My Global Book Shelf: Almost Home, by Janet Brown

almost homeAlmost Home, The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop, is Janet Brown’s second travelogue. In Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which I reviewed in my previous blog, here, Janet took us on a journey through the back alleys of the Thai capital, offering us glimpses of the city that very few tourists care to see. More importantly, she took us on her own private journey, as she explored facets of her identity. In her own words, Tone Deaf in Bangkok was a “thank-you note to Bangkok which became a book, a long series of stories about my years there.”

In Almost Home, Janet pushes her exploration further. After seven years in the US, feeling like an exile, she has decided to move permanently to Bangkok. But the political situation has become deeply troubled, and she no longer feels at home in the city she loves so much. As she travels to Hong Kong, Beijing and Penang, spending weeks and months at a time in each place, she wonders : “Could I live here?” Almost Home is a quest for a place to call Home, that most elusive of notions.

As the author mentions, wisely, at the end of her fascinating journey : ” I’ve found out that exploring can range wide on familiar ground or can be quite narrow in exotic territory. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau said, while centuries later, backpackers often spend their time in Bangkok in front of a computer screen or a TV blasting Western movies.”

Janet’s way of traveling is conscious, and meticulously deliberate.  She is not interested in sights (as someone who feels the need to see those sights with my own eyes, in a way that sometimes borders on mania, it is something I find equally puzzling and enviable) as much as she’s interested in people. Every walk she takes (and does she walk!) is an adventure to be savored, the way she savors food: slowly, in exquisite, meaningful detail. She has the true gift of observation, turning the most mundane scene into beauty, as that morning when she’s standing at the window of her room, in Chungking Mansion, Hong Kong, and sees “objects drifting past like snowflakes, but very large snowflakes. Plastic bags, wads of paper, bits of Styrofoam floated down from an upper floor, surreal, silent, and somehow lovely as they fell. I thought of living here, where garbage became performance art…”

Janet Brown not only exhibits a wanderlust she traces back to her childhood, when her “mother told some neighborhood children that [she] could not go with them because [she] was “too little to go exploring,”” she also exudes passion, and a daredevil lust for life I find totally irresistible: “The whisper of waves had been replaced by a soft rush of wind moving the surrounding trees and for a minute I greedily longed to stand in this place during a storm.”

Her writing style is precise, elegant, often lyrical, and surpassed only by an immense generosity. Even as she grants her readers the privilege of discovering fascinating places through the magnifying lens of eyes that see well beyond the obvious, she also gives us the opportunity to get a feel for the real people who inhabit them as they go about their daily lives, all the while inviting us to follow her own intimate reflexions.

“Could I live here?” Could I call this place Home? Where is Home, when you can choose the whole world? Where is Home, when you were born with a wandering soul and insatiable curiosity? Where? That question resonates within the hearts of most, if not all expatriates or exiles. I know it looms large over us. Where do we want to live, later, once we no longer have a job or an organization making that decision up for us?

If I still lived in Dhaka, I would definitely suggest this as one of our book club reads. Most of us are now scattered all over the world, some having returned to their passport country, but I know we would all spend a great evening trying to find an answer to this question.

Janet Brown has found it, in a way that gives her quest meaningful and satisfying closure. Luckily for us, her readers, it does not mean the end of her wanderlust. She’s currently back in Bangkok, and you can follow her at her blog, Tone Deaf in Thailand.


China – and what do you do in your free time ?

It started at the airport departure terminal, in Dhaka. The only passengers having fun (as opposed to watching animal documentaries on TV, looking bored, or talking and texting on their phones) were the Chinese, who’d turned the top of a cabin suitcase in a table, and were playing cards.

We spent our first week-end in Beijing visiting the sights, obviously, but also walking, walking, walking from one to the other. We were using a map that gave us a wrong feeling for distances at the beginning. “Oh, this here is really close, let’s go.” And we’d end up hiking for an hour, or more. Or we’d try to get a taxi, couldn’t, and pushed a little more, a little more, until we finally got there on foot. We were so sore, after the first two or three days, my husband and I would collapse in bed, at night, groaning and moaning. Our girls didn’t complain much, not even the little one, who doesn’t like walking, usually, and it says a lot about how easy and nice it is to navigate in that very large city. Ok, I can’t resist inserting a picture. See? How clean, with a separate lane for bicycles. We were so impressed, we felt compelled to take a photo of an empty street and road signs.

Street in Beijing

Here is the type of street scene we get, in Dhaka.

Street in Dhaka

I know, comparing is not fair. I said it, and I mean it. Still, hard not to, at times.

But I digress.

Let’s go back to the way Chinese people spend their leisure time on week-ends. They play – cards, chess, dominos. They sing. They dance. Ballroom Dance is pretty popular, apparently. They practice their Tai Chi forms. They visit their monuments, and enjoy their truly beautiful parks. They fly kites.

