Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Joe Bennett Talks to Urbanatomy About WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM

Alana Filipovich reviews Where Underpants Come From on Urbanatomy: "If you read only one China book this year, make it Joe Bennett’s Where Underpants Come From. Bennett does witty travelogue better than Bill Bryson, and dissects what makes countries and their economies tick better than PJ O'Rourke did in Eat the Rich. The book’s premise in ingeniously simple – it’s basically an undie hunt, a quest to track a pack of Y-fronts from Chinese cotton fields to department store in Bennett’s adopted home of New Zealand (where the Englishman is a well-known newspaper columnist). It’s witty as hell, and filled with informed insights as to what makes the New China tick. As Bennett says in the book's intro: “There are plenty of better-informed books about China, but I suspect this is the only one to begin with a pair of underpants.” Actually, Bennett is pretty well informed for someone who spent only a short time here and his insights are sager than many a so-called China expert. No surprise that the book scooped the grand prize at the seventh annual Whitcoulls Travcom Travel Book of the Year Award.

Urbanatomy caught up with Joe Bennett for this chat...

Why underpants? That is, how'd you come up with the idea of writing the book?
I bought some underpants and then started to think about them. It was genuine curiosity sparking a simple idea. And that simple idea seemed to me to expand into a lot of stuff that mattered.

How has writing the book changed your own attitude towards China? Towards underpants? Towards underpants, not one bit. Towards China, hugely. The country has gone from being a vague and mildly threatening mystery, to somewhere I have become very fond of, a place full of people who are simply people, and with both a history and a future that interest me a lot. It was an education.

Do you think following the trail of underwear around Asia gave you an accurate portrayal of culture and commerce? Would you recommend 'Underpant Travel' to other tourists? I'd recommend people to go to China, certainly, but there's no reason for them to follow pants. Whether I've gained and written a fair picture of China, well, i would like to think so, and several people who live there have written to me to say kind things, but in the end it's for readers to judge whether I've got it right. I do, of course, realise that there are vast swathes of this vast country that I haven't been anywhere near. But then again, nor have most Chinese.

What was the best moment of your trip? The worst? You seem to have handled the language barrier with good grace, but did you have any especially frustrating moments? Hard to pick out a best moment. But I do keep coming back to a night in a Shanghai restaurant early on when I suddenly realised that the Chinese were just people like me, with different customs perhaps, but with the same essential humanity. As regards the language, I was frustrated by the characters, as I explain in the book. I found them so hard to memorise. And that in turn made it hard for the spoken language to stick. I would have greatly liked to be able to converse more freely with people in bars and restaurants and public places. In the business world most people spoke enough English.

You write about how a few Chinese people strove to befriend you, even joining you for dinner uninvited. In the book, the locals seem to be either exceedingly friendly or largely indifferent. Please give us your take on Chinese people. Did you face any adverse reactions at all? Yes, some were friendly, some indifferent. In general, as I've said, I don't think one can generalise. I've travelled a fair bit and pretty well everywhere I've been I've met a similar mix of friendliness and indifference. It's human make-up rather than any racial or national characteristic. And offhand I can remember no active aggression from anyone, apart from from the street vendor in urumqi and I think she'd got hold of the wrong idea about me. I felt sorry for her.

Finally, what kind of underpants do you wear?
I wear, am wearing now, exactly the sort of ordinary cheap briefs I describe in the book. Always have.

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