An innocent coming-of-age story from a young Latina journalist who recounts her stays in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, circa 1996 to 2000.
There is little to nothing of late-breaking news in Griest’s report from her foreign postings. Moscow still smells “of equal parts vodka and sausage, leather and tobacco, sweat and strife,” and Beijing of “cigarette smoke, sweat, and soy sauce.” You still need permits and papers in Russia, and the bureaucracy still creaks with inefficiency; democracy is a long way off, the revolution is dead, and war and corruption are in: same old same old. In Beijing, where she toils for the English-language propaganda sheet, journalism is all about not offending your friends (North Korea), not recognizing your enemies (Dalai Lama), and steering clear of the sensitive: AIDS, drugs, capital punishment. Cuba, too, gets a standard-issue treatment: “Revolutionaries might be genius military strategists, but they are crummy economists,” conveniently forgetting the embargo. So the value of all this comes down to Griest getting off the beaten track, which she does often enough to keep the pages turning: working in a shelter for children in Moscow to taste the downside of vodka; learning to shrug off fiercely held convictions to get into the stomach of the Chinese via the food bond; and dancing (and dancing) in Cuba. The energy she puts into these pursuits opens her mind and drives her story past some hackneyed material (“ ‘Look at their faces,’ Elena whispered in my ear. ‘This is real Russia.’ ”). Here, she can avoid received opinion because she is creating her own, tossing aside “the anvil of history,” and slipping on a new pair of cultural spectacles, letting her doubts and new-found notions rise to the surface.
Griest at least gets out and about and drinks in some cultural relativism rather than assuming the omniscient cloak of the foreign correspondent.