One million foreigners currently reside in China as of 2017, an astonishing tenfold rise since 2010. With this increase, the number of expat books set in China has taken off as well. I imagine a decade down the line we will have a veritable literature on our hands. Yet the Great China Expat Novel (or Memoir) is not an easy feat to pull off.
One reason for the relatively rare occurrence of memorable expat books, literary talent aside, is a simple insight lacking among the majority attempting the task: the perils of solipsism. Your run-of-the-mill expat tale revolves largely around the narrator’s own world, often with precious little to say about his or her interactions with the Chinese. The particular balance struck between the self and the other may vary; the mistake is to draw no larger symbolic significance from the lessons learned. The clash of cultures – East and West, Old World and New – remains ever-present at street level in China. This remains a country that has been slow to adopt some of the more internationalized notions of freedom and lifestyle taken for granted in say, Japan, Korea and Thailand. The best expat authors intuitively grasp the larger significance of this in their storytelling. They capture and dramatize China’s fraught relationship with the West in microcosm, down to the most personal interactions and conflicts, and in doing so succeed in transforming the casual and the banal into the universal.
In the following, I review four previously published, noteworthy China expat books (three memoirs and one novel), before examining a more recent addition to the literature to see how it measures up.
Carl Crow’s Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom (Earnshaw Books, 2007; originally published in 1940) is from another era and quite different from the other publications to be discussed, which are all from the twenty-first century. I include it for historical contrast. We have a paradox of a book here, a compelling account of China with virtually nothing to tell us about actual life in China or the Chinese. How does Crow, the famous Shanghai newspaper editor and American China hand of twenty-five years, pull it off? We are given the bigger historical picture, a sweeping discussion of the centuries of maritime trade up through the opium wars, the occupation by the Western powers and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. The narrative then circles inward to give us a close-up view of life in foreign-occupied Shanghai over the early decades of the twentieth century – right up to the day the author is forced out of the country during the Japanese invasion in 1937. It is a fine historical introduction written by the sure hand and balanced objectivity of an experienced journalist.
But we soon realize that despite being less than a hundred years ago we are encountering an era as strange as that of Marco Polo’s, or the US antebellum south, or the world of “gay cocktail parties” penned by Crow’s contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald, when “gay” had a different meaning from what it does today. Crow is not entirely able to extricate himself from the biases of his age. This was a time after all when it was still fashionable to be racist. It is a China peopled by expat bachelors, bored bridge-playing wives of the expat married, their China “boy” servants, amahs and anonymous kitchen hands. Not a single fleshed-out Chinese person is described in the entire book, nor any even named, apart from the brief, touching mention in the final pages of one “Ching,” a servant of Crow’s hastily delivering some food as he and his family flee the Japanese attack. The remaining cast of hazy Chinese occupy the narrative background as ciphers, so many shadowy and inscrutable Fu Manchus.
We do note changes in prejudices and attitudes. Before the First World War, when Shanghai was divided into the French, British and American concessions and effectively walled off from the rest of the city, with one park reputed to have a sign forbidding entrance to “Dogs and Chinese” (or so the rumor goes; Crow himself disbelieves it but it dies hard for the simple reason that such a sign was entirely plausible at the time). It would never have occurred to anyone on either side to extend social intercourse beyond business relations or transactional necessities. This was not terribly surprising, considering the “very large class [of foreigners in China] who looked with considerable disdain and disgust on all Chinese people.” After the war and start of the Republic, things began to relax and there was more mutual curiosity and gesturing across the cultural divide. But the Chinese remained as unknowable as ever.
Even in its heyday of excitement and notoriety, gay Shanghai, the Paris of the East, seemingly had very little to do with China. The foreign community was too busy with their ponies, polo and racing matches, golf courses and drinking and yachting clubs to be much bothered with anything else. Crow spends considerable space detailing the petty controversies preoccupying the exclusive foreigner clubs – the restrictions on proper dress and the knotting of ties, the election of new members to a club, the etiquette of buying rounds of drinks. And yet it is these particulars that are oddly fascinating in their very remoteness to our own experience in the present-day, more internationalized China, where interaction of foreigners and locals at Starbucks or online and the burgeoning cohabitation and intermarriage is widespread.
