Reviews / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Three-way Ping-Pong: David Raddock's Finding My Way: An American Maverick in China

by Alice Tsay

David M. Raddock, Finding My Way: An American Maverick in China, Carnavon Press, 2011. 116 pgs.

Half a decade ago, the title of David M. Raddock's recent memoir would have rustled up wholly different connotations. Back then, "maverick" still retained its associations with Tom Cruise in Top Gun as he defied the rules for love and glory. The word gained a different sort of traction in the lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election, when it was adopted by the McCain campaign to portray the candidate as a man who bucked institutions to do what was right. Deriving, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from the name of "a Texas cattle-owner who left the calves of his herd unbranded" during the late nineteenth century, the maverick has always been a quintessentially American figure of dedication and defiance. It is unfortunate for Raddock that the figure who comes to mind first these days is McCain rather than Cruise. Beyond this, the often forgotten fact that all mavericks have antecedents highlights a fallacy that has come to be particularly associated with the American psyche: the tendency to think of oneself as something singular under the sun.

Instead, Raddock's Finding My Way: An American Maverick in China consistently and tiresomely treads well-worn paths. Frustratingly, for example, he repeatedly anatomises women rather than giving them physical or psychological dimension. Christine beguiles him "with her long black hair, her skimpy sundress, and dark tan." A former research acquaintance is described as possessing "loose, pear-like breasts" that bounce as she expresses her disappointment at Raddock's rejection when they meet up in Hong Kong. The reason he gives for refusing her overtures? The presence of a "willowy, green-eyed young woman from the U.S., a tourist who slept with me between her fittings." Rather than women, these are descriptive aggregates: long hair, a dress, a figure, some breasts. Consequently, instead of outlining their personhood, the features delineate the focal points of a particular author's gaze.

With a little empathetic effort on the author's part, these women could have been much more than decorative fixtures. Christine is described as the daughter of mainland Chinese refugees in Taiwan, while the former colleague is an Asian-American woman returning to a place where she has ancestral roots. In either case, a deeper, broader exploration of conflicted or hybrid identity would have been welcome. For instance, Raddock indicates the lost status of Christine's parents by observing that their Japanese-style living quarters contain "a Qi Baishi painting of a shrimp and a cockroach" and an "unopened bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label," but does not explain any further, as if evoking dissonance is a substitute for analytical depth. One could imagine fascinating side notes on Qi Baishi's contributions as a contemporary painter revitalising traditional styles, the peculiar social and symbolic function held by Western-brand spirits or the architectural and cultural legacy of Japanese colonisation in Taiwan. But we don't go there. Similarly, Raddock's account of his interactions with the nubile Hong Kong tourist lacks any overt awareness of the trope of sexual license in foreign climes that so often and problematically underpins accounts of Euro-American travels, even if this particular instance offers a twist.

Finding My Way, however, is a work that declares itself "a very personal story about myself" in its "Acknowledgements" section. The inward and yet unintrospective turn pervades Raddock's approach to narrative. "One thing about Taiwan," he begins misleadingly at one point, "was that I could observe and even be a part, yet poke fun delicately at some of their common political fantasies." The disappointing disjunction between the declared subject and actual content here illustrates, on the level of a sentence, what the larger experience of reading the book feels like at times. Reading about a trip to the Great Wall, one starts to sympathise with the members of his delegation, who are apparently less interested in hearing his earnest attempts to "brief [them] about relevant history at the various sites" than in discussing "a recently published novel about atrocities, White Swan, which they had all been reading as 'preparation' for the trip." He refers here, it seems, to Jung Chang's acclaimed memoir. It is actually titled Wild Swans, suggesting that the refusal to listen goes both ways.

The prominence of the author leads to a consistent flattening of scenes, the reduction of triangulated encounters into two-way interactions. After complaining about having to translate Chinese into English for his wife Annette during a joint trip, Raddock writes that when they get to Shanghai, "it was my turn to have trouble communicating in the local dialect," making him feel like an "outsider." This account makes it sound as if Annette finally gets to experience linguistic inclusion at her husband's expense, whereas Raddock is actually thinking of the turn in events solely in relation to himself. Similarly, on a trip with several colleagues to a rural town in which few inhabitants speak Mandarin, Raddock tells of how the various parties eventually communicate with him speaking Mandarin to a villager who is able to translate into the local dialect for everyone else. Though there are at least three parties in this conversation, he describes this exchange as a "verbal ping-pong rally." This tidy little metaphor encompasses the idea of "back-and-forth," central to both speech and racket sports. However, it also conflates the translator with the other villagers and frames the conversation using a stereotypically Asian sport—though one, ironically, that actually originated in Britain.

However, the book's big problem is not simply Raddock's consistent foregrounding of himself. After all, a memoir always needs its "me," the objective self under scrutiny. Rather, the problem is that of its audience. Those who do not know much about China will learn little, while those who already have some background in its culture and history are unlikely to learn much more. For example, in describing an altercation with a taxi driver, Raddock renders the dialogue this way: "I'll tell you again in 'ordinary language' (national language), we want to go to Diaoyutai Guest House, sir." "Ordinary language" and "national language," as many readers will be aware, are the direct translation of Putonghua and Guoyu, both roughly equivalent in designation to Mandarin. Since an explanation of their similarities and subtleties is not forthcoming, however, their only function here is as a clunky bit of local colour. Likewise, phrases such as "We would look also at the problems of secondary and tertiary recovery in the mature fields" hold little meaning for readers, even those who recognise the terminology of petroleum extraction, because Raddock does not lay out the stakes.

In the end, Finding My Way disappoints because its premise and its author's extensive background should have offered provocative material. Instead, much of it is simply provoking, a series of episodes that suggest less what Raddock saw, but what he may have missed. One wishes Raddock had not blazoned his path so confidently through the landscape but had allowed room for wandering into the side roads, crossings and cul-de-sacs that have a central role in most life narratives. Circuitous routes, after all, cover the most ground.

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