China Road by Rob Gifford

China may be a lot of things, but boring aint one of them. The more language we learn, the more interesting this place gets.

From Rob Gifford, author of China Road:chinaroadcover.jpg

I defy any reporter to make China boring. Almost everything about it is surprising and interesting, in part because it is so different from what you’re expecting. One of the great things about living here, quite apart from the opportunity to fill up the Q, X, and Z sections of your address book, is just going with the flow, walking out in the morning with only a vague plan and seeing where the day takes you. It’s almost always somewhere you’d never predicted.

When a newly-arrived language student says China is interesting, it’s one thing. When veteran reporter is still saying it even though he first set foot in China in 1987, it’s something else. Rob Gifford’s final gig in China was as an NPR correspondent from 1999 to 2005, and China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power is his swan song, combining insights from his work and experiences in China with his love and fascination of the country and its people. He chronicles one last epic journey along the Chinese equivalent of America’s Route 66, China’s “mother road” stretching from Shanghai all the way to the far Western border of Muslim China. The road and the people he meets become a map outlining where China is and where it’s going.

Hitchhiking much of the way and utilizing some sensitive contacts (at least one of whom is currently in prison), he talks to all kinds of people, from long-haul truckers to dying villagers that you aren’t supposed to know about. China Road shows both impressive and offensive aspects of today’s China, locating personal stories within the bigger context of China’s ongoing social and economic reforms. The country and people Gifford portrays will both endear and offend the reader. Aside from some occasionally getting overheated in parts, China Road is a smooth and passionate read.

“What do you want most from the West?”

A common theme: chinaroadcover.jpg

“What do you think about China?” the older seed salesman suddenly asks me. He’s a balding man, with a kind face, who says his name is Zhou.

Wo hen xihuan.” I smile inanely. “I like it.”
There’s a brief pause. I’m tired of asking the same questions, so I try to think of something new. “What do you want most from the West?” I ask Mr. Zhou.

He doesn’t hesitate. “What we want most is respect,” he blurts out, as though he has waited all his life for a foreigner on a bus to ask him this question. “Yes, we want respect more than anything. I want to go abroad, like you people when you come here. You come to China, and we respect you because you are wealthy and civilized. That’s what I want too. I want to go to your country, and be respected, and get a good job there and not be looked down on.”

The old couple seem slightly surprised by both the passion and the eloquence of Zhou’s response, but they are nodding their heads. So is everyone else.

Rob Gifford, China Road (2007), p.200.