Ok I think this is a first for ivreadthis.com-a travel memoir to review! Yes, how exciting, but not just for you dear readers, but for me as well, because I was lucky enough to experience some oft-overlooked areas of China by flipping through the pages of this book.
Double Happiness recounts Tony Brasunas’s travels through China in 1997 (before the interwebs, cellphones, and ATMs). However, aside from the historical changes in politics that he experiences while there, this book could have taken place today as well, as I imagine (based on my broad assumptions only) that many things would have turned out/looked the same for him. While traveling, Brasunas wrote in a journal, and struggled to do things the right way, even if it was more difficult. For instance, when hawkers tried selling him things on the street, he would politely refuse, but then offer to help them carry their heavy burden up a steep hill, etc. They would always be surprised at first, but then gladly share the workload, immediately trusting the gwailo* (foreigner).
Speaking of run-ins with street vendors, one of the most poignant parts of the book for me was Brasunas’s struggle to successfully bargain with shopkeepers. He’s in an electronics shop and interested in buying a camera. When he tries to talk the price down, the vendor says “We’re a family, we have to buy our rice” (p. 145). That phrase struck me with it’s power. How could you argue with something like that? You later learn that this is a tactic that they use to keep the prices high, and Brasunas’s response back that he is a struggling teacher typically shuts down their earlier justifications, but this scene taught me something very obvious about myself-I would have paid the asking price right then and there, because the shop keeper has played to my ‘North American’ guilt that so many of us experience when traveling to poorer countries. Is paying the higher price the right thing to do, simply because you can afford it? Perhaps in some cases, but because Brasunas is travelling on such a tight budget, this question is never answered.
There’s a good balance of scenery description, inner reflection, historical reference and plot development in this book, and for that reason I devoured it in two days, eagerly diving back in to follow Brasunas on his adventures while safely nestled in my living room. As I mentioned before, I don’t typically read these types of books, mainly because they simultaneously make me want to go traveling, and then scare me away from it at the same time (the author got extremely sick when he was away, and he also experienced some near-death moments on some rickety buses in the mountains of Tibet), but I’m always so glad I did when I’m finished, because it literally transported me to another world.
The subtitle of this book is: “One Man’s Tale of Love, Loss, and Wonder on the Long Roads of China”. This gives you an idea of how ‘spiritual’ the journey is for the author, so expect some heavy soul searching to go along with it, more soul-searching that I believed any man in their early 20′s would ever do. However, Brasunas has an interesting background (he grew up on a commune in West Virginia) so his voice throughout the book is entirely believable based on those circumstances. Although I can’t prove this, I do believe Double Happiness is the author’s first book, which to me is quite surprising, seeing as his narrative is so well developed and balanced. One trap he does fall into, which many first-time writers can as well, is the overuse of flowery metaphors. We all do it, and not until you’ve written many a book will you grow out of this tempting habit, but other than that nit picky detail, I’m very impressed by Brasunas’s journey and its recounting.
*Side note-this book includes a quick glossary at the end of it, and Brasunas threw in enough Chinese words throughout that I actually began to understand a few as a I read through the book (insert internal fist pump here).