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.