Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation

by J. Maarten Troost


$16.32 $17.00 Save 4% Current price is $16.32, Original price is $17. You Save 4%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Tuesday, October 23?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.


Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost

The bestselling author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals returns with a sharply observed, hilarious account of his adventures in China—a complex, fascinating country with enough dangers and delicacies to keep him, and readers, endlessly entertained.

Maarten Troost has charmed legions of readers with his laugh-out-loud tales of wandering the remote islands of the South Pacific. When the travel bug hit again, he decided to go big-time, taking on the world’s most populous and intriguing nation. In Lost on Planet China, Troost escorts readers on a rollicking journey through the new beating heart of the modern world, from the megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and the hinterlands of Tibet.

Lost on Planet China
finds Troost dodging deadly drivers in Shanghai; eating Yak in Tibet; deciphering restaurant menus (offering local favorites such as Cattle Penis with Garlic); visiting with Chairman Mao (still dead, very orange); and hiking (with 80,000 other people) up Tai Shan, China’s most revered mountain. But in addition to his trademark gonzo adventures, the book also delivers a telling look at a vast and complex country on the brink of transformation that will soon shape the way we all work, live, and think. As Troost shows, while we may be familiar with Yao Ming or dim sum or the cheap, plastic products that line the shelves of every store, the real China remains a world—indeed, a planet--unto itself.

Maarten Troost brings China to life as you’ve never seen it before, and his insightful, rip-roaringly funny narrative proves that once again he is one of the most entertaining and insightful armchair travel companions around.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767922012
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 317,087
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

J. MAARTEN TROOST is the author of Getting Stoned with Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, and the Prague Post. He spent two years in Kiribati in the Equatorial Pacific and upon his return was hired as a consultant by the World Bank. After several years in Fiji and Vanuatu, he recently relocated to the U.S. and now lives with his wife and two sons in California.

Read an Excerpt


There are two kinds of people roaming the far fringes of the world: Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen. I know this because for a long while I lived off the map, flitting from island to island in the South Pacific, and invariably, just as I arrived at what surely was the ends of the earth, I would soon find myself in the company of Elder Ryan and Elder Leviticus, twenty year old kids from suburban Provo, who faced the challenging task of convincing islanders that they were not native islanders at all, but lost Israelites. Not just lost Israelites mind you, but lost and wicked Israelites. One would think that this would be a hard thing to convince people of, but the Mormons are persistent and today they can be found on even the most remote of islands. On Onotoa, an atoll of trifling size in the southern Gilbert group, and about as far as one can be on this planet without quite leaving it, I was startled to discover two Mormon missionaries, wearing their customary black pants and white short-sleeved dress shirts, complete with name tags, biking up and down the island's lonesome dirt path, searching for wayward souls to rescue. I also found them in Tonga, on the arresting islets of Vava'u, and even in the rugged hills of Vanuatu. Whenever I encountered them, I immediately reached for a dose of caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol, something to demonstrate that conversion was a hopeless cause with me, and soon they were on their way, hustling errant Israelites.

Eventually, I grew accustomed to their presence. Missionaries, after all, have long been found in the world's most distant corners. Where else would one find a tribe of lost and forgotten Hebrews? But as one year on the far side of the world passed into another, and then another, and another, until it seemed likely that my time on the islands would outlast Robinson Crusoe's, I began to notice a different visitor--the Chinese businessman.

This, frankly, surprised me to no end, possibly because news travels slowly on the coconut wireless. No doubt in other parts of the world the presence of Chinese businessmen--Capitalists!--would elicit nary a reaction. Mao Zedong had been dead for thirty years. China had moved on, changed, adapted, and eventually become the world's factory. But if you live on an island where prices are still quoted in pigs, and where the news of the day is likely to involve two chiefs disputing each other's lineage, you might not know this. You might, in fact, still believe that the Chinese peddle ancient black bicycles to their designated work unit, which is part of a cadre, though you're not quite sure what a cadre is. When you envision China you might imagine factory workers, each waving a Little Red Book, marching in sync past enormous portraits of the Heroes of the Revolution. You can almost hear the loudspeakers, the voices exhorting the proletariat to strive ever further, so that the goals of the Five Year Plan are attained. You can imagine little children, all wearing red handkerchiefs around their necks, learning to despise imperialist dogs and debauched class enemies. This is what happens when you live in a place far, far away, thousands of miles from a continent. Nothing ever changes on an island, and you assume that the continental world too has resolved to cease spinning. But it hasn't, of course, and one day you discover that you're sharing an odd, faraway island with a businessman from China.

