Book of the week–Don’t Joke on the Stairs

Last week I read Cecilie Gamst Berg’s new memoir, Don’t Joke on the Stairs: How I Learned to Navigate China By Breaking Most of the Rules  (Blacksmith Books, 2011).

Years ago I’d read Gamst Berg’s novel, Blonde Lotus (Haven Books, 2005) and enjoyed her spunky voice. She’s a native of Norway who embarked on a journey to China in 1988 and never returned to her home country (at least not to live).

In Don’t Joke on the Stairs, Gamst Berg brings the reader along on far-off trips to China’s controversial territories like Xinjiang and Tibet–all by train travel. Most of her journeys take place in the last decade, although she also writes about her early arrival in China when people there still rode bicycles and dressed like Madame Mao.

What I loved most about this book was Gamst Berg’s side-splitting humor. It’s obvious she loves China, but she doesn’t apologize for the surreal (as she describes it) happenings in the PRC. I often found myself either thinking, Amen, sister, or laughing too hard to even think.

Take an early chapter where she describes Mao as “the most successful mass-murderer in the history of the world.” (page 48). She goes on to wonder how people in China can still think Mao was 70% good and 30% bad–and buy up mass quantities of Mao paraphernalia (after all, it’s not normal to display clocks with Hitler’s face). Gamst Berg admits she’s also guilty of buying Mao artwork (as am I!).

I like how Gamst Berg mixes history, social issues (prostitution, polygamy, homosexuality, and other illegal activities popular in China), and political ones (Xinjiang and Tibet, to name a couple) with her train travels throughout the country.

After her Trans-Siberian trip across Russia and into China in 1988, Gamst Berg eventually settled in Hong Kong and has become the most well-known Cantonese teacher in the territory. She’s also on a mission to make Cantonese a world language–and to stop Hong Kong from dropping it in favor of Mandarin.

It’s hard to find a book that appeals to both old China hands and novices, but this one does just that!


  1. says

    Susan, your site is fantastic! I just came via our She Writes class, to check out how you’d handled the book tab, and ended up completely entranced (with a page of notes in my lap!) Really lovely layout, great work, and a powerful write up about your memoir. Kudos!

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Hi Tele,

      Thank you SO much! Your kind words mean so much!! I’ve enjoyed reading about your work on your class forum and have really been enjoying the class so far. Sometimes I wonder if I have too much or too little on the book tab, but I guess for now I’ll keep it as is. The great thing about a website is that you can easily change it!

      Thank you again and ‘see’ you in class this week!


  2. T says

    Hey there, I don’t think the comparison of Mao with Hitler is fitting because while it is true that both were responsible for large numbers of human deaths, only one of them is actually guilty of mass murder. Assuming that Gamst Berg is referring to the Great Leap Forward that caused millions to die from famine in her book, Mao was trying to promote economic development for the benefit of the nation when he implemented that policy. Sure, looking at that policy with the benefit of hindsight now it’s easy to see that Mao got it atrociously wrong but his intention was not to kill people, and that stands in stark contrast to Hitler’s policy, which was specifically designed for the extermination of a particular group(s) of people.

    Also, one thing that people have to understand about Mao is that for all his faults, he was the leader that managed to put China back together again after the country endured the 100+ years of torment by the West, during which the West tried to carve up China and share the spoils amongst themselves. If there is one social/political principle that the Chinese people value above all else, it’s national unity and the integrity of their civilisation. This is why Mao is still respected to this day, even if the respect is given grudgingly.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks for your comment! I really get annoyed when people are quick to compare someone they don’t like with Hitler, so I totally get your comment. I compared Mao with Hitler in this case because tens of millions perished during the Great Leap Forward (which is what Cecilie Gamst Berg referred to when she called him the greatest mass-murdered in modern times). Even Hitler couldn’t top that! When I first started learning about Mao maybe 25 years ago, I thought he was a good guy. Now that I’ve read more, I agree more with Gamst Berg. But I can see both sides of the argument. China was in terrible shape before Mao came on the scene, there’s no doubt about that!

      • T says

        Hey Susan,you used to think Mao was a good guy?! That’s rather unusual. Anyway, I wasn’t offended or anything, just in case there’s any misunderstanding. I just thought it was important to point out the major difference between what Mao did (a bad economic policy) and what Hitler did (genocide), and explain why Mao is respected by the Chinese people, despite the terrible things he did.

        • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

          Thanks! I came home from my first trip to China in 1988 convinced China was doing everything right. I was only 17 and quite impressionable. It wasn’t until four years later, after a couple more trips there and a year in Hong Kong, that my love of China became a bit more realistic. Mao was part of that. I thought he’d changed the inequality between men and women, gotten rid of vices, etc., but then I realized that wasn’t exactly the full story. No, of course I’m not offended. I love talking about this stuff! That’s why I really enjoyed this book because the author goes into the good and bad of modern Chinese history.

  3. says

    The cover of the book is wonderful. I’ll check if the main book stores chain in Toronto has it. In her book, she writes about topics which put her in conflict with the rulers of China. Usually athors who left China and live outside dare to write about these issues, but she still lives in China. I wonder if she’s somehow afraid of retalitaion. I was thinking about this while writing my China-America novel, and decided to avoid conflcits. I wonder if you think about it while writing your memoir about living in Hong Kong.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks Giora! I also love the cover of the book. She seems like such a fun, intelligent person. I wish I’d known her when I lived in Hong Kong. I’m sure the bookstores in Toronto will carry this book. Do you have Chapters? They carry Chris Thrall’s memoir, Eating Smoke, which is published by the same press as Don’t Joke on the Stairs. It might take a few more weeks, but if you inquire, the store will either tell you it’s on its way or they can order it.

      I was also very impressed with her openness and wonder if she can travel in China again without hassle after she’d written so openly about Xinjiang, Tibet, and things like prostitution and homosexuality. For your novel, if you don’t plan to go to China in the near future, I think it’s fine to be open. You’ll be safe in Canada, that’s for sure. In my memoir, I don’t criticize the Chinese government, but I definitely show how I become disillusioned with China. I’m more worried about offending people I write about in the book, so I’ve changed their names!

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