Returning from China – Book Recommendations

Going to China at the end of April/early May had quite an impact on me. Truth be told, I would have been quite disappointed if it hadn’t. It was my first time in Asia, and I went there searching for an experience was unlike any I had had before.

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Once I returned to Berlin it was hard to settle in again. I wouldn’t say it was reverse culture shock —when you have unexpected difficulty readjusting to your home culture after being away–but I definitely returned home different from when I left.

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. -Lin Yutang

Back in Berlin I had a newfound appreciation for space. My 13 square meter room started to seem big for once, and the fact that I didn’t have to jam into the subway was a breath of fresh air. I mean the fact that I didn’t have to worry about pollution and the air quality I was breathing was a real relief.

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Skyline in Hong Kong

Although, the crazy feeling of the city being built up in front of your very eyes was noticeably missing in Berlin. All of a sudden the “skyscrapers”  at Potsdamer Platz seemed modest in scale.

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Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

The first week I came back I was absolutely exhausted. Jet lag aside, I couldn’t really seem to get rid of this mental tiredness. I was happy to have gone, and happy to be back. Two weeks had felt like 2 months, and I was still struggling to process everything that I had seen and experienced over the course of my journey. The language, the smells, the many faces, the food – it was all so new to me.

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street food

My immediate reaction upon returning was to want more. I started trying to piece together what I had just experienced by reading several narrative non-fiction books about modern China. I wasn’t interested in literature claiming how China will rise to be the next global superpower or tales of the nation’s economic success. Everyday stories of Chinese people is what I was most curious about.  

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Who were all of those people that asked to take pictures of me? The anonymity of being one of millions of people bustling through the city appealed to me. Yet, as a foreigner I blatantly stuck out.  

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That feeling that someone is always watching you…

Crawling the web for similar tales of Americans in China I stumbled up Peter Hessler’s writing. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, starts off with the his tale of working as a Peace Corps teaching assignment at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, Sichuan. His other two novels Oracle Bones and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory make for a wonderful trilogy to kick off your reading! His books are longitudinal studies that involve repeated observations of the same people over long periods of time.

To my pleasant surprise, I found out that Hessler’s wife, Leslie T. Chang is also a marvelous writer and published China in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The strength and courage portrayed of the modern chinese female migrant worker is both heartbreaking and incredibly moving at the same time. Watch her great TED talk The Voice of China’s Works

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people. -Mahatma Gandhi

Continuing on with the approach of getting a glimpse of a larger picture through looking at a few small pieces Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, by Alec Ash, tells the story of 6 young adults growing up in China. What I really enjoy about this book is that it paints a vivid portrait of Chinese youth culture and of a millennial generation.  

All of these books tell the stories of a few ordinary people in China. Each book has its own carefully written disclaimer as to why you can’t write a book on China, as it is an impossible feat for such a big and diverse country with over 5000 thousands of years of history. However, several overarching themes and similar narratives allow the reader to slowly get an understanding for various situations -often very difficult- facing Chinese people, especially youth and migrants today.    

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My quest for knowledge continues with the book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer next on my list. Have any book recommendations? Want to share your experiences on how to deal with coming back from vacation? Leave your comments below 👇 

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