Unlike most fictional stories about an American’s experience abroad, the heroine of the Kat Vespucci series doesn’t seek to “find herself” in other countries or to “save” the natives. Rather, wide-eyed, curious Kat is thrown blindly into new experiences with little or no previous knowledge that could distort her observation of history and culture through the eyes of locals.
In the first book, Kat, a native of New Jersey who has never left the U.S., decides to study abroad in Berlin. The first few weeks in the city prove to be a trial through fire as Kat realizes how little she knows about current and past political history in Europe, the world map (she carries a small map of the world around with her for a while since she can’t place the countries of her fellow international students on the globe), the U.S.’s involvement in WWII, and even the workplace culture of the city. The title “Earth to Kat Vespucci” refers to a fellow student’s teasing about her ignorance.
But instead of accepting her continuous foot-in-mouth situations as the inevitable, Kat immerses herself in local culture, reads up on history and politics, and asks her fellow study-abroad students about their lives and experiences. By the end, she could almost pass a cultured Berliner.
This trial through fire and subsequent process of observing and asking questions continues in book two when Kat moves to Taipei after college (and a terrible experience working in pharmaceutical sales) to teach English at the “Happy Pupil Very Excellent the Good English Cram School.” She enters into her adventures, however, with greater maturity and less fear. By moving to a country where she doesn’t speak the language, Kat is forced to take chances and navigate her way through cultural and language barriers largely by herself. Her story of freedom and adventure is intertwined with one of her new love interest and foil, native Zhang Weiming (Wayne), as he struggles against his conservative family’s adherence to marriage traditions.
Some readers may find Kat overly naive or privileged — she clearly doesn’t research the history of a country before moving there, know much about international politics and history, and has a tendency to accept things natives tell her at face value — but with a series that makes the location a character in its own right, she’s the perfect protagonist. Through her astute observations and relationships with locals, Kat lets the locals tell their story as she takes the reader on a smart, vivid tour of Berlin and Taipei and inspires even the most unadventurous to consider traveling abroad.
With a dose of humor and charm paired with her more serious moments, Kat is a likable character who continues to grow through the series. It is clear that she will ultimately evolve to become an intelligent, cultured activist, but she’s not there yet. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what Kat discovers on her next adventure: this time in China.
[Full disclosure: I received a copy of both books to review for free.]