Don’t just pick up a guidebook before you visit Asia. Instead enter the world of travel memoirs to get a glimpse inside the culture. Author Alison Gee takes us there with her latest column on fish-out-of-water Asia travel memoirs.
Most of us avid travelers yearn to get off the metaphorical tour bus to wander through a foreign country’s villages, explore its back streets and taste from the pots boiling over in home kitchens. In the latest Traveler’s Booklist, we bring you stories written by those who have gotten to know Asia’s most fascinating, fraught or unusual cities and villages — not as tourists but as neighbors living in Beijing high-rises, Japanese apartment blocks, and even a rundown palace in India. Here are five books that take us into the heart — and the homes — of such countries as Bhutan, China, Japan, Singapore and India.
In September of 2005, American Michael Levy accepted a Peace Corp post to teach English in a medium-sized city in Southwest China. His hosts in Guiyang — a far cry from the glamorous Shanghai and the culturally and politically significant Beijing — suddenly cast him in the roll of resident expert on Judaism, romantic adviser, and provincial basketball star, among other unofficial titles. Levy’s attempts to connect with his students and fellow teachers is both meaningful and laugh-out-loud funny. Kosher Chinese is a heartfelt and hilarious peek into a mammoth country as it rises in the 21st century. Levy is an charming, insightful and compassionate tour guide for any adventure in the Middle Kingdom.
2. Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me: True Tales of a Domesticated Princess by Lisa Fineberg Cook
Los Angelina Lisa Fineberg Cook might not be the most reliable narrator when she first takes us into her life in Nagoya, Japan — she’s culturally naive and just the other side of spoiled. Indeed, it was six days after an InStyle-worthy wedding in Los Angeles, that Cook left behind her little red Jetta, her manicurist of 10 years, and her very best friend for the land of the rising sun — all thanks to her new husband’s new job teaching English in a Japanese city much less glamorous than Tokyo. At first, she imagined life in Japan to mean exotic weekend getaways, over-the-top sushi dinners, and sake sojourns with high-flying expatriate friends. Instead, she soon discovers that her quotidian existence means being the only Jewish girl on public transportation, and never escaping from everyone else’s fascinated stares. But Lisa learns to cook, clean, commute, and shop like the Japanese, all the while adjusting to another foreign concept — the lifelong partnership and sacrifice found in marriage. By the end of Japan Took the J.A.P Out of Me, we root for Lisa as she builds friendships and cultural savvy, all the while offering us a rare view of what it’s like being a middle class foreigner in Japan.
3. Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan was a Manhattan-based reporter at the Wall Street Journal when she got an assignment that would change her life: She traveled back to her home country Singapore to learn to make her late grandmother’s pineapple tarts. The buttery bite-sized delights had captivated the journalist when she was a child but her grandmother died before she could get the family recipe or learn her techniques. Thus, Tan embarked on a journey of discovery — one that would take place in the kitchens of her Singapore family. Over the next lunar calendar year, the women of her family gathered over hot stoves to laugh, tell stories and cook, of course. During that delicious year, Tan chopped, stir-fried and baked with her aunts, all the while piecing together snippets of their lives and the family history they shared by discovering their recipes. Pick up Tiger in the Kitchen for a delectable way to discover Singapore (and to learn to make yourself such mouthwatering fare as Teochew braised duck and rice dumplings with pork) as well as to read a poignant family story.
4. Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli
I have always dreamed of traveling to the ancient kingdom of Bhutan so when I stumbled upon Lisa Napoli’s memoir Radio Shangri-La, I devoured it in one weekend. Napoli was a successful public radio journalist working in Los Angeles when she met a handsome friend of a friend at a party. When he invites her to join him and another ami on a trip to Bhutan, a kingdom nestled between China and Nepal, she decides to take flight. In this Buddhist enclave, long isolated from the outside world, locals were just launching a new youth radio station, Kuzoo FM (in Bhutanese, “kazoo zampo” means hello) and Napoli signed up as a volunteer consultant. In the Radio Shangri-La, Napoli writes about the striking Bhutanese mountains and valleys, the spicy cuisine and the astounding ethic of happiness that pervades the society. Lonely Planet’s David Gorvett called the book, ” a quietly captivating, gently inspiring read.” This is armchair travel that will no doubt have you jumping up to book your own flight to this eastern kingdom.
5. Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and the Search for Home by Alison Singh Gee
If you’ve ever wanted to go on a rollicking royal adventure through the fabled grand palaces of India, I’d like to invite you on my own wild rickshaw ride through Asia. In my 2013 memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, I take readers through the bustling streets of Hong Kong and to the fraught and wild lanes of Old Delhi, and finally to the genteel terraces and fragrant mango groves of the 100-year-old palace. Mokimpur is the rambling ramshackle manor that has belonged to my husband’s family for the past century and my memoir is my comic chronicle of my deeply flawed relationship with the house, with Ajay’s idiosyncratic landed gentry family and with India itself. A National Geographic Traveler Book of the Month, travel writer Don George called the memoir “a revealing triumph.” LA Weekly’s Pamela Chelin said of the book, “With its blend of humor, sincerity and seriousness, Gee’s story easily could be Eat, Pray, Love’s down-to-earth cousin, offering a unique twist on the typical tale of Westerners traveling to India to find themselves.”
By Alison Singh Gee for PeterGreenberg.com. Gee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the author of Where the Peacocks Sing: A Prince, a Palace and the Search for Home, a comic chronicle of her relationship with her husband’s 100-room manor and his idiosyncratic landed gentry family.