In one of the early stories in Unsavory Elements, Alan Paul writes about riding with his family on a bus climbing a barely navigable road towards a 15,000 foot pass that will take them to their hotel near the Wolong Panda Reserve. Although based in Beijing, Paul wishes to provide his family an authentic China experience outside of the ex-pat bubble. It is late at night and they have been on this dark, bumpy road for hours when:
"At nine o’clock that night we burst into cheer at the sight of a sign that read, in English and Chinese, 'Welcome to Wolong, Home of the Pandas' – but we were not at the hotel yet. We were still on a rubble pile and the road in front of us was a gaping hole.
As I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction, I felt my face growing warm and wet. It was blood gushing from my nose. The dust, dryness, altitude – and stress – had gotten the best of me. I pressed a towel to my face as Wang spoke to some scurrying workers.
'Only one driver for machine,' Chris said, indicating the huge backhoe sitting by the side of the hole, 'and he’s eating, or sleeping. They trying to get him. His name is Lu'."
What Do Foreigners in China Want?
The incident illustrates a thread running through all the tales in this ambitious assemblage of the most talented and diverse China hands you are likely to find in one literary collection. In the same way that Freud famously asked the question “What do women want?” so Tom Carter, the editor of this work, inquires of this group of ex-pats: "What are you doing here?"
Alan Paul simply wants his family to reach safe harbor for the evening. But where there are desires, there are forces invariably standing in the way of satisfaction. In Paul’s case, this consists of a giant hole in the middle of the road. How the obstacle is overcome in this case says as much about the spirit of the Chinese people as the impediment itself says about the state of modern China.
Kay Bratt wishes to buy a pair of shoes for one of her favorite residents of an orphanage at which she volunteers, but confronts a rather curious challenge:
"At the shoe store, they found a pair of sandals they both agreed on. As they moved around the shop waiting for the salesperson to retrieve her size, Kay realized they had once again accumulated a crowd of curious onlookers. When she stopped, they stopped; when she moved, they moved.
The saleswoman at last returned. As Kay bent in front of Xiao Gou to fit the shoe on her, the crowd closed in. Kay hurriedly put the first shoe on Xiao Gou and bent around to get the second shoe. With the second shoe in her hand, she glanced around to give the inquisitive people a reprimanding look as she felt around for Xiao Gou’s other foot. Reaching wildly with unsuccessful efforts, she finally looked down for it and then it hit her – there was no other foot.
Xiao Gou has only one leg."
Matthew Polly wants to study kung fu at the Shaolin Kung Fu Center. Unfortunately, he rather quickly runs out of money and must find some way to finance his education:
"I decided I needed to start earning. But how? My only marketable skill was the ability to speak English, but none of the monks could afford to pay for lessons. Imports were a non-starter; China is the world’s factory and has little need for (nor can it afford) most things made in the West.
So, like many other aspiring Western entrepreneurs, I focused on China’s burgeoning, dirt-cheap manufacturing industry. Exports would be my salvation. I settled on t-shirts. One of the most popular tourist items was a series of shirts with hand-painted images of the Shaolin monks in kung fu poses. They retailed for $3 a piece at Shaolin, and I figured I could get them wholesale for $2. Crappy concert tees in America sold for $20. These were hand-painted! I was certain they would fly off the shelf."
We read with amusement and sympathy as his scheme unravels, not the least because of greed.
Derek Sandhaus wants to prove that foreigners can handle their baijiu, but comes to realize too late that pride goeth before the fall:
"Five chinese and five foreigners walk into a Chengdu hot pot joint with two bottles of baijiu. If this is the beginning of a joke, it is a joke to be made at my expense. There is a price to be paid for overconfidence. I had walked into the Sichuanese sweatlodge with a prideful heart and been humbled. But I went downswinging – swigging, rather – and didn’t fall alone."
Another Point of View
One method by which to assess the varied desires that drive the writers in this anthology is offered by Aminta Arrington. Struggling with raising her family in China while teaching at Taishan University, she realizes the differences between her own difficulties and those of her new neighbor:
"I am tired, I thought. Teaching full-time…parenting three kids…trying to cope with life in a new culture with no dishwashers or carsãBut what about her? 12 hours a day, seven days a week at her fruit stand, with only short breaks to prepare meals for Bing Bing, her husband and her father-in-law.
We talked of our hometowns, hers a small village a few hours away, mine a small town so many worlds away. Our new life in China was as much for my husband and it was for our children, but I knew her life had but one singular purpose: to give Bing Bing a chance at a better education and a better existence. "
The Moral of the Story
The sentiment expressed here is the key to unravelling the theme of this amazing anthology. Desires are to be judged and even obstacles overcome in proportion to the purity of heart of those engaged in the activity. This is why we think a moral universe should punish selfishness and reward altruism. If this does not always happen in life, we want it to happen in art. The reader desiring such an ethical outcome will close the last page of Unsavory Elements with satisfaction. For despite its ribald title, the work offers moral lessons as obvious as those in Plutarch's Lives.