China Memoirs Get Personal5 min read

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews The Road to Sleeping Dragon


A decade ago, China memoirs hit the publishing world in the US with a force that hasn’t let up. The storm is powered in part by Peace Corps alumni: Mike Levy (Kosher Chinese); four-time China memoirist and New Yorker writer Peter Hessler; and Michael Meyer, whose third China memoir, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up, was released late last year. I enjoyed Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing when it came out in 2010. And I poured through In Manchuria in a couple of sittings a few years ago. They all took a serious tone and seemed determined to inform a reader who hadn’t ventured to China.

Apart from John Pomfret in his memoir, Chinese Lessons, about a time just after the US and China normalized relations, most American men-in-China memoirists haven’t delved much into their personal lives. And most have been single when they arrived in China. Women memoirists have been more open with their personal stories, like Rachel DeWoskin in Foreign Babes in Beijing and Susan Conley in The Foremost Good Fortune. Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is a food memoir, but she goes into detail about feeling lonely and isolated at her school. The male authors’ omission of these most intimate details of their lives has always left me wondering. Were they dating in China? Did they want to date? What’s it like to date in a country that has only been open to the outside for a few decades? I don’t like having more questions when I finish a book than when I started it.

A friend described Meyer’s new memoir to me as a recap of his first two books, plus some added material from his early years in China that he hadn’t written about before. I figured it would be more of the same. Her description was spot-on, but Meyer does go beyond his earlier work, delving into his personal life and bringing me back to the 1990s China I once lived in.

Meyer begins when his two-year Peace Corp stint ends – a feat in itself – and applies for a teaching job in Beijing. He doesn’t hear back, and comes to the realization that he’ll need to leave China. Meyer is at a loss for what he’ll do back in the US, and so decides to travel around the country to get a last look at the place he’s called home for the past two years. Stuck on a bus with a gastrointestinal ailment, Meyer barely makes it to a Chengdu guesthouse, where he finds a message is waiting for him. The Beijing school has offered him the job. (They had called the school where he’d worked before, where someone figured he would be at at a particular guesthouse popular with foreigners.)

Meyer’s new school in Beijing turns out to be far from the city center, but is at the center of a major change in his life. He falls hard for Frances, a fellow teacher who grew up in Manchuria and his future wife. His second book, In Manchuria, explores the place of Frances’ youth, but doesn’t say much about Frances at all. In this latest book, Meyer recalls his early days with Frances, and frankly discusses the dynamics of multicultural dating in China.

It was more trying for Frances, who was looked down on as a passport-digger or a loose woman, or both. Back then, Chinese citizens were flocking to the US by any and every method. Because of this, it wasn’t easy for mainland Chinese to obtain travel visas to the US. Meyer writes in detail about Frances’s difficulty in securing a tourist visa when he invites her to be his plus-one at a wedding in America. It was painful to read about her submitting her application time and time again to the US embassy’s visa desk, only to be rejected. Although Meyer seems open about many aspects of their relationship, I don’t understand why he never went inside the embassy with her. If there was a good reason for him not to accompany her, that was left out.

A few other small but noticeable omissions left me with more questions. Meyer describes the first trip he and Frances take together, which is also the first time they spend the night together. I remember vividly how I had to prove that my Chinese husband and I were married when we wanted to book a hotel or guesthouse. Meyer doesn’t mention anything about marriage certificates (they didn’t have one at that point) or if there were issues with them sharing a room when they weren’t married. Maybe the marriage certificate rule didn’t apply to Western men and Chinese women – a combination far more common than Chinese men and foreign women. No matter the reason, it would have been worth mentioning.

Meyer also writes about how the design of Chinese bills changed in the mid-1990s. Until 1994 – the year before Meyer joined the Peace Corps – foreigners were only supposed to use foreign exchange certificates, although they were given change in renminbi. (They were also encouraged to spend their FECs only at friendship stores, which were off-bounds to Chinese nationals.) Meyer mentions nothing of the FECs or the friendship stores, but the currency design changed before his time, too.

These lacunae aside, I couldn’t put down this memoir. In the most chilling scene – my favorite in the book – Meyer returns to his old school in Sichuan a handful of years after he has left the Peace Corps. The whole city had changed, down to the paved road and the shops. To Meyer, it was almost unrecognizable. For decades, time seemed to stand still in rural China. No more.

Male China memoirists still have a ways to go when it comes to writing about their personal lives. Maybe they feel they need to be serious and informative, even in a book about themselves. Perhaps Meyer has started a trend. ∎


Michael Meyer, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up (Bloomsbury USA, October 2017).