Troy Parfitt is the author of Notes from the Other China: Adventures in Asia (2007), Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas (2011), and War Torn: Adventures in the Brave New Canada (2015). Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, he is currently living in Scotland.
Why China Will Never Rule the World is a great title – provocative and obviously a rebuttal to Martin Jacques’ 2009 When China Rules the World. Do you think the title helped generate publicity?
Yes, the title was in response to Jacques’ book, but my own book was nearing completion when his hit shelves. The title is indeed meant to provoke. Little known writers of non-fiction need something to help their book stand out, and I do think it helped generate some publicity. However, the subtitle, Travels in the Two Chinas, is probably a more accurate reflection of the book’s contents. It’s primarily a travelogue blended with histories along with social and political commentary.
You did a lot of promotion for your China book: giving out numerous review copies, writing newspaper OpEd pieces, making YouTube videos, doing radio interviews, and utilizing social media. Which of these did you find most effective?
It’s hard to know. The videos got quite a few hits, but I’ve read that the counter on YouTube is inaccurate. One thing I learned is that you can get heaps of attention, but that doesn’t mean people will click “buy.” I think many people suspected something sinister lurking within the book’s pages, or that it contained arguments that might challenge their views, so they avoided it. The harshest criticism came from people who didn’t give the book a read. Or perhaps I’m engaging in excuse-making.
During your promotion for Why China Will Never Rule the World, you became involved in various heated online discussions. Do you think it’s better to respond to or ignore criticism?
I wanted to show I wouldn’t shy away from debate, but it mightn’t have been worth it. It takes a special kind of character to sustain argument, and I’m only seldom up for combat. I think if you’re going to be contrarian and polemical, you have to assert and defend, but I prefer civilized discussion to acrimonious and anonymous bickering. People got quite worked up about that book, perhaps because it had validity. If you say something absurd, few will care, but if your criticisms are barbed and pointed and well defended, it can make people feel uncomfortable. But getting back to the question, I admit I do like a good argument every now and again, but my more sensible side knows they’re probably a waste of time.
Do you feel vindicated by developments since the publication of your book (China’s economic slowdown, the CCP’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, and above all the worsening repression), not to mention the books that have come out since then, such as Jonathan Fenby’s Will China Dominate the 21st Century? which come to a similar conclusion as yours?
I don’t have feelings of vindication or of I’m right and they’re wrong. Rather, what I learned is that people prefer fantasy to reality and positivity to negativity. If you write about Country X being on the rise because it’s got lots of factories, construction projects, and a shiny new high-speed railway, people will get all excited. But if you describe the dark side of those economic gains, or Country X’s debilitating cultural problems, it doesn’t make one feel as chuffed, doesn’t make one think something exhilarating is happening in an exotic locale far away. People like progress, but the progress in China has been mainly material and financial, not social or intellectual.
The cheerleaders wowed at charts and graphs, but they didn’t ask, “What do Chinese people believe?” and “Do those beliefs work to create a good society, one people elsewhere might use as a template?” I also don’t feel triumphal, because I would like China to be more evolved and humane. I’d like Chinese people to have more rights, to be able to vote, to live in a state that embraces democracy. But that’s not really happening.
How have your views on China and Taiwan changed since Why China Will Never Rule the World was published?
I’ve had the chance to make a lot more friends from China, and that has made me realize my argument was rather totalizing. What does China have to offer the world? Not much, I said, but I think a better answer is: interesting, intelligent, skilled people who possess different ways of knowing and doing. However, since I wrote that book, I’ve returned to China and all the ugly themes are still present: propaganda, pollution, chaos, censorship, poverty, ignorance, corruption, and oppression. The propaganda began on the airplane: videos showing how ancient artisans had possessed capitalistic attitudes. When I landed, a jumbo screen showed a parade of goose-stepping guards. Westerners think such displays are bizarre when they happen in North Korea, but they don’t say much when they happen in China. Anyway, the customs officer I got was suspicious about a book I was carrying and told me certain books might give Chinese people “the wrong idea.” TV news in China is way too bubbly and wherever you go you see people who appear desperately poor. As for Taiwan, I think it’s friendly and civilized. It’s also open and democratic, thus making it the only Chinese country genuinely worthy of adulation. But that won’t happen, because it’s small, militarily weak, and fails to meet all the other Neanderthal requirements people have when sizing up a country’s “greatness.” However, I wish the Taiwanese would reinvent their education system and think seriously about the dangers of pollution and superstition and work to provide better infrastructure for their citizenry.
How have expats in China reacted to your book?
Expats in general seem to love it or hate it. The ones who love it talk of nodding along, “secretly agreeing,” sharing with friends, and finishing it fast. The ones who loathe it typically fail to articulate what China has to offer and attack me and not my arguments. Expats in China generally agree, whereas expats in Taiwan tend to disagree. Perhaps that’s because some expats in Taiwan think they are the experts and no one else’s view could surpass or augment their own. On online forums in Taiwan, you can find 15-page expat disputations about which region constitutes Taiwan’s preeminent tea-growing hub.
What was the inspiration for writing, War Torn: Adventures in the Brave New Canada?
