Ed’s note: China’s first-ever expat anthology, Unsavory Elements, probably broke a Reddit Books record this past Friday night for the largest group AMA (“Ask Me Anything”). In honor of the 20-plus contributors who joined in, here are the highlights from this historic AMA.
As the editor of this anthology and a “6-Year Club” user of Reddit, I feared the worst: like mosquitoes to warm breath, trolls are invariably drawn toward discussion threads on China, and I envisioned my intended friendly discussion on literature and culture being hijacked by political arguments and anti-China brigades.
To be honest, a moderator-endorsed cross-post of our AMA onto r/China was immediately down-voted to oblivion (haters gonna hate, and r/China expats tend to eat their own). We received 260 total downvotes.
But with a 76% (610 points) final approval rating and more than 450 questions/comments (helped along by an announcement from James Fallows in The Atlantic), the overall session was an unprecedented success: since our AMA, Unsavory Elements has remained a top-10 best-selling Kindle for books about China.
Unsavory Elements was published by the legendary Shanghai-based Graham Earnshaw, whose boutique press, Earnshaw Books, is categorically snubbed by Big Media reviewers. But word-of-mouth from netizens (including Beijing Cream’s own brutally honest review) have given my humble grassroots project a kind of cult status, and for that I am sincerely appreciative.
Following are highlights from the various discussions – some contentious, some snarky – on everything from books to prostitution to drinking to history, occurring simultaneously throughout the thread. Said one Reddit user: “Most populated country creates the most populated AMA. Sheesh!”
The entire thing is archived at r/Books.
On my controversial teen prostitute story, which closes the book:
Matthew Polly: “The politically acceptable tone to write a story about foreigners visiting teen prostitutes is moral outrage or ethical hand-wringing. ‘My god, how reprehensible!’ Instead, Tom went with satirical glee. I believe in so doing he gave a much more accurate portrayal of what happens all the time in China than if he’d chosen to moralize. Nothing offends me more than Western liberal piety applied to the Chinese as if they were some hapless people who need to be defended from themselves.”
On “Westerners are flocking to China in increasing numbers to chase their dreams”:
Random Redditor answering on our behalf: “I think he’s specifically referring to 20-something white middle class brats wanting to ‘find themselves’ in an exotic place, where people worship the ground you walk on (if you’re white, that is). Those are the dreams he’s specifically talking about.”
On being a “bitter expat” in China:
Alan Paul: “Some people just trail bitterness wherever they go. People have a fundamental misunderstanding that when they go somewhere new they will be new people. You do have an opportunity to reboot, which can be fantastic, and was for me. But you do not suddenly abandon all your flaws. That realization can lead to bitterness and be turned against your new home.”
On the reverse diaspora of Westerners to China:
Susie Gordon: “It’s about following wealth and opportunity. For some Chinese people that meant migrating West. For Westerners these days that means flooding into China and opening shitty pop-ups on Shanghai’s Yongkang Rue.”
On cultural taboos of interracial dating in China:
Jocelyn Eikenburg: “While there are exceptions, most Chinese generally approach dating more seriously than a lot of Westerners — and may date with marriage in mind. You shouldn’t jump into a relationship with the assumption that it’s a casual ‘just-for-fun’ kind of dating situation.”
On being a Westerner with Chinese in-laws:
Bruce Humes: “Living with my in-laws in HK, we tended to sit around the TV. One night I tired of the Cantonese fare and ducked into another room for a rest from the TV blabber. My wife came in. ‘Is something the matter?’ she asked. A few moments later, my mother-in-law came in: ‘What’s wrong?’ she queried. I didn’t know quite what to say. That’s when it struck me: in the typical Chinese family, it’s normal to be together. The urge to be alone — when there is no identifiable or socially acceptable reason — is a cause for concern.”
On raising expat children in China:
Rudy Kong: “There is institutionalized racism, the constant comments about their otherness, etc. The pressure to succeed academically when your parents can’t help you with your homework because they can’t even read it was tough. Interestingly, they both have made comments about how they prefer some Chinese teaching methods, especially in science and math.”
On speaking the language:
Deb Fallows: “You can, of course, survive in China with no Chinese at all. But every bit you learn changes the quality of your experience. Chinese is a very difficult language. Try classes, watch TV, talk to taxi drivers and shopkeepers and neighbors. You’ll usually get a response meaning ‘Oh, your Chinese is so good!’ Even when it is not. But that is a nice reflection of recognition by the Chinese that you are at least trying.”
