{Guest Post} Scott Abrahams: Please Enjoy Turtle and Dam

  • Friday, April 18, 2014


Turtle? Dam? The title is quite intriguing but has nothing to do with turtles or dams! In fact, this is all about China -- take a trip to the real China via the author, whose experiences end up as this debut novel. Welcome Scott!


Please Enjoy Turtle and Dam by Scott Abrahams


In college I dropped a class on international relations because it seemed like an esoteric topic and the professor talked too much about China. A year later I moved to China. A year after that I went to graduate school to study international relations. A year after that I wrote this novel about China, using what I learned in my international relations classes, based in part on a book written by the professor whose class I dropped.

The universe punk’d me pretty hard on that one, and Turtle and Dam is my response. It’s a story about a guy (Turtle) who graduates college in China and doesn’t really know what he wants to do other than get his parents off his back and maybe just maybe get a girlfriend. He ends up working for state media, where his first assignment is to write a softball blurb about a dam construction project.

The universe punks him pretty hard too, because it turns out the project will flood his grandmother’s village. Despite his best efforts to not get involved Turtle soon finds himself in rural Sichuan battling bulldozers in what the official sanitized reports might call a “mass incident.”

It’s basically an autobiography. Well, okay, not really. Well, okay, fine, not at all. But there is a bunch of stuff in there that did really happen to me, such as: Turtle likes to eat spicy delicious grilled lamb on a stick from a street vendor while sitting outside on tiny plastic stools; when I lived in southern China I too enjoyed eating spicy delicious grilled lamb on a stick from a street vendor while sitting on tiny plastic stools. Turtle sees a guy fall into an unmarked construction hole on the sidewalk; my friends and I used to walk around playing a game called “spot the safety hazard.” Turtle speaks English (kind of); I taught English in China (kind of). Maybe he was a student in one of those classes of 40 kids I entertained for 45 minutes once every other week.

On top of certain personal experiences in China like the time I saw a group of old people practicing different laughs together in a public park, I layered in a few ideas from grad school. For instance, after you read Turtle and Dam you might care to pick up a copy of Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China, where you can find a highly detailed overview of the internal bureaucratic battles fought over half a century about how and where and if to build the Three Gorges Dam. Or China’s Water Warriors, an academic analysis of citizen organization and action against dam construction projects and the determinant factors of the political response.

While some people who get a graduate degree in China Studies go on to write scholarly papers about China’s capital account liberalization or the role of NGOs in domestic environmental protection efforts, it turns out I’d rather make things up than look them up. Hence the novel, which I guess you could consider a kind of master’s thesis without the research or the references.

P.S. Did you know Kurt Vonnegut ended up submitting Cat’s Cradle as his master’s thesis in anthropology? I’ll leave it to you to look that one up.

Yes, there is a lot of really funny and exciting and informative stuff about China in Turtle and Dam. But what I hope is that you’ll read it and feel like there’s a lot to relate to even if you, like me, are not a twentysomething year-old Chinese kid who majored in engineering. Who here hasn’t tried to hold a conversation with somebody who couldn’t be bothered to take his headphones off? Who hasn’t texted a potential romantic interest to see if they were free for dinner Friday only to get a response on Sunday saying “Sorry, just seeing this”? And so on.

Please enjoy Turtle and Dam, and as they often end messages in China, I wish you a happy every day.

About Scott Abrahams

Scott Abrahams skipped class one day and ended up in his college cafeteria talking to a classmate who convinced him to go teach English in China for year. Up to that point his entire experience with Asia had been writing a play for a friend’s Lunar New Year Festival celebration. Scott spent the summer working at an English language program for high schoolers in northern China and then the academic year in a public middle school in the south. After experiencing the country as someone who knew very little about it, he went on to earn a master’s degree in China Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. Scott was born and grew up in Chicago (both city and suburbs if you’re asking). He used to work for the Federal Reserve, but recently decided to trade in one government for most of them by becoming a consultant at the World Bank.



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About Turtle and Dam by Scott Abrahams: Like millions of other only-child Chinese twenty-somethings, Turtle Chen is graduating college and vicariously desperate (via parental pressure) to find a job, though he would probably settle for a girlfriend. He speaks English. He studied abroad in America. Employers, ladies, what's not to love?

With a bit of bravado and some hometown luck, this engineering grad lands himself an entry level position working for the state news agency; not that he particularly cares about politics or journalism, not that they particularly want him to. Through a class assignment, Turtle learns that his grandmother's village will soon be inundated to make way for a dam construction project. His parents tell him not to worry about it. His bosses tell him not to worry about it. He would be only too happy to oblige, and yet despite his best efforts not to care he finds himself on the front lines fighting bulldozers, next to what some villagers claim to be the ghost of Chairman Mao.

There's bribery, corruption, computer games, and text messages imbued with uncertainty. Air pollution, censorship, and a job fair where students attack employers with paper basketballs. And it's all told through the eyes of a young man with impeccable English ('impeccable English,' that's correct, yes?), who's right there in the middle of it all. Welcome to the delightful world of Turtle and Dam, the literary debut of Washington DC analyst Scott Abrahams.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall