I’ve always wanted to travel… but I don’t want to visit mainland China. I don’t actually want travel anywhere farther than the other side of the country – I’m what you’d call an armchair traveler. (Thank goodness I have books, right?) Double Happiness captures the essence of Chinese culture and China at the end of the 20th century through words that effectively stimulated all of my five senses. Tony’s descriptive prose shapes a China that is constantly changing due to his increasing knowledge of the country and its people, and his vivid accounts of his adventures and romances reveal both his own inner turmoil as well as that of the country that captured his interest.
At twenty-two, Tony Brasunas had never left the United States, nor taught a class on anything. The journey that changed him forever, that broke open his heart and awakened his mind, began in a high school classroom in hot, coastal Guangzhou, China, and culminated on the plateaus of Tibet. A journey into the heart of a changing China and through the soul of a young American, Double Happiness is a groundbreaking story of spiritual awakening in the era of globalization. This is a tale for armchair travelers, English teachers, China buffs, adventure backpackers, young people in their twenties and thirties seeking a place in this shrinking world, and readers of all ages curious about a young man’s coming of age in a foreign land.
Double Happiness features a captivating narrative that alternates between two time points: one that starts with Tony’s arrival in Guangzhou, China to teach English at Peizheng Middle School in 1996, and the other with him and his friend watching the official return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. His experiences in the city of Guangzhou as well as in the different parts of China show just how little the Chinese know about the Western world and, similarly, how little Americans like Tony understand China.
And despite its title, Double Happiness is filled with conflicts. I think sometimes the idea of going into developing countries like China to work or just to travel is glorified or oversimplified, but as Tony describes it, it’s hard work. Things don’t go as planned, and sometimes you get food poisoning or you’re treated differently because you don’t look local or life is just unfair at times. The struggles that Tony faces range from the mundane (getting safe drinking water) to the extreme (running out of money) to the very personal (feeling attracted to women he might never see again). In terms of that last one, I was touched by Tony’s romantic journey but couldn’t really relate to parts of it – maybe because I’m a girl? And just a heads-up for the younger China buffs: there are a few short explicit scenes that come after the kissing (as they often do in relationships), so expect the expected.
Tony also sheds light on the internal unrest in China – the joy of the countrymen in response to the Hong Kong handover clashes with the frustration of others. In addition, China is remodeling itself physically, which adds to the discord:
Beyond the walls of campus, interminable ramshackle neighborhoods of the city unfold in a sea of crumbling brick walls and corrugated steel roofs. Jackhammers pounding in the distance give the impression that not just a city but an entire continent is under construction around us.
There is happiness to be found, though; Tony has great luck finding transportation, friends, and romantic interests throughout his trips across the country, and near the end of the book, there’s a sense of liberation and contentment. His writing style is kind of like the written version of the music that accompanies a yoga session, and it provides a balance for the conflicts and struggles that are present along his journey. I also really enjoyed Estelle Kim’s illustrations, which map Tony’s routes across the country.
One aspect of Double Happiness that I didn’t enjoy as much was Tony’s use of references from Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a book that he reads throughout this book. (A book within a book? INCEPTION.) Although the passages from Narcissus paralleled the real-life events, I felt that it was distracting, and I kept wanting to skip those parts and get back to the real action.
Overall, Double Happiness features a captivating journey, conflict and resolution, minor distractions, and a window to that land across the ocean. Fellow armchair travelers and China buffs, give this book a try!
About the Author
Tony Brasunas grew up on a commune in West Virginia. Before leaving for China, as a teenager at Amherst College, he studied Chinese, music, writing, and Computer Science, and meandered into a thoughtful and lonely social and political conservatism.
Directionless after college, perhaps expecting something more from the planet, Tony applied just after the deadline to Princeton in Asia, and he was swiftly bundled off to Guangzhou, China, to teach English. The ensuing journey broke him open. His body tasted death in hospitals and Tibetan monsoons, his heart opened up and slammed shut and opened again, and some unknown inner sage awoke and suggested he trust his intuition.
Double Happiness: One Man’s Tale of Love, Loss, and Wonder on the Long Roads of China (forthcoming, December 12, 2013, from Torchpost) masterfully retells that awakening against a backdrop of a modern, changing China.
Excerpts from the manuscript have appeared in the book China, an anthology of travel writing on China published by Travelers’ Tales Press, and in Travelmag, a British online travel magazine.