Consider Onotoa, an atoll in the southern Gilbert Islands. Go on. Take out the atlas. You can't find it, can you? This is because it is a mere speck of an island, not more than a hundred yards across. If you were a tribe of ancient, wicked Israelites with a pressing need to disappear, you could not do better than to set forth for Onotoa. It wasn't until a whaling ship alighted upon the island in 1826 that the outside world was made to learn of its existence, a fact that was quickly and thoroughly forgotten by all. The island exists as it always has, suspended in time, a world unto its own. It is devoid of electricity and running water. It is plagued by drought. There is nothing to eat except fish; thus the islanders have a well-deserved reputation for frugality. Periodically, a wheezing prop plane lands on a strip of coral and drops off a wandering missionary or government official. Rarer still, the plane returns to pick them up, often months later. On Onotoa, you could not be further from the world of commerce, and yet here was where I found Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang, two entrepreneurs from Guangdong Province in southeastern China. They had come all this way to establish a live reef fish trade operation. Every few months a Chinese vessel called upon Onotoa to gather a tank of live lagoon fish, which were then sent to up-market restaurants in Hong Kong, where diners could peer into an aquarium, select their meal, and promptly experience the first spasms of ciguatera poisoning, a disagreeable and periodically fatal condition. Apparently, Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang had failed to notice that for the good people of Onotoa, the lagoon was also the toilet, an omission of observation that I found baffling.

Nevertheless, I was more flabbergasted by their very presence on the island. Elder Ryan and Elder Leviticus I had come to expect. Not so Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang. At the time, I was living on Tarawa, a sliver of an island in the Republic of Kiribati notable for straddling that very wide chasm between cesspool and paradise. I had followed my girlfriend Sylvia to Tarawa because that is what I did--followed Sylvia around as she pursued a career in international development. In the peripatetic years that followed, we moved on from Kiribati to Vanuatu and onward to Fiji, and on every island we touched upon we were invariably struck by the presence of the Chinese. On Kosrae, in the Federated States of Micronesia, on a lonely windswept beach where herons plunged after crabs, I stumbled across Mr. Lu, an engineer from Beijing who had arrived on the island to bid on a building contract. In Vanuatu, where politics and graft are tightly coiled, entrepreneurs from China discovered that the country made for an excellent conduit to smuggle heroin. True, technically heroin smuggling is illegal, but it is most certainly a business. Even blighted Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and officially the Worst Place in the World according to The Economist, was experiencing a boom in Chinese investors lured to the country by its natural resources.

More confounding--for me, in any case--was the scale of Chinese emigration to the islands. When I first alighted upon Suva, the capitol of Fiji, in the mid-1990s, Victoria Parade was a venerable, though dilapidated, boulevard of colonial-era buildings. Nothing much happened in Suva, except for the occasional coup. A few years later, Victoria Parade had become a veritable Chinatown, an avenue of Chinese shops, restaurants and nightclubs catering to mainland fishermen and garment workers. Other islands too experienced a surge of Chinese immigrants, lured to a region where market competition is non-existent. Sadly for them, they weren't particularly welcome. Rampaging mobs in Nuku'alofa, the balmy capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, burned down 30 Chinese owned shops. In Honiara, the blighted capital of the Solomon Islands, the Chinese navy had to rescue 300 of their citizens after locals set the predominantly Chinese business district ablaze.

Nevertheless, within a short decade, the South Pacific was well on its way to becoming a Chinese lake. The better hotels were often full of official delegations. Some were there to forge commercial links. Others had come with their checkbooks ready, doling out "foreign aid" to receptive governments, who in turn needed to do nothing more than acknowledge that despite appearances otherwise, Taiwan was not a country. By conceding that Taiwan was merely a quarrelsome province within the People's Republic of China, governments in the South Pacific soon found themselves in the possession of fleets of high-end SUVs, which they drove to their new and considerably more lavish offices, where they could ponder the work being done on their brand new stadiums. This was foreign aid, Chinese-style, and governments in the South Pacific discovered that they liked it very much.
It was the appearance of Chinese tourists in Fiji, however, that really got me thinking that something was afoot in China. Chinese tourists? In Fiji? I first came across some at low tide on a beach on the Coral Coast on the island of Viti Levu, where a group of mainland tourists was happily emptying the reef of its population of luminous starfish. Gently reminded by their tour guide that they could not in fact wander off with forty-some starfish, they deposited them in stacks atop the boulders that jutted above the reef.

"Did you notice that?" I said to my wife Sylvia as we set about returning the displaced starfish to the shallow water.

"You mean the interesting approach to wildlife?"

"Yes, that too. But that they were tourists from China. When exactly did tourists from China start coming to the South Pacific?"

