My Private China by Alex Kuo
It's really hard to get to the heart of a place. Not just giving prescriptive travelogue or describing a view, but really taking the temperature of a city, state or country... it's no small task, and every author who excels at writing about place approaches it differently. Rebecca West wrote the two-volume Black Lamb and Grey Falcon after only three trips to Yugoslavia, while Bill Bryson lived in Britain for more than twenty years before writing Notes From a Small Island (voted the book that "best represented Britain.") Ian Baruma lived in Tokyo and wrote Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 as an objective study, while Geoff Dyer traveled around southeast Asia in Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It and viewed everything through the lens of his own anxieties. They all took a different path, but, through careful, honest observation and well-wrought prose, they all got to the heart of a place.
My Private China is a title that promises something similar. A series of essays, almost all previously published, show China as seen through the eyes of novelist, poet, and teacher Alex Kuo. Born in Boston, Kuo has lived all over both the United States and China over the course of his long career. His China is the China of an English teacher and an avid bridge player, but most of all, his is the China of a Chinese-American, a haven of sorts for someone who is frequently asked in his native country: "Where are you really from?"
Steeped in the cultures of both America and China, Kuo is in a unique position to translate the ways and mores of one culture for another (he's quite comfortable, for example, mentioning both Monica Lewinsky and Hong Kong buffets over the course of an essay.) He's also acutely aware of the need for such cultural translation. In "Ahead in the NL-East," he decries the U.S. newspapers' lack of quality China coverage, with journalists making "uninformed conjectures about the future of China" if they write about China at all. Most often they don't. Chinese residents of the United States, Kuo argues, are bypassed as "minority readers in the wrong geography."
A major concern, and undoubtedly true whenever "Ahead in the N-L East" was published, but with the advent of the Internet all of this is different. There are, of course, still issues with news quality and diversity, but the nature of those problems has changed. No indication is given as to what year this essay was published and what the political climate was at the time, making the topic feel not only stale but also ungrounded. When are we? Where are we?
This is not a small thing -- it's an oversight that spans the book. Most of the essays feel dated, and many assume that the reader has an understanding of China and its politics in the '80s and '90s. This is a problem that could have been fixed by either revising the essays or adding notes at the beginning of each essay giving the date of publication and explaining the politics and people involved. A couple of them do have this note, but only a few and only at the end, after the essay has already been puzzled through. Sometimes this is the best part of the piece, as in "Tanks on Tiananmen Square," in which the endnote explains who the character of the piece was and what he believed. If only the whole piece could be so clear!
Kuo's title does not meet its promise; it is not a private pass to Alex Kuo's China. Rather, it's an unfocused collection of dated essays he wrote in or about China. Some -- notably "Definitions" and "Where Are You Really From?" -- stand out as engaging and eye-opening pieces, and the few poems in the collection are lovely. But the bulk of the book is either outdated journalistic ranting or descriptive prose so opaque as to be placeless, the opposite of what the reader craves from a book as deliciously titled as My Private China. Not to mention the handful of essays about playing bridge, which are absolutely unreadable to everyone who doesn't speak the language of bridge (e.g. "LHO passed. Partner bid 2NT. RHO passed. How could I resist!")
It's hard to get to the heart of a place, but it doesn't feel like Kuo really tried. The inside story of China in the '80s and '90s, from protestors filling Tiananmen Square to the repossession of Hong Kong, must be a fascinating one, and it's disappointing that Luo didn't provide it, as he is so well situated to do so. As it is, he introduces just the right characters to inspire interest -- Crazy Shun the conflicted anchorman, Madame Zhou Guangun the injured pianist, Mao's confidant Professor Li -- but doesn't give enough story around any of them, leaving the frustrated reader casting about for clues on Google.
One of the book's poems, "Coming into Beijing, 1997," begins: "Don't tell anyone this / But I feel as if I'm coming home." If only Kuo's readers could join him.
My Private China by Alex Kuo