What I loved, more than anything, is their total lack of self-consciousness. In Kunming, we spent an afternoon in a gigantic park south of the city, and saw two ladies who had brought their boom box and were singing and dancing together, right there in the open, for all to see and enjoy. So refreshing.

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A picture with me, a picture with you.

Taking pictures in China is fun. It seems that everybody has either a camera or a phone, and they’re not shy when it comes to using them. People are happy if you take their pictures, and more often that not, they’re actually the ones to ask if you will pose with them. Man, woman, young and old, English or no English, they walk up to you with a wide smile, and it’s simply impossible to say no. Once, in Xi’an, we created a mini congestion, as a picture with one person turned into half a dozen with young women crowding our kids so they could fit in the frame, too. And let’s not forget: everyone holding index and middle finger in a V sign. I’m not that inclined to let strangers go away with my picture or that of my children, but in China, really, it felt genuine, and bon enfant. And I liked the reciprocity. I take your picture. You take my picture. Let’ all take each other’s pictures, and everyone will be happy.

Our family also attracted a lot of stares and open curiosity because of our obvious mixed heritage. But there again, I never felt any animosity. Once only, on the first day, a group of older Chinese men and women stood in front of me and my little one (we were sitting on a rock, in a park, at the end of a long day, after a very long night flying there) talking about us in a way that was too obvious not to be somewhat rude. I don’t speak Chinese, but it was clear that they wondered if my daughter was mine, and they were trying to find similar features in our faces. Then, they saw my husband, and there was a lot of laughter, and they walked away. That was the only time I was slightly annoyed. Otherwise, it felt like candid curiosity about something unusual – to them.

Once, my husband even heard “movie star” (yes, in English) and all of a sudden, he had a dozen young Chinese women surrounding him, and pictures were taken left and right. Someone in China, at this minute, may be searching the Internet, looking for a black movie star, and feeling very disappointed that the guy on her mobile phone or camera is nowhere to be found.

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So, where do I start? The great, the grand, the fascinating or the exquisite? The modern or the ancestral? The efficient, the dynamic or the well-organized? Do I sound like I liked it? Good. But that’s an understatement. I was bowled over by China.

Of course, this comes  from someone who’s spent the last ten years of her life calling Nigeria, India, and now Bangladesh, home. Not that comparing is ever fair. Bangladesh is a small, young country, for instance. Still : small and young are not excuses for the appalling governance, lack of even basic infrastructure and general chaos that plague this country. Nigeria is huge, and don’t start me on the governance or chaos there. India is even bigger, even though I found it much, much more user friendly than Nigeria. We often hear of India and China in the same breath when it comes to talking about the economical powers of the future. That’s where avoiding comparisons becomes difficult.

As an Indian lady who’s been working for UNICEF in Beijing for two and half years put it when we had dinner with her : “China has left us (meaning India) in the dust.”

I’m not going to dwell on the human rights issues (most intolerable, definitely). Nor can I pretend to have an exhaustive, and informed opinion about China. I was there as a tourist, and only eight days. All I know is : We’re already planning to go back, next time to Shanghai and the south, and I know it will be another wonderful voyage.

I’ll try and post some vignettes in the days to come. Just one aside, and it will only serve to emphasize my point. The flight there, and back, was the stuff of nightmares. And not only because I find it increasingly difficult to fly overnight.

China Eastern has got to be one of the worst airlines I’ve used in my many years of traveling (and that includes some pretty scary flights out of Sumatra or into Pnom Penh, some seventeen years ago.) Just as an example, they didn’t spray the cabin after all the passengers boarded the plane in Dhaka.

Dhaka is infested with mosquitoes, the type of infestation that has people swiping the air constantly in order to push swarms of the buzzing dengue or malaria-carrying blood suckers away (quite inefficiently, I might add). For almost an hour after we boarded, we were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, and I had to use the aircraft safety card as a fan to shoo them away. And of course, the airplane attendants, although perfectly polite and charming, barely understood or spoke English. Only once in the air, and the air conditioning working full blast, did the mosquitoes seem to go into hiding – I have not figured out where.

The return flight from Kunming was another adventure. Again, flying around midnight, we reached an airport that was packed with people, showed our tickets, and several attendants instantly tied purple satin-like ribbons around our wrists. We were then lead to a counter. Only it was the counter for passengers to Bangkok (not that we would have minded flying to Bangkok rather than going back to Dhaka). We had to visit another counter before we ended up at the right one. There, we learned that the plane’s departure had been advanced by 45 minutes and we had barely made it on time – of course, there had been no email, nor sms to warn us. We were rushed to the gate, only to have to wait, and wait, and wait, and in the end, the plane left later than the original time.

This type of anecdotes travelers collect by the dozen, I know. But I’m getting older, and we’re traveling with two children. Most of all, I use these examples to emphasize how even these inconveniences couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm about China.

More to come…