Crow succeeds with his knack for the telling anecdote, even when it doesn’t reflect too well on the author himself. He relates without irony being once picked up by a taxi driver whom he failed to recognize he had previously employed as his personal chef of four years! Or the bizarre methods of communication designed to keep personal relations impersonal, such as between this American bachelor and his servant: “Seated at his breakfast table he would strike the table bell as a signal to put the eggs in boiling water and, watch in hand, would strike it again when it was time to take them out.”
Walls remain in the entrenched attitudes among many Chinese and foreigners even today: the parents who forbid their daughter to marry a foreigner, locals who are easily whipped up into anti-foreigner nationalist frenzy, foreign expats who after many years in the country can’t count to ten in Chinese. One quote from the book could be lifted out and inserted into any current Western account of China, as we have all known expats like this: “The foreigner was rarely tempted to try Chinese food and many of them lived a lifetime in China without every tasting roast duck or sweet-and-sour pork.” What distinguishes Crow’s narrative from the more amateurish or narcissistic China expat bar-scene ramblings that crop up in print today are precisely such telling, ironic, anguished observations of the East-West divide playing out at the personal level.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, but China in the 1980s was only just creaking open its doors to foreign travelers for the first time since Carl Crow’s era – initially to package tours and later in the decade to individuals. But if the Government was ready to receive foreigners and their hard currency and quickly slapped together expensive hotels for this purpose (where backpackers on a shoestring often had no choice but to room), most of the rest of the country was not. It was a forbidding place, necessarily so, with the largest population in the world living in a bleak wartime-style economy resultant upon decades of the catastrophic policies of a lunatic leader. To handle so many people under such extreme conditions, such a society was structured very differently from what we are accustomed to, with drastically curtailed lifestyle choices (the very term “lifestyle” would have been incomprehensible to the Chinese then). I sampled the tail end of this era on my first visit to the country in 1990 for an exhausting two-week, six-city tour. The place was fascinating in its utter strangeness. China is a much more foreigner-friendly place these days, to be sure, but it has been a long time in coming.
Enter in 1986, among that first wave of solo foreigners allowed into the country, Jane and Claire, two spoiled young American females fresh out of college, neither previously having set foot outside of the US. They embark on what they planned to be a yearlong worldwide tour, beginning with an indefinite stay on the Chinese Mainland. After a brief stopover in Hong Kong, they last a respectable six weeks before they are spat out, their global romp aborted, after Claire literally goes psychotic and has to be accompanied on the flight home by a registered nurse, as grippingly recounted in Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (Grand Central Publishing, 2010).
Things get off to a panicky start with a turbulent flight, before even landing in Hong Kong (neither has much flying experience). Things only get worse amidst the squalor of their Chungking Mansion cubbyhole when Jane threatens to head right back home and needs to be slapped into reality by Claire. I worried the author’s histrionics would prevent me from making it past the first ten pages. But it turns out to be a clever foil framing the rest of the narrative, as we discover it’s Claire who has the bigger difficulties adjusting to their shockingly different reality on the Mainland. While the two are shunted around from one mysterious, disorienting location to another by shady locals who may or may not be trying to take advantage of them, dealing with hostile hotel staff with no English ability, unpalatable food and nothing to do, Claire grows increasingly paranoid not just of the Chinese but the CIA, Mossad and other nefarious agents she thinks are out to get her. She stops eating and becomes ill and delusional. By this time we are in the more hospitable surroundings of a Western hippie enclave in the city of Guilin. Just as Claire meets and falls for a hot male traveler from Germany, Claire wades naked into a river in a suicide attempt. The tense final pages of this psychological thriller-cum-memoir have Jane and the German frantically contacting the police to locate Claire. They find her and things are brought to a breathless conclusion.
For another tumultuous perspective on the 1980s, we have Robert H. Davies’ memoir, Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China (Mainstream Publishing, 2002). Englishman Davies recounts an enviable and exciting time for foreigners in China’s Western Xinjiang Province, when it was still very much China’s Wild West, running bars and tourism ventures and marrying a beautiful Muslim Uighur woman, before he is arrested for hashish smuggling on partly trumped up charges and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. These years were the height of the Xinjiang hashish trade, with all kinds of characters drawn to the area like a magnet, and Davies and those busted with him were the first group of expats to be made an example of.
