MARCH 1, 2015
MICHAEL MEYER opens his luminous In Manchuria with a walk down Red Flag Road, what counts as a main thoroughfare in Wasteland, a small farming village in northeast China. It’s winter and the “land is frozen and still,” a plain reminiscent of the author’s native Minnesota, only less populated. He is 600 miles from Beijing — a 12-hour train ride on the slow-moving, economy-class trains that Meyer prefers — and the surroundings emphasize it. He sees rice fields, the three-story school where he works and which — until recently — was the tallest building in town, and the old train station that he explains is all but obsolete:
The new high-speed trains that cover the seventy miles between the cities of Jilin and Changchun do not stop here. For passengers in the seated compartment, Wasteland whooshes by in a silent four-second blur, looking like any other village in northeast China.
In American terms, it’s Chinese flyover country — a region viewed by many of China’s 700 million urbanites as filled with places and people of little interest or sophistication, and deserving of little respect. It’s an image inflicted on farmers and rural communities across China, as well.
But, Manchuria, by virtue of its remote location in China’s Northeast, and its history of colonization by the Japanese, receives perhaps a little less respect — and is flown over much less — than rural communities elsewhere in China. Even Meyer himself can’t avoid looking down on it occasionally: early in his marriage, for example, he recounts that he and his wife described “any unsettled, purgatorial situation as being mired ‘in Manchuria.’”
So why then spend three years living in Manchuria, researching and writing a book about it, as Meyer did? So long as there have been memoirs, potential memoirists have sought out difficult places in which they might learn about the people and history of the place and — ultimately — about themselves. In one sense, Meyer is no different. In Manchuria is a bet that the desolate plains of northeast China will be more interesting to him and his readers than they are to most Chinese, and even to most residents of Manchuria.
And Meyer wins that bet, offering readers a richly detailed, highly readable, and utterly enjoyable history of Manchuria (and Wasteland). He surveys its distant and very recent past, from its Paleolithic origins, through the rise and fall of the Qing dynasty, to Communist land reforms and — ultimately — the introduction of agribusiness to modern China.
That’s no easy task — especially when many of the residents whom Meyer interviews are at pains to tell him that there’s nothing interesting around these parts. Likewise, in one of the book’s more haunting passages, a vegetable seller tells Meyer: “If you’re looking for history, you’ve come too late.” It’s an opinion widely shared by her fellow Manchurians and — to Meyer’s credit — he doesn’t believe them. Instead, showing considerable journalistic savvy, he waits them out until they tell him what he finds interesting — and they may not.
Curiously, Meyer didn’t go to Wasteland and Manchuria because he had an outsized interest in the nearly dead Manchu language, Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria during World War II, or northern Chinese rice farming (topics all covered in the book). Rather, he was drawn to the region because of something more personal. As he explains it: “a girl.”
Meyer met his future wife Frances in 1997 when he was fresh out of the Peace Corps and teaching in Beijing. She was a colleague and slowly they began a relationship that reached the “serious” stage when Meyer invited Frances to accompany him to the US for a wedding. She agreed, but on one condition: that he first accompany her to the Northeast and meet her parents.
As he recounts the visit, he felt immediately at home (what was exotic, according to Meyer, a child of divorce, was the close family). Equally important, he felt curious: when Frances’s grandmother recounted that the rice from her farm was the best, Meyer expressed an immediate interest in visiting. That’s a reporter’s instinct, of course. But it’s also a novelist’s instinct: to illuminate a character, illuminate those who formed and shaped a character.
Meyer never says so directly, but it was obvious to this reader, at least, that his intense interest in the details of Wasteland and, ultimately, Manchuria is in part an expression of longing — longing for home, and ultimately longing for the wife from whom he’s separated for extended periods of time while researching the book in her hometown. That hometown, it’s worth noting, is one to which she will never return to live — only visit. In her absence, Meyer unleashes his considerable descriptive powers on the places that she must know far better than he ever can. Take, for example, this passage:
In August, Wasteland ripened green. The rice nearly reached my hips, and its broadening stalks cloaked the paddy’s water. Walking down Red Flag Road felt like cutting through a plush carpet that needed to be combed for frogs. Their pulsing croaks reverberated from the fields.
