Photo From www.amazon.com
“The Fake Celebrity In China’ is the best of the recent single Western males traveling in Asia books . Although Robert Black calls his protagonist “Robert” in this book and “Robert Black”, in “Bali Fungus” they seem like totally different characters. That would lead one to believe that at least one of these books is fiction, not a somewhat fictionalized travel journal.
There are similarities in both of the Robert characters in the two books; such as they both view their travels with highly critical eyes and they both are very self centered. But the Robert of “The Fake Celebrity In China”, is far better able to appreciate the positives, in this case of China. He is more compassionate to those he meets, and while he turns a critical eye on things foreign, he equally turns it on himself and others of his culture.
And the Robert of “The Fake Celebrity In China” seems to be a less of an 18 year old surfer in the body of a 34 year old, (as the one in Bali Fungus) and more of a true adventurer- explorer, understanding more about himself as he learns more of the world around him. For example Both Roberts abuse alcohol. The Robert of “Bali fungus” seems to binge drink like a teenager, while the protagonist of “The Fake Celebrity In China” drinks from what seems to be depression, based on a world which he finds simultaneously interesting and disappointing, (which the reader is led to feel is mirrored in himself).
The Robert from “The Fake Celebrity In China” seems extremely smart. The one in “Bali Fungus” dull.
In any case the book opens with a dropped out Robert living in poverty, in a boarding house in Brisbane, Australia trying to sell door to door lottery tickets for charity. We do not learn why an attorney in New Zealand would be living such a life, but from his love of Bukowski, the reader can be left to assume that he has had his fill of Anglo 5 social values. If that was all that existed the protagonist might well deteriorate into cynicism and alcoholism.
But since there is a big world out there, why not explore it? Maybe foreign misery will at least come in different shapes, sizes, languages, colors, sounds and flavors? Maybe there will be some joy between the lines of texts, even if they eventually become boring and repetitive? Why commit suicide today when you can always do it tomorrow?
No matter how dark Robert’s vision, he draws the worlds he inhabits really well and people from all walks of life with compassion. He describes the poor marginalized people with whom he lives in the boarding house; “Most fart and belch with some sense of achievement and domination, as other forms of communication may well have been stifled. They are like children really.”
As with so many young men and some women from Anglo 5 countries, Robert’s ticket out is his native tongue and in his case a university degree to go along with it. So Robert travels to the Northeastern city of Shenyang, China to teach English in a school which will pay for his plane ticket, as well as get him his work visa and pay for his room and board.
At the school he has to share his large room with another teacher, 45 year old Jozef, a Slovenian with heavily accented English. He is a feminized homosexual and finds that he can have relationships with underage boys in China without being bothered. Jozef is otherwise affable and likable even to the Chinese who cannot understand him.
For the most part when it comes to foreigners, the Chinese have a live and let live attitude, giving outsiders a far better sense of freedom than they ever had back home.
Robert’s descriptions of the students in his classes, the large city of Shenyang and its people, the good, the bad and the ugly are superb.
The other most interesting teacher presented in the book is Koman, an amiable African giant from Kenya, studying for his Masters degree at the university near to the school. Koman has been in Shenyang for three years and has taken the trouble to learn some Chinese.
The foreign teachers, all of whom are poor like to give private English classes mostly to upper class Chinese who besides giving them some extra cash, wine them and dine them. It is the only way they can afford to eat well, as the food at the school leaves much to be desired.
Koman takes Robert to “Star Hollywood”, where Filipino bands grind out old US pop standards and foreigners go to relax. Because the foreigners have money relative to the locals, hookers come as well, including and especially in this Northern city Russians.
Shenyang has very few Western foreigners and to locals who are taught that they must learn more about foreign ways, they are a status symbol to be seen with. The funniest part of the book comes when a local TV station invites Robert and Jozef to be part of a show. It was all done in good cheer, but Robert’s description of the experience gives us a really good sense of the popular mind set of the people there.
Finally after a long and frustrating period of Robert drinking with friends and chasing hookers he meets Li Ting. She is young, beautiful, smart, educated, speaks English and is crazy about Robert. They have a wild and passionate affair that eventually moves itself to Beijing.
But Robert is self destructive with booze and drugs, and as he makes it clear to Li Ting that his relationship with her is just a fling, she indulges likewise and with a passion, which begins a downward cycle of her deconstruction. Robert does little to help. Instead of caring he seems to see her collapse as simply a turn off.
Perhaps that happened because Robert was unaware of the responsibilities that young educated Chinese have towards their families. Most Westerner guys don’t like that. They want their women unencumbered.
The rest is an extraordinarily good picture of life teaching English in China, as Robert moves through various and very different institutions.
“The Fake Celebrity In China” is superbly written. Character definitions are excellent throughout. They jump off the page. And the author’s picture of Shenyang makes you feel that you were there in his protagonist’s skin.
If you think that you would like to read this book, you can get it hear for just $2.99