Like a time capsule, Cromwell’s debut memoir offers artifacts from a certain place and time: China in the early 1980s, as witnessed by a visiting American psychologist.
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the author traveled to China in 1981 to learn about the nation’s mental health services. Despite the tightly regulated tour, Cromwell interacted with a diverse range of people, from bureaucrats to professionals to service workers. This book is a diary of that whirlwind journey, incorporating journal entries, color photographs, and transcripts of conversations that Cromwell had with locals. He was surprised early on to discover that the Chinese people he encountered were unself-conscious and friendly. When he met a gun-toting soldier, he pantomimed taking a photograph, and the soldier casually posed for the camera. As the author notes in his introduction, his visit preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre, at a time when the relationship between the United States and China was particularly warm. Although Cromwell had no expertise regarding China and certainly didn’t speak the language, he seemed to embrace his role as a foreign guest and de facto ambassador. He describes being haunted by intense, symbolic dreams before his trip, and he arrived in China exhausted and apprehensive. When a translator failed to appear, he had no way to communicate with officials and felt that he was wasting time. However, this anxiety wears off over the course of his trip, and gradually, he seems not only to appreciate the age and complexity of Chinese culture but also to embrace it. This memoir unfolds very slowly, like any personal log, and Cromwell often writes in the clinical language of a caregiver. As a result, the prose is too dry and meticulous to be fully enjoyable as travel literature. Instead, the book best serves as a historical document that chronicles an important stage in the evolution of modern China, and it will likely appeal to readers who are already interested in that zeitgeist.
A thoughtful album of memories that sheds light on a world now lost to history, illustrating daily Chinese life with earnest words and snapshots.