Book Review: Kingdom Of Sharks by Andrew Johnston
This is not the first time I have reviewed a memoir about an extended visit to China. Normally I would begin this review of Andrew Johnston’s Kingdom Of Sharks by explaining how Johnston, a native of _____, Kansas, after graduating from (school?) with is (degree?) set off for China to spend a year working as an English language teacher. That I remain ignorant of these very basic facts, even after reading the entire volume does not speak well of Johnston’s abilities as an author of a memoir.
Readers who have an interest in teaching or China may enjoy reading Johnston’s account of is two trips to China which lasted a combined total of about one year. On his first visit he worked in the Northern city of Changchun, first for a private tutoring center called English First, and later for a teaching agency that sent him to various public schools. Johnston’s story is primarily focused on what he depicts as dishonest and dishonorable treatment he received from all of his various employers. It frustrated me a bit that almost none of the anecdotes talked about particular students, but rather pertained to other migrant teachers and the administrative staffs of his employers.
Kingdom Of Sharks suffers from poor organization. While to some extent Johnston attempts to tell a chronological story, he often goes off on tangents. Rather than well organized chapters, the book seems to be worked more into headlined sections and the reading feels very choppy at times. Johnston writes a number of times about being a rather private person, which is all well and good, but by omitting obviously relevant details he makes it difficult for readers to place his story in context. By focusing on his interactions with other foreigners in China, rather than on his dealings with Chinese students he deprives his memoir of what might otherwise been it’s heart. The title and promotional materials led me to expect an intimate glimpse of how China is educating its huge population as it transitions into the next global superpower. What I found instead was merely a tale of employee angst– ‘they held on to my passport, they didn’t pay me what they’d agreed to and they generally treated me like shit’. Except for the bit about the passport, no American need travel halfway around the globe to live or write that story. Not Recommended