Friday, June 16, 2017

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven - Susan Jane Gilman

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
Title: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
Author: Susan Jane Gilman
Publication Date: 3/24/09
Pages: 320
Genre: Memoir / Nonfiction
How I Found It: I'm not sure.
Date Completed: 5/25/17

Summary: When Gilman set off on a round-the-world trip with her college friend Claire, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Their first stop was 1980s Communist China, hardly an easy start. It proved to be a far more challenging place than either of the girls anticipated, though not for the reasons they would have expected. 

What I Thought: This book is such an interesting journey. It starts out largely as a travel memoir. Two recent college graduates embark on a trip around the world rather than get jobs after graduation. As a display of their intense hubris, they start with Communist China. 

The first chapters focus on the culture shock and just what an undertaking it was to travel to China during the 1980s. Though China has its challenges now, to be sure, being a Westerner within its boarders was an even more intense experience back then. Gilman's descriptions of the dirty accommodations, public "bathrooms" (a.k.a. troughs over which multiple people would squat at once), and intense language barriers felt overwhelming just to read about. It reminded me on the simplest level of my trip to Japan in high school. There were huge cultural barriers, but at least we had clean, safe places to stay and guides to help us navigate the world around us. It's easy to understand why the hubris of Gilman and her friend Claire fell away more with each day of their trip.

It wasn't just their hubris that began to disintegrate, however. It starts with slight suggestions early in the book. Something is not quite right with Claire. The stress of the experience is impacting her in a different way than it is Gilman. Or maybe Gilman just doesn't know her college friend as well as she thought she did. As the book goes on, it becomes less and less about the travel and more and more about two girls in a desperate and dangerous situation miles from home.

I don't want to give much away because I think not knowing the ending made the book more enjoyable to read. I wanted to fly through the pages to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Claire's behavior. What happens in the end is almost beyond belief, although Gilman purports to have done as much fact checking as she possibly can. 

I did really enjoy Gilman's reflections at the end of the book. She went back to China many years later with her husband and attempted to retrace the journey she and Claire took all those years ago. It was really interesting to read her perspective now, as an older, well-traveled individual, compared to her frantic, emotional distress on the first trip. 

I love thinking that this book came from Gilman telling versions of this story at dinner parties for years, each time being urged to write it down. She definitely has taken precautions to protect identities and I don't think she sent this story out into the world lightly, as it does seem almost exploitative at times. Despite that, it's just too crazy of a story not to share. In other words, you should read it - if only to be just as in awe as I am that this happened and that it ended the way it did. 

Quotes I Loved: 

  • "If you wanted to live freely, in an open democratic society, you had to be able to shut your door. You had to have the privacy to pee or think or speak away from the relentless gaze of your neighbors, the public, and your government."
  • "'Do Eskimos come down to Wall Street, pitch a tent in the stock exchange and say, 'We're here to observe your culture'? Do Zulu warriors go to the Dalton School on the Upper East Side and demand to measure the height of all its children in the name of research? Do Filipinos travel to farm towns in Kansas on a Fulbright scholarship, then walk into someone's dining room during Thanksgiving to announce, 'We've come to record this sacred ritual of your. Carry on as if we aren't here. After living among you, we're going back to Manila to publish articles about you and stick photographs of your family in a museum.' Does this happen...? No, it does not. Only the white man shows up uninvited. Only the white man treats the rest of the world like a specimen. Only the white man turns his voyeurism into a so-called social science."

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Will I Re-Read: Probably not, but I would read something else by Gilman

A Reduced Review: What begins as a trip around the world for two recent college graduates devolves into an international crisis of culture and friendship. 

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