Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review - Home is a Roof over a Pig

Home is a Roof over a Pig: An American Family’s Journey in China


Aminta Arrington

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Asia; China; Traveling/Living Abroad

Synopsis: Arrington and her husband take their three young children, one of whom was adopted from China, to live in China.

Date finished: 4 July 2013

Rating: ****½

This has most everything I love in a book: family, parenting, travel, exploration of other cultures, word/language exploration, and pages of delicious facts. This is a book I found during pre-sale, and I stalked it and bought it as soon as it came out. And then I let it sit on the shelf for a few months. I wasn’t sure if I’d like a book about a family that goes to China to show one of their three children her roots. Would it be too liberal, too sappy, too indulgent? Well, it wasn’t what I expected; instead, it surpassed all my expectations.

This was a thoughtful book. The tone and writing was very similar to the tone in Gretchen Rubin’s happiness books. It was informative and friendly, yet somewhat formal. She tried very hard to be objective. Arrington gave us an in-depth study of the language and culture of China. You could tell she was passionate about learning about China—and about sharing what she’d learned. It was part academic (but approachably academic) and part memoir, but the balance was always perfect.

My favorite parts of the book were when she explained certain pictographs for Chinese words. I was fascinated, sitting there with a big geeky word-drunk smile on my face. (This is where the title comes from; the pictograph for “home” is a roof over a pig.) I love this stuff. I literally saw language come to life.

I also thoroughly enjoyed her discussion of daily life in China and the cultural aspects of living abroad as a family. The family didn’t live in a modernized (Westernized) city, but they weren’t in the countryside, either, so it was the perfect setting for describing an average Chinese experience.

The fact that Arrington and her husband were teaching English to Chinese college students was an ideal backdrop for discussing some more controversial topics such as communism, Marxism, Taiwan, the one-child policy, Westernization, the 2008 Olympics, and Tibet. She also spent time explaining the educational system and how everything was taught to “The Exam,” the test taken after high school that determines where—or if—a student will be able to attend further study, and thereby determining the fate of the rest of their lives.

My only quibble with the book is Arrington sometimes seems to apologize for United States foreign policy. She explains (repeatedly) that America was “afraid of communism.” That doesn’t seem historically accurate to me. We were afraid of what far-reaching communism would do to the world’s economy, yes. We were afraid of it infiltrating and dismantling our democratic system, yes. But more than that, I think we had (and still have) altruistic motives for the elimination of communism and socialism. As the only country in the world founded on the principle of liberty, it is our very nature to recoil at a whole people that is denied liberty. I realize she was walking a fine line discussing such controversial topics with her students at all, but I was uncomfortable with her wishy-washy explanations of our motives.

I took copious notes throughout my reading, and I wish I could supply them all, but I’ll try to keep my excerpts short and just recommend you read this book.

[Words in brackets are mine, added for ease of understanding. First two citations are not direct quotes from the book.]

All students memorize the same textbook for college entrance exams. (page 37)

The Chinese college students she taught didn’t know about China’s “lost girls.” (page 45-46)

Unlike out capricious English words, which can be conjugated, suffixed, prefixed, made plural, or otherwise adapted, a Chinese character remains an encapsulated singular morpheme, not allowing such impulsive mutilization. Each character, a complete work of art—mounted, framed, and hung on the wall—cannot be then modified. (page 58)

The objective in a child’s education is singular: pass The Exam. This requires memorizing The Facts. There is no room for questions, no time for deliberation, no space for debate—and no tolerance for asking why. Memorization has taken the place of thinking. (page 71)

[of her children]
But sometimes I feared that the absence of cultural rules that are applied across the board would completely confuse them. (page 73)

China has 56 ethnic groups, but the Han comprised 92% of the population. (page 91)

The Chinese government seems to have a pact with the minorities: don’t seek power, and we’ll give you autonomy and allowance to lie traditional lives….There are exceptions, of course, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs who are unwilling to consent to such a pact…(page 92)

Sixty percent of Chinese live in the countryside. (page 140)

And isn’t that the greater part of what gives us our culture: our mother’s voices, ringing in our heads? (page 154)

The one area [math] that I thought called for rote learning, the Chinese thought the opposite. The paradox was that I had finally found creativity in China, in a place my closed American mind told me had no potential for it. (page 179)

They [Chinese students] knew their parents loved them, but they knew from their actions, not because they had ever been told. (page 203)

And like the other countries I had lived in, China’s automobile preference reflected its personality. No bright colors, no rear spoilers, no shiny hubcaps, China’s choice as a black four-door sedan, impeccably cared for, blending in with all the other black four-door sedans already on the roads. (page 206)

Eric [their tour guide] told us that Shanghai was so modern and Westernized, it needed its own Chinatown. (page 222)

The average lifespan for a building in Hong Kong is 30 years. (page 239)

Mao…was the anti-Confucius, giving women the right to divorce and own property; setting quotas for women in civil-service positions, and putting as much money into women’s sports as men’s. But what he could not change, was millennia of thinking. (page 273)

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley – not the comprehensive and engaging look that Home is a Roof gave, this is another memoir of an American family living in China.

Paris in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James – far inferior, in my opinion, this is a memoir of a family transplanted in France.

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