The Chinese prison experience is all about regimentation and psychological control – but then so is the entire Chinese education system and workplace. “Re-education” camps from whatever time period in China, prisons, schools, etc., differ only in the degree to which they seek to erase the personality and substitute sheer mindlessness. There is never any “re-education”; there is simply mass lobotomization achieved without invasive surgery. I’m pessimistic China will ever really open up in any substantive way: the population has been dumbed down to such an extent that I fear it may lack the imaginative capacity to change. However, the fact Davies survived with his mind intact is very reassuring and reason for faith in the creative human spirit. I have met enough wise Chinese as well to know that the system doesn’t crush everyone’s mind and spirit.
Apart from these lessons, I should add that Davies’ account is very well written – particularly the chapters during his prison stay when he applies the same colorful detail to his regimented life in prison as he did to his love-making with Sharapet back in Xinjiang. It is a highly readable if unlikely introduction to Chinese culture and society – from within the belly of the beast. In fact it is probably the single most eye-opening book on China I have ever read.
Partway into Chris Taylor’s novel Harvest Season (Earnshaw Books, 2010), there’s an unlikely sex scene, so fleeting, awkward and intimate I’m hesitant to describe it except to say that while not a direct cause, it heralds a sequence of events that gradually spin out of control. Matt, the narrator, a British expat living in an idyllic mountainous region of southwest China, is torn between two women, Fei-fei and A-hong, but unable to act decisively with either of them. Likewise the community of hippie expats wile away their days hanging out in Shuangshan, their self-styled Shangri-La, doping themselves up with beer, ganja, acid, ecstasy and anything else they can get their hands on. The direct catalyst that moves events toward the inexorable, Greek tragedy-like conclusion is the arrival of a Western anarcho-hippie contingent from Thailand, aka. the “Family of Light” or “Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes,” extreme lifestyle communalists, dreadlocked vegans who live in tepees, don’t believe in bathing and also don’t know what they’re getting into by setting up shop in China. I myself have attended two Rainbow Gatherings, in Kentucky in ’93 and the French Pyrenees in ’03, enough to know what they’re about and found them likable but a bit too strange for my own comfort. Euro and American local authorities already have to contend with them (I recall the police helicopters hovering over us at the Kentucky gathering); one can imagine the incomprehension of both the authorities and locals in China.
Taylor’s novel breathes with such realism I’m convinced it all really did happen as recounted. I begrudge fiction publishers their standard but nonetheless annoying and disingenuous disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction and any resemblance…”, when it’s plain the only thing that’s been altered is the names of the characters. Which brings up the question, why fiction? What makes it qualify as a novel? The telling, of course: the melding of distinct characters and events into a unity forming a compact little universe and an unforgettable atmosphere that lingers. Taylor’s narrative is laid out in uncomplicated linear format, as if no other narrative style was appropriate for sorting out reality amidst the drug-and-booze haze. The style is clipped and concise, plain but economical (with the occasional tendency to telegraph too much into characters’ thoughts), the characters memorable in their own way. Harvest Season exemplifies why novels do a much better job than nonfiction at conveying the character of the times. It’s not exactly a cross-section of expat life in China but a small slice of some very odd and oddly endearing people.
The same can be said for the recent novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 2015) by Quincy Carroll, with which Harvest Season shares a few features: the obscure Chinese locale and gritty backwater atmosphere, eccentric, forlorn Western characters drawn to China as if to their alter ego, and a sequence of unlikely events that bring things to a decisive and, if not quite disastrous, resonant conclusion. With its three central characters, there’s an intimacy to Carroll’s novel that would lend it to a screenplay or to the stage: Daniel, an idealistic loner in his twenties from the US but fully in his element at a rural college in Hunan Province; Bella, one of his students, a goofy, naïve loner in her own right who gravitates to foreign male teachers for companionship; and Thomas, an aging, cynical American with a crippled leg and a dodgy CV, seeking out English teaching jobs wherever he can find schools willing to hire him and who winds up at the same college. Expats who have taught in China have all encountered these three types in one incarnation or another.
