Seeing China through Multiple Lenses

Unsavory Elements edited by Tom Carter, the author of China: Portrait of a People, has twenty-eight short memoirs that offer a balanced view of China from expatriates who have lived and/or traveled there.

But the title almost misleads because not all of the authors come off as unsavory elements—most are there to learn and not to judge. Only a few of the stories in this collection were written by expatiates suffering from some form of sinophobia.

I also value books that teach and I think that many of the stories in Unsavory Elements did that refreshingly well.

For a few examples, first there was Paying Tuition by Matthew Polly who wrote: “One of the first things I had learned during my stay was that the Chinese love to negotiate. They love it so much that even after an agreement is reached, they’ll often reopen negotiations just so they can do it all over again.”

I have visited China many times and—unlike most Westerners—I enjoy negotiating, but I didn’t know about the reopening gambit. Next time, I may want to give that a try and extend the fun.

In Communal Parenting by Aminta Arrington, I learned that the “Chinese have a fundamentally different relationship with their history than we Westerners. History is a subject we study in schools,” and that history is not connected to who we are.

“Not so for the Chinese,” Arrington writes. “History here [in China] is not book knowledge. Rather, their history is carried along with them as they walk along the way, an unseen burden, an invisible shadow; unconscious, and therefore, powerful.”

Kaitlin Solimine in Water, For Li-Ming writes about the five-months she stayed in China as a teenager in a high school, home-stay program, and it was her first time outside of the United States. For those few months, Li-Ming was her Chinese mother.

Here is the gem that Solimine shares with us: “That’s the thing about Chinese mothers: hidden behind their maternal expectations and critical diatribes are women who will fight to the death for you. As soon as I called her Mama, Li-Ming would be my strongest ally for the only months I knew her.”

From Graham Earnshaw in Playing in the Gray we discover: “There were no rules. Or rather, there was only one rule: that nothing is allowed. But the corollary, which reveals the true genius of China’s love of the grey—in contrast to the black and white of the West—is that everything is possible. Nothing is allowed but everything is possible. It’s just a matter of finding the right way to explain what you’re doing.”

Reading Empty from the Outside by Susie Gordon we see that the “New China isn’t shackled with the Judeo-Christian Morals of the West.”

Some in the West may see this lack of Judeo-Christian morals in China as a bad thing but that depends on how deeply entrenched a Westerner is in fundamentalist Christian morality. China—believe it or not—does have a moral foundation that many in the West turn a blind eye to. If you are married to a woman who was born in China and grew up there during Mao’s puritanical repressive twenty-seven years as its leader, you might understand what I mean.

In conclusion, there is Tom Carter’s signature-title piece. In his short Unsavory Elements, Carter says in one passage, “Claude admittedly couldn’t care less about Chinese culture; he was simply, like so many other foreigners in China—myself included—aimless and desperate for an income.”

There is so much more to this book called Unsavory Elements than these few examples. If you are have an open mind that isn’t infected by sinophobia and you want a better understanding of the Chinese, I highly recommend this collection.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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6 Responses to Seeing China through Multiple Lenses

  1. chester t earle says:

    More people should read books like this with an open mind to better understand other cultures.

  2. sheryl i says:

    I want this book. I’m always interested in reading about other cultures and in this one, there are many stories instead of one.

  3. Behind the Story says:

    You have definitely piqued my interest.

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