Tom Carter’s Unsavory Elements is a collection of stories which show the true China experience.
Over one million foreigners are now living in China. With this many people from such a wide array of countries all mixed together upon the menagerie of the oldest civilization on earth there are bound to be some good stories. Tom Carter shares some of these tales in his recent book, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China.
Tom Carter’s first book was the product of two years of wandering 35,000 kilometers through every province in China, taking photos of people with a point and shoot 35mm camera — a parameter which forced Carter to get right up in the faces of his subjects, literally as well as figuratively. These photos were collected into a book called China: A Portrait of a People, and it showed a side of China that few other foreign travelers put in the legwork to experience.
For Unsavory Elements, Carter put together a collection of 28 stories from 28 of China’s top expat authors, including Peter Hessler, Mark Kitto, and Derek Sandhaus. The stories that make up this anthology cover a large swath of the foreign experience in China, from partying with the country’s jet set to being scammed in a bar, from dealing with corruption to getting railroaded trying to start a business, it’s all in here. Jeff Fuchs ventures out on the Tibetan Plateau to retrace the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Audra Ang shows us what life is like in the security state that China’s Tibetan regions have become. Susan Conely reminds us of how cringingly incompetent we all probably looked when we were first learning to speak Chinese. Derek Sandhaus talks about baijiu and the complexity of Chinese drinking culture. Canadian Rudy Kong told the story of forming an ice hockey team in Liaoning only to end up in a bench clearing brawl against a team of Chinese cops in their first game. Deborah Fallows wrote about navigating the strange seas of the Chinese legal system. Jonathan Campbell presented a peak at the lifestyle of a foreign rock star in China. Jocelyn Eikenburg told of the ridiculous experience of dating a Chinese grad student. Nury Vittachi wove a tale of being extorted by gangsters and prostitutes at a bar. Bruce Humes outlined his experience of being in a hospital after being knifed in the streets of Shenzhen. Dominic Stevenson recounted his experience of being in prison in Shanghai. Taken all together, these essays read like a lively story swapping session between a cast of people who could only be considered New China hands — and judging by the book’s introduction, this seems to have been by design.
The title of this book is an ironic jest paid to one of the nicknames that the CCP uses to refer to their country’s exploding expat population, but, despite this, there are not really that many elements of this book that could be considered particularly unsavory. Though there are a few that would probably yank up the wedgies of a book club of Midwestern USA suburban mothers. There is a passage from a foreign English teacher about how he was ogling over his Chinese female teaching assistant that even I found icky. There was a passage in Bruce Humes’ story about how the size of his wiener disturbed his nurses (“Admittedly, it’s not a domestic model.”). Though ultimately, Carter needed to add the main unsavory ingredient himself. The last story in the book is about a trip the editor took to a brothel with a couple of other foreign men. As prostitution is rampant in China, overlooking this fact probably would have left the book come off a little incomplete — especially given its title. Part of the male experience of China will inevitably include a run in with prostitution at some point, whether you chose to awkwardly sidestep active engagement (as Carter did) or not. Though, almost needless to say, this story provoked a modest amount of criticism from a portion of China’s expat population, who apparently felt that Carter’s “tone” didn’t meet their moral guidelines. When it comes down to it, the piece can only be found offensive in that it is not overtly anti-prostitution. In fact, the story’s antagonist — who is an ideal characterization of the “loser English teacher” stereotype — was what was truly unsavory and offensive. Compared to this guy any complaint leveled at Carter’s cheeky mentions of prostitution are like a cocked legged fart in the wind (read the story).
At the heart of this book lies the sometimes tenuous relationship between China and its foreign million. China has pretty much always been uncomfortable with its foreign population, never seeming able to fully decide if we are a benefit or a scourge. Mark Kitto, the founder of the Time Out, contributed a story to Unsavory Elements about how Moganshan, a mountain retreat he had been living in for many years, wanted to commemorate J.W. Farnham, the American missionary who pioneered the town in the 19th century, with a statue. As nobody knew what the guy actually looked like they asked Kitto, the sole foreigner there, to be the sculptor’s model. He consented, and a bust in his likeness was created. Though it was a short lived production, as almost as soon as the statue was erected it was torn town. Moganshan, apparently, changed their mind about commemorating a foreigner. This example can serve as a microcosm of China’s conflicting sense of its own history with outsiders, which consists of transitioning through cycles of opening up and inviting them in and closing off and kicking them out — building statues to them just to tear them down. This is as true today as it has always been.