This is romantic stuff, but what saves it — and perhaps even his book — from getting lost in sentimentality, are the plain-spoken, practical characters who populate Wasteland, most of whom seem to be relations of some kind. Thus we have Auntie Yi, staring out at the same rice paddies that Meyer just described so elegantly: “That, she disagreed, was not scenery: ‘It’s food.’”
Meyer doesn’t seem to mind the rhetorical buckets of cold water that are thrown at him throughout his stay in Wasteland. Like so much else, they merely echo Frances. In one of the book’s best episodes, he recounts how, during Frances’s first trip to the United States she would edit fortune cookie fortunes so that they’d sound authentically Chinese. For example: “You have an ambitious nature and may make a name for yourself” she translated into: “You’re a woman. Be chaste and stop dreaming.”
These are funny, wise passages. But what gives them something extra — emotional lift — is Meyer’s early concession that the residents of small-town Manchuria remind him of his neighbors growing up in Minnesota, a place where Scandinavian and German Lutheran rectitude is still practiced in small towns, and echoed in suburbs and cities. Though Meyer would likely be loath to make the comparison himself, many of Wasteland’s residents need only some English and a long Minnesota accent to fit right in among the bachelor farmers of Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon. His interest, and even love, for Wasteland’s landscape at times feels like longing for a Midwestern home that he left behind for China, and adulthood.
Lake Wobegon, if it really existed, would have ceased being a small town with bachelor farmers years ago. Agribusiness, corporate farming, and the understandable wanderlust of Minnesota’s rural youth has transformed Central Minnesota (ostensibly, the location of Lake Wobegon) into a very different place. It’s easy to mourn for the end of rural America — in a sense, that’s what Garrison Keillor does whenever he spins a new yarn about the bachelor farmers. But as Keillor well knows, the Norwegian bachelor farmers aren’t coming back, because in 2015 one-man farming operations don’t make economic sense.
Wasteland is still in its Lake Wobegon stage, but just barely — a state of affairs that Meyer learns about first-hand while teaching in Wasteland’s school. There, he met students with mobile phones, internet, music downloads, and the natural wanderlust inspired by Chinese modernity. But even if the kids wanted to stay in Wasteland, their farmer parents wouldn’t hear of it. Like their urban counterparts across China, Wasteland’s parents long for upwardly mobile children who will succeed in a new China full of (theoretically) urban opportunity. In this, they have the support of their government: China’s urbanization rate is targeted to go from 50 percent in the mid-2000s, to 60 percent in 2020.
But who, then, will farm the fields of Wasteland? Who will preserve the traditional squat homes in which Frances was raised, her relatives still live, and Meyer rented during his sojourn? The blunt answer is: nobody. As Meyer witnesses during his years in Wasteland, China is at the start of a new round of land reform. Whereas in the past, ownership of land went from private owners to the public, now it’s on the verge of shifting to corporations who will farm it — and pay royalties to those who once farmed it individually.
In Wasteland, the vector is Eastern Fortune — a private company that cultivates and processes organic rice. They enter into contracts with local farmers to lease their land and farm their crop in return for a royalty. As part of the deal, they also get to demolish the farmer’s home (more land for farming) and move the entire family into a high-rise apartment. It’s a radical transformation — going from cultivating your own food, to buying it at stores, for starters — and Meyer is troubled by it. Nonetheless, some of Meyers’s friends and relatives begin to accept the transaction, and the change it brings. In a key, climactic scene, an executive from Eastern Fortune suggests to Meyer that the change is inevitable — and perhaps the town could change its name to Eastern Fortune.
Will anybody care? Will anyone left behind have feelings of loss and longing? “It’s nice to be able to return and see where you came from while it’s still there,” Frances tells Meyer at the end of one of her visits home with him.
She doesn’t add any expressions of regret. Rather, Meyer ends the paragraph and section, leaving the reader with the impression that Frances — raised in Wasteland, now a lawyer who moves between the world’s most cosmopolitan cities — remains, like her relatives, a pragmatic Northeasterner, focused on the future, the next season, the next planting. Wasteland, it turns out, is no place for longing.