Slipping “Back Into A Crack Habit”: Highlights From AMA Featuring Contributors Of “Unsavory Elements”

Reddit AMA Unsavory 600

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.

17 Responses to “Slipping “Back Into A Crack Habit”: Highlights From AMA Featuring Contributors Of “Unsavory Elements””

  1. Carney

    “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.””

    LOL! Classic Matt Polly. He and Hessler really need to go head-to-head.

    Reply
  2. KWDCKG

    based on the sheer number of “pink light” pics in his photography book as well as his licentious story in this anthology, Carter could have done an entire AMA alone about whore mongering.

    Reply
  3. Rose Carnation

    Regarding Carter’s “gleeful” visit to a teen brothel, let’s be clear: if Carter had done in North American what he claims he’s done in China (visit such a place, without engaging in sex), he’d have been arrested and ultimately placed on a sex offender registry. His lawyer wouldn’t have even defended; they’d have plead. Turning such a visit into “gleeful satire,” as Matthew Polly calls it, doesn’t create a more accurate portrayal of what happens “all of the time” in China. Rather, it highlights Carter’s moral vacuousness and narcissism. Making satire out of a visit to a teen brothel with yer boyz isn’t brave or groundbreaking; it’s a pathetic display of how little you have to say about China in the first place. Good for all of the major publications that avoided this book, and shame on those who have promoted it. Here’s hoping it sinks on the kindle rankings ASAP.

    Reply
    • D.H.

      How little he has to say about China? Prostitution, kept women and concubines have been an accepted part of Oriental culture for millennia.

      As for your amateur legal argument, they’re not in North America, they’re in China, where the legal age of consent is 14 (same for Japan and nearly every other Asian nation).

      I’m not saying I personally find any appeal in underage Chinese girls (the mentality of a Chinese 18 year old is the equivalent of an American 8 year old), I’m just saying.

      Reply
      • Clare

        “the mentality of a Chinese 18 year old is the equivalent of an American 8 year old” – pretty much the misogynistic garbage I’d expect from a Tom Carter defender.

        Amateur legal arguments? This has nothing to do with age of consent, my boy, and everything to do with prostitution, which is illegal in China and the United States. In any event, you think most 14-year-old prostitutes in China are there by consent? It takes a seriously twisted fuck to take glee in this kind of thing. God help Tom Carter and his women.

        Reply
  4. DW

    A legal argument is not needed to point out what is wrong with Carter. A moral one would do that. A legal argument is needed to protect the girl and it is not carter’s fault that such protection is lacking in china. However, He can be faulted in other ways.

    A teenaged prostitute is an exploited person and unable to change her circumstances. It is not the same as two consenting individuals having sex. Carter’s role in the story is not simply as a commenter of a situation which i view as unfortunate for the girl. He exploited her twice, first sexually and second by trying to earn his literary chops with this story

    Reply
  5. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I find the negative comments about teenage prostitution [and the age of consent) interesting in that it exposes the ignorance and moral hypocrisy of some who look down on this issue and prefer it to be swept under a rug.

    For instance, why not condemn the US military. During the Vietnam war a half-million teen prostitutes serviced US troops just in Bangkok, Thailand alone. It's estimated that as many as 2 million services US troops all over Asia: Hong Kong, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippians, etc.

    And today in Okinawa the number of young prostitutes imported from the Philippians to service US troops has been 7,000 for years.

    In Thailand, there are tours organized for wealthy white Americans to buy virgins as young as twelve.

    Even in the US, the age of consent varies from state to state from as young as 16 (mostly in states that have a majority who vote for conservative candidates) to 18 (mostly in states that vote for democratic, progressive candidates).

    Before the child labor laws in the early 20th century, girls as young as six or seven could be sold into prostitution in the United States. And children as young as five could be sold into servitude slavery to factories and coal mines.

    And in the US, the major port of entry for mostly young women sold into sexual slavery is Houston, Texas---an estimated 17,000 annually.

    The US is the leading producer and exporter of child pornography in the world. It's a billion dollar growth industry and there is no sign it is going to slow up. The only US industry that is growing faster is the private sector weapons industry.

    It points-out that “the vast majority of youth involved in prostitution are girls, although some service providers see an increase in the number of boys.” It notes that the average age most girls get involved in prostitution is at 14-years and the median age of involvement is 15.5-years. However, it reports child prostitutes being picked up by police at only 11 or 12-years and even 9-years of age. It stresses that child prostitutes come from throughout the country, inner-cities, suburbs and small-towns, and from all walks-of-life. But it notes, “larger cities are more likely to have a higher proportion of boys involved in prostitution”. [Department of Justice, NIS-MART, 2002]

    There is a second, and apparently growing, form of prostitution that is apparently “voluntary” and involves the exchange of “favors” like dope, money or other presents. A study by Jessica Edwards, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, found that an estimated 650,000 American teenagers exchange sex for favors. More surprising, more boys were likely to sell themselves than girls.

    All those critics who attacked Tom Carter for his honest piece in the collection are despicable to my thinking. Instead, they should be actively involved in some way in ending sexual slavery in the world and putting a stop to pornography industry.

