O’Neal has compiled e-mail dispatches that chronicle his year spent teaching English in Beijing, China.
Children grown, debts paid and fed up with public-school teaching by bureaucracy, O’Neal headed to China in 2009. Friends and family were kept abreast of his adventures and misadventures via e-mail and he reproduces those e-mails in this substantial text. At their best, these e-mails effectively capture daily life in China’s capital city—the sights, sounds and smells; the inconveniences and shortages encountered in what remains a poor nation; and, most of all, the people, both chance encounters and evolving friendships. But coming in at a hefty 727 pages, the book is simply too long. E-mails are e-mails, and in unedited form, as they seem to be here, they too often contain mundane, unreflective musings and easy quips. Daily weather reports, updates on workouts at the gym, the frequency and amount of beer consumption and more become wearying after a couple hundred pages. Still, O’Neal is a gifted and moving writer, and like a fidgety child he eventually settles down—albeit some 400 hundred pages in—becoming less flippant and more thoughtful in his writing. He can be as insightful and precise as one will find in the best travel writing, whether that be simply observing the variety of faces on a crowded bus, noting the everyday, lovely activities and interactions within Beijing’s crowded hutongs (alley ways), discovering with wonder a group of petrified trees on a walk around campus and playfully interacting in a park with a man and his trained birds. Also, he can be irreverently funny: one woman was possessed of “a smile that would stop a tank headed for Tianan’men square.” But the wisecracks grow old, and one waits for O’Neal’s serious writing to come once more. It invariably does, but after too much banter about buses, bikes and beer.
An intermittently engaging and enlightening tale of China by a writer with promise, but in need of a severe edit.