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Book Review: The Good Women of China by Xinrin

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 11.49.29 AMThe Good Women of China by Xinran

Rating 4/5 stars

I read a different book by Xinran earlier this year–Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother–that ripped my heart out and left me sobbing at various points.  I approached this book with caution because of that.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother tells one woman’s story per chapter.  Eventually, so does The Good Women of China.  However, the start is much slower, and less engaging.  I picked up and put this one down a few times, easily distracted by other books.  However, once I got to roughly 1/3 of the way through the book, I was sucked in and found myself crying time and time again.

Xinran was, for a time, a presenter of a highly popular radio show in China in the 80’s and early 90’s called “Whispers on the Night Breeze” which focused on the stories of everyday women (or rather, that is what it evolved into).  This is the source material for this book and others.  The stories she shares are most often those of her generation and that of her mothers–the generation that were children during the cultural revolution, and that of the mothers of those children.

My bachelor’s degree is in History.  I have a deep attachment to learning about race, class and gender history.  The thing about studying women’s history, though, is that for every fascinating and empowering story about women, there is often a much larger number of truly depressing stories.

One of the most common experiences that occurs in women’s history, and in this book, is that of rape.  To the point where I would firmly caution that this book needs a trigger warning for rape.  Girls are raped by their fathers.  Girls are raped in the cause of “re-educating” them during the Cultural Revolution.  Girls are raped in the chaos after an earthquake.  Girls who wish for death after rape, who are institutionalized, whose mothers commit suicide after they are raped. 

It is also the story of how a moment of deep change–the Cultural Revolution–impacted not just the wealthy or the well born, but the every day woman as well.  These are stories we almost never hear.  The Japanese expatriate who was in China to teach at a university, and is jailed as a counter-revolutionary.  The daughter of wealthy capitalists who gets to her family’s home too late–they have fled to Taiwan–and has to pose as the illegitimate daughter of her aunt, hoping that the truth will never be revealed.  The women who began an orphanage after their own children were killed by an earthquake–an earthquake the government didn’t find out about for weeks because there was no modern means of communication in the impoverished mountain villages.  A woman who was separated from her love by duty to the party, only to find him again 40 years later—and that he’d married after being told that she was dead.  Weaved throughout the other stories is Xinran’s.  Her parents were accused of being counter-revolutionary, and she and her brother were brought up by the party.  Peasant children were taught to insult them, and treat them as subhuman.  Her deeply complicated relationship with her parents, and with her own past is shown as the book progresses.

We also see Xinran’s growing dissatisfaction with trying to toe the party line as a media representative.  Stories must be edited, others not told (no need to embarrass the party with a story about highly educated women being given to party elite as new wives, or the village wives they left behind).

As an American, I learned very little modern era Asian History in any of my classes.  I was vaguely aware of how Mao had gained power, but I had no context for what that looked like for a woman living in China.  Xinran lends us those voices, which when paired with other resources can help paint a more complete pictures of the experience.

If you have an interest in Asian History, in women’s history, or in women’s studies, this book is definitely one you should make time to read.  But allow yourself to read as fast (can’t put it down) or as slow (too emotional, need a break) as you need.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy read.

Book Review: Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.51.36 PMCast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell

Rating 3/5 stars for the casual reader

1/5 for those Disney fans who don’t want to sully the brand

5/5 for those who enjoy the peek behind the mask

Last week when I reviewed Spinning Disney’s World, I promised that we’d get to the memoir with sex on property, hijinks and a very different view of life under The Mouse from Ridgeway’s rarefied PR office.  This is a memoir that will give you that peek. There are a few others, but this was the most enjoyable.

Just as the reader has to keep in mind that Ridgeway was intent on keeping both the man and the brand Snow White (sorry, I had to), it is worth noting that Mitchell defines himself as anti-establishment.  At times he tries a bit too hard to convince us of that fact.  To his credit, Mitchell seems far more aware of his bias than Ridgeway, and he does make fairly self aware statements throughout the book to that effect.

