If there ever was an expat author in the Middle Kingdom whose enthusiasm and love of life was as contagious as Cecilie Gamst Berg's, then that person has yet to be published.
Part travelogue of a directionless backpacker, part bedtime stories of a frisky European babe who enjoys seducing young Chinese guys "out of the festering prison of virginity," Blonde Lotus is in fact one in the same person. Gamst Berg, via her alter-ego protagonist Kat Glas°, accidentally arrives in late-1980's China ("all I wanted was to be on the train; I had no interest in the journey's destination, Beijing"), back when the mighty bicycle was still king of Peking and foreign tourists were a rare sighting.
Expecting a people with "long, billowing sleeves, reciting poetry and plucking at stringed instruments," what Kat finds in New China instead are street corners populated with shady money changers and young hipsters whose knowledge of English is limited to the words `Okay-la' and `Sex!' Lulled by their incessant charm charming incessancy, Kat shrugs her shoulders and good-naturedly gives it to them - the money AND the sex. "How could so many men find the women of a race attractive, and so few women find the men the same," she ponders postcoitally over a shared Zhongnanhai cigarette.
Queen gweipo (devil woman in Cantonese) Gamst Berg is an unpretentious, fun-loving writer with nothing to prove. She's not out to save China as so many a self-righteous foreigner here are ("I hope this country never modernizes" Kat admits in one of her many blunt moments of sincerity), she's not trying to force feed them Faulkner ("I loved books and he never read one"), nor is she out to land a career in journalism like the rest of us.
No, the author is clearly just looking to have a good time ("We were young, stoned and in China"), and maybe learn some Putonghua while doing it, and therefore spares us the sappy, sympathetic observations and "deep understanding" of life in China that makes most Laowai Literature such a torture to read.
Conversely, nor is Gamst Berg out to tear Communism apart, vilify Chinese people or point and laugh at the "strangeness" of their culture, a common last-resort for some western travel writers (whom I refrain from naming as a professional courtesy) who don't want to admit that they have learned nothing about the Chinese during their stay here.
Indeed, while her fellow expats spend their time in China sitting around at bars "shouting out orders in English, and when they weren't understood, complained loudly to each other about how stupid the Chinese were," rather than join in, Kat moves tables, literally and figuratively, to the Chinese side of the bar.
Instead of whining about China's infamously filthy public toilets, Kat hangs out in them (smoking dope), then laughs when there's a line of squeaming girls waiting to use the stall. Rather than complain about the People's Republic's chaotic queues at its railway stations, she jumps right in, elbows swinging, with the rest of the seething proletariat.
Our Blonde Lotus ain't no saint, and she would laugh in your face if you dared suggest it. "I wanted to experience everything and sleep with everybody..." confesses, nay, asserts the Norwegian-born Kat Glas° - and then proceeds to actually do so, from coal-and-petrol-scented industrial North China all the way down to the steamy islands of Hong Kong, her final destination.
Throughout her candid memoir, the author employs an uproarious combination of reluctant intellectualism ("learning Chinese was better than being in love because there was no danger of waking next to the Chinese language wanting to kick it out of bed") and ribald hedonism ("I felt something push into me, shudder and expire. Was it an asparagus?") that is sure to win Gamst Berg as many fans as frighten them away.
If Blonde Lotus is a window into China, then that window has been fogged with the sultry breathe of its occupants. If it is a work of reportage; then the author was too distracted by eating, drinking, smoking and playing cards with the peasantry to be concerned about making the front page. And that nonchalance, that self-depreciating humor, is exactly this novel's charm.
Blonde Lotus is a refreshingly unserious memoir of an infectiously upbeat young woman (this reviewer's favorite line in the whole book: "Ha ha, life was perfect and made for me!") who, lost in China and unsure of what she wants to do with said life - as many of our kind are - inadvertently ends up making a new, better one for herself.
Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People