    Globally, the average cost of a slave is $90 today and there are 20 to 30 million of them and it is estimated that 80% are victims of sexual exploitation.

    The average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14-year-old. Many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Mr. Lofthouse, your far-out-there defense of Tom Carter probably did more to hurt him than any of the other attacks against him here. War atrocities and child trafficking are NOT reasonable justifications for western men in today’s China to solicit sex with teen prostitutes.

      I do not own this book, but I did read Mr. Carter’s story while browsing at the Beijing Bookworm. It is cruel but comical – I caught myself grinning a few times. I doubt any of the book’s opponents here have actually read said story, and their moral outrage is probably based more on hysterical presumptions and personal insecurities than the content therein.

      But for anyone to suggest that Mr. Carter should be prosecuted (or virtually lynched) because of his admissions in this book is the preposterous equivalent of saying the producers and writers of Hollywood films which portray “teens” in statutory sexual situations (e.g. American Beauty) should also be prosecuted.

      Reply
      • Ryan

        Michelle, you’re right in that Lloyd’s far-fetched argument did more damage to Tom Carter than help; in my case, I jumped into this comment section specifically in the hopes of dispossessing Lloyd of any delusions of rational superiority (spoiler: I failed).

        However, I don’t think a false equivalency is doing Carter any favors, either.

        Maybe some film producers could be taken to task for producing questionable content you described above, just as computer game designers could be held accountable for producing “murder simulators” on a yearly basis that allows the rest of us to experience the delicious, unbridled ecstasy that comes with ending a simulated human life through the mere tap of a button. In this example, both are staged instances of otherwise objectionable human behavior in media designed to either provide some kind of release through ancillary moments of realism (true for both) or to say something artful (less true for games).

        I think a closer analogue would be comparing it to a documentary like “American Movie,” minus the humanizing and characterization that goes into making the two subjects of the film such charming individuals from beginning to end.

        Anything can be considered exploitative so long as it fits a certain kind of mean-spirited, jockish narrative, just like Tom’s story. I imagine Carter’s defenders would be singing an altogether different tune were he the focal protagonist of that story instead of his mate.

        Reply
  6. Ryan

    To the commenter who provided us with that stunning and thought-provoking excerpt on the US, thank you for completely missing the point as to why many people find Tom Carter gross and setting off a wave of introspective self-scrutiny with your proper noun and integer-filled Wikipedia entry.

    Personally, the part about Carter’s piece that offended me the most wasn’t the underage prostitution, but the tendency for white people abroad to pass off their interactions in the lives of locals as something worthy of literary endeavor and not what it really is: tacky and voyeuristic self-indulgence.

    Reply
  7. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Ryan,

    You have a right to your opinion even if it is wrong, and I don’t agree that Tom’s piece is tacky, voyeuristic or self-indulgent. Instead, by being honest, Tom has opened a window into a world that some self-righteous people do not approve of. The world of prostitution is there even if you do not approve of it. It has been around for thousands of years and as long as there are human men and women on the planet, it will always be there.

    And your dismissal of my comment is not accepted. You are not my judge. You are not my God.

    Your opinion of his work reflects your individual values/beliefs, and it is obvious to me from the facts that I mentioned in my comment that that those values do not belong to everyone but only to a small segment of the population who are often loud and judgmental.

    On your own without consideration of differences in laws and cultures, you have decided for China and every other country on the earth that these girls are underage when in fact, the statuary age of sexual consent varies from country to country.

    I think modern day slavery is wrong. I think it is wrong to kidnap young girls and sell them into sexual servitude where they may be brutally bullied to perform without pay.

    But how do you know that the girl Tom’s friend had sex with was not there voluntarily?

    The age of sexual consent in China is fourteen so the girl that Tom’s friend paid to have sex with could not have been underage. Poverty leaves many young women with few choices and prostitution—the 2nd oldest profession—is one that often pays much better than many other professions.

    According to HavoScope.com, the price charged by prostitutes in U.S. Dollars in China varies from city to city. In Beijing it is $100 to $400. In Shanghai it is $650 to $1,600. A girl who works in a hotel spa would be paid—on average—$130.

    How much does the average factory worker earn in China annually?

    How much does the average farmer earn in China annually?

    It doesn’t matter if you approve or not because prostitution is a profession [legal or illegal] and it is often the choice of a prostitute, who was not sold into slavery, if she works in that profession or not. It is how she earns her living and according to these prices it is much better than most jobs in China.

    http://www.havocscope.com/black-market-prices/prostitution-prices/

    Because of your narrow thinking, you missed my point completely.

    Reply
    • Ryan

      Greetings Lloyd!

      I didn’t bother reading your long-winded response, because I already know everything I need to know about you from the fact that a) you run a blog about an “outsider’s view on China”, (way to corner that very niche and unexplored market, mate) and b” on said blog, you mention this:

      ‘It also helps to know a few expatriates that live in China, such as Tom Carter, the author of China: Portrait of a People—Tom and I met after we read each other’s books.’

