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Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China Paperback – July 1, 2013

4.4 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Great vignettes from world class writers...a celebration of the outsider's experience in China, in all of its juiciness and fetid rancour." --Time Out Shanghai

"Excellent. Concise and truthful." --South China Morning Post

"Although other anthologies have featured outstanding journalism about China by Western writers, Carter's collection is the first to focus on the wide-ranging experiences of foreigners living in China." --China Daily

"The authors, mostly experienced writers who have traveled widely in China, offer tales beyond those of the usual laowai experience." --Shanghai Daily

"The majority of stories are individual gems and an enjoyably diverse range of issues are found in the book." --Time Out Hong Kong

"The moral of this collection appears to be that though almost everything has changed, one basic thing - the allure of China to a certain kind of Westerner - remains curiously consistent." --Taipei Times

"Funny, poignant, and wry...the outcome is a depth and variety about the expat experience and life in China that is almost unsurpassed." --Asian Review of Books

"Fast-moving romps through a rapidly-changing changing society." --Caixin

"An eminently dip-into-able, informative and enjoyable collection." --That's Shanghai

"One might be tempted to classify it as a travel book of sorts; what is being traversed and recollected throughout is not the lay of the land, but rather, the contours of confusion, excitement and isolation that every China expat has, at one point, had to clamber across and conquer." --The Beijinger

"A surprisingly refreshing, instead of rehashing, collection of essays, written by professionals, instead of amateurs...at times hilarious, at times beautiful, but always relatable..." --China.Org

"(Editor) Tom Carter has pulled together an impressive cast of writers, established and amateur alike." --Beijing Cream

"If there is an overarching message to take from the book, it is that holy !@#$ China changes quickly." --Shanghaiist

"The vignettes lead the reader through a variety of emotions; some will tug at your heartstrings, others will leave you chuckling in understanding, and a few will really make you think." --Shanghai City Weekend

"Presents a more realistic China." --Li Jihong for Shanghai Review of Books

"As a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected." --Xujun Eberlein for Los Angeles Review of Books

"The result is a highly readable, often humorous, and at times brilliant book that is unerringly direct: the authors gathered together here do not shy away from troublesome issues." --Asian Correspondent

"The title dis-serves them...the range, humor and insights in this book place it among the best of its kind." --Asia Sentinel

“By turns funny, scary and insightful—every foreigner in China has a story, these are some of the best. Here we have the laowai experience in China in all its multifarious permutations. From the dedicated insiders to the seriously lost; from those who have sought to deep-dive China to those who’ve suffered glancing, but eye-opening, blows.”  —Paul French, author, Midnight in Peking

“These essays have heart. From Urumqi to Shanghai, these foreign devils just can’t help but smile at what China has taught them.”  —Global Times

About the Author

Alan Paul (author of Big in China) * Aminta Arrington (author of Home is a Roof Over a Pig) * Audra Ang (author of To the People Food is Heaven) * Bruce Humes (Shanghai Baby translator) * Dan Washburn (author of Par for China) * Deborah Fallows (author of Dreaming in Chinese) * Derek Sandhaus (author of Tales of Old Peking) * Dominic Stevenson (author of Monkey House Blues) * Graham Earnshaw (author of The Great Walk of China) * Jeff Fuchs (author of Ancient Tea Horse Road) * Jocelyn Eikenburg (blogger of Speaking of China) * Jonathan Campbell (author of Red Rock) * Jonathan Watts (author of When a Billion Chinese Jump) * Kaitlin Solimine (author of Empire of Glass) * Kay Bratt (author of Silent Tears) * Mark Kitto (author of China Cuckoo) * Matt Muller (blogger of Pathology of Wanderlust) * Matthew Polly (author of American Shaolin) * Michael Levy (author of Kosher Chinese) * Michael Meyer (author of Last Days of Old Beijing) * Nury Vittachi (author of The Curious Diary of Mr. Jam) * Pete Spurrier (author of The Serious Hiker's Guide to Hong Kong) * Peter Hessler (author of River Town) * Rudy Kong (author of Dragons, Donkeys, and Dust) * Simon Winchester (author of The River at the Center of the World) * Susan Conley (author of The Foremost Good Fortune) * Susie Gordon (author of Moon Beijing & Shanghai Handbook) * Tom Carter (author of CHINA: Portrait of a People).
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Earnshaw Books (July 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9881616409
  • ISBN-13: 978-9881616401
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,083,948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David I. Cahill on August 1, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Even before this book came to press it was already in the thick of polemic and controversy - for all the wrong reasons. Some advance-copy reviews by feminist editors in the expat zines of Beijing and Shanghai have been withering, particularly of editor Tom Carter's own "exploitative" and "juvenile" contributing story on a brothel visit. It is actually one of the best pieces in the book, its tawdry, slapstick style perfectly suited to a group of clumsy foreigners haggling in the shabbier variety of Chinese brothel. It is the only story in the entire collection, in fact, that merits the book's title. Before I came to the book, I was expecting and hoping for just that, something unsavory, stories of a refreshingly seedy and disreputable nature, peeling back a new layer of reality in Chinese society as more and more foreign pioneers venture deeper into the country. Inevitably, someone would take it upon himself to dredge up a collection of lascivious or discomfiting encounters and slap it together as a book.

