The problem with gringo lit about the gringo experience in China is it inevitably and unsubtlety reinforces the foreigner’s sense of Otherness while feeding his inflated sense of importance. In doses this is not necessarily bad – it can be therapeutic to read, even for lesser voyeurs – but in bulk it becomes obnoxious, not least of which because it is both disingenuous and vapid to pretend that foreigners don’t relish, if not secretly rejoice at, their entitled status as Other.
“From the moment we step foot in the Middle Kingdom,” editor Tom Carter writes in his introduction on the opening page of Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, “foreigners are subjected to an extraordinary range of alien experiences, ranging from appalling to exquisite.” The use of passive voice – are subjected to – places the emphasis strictly on “foreigners,” who are subjects protraying themselves as objects, assailed. The next sentence begins – emphasis mine – “We contend with seething masses of humanity,” and it becomes abundantly clear who are the looked-upon They.
The stories in this anthology, to the writers’ and Carter’s credit, steer safely from ethnocentricism, but the conflict in many of them basically arise for one reason alone: China. You can see how this might exhaust even astute readers who understand the difference between an amusing travel yarn and a white-person complaint. Perhaps there’s no better example of the embrace of Otherness than in the orientalization of language: writing “Meiguo” when “America” would do, or rendering an easily translatable phrase – “哪儿哪儿哪儿,” meaning “Nah” in context – as a jarringly literal, “Where? Where? Where?”
These are minor sins, but they detract from a book that genuinely attempts to approximate something akin to the foreigner experience, variegated and unique. Carter has pulled together an impressive cast of writers, established and amateur alike. Among the good reads are Aminta Arrington’s essay about the long shadows of history, Dan Washburn’s profile of a golfer’s rural family, Kaitlin Solimine’s portrait of her “Chinese mother,” Rudy Kong’s account of a hockey brawl in Dalian, and Pete Spurrier’s reminiscence of a wide-eyed traveler headed south; and big-name works from the likes of Peter Hessler, Simon Winchester, Jonathan Watts, and Michael Meyer don’t disappoint (Hessler’s story is a reprint from The New Yorker, the only non-original item in the collection). You want to root for them.
Yet the fact remains that you would really have to force yourself to care about their problems (with notable exceptions; Dominic Stevenson spent time two and a half years in prison, after all). Simply by virtue of their status as outsiders, they are able to notify foreign consulates to forestall danger, play rock ‘n’ roll on the Great Wall or a goat farm, sit at banquets as guests of honor, get away with a host of delinquencies, and party as recklessly as princelings. These privileges, more than anything, define the expat experience, but they require a writer of considerable self-understanding, tact, and honesty to convey. In the stead of wry irony, arch observations, and restrained pathos, Unsavory Elements contains “alien experiences,” blunt descriptions of zhege and nage, probably one too many pieces on gastronomy, and morals that are well expressed but slightly obvious, like saying “pollution is bad” and “treat others as you would want others to treat you.” There is excessive narrative handholding (every time “guanxi” is explained), so that even stories that show great promise, such as Nury Vittachi’s “You Buy Me Drink?,” suffer from over-explication; e.g., do we really need a page to spouse the platitude, “China’s religion is money”?
And where are the actual unsavories, those who are truly “on the loose,” floating without visas, running from responsibility, those who piss their pants on barstools or schmooze with nouveau riche in road-racing Ferraris? Why isn’t Mark Kitto smearing his former business partners, Susie Gordon doing ketamine, Derek Sandhaus rhapsodizing on the postcoital shame of baijiu-induced hookups, Bruce Hume letting us ride shotgun on a Memento-like manhunt for his Shenzhen assailant? Where is China Bounder? One almost yearns for the unapologetic and refined shamelessness of the literary antiheros found on the Beijinger’s forum.
Backpackers, gadabouts, journalists, parents, rakes, rockers, teachers, tokers, and trenchermen convene between the covers (a wonderful cover, by the way, by Nick Bonner of Koryo Studio and Dominic Johnson-Hill of Plastered T-shirts), but there’s no clear reason for them to be gathered like guests at a cocktail party waiting for stiffer libations. They are disconnected from one another, and likewise from us, the reader. To borrow from one of the more baffling sentences that appears in the book – “Like Boxer, the cart horse from Animal Farm, most would be shipped out to a glue factory – themselves becoming glue, that other magical ingredient that holds China together” – …where’s the glue?
They’re all expats, seems to be the common bond. As a card-carrying expat myself, I tell you: that’s not enough.
Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China can be purchased from Earnshaw Books and at Bookworm Beijing and Garden Books Shanghai. Tonight at 7:30 pm, Tom Carter will speak alongside Graham Earnshaw and Aminta Arrington at Bookworm Beijing.