“Saving Fish from Drowning” by Amy Tan

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, since it looked like a departure from some of Tan’s previous works. And it is, in a way, but I enjoyed it tremendously. I noticed that other people have left negative reviews of it; I feel like we must have been reading two completely different books, because I loved it.

The book is presented as the recording of the automatic writings of someone who is channelling the spirit of Chinese-American socialite Bibi Chen, who dies just before she is supposed to take a group of Americans to Burma, just reopening to tourism after years of political unrest. They go through with the tour anyway, although, through fate and their own bumbling incompetence, disaster strikes.

Perhaps the main differences between this and other books I’ve read by Tan are that, first of all, many of the point-of-view characters are not Chinese, and second of all, Tan’s wicked sense of humor is given free rein. I mention the first mainly because this is more of an examination/satire of American society, or at least well-meaning upper class West Coast American society, as a whole than it is of Chinese-American society. You have the well-intentioned but incompetent activist, the well-intentioned but incompetent group leader, the minor celebrity, etc. etc. I can’t speak for the minor celebrities, but the depictions of academics and activists are hilariously spot-on, even as they’re drawn in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, and anyone who’s spent time around teenagers will probably find much that is amusing in the depictions of the two who have been dragged along on the trip–the girl embarrassed by her mother and determined to rescue dogs, and the boy whose favorite thing is to run off and climb things, inconveniencing everyone. And the tour group’s determination to do their own thing, to the detriment of all, including their own stomachs, was too painfully funny. In other words, the portrait of a Western tour group galumphing through the non-Western world will either make you laugh or cry (could this be the source of some of the negative reviews I’ve read? Could people be unconsciously taking offense at this too-accurate portrait of Americans?). Tan’s sense of irony is acute, and her use of it to build tension, even when all the characters are doing is riding on a chartered tour bus, is masterful.

The main thrust of the story, in the end, is that even the best of stated intentions can do more harm than good, and that some problems are too difficult to fix with a few protests and fundraisers. However, this is muted by the sharp zinging noises of Tan’s razor-like wit. A hilarious read that travelers and travelogue-fans in particular should enjoy, providing they can bear to look at themselves from the outside.

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