Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chenxi and the Foreigner by Sally Rippin

Since I'm a huge fan of books, both fiction and nonfiction, dealing with China it seemed only right to pick up this book.
The story revolves around Anna White, the daughter of a wealthy American business man who is in China to make his fortune in the late 1980's. Anna's parents have separated and she has come from San Francisco, to spend four weeks with her father in Shanghai. While Anna's father would like her to study business law and become an entrepreneur, her heart lies in being an artist. So it seems like a good idea to study traditional Chinese painting, at the local art college.

Her father hires Chenxi, a local Chinese art student and painter, to help his daughter around Shanghai. Almost immediately, Anna becomes infatuated with her young Chinese host but is put off by his seemingly cool, distant attitude towards her. She cannot understand the mindset of the Chinese as she gets mostly mixed signals from Chenxi.

Chenxi, in turn, is frustrated by Anna's naivete and her lack of understanding of how repressed Chinese society is. However, Chenxi realises that despite this, Anna understands his art which is modern and very different than traditional Chinese art. Chenxi is impressed with Anna's fearlessness in using art to express herself but knows she doesn't understand what it is like to live in a society where freedom to express oneself does not exist.

To make matters more complicated Anna's father does not like Chenxi but favours Laurent, a French national studying mandarin in Shanghai. In an attempt to get Anna to mix more with the foreigners living in Shanghai her father takes Anna to cocktail parties and encourages her to meet with Laurent more often. However, Anna dislikes Laurent who deals in drugs on the side.

Anna continues to be attracted to only Chenxi with drastic consequences for all involved. She tries to convince Chenxi to leave China but he rebukes her telling her that he does not want to go to America and be a Chinese man living in America. He wants to live in China and be Chinese.

It isn't long before Anna soon learns that Chenxi is involved in much more than just art, working with other artists and students who are seeking democratic reform in communist China. While students are demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Chenxi and local artists stage their own demonstration at an art gallery in Shanghai. When Chenxi disappears, Anna tries everything to find and see him again but to no avail. It is at this time she learns she is carrying his child. When she tells her father and finally makes a decision for herself about her life, Anna's father refuses to help or support her and Anna leaves China.

Several years later, Anna learns through mysterious circumstances that Chenxi is safe and free again. She hopes through one last act she might reconnect with him again.

Chenxi and the Foreigner was authentic and believable. It's obvious that author Rippin knows her subject well. Although the characters were realistic, I personally found most of them unlikeable. Anna came across as spoiled and self-centred. Laurent was a dislikable drug head who seemed out of character in helping Anna navigate the Chinese health system when she suspects she's pregnant. Even Anna's father seemed shallow and self-absorbed. What father sends his daughter home, cutting her out of his life, when he learns she is pregnant in a foreign country? He seemed to have little time for his 19 year old daughter. I also found Chenxi to be a somewhat one-dimensional character - getting into his head came in bits and pieces that were hard to put together. He seemed to want to be like the foreigners, trying to get into their nightclub and yet despising them. Perhaps this was an accurate portrayal of how Chinese view westerners. It seemed like Anna and Chenxi only really connected during the one time she critiqued his painting.

Nevertheless, Chenxi and the Foreigner is a good, engaging read about a time in recent China that hasn't been much written about. The story is based somewhat on author, Rippin's experiences as a teenager living in China during her teen years. She studied painting in China for three years, first at the Shanghai Institute of Fine Arts and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art. Some swearing and a short description of sexual intercourse in this book.

For more information on the author, Sally Rippin see:
Sally Rippin

Book Details:
Chenxi and the Foreigner by Sally Rippin
Annick Press Ltd 2009

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