Yifu Dong Reviews Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China
Unsavory Elements presents a feast for those who enjoy reading good stories. Editing what is first and foremost a travel book, Tom Carter presents 28 accounts written by individuals who possess decent credentials and superb storytelling abilities. The stories are about exploring a new culture, speaking an exotic tongue, interacting with unfamiliar people and, perhaps mostly importantly, experiencing emotions that are distinct to westerners traveling and living in China.
While accounts of foreigners' experiences in China abound in today's literature, Unsavory Elements finds a way to remain refreshing and fascinating. Naturally, this fascination is due to the fact that foreigners, especially westerners, enjoy certain privileges that ordinary Chinese people do not possess in China. Therefore, nearly all western expatriates in China would run into distinct encounters that add to the rich flavor of their China stories. What renders Unsavory Elements special, however, is the unique, even bizarre, settings in which the 28 stories take place. The 28 contributors to Unsavory Elements, most of whom have spent relatively lengthy periods in China, share the most exciting episodes of their entire China experiences, freeing their narratives from the usual monotone of noisy cities, natural beauty and exotic culture. Among them, Matthew Polly recounts his adventure as a student in the Shaolin Temple learning kung fu and paying exorbitant "tuition;" Aminta Arrington tells the story of parenting alongsidewith other Chinese families at the foot of Mt. Tai; Peter Hessler, author of the award-winning book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, writes about his curious encounters on the North Korean border; Bruce Humes describes being brutally attacked by knife-wielding robbers and recovering in a Shenzhen hospital; Dominic Stevenson finds himself in a familiar-sounding city, Shanghai, but at a rather less frequently trodden place, at least for westerners in China, prison; Tom Carter himself unveils an anecdote taken from a brothel deep in the Chinese countryside.
It was when he took his struggling friends to the brothel for an absurd and hilarious escapade that the phrase "Unsavory Elements" occurred to Carter. While on the adventure, Carter thought about how, according to the party line, the people running the brothel were without a doubt "Unsavory Elements," but he also wondered if the foreigners themselves were unsavory in the eyes of the Chinese people and authorities they interacted with. Carter, who traveled to 33 provinces in China and authored China: Portrait of a People, challenges the stereotype that to citizens of the Middle Kingdom "all westerners are rich." His book attempts to prove that expatriates are ordinary people engaged in various endeavors, leading decent lives in a land they love.
In China, however, westerners are not ordinary; they never have been, and they never will be. Unsavory Elements fails to adequately address that without wealth, westerners would not garner the same level of respect from their Chinese hosts. Matthew Polly was even told to his face, "There is nothing more useless than a poor laowai [foreigner]." Since China's economic reforms in the late 1970s, the Chinese government has encouraged westerners to invest in China. At the same time, westerners arrived in China with not only investments but also "unsavory" ideas that challenge the legitimacy of the regime. Thus, it is not difficult to understand why there have been constant frictions between the authorities and western journalists, because the latter often "cross the line" to spread their notions of China, especially its government, while offering few moneymaking opportunities. For the authorities, those with money are welcome to do business and only business; foreigners with only unsavory ideas are not welcome at all.
Although more and more westerners continue to develop interest in Chinese culture and more and more Chinese people adopt aspects of western lifestyle, few on either side are readily willing to change their respective ways of thinking. As Matt Muller remembers teaching English to middle school and college students in a small city called Chenzhou, he asserts that only a small number of Chinese people are genuinely interested in understanding western views, despite their fervor to learn English. Muller's tale shows how, despite ever-increasing global economic ties, China has in some ways closed itself off from the outside world, as even some of the most invested foreigners find it difficult to connect to Chinese individuals on a cultural level.
The 28 contributors to Unsavory Elements also find it difficult to directly address the distinction between thousand-year-old Chinese values and thoughts imposed by the communist ideology of the past half-century. Together the two make up the present-day Chinese ethical system and are central to any discussion of the Chinese mindset, but this kind of crucial discussion seems to be missing from Carter's collection altogether. Simon Winchester predicts in the epilogue, for instance, that China is poised to become the next world superpower, a status that requires not only material prosperity but also intrinsic soft power in ideas, and the power of China's ideas has yet to match that of a genuine superpower. Nowhere in Winchester's entry, nor anywhere in any other in the collection, though, do Unsavory Elements's authors confront the synthesis of the old and the new in a time of rapid social transformation.
Overall, it is hard-pressing for anyone to draw profound conclusions from the short pieces. For a deeper understanding of China, it is better to read the fuller, more comprehensive books on China written by the contributors featured than the mere fragments Carter neatly stitches together. Nonetheless, Unsavory Elements is a storybook worth reading. Although the discussion and presentation of China is far from thorough, the book offers brief insights and satisfies our appetites for page-turning tales.
Yifu Dong is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appears in China Hands.