One of the things that made Spinning Disney’s World such a tough review was the lack of a narrative.  Mitchell does us the favor of both giving us a sequential narrative, and one with a central theme.  After his mother’s cancer diagnosis (and his parent’s attempt to hide it from him–he finds out from his older brother) he effectively decides to run away to Disney and hide in the magic, playing Peter Pan/Lost Boy in the Magic Kingdom.

Nobody has every died at Disney World (again, no page #’s, so I’ll cite percentages throughout the review–2%)

Mitchell uses this piece of Disney lore as a framing device at both the opening and close of the book.  At the start of the book, he’s told that bit of lore by Nick Elliot–Former X Games Champion turned skateboarding monkey on the Tarzan float in a WDW parade.  (I’ll address that bit of lore at the end of the review)

The narrative shifts to Mitchell’s personal life a short time later–within a very short period of time he is fired from his job, his girlfriend dumps him for a friend, and his brother tells him that their mother has cancer but that he can’t tell her that he knows.  Mitchell’s reaction to all of this is to run away to Disney World to put his professional sports photography skills to use….as one of those guys taking pictures of families with Disney Characters.

“Your job will be to work with the characters.  You’ll take pictures of Minnie and Mickey and Winne the Pooh and Tigger and anybody else our beloved guests wish to meet.  And you’ll try to capture a moment on their faces that doesn’t look like desperate misery, and then you’ll sell the photos back to them at a very reasonable price” (said to Mitchell by his Boss Orville 7%)

Mitchell begins his time at Disney trying to find “The Magic.”  He submits to a haircut approved by “The Disney Look” employee handbook.  He removes piercings.  He shaves.  He tucks in his uniform shirt, and leaves the chain wallet and sunglasses at home (or at least in his employee locker).  He learns to identify Cast Members by their uniforms (photographers like himself wear Khaki uniforms in the Animal Kingdom, for example).  He learns the “Seven Guest Service Guidelines,” such as “(4) If you sense that a guest is a having a less-than-Magical moment, provide immediate recovery any way you can.”

The Never Never Land that Mitchell was seeking when he ran away to Disney does seem to exist.  Or, at least, it is possible to exist in a Disney bubble.  Rather than debate the 2000 election, Cast Members were arguing  passionately over whether Maria in “The Sound of Music” or Mary in “Mary Poppins” was Julie Andrew’s greatest role. (22%)

However, he still doesn’t get off to the best start.  He likes to make snarky comments, only to realize too late that (at this point in the book) the people he’s making them to, and the context in which he’s making them get an icy reception.  You shouldn’t really crack jokes about Mickey getting “a call from his Hollywood agent who just cast him in a movie with Jessica Rabbit” to someone who uses phrases like “oh my ears and whiskers” as part of their everyday conversation.(10%)  Don’t tell a woman who took a job as Pocahontas after finding out she can’t have kids as a way to be a special part of kid’s lives  that “Children are idiots.” (11%)  Even when you just saw someone kick Mickey as hard as they can, you don’t ask that person if they’re okay by their “real” name (21%)

Eventually though, he begins to integrate, then gets a bit too comfortable.  Backsliding begins with snacking on property (38%).  Temptation comes knocking when he begins to do “out of character” photography–Goofy blowing a smoke ring (39%), Mickey picking Minnie’s Nose (39%), Chip and Dale in a 69 (42%) until Mickey Flashing Tit gets the girl in question fired–the tit in question has a very individual tattoo.(73%) .  He has sex on property with a girl who plays Chip on a bunch of boxes of Disney t-shirts backstage at Epcot (41%).

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.34.18 AMA sample of “out of character” photography (found via google/reddit)

Mitchell’s world is populated by characters as colorful as any dreamed up by Disney, although they are hardly what Walt had in mind.

