Here's What Those Notorious Expats Are Really Doing In China

Adam Taylor

When those of us in the Western world look at China, we often do so through the prism of the expatriate, usually a young(ish) Westerner living in one of the country's major metropolitan areas.

However, these expats are not always the most reliable narrators. Even websites that cater to expats are full of stories of foolish, usually drunken, "laowai" humiliating themselves in one manner or another.

Given how this community is a window into China — and perhaps also China's window into into the West — they probably deserve study, and a new book out this week in the U.S. attempts to do that.

Tom Carter, both an expat and "laowai" in China since 2006, chronicles the expat experience as editor of "Unsavory Elements" (a Chinese nickname for foreigners, perhaps one step above "foreign devils"). Featuring 28 essays from foreigners, the book is meant to show some kind of unifying experience amongst a relatively disparate community.

While most of the essays are by relatively established writers (the New Yorker's Peter Hessler is one notable example), they offer a good glimpse of the variety of the expat experience in China. Perhaps the seediest story is Carter's own story, a snapshot of a his trip to a brothel in an unnamed Chinese city (a story that was "so insensitive," Time Out Shanghai felt forced to ask Carter about "his motives for writing it") but others offer more family friendly fare (for example, Alan Paul’s road trip through remote Sichuan province with his young family).

"Unsavory Elements" comes out in the United States this week and you can buy it on Amazon here. Business Insider spoke with Carter in an effort to understand what he really things about the experience of foreigners in China.

Business Insider: What made you want to edit this book? Your previous book was photography-based, why the shift?

Tom Carter: During my 2-year, 35,000-mile journey across China back in ’06-’08, my backpack was constantly filled with books – more books than anything else, which made my pack quite unwieldy – including the memoirs of many of the authors who would later contribute to Unsavory. The snapshots that I took during my travels ultimately resulted in the creation of my own book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, which was well received and inspired me to pursue photojournalism professionally.

I conceived Unsavory Elements as a tribute to all those expat authors in China that had inspired me during my travels with their tales and prose. I reached out to them to commission all-new stories – I did not know any of them personally but everyone was accessible and receptive – and found I had a knack for editing. It was an entirely organic, grassroots project that perfectly exemplifies the unpredictable, fluid spirit of expatriate life in China, where anyone can reinvent themselves, and where even if one door of opportunity closes on you, another will usually open.

BI: Is there something unique about the expat community in China as opposed to say, expats in Japan or France?

TC: I can’t speak on France – my only knowledge of the expatriate scene there comes from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – but I did used to live in Tokyo. Gaijin and laowai share many quandaries, such as our host countries’ deep-rooted mistrust and openly xenophobic attitudes towards outsiders (“No Foreigners Allowed” signs are just as common in Shinjuku as they are in Shenyang).

And yet, my impression was that Japan’s expat community has an air of privilege and conceit to it; gaijin appreciate Japan for its opulent comforts, its meticulous perfections, its soft-spoken sensibilities, and seem to abhor the uncertainties and disquieting disorder of a developing nation. They really are quite precious, those gaijin.

China’s expat scene, on the other hand, is like a great big rowdy saloon from America’s Wild West days,

China’s expat scene [...] is like a great big rowdy saloon from America’s Wild West days

with dusty explorers, try-your-luck prospectors and even the occasional outlaw laowai riding in from the hazy horizon to find their fortunes in this final frontier … or simply to get in adventures that no developed country like Japan could ever offer.

BI: Why do you think so many people move to China?

TC: China truly has become the new land of opportunity, where westerners of all walks, defeated by this ongoing global recession, have replaced the Chinese as the world’s economic refugees; a “floating population” of blonde-haired, blue-eyed migrant laborers blown in by fate and free-trade treaties onto the red shores of China, destitute and dragging plaid peasant bags bursting with emotional and financial baggage.

I’m being lyrically sensationalistic here, but beneath my playful prose is the harsh truth: America is seeing its end of days. China is our largest foreign creditor – the Communist Party basically owns us – we’ve exported most of our manufacturing base (that iPad you are reading this article on was assembled by an adolescent from Anhui), and our “land of the free” ethos has regressed to a totalitarian police state echoing Cultural Revolution-era China.

