Here’s something I’m not particularly proud of: I pester people. And nothing makes me put a person in front of the firing squad (my coinage for aggressive questioning) more than learning that he or she lives (or has lived) someplace foreign and/or exotic. And this someplace doesn’t even have to be really THAT foreign and/or exotic: I’m notorious for pestering people who live in Cleveland.
But here’s the thing: I don’t put just anyone in front of the firing squad. After all, what do I care about yuppie businessmen, binge-drinking college “bros,” or suburban housewives? As I’m fond of saying, I want to know what life is like “on the curb, not the suburb.” What I’m looking for is a certain kind of person. Once I locate this kind of person, it’s lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. I want to know where people drink and what they drink. (say I was filthy for a pint of Murphy’s on a Wednesday night, where would I go?); I want to know where people go for live music (and yes: I consider karaoke live music, but only if it’s Hip Hop Karaoke); I want to know what was the most recent Shakespeare in the Park production (was it something common like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or quirky like Measure for Measure?); I want to know how extensive their public transportation system is and is it only used by smelly semi-homeless people (“Next stop: Shower Street & Deodorant Drive”); I want to know where men go to get hats and women go to get tats (“Is that an octopus?”); I think you get the idea.
Right around the time I start inquiring about the most popular vender at the local Farmer’s Market (is it some adorable hipster couple or an old, grizzled farm family with fifteen kids?) I get that ‘Do you work for the KGB?’ look. Once this happens, I know that it’s only a matter of time before I get a point-blank inquiry as to why I’m asking so many damn questions. But I’m ready for such an inquiry.
“Because,” I respond calmly, “I come from a foreign country.”
I pause a moment, allowing my interlocutor the opportunity to ponder what foreign country somebody like me might come from.
He has a Lithuanian last name…
He talks incessantly about New Zealand rugby…
He’s as friendly as [egads!] a Canadian!
Before I can be accused of being a Canuck, I deliver my punchline:
[Or if I’m in Cleveland: “Columbus.”]
This punchline always kills, especially when I’m in Cleveland.
To your average Ohioan, everyplace is a foreign country; and thus, I never tire of trying to learn as much as I can from people who live (or have lived) there. But these people have to be real people, creative people.
And this brings me to the crux of this review: is there any place on earth more foreign than China? [No, North Korean doesn’t count.] To your average Ohioan, China is imponderable, impenetrable. The air pollution in Siloupo? Shadow banks? Investments in Detroit AND Toledo? (Two shitholes for the price of one!) The Diary of Government Official Hou Weidong? (Seven volumes!) And what’s the deal with all those gaudy, hand-waving golden cats? Or the confusion surrounding how to use the “Great Western Toilet?”
Enter: Turtle and Dam by Scott Abrahams (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2014).
[For the sake of full disclosure: I’m part of CCLaP’s extended family. They published my novel Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking in February.]
For anyone like me, anyone who doesn’t know where to begin in the quest to understand China, Turtle and Dam is a book to cherish. It’s smart, insightful, and extremely funny. In particular, Abrahams’ ability to humorously weave together the foreign and the familiar is nothing short of astounding. At the center of this confluence stands Turtle Chen. As a literary character, Turtle is utterly (to borrow a phrase from Jason Isbell’s twitter account) “undislikeable.”
The story begins at Wuhai University, which, according to Turtle, is “the academic institution which I am graduated from in May.” In particular, the action starts at the Wuhai University job fair, where students crumple up résumés and shoot them towards prospective employers like basketballs. Thanks to a fortuitous mistake (and not a crumpled up résumé), Turtle lands a job with the Xinhua News Agency. In Chapter Four (you’ll get that joke when you read the book), the reader learns that Xinhua is both the premier news agency in all of China and pure journalistic inanity. As a member of Xinhua’s young journalist training program, Turtle is required to write an article on the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Liang River Valley. This assignment, which at first appears pointless, propels the plot forward, intertwining Turtle’s family, friends, and future.
So who is Turtle Chen?
“The first thing you will notice about me,” Turtle announces in the novel’s opening sentence, “is that my English is impeccable. I am the top student. I studied abroad in the USA at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.” Turtle’s brief association with Princeton allows Abrahams to draw comparisons between Chinese and American cultures; for example, while comparing cities that he has lived in, Turtle declares: “I have lived in Wuhai and I have lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and if New Jersey can be considered America’s armpit then Wuhai must be something even less desirable, such as the nostrils or the anus.”
As the narrative progresses, it becomes obvious that Turtle is not 100% trustworthy. This is not to say that he is the cultural equivalent to Holden Chen (or should that be Turtle Caulfield?); rather, it is to say that Turtle, like the majority of job-seeking postgrads, is prone to exaggerations. For example, later in the novel, he admits that he’s not really “the top student.” He was ranked 273 out of 20,000. And his English is far from “impeccable,” which Abrahams deftly exploits to its fullest comedic value.
But despite the cultural difference and linguistic slip-ups, Turtle emerges from the story as a remarkably familiar portrait of a young man struggling to navigate the difficult post-college years. His struggles include managing maternal pressure towards marriage (“There was a very rapid transition from a one hundred percent prohibition on dating to one hundred percent pressure to find a girlfriend and get married”); his ever-deepening dependence on technology (his SinoPhone is “the top of the line model. It has Bluetooth. It has the internet. It has everything. It is the dream team”); the perils of doing laundry (black spots everywhere!); late-night meal options (in China, you apparently have to make a reservation at Pizza Hut!); and the frustrations and frequent humiliations of love (an insinuation that a female friend has a sugar daddy results in Turtle taking a mantou bun in the face).
Perhaps no scene better illustrates the novel’s skillful weaving together of foreign and familiar, and thus explains who Turtle Chen really is, like the moment when he opens the door to his grandmother’s house to discover two young police officers waiting to question him. Instead of being intimidated, Turtle quickly assesses the situation for what it really is: an interaction of three young men who watch too much American television. “So,” Turtle thinks, “my best guess is that both of us are quite excited to have such a perfect opportunity to act out our favorite dramatic scenes.”
As the conversation unfolds, the trio banters back-and-forth in hilarious NYPD Blue-speak, using phrases such as “so you want to play the hard ball,” “aha, so it looks like we have a wise guy on our hands,” and my personal favorite: “who is the good cop and who is the bad cop?”
No matter what foreign country you’re from, be it China or Ohio, what young adult wouldn’t relish the opportunity to engage in such a ridiculous conversation with a cop?