Friday, January 30, 2009

China Road by Rob Gifford

From what I observe here at the library, there are times that what we read strongly reflects what's going on in our lives. I've heard it said that being a librarian much resembles being a bartender in that quite often we are taken into confidence. We get an earful, at least from the more chatty customers. "I'm getting this book because...." or "I just found out ...." In tiny bits and pieces, we are privileged to hear about both the most ordinary and extraordinary events in peoples' lives. First pregnancies for example: the mothers-to-be head right to the library for a tall stack of pregnancy books, all smiling and starry-eyed. We librarians, to some extent, also sometimes share life's joys and sorrows with the customers.

Many who spoke with me recently know I am ga-ga over being an auntie again! This year my Christmas was exceptionally fine due to the arrival of a new niece from China. Adopted at age 3 this past summer by my brother and sister-in-law in Tennessee, by the time we met her over the winter holidays, she was doing great: most darling and easy to love. Her command of English was coming alone fine. Though she didn't speak up very often, she clearly understood everything we said to her. Best of all, she is a child who has a happy nature, is easy to engage, playful and curious.

Her father recommended I read China Road: a Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Random House, 2007) by NPR correspondent Rob Gifford, if I wanted to learn more about China. I decided I was in the mood for a break from all the fiction I'm forever reading, and dove into China Road. Essentially this is a road trip book. Gifford, who had been reporting from China for many years, was moving on to another position within NPR in London. He allowed himself a two month farewell journalistic journey east to west, three thousand miles across China on Route 312, a highway said to be comparable to Route 66 in the USA.

Gifford's favorite thing is talking to the man or woman in the street, and that's what kept me reading more than the patches of history he also skillfully weaves into the narrative. That China is on fast forward was made clear. Factories, construction and high rises are everywhere. There is much pollution. Workers in the cities are prospering as never before. Yet in the small villages and on the farms, existence continues at an ancient level of gritty survival. Most families have been affected by the great eastward migration to the cities.

Gifford, who speaks Mandarin, talks with monks, college students, prostitutes, karaoke girls, cell phone salesmen, taxi drivers, talk show hosts, an AIDS rights activist, AIDS sufferers, migrant workers, factory workers, cooks and bottle-washers. I'm not even going to try to sum up any of their often dichotomous conversations about communism, Hong Kong, Tibet, foreign affairs, the space program, cultural gains and losses, morality, ethnic differences, and the sinking water tables of their continent. Gifford ends with a message of fear and concern for a country where the state "has always been more important than the individual."

China is more fascinating to me now that I have a family connection to the country, and vastly more real after reading Gifford's book.

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