‘Stranger in Taiwan’, by Hartley Pool: BOOK REVIEW

An easy, breezy, Taiwanese-y read.
Stranger in Taiwan, by Hartley Pool
(Revenge Ink, 2011)
Buy it here on Amazon.com

Hartley Pool is a comedian I used to see performing at The Living Room Taipei, about 5 or 6 years ago. He’d claim the stage like a pro for Zach Touzin’s Open Mic show, and read sometimes funny, sometimes a bit oblique one-liners and passages from a book he’d written.

Well, now writing from Malaysia, Hartley’s first comic novel Stranger in Taiwan came out this past year. He seems to have put his best foot forward in this briskly paced, relentlessly superficial treatment of Taiwan (and China – by tour bus!).

It starts out with a UK teacher who hooks up with one of his students (adult mind you), a Taiwanese, and flies there to be with her. Then goes through the entertaining process of landing a decent job, eventually, with the British Council. Anita’s character serves as Hartley’s ‘Gracie’-like sidekick in the novel, providing one of the few, semi-cultural reference points throughout the book.

Hartley as a main character remains staunchly British throughout; his role is to have absolutely no interest in ‘assimilating’ or stepping out of his comfort zone, anywhere in the world, for that matter. He is equally horrified and/or out of place in any context, which actually makes for some excellent situational comedy, like when he refuses to get on the Maokong gondola until Anita makes it into a relationship-breaker; or when he and Anita argue over his repeating the welcome greeting at convenience stores. Her inevitable arm-folding is the signal she will suffer this idiot foreigner no longer — an exasperated ‘tai chuen la’ (‘You’re a complete idiot’) is what makes her feel better.

Stranger in Taiwan pokes fun at everyone’s foibles, and at the same time. It goes without saying, therefore, this is not by any means a historically informative book, only one to be read for easy entertainment value. It’s much like airport literature — an easy, breezy, Taiwanese-y read. When Hartley is at first denied his PlayStation 2, he decides to give Anita whatever she wants for Christmas … and nearly comes undone, buckling at the knees when he has to charge 60,000nt to his common man’s credit card to feed Anita’s ‘LV’ bag fetish (which most Taiwanese women unfortunately seem to suffer from, as well as the inability to actually pronounce ‘Louis Vuitton’). The veiled digs at mindless consumerism in Taiwan is much appreciated.

Stranger in Taiwan is chatty in tone, guaranteed to give a laugh out loud, every couple of pages at least. It was a bit like a Bridget Jones’ Diary for foreign teachers in Asia, except instead of stressing about losing weight or overindulging, Hartley’s horrors consist of elements of hypochondria, all discussed with a Woody Allen-like artistry, and we all know the Art of Complaining is a distinctly British pastime.

This is the most slapstick-funny account of the ‘laowai’ (old foreigner) lifestyle here in Taiwan I’ve seen so far, and Hartley’s new book shows deep appreciation of everything from the art of the whynge (in order to get a laugh), to the finer points in linguistics, and spirited, even heated debates about everything from sunbrellas to night-market fare featuring delectables akin to ‘turkey anuses on a stick’ which he of course studiously avoids.

This book rolls along smoothly, and I found myself drawn in to his contrasting Britishisms with the Taiwanese exasperation and non-appreciation of his effusive use of irony, sarcasm or satire. This work thrives off of trying the patience of the poor Taiwanese. Well done, Hartley. Let’s see some more.

Read Hartley Pool’s blog

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