It’s with pleasure that I welcome author Susan Jane Gilman to Pop Culture Nerd today to discuss her memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, recently released in paperback. It’s the tale of Susan’s adventures with her friend Claire in China upon graduating from Brown in 1986. The two had wanted to go on their own Homerian odyssey around the world but soon, the hardships and isolation in China began to fray their nerves, culminating in a series of alarming events which support the notion that truth is stranger than fiction.
I love to travel, sometimes to non-touristy places, but don’t think I’d ever have the courage to do it the way Susan and Claire did, backpacking and hosteling, not knowing the local language. Susan explains their gutsy choice below.
The People’s Republic of China was the catalyst for almost everything that occurred in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. It was such an alien place—and so cut-off from the rest of the world—that it amplified every challenge we had as travelers.
In 1986, there were no direct flights from the USA to the People’s Republic, no direct-dial overseas phone lines, and very little television coverage or news reporting out of China. (Perhaps the only country somewhat comparable to this today is North Korea.) And although we made the trip just a couple of decades ago, this was truly a different technological age—no Internet or cell phones. So once we arrived, we felt massively isolated and vulnerable, as if we’d been set adrift at the far end of the universe.
And this universe was often rough-going. Much of China was filthy and underdeveloped. The air was filled with coal dust and the streets glistened with phlegm, which meant we got sick a lot. Tourist facilities were rudimentary. For two sheltered Americans, the constant roaches, outhouses, and ice-water showers were wildly unsettling. Oh, we’d been so pampered! To be sure, the poverty and squalor also made the beauty of China-–-and the incredible kindness of so many of the people—that much more remarkable. It forced me to toughen up and appreciate more of what I had, but for some reason, this process never comes easy. Why is it more second-nature to bitch than to appreciate?
On top of all this, of course, we couldn’t speak or read Mandarin, so the world around us was literally indecipherable. Street signs, menus, even train tickets—we couldn’t understand them! And so, every little conundrum easily escalated into a crisis.
Added to this was my own inherent fearfulness, plus what turned out to be my friend Claire’s precarious mental state. These were exacerbated by the hardships of China and we quickly spiraled out of control.
Had we begun our journey in Europe, we would’ve no doubt still experienced some culture shock and homesickness, but our level of helplessness would’ve been a lot lower. It would’ve been easier to cope, communicate, and navigate. We might not have been able to escape our own demons, but they wouldn’t have had such fertile ground in which to take root.
Starting our trip in, say, London or Paris would’ve been a matter of traveling “the Road More Taken.” Certainly, it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier. Yet, I’d also have come away with a lot less wisdom, humor, and character—and a lot less of a story to tell.
Have you ever traveled to a place which left you feeling completely isolated? Are you the adventurous type or more the my-hotel-has-to-be-four-stars-and-right-next-to-the-Eiffel-Tower kind of tourist?