Well, maybe not so fast...
Today marks the official beginning of my book tour to promote Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. For those of you who haven't been personally bombarded with publicity and Facebook invites and so forth, the gist of my book is this:
In 1986, my friend, Claire, and I, newly graduated from Brown, decided that we wanted to be the new female Kerouac, Byron, and Odysseus all rolled into one. We planned an epic trip-around-the-world beginning in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for about all of 10 minutes.
There were no direct flights to Beijing at the time. China had limited electricity, few phone lines, and an economy and infrastructure that seemed frozen in the late 19th century. This was pre-Tiananmen Square China; the nation was still in a state of isolation and lockdown.
Claire and I spoke no Mandarin and knew nothing about Asia, but we were young, hyper-educated, and ambitious, and we wanted to go where no one we knew had ever gone before. And so we just thought, "Hey. Let's go to China. How hard can it be?"
Well, we found out. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is the story of our descent into a completely different world ? where we found ourselves hungry, disoriented, and stripped of everything familiar. Idiotic with culture-shock and kept under constant government surveillance, we got into some serious trouble. So serious, in fact, that the Chinese military police stepped in and we eventually had to flee the country.
(But trust me, it's a laugh riot...)
Anyway, as I started doing radio interviews yesterday, a lot of people asked: Why did you choose to write about this two decades after it happened?
Well, I have a sense that what happened to us in China 23 years ago is strangely relevant to what a lot of us are experiencing right now in America, if not around the world today: a crisis... A sense that everything we've taken for granted and counted upon is suddenly gone... massive disorientation... panic... worries about how we're going to survive...
One crisis may have taken place in rural China, while another began on Wall Street, but emotionally, it's similar stuff. And a book about surviving the seemingly insurmountable seemed important to me to write.
Yet I felt also an urgent desire to debunk the myth of the swaggering American abroad.
My friend Claire and I had first gotten the idea for our trip to China when we were drunk and eating chocolate chip waffles at four o'clock in the morning at the International House of Pancakes. "Hey," we cried giddily, pointing to the paper placemats that read "Pancakes of Many Nations," "why don't we eat pancakes of many nations in many nations?"
That was how the idea for our epic trip-around-the-world was born. I am not kidding. Our entire international adventure was basically predicated on three inebriated words: "Go for it!"
I was reminded of this viscerally in 2003, when I heard President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld making the case for war against Iraq by saying that it would be "a cakewalk" (again with the food...).
I turned to my husband and said, "Iraq's going to be a 'cakewalk'? What are they ? two 21-year-old girls sitting in an IHOP?"
That's when I thought: Uh-oh: better get writing again. Someone should paint a responsible portrait about what it's really like to plunge headlong into a foreign country that's vastly different from your own.
We fabulous Yanks can be so flippant about traveling abroad. We seem to have the idea that we can just show up and prevail. Of course, we'll be welcome. Of course, we'll be able to manage in a completely different setting. Of course, we'll have fun / be triumphant / get valuable stuff. Everyone speaks English, don't they? Oh, we'll just figure it out as we go along...
And sometimes, this is the case. But at least as often, it's not. Certainly, our recent foreign policy is proof of this.
But it's not just political ideologies that promote this myth. We writers are just as guilty. In the past decade or so, we've produced scores of bestselling books about how someone, say, just decided to buy a Mediterranean villa somewhere and renovate it ? or just decided to join an ashram ? or to study Tuscan cooking ? in order to get over a heartbreak or a midlife crisis or find themselves. Whole cultures and nations have been portrayed in our books largely as charming and entertaining laboratories for our own self-discovery and enrichment.
At least until this economic crisis hit, adventures abroad were becoming the newest conduit for a personal makeover.
I suppose this is all an outgrowth of America's traditional "Go West, Young Man" credo (Which was also problematic, of course. Massive apologies to the Native Americans.). Our sense of adventure, of just picking up and going, our new frontierism ? all of this is part of our national psychology. And admittedly, it has contributed to our great success as a nation at times, too. We're daring. We're exuberant. We're bold.
And it's good to be curious. Lord knows, our last president might have been a lot wiser if he had traveled abroad extensively before he took office.
But the flip-side of this adventurism is arrogance. And when arrogance is coupled with naivete, it can be particularly lethal.
I should know. Read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you'll see just what a bad idea it is to head into a developing Communist country equipped with only a backpack, the complete volume of Linda Goodman's Love Signs, a bag of M&Ms, and an arsenal of hubris.
The author returning to Beijing in 2005 to retrace her steps from two decades ago.