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Unsavory Elements: A Q&A with Tom Carter

Unsavory Elements, an anthology edited by Tom Carter, is a treasure trove of some of the most renowned Western China-hands sharing their ephemera and memories of the Middle Kingdom. The collection features 28 true stories from writers like Deborah Fallows, Derek Sandhaus, Graham Earnshaw, Jon Watts, John Campbell and more. Carter will share his experience putting together this collection and what it means to be an “unsavory element” at The Bookworm on May 21 7:30pm.

Here, Carter answers a few questions about the book, the changing nature of expat life in China and more.

Mengfei Chen: What is the idea behind Unsavory Elements? Why did you think it was important to collect these stories?

Tom Carter: I conceived the anthology as a fan of the China expat genre; I wanted to read more stories from all of my favorite authors here beyond what they’d already written in their past memoirs – new experiences, or experiences that have been reconsidered over time. From a publishing perspective, I saw it as an opportunity to bring all of China’s foremost foreign writers together to collaborate on a single book, which turned out to be an unprecedented project.

MC: How did you go about gathering the pieces? What was the editorial/publication process?

TC: I began orchestrating the project back in the spring of 2011. I compiled a long-list of writers who I thought would be ideal for the anthology, and then started reaching out to them one by one to gauge their interest. I didn’t know any of them personally, but everyone was surprisingly accessible and, even more surprising, enthusiastic to be part of this grassroots project. The book didn’t find a home, however, until I met with publisher and author Graham Earnshaw in Shanghai the following year, shortly after I moved there. As a backpacker, I was a fan of Graham’s remarkable travelogue The Great Walk of China and had originally tapped him only as a contributing writer. But while discussing my proposal with him over sushi in Xintiandi one evening, he expressed an interest in actually being its publisher. After that, I spent nearly another year working with the writers on their essays, nurturing their topics and shaping the overall theme of the book into what it is.

MC: Major themes?

TC: There’s a thematic progression throughout the entire anthology, and within each story, that offers the readers a wide range of experiences and emotions that all foreigners in China will confront at one point or another, such as ethical and moral conflicts here in New China’s immoral/amoral landscape. For example, the book opens with a western teacher being offered vast sums of money to write college entrance essays for his Chinese students, and closes with three foreign men bargaining in a brothel.

MC: Do you think the stories in the book are representative of the expat experience? It seems to be Anglophone and disproportionately skewed towards writers (understandable) but was there an effort to include a more diverse group?

TC: The whole point of the anthology was to capture as many aspects of our lives here as waiguoren, outsiders, as could be written about, from traveling to doing business to getting into mischief to working the daily grind to falling in love to raising a family. It’s all in there. As far as the writers themselves, admittedly most are westerners from America, Canada and UK, and most are established writers, though as the editor I was intent on including emerging talent as well; unpublished writers I knew through the blogosphere who have been overlooked by Big Publishing. Overall, the anthology’s diversity comes not in the demographics but in the stories and experiences; no book about China expats could possibly be more diverse than this.

MC: What is your favorite story in the collection? Why?

TC: Of course that’s an impossible question to answer; it’s like asking me which is my favorite province in China. As a reader I enjoy family-friendly fare, like Alan Paul’s road trip with his children in Sichuan, and Susan Conley’s story about exploring the street food scene, as much as I do more risqué reading, such as Nury Vittachi’s bar-room bamboozle.

MC: What are some ways that you think the expat experience has changed or stayed the same over the years?

TC: A majority of the stories in this anthology are contemporary and current, yet I wanted them all to have a timeless feel; experiences that could happen to any of us today just as they did, say, a decade ago. For example, Pete Spurrier’s humorous story about stowing away on a series of trains from Xinjiang to Hong Kong did actually take place over ten years ago: and as a seasoned traveler of trains in China I can personally attest that every situation he encountered – from being stared at by the masses to having to sleep on a littered floor because all the hard seats were taken – will happen to you today; only the price of the ticket has changed.

MC: Is China is becoming less and less of a Wild West for Western expats? Many of the stories in the book just don’t seem possible today.

TC: I flatly disagree. As the editor, I made a concerted effort that everyone’s topics were either timely or timeless. Matthew Polly getting in over his head in a venture because he failed to understand the dynamics of Chinese business practices…that story occurred in the 1990s, but I’m sure it’s also happening to some poor niubi as we speak. If anything, China’s opening up and rapidly growing economy has made it even more of a Wild West for expats: Susie Gordon’s decadent night out in Shanghai with several obscenely wealthy fu er dai is current, and you can’t get more wild than her story.

MC: Many of those featured in Unsavory Elements have left China. (Mark Kitto famously explained his reasons for doing so in his Prospect article.)  Why do you think that is?

TC: Mark Kitto in fact never did leave China. It’s an open secret that he’s still here, living contentedly at Moganshan as he has been. And his example alone perfectly illustrates that no matter how badly foreigners may at times want to leave China, out of exasperation or pollution or whatever, there’s something special about this country keeping us here. And even if we do end up physically leaving China, it will always have a place in our hearts. The fact that many of the anthology’s writers no longer live in China – yet are able to continue to write so passionately about it – is a profound testament to China’s hold on us.

MC: Can you explain the cover art? What’s going on in it?

TC: This brilliant piece of original artwork was provided by Nick Bonner at Koryo Studio and Dominic Johnson-Hill of Plastered T-shirts in Beijing. It was pure serendipity that Dominic showed it to me one day just as I was hunting for cool cover art for the anthology. The retro-Cultural Revolution style art contrasted with the modern CCTV tower, and the blue-clad masses waving to the garishly-dressed, fat, hairy foreigners, speaks volumes about how Chinese and Westerners still perceive each other, a theme echoed throughout the book. Really, Unsavory Elements would be incomplete without this cover art.

MC: What is your personal China story? What brought you here? Do you still find that there is something here that keeps you around?

TC: My personally story started out with a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t come here out of any deep interest in Chinese culture, or to capitalize on the economy. I just wanted to travel and go on adventures. But I didn’t (and still don’t!) have any money, so I responded to a teaching ad on Craigslist…an ad which turned out to be a scam; my first week in China I found myself jobless and homeless. But I eventually landed on my feet and saved up enough money to travel around for what turned into 2 straight years and 56,000 kilometers across all 33 provinces.  The photos I took during that epic trip were published in my first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People. I’ve left the country only twice since I first arrived here in 2004, to live in Japan for a year and to travel in India for another year, but I always found myself inexplicably coming back to China. I now am married into the culture and call China home.

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