Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Foreign affair with China

Drinking From The Dragon's Well by Alex Smith
Umuzi R155

South African travel writing comes of age in this delightful, witty travel memoir by Alex Smith. Her highly successful novel, Algeria's Way, was published last year and this makes a wonderful follow-up, as it were.

In 2006, Smith spent a year teaching English in China, in the city of Wuhan, a grey, dusty city distinguished by nothing more than the fact that for yonks Smith couldn't find a map of the place, for love or money ? and forget about finding a map in English, as you would if you were in China's happening cities such as Beijing.

Leaving her part-time job as a social editor at the now defunct magazine Style, Smith heads to China. She's had a meeting with a publisher (Umuzi), who gave her green tea and enthusiasm and so begins the long process of waiting to see if her "skinny Spanish novel" will be accepted. Skinny Spanish novel becomes Algeria's Way in time, but there's a lot of agony before Smith hears anything more from the publisher who gave her green tea.

For 32-year-old Smith, tea is more exciting and more addictive than sex. She's accepted this job teaching English even though teaching isn't really her passion. It will give her time to write, and she's not looking for foreign romances or anything so misty-eyed. She just wants an answer from her publisher and maybe stories from China that can be wound into a longer piece on that great, enervating yet mysterious country.

What she finds is that she earns more than local teachers, despite the fact that she is inexperienced and not really into imparting the rules and grammar of the language to others. She is given a huge apartment with three rooms, brown curtains, concrete floors and a Western toilet hastily fitted into her bathroom. She also has big fat maggots growing on a pipe in the bathroom, but these can be tackled as soon as the bathroom's stopped flooding. Nothing a plumber with crooked teeth and no English can't fix, though.

Smith writes postcards to her beloved granny Constance, back in Cape Town, tick-ticking away on her old manual green typewriter. Not much of a writer herself - the plots have always eluded her - still Constance churns out her minor stories. Smith's missives to her gran are touching, witty, bright points of reference in this book.

Her job is to get her unlucky and difficult class 4.4.12 to speak English. Two hours are devoted to this task every week and Smith does her creative best to get these shy, unwilling students to talk after their days spent working. After telling them all about Nelson Mandela one night, she asks them to speak on "What makes a person a real hero? What are your heroes?"

Smith learns as much from her students as they from her, and the book is sprinkled with their answers and the delightful way they have of twisting the English language. "My mother," says one student, talking about those she admires, "she is optimistic to the world, and struggles with illness bravely. Zhou Enlai, first prime minister of PRC (People's Republic of China) because he is intelligent, generous, magnanimous, tolerant, humorous and handsome as well."

Talking about travel and adventure to her students, asking them where their favourite journeys were to, yields yet more entry into their frames of reference: "Beijing is my favoured journey. I like to live in the sky."
"One day when I honeymoon. Then live in a city with middle-class scale."
"My journey of life I'd like to live somewhere over the rainbow."

Meanwhile, Smith waits for news of her skinny Spanish novel and sends out a rough draft of yet another Spanish novel, this time about pigeons, to overseas publishers. Life is an exercise in waiting and hoping, meanwhile gradually making friends with both other English teachers as well as some of her Chinese students and colleagues.

The writing is funny and witty, and yet there's a lot of pathos in this book, too. It's hard to categorise it as strictly travel or strictly memoir, instead it's a wonderful combination of both. Smith takes South African travel writing to new heights.

China does come alive in Smith's hands - but it's a Smith version of China. It's a China where you bake in the summer and freeze in the winter, where you surf the Internet, because you can't sleep, and the 'Net is a friend of sorts, a China where you're suddenly illiterate, because you can't read a street sign, and adjusting to the disorientation that brings. It's a China where you start to make sense of Chinese characters through diligent struggle, knowing that it's only when you get to 5 000 characters that you'll even begin to read the newspaper.

It's the endearing story of one woman's voyage through a year in a foreign country; it's charming, funny and sad in places. It's bright and funny, and you're sorry to close the book.

Published in The Star, Tonight August 14 2008

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