  • Brady is a character actor–Mike Wazowski, Pooh and Roger Rabbit.  Offstage, he’s a bit of a sociopath.  Eventually Brady will rope Mitchell into kidnapping a dog (30%) and taking “medication” to Cuba (81%).  But first, Brady will give Mitchell his first peek into the dark side of working for Disney–an after hours party at an apartment complexes (referred to as ‘the Disney ghetto”) owned by Disney where cast members live.  The party as described by Mitchell is one party Alice in Wonderland esque drug fantasy and one part orgy drenched in alcohol.  (15%)  Brady also becomes Mitchell’s tour guide and translator in the backstage rules and workings of the parks.
  • Johnny works in PR.  A NASCAR and beer enthusiast, Mitchell answers an ad on a cast member bulletin board to become his roommate. (22%)  He’s also a chickenhawk–an older gay man who loves a different younger man every week. (38%)  By the end of the book, he’s trying to become the next Lou Pearlman by creating his own gay-themed Boy band called “Boy Banned” (86%).
  • When Mitchell first meets Calico (50%) she is playing Ariel.  Orville (his boss) tries to warn Mitchell off of her, but he doesn’t listen.  At first there’s no discernable reason why.  She seems like a sweet vegetarian who cries over her Wish kids and wants to be a wedding planner.  Then she starts speaking in a British accent, eating meat and missing dates when she’s cast as Cruella DeVille. (80%)  She lies to Mitchell, claiming she’s been diagnosed with cancer.  He overcompensates, doing for her what his mom won’t let him do as he’s not even supposed to know about his mother’s diagnosis. This all culminates in Mitchell catching her cheating on him with another cast member, telling her sexual partner “You’re a miserable, naughty little puppy!” in her fake British acent.  (93%)

Rather than evoke “true patriot” or “great man” Walt Disney narrative used by Ridgeway, Mitchell says that Walt was–

A product of Midwest values and Industrial Revolution savvy, he learned how to make money the old-fashioned way: from children. (24%)

If you are looking for behind the scenes dirt, there’s plenty dished

  • I used to think that characters were immune to the smells of the outisde world, but, in fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Any scent that drifted into the head stayed i the head: cigarette smoke, perfume, garlic breath.  Passing gas inside a costume was to be avoided at all costs.  The stench was trapped inside the body untilt he character bent down to hug a child, then blew out the only opening in the suit–the mouth.  Within a week, I’d lost count of the number of times I heard a child turn to his parents and say, ‘Eew, Pluto has doggie breath!'” (25%)
  • Cast Members sitting around coming up with Disney themed porn titles (34%)
  • Sex on Property (mentioned starting at 40% and then throughout the book from there)  I used to work at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum in Boston in the late 90’s and it seemed that everyone hooked up somewhere on property at least once.  I never had sex on property–but I did know every inch of space that the cameras didn’t see.  Do I think a ton of 20 something Disney employees are going to hook up on property?  Abso-fucking-lutely–pun intended.

Just as Mitchell begins his memoir with the rumor that no one has ever died on property, at the 91% mark, he sees an older employee’s heart give out.  He’s reprimanded for ruining people’s “magical experience” on property because kids saw Mitchell administer CPR.  He gets into a massive fight with his manager and quits/is fired.  After attending the funeral of his fellow cast member, Mitchell is having brunch with  two fellow employees and the following conversation happens.

“….I found this amazing, magical place where nobody ever dies, like the Bermuda Triangle, only in a good way, and I actually started to believe that I could settle down here.  I honestly thought I had it in me to be a lifer.” (Mitchell)

Marco looked at me, puzzled.  “What are you talking about?  People die at Disney World all the time.”

