Canadian Troy Parfitt was looking for direction in his life when at some point he had an opportunity to go teach as an English language teacher in Asia. He went for it, and ended up spending a number of years in Asia, in particular in Korea and Taiwan, but also taking the time to make plenty of side-trips in other Asian countries.
"Notes From the Other China--Adventures in Asia" (202 pages) finds the author retelling his adventures of what it was like to be going to a far-away place, basically unprepared or not knowing what would hit him. Parfitt brings us lots of salacious details of the not so great sides of the Asian people in general. On Korea, the author tells us that "Simply put, Koreans despise everyone, and this has to do with the fact that throughout their history they've been kicked around like the proverbial football by their much larger and much powerful neighbors." Parfitt comments extensively about his experiences teaching in Taiwan about how flawed the education system is, exposing among other things glaring flaws about the locals' knowledge of geography (haven't we heard this also about American kids?), but also about the locals' understanding of their relationship with mainland China.
The last third of the book brings us the author's delightfull retelling of his trip to Vietnam, and it has a lot of hilarious and humorous moments. In all, I really enjoyed this book quite a bit. It's a quick read, but it contains a lot of truths, as ugly as they are sometimes. Parfitt has a new book coming out in a few weeks, "Why China Will Never Rule the World", which I will be reading too. Meanwhile, "Notes From the Other China" is quite enjoyable.
on November 9, 2008
It seems like Mr. Parfitt's idea of an interesting experience is one where everything goes badly. Unfortunately, this leads to him writing about everything that is wrong with Taiwan, and not much about what is right. But perhaps this is exactly why only a small part of the book is actually about Taiwan: Mr. Parfitt complains so much about so many parts of Asia that perhaps he is continually moving to try to find a place that doesn't drive him crazy. In fact, the book is really more about Asia than just Taiwan, and the "notes" are really little more than extended complaints, so it really should be titled, "Rants from Asia".
I'd like to suggest that part of the reason why Mr. Parfitt finds life difficult in Taiwan is that he appears to have a rather contrarian personality, as demonstrated by his description of attending Mormon church services just to ask difficult questions. I was particularly annoyed when he discussed the difficulty of making bank transactions using his English name. Apparently, he doesn't have a Chinese name, and he claims that even if he did have one, it wouldn't make much difference because it wouldn't be legally binding and wouldn't appear on his identification. In fact, this is completely false. As an American living in Taiwan, I can assure Mr. Parfitt that my Chinese name does appear not only on my identification, but on my household registration, both of which are legal documents. So the entire chapter on the difficulties that Taiwanese people have with Western names is actually totally pointless. Mr. Parfitt says that he speaks Chinese, so the only excuse for not having a Chinese name is a desire to make life difficult for others, and therefore for himself.
The book actually contains many other completely untrue claims. The claim that most Taiwanese people don't know how they feel about mainland China is particularly ludicrous. To a person, every Taiwanese I have spoken to thinks that the mainland Chinese government is evil, corrupt, immoral, and/or imperialist. This is of course completely unsurprising, given the threat posed by the mainland -- but perhaps this is all lost on Mr. Parfitt.
When my wife read this book, she said to me "This guy's a grump. I want to write to him and tell him, 'You're a grump.'" And so I write: Mr. Parfitt, you're a grump.
In some ways, Parfitt's writing mirrors the experiences he shares of working, living and traveling in Southeast Asia - it has its ups and downs. On the positive side, Parfitt has a great sense of humor and he often had me chuckling out loud when I read his funny takes on his many and varied experiences as he recounts his life and travels in different parts of southeast Asia. In this way, he reminds me of Bill Bryson's sharp wit. On the other hand, his frequent use of sarcasm and "only joking" bits sometimes leaves the reader wondering if the funny anecdote just related actually happened or was an exaggeration.
It's refreshing to read a travel account from a "man-in-the-streets" perspective, where you get insights and information that you might otherwise not get from a more cultured approach. There is a down-to-earth honesty in Parfitt's recollections that make the reader connect with his experiences, and which in some ways makes other travel writers' books appear somewhat contrived, as almost after the fact, retrospective insights. Parfitt's voice could be that of your best buddy sharing his thoughts over a beer. His detailed descriptions of his dealings with tour guides, other tourists, hotel managers, bus drivers et al are fun to read, and Parfitt keeps you yearning for more. At the same time, sometimes Parfitt makes too many generalizations about other nationalities, generalizations which could be found offensive by some. But again, I would give him some slack because he is not writing from an academic or "professional" travel writer perspective, but from an unsheltered and exposed position.
There is a good bit of history to give context to Parfitt's journeys, and one feels well-informed about each locale's background. In the end, despite the flaws, I would still recommend this book for some good laughs and a ground-level look at southeast Asia.
