‘Unsavory Elements’ explores China from eyes of outsiders

By Ling-Mei Wong


When Tom Carter came to China in 2004, he had no idea it would become home for the next 10 years.

“Unsavory Elements: Stories of foreigners on the loose in China,” Earnshaw Books, 2013.

“Unsavory Elements: Stories of foreigners on the loose in China,” Earnshaw Books, 2013.

Carter arrived as an English teacher in Shandong and Beijing, then undertook a backpacking adventure spanning all 33 provinces of China in 2006. The two-year journey was documented in his 2008 photography book “CHINA: Portrait of a People,” showing the diversity of the 56 Chinese ethnic people groups.

In his latest book, “Unsavory Elements: Stories of foreigners on the loose in China,” Carter collects 28 stories by expatriates in China.

“Foreigners come here to pursue their dreams, to have experiences and adventures that are just not possible in the West,” Carter said. “The past decade in China has been its greatest decade of change. I never planned on making China my home, but the way America has become in the last decade, I don’t have an immediate desire to return.”

“Unsavory Elements” looks at China with brutal honesty and a sense of humor. Matthew Polly’s account of nearly losing his shirt from selling Shaolin kung fu T-shirts in “Paying Tuition” is side-splittingly funny, while “The Shoe” by Kay Bratt illustrates the life of a disabled child in an orphanage.

However, the two stories that have generated the most buzz among readers and critics take place during nights of excess: “Empty from the Outside” by Susie Gordon about her evening out with wealthy sons of businessmen in Shanghai, and “Unsavory Elements” by Carter on a lads’ party gone wrong at a brothel.

“I have never read anything else about a foreigner having direct involvement with China’s elite,” Carter said of Gordon’s chapter. “It’s a rare experience that resonated with a lot of Westerners who never conceived China was this wealthy.”

“As for my own story, it’s a bit controversial. But it would have been disingenuous to leave a story about prostitution out of this anthology, as I wanted to cover all the experiences foreigner have in China, including the naughty ones.”

The book has enjoyed rave reviews for its candidness from the Western press, but a decidedly cooler response from Chinese media. As editor, Carter had hoped to convey the universal nature of putting down roots in a new place, rather than stressing the otherness of the foreigner experience.

Suan tian ku la (酸甜苦辣) was always the overall arching theme I had on my mind when I was editing this anthology,” Carter said. “I wanted the stories to capture the sour, bitter, sweet and spicy of our experiences here. This demonstrates China is like anywhere in the world — nothing is purely great experiences, but it’s not all bad either.”

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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