Cindie Cohagan's memoir, Finding Compassion in China, caught my attention because I spent three-weeks on a group tour of China in 2008 and wanted to know more about the countryside that I had no chance to experience. The idea of a prolonged bike trip is beyond imagination for me, but I was eager to know how such an adventure would work, especially when the adventurers did not speak any Chinese. I was also curious to learn how Cohagan found compassion, and what that meant.
Challenges inherent in such a trip became obvious immediately. Shortly after their arrival in the country, Cindie and Tim Cohagan were taken into police custody for taking pictures of prisoners they had assumed were farmers. This led to strict semi-clandestine surveillance for some time, a phenomenon I'd heard about from friends who visited China years before we did.
At the time the Cohagans were in China, it was illegal for foreigners to stay in the home of citizens or to camp overnight, and they could only stay in hotels licensed to provide accommodations for foreigners. They were often turned away from hotels that apparently lacked the necessary license. Since they were the center of attention everywhere they went, they understood the caution and always managed a workaround of one sort or another.
The language barrier was a problem, but usually not an insurmountable one, and as they became more familiar with the culture, they quickly learned to use it their advantage at times.
My curiosity about compassion took a bit longer to satisfy, and the answer was complex and hazy. She never directly discussed the matter, but it seemed to be two-pronged. Obviously they experienced compassionate treatment from large numbers of Chinese citizens they met, but she also became more deeply in touch with her own feelings of compassion for those who don't experience the same degree of freedom and having basic needs completely met, and perhaps to feel more compassion for herself.
The book was tightly written, with splendid descriptions that gave me a good sense of the sights, smells, sounds and fragrances they experienced, and there were plenty of tense moments to keep the story interesting. I was especially intrigued with her sketchy account of the inner journey she was taking as they pedaled all those thousands of miles and her perception of their relationship and her own satisfaction level evolved and shifted.
However, I was disappointed in a few aspects of the book. The most important is that the numerous photos are of uniformly poor quality, dark and lacking contrast. Simple photo editing would have helped enormously. The unnecessarily small map in the front of the book is vague and confusing, and dates conflicted, making it impossible to determine just when she was in China.
In spite of these minor distractions, I loved the story and recommend it to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of China and the Chinese people.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Cindie Cohagan was born in New Britain, Connecticut to a family that moved around a lot. Just when life looked like it was going to be ordinary her husband Tim suggested they tour the world by bicycle. At the age of 40 she decided to leave everything behind and begin a nomadic journey by bicycle around the world with her then husband Tim Travis. Twenty six countries, 70,000 miles and 9 years later that journey has ended with Tim continuing to travel and Cindie staying in Dharamsala, India where she continues to write about her travels.
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