For one, I wanted to do something no one had done: write a Canadian travel narrative that covered each province and territory. I also wanted to understand my country better and discover why my compatriots didn’t seem to care about Canada’s involvement in The War in Afghanistan. I wanted to show readers that Canada is not the Norway of North America, but rather that it has most of the undesirable qualities often associated with the United States. Finally, I didn’t think it’d be fair to be critical of Chinese society without turning that lens on my own homeland and culture.
What were the highlights of your trip across Canada?
Describing Atlantic Canada, which few people, even Canadians, know anything about. However, I think the best chapter is the one on Baffin Island. The story started unfolding as soon as I arrived. I just needed to note it down. Such a fascinating place: Inuit people and “southerners” or white Canadians there to help, only many Inuit don’t want their help. With so much intercultural friction, getting a good story was easy. Consider the Caribbean lunch buffet attended by mutually exclusive tables of stiff whites eating salad, and indigenous hunters scoffing French fries. Just choose a table and start chatting and you have book material. Probably any teacher or civil servant posted to an aboriginal community in Canada’s north could become an instant journalist or writer. There’s just too much conflict and weirdness, from both cultures, to ignore.
After about twelve years in Asia, you went back to Canada but it was not exactly a passionate and lasting reunion. Why did you decide to leave the country once again?
On a practical level, I quit my job and couldn’t find another one. I wanted to go back to university, but schools I applied to wouldn’t accept my application. At the time, I experienced some health issues and had difficulty accessing the health care system. On a deeper level, I felt like an outsider and was often bored. I suppose if I could get a decent job in Canada, I’d give it another try, but I have mixed feelings about my homeland. I love Canada and still identify as Canadian. I follow Canadian news, read Canadian books, but at the same time I find the place frustrating and parochial. But perhaps my expectations are too high or I’d need to live in Ontario or I’m projecting my personal problems onto the environment. Who knows?
Your books have quite a lot of humour in them, some of which comes from making fun of the non-rocket scientists you meet on your travels. Writing humour in non-fiction is really hard in terms of being funny without being unfair or cruel. What is your approach to this?
Yes, you’ve identified the conundrum exactly. Humour almost always has a target and I’ve come to believe that much of stand-up comedy is just prejudice with a laugh track. Perhaps the best jokes involve making fun of oneself. However, I sometimes find making fun of blatant stupidity irresistible. I admit it. I do conceal the speaker’s identity, but I think a better forum for my funny side is fiction. I also think writing satire might be more cathartic. Life is often too ridiculous and hard to take so seriously. I continually need to remind myself of this.
In all three of your books, you’ve undertaken your travels alone. Was this by accident or design? Do you think traveling alone makes for better travel writing?
Truth be told, in all three books I was at times traveling with other people and simply wrote them out. It wasn’t planned. I just met them on the way. But I think other people can be a distraction. You need time to observe, take notes, and reflect, and you can’t do that as well when you’re with someone else or sharing a schedule. Also, when you’re by yourself, people are more willing to open up and reveal.
Do you have any recommendations for books on Asia?
The book that sparked my interest in China and Taiwan was The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave. Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French is good. So is Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian. The True Story of Ah-Q by Lu Xun is short, but excellent. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by Li Zhisui is outstanding and for balance people can read Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost by Jonathan Fenby.
Do you have any recommendations for books on Canada?
City to City by Jan Morris is the only decent travel narrative I’m aware of. Robert Bothwell’s A Penguin History of Canada is good. I’d also recommend novels by Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, and David Adams Richards. Finally, there’s the extremely talented Farley Mowat who wrote a lot about Newfoundland and the north, although I’ve only read his account of fighting in Italy in World War II.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Martin Amis, Mordecai Richler, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Orwell.
What are some of your favorite fiction/non-fiction works?
I like so many books, I can’t really choose favourites. But I’m interested in many genres, like literature, travel literature, history, linguistics, politics, psychology, philosophy, and biography. Good reads from the last two years include Deep South by Paul Theroux, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson, The Innocent by Ian McEwan, A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Second World War by Antony Beevor, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, and Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis.
How did you become interested in writing?
I’ve been interested in story-telling from kindergarten and submitted a children’s story to the CBC when I was five (it got rejected!). In elementary school, I loved reading in the library and this interest was always there in the background. It’s innate. In high school, I loved English class so much that I kept it a secret, and that’s when I really got turned on to literature, mainly the classics. However, I never really tried writing until my early 30s. While reading, I sometimes thought, “I could do better.” But this was delusion. It took six months just to write paragraphs that held together.
What are your writing habits?
I just need a chair, desk, and lamp, but I prefer to write in coffee shops and libraries. If I can get away with it, I type in the morning or afternoon and then revisit what I’ve written in the evening. I make rough notes in a separate file for structure and direction, and I divide my page into two sections: basement and upstairs. I assemble paragraphs in the basement and when they’re presentable I bring them upstairs. Then I whittle and varnish until satisfied. Strange, perhaps, but I think when it comes to approach there’s no normal. It’s as you like it.
What are you working on at the moment?
A satirical effort tentatively called Welcome Teach English Saudi Arabia: A Novel. It’s about the perils of being thoughtful and cerebral in a world dominated by biological impulses, selfishness, and idiocy. I want it to be 225 pages, crisply written, completely unique, and extremely funny.
Troy’s books are available on Amazon and other outlets.