I shook my head.  “There’s never been a death at Disney World.  Even Walter.  The paper reported he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Marco and Orville exchanged a look.  Orville took a deep breath before he spoke.  “Nobody’s ever been pronounced dead on Disney property because that’s Disney’s policy.  If somebody passes away at one of the parks, the body gets loaded into the alpha unit and pronounced dead in transit.”….”Hey, don’t look so sad.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

In reality, I wasn’t at all that surprised.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that was the case the whole time. What really threw me was my apparently innate talent to deceive myself into believing the most absurd fantasies: that I could escape reality in an amusement park, that I could continue to live a life unexamined. …. I ran away from my mom when she needed my support the most.  I was a shallow, self-centered bastard. (95%)

Mitchell drives back to California, shedding his Disney self as he goes–changing his ring tone, re-inserting his labret piercing, and so forth.  He finds out his mom is now in remission.  The book fades to black with the family watching, and him falling asleep to Disney’s Peter Pan. (100%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.48.48 AM

Makes for a cohesive, tight, and convenient narrative, doesn’t it?  Boy loses girl and job, finds out Mom is sick, and runs away to Disney World.  Boy loses job and girl friend,  runs back to CA, and mom is well.  The “no one dies on property” rumor is ash is just one more piece of Disney misdirection to bookend the narrative.  All very slick.  Too slick for me, as a critical reader, to take at face value.

Let’s start with that whole “no on ever dies on property” rumor.  According to snopes, it is false.  But does that mean that situations like the one described don’t happen?  Probably not–it wouldn’t shock me that in general the policy is to have the person declared DOA at the hospital, but it isn’t true that it never happens.

Like Ridgeway, Mitchell takes his artistic license too far at times in a way that calls everything into question.  Do I buy that the greeter died on property but got a DOA at the hospital–maybe.  Do I buy that Calico was a bit method?  Sure.  The extent to which Mitchell describes, though?  Especially given the perfection of the timing for everything to fall apart at the precisely correct moment?  Smacks of artistic license.  It’s all a bit too perfectly timed in an After School Special  “Very Important Lesson” kind of way.

Exactly how much exaggeration is going on?  How much of an axe does Mitchell have to grind?  Hard to know.

Both of the Disney books are skewed.  Mitchell is the E True Hollywood Story to Ridgeway’s Travel Channel documentary, so to speak.  When put head to head, which you’ll like better is up for grabs depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

Book Review: Diary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.07.43 PMDiary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Rating 1/5 stars

Since becoming an expat in 2010, I have enjoyed reading expat memoirs.  They’ve helped me feel less alone when I feel isolated.  Culture shock and confusion are a common experience, not something that makes me a “bad expat.”  Seeing them come to terms with and part of their new home culture is encouraging.  Considering that, “Diary of an Expat in Singapore,” by Jennifer Gargiulo should be a natural addition to my bookcase.  It isn’t.

We are both expat mothers of two children.  Neither of us expected to stay in Singapore long.  As I approach my 4th anniversary, Gargiulo is approaching her 7th.  We both write about our experiences in Singapore, but we do so in very different ways.

I was hoping for an exploration of the transition to expatriate, acclimation to Singapore, and the difficulties one can have reconciling your culture with that of Singapore’s.  I got oversimplified top ten lists and casual racism.

The racism was particularly problematic for me.  I learn that Swedes are most likely to be training for a triathelete (pg 21), Japanese stick together (pg 89), and that it’s surprising that there are so many skin whitening products on sale in Singapore since Singaporean kids are always inside studying (pg 91).  As the mother of half-Indian daughters and the wife of an Indian American, I was unamused to find out that she thinks

The Indian expat launches websites, compares ways to best store a sari in Singapore…[and] lengthy discussions on where to buy gold.” (pg 24)

and that everyone loves India except Indians because they want to get PR in Signapore(pg 157).  All of these are brushed off as “humor” and “political incorrectness.”  They’re not—they are white privilege at its worst—and blatantly racist.