The publication of Unsavory Elements may well mark the point where modern China’s relatively open disposition towards foreigners and foreign influence begins to climax, and we may soon find ourselves as foreign devils yet again. As Carter mentioned in the book’s introduction: “In recent years, as many Western economies have faltered, the collective esteem of Westerners in the eyes of some Chinese people has also fallen from the pinnacle of superstar status. . . we have in some cases been reduced to “unsavory elements.”
Though I have been traveling and living in China for many years, Unsavory Elements was still able to teach me a few things about the country. I didn’t know that the PRC’s alcohol tab is equal to its defense budget. I didn’t know that if a patient is unresponsive and without enough cash in a Chinese hospital that the doctors and nurses have a meeting to decide if they want to provide care — at the risk of the cost of the treatment being deducted from their salaries if the patient doesn’t pay. Though I’ve sat through many, many banquets, it was Sandhauss story that fully taught me the social complexity behind the seating arrangements. Though most of the stories in this book are aimed at a reading population who are not exactly China experts, there is a good deal here that would surprise even those of us who’ve planted deep roots in this country.
While I feel that overall Unsavory Elements is a high quality anthology for anyone interested in China, there were two things that really bothered me about it. The first was the excessive use of toneless Pinyin transliterations of incredibly rudimentary Chinese words and phrases. While transliteration of foreign words which transcend translation, show a particular emotion, or enhance a scene can add to a text, this book is full of passages like, “There is always a banfa, a way. Even when the Chinese say mei banfa, there’s no way, there’s a banfa.” These transliterations of such mundane words and phrases act like speed bumps and generally don’t add much of anything to the narrative. To make matters worse, these transliterations tend to always be followed up with English translations, making the entire bilingual exercise seem unnecessary at best, like the author is trying to show off their elementary level Mandarin at worse. To clarify here, many of the more established China authors in this in this anthology did not do this. The only other complaint that I can wage against Unsavory Elements is that some of the stories seem to go nowhere. We never find out if Michael Levy took the money for writing his student’s high school admissions essays, we don’t know how Jeff Fuchs fared against the 5,470 meter Tibetan pass he was walking towards, and we have no idea if Audra Ang got the scoop she was after in remote Gansu Province. Some of the stories just stop, as though cut off at the point right before climaxing. Where’s the end? What happened? WTF? Though the fact of the matter is that there are 28 stories in this book that are all written by different authors, and it is truly not difficult to just read the stories you like and skip the ones you don’t.
While some of these stories of Unsavory Elements focus on aspects of China that could be considered outrageous, they are presented within the context of a broader understanding of the country and culture. These stories show the cool sense of rationalization, or at least sardonic acceptance, that many expats who truly engage the culture eventually acquire. If the authors “other-ized” anything in their essays it was themselves: China is presented as the standard, the expats themselves the elements which deviate. There are no dumbbell “Crazy China” stories. No, China is fascinating enough without the cherry picking data or exaggerating.
It’s the honesty of Unsavory Elements that gives it its best flavor. Much of the subject matter of this book is that which many expats will generally experience for themselves throughout their time in China. As you read through the stories you can really see the characters, you can feel the situations, and you understand the authors’ experiences — because it’s happened to you, you’ve been there. This book generally covers the popular China experience.
Through all the humor, strange scenarios, annoyances, and conflicts, almost every story in this anthology demonstrates a underlying sense of respect, fascination, and awe paid to the adopted homeland of the authors. Even the stories that are critical of the country still belie a deeper sense of appreciation. We live here because we choose to live here, and we all ultimately do so for a reason: despite the horrors that this country continues to make of itself it is still a stimulating, exciting, good place to be. It is often said that China is a country that you either get or you don’t, but the truth of the matter is that nobody truly gets China, it’s China that gets you. There is an indescribable hold that this country has on some people. They land here and something just sticks. These are people who can look out over a smoggy urban dystopia of hundreds of identical high-rises, generic super blocks, and highways and say “I love this place.” Unsavory Elements was written by these people for these people.