The irony of this reversal of roles is not lost on me, nor on the nearly 1 million foreigners living and working in China today, an (unofficial) number that has increased 10% year-on-year for the past decade. All said, I am less inclined to think we are moving to China so much as we are fleeing the west.

BI: Do you think the view of foreigners in China has changed over the years?

TC: Mark Kitto, a contributor to the Unsavory anthology, writes a humorously-vain account about how local authorities wanted to immortalize his likeness into a statue – and as soon as they did they tore it down! I think this story is an apt metaphor for China’s historical love-hate relationship with foreigners, where one moment they are idolizing westerners like superstars and the next they are fumigating us like some invasive species (an analogy that Jonathan Watts touches on in his essay).

If you look back at history, China is one of the few countries that have instituted systematic purges of “foreign devils” over the centuries, most notably the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Christians during the bloody Boxer Uprising and the Cultural Revolution persecutions of any Chinese who associated with westerners.

Foreigners in China have advanced (some might argue regressed) over the centuries from unremitting missionaries and exploitative opium operations to backpackers and businessmen, but the purges continue to take place to this day at the whim of the ever-capricious Communist Party, including last year’s state-sponsored looting of Japanese businesses and vehicles, and the campaign’s official government artwork of a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigners.” My anthology’s title “Unsavory Elements” is a cheeky reference to one of the Party’s many pet names for us.

BI: Could you make out any common themes? Did anything in the stories surprise you?

TC: The lighthearted tone of the book is emulated in part after my backpacking days when I’d just sit around a hostel laughing and swapping short stories with other travelers and transients about our various adventures.

BI: There are a lot of stories about the bad behavior of foreigners in China floating online. In Unsavory Elements, some of the stories (including your own) perhaps further the image of foreigners as, well, unsavory. Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?

TC: To be fair, the anthology is a well-balanced mix of family-friendly fare – such as Alan Paul’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation”-esque road trip across Sichuan with his family, and Susan Conley and her children using street food as a means to acclimate – as much as the backpackers behaving badly, or should I say Gweilo Gone Wild, contingent, like Dominic Stevenson tossed in a Shanghai prison for drug dealing or Susie Gordon during her decadent evening of ketamine, cocktails and karaoke.

Admittedly, my own story, about a boy’s night out to a brothel, has made the most ripples: Time Out Shanghai called it “offensive and implicitly exploitative”, which I accepted gracefully as their professional interpretation. I was prepared for this critical fallout and decided to martyr myself because, as the editor, it would have been disingenuous to exclude a story about prostitution, which is rampant in China.

But then the Time Out review online was overrun by clique of “fem-pats” (not my phrase; I borrowed that from one of the website’s comments; I think it refers to those angry, lonely, single female expats in China who are overlooked by western males seeking Chinese girlfriends) who, not even having read the book, knee-jerkingly called for my “arrest and deportation from China” because, they believed, I patronized an underage prostitute.

All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…though, if my own story is any indication, this “When in China” outlook can get us into trouble.

BI: Is there a danger when writing about the expat experience, of "otherizing" China — playing up the weirdness too much, falling into tropes?

TC: Absolutely. There are many “gonzo adventure” books out there – I don’t want to name them because they are rather lame – about how “unusual” and “mystifying” China is.

There are many “gonzo adventure” books out there – I don’t want to name them because they are rather lame – about how “unusual” and “mystifying” China is.

Commercial publishers, especially travel magazines, love to otherize this country and its people, as it plays off the west’s ignorance, which is unfortunate because beyond the obvious cultural differences, it is a beautiful, traditional culture with a complex, rich history.

My photo-book CHINA: Portrait of a People sought to dispel the widely held belief that the Chinese are a single, homogeneous race – there are over 56 different ethnicities of Chinese – so I am conscious about the tendency to otherize China. And I think the final result of Unsavory Elements echoes the comedic if not slightly tragic reality of our situation here as outsiders: we, not the Chinese, are the weird ones.

BI: How has the book been received by the expat community? Has the Chinese reaction been different?

