area, such as Landmark Books, Rhino Books, or Bookman/Bookwoman.