Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review - Big in China: My Unlikely Adventure in Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Reinventing Myself in Beijing by Alan Paul

Title: Big in China: My Unlikely Adventure in Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Reinventing Myself in Beijing
Author: Alan Paul
Year: 2011
Page: 256
Genre: Non-Fiction - Memoir

FTC Disclosure: Given a ARC from publisher HarperCollins

Summary (from
Expanded from Paul's award-winning The Expat Life columns for, "Big In China" traces Alan's three and a half years in China - a time of life-changing experiences during which he reinvented himself, most prominently as the leader of a Chinese blues band called Woodie Alan. The band quickly achieved great success, and Paul soon found himself and his bandmates touring China, being named Beijing Band of the Year, and recording a CD that has earned praise from American musical luminaries from the Allman Brothers Band to ZZ Top. However, as exhilarating as the band's success was, it was only one part of the expat experience that was invigorating for Paul's entire family. Paul also reveals the challenges he and his family faced living in a foreign land, including trying not to become stuck inside the expat bubble so many construct around themselves when living abroad. "Big In China" is a book for anyone who wants to go on a journey, or who merely wants to come along on one.

First Sentence:
Xiamen, China -- I stood in the spotlight at the center of the broad stage, feeling exposed and alone.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • When HarperCollins contacted me to see which books I'd like to review for March, this book caught my eye. I like reading memoir, and since I am Chinese, it'd be interesting to read what expat life is like in China (I'd been to few smaller cities in China, but not Beijing)
First thought:
  • Quite entertaining!
Cover Art:
  • Not sure if I like it... I understand the different elements on the cover, but just didn't seem very attractive
  • The title made me pause and think - "Big in China" sounded quite arrogant, especially from a Chinese perspective (we are "supposedly" humble) but then again the author is an American where things are usually "the bigger the better" so I guess the title does make sense (I know I am stereotyping... my husband is American so you can't say I'm picking on Americans :) 
  • Very easy to read and engaging. 
  • I liked that when he used Mandarin words or phrases in the book, he'd translate it. While I can read/write Chinese Cantonese, I don't know a lot about Mandarin so I appreciate that - though I wish the Chinese characters could actually be included, I am still trying to figure out what mao bi is (p120)!
  • The book talked about the 3.5 years the author and his family spent in China - it included many different topics such as the expat lifestyle, his music, his children, the decision whether to extend their stay or not, their families back in the State etc. There really was no "plot" so to speak as the book read more like different snippets of their lives.
  • Probably because of the author's optimism and tried to make the best of their adventure in China, most of the books talked only about positive experiences. I wish it would talk a bit more about the difficulties too - maybe they really did not experience any? Just hard to imagine everything went so smoothly without much frustration or disappointments
  • Everyone in the book was likable (well those with names anyway... ) The author's English teacher was an intriguing character and made you wonder how he is now.
  • I also envied the author and his band's ability to "jam" - I started learning the piano (and took violin and drum lessons for a brief period of time), but I am not one who could just improvise... I wish I could just be creative and go with the flow... but the way we were taught was to practice, practice, practice... to the way the music was written. Changing any of it meant you played it wrong. 
  • The ending was in a way predictable, but also provided closure.
  • My husband's cousin is an expat in Beijing. We don't see her family very much, and while reading this book made me think of them, especially the children. The author talked about the "fake rich" lifestyle they had in China (with drivers and multiple nannies), and how the children would assimilate back in the US upon their return. An aspect I haven't thought of before. I guess since I have moved from Hong Kong, then to Australia, then to the US, you just learned to adopt the new culture. It also makes me wonder, if I ever get asked to work in China, would that make me an expat or not? 
What I Learned:
  • Third Culture Kids (TCK) - "these children come from one culture, move with their parents to another, and end up feeling like they don't quite belong to either." Instead, they create a "Third Culture" and can most closely relate to others growing up in similar situations" (p161). I can identify with that... though I don't know if I should be 4th, 5th, or 6th culture kids lol.
  • Upon finish this book, I thought I'd give it 4 Stars. After thinking about it, I wish it has gone into a bit more depth. I know this is book about the author's own experience, and does not represent all expat's experience, but it seemed it'd paint an unrealistic picture for others who are considering working in China because everything seemed too easy
  • After the book, I went to youtube to look for audio clips of the author's band, as it made me curious what their music was like! 
Read this Author again?
  •  Yes, but it'd depend on the topic, as I am typically not interested in his type of music or basketball (his expertise areas)


Home was wherever they were (wife and children) -- wherever we were -- and I understood that with a new clarity. (p77)

"Everyone is concerned about being cheated by someone else, but it doesn't matter." This was a radial statement, which got to the heart of something I saw all the time in China; everyone lived in constant fear that they were being ripped off. (p128)

"But the language is a bridge to the culture," he continued. "And the culture can stay with you forever." (p129)

Overall Rating:
3.5 Stars. Enjoyable and interesting read. Just wish it had a bit more depth. It just didn't inspire me as much as other memoir I had read.

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review Christa. It's a pretty interesting premise - move to another country and re-invent yourself in a way that would have been impossible back home...China seems to be bursting with these kinds of possibilities which is what makes it such an interesting and vibrant place to live.

    I agree with Paul when he talks about realising that home is wherever his family is...but I can't believe he had no negative experiences! They happen in any country, but the challenges are what makes the move overseas all the more worthwhile.

    Cheers, Fiona