Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gear Review! CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE by Larry & Qin Herzberg

Given my obsession with travel gear, and the fact that I'm, well, a writer, it makes a certain amount of sense to expand my Gear Review to travel guides. A good one will make your trip immeasurably easier; a bad one is worse than useless—it's like asking directions of some weird old dude who insists your destination is just down the road apiece, right over that way, when he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about, and you end up miles from where you want to be.

I was recently asked if I'd take a look at CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE, by Larry and Qin Herzberg. The first thing you need to know about this book is that it is not a guidebook per se. It won't tell you what sights to see and what hotels to stay in and how much you should expect to pay for them. Instead it's a compact tutorial on China travel basics—important stuff like etiquette, standing in lines, what to expect in hotels, shopping tips, taxis do's and don'ts. And, oh yeah, spitting.

I actually learned a few things I didn't know. The chapter on hospitals I found particularly illuminating. And I very much appreciated the authors' good humor (comparing crossing a Chinese street to a game of Frogger, with the pedestrian as the frog), optimism and overall good-heartedness and spirit of adventure. I think the most useful information this book provides is a sort of basic mindset best suited to enjoying and appreciating your China experience.

That said, I think there is room for a few improvements.

The authors warn that given the incredibly rapid pace of change in China, it's hard to keep information up to date, and that holds true here. Even though this edition is advertised as fully revised, some of the information seems outdated (for example, in my experience you can find ATMs where you can use access your non-China funds just about everywhere, including provincial Guizhou). Some of the anecdotes included to illustrate the authors' points are from over 20 years ago, and while I found those stories interesting, amusing and a way of illustrating just how much things have changed in China in a very short amount of time, I'm not sure that they are the best way of talking about situations that travelers today are likely to experience.

As an example, in the chapter "Mass Protests and General Mayhem," Larry details some of his experiences leading a student tour that coincided with the Tiananmen Uprising. I found this very interesting, but I wondered where the discussion was on the sorts of demonstrations and "mass incidents" one might witness today. There was none, and in a country where there are frequent public protests over things like, polluting chemical factories, illegal land seizures, and general citizen anger with corruption and an unresponsive government, I'm not sure that recounting a Tiananmen experience is the best choice in discussing the types of protests that a foreign tourist could conceivably encounter. The reality is, most foreign tourists won't encounter any, but I think if you are going to raise the possibility at all, then you should be prepared to discuss current Chinese realities.

And this was a place where I felt the book was both very good—the realistic depiction of the sometimes chaotic public environment versus the incredible warmth one experiences on a personal level—and curiously lacking. Two sentences in particular stood out to me:
One benefit of an authoritarian state like China is that this is a government that knows how to maintain the rule of law and public order. There is simply no other practical way to run a country of 1.3 billion people, even if in Western eyes that means greatly curtailing individual civil liberties and human rights.
There are so many problems with this assertion that I can hardly begin to unpack it here, but I'll start with the idea that China has a consistent rule of law at all. It simply does not. China has a "Rule of Laws" that is unevenly enforced, frequently contradictory and twisted to fit the needs of the powerful, and that, at the end of the day, is subservient to the CCP.

Here's the thing: I don't think that a "China Survival Guide" really needs to delve into these controversies. But don't make that kind of statement if you're not willing to devote way more time to backing it up.

Instead, where's the chapter on train travel? Enquiring travelers want to know!

(image from last week's Dalian protest)

(FTC DISCLAIMER: the publisher provided me with a free copy of this book in the hope that I might review it)

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