At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook review

Continuing my recent binge of anything non-fiction is an essay collection by author Isham Cook. At the Teahouse Café is about China, where Cook has been living since the 90s. The topics within the collection are far-ranging, from everything from the firewall to music to medicine and even dating.

Cook begins his collection by discussing the pitfalls that many travel writers fall into, especially when talking about a culture foreign to themselves. How does one capture an entire nation into one book?  This was a particularly fascinating opening as it wasn’t a topic I had considered a great deal before, and it revealed some of the reasons why Cook compiled these essays together. As someone who has never been to China, I found At the Teahouse Café interesting yet was also aware that this is purely Cook’s perspective and experiences through the preface.

The essays themselves vary greatly; not only in content but in style. Some are more serious, tackling big topics whilst others are more tongue-in-cheek or satirical. This helps to stop the collection becoming too predictable and staid, and certainly the unpredictable element of what was coming next made me read on. My favourites were when Cook was being satirical, as seen in the essay titled ‘The question of breeding (why foreign men get the ‘ugly’ Chinese girls)’ which obviously explores dating and relationships. It helped keep the topics interesting as well as injected the book with humour. Throughout Cook explained Chinese culture and its differences with the West in a succinct and understandable way. You come away from the collection feeling you know more about the country than before. Or at least, I did.

At the Teahouse Café is ideal for anyone who wants to learn more about China. I think this would be recommended who know very little, rather than those who have visited the country before. A really enjoyable essay collection.

At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom is published independently and you can find more information here.  

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