It takes white privilege to be blissfully unaware that many apartment vacancies specifically say “no Indians.”  Gargiulo is blissfully unaware that my biracial family is carefully billed as “American” when we’ve apartment hunted because our agent would never have gotten to American if she had started with Indian.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.41.53 PMScreen shot from Property Guru in a Wall Street Journal article about discrimination in the Singapore housing market

White privilege and class privilege combine to take potshots at a certain type of expatriate—the foreign domestic worker (FDW–aka maid/helper).

For example, revealing one’s maid’s nickname is Slow Mo (as in slow motion) because she washes salad so slowly she gets to know the leaves on a first-name basis” (pg 38).

Here, even the maids have maids. Seriously.” (pg 59)

How domestic workers manage to have not only better phones than the rest of the population but better phone plans as well. They must be working for SingTel. This is the only possible explanation for the amount of time cleaners spend talking on the phone.” (pg 179)

From the descriptions, you would think that FDW’s have it made here.  The truth is that they work for pennies (the average salary range is 400-600 sgd a month), that many are on call 24 hours a day, and that the government isn’t particularly interested in their rights.  An FDW must get a pregnancy and AIDS screening twice a year, and will be sent home if she tests positive for either (Gargiulo and myself have access to hormonal birth control and abortion by contrast).  An FDW may not marry a Singaporean.  An FDW may be fired and deported without cause.

None of these rules apply to an expat like Gargiulo or myself because we’re wealthy enough to be the employer as opposed to the employee.

The complex dance of cross-cultural expectations and understandings are missing, as is the awkwardness of having a stranger live inside your home.  The only thing she discusses about cultural issues is what nationality of maid you might hire

Filipina, Indonesian, or from Myanmar (in other words: speaks English, acts like she speaks English, or really has no idea what you are saying) (pg 38) 

Construction workers are another invisible expat.  In fact, she doesn’t mention them directly at all, rather she only discusses that construction noise inconveniences her (pg. 7) without any thought to the men who work at that site.  She’s thrilled to share that “unemployed immigrants are nonexistent” (pg 65) but doesn’t seem to know or care about the construction workers who get hurt on the job and are summarily fired and deported without compensation.  Although the book was published in late 2013, late enough to include jokes about the hazardous haze in June of that year, there is no mention that construction workers had to continue working outside when the PSI was over 400 (hazardous).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.02 PMNo Haze (pic of myself and a friend)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.07 PMHaze PSI of 300+ (hazardous) taken by my husband from his work window

There is also no mention of how over 150 bus drivers went on strike in 2012.  Four drivers were jailed and then deported, 29 were deported without jail time, and 150 others were given notices by the police—most of them expatriate foreign workers from the People’s Republic of China.

For Gargiulo, expats aren’t maids, construction workers, or bus drivers.  They’re Wealthy, White, and Western (except for the occasional reference to Japanese, Koreans and Indians—the presumption is that they are white).  They have non-black hair.  Expat children go to international schools.  Expat husbands work all the time, and travel even more.

There is nothing the expat spouse likes less than having the working spouse out of town on the weekend. During the week, it’s fine, almost routine. Early dinners with the kids, late-night snacks in front of the TV, no fighting over the remote… but Sunday, that’s another story. (pg 11)

Let’s not joke about solo control of the remote, Jennifer.  Instead, let’s have an honest discussion about how isolating it can be to be the trailing spouse and the effect that can have on a relationship.  Expats have a higher than average divorce rate, and according to my husband’s company the trailing spouse is the most frequent reason an expat employee will leave Singapore.  We spouses (most often wives) are the ones who interact with Singapore the most—we grocery shop, we need to figure out how to get the kids to school, where to send them for a doctor’s appointment, and so forth.  We argue with the building management, with our agent to get whatever’s broken fixed, and more.  Our spouses go to work and come home.  It creates an odd, potentially new, power balance in a marriage, and it is one of the hardest parts of moving to a new country.

Expat spouses are the ones who interact with Singapore, and thus Singaporeans more than our working spouses (who often are in an office full of other expats.)  To Garguiulo, this is like interacting with an alien species.

