Michael Meyer’s 2008 debut book, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, recounted his time spent living in the crowded hutong alleyways of China’s capital during the run-up to that year’s Olympics. In 2015, he published In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, which picked up Meyer’s story as he moved to his wife’s hometown in the countryside and immersed himself in the history of the country’s northeast region. In a new book, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up, Meyer circles back to his first days in China, when he arrived in 1995 as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who couldn’t use chopsticks, spoke no Chinese, and “knew little about the country beyond the Great Wall, pandas, one billion people, fortune cookies, and the indelible image of a man standing in front of a tank.”
The Road to Sleeping Dragon follows Meyer as he finds his footing in China during a period when the country around him was also going through an extraordinary rush of growth and reinvention. His early years include a harrowing bus ride through rural Sichuan and designing class lessons around Beatles tunes; later vignettes see Meyer lobby against turning a nature preserve into a theme park (complete with a ride dubbed the “Pandacoaster”) and unknowingly roller skate through China’s largest protest since 1989. While the events he describes are chronologically not that far in the past, the tremendous changes in China over the past 20 years mean that The Road to Sleeping Dragon is as much history as it is memoir.
To learn more about the book and why honors and AP high school and undergraduate-survey instructors should consider including it on their next course syllabus, I interviewed Meyer by email.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Toward the end of The Road to Sleeping Dragon, you state that “the time to write a book is when the book you want to read doesn’t exist.” What was the nonexistent book you wanted to read that resulted in this one?
Michael Meyer: A book that made a novice want to visit China, and to see Chinese as individuals, not “political machines,” as one of my students says in the book. There is no shortage of books about China written by experts, which invariably place the reader at a remove. Instead I wanted to show how vulnerable one feels, and how scary it can be, to encounter a culture as diverse and historical as China’s. If a dope like me can figure the place out, then anyone can.
MEC: You write about how little China knowledge you had before moving there. Today’s students have likely grown up with more awareness of the country, thanks to the PRC’s expanded presence in the world, but more knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean better knowledge. What are some of the mistaken assumptions or persistent fallacies that you’d like to see instructors address when they teach about China? What are the storylines that need more nuance and texture?
MM: “China” is not a monolith—it’s an enormous country whose geography encompasses desert, rain forest, prairie, and mountains. It’s as diverse, culturally; as a linguist famously said, “Asking someone if they speak Chinese is akin to asking a European if he speaks Romance.” Prior to arriving in-country I pictured one billion people marching lockstep to Party diktat; in truth, Chinese can be as individualistic and opinionated as Americans, and just as self-effacing. Our sense of humor is similar, one reason I didn’t feel much culture shock on arrival.
As far as storylines, I urge teachers to look for narratives that follow individuals over time. The pace of change has been so breakneck that an event’s meaning, or its impact on everyday lives, isn’t apparent until years have passed. This is where reporting fails and books excel. As Ezra Pound said, “Literature is news that stays news.”
MEC: One unique aspect of your years in China is that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the classroom—everywhere you’ve lived you’ve either worked as a teacher or volunteered at a school. Why did you decide to do that, and how did it shape your understanding of the country in a different way than, say, being a full-time journalist would have?
MM: I’ve always been a teacher first; I majored in Education, since I was working at a newspaper throughout university, anyway, and even as a tenured professor keep my K-12 certification current, because I continue to volunteer in classrooms. Being embedded in Chinese schools allowed me to watch individuals develop over time; as a foreign language teacher you’re already a bit of a confessor, as people try on a new identity—and even name—as they speak a new language. Humor is much more a part of your day, and mistake-making, than when I worked as a journalist. In a classroom, there’s intimacy and vulnerability and laughter; on a journalistic assignment, there’s distance and expertise and seriousness. In a classroom, too, of course, you’re embedded—you’re together with the students for months, and even years, and you come to know their families. When I wrote journalism I felt more like a vampire, swooping in on strangers, grabbing a pithy quote, then flying away. As a teacher, I was more of a toothless vampire.
MEC: With the large numbers of Chinese students studying in the United States today, many teachers find that they need to design courses that work for multiple audiences—they can no longer assume that their classrooms will be filled with students who know nothing about China, as was the case when I was in college 15 years ago. What advice do you have for teachers who are seeing this shift? How do you create a course that works for everyone?
MM: In the book I write about teaching in a bilingual and bicultural school in Beijing, where I would teach, say, the Roman empire in English, noting its great achievements, and then my Chinese colleague would teach the same material in Chinese, noting that Rome was built on the backs of slaves. It was a fascinating experience, considering history from two lines of thought, which sometimes converged. China can be discussed the same way, because although Mainland students might know the official, national narrative, I’ve found they often have not considered a Taiwanese take on events, or a Tiananmen survivor’s, or an NGO-affiliated lawyer’s, or a Tibetan’s, or Uighur’s. Often I hear both American teachers and Chinese students lament that American media coverage of China is incomplete, a complaint that goes back to at least Lin Yutang in his 1935 book My Country and My People. Instead, look to books—there’s no shortage of in-depth portraits of contemporary and historical society.
MEC: When you tried to do some background reading before leaving for China in 1995, the most a librarian could really come up with was Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, published in 1931. Aside from your own books, which texts (or music, movies, etc.) would you put in a “Get to know China” bundle for someone just starting to learn about the country today?
MM: Reading Buck as an introduction to China is as useful as reading Dickens to understand contemporary London, but it’s still fun and educational, if only to compare the present to the past. On that note, I think everyone should read at least some—if not all—of the classic sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West, which is akin to knowing your Shakespeare. It’s also very funny, and it stars a monkey with supernatural powers.
I’ll mention some films that I’ve found useful screening in class: Zhang Yimou’s 1997 film Keep Cool (有话好好说) is a comedic look at civil society in chaotic Beijing that plays well to all students, including Chinese, and remains resonant today. It happens to star Jiang Wen, whom students might recognize from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Jiang’s own films, including In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子)—the best movie about the Cultural Revolution—are favorites of Chinese audiences, as are the films by Jia Zhangke, including The World (世界). Contemporary Chinese television is a bunch of sardoodledom, but the Chinese versions of popular American shows such as The Voice can be useful for language practice. Reading the subtitles of the evening newscast greatly improved my reading skills.
MEC: And finally, what are you working on now?
MM: A book set closer to home, about Benjamin Franklin. But a book about Taiwan will come after that. You know it’s time to write a book when the book you want to read doesn’t exist …
This interview was produced in partnership with Education About Asia, the print and open-access teaching journal of the Association for Asian Studies.