Hemingway was being hyperbolic when he claimed that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." But I'm convinced that the best American travel writing can be traced back to Twain's Innocents Abroad. What made it special was Twain's deft switching from skewering foreigners to lampooning Americans.
This same sort of equal-opportunity irreverence is on abundant display in Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future. It's a spirited portrayal of an old metropolis being turned inside out for the 2008 Olympic Games and, by his own account, a clueless young American writer's effort to make sense of the situation. The author toggles between describing maddening things about Beijing life (lightbulbs that inexplicably explode, polluted air that gives his newborn asthma, happy-talk propaganda that pretends that obviously smoggy skies are blue, etc.) and pointing out how outlandish the behavior and beliefs of Americans, himself included, can seem to residents of China's capital.
Scocca is endearingly up-front about his limitations. He tells us how little he knew about China and how little Mandarin he spoke when he arrived in Beijing a few years before the Games as the trailing spouse of an NGO worker. He informs us when interviews are carried out with the help of translators (like ones with meteorologists charged with ensuring favorable Olympics weather). And he appreciates the difference between getting a fix on fast-changing Beijing (an experience he likens to "doing archaeology with someone shoveling new dirt and rubbish down into the pit on top of you") and understanding China as a whole.
My favorite section, which brought both Twain and Dave Barry to mind, involves a run-in with airport security in Xinjiang. Scocca and his wife are told they can't board their Beijing-bound plane without surrendering two jars of baby food that they've gone to great lengths to acquire for their newborn. The crisis escalates until his wife wrests a confiscated jar of strained berries from a guard and starts spooning fruit "into the baby's mouth," only to find that even this won't convince him the product is harmless. "Unimpressed, the officer held on to the second jar," Scocca writes, assuming that "the blueberries were a decoy, and the strained peas were the real explosives."
Anyone who has experienced communist control mania firsthand will relate, but Scocca doesn't let the U.S. off the hook. He reminds us that the zealous Chinese guard was motivated in part by regulations imported from security-obsessed post-9/11 America. He also points out that while Mia Farrow and other celebrities criticized the Beijing Games and "lectured China about how the advance of liberty cannot and must not be stopped," the U.S. experience was "sending out the opposite message: in a dangerous world, freedom and privacy must yield to the demands of law and order."
Without setting up a moral equivalency between China and the U.S., Scocca encourages us to remember their commonalities, especially salutary now, as influential books and articles continue to present the nations as polar opposites. Mostly though, he presents memorable impressions of individuals, Chinese and foreign; of a special moment in history that culminated in the Games; and, above all, of a place. Well, a trio of places: the "three Beijings." There's a "moneyed artificial one," a "wretched and broken one" and a "live and bustling one." The challenge is to keep from being fooled into thinking that it is ever just one of these three, despite how easy it is "to stand in each one, any one, and believe you were seeing the true thing."
Wasserstrom's latest book is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know