Quaint traveler’s tale attempting to masquerade as hard-hitting reportage on modern China.
Weiss reunites with his old Army buddy, Hal, to travel to the Far East, finally submitting to decades of haranguing from Hal’s father, the Confucius-styled sage Pop Kam. Weiss chronicles his journey in a diary replete with scenes of the seeming absurdities of this foreign land. In its early stages, the text mostly resembles a blow-by-blow account of the author’s culture shock. But further along, his confusion about things like unrestrained public urination or vendors converting tomatoes into dumplings adds human detail to the narrative without rankling of condescension. Weiss never forgets that he is the outsider, and his humor is always self-deprecating. His account often risks becoming a tiresome itinerary of wondrous sites, reminiscent of a clueless uncle’s overlong slideshow of vacation photos. But enough history is interspersed between the charming yet repetitive descriptions to remind readers of the awe-inspiring marvel of such wonders as the Great Wall or the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an. Weiss writes with a literary flourish that at times makes his adventures sing, but it can just as easily sink to depths of overwhelming melodrama. He provides useful tips for those who might wish to follow in his footsteps: his experience with altitude sickness in Tibet, which showcases Weiss’s humility before nature, alerts others to the need to acclimate before ascending the Himalayas. His two-month trip in spring 2007 took place as China dove headfirst into preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics, on which Weiss hooks an analysis of the nation’s struggle to modernize. The connection feels awkward and artificial, and the facts he incorporates about Tibet’s cultural suppression, pollution and the one-child policy can be easily gleaned from the Internet.
Vacation travelogue that, despite its pretension to social commentary, will make readers want to pack their bags.