Troy Parfitt's exquisite travelogue "Notes From the Other China: Adventures in Asia" is an insightful and a laugh-out-loud funny exposé of the culture, history and politics of the Asian people. The book is based on the author's decade-long experience as an English teacher in Taiwan, the "other China," and the less-traveled parts of Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam.
In just a few sentences his masterful writing captures the spirit of the people and their customs and the eye-popping beauty of the countries.
Parfitt's descriptions made me feel as if I was right there with him. For example when describing the Philippines' island of Mindoro he wrote, "The view...was dominated by a jutting mountain liberally adorned with craning palms. Its summit was in perpetual possession of a lazy swirl of wispy clouds that clung motionlessly, as if magnetized."
Parfitt's intelligent, captivating and witty writing is reminiscent of Bill Bryson's travel books, "A Walk in the Woods" and "In a Sunburned Country. I look forward to reading more of Parfitt's work.
on July 17, 2008
Troy Parfitt's first book, Notes from the Other China is an entertaining book, based on the author's experiences of living, working & travelling in Asia for just over a decade. He has mostly been based in North East Asia, and consequentially, much of the content focuses on South Korea and Taiwan, which gives the book a very different outlook, as these two countries are usually ignored in travel books on Asia. However , he has travelled to other countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Nepal, which are regularly covered in the travel genre; yet here too, Troy Parfitt manages to provide a different perspective with his somewhat cynical, though very humorous comments and observations. These make a refreshing change from the usual overly gushing praise, that is all too frequently bestowed by travel writers.
As a long term ex-pat in Asia, I could tell straight away the Parfitt's tales had the authentic ring of a someone who has lived in Asia, rather than merely passing through. Typically, I find travel books to be written by enthusiastic amateurs; their short term stays are reflected in their short term views of Asian countries. Troy Parfitt, by contrast, is a seasoned veteran of life in the Orient and that's what makes his book stand out from in the cluttered and crowded travel genre. This book is a true gem.
on February 29, 2008
Troy Parfitt has produced a thoroughly enjoyable and witty account of his adventures in Asia. Surely he must be one of those people that you see in the cafe scribbling madly in their diary as the book departs more detail than I could ever remember. Particularly striking is his non-judgmental demeanor and writing style. Personally, if I had gone through what he had in Korea, I would be much more condemning of that society. Whether you're going to Asia or 'been there, done that', this book is so insightful that it makes it a must-read. A perfect outsider looking in tale from a long-term Asian expat. Ranks right up there with Theroux - just without all the railway romanticism.
on February 24, 2008
The author was kind enough to send me a free copy of his book to review. And I certainly congratulate him on getting this book published.
However, I have to say that I did not like "Notes from the Other China." In specific, I did not care for the book's overall negative tone. To be sure, the book was mildly entertaining in parts, but I found myself struggling to finish it.
As others have written in their reviews, it seemed as if these stories, or variants thereof, have mostly all been heard before--in coffeeshops, cafes, schools, bars, and backpacker haunts around Taiwan and in other parts of Asia. Similar stories can also be found on several blogs these days. Unfortunately, I didn't really gain any new insights into Taiwan or other parts of Asia from this book.
The title of the book is misleading as well. Less than half the book (from pages 29 to 94) focuses on Taiwan ("the other China" from the title). And "Adventures in Asia"? I don't know, but leaving a hotel in Japan without paying the mini-bar bill, doing the Jomson trek in Nepal, and drinking beers in Vietnam--are these really "adventures"?
Perhaps they are, at least to the author. In any case, I wish him future success and encourage him to continue writing.
on February 11, 2008
Memoir meets travelogue meets social essay is a convoluted but enduring literary staple of Caucasians in Asia. It is a genre that can produce disastrous results: "friends back home" imagine our lives to be somehow glamorous and "exotic", and there is an inclination to indulge and believe them, rather than accept the mundane reality.
Parfitt doesn't entirely avoid this problem. However, he circumvents the much greater pitfall of the bitterness, superiority and skankiness that infuses much writing about Asia by Western men - particularly those who have been here for a while. Rather, Parfitt's tone remains one of good-humored abasement towards himself and affection for his subjects of place and people, and that alone makes it a quick and enjoyable read.
The book starts out with cute and sometimes insightful essays about the idiosyncrasies of the countries where he has lived - Korea, mostly Taiwan - and then halfway through transitions to rather erratically-paced travel diaries through various Southeast Asian destinations. It would have worked better if Parfitt's editor had told him to chose one, flesh it out more, and saved the second for another book with a different audience. I preferred the essays to the travel, and could wish for more in depth exploration of things like Taiwanese foibles and the odd subcultures of the English teaching industry in Asia. The road woes of Southeast Asia travel, from the idiot tourists to the pushy agents, kinda stop being funny or interesting for those of us who have encountered them too many times, but do give regional newbees a realistic and unromantic idea of what to expect.
