Peter Jenkins has long been a favorite of mine, for both A Walk Across America to The Walk West. When I first came across this book in college, I had yet to gain a deep interest in China. That land was still as foreign to me as any other, and I viewed this little paperback as nothing more than just another fun read. Jenkins’ crossing of the northern plains of China, from Tibet eastward impressed in me a landscape that would to this very day become my most longed-for spot on earth. Jenkins’ look into the soul of the Tibetan and Chinese people also gave me a hunger to learn more about them myself. How surprised I would have been to learn that just two years after having first read this book, I’d be living in China, or that just four years later I’d be traveling through Tibet as well!
In Across China, Jenkins works initially begins as a reporter following a team of climbers as they seek to scale Everest, but then uses the opportunity of a trip into Asia to venture through a foreign land much like he once had his own. In true Jenkins fashion, he delivers not simply a travelogue of places, but introduces us to the people and cultures that make those places unique.
Several scenes stand out in my memory to this day, the most striking of which was his Chapter 24: “A Black and Red Movie.” In this striking scene, Peter visits a worn-out building in a mountain village in Tibet where all the villagers have gathered to watch a video provided to them by the Chinese government. In the movie, a lost child is threatened by evil Buddhists in a monastery only to be rescued by a shining Chinese knight on a white steed, the Communist avenger of the threatened Tibetan people. Jenkins recognized this for exactly what it was, shameless propaganda against a culturally innocent people. This scene intensifies any debate one might have had about the status of Tibet in the mid-80s, and it certainly carries some weight even today. Jenkins later summarizes his perceptions of the Tibetan issue this way:
“My thoughts became near violent when I thought of some ruling government trying to tell me that my God, the Jesus my ancestors have worshiped for many centuries, was ‘now’ dead. I couldn’t imagine anyone turning our little brick church back in our small Tennessee town into a museum…Would they force our pastor…to quit his ‘preaching’ to start cutting weeds? I wondered how I would respond to being taken over, or ‘liberated’ like these Tibetans had. Would I try to live within the ‘system’ or die fighting? I’d probably be leading the underground forces…Whether I believed in their gods or not, I believed, as never before, in their right to their gods.” (173-174)
Jenkins also introduces a fair amount of cultural tips for China in this book, impressions from 1986 which differ a great deal from today:
“When in China, always, ALWAYS smile Never show anger” (25) “Never, never lose your temper in China…Just smile and wait like everyone else.” (208)
“When talking to Chinese in groups, always be smooth and polite. They are afraid that you could be a spy or that one of their comrades might be one. They will warm up and much more alone.” (25)
“Marrying an American capitalist, noncommunist Westerner [or] marrying a foreigner was considered by many an act against the Motherland.” (30)
Of course, there are also a number of other tips about China that, for whatever reason, never change:
“They never trust each other.” (25)
“Never discuss politics or religion.” (26)
“Never tip in China.” (32)
“If you’re getting nowhere, just stand next to the person long enough, and you’ll drive them into doing something.” (214)
Once again, I found Peter Jenkins to be a fascinating author who expertly introduces his readers to a certain place in time. I look forward to reading him again someday.