TC: It’s been a mixed response from both demographics. We debuted Unsavory Elements to a sold-out session at the Shanghai Literary Festival: over 250 attendees. But our session at Beijing’s Capital Literary Festival was only 25 people! Having lived in both cities, my interpretation is that the rough-and-tumble expats in Beijing are more likely to go seek their own adventures, whereas Shanghai’s colonialist-minded expats have less opportunity, or inclination, to explore “real China”, and therefore prefer to experience China vicariously. That’s just my cursory analysis.

As far as the Chinese, I can’t imagine many if any are aware of this or other English-language books. China’s book market is growing fast, however, so getting Unsavory Elements translated into Chinese is a priority for my publisher. We’ve received positive reviews from all the state-operated English-language new agencies such as China Daily and Global Times, so there is obviously an interest in our lives here as “waiguoren,” outsiders.

But truthfully, I think the Chinese government couldn’t care less about what foreigners in China are up to or what we have to say so long as we don’t speak it in a language that 1.3 billion people can understand, and so long as we are not raising hell about the Three Taboo Ts.

BI: A lot of people featured in the book began as English teachers — do you think that influences the relationship they have with the country?

TC: Indeed, many of this anthology’s most respected writers such as Peter Hessler and Michael Meyer got their start as English teachers in China. And yet there is this stigma surrounding English teaching where we are utterly despised by the white-collar expatriate community and even by our own Department of State. Whether this is due to our perceived status as bottom-feeders detritivorously foraging Asia for any job that will hire a white face, or because they think we are aiding and abetting America’s successor, I don’t know, but the derision towards English teachers is palpable.

I too got my start in China as a teacher (after responding to an ad on Craigslist which turned out to be a scam and left me homeless and jobless my first week here) and eventually wound up teaching 1,500 primary school students entirely myself, a baptism by fire if there ever was one. I then went on to teach business English to companies in Beijing. Honestly, I can think of no other career path that places you so directly in the heart of Chinese culture and society like teaching does, or gives you a better ground view of the future of this country.

For this reason, I was adamant about including at least a couple stories from the classroom, including Michael Levy’s account of being offered vast sums of money by the principal of his school to write college entrance exams for his students, and Matt Muller’s observational piece about being in a class full of indifferent high school students with no ambition for higher education. When read together, these stories offer a contrasting glimpse into China’s widening economic disparity, from perspectives that no executive and no journalist could ever obtain.

TC: Regarding the so-called exodus, I don’t believe that more foreigners are departing China than arriving. Sure, certain western corporations are looking for the next burgeoning nation to exploit now that China’s economy is on a downturn. But good riddance to the expense-account expats. Of the laowai who are leaving because of pollution or whatever, in the past year it’s become a kind of trend to publish your “Why I’m Leaving China” goodbye letter. What most people don’t know is that Mark Kitto, who is to be credited, or blamed, for starting this trend, never left!

And this fact speaks volumes about our love affair with China, a love-it or hate-it kind of place, to the point that even when we want to leave, we really can’t. I had this happen to me too, where after living here for four straight years I moved to Japan for a year, and then to India for another year, but each time I found myself drawn back to China. I now concede this is where destiny intends me to be.

But of the authors in this anthology who have left, such as Pete Hessler to Egypt and Jon Watts to South America, the fact that they can continue to write so passionately about China is a testament to how close to our hearts this culture and its people are.

BI: After editing the book and hearing many stories, what advice would you give to a young man or woman about to move to China?

TC: Read. There really are so many inspirational memoirs and travelogues about China, including all the ones penned by the contributors of this anthology, which will give you a good understanding of what you are getting yourself into. But I feel a bit hypocritical proffering this advice, as I myself had not ever read a single book about China prior to moving here – I came on a lark because I wanted to travel the world and go on adventures but didn’t have any money to do so – and was completely oblivious of Chinese culture and its history. I learned as I went along, total immersion, which upon reflection was not the easiest way, especially in a challenging country like China. Reading memoirs, and learning from the first-hand insight of others, can help ease your transition.


Many thanks to Tom for talking to us. Make sure to check out Unsavory Elements if you liked what you read.

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