Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China
Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China captures Guy Delisle’s culture shock in visiting a country so very different from his own. Shenzhen is in Southern China, near Hong Kong. He’s been sent to this commercial city in the late 90s to supervise an animation crew.
For three months, he’s got to deal with inferior work, a lack of other foreigners, and the things that are common to all big cities: dirt, noise, smells. There aren’t many translators, and those that are aren’t very good. He’s very lonely. Trips to nearby Canton, a more welcoming city, come as a break and a high point.
Delisle’s European drawing style applies a humorous veneer to what might otherwise be a rather grim tale. But it’s so clearly hand-drawn — the lines of the buildings, for example, aren’t quite straight — that it takes on a cartoony feel, providing the reader some distance. Shading is done with different pencil greys, again reinforcing the hand-created feel that contrasts with and humanizes the mechanized urban setting. It’s a good choice for a smudgy, over-crowded city.
His claustrophobic panels, small and cramped, represent his mental state. They also do a wonderful job of capturing the right moments to give the feel of another country. His animation background allows for a sense of movement, so the art never feels static or too much like a travelogue. The bicycling sequence is especially effective. His skills are also helpful illustrating occurrences without text, for the many times when the language barrier gets in the way.
There’s no overwhelming story, just a series of moments captured as a way to pass the time until he could leave. One of the most harrowing, and thus memorable, incidents was his visit to a dentist, and the unsanitary, crowded way they practice. That’s balanced by amusing tips, such as when and how he figures out how to get by in a restaurant on his own. He mentions spending days without speaking to anyone, which leads to him silently talking to himself.
He also ponders bigger concepts: the nature of freedom, Chinese economic development, trust and paranoia. His vision can be so negative that if he wasn’t French-Canadian, he might be accused of being an ugly American. However, I can’t say that I’d feel any different in a country so different from my own where I didn’t speak the language and had nothing to do but work with those I didn’t respect. Neither he nor the Chinese people he knows are interested in understanding each other; what would be the point? Their lives and expectations are too different.
A preview is available at the publisher’s website.