A South African in China

2010-04-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Cracking China: A memoir of our first three years in China

Rod MacKenzie

Knowledge Thirst Media

HAVING long-distant family roots in China and visited it myself, I have had to review several books on China, few of which I liked particularly. Consequently, I sighed when this book landed on my desk. It is the latest in the crop of memoirs by locals who have ventured to the land of bamboo sprouts and chopsticks to teach ­English as a foreign language (EFL).

However, the author’s picture on the back cover has to be the goofiest and least-flattering I have ever seen, which cheered me. At least it looked like he would not take himself too seriously. I was right, and enjoyed this much more than I expected or even hoped to.

Mackenzie and his wife Marion, “the Chook”, taught in several schools, ­colleges and universities in various centres, which many other South ­Africans have done. He recorded their ­experiences as they unfolded and then turned them into this book, again, as several others have done.

However, several things make this book stand out from the others. ­Firstly, the author made a concerted effort to learn to speak Mandarin ­Chinese, which set him and their subsequent experiences apart from the many ­other foreigners living and working in China.

His descriptions of the well-known Chinese chauvinism are amusing, as person after person ­appears bemused and unable to believe that “the words coming out of my mouth were in Chinese”. The Chinese are known for their superiority complex, content in their misapprehension that theirs is the oldest and most sophisticated culture in the world, and that their language is too complex for any foreigner to master.

The second quality that sets this book apart from similar memoirs is that MacKenzie is the first I have come across to offer more than just observations and reminiscences. He also provides some penetrating analysis and interpretation of contemporary China and its culture that I found ­perceptive and meaningful.

He is also a gifted writer of lyrical prose and an accomplished poet, some of his works adding to the enjoyment of this book.

That said, I did find it a little self-conscious, if not self-indulgent at times, with constant repetition of how large a man MacKenzie is and how bad his temper can be. He is obviously also devoted to his wife and I found the endless references to “the Chook” became cloying.

 

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