I, frankly, had stopped paying attention to China sometime in 1989, that magical year when Communism dissolved elsewhere in the world. Then, in an historical blink of an eye, dissident shipyard workers and philosophers suddenly found themselves transformed into elected presidents. Democracy flourished and the Czechs, bless them, stumbled over themselves to join the Beer Drinkers Party. Borders were opened, and soon Hungarian tourists could be found camping in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, while westerners, myself included, settled in cities like Prague, where the women were beautiful, the beer cheap, and the times significant. For two generations, Eastern Europe had existed under the grey shroud of totalitarian rule, and suddenly they too were free to compete with campy bands from Liechtenstein and punk-monster groups from Finland for the awesome privilege of winning the Eurovision Song of the Year Competition. This was freedom.
1989 played out a little differently in China, of course. When thousands of students converged upon Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand a little democracy--Hey hey, hey ho, Maosim has got to go--they were greeted with a decidedly old school response. Deng Xiaoping, the chain-smoking gnome with the twinkling eyes who then ruled China, simply reached for his totalitarian rulebook, flipped toward the index--Democracy protesters, suitable response--and followed directions. He shot them. And that was that.

Except, of course, it wasn't, and therein lay the dissonance I was feeling about China. Something was clearly happening there. The presence of Chinese tourists blithely frolicking on the beaches of Fiji suggested that China was no longer solely a nation of peasants, factory workers, and clipboard-toting political officers. And yet, as far as I could tell, China remained ruled by the very same clipboard-toting political officers who had brought forth the excitement of the Cultural Revolution, those last years of the Mao era when China went stark raving mad. In the early seventies, one pushed boundaries in the US by lighting up a joint and engaging in a sit-in at Berkeley. For the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, a good day might be spent destroying a Ming era temple and torturing the teachers and intellectuals accused of possessing revanchist tendencies. When it came to pushing boundaries, the hippies had nothing on the Red Guards. Maybe Charles Manson did. But Charles Manson is in prison. The Red Guards simply faded away.

Once Sylvia and I returned to the United States, this sense of incongruity only deepened. Wading through the thunder and bombast of what passes for news programming today--Motto: All terror, all the time--I'd come across little nuggets of information such as the startling fact that IBM Computers is now owned by the Chinese company Lenova. Clearly, the creators of 2001: A Space Odyssey miscalled that one; HAL should have been speaking Mandarin. And then, sometime later, as the television news paused for a commercial--Coming up next: Are we all going to die Tomorrow?--I'd pick up the newspaper and learn that to combat a few cases of rabies, Chinese authorities had decided to club or electrocute or even bury alive, hundreds of thousands of pet dogs. Even for someone like me, who had long lived in a region where dogs are regarded as either a menacing nuisance or a good choice for lunch, the response seemed a tad barbaric. IBM had long represented the future--the American future--and now that particular future was in the hands of barbarous dog-killers.

Mostly, however, as I refreshed myself in the events of the day, I was struck by the gnawing sense that despite the best efforts of the freedom-hating Islamofascists, the bigger news seemed to be elsewhere. "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world," Napoleon had famously remarked. China, clearly, had awoken. For some, this had been evident for some time. For others--say like those who had spent a good part of the past decade living on remote islands in the South Pacific--it was something of a surprise to learn just how big China had become. Officially, there were 1.3 billion people in China. Unofficially, there were 1.5 billion. It had become the industrial capital of the world. The 200 million migrants who had left the fields for the cities reflected the largest human migration in history. China had managed to achieve an annual economic growth rate of 9.5 percent or more for 28 years straight. It is presently the world's third largest economy after the US and Japan and it is expected to become the second in the foreseeable future. China currently exports more than a trillion dollars worth of goods annually and is soon expected to account for nearly 50 percent of world trade. There are now dozens of cities within its borders with populations above 5 million, most of which, to be perfectly honest, I had never heard of.
And yet, despite China having become one of the economic engines of the world, I had no sense of what China actually was. Not since Deng Xiaoping has China had a leader that reflected a personality, a sense of Chineseness that foreigners could latch on to. Say what you will about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but they are, in their own ways, America writ large. Watching those two, the charmer who exuded empathy and insatiable appetites, and the smirking bully whose very strut is enough to send otherwise reasonable people into an inchoate, apoplectic quiver of rage, it is clear that Bill and George could only be American. Hu Jintao, on the other hand, simply comes across as the guy in the office that you really need to watch out for.

