At the Teahouse Café by Isham Cook

At the Teahouse Café

Essays from the Middle Kingdom
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Cook (Massage and the Writer, 2014, etc.) offers essays detailing his observations of Chinese life, culled from his years of living there.

At first glance, Cook’s collection appears to be a standard account of an expat’s observations of life in contemporary China. He writes about Chinese music and customer service culture, marvels at Chinese “disposable cities” and the “yellow fever” phenomenon, and contrasts Chinese hospitals to their American counterparts. As an American who has lived in China for many years, Cook provides insights into a culture that is notoriously opaque to outsiders, its intricacies and quirks revealing themselves only after significant immersion. Yet Cook doesn’t quite embody the expected Western expat perspective. For example, in the first essay, “Why I support China’s Great Firewall,” Cook calls for the closing off of Chinese society from Western influence, advocates for censoring breasts and cleavage from the media and public life, and makes a veiled threat about annexing Taiwan. “The notion that Chinese students don’t want to return to the motherland is a myth,” he writes. “If any of them ever tells you that, you should assume suspicious intentions.” Also, “The next Great Digital Leap Forward, I predict, will be China’s control of the entire World Wide Web, a Sinicized Internet. A cleansed and purified Internet. A socialist Internet with Chinese characteristics, from which the whole world will benefit.” After such statements, readers might await the punch line: surely this is an American expat lampooning the propaganda of the Chinese state? No punch line arrives. Cook appears to mean what he says. In later essays, a more critical version of Cook attacks Mao as well as the oppressive working conditions and dogmatic education system in modern China. The confusing ideological inconsistency distracts during even his less political essays. Cook is a solid writer with an eye for detail, but the reader is left unsure of what he’s truly trying to communicate.

An odd book of essays offering inconsistent views of modern China.

Pub Date: May 5th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9887445-9-2
Page count: 236pp
Publisher: Magic Theater Books
Program: Kirkus Indie
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