Book Review: Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity in Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

When I was first planning our move to China in 2009, I did months of in-depth research from internet forums, books, talking to people who had lived there, and so on. Seth didn’t. I tried to teach him Chinese or to get him to join forum groups or something, but he just said “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” While I appreciated his easy-going attitude toward this life-changing endeavor, I was worried about the culture shock he would surely encounter once we got there. A couple of weeks before we left, we were stocking up on books to take with us and I came across Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. Now, there are endless travel books about China one can pick up at any Barnes and Noble, but this one stood out to me as probably a good read for Seth. The book was written “from the perspective of a guy who neither speaks Chinese nor has all that much knowledge pertaining to things Chinese.” As you read the first two chapters you find out that Troost comes up with the brilliant idea of moving his family to China….err…just for the hell of it I suppose. He has no real reason. It doesn’t want to teach. He doesn’t need to work. His wife’s work isn’t there. He doesn’t want to do missionary work or volunteer at an orphanage or hospital or learn Chinese or do any of the countless things people move to China to do. He does acknowledge that China is growing and changing and becoming a world superpower and he just wants to see it happen I suppose. But his wife tells him to go on a fact finding mission first. Visit the place, learn about it, and then report back. So, like Seth, he doesn’t really know anything about China but he is moving there. So I thought that his point of view might be a good insight to let Seth know what we would be facing in the months to come. But boy was I wrong.
We were in China for maybe 2 days when I started to see just how wrong Troost’s book was. Seth stopped reading the book fairly quickly, after only a couple of chapters, so I picked it up. I was appalled by what I read. But I kept reading because I wanted to write a book review about it. But the more I read, the angrier I got. It has been almost 2 years since I read the book and I am just now attempting to write about it because every time I try to write about it, or tell other people about it, or even just think about it, I get absolutely livid. To itemize everything wrong in this book would take another book. And I really don’t want to do that. I don’t want my readers to go through that and I don’t want to devote that much of my life to Troost’s drivel. He isn’t worth it. I have already spent enough of my time angry about this book and for too long has it taken up space on my bookshelf. I will not be placing the book in any of the trading pools at the bars or coffee houses in town; it will be going in the trash. It isn’t even worth recycling.
So, how do I begin?
The main problem with this book is he doesn’t travel like a person looking to move here. He travels like a tourist. It is common sense to know that tourist attractions are in no way a reflection of how people actually live. It would be like going to America and visiting New York City, LA, and Orlando and thinking that all cities in the whole country are just like that and all people in those cities are representative of how all Americans are. He characterizes and generalizes all Chinese people based on the people he meets at hotels, taxis, and tourist attractions. Not very fair and not very realistic.
He also doesn’t actually *look* at life in China for people who live there. He doesn’t look at apartments, housing prices, schools, or even a grocery store. Has he even considered how his wife is going to cook when she has to buy everything fresh each day and doesn’t have an oven or western-style stove? Has he considered how difficult it is to even go to a grocery store when you don’t speak any Chinese? Though, if he is considering moving his family to Hong Kong or Shanghai it wouldn’t really matter since those places are so westernized. But then that isn’t the “real” China, is it? In Hong Kong, everyone speaks English and any Western food you could want they have. They also have Western style private schools for your children. While Hong Kong isn’t the West, it also isn’t China and one could slip into life there quite easily. Shanghai is similar. There are fewer people who speak English, but western foods, schools, apartments, and hospitals are easy to find. But if you are planning on living somewhere smaller, more removed from the coast, western comforts are harder and harder to find and he doesn’t take that into consideration. If he was planning on moving them to Shanghai then my rant would be pointless, but he does go on to talk about living somewhere more remote, like Tibet. But in addition to ignoring the domestic issues that arise from living in a remote area, he also ignores practical ones. it is difficult for foreigners to even visit Tibet, much less live there. And on a similar note, how does he plan on “living” in China? You have to have a work visa to stay long term and he isn’t planning on working. Overall, he doesn’t actually visit China like someone planning on living there. He took a vacation and got his publicist to pay for it.
The other biggest problem with his book is the downright closed-minded, racist, and wrong views he has of China and the Chinese. I know, that is a big claim considering this is the man who has lived in several other countries in the world, but it is true. He is absolutely negative about every aspect of China. The cities are crowded and dirty, but the countryside is drab and dull. Honk Kong isn’t any better because it is just like any other big city in the world. Western adoptive parents are too old and Chengdu’s panda’s are all inbred. There is no pleasing him at all. He make wild unsubstantiated claims like American’s are often kidnapped never to be seen again, bottled water isn’t safe to drink, all Chinese eat cats, and all Chinese look down on Americans. But the real kicker for me was how Troost himself sums up China about halfway through his book. On page 210: “China – a giant pile of crap!”
No, Mr. Troost, that is how I would describe your book. I would also like to include a quote from Steve Koss, a top reviewer for Amazon, who also found the book insulting and demeaning. He says “This book regrettably comes across as half dabble, half slumming, and all for effect…While [his] extreme representations serve a peculiar form of disparaging, Animal House-like juvenile humor, they hardly serve the reader who really wants to learn about or understand China…Imagine for a moment that an educated, culturally jaded Chinese citizen spent the better part of the year mimicking Mr. Troost’s travels, only in the United States. That individual could then sit down and pen a travel book about traffic jams, fundamentalist churchgoers, strip malls, professional wrestling and car-crushing events, people weighing 350 pounds and carrying 75% of it in their hips and posteriors, dirty streets in major cities, gun-slinging NRA’ers, decaying roads and falling bridges, a train system that is the embarrassment of the industrialized world, fanatical, hate-spewing political talking heads, and the like. New York City could be reduced to its dirty streets and aging subways, Washington D.C. to its crime rate and failing schools, and so on. That, in a nutshell, is what Mr. Troost gives the reader about most of China – a view through dirt-streaked (as opposed to rose-colored) glasses.”
I couldn’t agree more Mr. Koss and as for Mr. Troost, looks like you don’t have to live in China to make it on my “Ugly Foreigner” list. His misrepresentation of China and her people and the way his writings discourage adventures from taking a wonderful and exciting leap into this country is shameful.
In short, do not read Lost on Planet China and I will not be reading any of his other books.