Last week I read Michael Meyer’s new memoir, The Road to Sleeping Dragon (Bloomsbury, 2017). I really enjoyed his first two narrative/memoirs about Beijing and Manchuria. This one recaps some of those, but goes more into his early years in China when he arrived in Sichuan with the Peace Corps. It was 1995 and China was on the cusp of change, only no one really knew it at the time.
He was a teacher back in Madison, Wisconsin before he moved to China. In the Peace Corps, he used his teaching background at a college in a small Sichuan outpost out in the middle of nowhere. Other Peace Corps veterans like Peter Hessler, Rob Schmitz, and Mike Levy also wrote China memoirs and Meyer explains how this early training in China prepared him for a career as a journalist. It’s quite fascinating.
After his two-year Peace Corp stint is up (not all his class of volunteers made it through to the end), he applies for a teaching job in Beijing he found through a Peace Corps publication, but doesn’t hear from them. Thinking he’ll have to leave China (and do what?), he decides to travel around the country to get a last look at the place he’s called home for the past two years. And when he comes down with a GI ailment and barely makes it to a guest house in Chengdu, he gets a message from the school in Beijing. They offer him the job.
So how in the world did this school track him down at some random guest house in Chengdu? That’s one of those only-in-China stories (which happens to me in Hong Kong), where the Beijing school called Sichuan school where he had been teaching and someone knew his itinerary and figured he’d be staying at a guesthouse in Chengdu popular with most foreigners. Voila. There he was. This was before cell phones were popular in China. Things like this would never happen now since everyone has a mobile phone.
At his new school in Beijing, which is far from the city center (and not in a very happening or convenient area), he falls hard for a fellow teacher named Frances who grew up in Manchuria (thus his second book). The two date and he openly discusses the dynamics of multicultural couples in China back then. It was definitely more difficult for Frances, who was looked down as a passport-digger or a loose woman or both.
Meyer details her difficulty in getting a tourist visa when he invites her to a wedding back in the US. It was painful to read those pages; the reader could feel their frustration in his words. But what baffled me was why he never went inside the embassy with her when she applied for her US visa. I went to the US consulate in Shanghai with my dad’s students’ families four years before Meyer stepped foot in China. Meyer could have explained that he and Frances would be returning to Beijing after the wedding in the US because they both had jobs at the same Beijing school. Meyer’s father provided the financial sponsorship in Frances’s application, so it wasn’t like the embassy staff was unaware of the Meyer family. And if there was a good reason for him not to accompany her, that was left out.
Some other small, but noticeable details. He writes about the currency in China in the mid-90s and how the design of the bills changed around then. He also tells how foreigners were charged more for hotels, airfare, and other commodities than what Chinese nationals paid. But he doesn’t mention foreign exchange certificates (FEC), which foreigners used from the time the US and China restored relations until 1994, a year before he arrived in China. (Foreigners were supposed to only use FEC, although they were given change in renminbi.) And these FECs were used in Friendship Stores, also off bounds to Chinese nationals. There’s no mention of these stores either.
One more minor omission. He and Frances travel around China and stay together overnight for the first time after they leave Beijing for a short while. Back in the mid-90s, I had to show a marriage certificate when I stayed in a hotel or guest house with my Chinese husband. He doesn’t mention anything about marriage certificates (they didn’t have one at that point) or if there were issues with them sharing a room when they weren’t married. Maybe the rule didn’t apply to western men and Chinese women, but even so, I would have thought it’d be something worth mentioning when he described what it was like to have a cross-cultural relationship in China then.
The most chilling–and my favorite–part was when Meyer returned to his old school in Sichuan a handful of years after he left the Peace Corps. The whole city had changed, down to the paved road and shops. That small part of the book shows how much China has developed over a short amount of time. It’s been over 20 years since Meyer first went to China, but the changes happened much quicker than that.
If you’ve read Meyer’s first two books, you’ll see some overlap with this one, but I still recommend it. The Peace Corps years and his time in China twenty years after that are interesting. I also enjoyed reading about his work in architectural and environmental conservation. And if you haven’t read his books, this one is good. I’d also suggest reading his first two books after you finish this one.