While many of the essays were spot-on, some relied on sweeping and poorly researched generalizations and stereotypes. For example, I was rather appalled by the claim that Mainland Chinese are bad at geography - huh? Urban mainlanders at least have better geography, and nowadays are becoming better traveled, than most North Americans. After being cut off from the world for so long, they now can't get enough of it, and a lot of mainlanders' big dream is to go to London, Milan, New York to study, live, work, shop. In many essays, Parfitt assumes that the attitudes of his students are universal to the country and culture, when in fact English students are a very specific and usually privileged demographic.
Caveats aside, it nonetheless is good as company for a first plane trip to Asia, a whiff of nostalgia on your way back, or to buy for your friends "back home" to give them a somewhat less-exoticized perspective of life here.
on February 6, 2008
This is a really fun read, so much so I read it twice, something that I rarely do right off the bat. A funny piece of work! Was laughing out loud a bunch of times. Roughly half the book covers the author's experiences in Korea and Taiwan, where he has lived and worked as a teacher. The other half is a travelogue of trips to various Asian countries. The author focuses primarily on his interactions with people, and local culture. Be warned however, it's not a PC book; it lampoons pretty unsparingly some of the negative aspects of Asian culture.
The author says of Taiwan, discussion of which makes up a good part of the book, "'Chinese culture' equates to a thousand and one good things and a thousand and one bad." There's no doubt he has chosen to focus on the bad. But the book is a work of humor, and it's clear that the author's humor largely lies in sarcasm and needling. I didn't have a problem with that; I like dark humor, and as I have lived in Taiwan for 18 years myself and have become closely acquainted with the culture, I could relate to a lot of the foibles picked on. Some might feel the negatives are harped on too much, and my criticism of this work would be here too. Occasionally I had the feeling that no stone was left unturned in the search for the negative. Sometimes people were pretty harshly dealt with, a hapless older American tourist named Earl comes to mind. Still the venom is tempered with kindness, as when the author helps Earl take a couple of photos he really wouldn't have wanted to miss. If the author keeps writing I do hope he tries to develop his humor into different directions, but not totally away from the negative. He's good at the dark humor, but there's more to humor, and to cultures, than the dark side.
All cultures have their dark side though, and besides being very funny, this book is a window into that area of Asian culture both for those with and without experience of it. There surely is enough about the positive and mystical sides of Asian culture out there, so this book has its place. One such passage is in the chapter "About Face," where the cookie-cutter notion of face often proffered in travel books and the like is nicely critiqued.
It also gives you an indirect look at an interesting subculture, that of the foreign English teacher in Asia. While the author doesn't do this directly, he (like me) is a member of this subculture. This is a group of people who on the whole do spend a good amount of time comparing the local culture to their own (often unfavorably.) Many a conversation in a Taipei or Seoul bar has gone on much like the content of this book.
The stereotypical English teacher often spends a good time traveling outside his home base of most likely Taiwan, Korea or Japan, and this book does not disappoint here, with chapters on travel experiences in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. These are very interesting, informative and funny. Positive experiences balance out the negative more in this part of the book.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out more about East and Southeast Asia, and having a lot of good laughs while doing it. There is a lot of accurate and practical cultural information on offer here. I will note that while the experiences largely seem authentic, the author seems intent on being humorous. His humor leans strongly towards the dark side and the book should be taken with a grain of salt. The reader should keep in mind that there are a lot of positives that aren't touched on.
on February 2, 2008
Troy Parfitt is an English teacher and "Notes From The Other China: Adventures In Asia" is the story of this Canadian's professional and personal experiences over more than a decade in East Asia in general, and Taiwan (the 'Other China' in particular. The focus is not upon the politics, but upon the individuals Troy encountered, and the cultural context in which those personal and professional encounters took place. Troy combines memoir with travel commentary and cultural analysis with respect to the Koreans, Japanese, Pilipinos, Thais, Cambodians, Nepalese, and Vietnamese he has met, as well as the Taiwanese with whom he lived and worked. The first half of "Notes From The Other China" provides informed and informative insights into Korea's nationalism leading up to the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis, Japan's sex culture, Marcos legacy in the Philippines, Taiwan's type of democracy, and how traditional Chinese culture is in the process of modernizing. The second part of "Notes From The Other China" is a beautifully described travelogue as Troy journeyed from Hanoi to Saigon, from Vietnam to Nepal. Of special note is his commentary on what is regarded in Asia as the 'American War' in Vietnam. Also available in a hardcover edition (9780875865836, $34.95), "Notes From The Other China" is an especially recommended addition to personal, academic, and community library 20th Century Asian History & Culture reference collections and supplemental reading lists.