      Nice. This isn’t a forum of yore, Lloyd. I will gleefully dismiss any comment you send my way and laugh at you while I continue splashing around in my wading pool of moral-relativistic pedantry, which seems to be your specialty as well. See, to me, that’s a much more preferable singular outcome than crawling around on a chain and defending your best mate Tom Carter’s expl– sorry, I meant his selfless act of illuminating the true realities of the sex trade for the rest of us stuffy, old-fashioned powdered wigs, painstakingly documented in knock-out prose and wit.

      So, in summation, I sure as shit can dismiss your comments, just like I’ve done so. That’s my right, such as is your right to post yet another heavy-handed diatribe that assumes moral and logical victory because of “facts” and “numbers”.

      You’re alright, Lloyd. Cheers!

      Reply
  8. Ryan

    Greetings Lloyd!

    I didn’t bother reading your long-winded response, because I already know everything I need to know about you from the fact that a) you run a blog about an “outsider’s view on China”, (way to corner that very niche and unexplored market, mate) and b” on said blog, you mention this:

    ‘It also helps to know a few expatriates that live in China, such as Tom Carter, the author of China: Portrait of a People—Tom and I met after we read each other’s books.’

    Nice. This isn’t a forum of yore, Lloyd. I will gleefully dismiss any comment you send my way and laugh at you while I continue splashing around in my wading pool of moral-relativistic pedantry, which seems to be your specialty as well. See, to me, that’s a much more preferable singular outcome than crawling around on a chain and defending your best mate Tom Carter’s expl– sorry, I meant his selfless act of illuminating the true realities of the sex trade for the rest of us stuffy, old-fashioned powdered wigs, painstakingly documented in knock-out prose and wit.

    So, in summation, I sure as shit can dismiss your comments, just like I’ve done so. That’s my right, such as is your right to post yet another heavy-handed diatribe that assumes moral and logical victory because of “facts” and “numbers”.

    You’re alright, Lloyd. Cheers!

    Reply
  9. DW

    I read his long winded response. It is worth reading and worth picking apart because the thinking behind it is flawed. But i don’t need to make a long winded argument to defend my point of view. A defender of child prostitution does, but will fail every time.

    The most glaring example of his flawed thinking is where he tries to direct the issue to exploitation by the US military. Let’s accept that point for argument’s sake. He is saying That it is no big deal if a foreigner has sex with a teen (child) because girls are sold into sex all over the world.

    That would be like me writing a story about kidnapping a man on the street, locking him in my home, torturing him and then calling negative comments about that atrocious act hypocritical because those critics don’t speak out against or try to stop the abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

    Reply
    • Ryan

      If I distort my worldview enough, I could almost see where Lloyd’s coming from.

      He gets the idea that people are hypocritical prudes because they supposedly choose to deny the existence of sex slavery (not what the conversation was about to begin with, natch) rather than face it head-on, which he posits in that utterly ridiculous rhetorical challenge. Then, he chooses to view prostitution in China within this kind of vacuum completely devoid of gender brainwashing, the traditional importance placed on male offspring in a household, as well as other social and economic factors that prod a woman into thinking that allowing men like Tom Carter’s friend to penetrate their vagina is somehow the only path to survival. Combating perceived hypocrisy with myopia isn’t the noblest of endeavors.

      Yes, people are poor in China. Fuck-ups and conflict on a historical level has bred the current imbalanced socioeconomic situation China faces today. We all got the memo, Lloyd, and we know the routine: Dynasty after dynasty of isolation, invasion by foreigners, upheaval, civil war, blah blah blah, your best mate’s friend fucked a child.

      Lloyd does eventually take a stand of sorts that I can agree with in that he doesn’t like sex slavery (yes, Lloyd, while we’re on the topic, I hate the goddamn Nazis too, good on ya mate), but I’d like to see him to take the ultimate stand to justify the idiocy of his sophistry, and challenge him, just as he did to all you witch-hunters.

      Lloyd, pay a nocturnal visit to a teenaged prostitute and tell us all about it. +10 What’d-I-tell-you-lot-about-moral-relativity victory points on your blank scorecard if the child makes an honest attempt to mask the fact that you gross her out.

      Reply
  10. Rick D. in Beijing

    @Ryan, You need to take a step back as well, because you are starting to sound as loopy and dogmatic as Lloyd.

    For instance, your little human flesh search was a little over the top – are we on ChinaSmack? Lloyd and Tom are both authors, and Lloyd’s wife is Anchee Min, who wrote the prologue to Tom’s photography book. It’s a 6-degrees thing not uncommon in the literary world; you made no great revelation.

    So let’s stay on topic and not make this personal.

    The real issue here is teen prostitution and human trafficking, and while Tom Carter did NOT commit some atrocious crime against humanity, as you and the others have portrayed it as, by writing this brothel story, he certainly has not helped the greater cause and might have even set it back ever so slightly.

    Nonetheless, your wrath should be directed not at western writers like Tom Carter, but at China’s corrupt communist government who refuse to revise the laws which allow age-old “customs” – such as sex with minors – to continue to exist in modern times without reproach.

    That is all from me.

    Reply
    • Rainy

      Most sensible comment I’ve read on here. The rest of yous guys sound like those fishermen on the Lurongyu 2682 who all went batshit mad and started butchering each other.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


6 × = thirty