Artificial Rats & Electric Cats: The Trip of China
J. Gordon
8/29/2008 3:12:44 PM

Having just come down from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China has been in the forefront of the media and on everyone’s mind. In Artificial Rats & Electric Cats: Communications from Transitional China, 1985-1986 [Camber Press], award-winning journalist and poet Robert Masterson dishes it out in poetry and prose that’s tastier than “Cold White Fungus in Heavy Syrup” (that’s a chapter title, and a menu item).

Sometimes, Masterson narrates from the point of view of the Chinese citizens:

I never saw a star
until I was sixteen years old.
I was raised in the factories
on the outskirts of Shanghai
and there was a lot of smoke.
I had to run away to see a star.

--from Ghost Stories from the New China, Number Six

More often, Masterson writes as himself, with keen journalistic voice and an alien eye, on a mission with his wife and friends to teach English in a post-Red world. He gives a foreigner’s feel to the awkward steps through the language on both sides that’s both poetic and arresting:

“It was Professor Chou again, this time and again, and again he was perched in every sense of the word, actually “perching” on the edge of our shofa and again he had another ream of forms and instructions for filling out forms spread across the coconut-fiber chest we used for a kafei table.”
--from The Memory of Peaches in Post-Maoist Revolutionary China

Before you know it, you, the reader, are sucked into a world of the most absurd bureaucracy, corruption, racism and preposterous work situations imaginable. What does all that add up to? Some damn entertaining reading.

Consider Masterson himself: a rule-breaking, hash-smoking, hard-drinking twenty-something teacher fudging his way into forbidden territory. Consider the school ‘system’—if one could call it that, with professors holding Revolutionary Agronomy degrees teaching Political Theory and pushing papers from Swiss Geology firms (it’s not supposed to make sense, that’s the point). The swimming instructor at the Shaanxi Normal University has no pool, there’s a Moslem dinner that night at the College of Highway Knowledge, and a monkey opera taking place in front of the State Department Store. Dead dogs hang from hooks in the butcher shops, one will be beaten and possibly even disappear if caught doing “convulsive dancing,”and it’s best for foreigners just to lay low at places like the Hey! What’s Happening? or Six Felicitous Portents, and smoke a Space Tour cigarette.

Well, blame it on American Idealism, Youthful Exuberation, or a Brief Episode of Poor Judgment, but Masterson took his year in China to the hilt; witnessing the lead-up to an execution, getting swindled by drug bandits, and ultimately having the shit beat out of him by a xenophobic mob (the book concludes with a reprint of an AP article on the incident, followed by a witty postscript, some great endnotes, and the statement that the book was printed “during the free market housing freefall of 2007 as we continued to purchase and enjoy more inexpensive consumer goods produced in China.”

It’s a trip--especially if you can’t take the trip yourself.


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