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

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. 
  • I have to disagree. Troost is a hilarious writer and I have enjoyed all three of his books. I didn't think his critique on China was really all that negative. Sure he talked about the bad things, pollution and over crowded cities and what not, but he did the same thing for Kiribati and Vanuatu. The difference was simply that he didn't live in China and so he didn't experience the upsides, or perhaps it just wasn't "for" him.

    Troost did work in D.C. before he started writing travel books, at some financial institution if I remember correctly, and he hated it, the traffic, the corporate politics, the pollution, etc. So he and his wife went to Kiribati, tiny, hardly heard of islands in the middle of no where. That, I think, is more Troost's style than busy, polluted, crowded China.

    It is my dream (well, my short term dream anyway) to go to China and teach English, so its not as if I hate China, and Troost's book made me want to go even more. Now, granted, you live in China, so if you say that he got an incorrect view of China then I suppose you would know better than I, however, how can a "view" of a place really be completely wrong? If, as the guy you quoted mentioned, a Chinese person came to America for three months and saw fundamentalists Christians and pro wrestling and destruction derby events and wrote about that, would that person really be wrong?

    America has a ton more fundamentalist Christians, pro wrestlers and destruction derby events than any other country. If you were writing a book for someone who had not yet visited America, that might be a good thing to warn them about!

    Same to, I would imagine, that it would be good for someone who had not done a bunch of research on China before going, like you did, that there is going to be a lot of pollution, a lot of people etc. etc.

    That was his experience in China, to say that his experience was incorrect comes off as slightly arrogant, just because he didn't see what you see doesn't mean what he saw doesn't exist. You complain that he doesn't talk about things you would need to know before living in China, but he never claimed to be living in China, and he never encountered those problems, so how would he write about them? I think you were expecting to read an account of an experience mirroring your own, just because you didn't get that doesn't mean his experience is invalid.

  • The problem, though, is that the book isn't billed as a travelogue. It was sold as a good read for people who might consider moving to China. But that isn't the viewpoint he then actually writes from. I have never said that there isn't pollution, spitting, or children peeing in the streets. Similarly, I have never said that there aren't fundamentalist Christens, pro-wrestlers, or destruction derbies in the States. But to simmer a country down into those negative stereotypes is hateful and, yes, wrong. China and the US are both large, complex societies. Also, the view-point of someone visiting vs living there is going to be different. My point is that Troost should have sold the book at it was: a highly negative portrayal by someone simply passing through.

  • Well, I'm listening to the book on CD while I drive and I have a couple of comments:

    1. I moved my family (spouse and 3 kids)to southern China for 11 months (Guangdong Province) in 2007 – 2008 and experienced a very small part of the county "full on" Some stuff Martin writes is outright funny and I could relate, some is not and he's simply "spinning a good yarn" to sell a book or so it seems.

    2. He does seem to have a bias… we went to be with the people, making friends and building relationships and volunteering at the state church… yes missionaries.

    3. Upon returning the the US (Nebraska, to be exact a place where Martin says only 2 people live and he's met them both… which is bull crap)I dearly missed China for 6 months.

    4. We made so many great friends we've been back 2 in the past 4 years to visit… we absolutely love the place and the people.

    5. I tolerate the system there… don't agree with it, but respect the rules while I'm there.

    I guess I could have written a book about my 11 months there with my family and picked all the crazy stupid stuff that happened, but that would only be a small chapter… the people are so great..