The action turns around Thomas and Daniel’s bristling dislike for each other, and Bella’s conflicted and rebuffed attempts to enter their lives. Under friendlier circumstances, had they for instance one of the teepees in Taylor’s Harvest Season to play around in (Daniel builds an Aeolian harp on the rooftop of his campus apartment), the trio might have made for an intriguing hippieish threesome. But they bring out the worst in each other. When Thomas accidentally smashes Bella in the face with a pool cue while drunk in a bar, the delicate balance between the three begins to unravel, with consequences I won’t reveal here. It’s a moving narrative, as Carroll succeeds in limning his central characters with deftly etched realism (drawn I assume from actual people encountered in China). We even feel affection for the thoroughly unlikeable Thomas and somehow grow to care about what happens to him. I hope Carroll can pen a sequel, with the old grouch’s subsequent adventures in Thailand where he winds up at the novel’s end, final resting point of so many aging expats whose will to live remains stubbornly intact.
Also enriching the novel is the strong supporting cast of secondary characters we get only a glimpse of but are curious to know more about. In a lengthy middle chapter, one of the novel’s most successful set pieces, Daniel escapes to the city of Changsha over the Christmas holiday to visit an acquaintance, Neil, a tall heavy-set wannabe businessman from the UK. The haphazard, contingent manner in which these expat types with a more tenuous philosophy of social commitment hook up and interact is beautifully captured, as Neil fails to respond to Daniel’s efforts to reach him by cellphone upon his arrival. Daniel tracks him down near his apartment, only to be dragooned to the private English conversation school where Neil teaches for an impromptu class to fill in for a missing teacher — and to ogle female students of the sort familiar to expats who have taught at such venues: generally in their 20s and 30s and single, their primary goal to land a foreign teacher boyfriend and only secondarily to improve their English. Daniel is hit on by two of them in short order; a “buxom” and “raven-haired” Zenith, and the manager as well, with alluringly unkempt hair, Angela.
Daniel proceeds to Neil’s favorite bar run by an expat friend where a Christmas costume party is in full swing. The owner’s Chinese wife is in a bikini made out of coconut shells and grass and doesn’t speak English. Of course, it’s rarely expected of the expat to speak Chinese, though Daniel is fluent; Thomas’s ability is confined to a few phrases. Daniel gets into a testy exchange, which almost erupts into a fight, with a morose Welshman fond of sarcastically belittling fellow expat teachers (Carroll employs a dialogue style without quotation marks appropriate to the novel’s aesthetic):
Daniel frowned. Do you have some sort of problem with me? The man lit a new cigarette, then ashed it into his mug. What do you do? Wait, let me guess. A teacher? The question was dripping with condescension. As a matter of fact, yes. You have something against teaching? The man shrugged. He picked up an imaginary object and presented it to the table. WATER, he drawled, loudly. Either because he was drunk or trying to act like a fool, he spoke like a moron, distinguishing each syllable. JUICE, he continued. The girls regarded him uncomfortably, staring down into their cups, like tea readers. He pointed to a spot on the table in front of Daniel. APPLE. BANANA. Seriously, he said. The job is an absolute joke.
In a fitting conclusion to the evening’s tawdry events, Neil departs early for his studio apartment with a woman he picked up at the bar and refuses to let Daniel in later because it’s interrupting their sex. Daniel hops in a taxi and gets off on a random street to spend the rest of the night with a prostitute in a hair salon cubbyhole.
We are left with complex, nuanced portraits of the three main characters. Daniel is young, good-looking, enthusiastic about his job, and respectful of his students, his host country and its culture. He also doesn’t quite fit in, which is why he’s happiest at this most undistinguished rural college, with the space to do his own thing and few other foreign colleagues to get in his hair. He keeps the one student who tries to get closer to him at arm’s length, and we’re not left with much confidence, finally, that he is able to connect intimately with anyone, apart from sex workers. Thomas is depicted as an unsavory misanthrope who at this point in his life is thoroughly unfit for teaching, if he ever was. Yet there are glimpses of friendliness, when for instance he grudgingly allows Bella into his apartment to cook a meal for him (this after the violent injury he gave her). Gradually we see that his negativity seems to originate from a deep, unspeakable pain within, rather than from sheer hostility, and if one got to know him well enough another more likable side might emerge. Bella for her part is neither beautiful nor academically gifted but endearing nonetheless in her steady childlike optimism, a purity of character one often encounters among Chinese youth, less so among their more jaded counterparts in the West. Carroll refrains from praising or judging his characters but simply lets them loose on the stage and stands back to let us watch. Though it’s not a didactic or moralistic tale, there are lessons to be learned on the communication pitfalls of even the best-intentioned Westerners who venture into China.
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More book reviews by Isham Cook:
Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel
The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China