Book Review: Unsavory Elements

The Chinese warrior spears Rudy Kong in the back of his head – darkness. The assailant doesn’t wear combat boots but ice skates. Canadian Rudy Kong chronicles the brawl between his fellow countrymen and a team of Chinese policemen in his essay within this excellent compendium.

Editor Tom Carter asked 27 expats to record a cardinal anecdote about life in China. He asserts that “the more China changes, the more it remains the same, and our experiences as outsiders remain essentially timeless.” The book is based on that. Carter’s error is that he doesn’t present vignettes from past eras to substantiate his point. However, the essays utterly convince that the foreigner in contemporary China encounters the “amazing, perplexing… ridiculous… appalling… exquisite.”

Regarding Kong’s brawl against the ‘ice dragons,’ his team broke the “unspoken rule” that they must permit the cops to win so as “to give them face.” Plus, he learned about China's “different hockey etiquette,” i.e. they do not fight fair: “Somebody always pulls out a meat cleaver....” In fact, the police eventually steal some of the Canadian's gear.

If one sympathizes with Kong, one must denigrate Englishwoman Susie Gordon. Accompanying rich young Chinese sybarites under a Shanghai moon, she witnesses them quaff US$600 bottles of wine. Next, they sniff up a silver tray “arrayed with slim white lines of powder...,” likely ketamine and “pills nestled like candies in a brass bowl.”

Gordon perceives that “Shanghai…never wakes..from its reverie. And there’s no reason why it should.” Umm, Susie, maybe a 20 year old who spends his corrupt parents’ money, “does not work” and reduces the joys and challenges of life to “late nights…women and drugs” does not an endearing town make. Do Shanghai’s youth embrace any noble ideal – even one?

From Gordon’s depiction of shallow high life we plummet to Dominic Stevenson’s account of real low life, i.e. death row low. He was jailed for a hash offense in a Shanghai prison on the fifth floor. The condemned prisoners are two levels below. The regulars believe that the doomed are served the best food to ensure their organs are healthy “for later harvesting.” Those who scoff at that notion equal the number who nod in censorious agreement. The regular prisoners’ survival tactics include writing candid “Thinking Reports” that show repentance.

American journalist James Fallows’ opposite defense tactic is artful ambiguity. Police in Tiananmen Square charge him with not carrying his passport. The law mandates it. But officials often flout the rule. Plus, foreigners usually stow their documents indoors to stymie thieves. Fallows' wife Deborah remembers her Mandarin tutor’s insight: China has many laws – “just in case someone” seeks to enforce them. Her husband's pen permits him to tap dance across the floor of adversity when he writes that "I am sorry the police felt that I interfered with them." No mea culpa there.

Isn’t Chinese thinking sometimes illogical? After three drunks pounded him in his Chongqing hotel, editor Carter informed the police. They booted him off the premises, explaining that it is no longer safe for foreigners! That topsy-turvy rationalizing goes way back, one adds, e.g. ancient Chinese argued that if you are arrested, doesn’t this prove you are guilty?

Michael Levy exposes one dimension of the modern Chinese mind, namely the loss of core values and rooted beliefs in favor of prestige, arm swinging social climbing and material gain – by any means. His English student hankers to enter St. Paul’s, a renowned America Christian school. Levy warns him it mandates regular church attendance. “I don’t care. I can believe whatever they want me to believe,” is the vacuous youngster’s response. Levy’s boss then offers him barges of money to ghost write essays for the pupils. So “the only way to get into an honest place was to cheat,” rues Levy. Say "Ni hao" or hello to China’s new irony. It will live as long as the old ones.

Yet China’s humanism fortunately is not entirely dead. New Englander Kaitlin Solimine, during a home stay, judges Chinese mothers. Behind their "diatribes are women who will fight to the death for you.” Plus, many Chinese are personally generous. Solimine’s friend Li Ming ”spooned another heap of pork and peppers into my bowl.”

How about a shovel’s worth of self revelation? Feminists and arch afficionados of Chinese culture might condemn former Marine Matthew Muller. Others, however, will hail his candor when he confesses – enthuses? -- that "I need a female wearing a tight cheongsam sleveless mini dress to help me learn Chinese" because "all my senses" must focus! Muller is salt to the sugar of the other writers. Carter insists the latter relish their adventures. However, Muller keeps asking himself, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Jeff Fuchs’ passion for tea compels him to travel the ancient Tea Horse Road in Tibet. It ranks among the world's most perilous: “You could freeze, starve or ... wander disoriented in a blizzard until you fell....” or thieves would assail you. Fuchs exudes the true traveler's ethos: it is “comforting" that the locals show him no "special attention” but hail all who venture the road. He wants an organic experience, not canned culture. Facing an icy trek with his guide Norbus, Fuch's expression of his Yeti-like spirit causes his essay to offer the book’s most alluring images: "Norbus' raw flaking face grimaces as he looks at our icy route ahead....The sun suddenly breaks above us, sending down bolts of warm sunlight as I...plunge into an abyss of white."

Veteran journalist Simon Winchester’s conclusion attempts to venture -- as insightful but concise journalism does -- from the telling detail to a defensible generalization. When he drives far into the Gobi Desert, his jeep breaks down. Nearby, the skeleton of a horse or camel that had died of thirst reminds him that the sands often cruelly win. Luckily, he had his iPhone and the signals worked. Winchester tapped in Google and then called a hotel five hours drive away: "Hello, my name is Merry...We see [you] on the map… we will be there before dawn." Merry saves Simon.

He lauds Beijing for erecting the signal towers before it finished the isolated roads. So " becoming so successful precisely because it is someone once wrote of Calcutta, chance directed, chance erected...Without fear, without haste, China will rule the world." Maybe Winchester’s encomium is only half correct. That land is zooming for unhaltered national power at such a break neck speed that it has already, well, snapped the neck of its national ecology and broken the bones of public integrity

Why did Carter entitle the book "Unsavory Elements?" He explains that China now contains over one million expats. Many denizens dismiss foreigners as economic migrants. So "where [foreigners] once held our heads high" as cool avatars of the modern, now they are sometimes deemed unwholesome interlopers.

That appelation fits drug pusher Stevenson; however, the remaining essayists are probing journalists, romantic explorers, ecologists combatting industrial havoc, champions of orphans, teachers releasing steam from the pressure cooker school system, etc. Most Chinese still esteem such admirable expats. So the title dis-serves them. But overall, the range, humor and insights in this book by veteran publisher Graham Earnshaw, place it among the best of its kind. As for Rudy Kong, he lived to play another day.