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Book Review: Black Dragon River by Ben Whately

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Author Ben Whately tells you right away that Black Dragon River this isn’t a travel book. Instead, it is a "journal of changing thoughts and opinions as I tried to accustom myself to living in a single, very strange, and not especially nice, place."

Whately goes to the city of Qiqihaer China to learn Chinese and to make sense of the "mystery of China." He is one of six native English speakers in a city of five million people. He starts out not even able to hold a conversation in Chinese, but by the end is conversing, if not easily then much less painfully. The change that happens in the book, as he becomes more comfortable with the things around him, is wonderful to read.

In chapter three Ben relates the story of finally meeting in person an American couple who teach English at the University he is studying Chinese at. He had found their home page while researching Qiqihaer and e-mailed them. Over time he had come to think of them as a "celebrity couple," having read all about their exploits in China.

When he finally introduced himself to Heather, one half of the American couple, she said "So you came? Why?" He would soon find that she wouldn’t be the only one to ask that question, to which he didn’t seem to have much of an answer beside mumbling "purity of the Mandarin accent."

While most of the book does take place in the city of Qiqihaer, the author does take weekend jaunts out into the more remote parts of Heilongjiang province, as well as Mongolia. The Heilongjiang province is named for the river that runs through the region. Translated it means "Black Dragon River."

In a town called Tazi, marketed as a tourist town in a 1989 guidebook for a wall from the Liao Dynasty that surrounds the city, Ben discovers that he is the first foreigner that many have ever seen. Brutally honest about China and his experiences, as well as being humorous, thoughtful, and ever hopeful, the author relates all his stories with a certain charm. Highly entertaining, you read from one chapter to the next picking up interesting facts about China that you might not find anywhere else.

My one complaint is that Black Dragon River was too short at only 180 pages. I feel as if there must be more to the story and I would love to know the rest. In that respect Ben Whately has achieved what every author should: he has left his audience wanting more.

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About Katie T. Buglet