Instead, all I could discern were contrasts. Beijing had been awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics and you'd think, okay, we're a long way now from the events of June 4th, 1989. In preparation, the authorities had decided to finally release the student who had hurled a paint bomb at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao that looms over Tiananmen Square. Well, good, you think. And then it emerges that after eighteen years of what we now soothingly call enhanced interrogation techniques, the student had been shattered, and today is free only to roam through his insanity. Yet, many of our most esteemed commentators--and how, exactly, does one become an esteemed commenter?--speak reassuringly about the newfound freedom in China. Maybe, but who wants to unfurl a Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square? You first, Mr. Commentator.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable E 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 65 reviews.
TexanJF More than 1 year ago
I was a Chinese language and history major. I lived in China from 1992 to 2002 and have had the pleasure of traveling all over the PRC. When this air force intelligence officer I go to church with (he was also a Chinese language major) gave me this book to read, I figured what the heck. When the author gets to Beijing, a China hand named Dan helps him out with things. I was wondering if this China hand could be the Dan I used to work with back in Guangdong in the mid to late 90s. Sure enough, last night around 1 am, I had just finished the book (bad ending) and was reading the acknowledgments and read the name "Dan Friedman" who was the guy I used to work with. That made me smile at how small this world is getting. The author points out that if he'd been in his 20s with lungs of steel, that China (Shanghai in particular) would be a pretty hip place to live, and he's right. I was a young cowboy and had no problems dealing with China head on. There is no doubt about it. China is racing, and only those who want and can run very fast will enjoy it. If you enjoy peace, tranquility, cleanliness, modesty, honesty, you should stay out of China. I have not read any other works by Mr. Troost, but his reaction to China is the reaction of a normal person traveling around the country. To the negative comments here, I would point out that this is a guy that lived in the South Pacific for many years, not exactly great breeding gound for snobby arrogant ugly americans. The book is accurate. There is more to China than what's in the book, but the book isn't wrong about anything either. It's clear the book had to be wrapped up as the author offers no brilliant conclusions, but there's really nothing brilliant anyone can say either. China is working very hard to be the largest economy in the world. All other priorities in China are secondary. After 10 years of crappy air, I decided that I had had enough. I now live in Hawaii, perfect weather, perfect air, and I appreciate it! I go to China every once in awhile. If you are planning a first trip to China, do 3 days in Shanghai, 3 in Beijing and 3 in Chengdu, then go to Xinjiang and spend 10 days wandering around Urumqi, Kashgar and Hotan. Take trains, ferries, overnight buses are a hoot. Eat hotpot everywhere. Have fun, travel broadly, be happy, don't get ripped off, be safe. aloha.
chrisincalifornia More than 1 year ago
The smog, the traffic, the crowded way of life was hard to imagine. The author painted a very good picture of this country's inability to cope. I couldn't imagine taking a family to live in China after reading this book. There appeared to be no way to escape the pollution and lack of sensitivity of China's rulers. In my opinion they care mainly about making money and not about the quality of life of its people. Thanks Mr. Troost. This was a well written account. I felt that I was travelling with you.
DLepp More than 1 year ago
I loved this book as much as Troost's others! I have picked out passages to read to my AP Environmental Science students and recommended it to several people. His humor is reminiscent of "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams and anything by Bill Bryson.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to agree and disagree with the other reviewer here. I LOVED Troost's first two books, especially The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and as someone who reads everything and passes it on, these books share a spot on the 'Keeper' bookshelf in my home. As for the first reviewer, I feel I have something to say to him/her? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO CHINA??????? Well, I have and Troost. sometimes sadly, has it spot on. It is hard not to be cynical in this country of controversy and severe contrasts. We went to China to rescue 'yes, rescue' our 3 yr old handicapped daughter from a life of certain despair and poverty. The air was horrifying, the contrast between the 'haves' and the have-nots' made this pacifist liberal democrat fume. We traveled to Wuhan, a city that Mr. Troost wisely stayed away from and we were appalled. This being said, I saw awe-inspiring beauty, kind and generous people and history that is so ancient that it goes beyond belief. So was Mr. Troost cynical? Yes, but unlike his bumbling, hilarious adventures in the South Pacific, the subject matter lends itself to cynicism. My one recommendation to Mr. Troost, I know you wanted to travel authentically, but a really good guide/interpretor in the Han sections of China would have been a wise investment. Keep traveling, keep writing, I'll keep reading. This book also goes on my 'keep' shelf'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cynicism and a sense of judgement, both refreshingly absent from Troost's earlier work, permeate this downer of a travellogue. Much like the Tibetan taxi driver Troost quotes, 'China bad' is repeated ad nauseum. We all have to grow up some time, but the youthful exuberance that made 'Sex Lives' and 'Getting Stoned' so much fun is missing, leaving a grumpy forty year old 's bitter musings in its stead Hell, if I want to read that, I'll just read my own blog...Very disappointing.
Anonymous 14 days ago
The author mixes humor into his sometimes troublesome Chinese travels. An unbiased look at the emerging country and its people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
muhayimanaemmanuel2 More than 1 year ago
living doctor pen name,
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A travel book so good I'm sending copies to my friends.  It's also the best resource I've found on the rapidly changing giant that is 21st Century China.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
timebandit8 More than 1 year ago
If you are headed to China you must read this book first. Then you won't be completely blind when you land. After reading the book and then traveling in China it made my China exper5ience much more interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Regan Hamrick More than 1 year ago
I have read all of J Maarten Troost's books. This one is just as good!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago