Navigating the culture shock that is China
Stories of Foreigners on the Loose
Edited by Tom Carter
Earnshaw Books. 304 pp. $15.25 paperback
Reviewed by Jeff Gammage
Reviewers often say so many books are written about Westerners in China that it's become a separate genre of literature. Maybe so. But that doesn't lessen the accomplishment of a fine new offering that explores the complication and contradiction of life in the world's biggest country.
It's edited by veteran China photographer Tom Carter, who produced CHINA: Portrait of a People, and the writers he's assembled rank among the best on the topic. They include Michael Meyer, author of the fabulous The Last Days of Old Beijing, and Michael Levy, who wrote the hilarious Kosher Chinese, not to mention Peter Hessler and Simon Winchester.
Anyone who has spent time in China will laugh or grimace - or both - in recognition of the day-to-day absurdities and adventures that befall the authors.
Mark Kitto writes how villagers in the mountain region of Moganshan decide to create a life-size statue of him. Not because he's so successful or popular. Because they want to erect a statue of the first foreigner who visited the village in the 1880s and don't know what he looked like. Kitto is the only model they can find.
A tone of bemused, only-in-China revelation runs through the book, and for one basic reason: If you're in China and you're not Chinese, you're a foreigner, a laowai - and subject to innumerable real and imagined rules. The results can be scary, such as when passing through government checkpoints. But they're often comical, particularly when happening to someone else.
Carter writes about being beaten up at a hotel by three drunken men, and then, like a good citizen, reporting the assault to authorities. Do the police investigate? No. They kick him out of the hotel, which they deem "unsafe for foreigners."
After Canadian Rudy Kong starts a hockey team in frozen northeast China, he's knocked unconscious during a savage game against a team of Chinese police officers. Certain the cops will come after him later, he's instead welcomed as a sticks-and-stitches brother at their alcohol-soaked banquet.
Deeply moved, and deeply drunk, Kong ponders "how Westerners in China routinely get pushed beyond our limits, and how we react in ways much more aggressive and intolerant than we do at home. . . . How strange and uncivilized foreigners must seem to the Chinese."
Indeed. But the book is not all fun and games and drinking stories.
Parts are quite moving, particularly novelist Kaitlin Solimine's tale of having gone to China as a 16-year-old student, forced into the home and under the care of a hard and inexplicable Chinese mother. But the woman, so demanding, inspires in Solimine a new graciousness and caring.
"That's the thing about Chinese mothers," Solimine writes. "Hidden behind their maternal expectations and critical diatribes are women who will fight to the death for you."
The authors explore the nuance of language, the hazard of local customs, the deep meaning of food, and the unforgiving, even dangerous pace of development.
"The capital's atmosphere is often so thick that you have to chew before inhaling," author Nury Vittachi in Hong Kong writes, "though I suppose you could argue that it's good that you can see what you're eating."
Today, an estimated 600,000 foreigners live in China, many of them seeking riches. Once a limited population who "held our heads high at the rather cool moniker 'foreign devils,' we have in some cases been reduced to 'unsavory elements,' " Carter writes.
The phrase is a Chinese term for outsiders likely to stir up trouble. Which they do. Usually unintentionally.
Deborah Fallows sees her husband forced to write a "confession" - a la 1960s communism - for the crime of taking a photo of a scuffle at Tiananmen Square, still sensitive and surveilled 24 years after the 1989 massacre.
Levy wrestles with an offer to write admission papers for Chinese students applying to American schools - at a head-spinning $1,000 per essay. The ethics of the bribe become less clear when he sees hardworking students, such as the high-achieving Amy, desperate to flee a system that often favors the corrupt.
"If I would cheat for Amy, she could escape corruption," Levy writes. "If I would throw out my moral compass, she could head to America to find one."
If you want to read about superpower politics or Communist Party intrigue, turn elsewhere. What's great about Unsavory Elements is that it sticks close to the ground, examining personal interactions between foreigners and Chinese, and the government that governs the lives of both.
"Nothing is allowed, but everything is possible," writes journalist Graham Earnshaw.
He's describing his attempt to publish an "illegal" Western-style magazine in China. He could just as well have been talking about the country itself.
Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage is author of "China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood."