Peter Hessler’s River Town, like many newbies to this country, was one of the first books read after landing in China over three years ago. So when perusing the content page of the newly released Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China and seeing his name among the list of short story authors, I was positive in my anticipation.
Along with Hessler, many on the list are accomplished writers and share mature writing styles and entertaining stories, but other submissions just don’t share anything beyond the obvious. They seem to say, “I lived in China,” as if that is enough for the public to take an interest in their anecdotes.
This being said, delving into the book there are certainly a large handful of stories that make the book a worthwhile read. The better ones, for the most part, stick to daily routines, sharing the oddities of how seemingly everyday tasks can become much more in China.
A family vacation, though not everyone can make it to the Far East, is still a pretty common scene. The Western family tradition in Alan Paul’s East of Nowhere, South of Heaven shares the monotonous stories of entertaining children on long journeys, and keeping them fed and teaching them the way of the world, however here they have the in your face culture differences that make seeing the truth so much easier.
The stories that are of the most import, the impoverished young boy making it big on the Chinese golf tour in Dan Washburn’s Every Thousand Years, or Kaitlyn Solomine’s life as a foreign exchange student in Water, for Li Ming, are not about the star powered characters or even the foreigners at the center of the story. The most engaging of the unsavory elements are the local Chinese families and their interactions with foreign besiegers. The entertainment factor is less like a chin lifting firecracker display, and closer to the angled neck of a young mutt observing something beyond its scope.
These short stories don’t exaggerate as story tellers are apt to do, relaying the story of foreigners’ lives in China, but some seem to miss the true causality of their own story. No matter how much time is spent within a culture like China’s, some expats apparently still feel they are above others on an evolutionary scale. Not to steal away the obvious truths of China’s evident faults, but some tones in writing were a little condescending, bordering on the hypocritical as does Kay Bratt’s The Shoe. Her story follows the troubles of a young orphan.
Overall, if your aim is to study Chinese culture than the book is a great way to do so. There is no way to understand Chinese culture by reading academic studies, but it is made easy with the willingness to assimilate into daily life, and that is what this book does. It allows the reader to benefit from those daily chores, tasks and errands to get a sense of life in the Middle Country.