These days, most of us are heading Asiawards for our O.E.s, instead of making the traditional beeline for London, partly because the plane tickets to Singapore, Bangkok and Beijing are cheaper than those to Heathrow, and partly because it is a fascinating area, growing by the day. Needham, an Australian journalist with self-confessed “China Fever”, has written this, her first book, about spending nearly a year living and working in the fast-changing world that is Beijing.
After a couple of jaunts that involved being a tourist in China, Needham realised she couldn’t keep away. So she started learning Chinese, applied for a journalism exchange programme and began trying to enrol at a Beijing university. Fortunately, she was given the prestigious position of “foreign expert” at the major English language newspaper, China Daily, for seven months, where she would edit stories written in English by Chinese journalists until they were readable. This job gave her the opportunity to see the Western world through Chinese eyes and to begin to understand the function of journalism as propaganda in such a conservative society.
So, in addition to the inevitable stories about bad toilets, miscommunications with the Chinese land-lady, culture-shock at the terrible manners of a young waitress who evidently had different ideas about what customer service entailed, and the shortage of Western-sized shoes and underwear, Needham has a collection of stories about the trials of being a “foreign journalist” – a highly stigmatized term, up there with spy – in China. For example, while earning her stripes, writing for a teen paper, before being let loose on the important China Daily, Needham had the job of agony aunt, and had to offer solutions to problems like, “My teacher often asks me whether there are students in love in our class. I think she trusts me but I must be loyal to our classmates. They are all friends.” Realising the delicacy of the subject in a country where young love is frowned upon, Needham tentatively suggested that the girl be loyal to her friends, and that love is a private thing. When the column came to print, Needham found that it had been edited, and instead advised the girl that informing on her friends was in their best interests.
With this subject, it would be easy to get too preachy or sentimental about Beijing. Needham’s strength is that she manages to convey her opinion without suggesting that it is the only way China can be seen. She deals with the cultural politics sensitively and unflinchingly, with an obvious enthusiasm for the challenging and exotic situation into which she’s thrown herself. Written in fourteen loosely chronological, thematically titled chapters, with a very readable voice, this is the sort of book to read on a plane, regardless of where you’re going. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lonely Planet starts mentioning A Season in Red, in the ‘What to Read before You Go’ section of their China Guide Book, because it is at once informative and entertaining.
By Kirsty Needham
Allen & Urwin