It’s almost that time of year when a new crop of high school students head off to far-flung adventures with The Experiment in International Living. One of the best ways to get ready for this life-changing summer program is to read a book set in the culture you’ll be immersed in.
We asked our travel-savvy colleagues at The Experiment to share their favorite reads to help you prep for your in-country experience. Here’s a list of recommended books for the corresponding Experiment programs to get you on your way:
THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS
BY ERIC WEINER
What does happiness mean in different cultures? Eric Weiner, a former correspondent for National Public Radio, traveled the world to find out in The Geography of Bliss. He visits Iceland where, despite the bitter cold, people find contentedness in coziness. Weiner also spends time among the gurus of India and investigates why the government of Bhutan has established a Gross National Happiness index.
For Experimenters and other young people headed out on summer abroad programs, The Geography of Bliss encourages you to think beyond what we consider happiness in the U.S. and consider what makes you happy compared with, say, your host family. As a self-admitted “grump” — in a funny way — Weiner is a great host for this exploration. — Recommended by Lauren Berlak, Senior Digital Media & Content Specialist
California-born Rei Shimura is a likeable 27-year old English teacher and aspiring antiques dealer working in Tokyo. Together with her Scottish lawyer boyfriend, Rei solves a host of murder mysteries throughout the series that will keep you engaged while introducing readers to the vibrant culture, mouth-watering local cuisine, and ancient traditions of Japan. Author Sujata Massey generously weaves into her books a wealth of information about flower arranging, tea ceremonies, family life and the tradition of the Kimono, among many other themes, making the Rei Shimura mystery series an easy and highly enjoyable way to immerse yourself in the country. Once you read the Salaryman’s Wife and Zen Attitude — Massey’s first two books — you’ll be hooked! — Recommended by Stephanie Genkin, Media & Content Strategist
This American classic never gets old. Inspired by Lee’s childhood in Alabama, the lawyer Atticus Finch is based on her own father, who represented a black defendant in a highly publicized criminal trial, despite the disapproval of the other Maycomb residents. The character of Scout is based on Lee herself, a young girl, more tomboy than lady, who is the narrator and protagonist of the story. Scout asks a lot of uncomfortable questions — as only a child can — and learns the importance of being able to walk in someone else’s shoes.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 16 and on The Experiment in Morocco. It was a way to feel closer to home, the American South. This Pulitzer Prize winning book is the perfect pre-requisite for the newly launched Experiment program USA: Human Rights & College Discovery program as it deals with civil rights, race relations, and moral dilemmas during a complicated era of American history. If you’ve already read it, I recommend a reread. Current events and The Experiment program may open your eyes to things you may have missed. This book is just as relevant in 2018 as it was when it was published 1960. — Recommended by Hunter Horton, Marketing Coordinator
Visiting Vietnam for the first time can be disorienting. Anyone coming from the U.S. is likely to have learned about the Southeast Asian nation through war stories — told mainly, if not entirely, from the American perspective. But museums in Ho Chi Minh City refer to the conflict as the “American War,” recounting the experiences of the Vietnamese people and, in some cases, offering a different narrative completely. The dissonance is difficult to negotiate.
The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, helps bridge that gap. This spy thriller tells the story of the war from the perspective of a double agent: a captain in the South Vietnamese army who secretly reports to the Viet Cong. Through his experiences — which include a stint as a refugee in Los Angeles following the fall of Saigon — readers begin to understand the deeper complexities of a war that divided countries and cultures. — Recommended by Amy McKeever, Writer/Editor
You’re probably familiar with the well-known comedian Tevor Noah who took over from John Stewart as host of the Emmy and Peabody award-winning program The Daily Show. Now you can read his touching story of growing up mixed race in a deeply segregated and sexist country. Noah was raised by a single black South African mother during apartheid. She taught him to always find the humor in the situation — which no doubt set him up for his career. This remarkable memoir about standing up to prejudice and learning to survive is a New York Time bestseller not because of his fame but because Noah is a first-rate storyteller. For readers interested in immersing themselves in the landscape, politics and struggles of South Africa, you’ll be engrossed from the first page to the last. For a treat — listen to Trevor Noah read Born A Crime on an audio version. Recommended by Ashley Langdon, Admissions Outreach Manager
Born to Run is about Christopher McDougall’s journey to find a reclusive tribe of Indians called the Tarahumara, who live in a remote part of Mexico below El Paso called the Copper Canyons. They have phenomenal long-distance running ability, despite their poverty and the fact they are pretty cut off from modern society. They live on an extremely simple and Spartan diet. They enjoy very good health, little disease, and none of the pressures or conflict that plagues modern civilization.
Though this is mainly a book on running, it can appeal to non-runners — especially those looking to explore Mexico’s awe-inspiring landscapes and understand its indigenous cultures. McDougall’s exploration of the Copper Canyons will transport you there right alongside him. — Recommended by Marcus Fitts, Interactive Designer
Living in Paris is living the dream. People around the world have long been entranced by the idea of strolling Parisian boulevards lined with bakeries selling fresh baguettes and where everyone is the epitome of style. Adam Gopnik got to live out that dream and shared his experiences through a series of essays for The New Yorker magazine.
Paris to the Moon is a collection of those essays plus some additional material. Gopnik explores how his young family’s daily life in the French capital — including time spent trying to go to the gym or dining at iconic Parisian bistros — reflects broader truths about French culture and society. Though times have changed since this book was published in 2001, these essential truths have not. — Recommended by Amy McKeever, Writer/Editor
Country Driving by The New Yorker’s foreign correspondent Peter Hessler is like three separate books about China rolled into one. He begins with the question: How do you get a driver’s license in China? Once he figures that out, Hessler explores the country through road trips as well as extended stays in both traditional and modern areas.
I was delighted and fascinated by the first section’s quirky reportage mixed with the mother of all road trips spanning 7,436 miles through the Gobi Desert and across northern China where the author meets an array of hitchhikers and locals and stops to visit archeological and historical sites. In the next section, Hessler rents an old farmhouse in a small village outside of Beijing for several years and shares his observations of changing social and political norms — the by-product of government road works projects that make this once remote place easily accessible. The final section is called The Factory, which takes us to an urban landscape of Southern China and introduces us to the lives of ordinary people hustling to get ahead. Hessler beautifully captures China’s great transformation without turning his back on the country’s culture and history. — Stephanie Genkin, Media and Content Strategist