Reading through the first few pages of 'Beijing for Beginners', you wouldn't mistake it for Tolstoy or Hemingway. No – this book, starts out with farting and spitting "thick phlegmy spits" in the first two chapters. Perhaps an appeal to laddishness? Traditional Irish down-to-earth humour? Maybe. I put the book down and very nearly didn't pick it up again.
But when I did, I started getting drawn in in spite of myself.
Gary Finnegan goes to China to teach, and this is the story of his experiences. It’s personal and it’s entertaining. There is a very funny account of eating roasted cocooned caterpillars on sticks at an outdoor, hole-in-the-wall eatery – which the new-best-friend owner insists on - along with roasted cow tendon and chicken neck, of course.
The book is well-edited. There are bits of history along the way, interspersed fairly seamlessly with the travelogue. Finnegan does his homework, throwing in interesting facts and statistics. Like: China boasts 18 of the world’s 100 biggest cities – twice as many as the US. And: The story that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space is a complete myth.
And he uses his journalist’s curiosity to really interact with the people he comes across, and quiz them about China. For instance, soon after his arrival in Beijing, he grills three young female students he meets in the park about the downside of China's one-child policy.
He covers a range of hot topics – usually connected in some way to his experiences in Beijing and traveling around China – including the country's pollution problem, HIV/AIDS, higher education, migration to urban centres, communism, censorship and China's rivalry with Japan.
He gives a short history of Mao and how his legend is portrayed in modern China, and describes how the Mandarin language works.
But on the downside, Finnegan’s writing is exaggerated and not always polished. He exaggerates how paranoid he is of the 'foreignness' of China – of being fleeced by a taxi driver or mugged by a thief. He thinks he is being followed by the secret police, and early on expresses fear that he will have his vital organs removed by a backstreet surgeon. He thinks he will be killed by maniac drivers when crossing the road. Sometimes the book felt a bit like a blog posted for the benefit of loved ones back home. It would be great to get so much information from someone you know, but in this case it’s like looking at a stranger’s fat album of holiday snaps.
At one point I was feeling a little sorry for the young Mr Finnegan, all on his own in a big foreign country, but suddenly, 40 pages in, he introduces Girlfriend – she's been there all along, he just neglected to mention her. And she makes for a nice traveling companion. While the relationship doesn't intrude on the story, their adventures together make the story more rounded.
The book ends with a few chapters about a trip they take around Shandong Province, visiting temples and museums and dodgy hotels, using trains and buses to get around.
The trip is representative of the book as a whole, in that Finnegan offers a nice mix of fascination in things he stumbles across, and good-natured complaints about the state of some hotels he finds himself (and Girlfriend) in, the pesky irritant of Korean tourists, and train compartment companions who can't stop talking.
They have the kind of experiences that any adventurous traveler can relate to: being dropped off on the road your hotel is on, but then realising the road is miles long and you have no idea which direction the hotel is in; being disappointed by a guidebook's overenthusiastic description of what turns out to be a decidedly mediocre beach; and being served food that doesn't remotely resemble what you thought you ordered.
Overall, he offers quite a mixed review of China, with eating experiences memorable for different reasons (some serious sickness is involved – I was relieved that the details were not fully supplied), some museums boring and others worthwhile, some places beautiful and others industrial. But he always comes back to how friendly Chinese people are. He shows through numerous examples that all the mistrust he can't get over is misplaced.
In short, the writing is only adequate, but Finnegan has some good stories to tell. While this book is unlikely to become classic required reading, it does offer a compelling snapshot of a changing China told from a personal point of view, and I felt I knew more about the country when I finished than when I began.
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