Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Road Trip

China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power, Rob Gifford
Rating: 4.0/5.0

Stories about, or set in, China have always fascinated me. Maybe it's because the culture is so completely different from anything I have ever experienced. One of the most memorable books that I've ever read is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. It's non-fiction and it was the first time I'd read anything about Chinese history and politics. It both intrigued and repulsed me at the same time.

Not long after reading Wild Swans, I saw Rob Gifford on The Daily Show (back in 2007) and his interview is what sparked my interest in this book. If you're in the US, you can see his interview here. If you're in Canada, you can dig through the Comedy Network website to get to it. Outside of those countries, I have no idea, sorry. Stupid geoblocking.

China Road is, essentially, a road trip story. Gifford was the China bureau correspondent for NPR for about six years. When his time in China ended, he decided to make the journey across the country on Route 312 before leaving for good. This road runs from one end of China to the other and Gifford likens it to Route 66 in the US. He tells the story of China's past, present, and future through the people and places that he visists along the way. You can read serialized excerpts that Gifford posted as he was making the trip on the NPR website, here.

What I took away from this book, which wasn't a major revelation for me but was interesting nonetheless, is that China is a mess of contradictions. They are working to secure their place as a global economic superpower but at the same time, they are clinging to the past in ways that will never allow them to truly progress. The details Gifford gives about Chinese history gave me a new perspective on the Chinese way of doing things; he made it make sense. For instance, Gifford suggests that the Chinese focus on perfecting ideas that already exist rather on innovation because their guiding principles are still rooted in the past. Their ancestors were not innovators; they saw no need to develop new ideas and make big changes to the status quo. Thus, there is no need to do so now. Gifford argues that the Chinese will eventually need to encourage innovation if they want to compete with their global counterparts in the long run.

Gifford highlights some of the progress that has been made since the end of Chairman Mao's regime and discusses the ways in which China is still recovering from that time. Some parts were inspiring: the people in my generation that are studying and working to create opportunities for themselves, and to create lives that are their own. Other parts were appalling: the AIDS villages that were created by a careless government, who now has to pay those residents to take their medication (while at the same time displaying billboards touting that preventing AIDS is "everyone's responsibility" depsite it being a disease they spread in the first place), the forced abortions for women who have already had two children, regardless of the stage of pregnancy and the willingness of the mother to submit to the procedure. It was a learning experience.

Just last week, I came across an NPR article about a man in Beijing that opened up a Central Perk cafe that is an exact replica of the coffee shop from Friends. The man's sentiments about why the Chinese like Friends so much and what the cafe represents echoes a lot of what the people in Gifford's book had to say, about the yearning for freedom of choice in their own lives. After having read China Road, I understood that article in a way I wouldn't have before.

Is China Road worthwhile? Yes. But I'll end this review with a plug for Wild Swans. Even if you don't have any interest in China Road, I highly recommend Wild Swans. It will make you angry, it will break your heart, but it will inspire you.

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