Susan Jane Gilman’s Hell in HEAVEN

Photo by Francois Bourru

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.

Many thanks to Susan for stopping by today. For more info, visit her website and listen to an excerpt here.

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?



  • Reply
    Susan Jane Gilman
    February 24, 2010 at 4:17 am

    Hey there. I, too, would love to hear from readers. My question:

    Although some people say that it reads like a thriller, “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” is a true story. Did you find the ending surprising?

    I’m just curious as a writer. You can contact me through my website, This also has a link to my blog, “A View from A Broad” a humorous account of my continuing adventures overseas, for those who are interested in laughing, or armchair travel, or both.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Reply
      February 24, 2010 at 9:12 pm

      I heard about your book on NPR. Weren’t you interviewed on there? (My memory hasn’t been the same since menopause. That’s a whole other kind of journey) But I look forward to reading your book. It’s great that more women are traveling + publishing books about experiences we could never imagine. And so glad that spirit of adventure is still out there.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Thanks PCN and Susan. This is exactly the kind of story I LOVE.
    I can’t wait to run (yes, literally run) across the street at lunch
    to Borders and buy it. I am completely intrigued! While I’ve never been to China,
    in 1998 I did go to India. It took me 23 hours to fly there. It was such an incredible
    experience and I ran through the gamut of emotions, both positve and negative. I’m really
    looking forward toreading your book. Thanks for making my Wednesday. PCN thanks for
    posting this–this exactly what i love about your blog–being introduced or re-introduced to
    great books, movies and music that I might have missed along the way.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    The only spontaneous trip I ever took was to Acapulco with my brother. A very long term relationship had finally fizzled out, I had just recovered from a major accident and the settlement check was burning a hole in my pocket. I needed to get away. I had been waiting tables in NYC at the time. I figured what I retained from high school and college Spanish courses, plus what I had picked up from the kitchen staff, I could easily navigate a touristy part of Mexico. Then we were standing at JFK being told that our airline had gone out of business. My travel agent took no responsibility for anything.

    “The airline went out of business? How is that my fault?”, she said.

    She got us on another flight the next day, but it cost us another pair of tickets. I paid it. I needed to do this already.

    On our first day, we went para-sailing and picked up a couple of local girls at a GAP. We rented an old jalopy (seriously, it looked like something the Beverly Hillbillies would have driven) and took them to their house after work. It was a shack. The floors were dirt and the rooms were divided with cheap wood paneling and pictures on the wall were simply pages ripped out of magazines and taped sparingly to the wall. My brother spoke no Spanish whatsoever, but I could see everything that was going on in his head. The girls were pretty, but he was really scared of what we might have gotten ourselves into. We hadn’t exactly grown up rich, but this was level of poverty we had never been exposed to before. We were definitely out of our element.

    I translated as best I could to brother while keeping up the banter with our dates.

    They took us to a club where psuedo-rockettes line danced up onstage and then came out to mingle with the crowd. They all looked the same. Statuesque dancers with huge feathered head pieces. One of them grabbed my brother and dragged him onto the dance floor. The girls laughed hysterically. Finally, they explained that only 6 or so of the 22 costumed dancers were actual females. The one that dancing with my brother was not one of them. But he was having a good time, so I didn’t tell him he was dancing with a man until he was escorted back to the table and given a kiss for the dance. We had many more beers after that. On the walk back to the girls’ place, we met whole families in the street selling pez candy. It put a real damper on the evening and we neglected offers of a nightcap with their parents.

    We staggered into our hotel room at around 3AM. My brother woke up with Montezuma’s Revenge which set the tone for rest of our little vacation.

    There were many of what I call Ugly Americans in almost every bar sporting a neon sign with palm trees on it. They were doing things they wouldn’t dare do in their own country. Rather than join them in the debauchery, it sobered us up enough not to treat the place like it was our own personal toilet.

    We tried sunbathing, but every 20 minutes we were nudged by a poor kid in rags trying to sell us a warm, flat Corona.

    We avoided the tourist traps and found quite a few cantinas where we could just sit and watch the sun rise and set without being pestered by the punks on Spring Break. Sitting while nursing our drinks, we had some pretty good conversations before we went back to the U.S. It did me good. My brother married his girlfriend a few months later. I think it made him feel safer. She divorced him a few years later.

    I am still enjoying the coffee mug I bought down there. It makes me smile, but I have no interest in going back.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Going to a place without doing any research or at least learning the language sounds like the premise of a comedic novel, but it appears the author wasn’t going for the funny. She’s surprised by the results? And wants us to read this? Not really my cup of tea.

    I’m with EIREGO. Avoid the Ugly American thing!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    February 25, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Thank you, PCN and Susan. Just from this little snippet, I’m reminded of how the internet has revolutionised travelling in the last 20 or so years ~ nowadays people can travel to many places and be well informed about what to expect, but it was vastly different before that. I’m certainly curious about what happens in your book, Susan!

  • Reply
    Jen Forbus
    February 25, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Well, I can’t afford the 4-star hotels, but I can’t say I’m adventurous either. My big prerequisite is to have someone with me who isn’t a bigger baby than me. If I’m with someone a little more daring, I’m usually willing to try a lot…except camping. I despise camping so don’t ever ask me to do that.

    This sounds a lot like Simon Lewis’ experience when he had to write a travel guide for China and didn’t have any knowledge of the culture or the language. That turned into the concept for his book BAD TRAFFIC, but in that case his Chinese protagonist went to England…and didn’t know the culture or the language. It’s humbling!

  • Reply
    March 4, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    This sounds fascinating! Even with all the access to information and the advanced communication systems available today, I don’t have the cojones to take on a fish-out-of-water adventure like Susan and Claire did. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone in my own country is something I have to fight with from time to time. 😉

    Now, if I were accompanied by someone who was comfortable and fluent in the language and customs, I would be more willing to try. I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. Not necessarily the guided safaris with the fancy camps, because that feels like cheating, but to really experience the wildlife and ecosystems of the continent. Though I don’t know what I could contribute, but if I really got my courage up, I’d join Doctors without Borders or some other humanitarian effort. For now, I’ll just continue to support those who step up to the plate and see what’s out there. 🙂

    Look forward to reading this book. Thanks, PCN.

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