Singaporeans are obsessed with school; “If you do meet a mom, she is very likely carrying a heavy textbook to brush up on her math before tutoring her child. If it is the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) time of year, you won’t see her for weeks.” (pg 25) 

Singaporean English—legitimate dialect of English, just like American English–is mocked; “Had I not moved to Singapore, I might never have known that the word off can be used as a verb: “Would you like me to off the air con?” (p. 63) 

The customs are weird; “It’s only 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside… who wouldn’t want a refreshing cup of hot water?” (p. 74) 

Singaporeans are such a puzzle to Garguiulo, who wonders “Why there are so many different types of skin-whitening products at shops in Singapore is a complete mystery to me.…They can thank their kids’ exams for their unblemished skin.”  (p. 91)

As someone who doesn’t live in the expat bubble I’m frustrated by these characterizations.  If Gargiulo made friends with Singaporean moms instead of mocking them, she’d learn about the Singaporean school system.  The PSLE exam determines the rest of the child’s life–what secondary school they can get into, the likelihood of their doing well on O level exams (british system), what Junior College they are eligible for and what A levels they’re likely to have access to, and then what universities the child is eligible to attend.  If you flub the PSLE, there’s no fixing it.  Further, she talks about how some Singaporeans moved into a condo because of schools–yes, they did move there because of the rules about who gets priority to apply into a primary school and those rules are incredibly complex (something I’m dealing with this year).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.47.01 PMRhi’s birthday celebration last year at her school.  She is one of only a few non Singaporean Chinese children.

It’s not that you shouldn’t point out cultural differences or share that you’re baffled by something.  But there’s a difference between doing that and belittling–and too frequently it feels like the latter, not the former.

Living in Singapore, and interacting with Singaporeans (when you can find them, apparently) have an effect our your children.  Sure you wanted them to have an experience and learn Mandarin, but then they cross that line and become too Singaporean.

“When someone asks the kids where they’re from, they answer Singapore” (pg 48),

The kids’ preference for rice over pasta. (pg 50)

The answer to “What sign are you?” is not Sagittarius. It’s Snake (pg 56). 

Rather than discuss the very real ambivalence and concern over whether you’re giving a child “enough” access to their home culture, Garguiulo jokes that they’ve been in Singapore too long because “When asked how they are in Italian, they answer in Chinese” (pg 56).

Raising a third culture kid is hard, so let’s talk about what makes it hard.  I struggle with my children’s identity-my elder will tell you “I’m a little bit Indian, a little bit American, and a little bit Singaporean,” which is a step in the right direction–when she was three she insisted she was Singaporean.

IMG_1882E at the Natural History Museum in NYC, an hour before I flubbed her intro to US History

I’ve barely introduced the idea of the US and American history to Elanor (5).  We went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and when walking through the “Plains Indians” exhibit, I tried to explain early colonization–and as a historian I’m not willing to lie about the realities of European/Native interaction.  We have also read age appropriate books about Martin Luther King for Martin Luther King Day.  Elanor’s takeaway from these two pieces of history is that White People are mean–which shows how far over her head my explanations went.  Yes, but….  It’s really hard to introduce her to American History and culture when we’re so divorced from it (and given that I’m not a particularly flag waving type to begin with).

It’s a really touchy subject with me when I get crap from other Americans about sending my kids to local schools because they won’t be “American.”  While I do have the fury of a thousand suns over that, it’s also true that I have some ambivalence and worry over it too.

Sure, I laughed at some of her observations and jokes.  But that doesn’t mean I think that they balanced out the racism and cheap stereotypes.  Being an expat is hard, and I prefer a far more honest and contemplative narrative.  Without serious content to balance the jokes, and a removal of the racism, this just isn’t my kind of book.  I wasn’t familiar with her blog going in–if I were, I probably would’ve passed on the book.