Just last month, I was reading a book about China expats, now I am a China expat. However I still got a long way to go before I can even come close to matching most of the people in Unsavory Elements, a collection of real-life stories written by foreigners, mostly Westerners, living in China. With 28 stories, Unsavory Elements features a mix of experiences from studying at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, hiking the Ancient Tea Trail in Yunnan, doing time in a Shanghai prison, and “experiencing” a low-level brothel, which certainly cased a fair bit of controversy among some readers and reviewers. Of course, not every story is as hardcore as there is more gentler and family-friendly offerings including taking a family trip with young kids to rural Sichuan, dealing with cross-cultural kid spats, and a pleasant remembrance of arriving in Beijing for the first time. You will learn about China (such as the importance of baijiu), laugh (a hockey game turns into a mass brawl that then leads to drinks and camaraderie the next day), shake your head (the inanities of certain rules), and maybe even shed a tear, with one writer’s poignant tribute to her “Chinese mother.” The book’s title is a bit misleading- there’s nothing really unsavory about these writers at all, though perhaps there are one or two experiences that might raise some eyebrows. I did have a few issues, one being that certain stories seemed a bit short and ended too abruptly. Another is that while the variety of authors is a key strength, it’s also a weakness. That’s because of the 28 writers, almost all are white, and mainly American or English. But when’s all said and done, it was a good read which I feel anyone even slightly interested in China should take a look at. I reviewed the book for Asian Review of Books here.
The book’s editor Tom Carter, who I am admittedly acquainted with having corresponded before about the following book, also did China: Portrait of a People, a fantastic tome of photos that cover all of China’s 33 provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions and special administrative regions. I don’t think any Westerner or non-Chinese has ever done such an ambitious and adventurous project, and Carter deserves a lot of credit for that.