Expats on the loose in Beijing

Updated: 2013-03-19 05:38

By Jules Quartly (China Daily)

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Expats on the loose in Beijing

Expat writer Matthew Polly recount his China experiences at the book launch of Unsavory Elements, part of the Capital Literary Festival Beijing. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily


A group of foreigners gathered over the weekend to speak about their new anthology. Jules Quartly finds out why they think China is the new land of opportunity.

Tian'anmen was still buzzing with politicians and tourists on Sunday morning as the two sessions wrapped up under China's new leadership and trumpets sounded for the "Chinese dream".

Nearby, at the glossy Capital M restaurant overlooking the iconic square, some unsavory foreign elements had gathered.

The writers, editors and publishers of a new anthology provided an alternative spin on the achievements of the Party and the development of the country on the day the annual political congress concluded.

Meeting for what was dubbed an "expat-tacular" panel discussion, part of the Capital Literary Festival Beijing, five authors introduced their contributions to the anthology Unsavory Elements, which presents 28 expat writers, some well known others less so, recounting their China experiences.

The book's publisher, China polymath and forum moderator Graham Earnshaw introduced the writers by saying expats are oft referred to as "laowai" ("old outsiders"), which neatly sums up their position at the periphery of Chinese life, even though the floating population has become an increasingly significant segment of the general population.

Whether they are English teachers, diplomats or businessmen, editor of the anthology and author of China: Portrait of a People, Tom Carter said the stories provide an antidote to the plethora of "useless" business and guide books that are outdated a year after they are published because they "immortalize our China experiences and dreams".

Carter said he took the anthology title from his own contribution to the book and is Party terminology for ne'er-do-wells. In his tale about a merry band of English teachers visiting a bordello, he realizes in this case at least that foreigners fully deserve the epithet of unsavory elements.

Even so, the book provides a variety of outlooks on China from the perspective of outsiders, many of them touching and life affirming.

Former Wall Street Journal columnist and the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing, Alan Paul gave the first reading, about what turned into an adventure too far in the wilds of western Sichuan with his young brood.

He said taking his kids into relatively unexplored parts of China had been an attempt to engage them in the "real" China, as a form of cultural understanding, far removed from the confines of the expat bubble in major cities where life is relatively globalized.

Audra Ang, former Beijing correspondent for The Associated Press, appeared to discover China in bite-sized pieces and characterized her experience as "from world peace to sweet peas" through food metaphors, while exploring the harsh reality of Tibetans in her The Partitioned Pot.

A more light-hearted China story was Matthew Polly's adventures as an aspiring martial artist and businessman, which he turned into the bestseller American Shaolin. He even showed the panel some of his martial moves before pulling up with a muscle twinge.

"I found that this dream of foreigners coming in and becoming business moguls is actually harder than you think and that's my story," he summed up.

Kaitlin Solimine arrived at the forum with her doting "Chinese dad", an impressively lively man in his 70s who she adopted as a 16-year-old during a home stay in the capital two decades ago. His presence spoke eloquently of the friendships forged between laowai and locals, while Solimine pondered the theme of nostalgia among expats.

Having lived in the country for more than 40 years, Graham Earnshaw's perspective was that each generation of new China arrivals thinks of itself as pioneers. "You could have released an expat anthology 70 years ago, and the experiences and interactions would be remarkably similar."

He said the point of the book was that it provides perspective and "recognition that the present is erected out of the past".

"It also serves a bridging role, providing the outside world with a view of China, and Chinese with a perspective on how the outside world sees them."

Former US marine Matt Muller also spoke about the mind-boggling pace of change in China and recounted his voyage, from flunking med school to belatedly finding redemption as a writer.

American Tom Carter neatly summed up this theme of foreigners finding themselves through pursuing their China dreams at the end of the forum.

"As the land of opportunity, we have kind of lost that. China is the new land of opportunity and that is why so many people like myself have come here in unprecedented numbers to reinvent themselves."

Contact the writer at julesquartly@chinadaily.com.cn.