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Shenzhen: Geez, China is Dingy

Updated on November 29, 2011

Here we are again with another Guy Delisle travelogue. Similar to "Pyonyang," this one details Delisle's experiences supervising an animation project for a French company in an Asian nation, this time the city of Shenzen in China's Special Economic section.

"Shenzhen," which was published before either "Pyonyang" or "Burma Chronicles," is less political than either of those, spending more time detailing the travails of managing the Chinese animators, most of whom seem underskilled. lazy, or otherwise uncooperative. You really feel Delisle's frustration which eventually gives way to irritatedly giving up as deadlines loom.

Despite more time going to animation, we still get plenty of cultural analysis by Delisle of the country around him. At the time the comic takes place (1997) Shenzhen was the fastest growing city in the world, and Delisle marvels as buildings go up all around him, a floor a day. Everywhere Delisle goes he meets people who try to talk to him in English, which unfortunately does nothing to make them any easier to comprehend. Delisle uses an interesting technique to symbolize the incomprehensible people talk, dividing syllables into their own individual speech bubbles which are jumbled around the panels randomly. And no one he meets in Shenzhen has anything more than a general idea of where Canada (where Delisle is from) is, or what it is.

The language barrier is obviously the most frustrating thing for Delisle. He has a translator, but she doesn't translate everything said to him, and when she isn't there, he needs to rely on simple handgestures. Sometimes this works (one sequence features an entire conversation between Delisle and a restaurant owner conducted entirely in gestures), but Delisle finds it hard to get anywhere outside of Shenzhen. Other cities, such as Hong Kong and Canton, are easier to get around (for one thing, there are more people who speak his language), but the bother to get to them (especially Hong Kong, which is almost like going to another country) is unbelievable.

By and large, this is a story of mystification at another culture. Delisle is willing to throw himself out there to discover the culture of Shenzhen, but he leaves puzzled more often than satisfied. Although he suffers setbacks, there's something oddly inspiring about how he keeps on persevering. If only all of us could be so bold.

All in all, this is almost as good as "Pyonyang." It's fairly clear that this is an older work and is less refined, but Delisle does a good job of showing the humor and the wonder of being immersed in another culture you barely understand. If you're a fan of discovering other cultures, check it and Delisle's other work out.


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