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Home is a Roof Over a Pig: An American Family's Journey in China - Aminta Arrington Originally posted on my blog Guiltless Reading

My two cents: Wonderful memoir! I really enjoyed it -- it's a mixture travelogue, family diary and history lesson. Arrington's strong point is the charming way in which she recounts her experiences. It's personal, it's funny, and at times heartbreaking. If you like to travel, it's extremely interesting to view China from another's eyes. And I learned quite a bit about Chinese culture, history, and the educational system.

Aminta Arrington is an American who has always been fascinated with China. When her husband, Chris, retires from the army, they decide to live out her dream of living in China. Having adopted a Chinese baby girl, Grace, is the other reason for their move. They want Grace to identify not only with her Western upbringing, but also her roots. They pack up their family and take the leap into an unknown culture ... and have a grand (if rather culturally shocking) adventure until years later, they eventually become accepted in the small university town of Tai'an where Aminta finds a teaching post.

One major device that Arrington used throughout the book, and in fact the title of the book is derived from the Chinese symbol for home, and each chapter has an equivalent in Chinese script. I came away with a better appreciation and understanding of how unwittingly the pictorial representation of the words gives us a glimpse of ancient Chinese life. She likewise injects her own observations or opinions, giving us a bit more depth of how she interprets the meaning behind these words.

For example, the word "population" is pictured literally as "people mouths" and knowing that China is a over a billion strong, Arrington explains: "... they austerely, yet uniquely express the challenge China has long faced: a large population means more mouths to feed."(p. 41).

The book focuses on a Western experience in China -- from university town, to a rural countryside, to a modern metropolis. It was interesting to read a Western viewpoint when I come from a very Asian viewpoint.The culture shock they experience is where I could totally relate to. (I am an immigrant to Canada from Asia) -- the shock of unfamiliarity of everything, the language barrier, and the agony of learning how to do even the simplest of things (like buying something, or taking public transport). I found the "second culture shock" they experience when they go back to the US and return as fascinating -- it's the first time I have ever heard of it.

This book is also as much about family life and rearing kids in an alien culture. I had a few moments of quiet heartbreak as she recounts how they learn of Grace's origins. I laughed a little as they struggled to make sense of themselves as a family within a strange country. I cheered on the kids as they became more proficient in the local language and made friends. I turned sober as I see the desire of Aminta and Chris to retain their American-ess while embracing some of the China that they had so desired for Grace and for themselves as a family. And I smiled when a small gesture of Mr. Jia, their super, reveals to Aminta that they are finally accepted as part of the little community.

There are many other diversions. Some interesting points that I appreciated were the pressures that Chinese students face in a China that is fast modernizing, the peek into how steeped in tradition China still is, and finally the subtle commentary about the one-child policy which has resulted in a generation of girls being adopted by other countries. The book is a rich source for many potentially controversial discussions.

Uh-ohs:
Arrington seems to be quite open to the cultural differences she experiences. Obviously, this has a strongly Western-centric viewpoint of the world but hey, it's a memoir, and being biased is the stuff that memoirs are made of. I admit that I am both intrigued and wary about these books as the "holier than thou" attitude of many Western writers writing about Asia always seems to revolve around them. (Think Eat Pray Love.) I flag this as an "uh-oh" because someone coming from the opposite perspective may do a few eye rolls at the obvious, or find offense in her blatant and unapologetic American-ness.

Right off the bat, I was slightly irked by her continual whining about wanting to experience the "real China"... how romanticized a phrase is that? She talks about "modern China" (a China opening to the West and its influences) and she talks about "traditional China" (rural China as if they were two separate things and if one were real and the other less real. But isn't the real China just China ... modern and traditional all rolled into one?

I was also a little annoyed with how she -- whether knowingly or not -- seemed to be foisting her opinions on her students. I tsk-tsked a bit when she got worked up about the idea her students not understanding the concept of independence, individuality and individual freedom. Cultural relativism of what is considered right and wrong is an emotionally laden topic; I applaud her for her honesty because it has also made me more conscious of my own stereotypes and my own cultural lens.

One thing that I thought was missing in the book: photos. I wanted to know what her little hole in the wall looked like, the descriptions of the beautiful mountains and the countryside. If you want to take a peek, she put up a few photos on her website, so go check them out if you're as curious as me.

***
Verdict: A charming and fascinating look into China and Chinese culture in this travelogue memoir. Definitely worth the read!

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Wonderful memoir! I really enjoyed it - mixture travelogue, diary and history lesson. Floundering between 4 &
5 stars. Definitely worth the read! Full review coming soon.
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