Two Women Travel to China in 1986 to Find It’s Not About Them

I’ve been enjoying a book that some might call “chick trip lit. ” What I like about Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is how cleverly she describes her traveling companion, Claire, when they are facing duress in 1986 communist China. The pair have known each other since being roommates at Brown, and are taking the grand tour, beginning in Hong Kong and after befriending one of the only people they meet who speaks passable English, take a ferry and end up in remote Dinghai, where Jonnie’s parents and family live.  First, though they have to deal with the curious police who want to know why they want to visit this town, and are adamant that no photos be taken. But Claire was not rebuffed or afraid of authority.

“Like many of my classmates who’d been educated at exclusive prep schools, Claire seemed perfectly at ease with authority and had a reflexive talent for winning over her superiors with cleverness and charm….Twisting around to face the officer directly, she smiled at him winningly–her white teeth winking–then spoke to him as if he were an old familiar friend. I had to admit, she had nerve. It was really something to see.”

The author has a revelation: Although Jonnie has asked the pair repeatedly to accomany him to the American embassy, he has brought them to this dusty village for one reason…and it’s not self-centered as getting their help to emigrate. No, she realizes, it’s because he wants to show his family off to his two American friends.

Gilman contrasts her own extended family dynamic–“a parade of pathology; whining, hyperactive children; furious, beleaguered-looking mothers; drunken uncles; husbands making inappropriate jokes about their wives in front of their wives; sullen, seething teenagers (okay, me) and a dictatorial grandmother badgering her dithering husband with a soup ladle.

What she sees when she enters the dimly-lit home where 12 people squeeze into four rooms is utter harmony; they were all truly and utterly in love with each other. “We were not the prizes on display in Dinghai at all, I realized. What hubris!  What presumption!  No, Jonnie had wanted Claire and me to see what he had.