On being a Singaporean Chinese in China:
Audra Ang: “Everything was at once oddly familiar and frustratingly foreign. Many customs, nuances and language were often lost on me. I wasn’t used to the equally no-nonsense personal approach of the Chinese, who thought nothing of asking the amount of your salary or rent and didn’t think that telling you you had gained weight was rude.”
On being Jewish in China:
Michael Levy: “There’s one officially kosher restaurant in China. It’s terrible.”
On being a Westerner in a Chinese prison:
Dominic Stevenson: “There was no segregation in the prison so it was a wide cross section of Chinese society of all sorts of people, from rich to poor, local Shanghainese to country folk, political people to regular thieves, rapists, gangsters and fraudsters etc. There’s a hugely privileged monastic dimension to prison life as many people who’ve written on the subject have acknowledged. Even so, I don’t recommend it, largely because of the trauma it inflicts on loved ones outside.”
On our biggest WTF moment in China:
Derek Sandhaus: “I decided to splurge on dinner at an upscale shopping mall and, while I was waiting for my chicken at the deli counter, I felt a hard slap on the back of my neck. I looked behind me and nobody was there, but several women and their children were looking in my direction with horrified expressions. Others were pointing. Then I saw it — the bloody corpse of the rat that had fallen from a considerable height onto the back of my head.”
On the most interesting period in China’s history:
Bruce Humes: “Definitely at the height of the Tang Dynasty in the capital Chang’an. The music and the arts — there are thousands of beautiful paintings still extant — thrived. And no one harangued the foreigners about ‘unequal treaties…’”
On finding beauty in China:
Mark Kitto: “There is nothing beautiful about life and culture in China, except for the people, and their opportunities to ‘be beautiful,’ if we can put it that way, are sorely limited.”
On traditional versus self-publishing (the most debated topic on this AMA of authors):
Tom Carter: “There’s still too much stigma attached to self-published works, and, more vital, it will never be reviewed by a major media outlet or stocked by a major retail chain or distributor. I think boutique presses (e.g. Earnshaw Books in Shanghai and Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong) are a more viable alternative to self-publishing.”
Kay Bratt: “I started with ONE self-published book and a handful of readers. I worked very hard to build from there and now have tens of thousands of readers and 10 published books. If I built my career with a self-published book and made a go of it, others can too.”
Derek Sandhaus: “The sad reality is that while the writer makes only a small percentage of the cover price for each copy sold, the publisher generally pockets much less and bears most of the expenses. Self-publishing does work for some authors in some circumstances, particularly if an author has a well-established platform for moving copies of the work.”
On Peter Hessler’s absence from this AMA and being the only Unsavory contributor with a reprinted essay:
Matthew Polly: “Let me know if Peter posts an original answer to this question or if he reprints an older post.”
On if the expat experience has fundamentally changed along with China:
Jon Campbell: “The world started to pay more attention to China, and, as a result, more people saw China as a place you could go, like anywhere else. More and more students studying Chinese at a growing number of universities making partnerships with Chinese schools came and got a taste of life there, and many chose to stay/return. And the more China has been in the spotlight, the more eager a greater range of people are to go.”
On mistakes, regrets and if we’d do it differently:
Tom Carter: “I think the unpredictability and sheer chaos of daily life in China is the best part about it, and pretty much everything I’ve tried to plan here has gone awry to various degrees. Case in point: the teaching ad I responded to on Craigslist back in 2004 turned out to be a scam; But that “bad” experience led to other things that set me on an entirely different course, which brought me right here now.”
Matt Muller: ‘If I had known that some stupid teaching gig I was about to do would lead me to throwing down on the page and perhaps, years later, publishing it, then I would have taken better notes. Was that smell of methane and cooking oil coming from the sewer or from that guy’s street meat cart?”
One word of advice for new expats arriving in China:
Kaitlin Solimine: “I say live outside of the city because these are the places where you can have what I believe to be some of the most honest encounters with Chinese life. And by ‘city’ I really just mean the first tier cities. Second- and third-tier would be a more enriching experience. In the big cities, you won’t challenge yourself as much nor your way of thinking.”
Alan Paul: “Embrace the chaos.”
On leaving (or being asked when you are leaving) China:
Bruce Humes: “I AM at home in China. What I find a bit bizarre is being asked daily when I’m going home…”
Audra Ang: “I had a love-hate relationship with China when I was living there. There’s nothing like it — crazy highs, shattering lows. I miss the buzz of unfulfilled potential and even the grind. It’s a place that reminds you of your mortality. I’ve returned twice since I left in 2009. It’s like simultaneously slipping into your favorite pair of old jeans and — back into a crack habit.”
Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People and editor of Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. He lives in Shanghai.