Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum

Part of Wilderness Week.

The cover quote from the intrepid John Simpson says of Going Dutch in Beijing:

“Airline staff should hand out a copy with each boarding-pass they issue; that way we might all understand more about the places we travel to and do a little less damage.”

One might contend that it’s a slight stretch to include this book in Wilderness Week, but Going Dutch in Beijing treats the great wide world as a kind of wilderness. First time backpackers would be wise to buy a copy of this one. Its handsome jacket is even in the design of a passport.

GDIB is ostensibly An International Guide to Doing the Right Thing, but even if you don’t travel much, or indeed have never travelled at all, it’s a fascinating book full of mind-boggling discoveries. During the reading process, I was so amazed at the accounts of different cultures and traditions, that – somewhat annoyingly – I started littering conversations with new facts. ‘Listen to this one’ I would enthuse, as my husband pondered the problem pages of PC Pro.

In places it’s also rather a funny book and Mark McCrum comes across as a relaxed, affable chap, with an ear for the absurd. I expected to dip in and out of it, but I read it, in order, from cover to cover, frequently rereading the more surprising passages.

The book covers a range of subjects from greetings, customs, conversation stoppers, dress codes, Mongolian footsie, the karma of beggars, to the consumption of rat pudding, deep-fried guinea pig and coffee brewed from beans vomited by weasels. ‘Petiquette’ is an unsettling section on the tough time that animals can have in certain cultures. Cats are apparently eaten in parts of China:

particularly in the dish called ‘Dragon, Tiger and Phoenix,’ which mixes cat with snake and chicken. In Korea cats are not just eaten but boiled alive with herbs to make goyangi soju (‘cat tonic’), a remedy for arthritis.

Dogs also have it rough – in Arab countries they’re apparently considered unclean:

the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is supposed to have said that angels will not visit any house that contains a dog. Another hadith [traditions relating to the life and sayings of Mohammed – originally oral traditions, now preserved in written accounts] proclaims that for every day you own a dog your good deeds in life are diminished.

There are also very depressing and upsetting elements relating to women, like “women-whipping.”

Among the Hamar people of Southern Ethiopia male physical dominance is taken to extreme levels. When the time comes for a young man to be initiated (by jumping over a row of castrated bulls), his sisters must submit to being whipped by a group of newly initiated men known as the maz. Nor is this the end of it. Once married, a wife can expect regular beatings from her husband if she fails in such duties as keeping the house tidy or preparing a meal.

There is mention of the ‘kitchen killings’ in India, where it is alleged that wives found to have insufficient dowries can be murdered by their new inlaws in mysterious ‘kitchen accidents.’ According to GDIB, Indian statistics reveal that one of these murders occurs every hundred minutes.

Serious cultural elements aside, there are more flippant moments too, and the book is packed with amusing anecdotes. Mark Elliingham, the founder of Rough Guides, says that Going Dutch in Beijing, “Makes travelling a piece of cake” but I’m not sure I’d go that far. I’m more in agreement with the author Danny Wallace who describes this book as “essentially the Rough Guide to Not Getting Beaten Up Abroad.”

However, while Doing The Right Thing might be the objective, there is a certain charm and entertainment factor in doing the wrong thing. One gets the sense that Mark McCrum has learned the hard way.

Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum. 260 pages. Hardback. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-86197-862-2. 2007. £9.99.

6 comments on “Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum

  1. Mhairi
    April 27, 2008

    Heavens. That sounds like quite a rollercoaster of a book, Lisa.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who assails unsuspecting (and defenceless) family members with Fascinating Bits from the Book I’m Reading.

    If they’re right about the effects of dog-owning on good deeds, I’m sunk …

  2. rosyb
    April 27, 2008

    I love the cover too. Shocking stuff in the middle there. I think I’m actually going to get my finger out and buy this one, though.

  3. Nik
    April 27, 2008

    Sounds terrific, Lisa. One for the wishlist, me thinks.


  4. Luisa
    April 27, 2008

    Brilliant review.

  5. Jackie
    April 28, 2008

    Oh dear, I don’t know if I could handle all that bad stuff about animals. And the women stuff doesn’t sound much better. Perhaps I could skip those parts, because it sounds enjoyable otherwise….

  6. Lisa
    April 29, 2008

    Can’t recommend this one highly enough. Would make an excellent gift too. It’s funny and smart, plus it’s a thing of beauty – even the inside pages have that swirly pinky/green passport paper.

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