Trapped Between Cultures

Daniel Brooks

The writer, John Harrison is a Russophile, a Sinophile, a Scotsman and a Londoner.  Finally, he is a confirmed expat. At a young age, the writer went east to Russia, leaving Britain to explore other, completely different lands. Russia not being far east enough, the writer kept going from the Soviet Union to China in the 1980’s. It was a logical step that made little sense to anyone other than a student and a lover of all things Chinese and Russian. That’s why the author wrote down what he saw while studying Chinese in Peking during those years, leaving us with a bird’s eye view and a British student’s life in it. This book tries to make sense of those years, as best it can, considering the circumstances.

Most people use their own country as a point of reference when travelling overseas. In this book, John‘s north star is Russia, as opposed to the UK. To add another layer, he adds a dash of the Soviet Union at a time when it was not changing as much as Communist era China, a country on the cusp of moving to a new era of its history and becoming more open, economically and socially, especially with respect to the outside world. China is front and center in this book. Consumers, the government, the man on the street and students were having a new world open in front of them. Anyone wanting to know what China was like after the Mao era before its current, modern rendition, with a dash of Soviet commentary thrown in, needs to read this book.

It was a time of great awakening both for China and for the author.  Countries change in big ways and small ones as do young students living in far away places. Often, the small changes, in day to day life, largely determine how a country, and the student in it, enters into a new phase. Some of these changes are bitter, others are sweet. This book is both.

Trapped Between Cultures brings to life the way China sees itself. At the time, China was thought to be opening up to Democracy. Meanwhile, in China, many believed nothing would change. China would remain centrally governed and the Chinese people subservient, or better said, harmonious. It’s one thing to realize such a phenomenon from the outside and it’s quite another to see a first-hand account of how such traditions and political realities in China are baked into the culture.

This is a story about friends made overseas, a special variety of friendship made while studying. Roommates and other foreign students loom large. I won’t be giving anything away by saying that one of the author’s roommates went mad and couldn’t cut the mustard in China. Another fellow student ended up with a Chinese spouse and went the distance. Many Chinese people jump out from the story.

This is a story about loneliness and longing. Anyone living overseas will remember the shock of a new culture and the feeling of being complete alone in an alien land. Over time, this feeling wears off. While this transformation takes place, emotions run deep. We tend to fall in love and then live with the consequences in situations like this. It happens to expats all the time. Not all of us have the nerve to write about it, however the author has.

The beginning of the book paves the way for the second half. In the early chapters, he is preparing us for something. We get the feeling that a big wave is coming. In his first year or so in China, John was moving inexorably towards that life changing event as China. In the second half, the book becomes a page turner as a wonderful, terrible and deeply personal chain of events unfolds in the writer’s life. In doing so, the book again changes countries, now to the UK. The perplexities of China come alive in the way two personalities interact in London where another side of both China comes out, more familiar as the China we know today. So too, do other things.  This is the story the book has warmed up to and lives on to haunt the author. It will haunt you, too, once you’ve read it.

Daniel Brooks

28 August 2018

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