  • ForeverOK

    I was in eastern Mainland China for nearly a year, on and off from 2003 – 2004. Three months each in a big city and then another (used these as my base to visit about ten other cities via rail, bus and hired car. I walked and walked through non-tourist parts of the big cities such as Shanghai, Fuzhou, etc. and smaller towns. I never saw jostling super rude crowds in rail or bus stations. 98% of the people I saw face to face were very courteous, and many were very friendly. Even the traffic cops were friendly and would joke with the crowds. You can J-walk there without a ticket. Ordinary life seems ironically freer than the U.S. … where people don’t care if a man is wearing his pajamas walking outside in the morning (this in suburban Shanghai). People ballroom danced in the streets. When I took a city bus just for the hellofit, not caring where it was going, the bus vendors weren’t rude, and would in fact laugh. Every morning in an outdoor ‘gym’ some elderly ladies would say hullo, and one in particular would chat away to me in her dialect (which I didn’t understand, but she thought I did). I never saw anyone spit, and again I walked further than Mr Troost, I would venture. The countryside was beautiful; even the big city parks were beautiful. I remember a lovely town two hours from Fozhou (I drove there with friends, so forget the name) … it was in the hills with clear blue air surrounded on all sides by green hills. We were introduced to new friends; a businesswoman with a beautiful daughter was hinting that I would make a good catch (actually, she was looking to the future as the daughter was too young then). I walked through smaller countryside towns with open spaces and few people. No one gave me a second look. I never saw a mother letting her tot pee in the street. Yes, the politicos are corrupt and worse, but the Chinese people are pretty darn nice. I remember watching a documentary on TV: showing how Chinese farmers, etc. were helping downed American pilots during WW2. So this is even the ‘official’ depiction of American – Chinese relations. People were very friendly to me when they found out I was American. Anyone who is considering living there should talk to expats who actually have lived there; I can say from my brief time there that their experiences will generally be on line with mine. Btw, a friend who was raised in Guangzhou said Mr Troost’s comments didn’t reflect his years of experience.

    • Thanks for your reply. Over the years I have talked to many expats about this book (and other good vs. bad books about China), and for expats, this books consistently ranks as one of the worst. The experiences of expats are wildly different from the experiences of tourists. Not that China is in any way perfect, and it is important to bring out the bad so that things can change, but he dumps on EVERYTHING, even the panda breeding program (something I have never heard bad things about from tourists or expats and holding a baby panda is pretty damn awesome) and on the ages of adoptive parents, which is a wildly asshole-ish thing to complain about no matter who you are.

  • The problem, though, is that the book isn’t billed as a travelogue. It was sold as a good read for people who might consider moving to China. But that isn’t the viewpoint he then actually writes from. I have never said that there isn’t pollution, spitting, or children peeing in the streets. Similarly, I have never said that there aren’t fundamentalist Christens, pro-wrestlers, or destruction derbies in the States. But to simmer a country down into those negative stereotypes is hateful and, yes, wrong. China and the US are both large, complex societies. Also, the view-point of someone visiting vs living there is going to be different. My point is that Troost should have sold the book at it was: a highly negative portrayal by someone simply passing through.

    And, yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that someone who sums up China a “a big pile of crap” is wrong.

  • Thanks for your input. Yeah, most people who actually live here can itemize everything wrong with it (just read my blog, haha), but most people have highly positive things to say about the people.

  • SharkBait

    I agree with Mr. DeMartino above – I thought this book was great and I’ve read it many times. I’ve enjoyed all of Troost’s books (except for Headhunters on My Doorstep).

    Btw, I’m Southeast Asian, and I never picked up that he sounded racist. A lot of what Troost describes, though perhaps one-sided and focused on negative peculiarities, I found to be relatable and accurate even if he didn’t quite dive more deeply below the surface. Additionally, his tone of self-effacing humor is subtle, and even talking to him in person (I’ve met him briefly) you have to pay attention to figure out if he’s joking or being serious. I guess I can see how the book could be misinterpreted, but I would not say that Troost “simmered a country down into those negative stereotypes” at all.

    I did not find this book marketed towards people considering living in China. Sure, it starts out staying he wanted to travel to possibly see if it would be a good place to move his family, but I didn’t get the sense that it was being sold based on that. I dove into it with the expectation that it was going to be a comedic perspective from a Western traveler’s point of view.

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