I had long avoided Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. The title and and cover blurbs gave me the impression it was a 20-something’s privileged romp. I was sick of stories where half-formed adults use other cultures as their personal playgrounds. I had Susan pegged as one of those. I was wrong.
The book explores one of the real dangers of traveling off the grid in an unfamiliar culture. Pickpockets? Exploitive locals? Terrorists? Kidnappers? Price gouging? Nothing like that. The real danger is within ourselves. The stress, disorientation, and culture shock of sudden immersion.
In Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Clare and Susie are bright, well educated, and off to see the world. Starting in Hong Kong, they immediately discover they might be in over their heads and take turns comforting one another having bouts of homesickness and culture shock.
They seem to find their footing and befriend locals and other travelers but then things begin to seem strange. How do you know if strangers are telling you the truth? How do you interpret events when you don’t have any cultural reference or means to communicate? There is something very strange going on here!
The book has a classic “turn of the screw” pacing. A predictable opening, a slow but unavoidable escalation to a creshendo of crisis and free-fall. Yeah, it takes the reader unexpectedly into can’t-put-it-down territory.
Wander-readers who have experienced the shock of sudden emersion into an unfamiliar culture will relate to both Clare and Susie’s feelings and understand the physical, social, and psychological stress involved. Those like me, who wade into other cultures gently after long research may view this as a cautionary tale. Which got me thinking – how would I react to an emersion experience? I never considered how shallow I have really waded in the sea of humanity. I think of my self as “well traveled” among my friends, but as I make new friends in the travel world, I begin to questions this part of my self-image.
Now I’m not saying I want to go jump off the deep end of the ocean to test my cultural swimming skills. But maybe it’s time to wade in a little deeper. Maybe even lift my feet off the sand and see how good I am at keeping my head above water. Yeah… just a little deeper… <goes to the WanderTour site browsing itineraries>
Read ~ Write ~ Wander