Letters from pioneers are always fascinating; it's perhaps the only time that voices of the poor and obscure are listened to as they record their efforts and adventures while breaking new ground. Today in the twenty-first century, with China in the forefront of global prosperity and progress, it's difficult to remember that less than twenty years ago, going to live in that country was for Westerners the equivalent to colonizing the dark side of the moon.
There are a number of people who went to live and work in China and who came away with books about their time there--Bill Holm, Rosemary Mahoney, Peter Hessler and Mark Salzman are only a few of the writers whose accounts of life in the Middle Kingdom are still being read today. Their books are well-written, painstakingly constructed, and carefully self-edited to become literary achievements, and as such, they do not reflect the raw, unvarnished experience of what it was (and in many ways still is) to make a life in Asia. To read the whole story, it's essential to find voices that are immediate, uncensored, and largely anonymous. It's essential to pick up a copy of Dear Alice: Letters Home from American Teachers Learning to Live in China.
In the 1980s, the Colorado Chinese Council began to send college graduates to teach English in universities throughout China. Far from home and reeling from a barrage of cultural differences, these teachers found a safety valve and a faithful correspondent in Alice Renouf, Council Director and a woman who is well aware of the joys and frustrations that come from living in Asia. To her, teachers could and did express the feelings and impressions that would be too worrying if divulged to their families. These letters, saved and collected by Alice, provide a realistic and deeply interesting picture of a diverse group of Westerners and their reactions to submitting to another culture.
Going "through the looking-glass" is an image that occurs often to people who come to live in Asia, and it is soon obvious that Lewis Carroll's Alice must have found that process painful. Writing to their own Alice, teachers quickly move from the "exotic postcard" quality of life in China to the inconvenient, inexplicable, often frustrating confusion that lies in wait to assail them when they least expect it. The picturesque street markets reek of fresh-killed meat, spacious apartments lose running water without warning for twelve hours a day, the air is filled one evening with spectacular exhibitions of fireworks for two hours which subside into a daily cloud of black dust that perpetually covers everything in sight. "Living in China," one teacher writes, "is a lot like camping," while another says, "It is frightening that we live better here than in the United States." These contradictory viewpoints are explained, buttressed and fleshed out by this well-edited collection of letters.
Although by the time that this book was envisioned, life had become much more materially comfortable for Chinese sojourners than it had been for Alice's earlier correspondents, the deepest underpinnings of these letters continues to assail Westerners in China. As Alice says, "Five thousand years of Chinese history and culture can hardly be extinguished by a little more than a decade of telephones, TVs, computers, e-mail, and an improved infrastructure." It is the difference in values that most confound the teachers of the 1980s, the "customs and mind-set," those things that are unchanged by Chinese people putting on Levis and eating at Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Shaped by a culture that extols individualism and plunged into a society based upon groups, Alice's teachers wrestle with the concept of guanxi,defined by one woman as "favors exchanged through networks of relationships and degrees of closeness," the ethics of sharing knowledge within the framework of a group when regarded through the "do your own work" prism of "cheating," the purely Western hunger for personal privacy that is regarded as irrational by many other parts of the globe. This is what plunges expatriates into culture shock, defined in this book as "nervousness in the face of a great unknown." By examining that nervousness while recognizing its importance in adapting to another way of looking at life, these letters and this book provides a touchstone that is of timeless value.
A handbook for anyone who has ever considered stepping away from the known world and discovering whether "there be dragons," Dear Alice is like exploring with a group of like-minded fellow travelers, facing the good, the bad, and the ugly together with sharp minds and good humor.