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!