‘Unsavory Elements’ review: Expat stories from modern-day ChinaBy Michele Penna Feb 27, 2014 3:26PM UTC
In ‘Unsavory Elements’ (Earnshaw Books), traveler and photographer Tom Carter brings together the experiences of 28 foreigners ‘on the loose’ in the People’s Republic of China. Mr Carter – who has edited and partly written the book – mixes well known names, true heavyweights and more anonymous observers of China whose stories are connected by one single element: being an outsider in the former Middle Kingdom.
The result is a highly readable, often humorous, and at times brilliant book that is unerringly direct: the authors gathered together here by Mr Carter do not shy away from troublesome issues, nor do they sugarcoat their words. A telling example is Mr Carter’s own story, in which he details an adventure in a brothel. In another, a former American soldier-turned-teacher spends time openly digressing about his desire to have sexual intercourse with a female co-worker – until he notices the ring on her finger and his hopes crumble.
Certainly interesting is the glimpse offered by Susie Gordon – a Shanghai-based writer and journalist – into the life of her adoptive city’s wealthy élite. While facts about the crème-de-la-crème of China’s capitalists are known, it is uncommon to come across a tale which so vividly describes the decadence of the nouveau riche. The anecdote begins with the author joining her former business partner Zhou Ning for drinks at an upscale wine bar and ends in an expensive apartment where Mr Zhou’s son – who does not work because ‘he does not need to’ – is getting high on drugs with his friends. In between lies the description of the unrestrained luxury, debauchery and general lack of morals of the ‘fu er dai,’ the princelings whose motto is spend until you drop.
The book is not just focused on the increasingly rich China of the present, it also takes a look at the poor China of the past. Dan Washburn, now a managing editor at Asia Society in New York, goes all the way to Qixin, the small village where golf player Zhou Xunshu was born. At first, the author seems puzzled to learn that Zhou will not accompany him, but he soon finds out why: Qixin is “perhaps the poorest village in the poorest province of China,” and his friend is not keen on reviving memories of deprivation. Yet, in Qixin Mr Washburn receives the warmest possible welcome by local peasants who offer him food, a place to sleep and plenty of alcohol – ‘gambei,’ the Chinese encouragement to drink, is perhaps the most repeated word in the article.
As one might expect, one of the main themes running through the book is that of cultural differences, the feeling, at the same time pleasant and annoying, that in China a non-Chinese will never be an insider. “Red Couplets” by Jocelyn Eikenburg focuses on the love the author shares with her Chinese boyfriend and the hurdles that society puts in their way. At first, they are pressured not to be seen in public because Jun, the author’s soul mate, might be pushed out of university if the administrators get to know he is dating a foreign girl. Then comes a problem with his family: “you can be friends with a foreign woman, but not date her,” Jun’s father warns his son. Last but not least, the author has to cope with the nasty comments –racism in disguise? – of her friends, who blatantly say they find Chinese men unattractive.
Reading between the lines, the newbie will find some useful information about traveling in the People’s Republic. Nury Vittachi’s witty tale about being shepherded into a sketchy karaoke bar only to find himself trapped by thugs should be a warning to all those who roam touristic spots in major Chinese cities. Equally, it could be useful to learn that prices are often a matter of who you are rather than what you want to buy. According to Matthew Polly, the first ever foreigner to be admitted to the Shaolin Temple, prices are divided in five categories: the “Chinese friend price,” the “Chinese friend-of-friend price,” the “Chinese stranger price,” the “smart laowai price” and the “sucker laowai price,” depending on your origin and connection with the seller (note: ‘laowai’ is a slightly contemptuous term for ‘foreigner’.)
By covering the most disparate aspects of foreign lives in China ‘Unsavory Elements’ is well placed in a tradition which records the memoirs of wanderers visiting the country at different times in the past – from missionaries to colonial administrators to tourists and diplomats. It provides personal touches and tiny details which are a scarce commodity in more academic publications. The volume would be a nice companion to ‘Foreign Devils In The Flowery Kingdom’ by Carl Crow, which dealt with the same issues over 70 years ago.
A longer view of China’s development is presented in the sharp epilogue, written by veteran journalist Simon Winchester – the quality of which shall not surprise those who are familiar with his ‘The River at the Center of the World’. Mr Winchester has been in China long enough to remember when border town folks in Heilongjiang province, China’s far north-east, used to stare at the neighboring soviet superpower. “On this side, the Chinese side, all back then was dusty, silent, half empty, poor. Everyone in the drab little town of Heihe dressed the same, everyone looked the same,” writes the journalist. “But there were telescopes mounted on the riverbank, and for 10 fen or so you could stare for hours – as many Chinese did – at the unfolding drama that was the Soviet Union, so close and yet so far.” He then goes on to compare that poor, if recent, history with the modernity which is sweeping over the country. One can find it even in Xinjiang, the dry, desert western part of the country, where the author is promptly rescued thanks to the extensive phone network after his car’s engine fails.
Save for this and some other cases, however, the reader should be aware that little effort is made at placing each story in the larger context of a changing country: ‘Unsavory Elements’ is a collection of different experiences rather than a coherent description of Chinese society. The anecdotes reported can be eye-opening for those who have never been to China and might provide a colorful insight to those who have already experienced country, but they do not provide a framework to understand the developments taking place there. To put it simply, the book portrays the trees, not the forest. Yet, for those who are looking for a street view of China this could be the best point of ‘Unsavory Elements.’