At the end of this memorable collection profiling some of the people he met during the dozen years he spent as a journalist covering Asia, Frank Viviano writes of visiting a leader of Laos’ Hmong mountain people, brutally forced to leave their homeland for the utterly foreign world of California’s Central Valley.
The Hmong “had come to be emblematic for me in their fierce insistence that the past and the future could be reconciled,” Viviano writes. “I wanted to believe that a slender strand of continuity could be preserved somehow. That history didn’t have to be a constant process of stark divorces between beginnings and ends. For myself as much as for them, I wanted the Hmong to prove it.”
For the Hmong and Viviano’s other Asian subjects, reconciling the past and the future is much easier wished than done. Viviano’s story is of individuals groping through unfamiliar terrain for something familiar, or for a new beginning. A Filipino priest bemoans his country’s corruption and its people’s addiction to emigration. A young Chinese woman in Shanghai inexplicably wants to study at the University of Texas at El Paso. A Yakut tribesman and English teacher from northern Siberia meets his first native speaker of English (Viviano) in Irkutsk, a city brimming with black market electronic goods from China and Japan.
Viviano’s book is better and more satisfying than many similar, sometimes perfunctory collections by journalists. Clearly he gave much thought to the book’s unifying theme. He also clearly cares more about people than about “economic miracles,” “newly industrializing countries,” or any of the other cliches of latter-day Asia. John Krich’s back-cover praise that Viviano “won’t accept any vision of reality that’s dictated from the top down” seems well merited.
Viviano’s device of extracting from one of his own newspaper or wire articles at the top of each chapter reminds readers that journalism is limited by conventions and cliches—beneath which lurks reality, often unseen.
Another good book written in much the same spirit is GOD’S DUST: A MODERN ASIAN JOURNEY (1989) by Ian Buruma, a former arts editor of the Hong Kong-based FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW.