My timing to visit my friends in Shanghai really couldn’t have been better. Not only did I get to join my friend in an orphanage opening, I also got to attend a book reading for the new book: Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners Loose in China. It’s a series of short stories written by some of the most famous China expat writers about their experiences in China. Like Peter Hessler, Matthew Polly, Deborah Fallows and others.
I have been hearing about the book for awhile (as one of my favorite bloggers is a contributor) and I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy. But living in the boonies doesn’t really afford me the opportunity to get the latest book published by a small press. So when I heard about the book signing, I made sure to arrive in Shanghai in time to see it.
I mean, people that love living in China? Love traveling? Actually learn the language and then writing about it?! These people should basically be my best friends. It’s hard to find an expat that really enjoys living in China much less a writer. So I was really excited to go and soak in the creativity.
This was just a small event, with 3 of the 28 contributors and the editor. It was in a small English language bookshop and the event, held in the cafe section, had maybe 20-30 listeners. Mostly on the older side.
And here’s where it got weird. I was kind of expecting this camaraderie from the group. A kind of “We’re all in this together” feeling of foreigners who have chosen to make China their home. (And in fact the editor asked for a show of hands of who considers China their home. More than half raised their hands.) After all, living in a small city in China, every foreigner is kind of your friend. You can talk to them easily, help each other out, and even if you don’t know them at all, you always smile and nod as you pass each other in the street. Even in Hangzhou, the big city I live near, I have never felt shy or strange when talking to or meeting a foreigner.
But I felt weirdly awkward at the signing, right from the start. I was the only non-Shanghai resident, and I guess that’s what living in a big city does to you. I could clearly make out cliques in the room and it was like everyone was trying very hard not to be impressed with anyone else. At one point the editor asked one of the authors a question and the author replied, “What am I, on the Chinese book tour again?” His meaning being, what a softball, typical question. I think he realized that it was a little rude because after he answered he said, “no, it was a good question though.” Which only made him come off as sounding more condescending.
I was hoping to meet some people, have some interesting conversations but that didn’t happen at all. I liked Tom Carter, the editor, the most because we had similar experiences. During the talk he explained why he came to China, not because of a love for China but rather because he wanted to travel and explore and teaching english was a way to do that. Then he found himself loving Chinese culture and is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a newborn.
But after the talk, I asked him to sign my book. “We have a lot in common,” I said as he was signing it. “I also came to China just as an excuse to travel.” He didn’t say anything back, was kind of looking past me and around the room as he handed the book back. “Thanks for coming!” he said rotely still not looking at me.
Maybe I expected too much. Or maybe I’ve been out of the literary circles too long to remember how to work the cliques. But the whole thing was unsatisfactory. Or I guess it just became painfully obvious how much of a small-town hick I’ve become, unable to navigate the big city social circles.
But regardless, the book is great. I’m about halfway through and I enjoy the stories. There is a huge variety, and each story is short enough to almost want more. (“Then what happened?” I found myself thinking after a few of the stories.) And I love recognizing some of my own experiences in other people’s stories. I would definitely recommend the book and while the whole experience was weird, I’m still glad I went.