What we have here instead is, alas, a much more banal take on "unsavory elements": "the communist propaganda machine" use of the phrase (as Carter first recalled it) to describe anyone of questionable, less than revolutionary morals. Foreigners - formerly "foreign devils" - are by definition unsavory; their mere presence in the Middle Kingdom unsavory. It is not possible to be a foreigner in China and not simultaneously bumbling, gauche, vulgar and unsavory. Thus any random collection of non-fiction stories of foreign devils wandering around or working and living in China will do. The 28 contributors represent quite a spread, scattered about the country in pretty much all walks of life, but what cannot be said about them (with a few exceptions) is that they are unsavory.
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"Unsavory Elements" edited by Tom Carter, the author of "China: Portrait of a People", has twenty-eight short memoirs that offer a balanced view of China from expatriates who have lived and/or traveled there.

But the title almost misleads because not all of the authors come off as unsavory elements--most are there to learn and not to judge. Only a few of the stories in this collection were written by expatiates suffering from some form of sinophobia.

I also value books that teach and I think that many of the stories in "Unsavory Elements" did that refreshingly well.

For a few examples, first there was Paying Tuition by Matthew Polly who wrote: "One of the first things I had learned during my stay was that the Chinese love to negotiate. They love it so much that even after an agreement is reached, they'll often reopen negotiations just so they can do it all over again."

I have visited China many times and--unlike most Westerners--I enjoy negotiating, but I didn't know about the reopening gambit. Next time, I may want to give that a try and extend the fun.

In Communal Parenting by Aminta Arrington, I learned that the "Chinese have a fundamentally different relationship with their history than we Westerners. History is a subject we study in schools," and that history is not connected to who we are.

"Not so for the Chinese," Arrington writes. "History here [in China] is not book knowledge. Rather, their history is carried along with them as they walk along the way, an unseen burden, an invisible shadow; unconscious, and therefore, powerful.
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I've been wanting to read this anthology since I first heard about it a few months ago. I've been living in China since 2005 and am familiar with some of the writers featured here and am also a fan of Carter's "Portrait of a People."

In the past few years I've tended to shy away from reading books about China, especially books written by foreigners. A lot of what expats write seems generic, insensitive, or just plain annoying. I tried to approach this book with an open mind. I'm glad I did.

While not all the stories are flawless and there may even be a few I admittedly didn't like, there were others that struck a cord with me. After living in China this long, most of these stories weren't shocking, but they still managed to leave an impression on me. In fact, I felt many of the stories were too short and I wanted to read more. Be warned, these tales tend to portray a darker side of China, sometimes in obvious ways and in others less so.

If you are interested in China or the reality of living as an expat, I think you'll definitely find something you'll enjoy here.
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Format: Paperback
Entranced by the sights of Tom Carter’s much-heralded picture book “China Portrait of a People”, I thought I’d give his collection of short stories a go. I haven’t been to China yet, and based on what I’ve read in these dispatches I’m not sure I could even handle the cowboy life of an expatriate there. Some stories, such as Carter’s bordello visit and Susie Gordon’s karaoke cathouse, were a bit much for me. But I do not deny that prospective expatriates and adventure travelers will find within these 28 page-turning narratives every inspiration they’d ever need to make their way to China.
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