Notes from the Other China is the memoir of a Canadian, Troy Parfitt, who has spent nine years teaching English in Taiwan. He left his native New Brunswick in 1996 to teach in South Korea, and has also made trips to Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal and Vietnam, all of which give rise to their own sections in this book.
He found Korea xenophobic, at least in the late 1990s, and writes he had to dodge the "cheddar police" while looking for foreign delicacies such as cheese, wine and mustard, and notes the high incidence of wife-beating. South Korea, he concludes, is "a rough place that has the potential for becoming very dangerous very fast." He left when his employer called the police after he said he might not want to teach a particular class - he'd heard stories, he writes, of foreign language-teachers being beaten up.
Japan (No Yen for Japan) he finds spotless, efficient, and with an extraordinarily visible sex industry. The Philippines comes in for similarly sardonic treatment. What on earth, you wonder, will he have to say about Taiwan?
He begins with what he perceives as a Taiwanese fondness for Nazi iconography, then goes on to survey Taiwanese students' ignorance of world affairs and even geography, citing those who pointed to Madagascar or Iceland when asked to locate their home on a map, and this in a place that probably subjects its young to more educational pressure than anywhere else on earth.
Next we have Taiwan as the "weird news capital of the world," then an incident that leads Parfitt to conclude that "the inefficiency of Taiwan's police force would be difficult to overstate." Their having to routinely sign cards to prove they've visited set locations he dubs "a serious inconvenience as it means that they have to conduct their other affairs, which include collecting bribes, running gambling houses and brothels, opening pubs that sell narcotics, and abducting prostitutes from China for ransom" at other times. Is there going to be anything positive about Taiwan, or indeed anywhere else? Even the Taiwanese friendliness to foreigners is presented as something slightly ridiculous.
At one point the author writes, "Just for the record, I would like to state that I am not one of those people who thrive on conflict or who enjoys a good blow out every now and again. Honestly, I'm not. But these people can make you loopier than a spool of yarn."
Troy Parfitt clearly fancies himself as a satirist. What he specializes in here are the comic absurdities of life away from New Brunswick, things that he expostulates on with predictable catchy laugh-lines at the end of each chapter. Foreigners, or at least Asians, are all ridiculous is the implication, or anyway the line the author thinks will make his book most amusing.
It's hard to know whether Parfitt genuinely doesn't see the innumerable positive qualities of the Taiwanese that I see, or whether he just believes that concentrating on any absurdities he can find will gain him the loudest barroom laughs.
This kind of hostility to the local people in a foreign country that's providing you with a living used to be common in colonies like Hong Kong, but is relatively rare nowadays, certainly in Taiwan. So in a sense Parfitt is resurrecting an old ethos, trying to get a bit more mileage from a refusal to see matters the foreigners' way, and resorting to thinking them instead ridiculous, outrageous, self-seeking, refusing to take responsibility, and so on.
What Troy Parfitt comes to sound like, consequently, is a bad traveler, an insensitive loud-mouth ranting on about the absurdities of life "abroad." As his epigraph he quotes a sensible sentence from Samuel Johnson that points out that travel allows you to modify fantasy by exposure to the real thing. The assault on Asian ways of life that follows - and the same treatment Taiwan receives is handed out, at lesser length, to the other Asian countries the writer visits - consequently comes as an even greater surprise.
I felt some unexpected sympathy when I came to a chapter attacking the Mormons in Taiwan, but by now Parfitt's style had begun to seriously anger me, so I was left wishing only for a more congenial ally in an old distaste.
Among the many people and attitudes maligned, Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) is called a "poor, misguided soul," whose book on feminism is, according to Parfitt's informants, "extremely effective in combating insomnia and propping up wobbly tables." The novel she wrote while a political prisoner (on toilet paper because there was nothing else available) is, Parfitt says he's willing to bet, "little more than attractively bound toilet paper now ... ." He hasn't read that one either. At the end of the chapter he switches tack and says he respects her, if only because she's so unpopular in Beijing. But it's too late. Parfitt has already established his credentials as someone who has all the appearance of foul-mouthing others just for the hell of it.
What follows includes the impossibility of Mandarin as an international language, Vietnamese as "painful to listen to," the lack of English-speakers in Taipei banks, heavy-handed irony ("Taiwan, you see, is an environmental disaster"), and more in the same vein. The book concludes with a journey down the length of Vietnam. By then I'd had as much as I could stomach, and more.
It doesn't take long for this kind of writing to become wearying in the extreme. It veers between the would-be outspoken and the plainly outrageous. Readers are probably intended to murmur admiringly that here is someone who really speaks his mind. My feeling, however, is that most of them are likely to fling this book down out of sheer embarrassment. I certainly did.