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J. MAARTEN TROOST is the author of Getting Stoned with Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, and the Prague Post. He spent two years in Kiribati in the Equatorial Pacific and upon his return was hired as a consultant by the World Bank. After several years in Fiji and Vanuatu, he recently relocated to the U.S. and now lives with his wife and two sons in California.
There are two kinds of people roaming the far fringes of the world: Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen. I know this because for a long while I lived off the map, flitting from island to island in the South Pacific, and invariably, just as I arrived at what surely was the ends of the earth, I would soon find myself in the company of Elder Ryan and Elder Leviticus, twenty year old kids from suburban Provo, who faced the challenging task of convincing islanders that they were not native islanders at all, but lost Israelites. Not just lost Israelites mind you, but lost and wicked Israelites. One would think that this would be a hard thing to convince people of, but the Mormons are persistent and today they can be found on even the most remote of islands. On Onotoa, an atoll of trifling size in the southern Gilbert group, and about as far as one can be on this planet without quite leaving it, I was startled to discover two Mormon missionaries, wearing their customary black pants and white short-sleeved dress shirts, complete with name tags, biking up and down the island's lonesome dirt path, searching for wayward souls to rescue. I also found them in Tonga, on the arresting islets of Vava'u, and even in the rugged hills of Vanuatu. Whenever I encountered them, I immediately reached for a dose of caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol, something to demonstrate that conversion was a hopeless cause with me, and soon they were on their way, hustling errant Israelites.
Eventually, I grew accustomed to their presence. Missionaries, after all, have long been found in the world's most distant corners. Where else would one find a tribe of lost and forgotten Hebrews? But as one year on the far side of the world passed into another, and then another, and another, until it seemed likely that my time on the islands would outlast Robinson Crusoe's, I began to notice a different visitor--the Chinese businessman.
This, frankly, surprised me to no end, possibly because news travels slowly on the coconut wireless. No doubt in other parts of the world the presence of Chinese businessmen--Capitalists!--would elicit nary a reaction. Mao Zedong had been dead for thirty years. China had moved on, changed, adapted, and eventually become the world's factory. But if you live on an island where prices are still quoted in pigs, and where the news of the day is likely to involve two chiefs disputing each other's lineage, you might not know this. You might, in fact, still believe that the Chinese peddle ancient black bicycles to their designated work unit, which is part of a cadre, though you're not quite sure what a cadre is. When you envision China you might imagine factory workers, each waving a Little Red Book, marching in sync past enormous portraits of the Heroes of the Revolution. You can almost hear the loudspeakers, the voices exhorting the proletariat to strive ever further, so that the goals of the Five Year Plan are attained. You can imagine little children, all wearing red handkerchiefs around their necks, learning to despise imperialist dogs and debauched class enemies. This is what happens when you live in a place far, far away, thousands of miles from a continent. Nothing ever changes on an island, and you assume that the continental world too has resolved to cease spinning. But it hasn't, of course, and one day you discover that you're sharing an odd, faraway island with a businessman from China.
Consider Onotoa, an atoll in the southern Gilbert Islands. Go on. Take out the atlas. You can't find it, can you? This is because it is a mere speck of an island, not more than a hundred yards across. If you were a tribe of ancient, wicked Israelites with a pressing need to disappear, you could not do better than to set forth for Onotoa. It wasn't until a whaling ship alighted upon the island in 1826 that the outside world was made to learn of its existence, a fact that was quickly and thoroughly forgotten by all.
Excerpted from Lost on Planet China: Or How I Learned to Love Live Squid by J. Maarten Troost
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