Sihpromatum. I Grew My Boobs in China.
That subtitle somehow made me think that this book would be about a woman who went to China to get her boobs done. An error, of course.
“Sihpromatum. I Grew My Boobs in China”
In Sihpromatum, the Canadian Savannah Grace (now 23, when the story starts 14) takes us to China and Mongolia where she spent the first two months of what was supposed to be a year-long trip with her mother Maggie (45), her sister Bree (17) and her brother Ammon (25).*
Sihpromatum, pronounced “sip-row-may-tum” means “a blessing that initially appears to be a curse”. This one word sums up clearly how Savannah’s attitude towards this trip evolves as their trip progresses.
It was her mom’s idea to go traveling and up until the day they leave, Savannah keeps hoping that the trip will be cancelled. When that doesn’t happen and they arrive in Asia, Savannah makes sure her family realizes just how much she doesn’t want to be there. You might even say that Savannah is a nag sometimes. She nags about how much she has to walk, how heavy her backpack is, how crappy the places they stay are at and the food they have to eat is.
You see, Savannah’s family is very budget-minded. They sleep on floors, squeeze themselves in already full buses and often depend on the kindness of locals to make their money last as long as they can. This has a huge effect on their trip and the way they experience it.
Sure, it would have been way more comfortable to stay in 5-star hotels and always travel first-class, but after a while Savannah realizes that that isn’t what this trip is about.
“Then it slowly dawned on me that, even if it had been a clear day, this had been about far more than just the view. It wasn’t reaching the top that made it so precious. It was experiencing it, breathing it, even cursing it a little (okay, okay, so maybe a lot) along the way. That journey helped me climb not only the physical stairs but the symbolic ones in my life. It was about setting a goal and accomplishing it, no matter what. I learned the boundaries of my own strengths and weaknesses, and then how to move beyond them. (…) Trips like that increased my confidence in my abilities and in myself.”
By sharing her thoughts with us, we realize that, although Savannah won’t stop complaining about all the discomforts she encounters, she also silently starts to realize how great it is what they are doing.
Squatties as a metaphor?
The longer Savannah travels, the more she accepts that she’ll have to sit this through until the end and that she’ll have to cope with everything the road throws at her.
A recurrent theme that illustrates this is that of the toilets, or better: the lack thereof.
If there’s one thing Savannah feared about going to Asia, it were the squat toilets. Each chapter includes at least one toilet experience described in such a way that you’re sure you would complain about it as well.
Toilets without walls, toilets with “goodies” splashed all over the place, squat toilets on a moving train… with goodies splashed all over the place.
While going to the toilet might seem like something so trivial, it’s also something universal. Everyone needs to do it, whether you live in Canada, Germany or China. There’s no getting out of it and it doesn’t take long for Savannah to realize that she’ll just have to suck it up (figuratively speaking, of course) and go.
In a way, how Savannah deals with the toilet circumstances on her trip illustrates how she deals with the trip itself.
At first she doesn’t want to go. She refuses to go, until her mother tells her she has to. After that the different toilets she comes across still disgusts her, but she slowly accepts that there’s no alternative and does what she needs to do. At the end of the book she’s worked out a small system where she and her sister always go together, even if it’s in a field with nothing but some vegetation around them. She still needs to go, but she’s found a way to make it less scary.
Being happy with the now
It’s not only the discomfort during her trip that forces Savannah to “grow up” though. It’s also the people they meet. Some scare her, but most amaze her.
“Now that I had achieved a bit of perspective, I grew ever more appreciative of what I’d had back home (which is, after all, one of the major benefits of travel).”
They amaze her because they are so friendly and often seem genuinely happy while owning so little. They also amaze her because they do not seem to care for appearances and manage to live in the now, rather than ponder over problems that might occur in the future.
“We weren’t playing by any set of rules or competing to impress peers; we’d had to just get on with life.”
Wouldn’t it be great if it could be like that for all teenagers?
What I loved
Sihpromatum reads very smoothly and the many insights into Chinese and Mongolian history and culture made me curious about those countries.
What I liked less
The book has quite an open ending. This is somewhat logical as it ends when the trip is still in full swing, but it would have been nice to have some kind of wrap-up or maybe even a short teaser of what would come next during their trip and in the next book in the series (which is planned to come out later this year).
*In the end, the trip lasted for four years and the family traveled through 80 countries. In Sihpromatum. I Grew My Boobs in China the family – well, everyone except for Savannah – is already thinking about what other countries they could visit besides China and Mongolia. Nothing is planned yet, though, so you wouldn’t know the trip actually lasted much longer than one year from reading the book.