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Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Sedaris in Beijing

Last week I attended a David Sedaris reading at the Bookworm, along with seemingly everybody I know within Beijing's closely interwoven expat community. It was a packed house--the event had been sold out for weeks--and the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement at the presence of such an eminent American writer, who'd traveled all the way out to entertain us with his acute observations of middle-class America.

These days, Beijing receives visits from increasing numbers of high-profile Western artists and entertainment stars and business moguls--Mark Zuckerburg recently stopped by, setting off local conversation regarding his Chinese-American girlfriend--but visits from non-China-focused writers remain rare. The previous evening, Dave Eggers had given a talk and mentioned that some of his books had been translated into Chinese, leading me to wonder: What sort of Western-obsessive Chinese reader would find Eggers' unique brand of post-modern, ironic and American self-obsession entertaining? (At least, that from his earlier work.) Similarly, how many locals would find Sedaris' witty remarks regarding middle American couples fighting in Paris amusing?

The answer, it seems, is not that many, seen in the meager handful of Chinese-Chinese in the audience. (There were, however, plenty of Western-Chinese.) Chinese do take to certain fields of Western popular literature: plenty of Times best-sellers show up in Mandarin, and books on finance and self-help are omnipresent. But humor is extremely culturally-specific, and it would take only the most inspired Western culture devotee to bother trying to appreciate this brand of it.

But in this case, Eggers and Sedaris have come because the Bookworm, an English-language bookstore and hub for Beijing's foreign intelligentsia, has paid their enormous speaker sums to drag them over. While China obviously possesses its own rich literary tradition, sadly, the vast majority of us are incapable of appreciating it. Consequently, literary life for the Chinese expat remains fairly barren, other than during the Bookworm's annual festival. Starved for such events as we were, the audience seemed particularly appreciative of Sedaris' presence.

Sedaris' reading went over very smoothly. Most of the stories would be familiar to those who've listened to his 'This American Life' contributions, but he also read out a very funny story that they turned down, about the way self-important Americans pronounce foreign words. He also shared some miscellaneous musings from his diary (excerpt: On seeing a “Marriage is between a man and a woman” bumper sticker on a handicapped woman's car, Sedaris concludes that drivers eligible for handicap spaces should not be allowed political opinions). One story was read off of his iPad, and I feared for the machine's battery life (hold on, glowing orb!). Somewhat oddly, he checked his watch frequently--it looked like something of a nervous tic--but gave the impression that he was keen not to over-run his pricey scheduled reading time. Nevertheless, the crowd gave him a rousing applause at the end of the reading.

What followed was most interesting: Sedaris asked the crowd for advice regarding procuring 'weird' postcards in Beijing, and made several references to his experience of Beijing to date. He had just arrived the night before, and explained that the experience had been quite a shock.

“If I'd come from London, that might have been different, but the fact that I just came in from Tokyo made it particularly jarring,” he said. “I was on the subway and I felt pressure against my back, as if someone was pushing me! I thought maybe somebody had fainted and fell on to me.” The crowd burst into hearty peals of laughter.

“Coming from the airport I'd wondered: 'Why are all these people running into the middle of the street?'” he continued--a reference to China's rather anarchic traffic culture--and the crowd roared madly with mirth.

Sensing that he was on a roll, he turned to a visit to a local supermarket. “At the counter, the lady had said the equivalent of 'Hey Ronnie, would ya pass me some quarters?', and her colleague threw some--overhand, not even underhand--to her.” At this point his face was bright red, a hand half-covering his face, and he struggled to contain himself. “I had to move my head out of the way…otherwise I might have been hit!” The swell of laughter was far greater than anything during the readings, and some audience members struggled to contain themselves.

Now, for some who'd only just arrived in China, or those who have never strayed from their American suburb-like enclaves, perhaps the experiences that he described may have struck them as genuinely unusual. But for anyone who's passed even a few days here, by China standards, the situations he described are extremely mild. As it is, he is staying in one of the country's most exclusive hostels, in it's most Westernized region. If he thought those moments he'd described were 'crazy', I thought, someone should take him out to the city's fringes, where the city's modern surface quickly fades and your average, non-cosmopolitan China emerges. Better yet, take him to the rural southwest, where my travels have brought me face-to-face with roasting dogs on spits and traffic maneuvers that would have looked good in Tron, were they not performed by peasants in bread vans. For someone so capable of spinning good yarns out of the tiniest minutia of domestic life, I imagine that Sedaris would quickly acquire years' worth of material within a few hours.

But the point, I believe, wasn't that the scenes Sedaris was commenting upon were particularly novel to we expats, nor was his delivery especially clever. We were laughing because this was David Sedaris, one of America's most beloved humorists, experiencing a tiny sliver of the many oddities that make up daily life in China, and we were experiencing it through his eyes. Though we ourselves may not normally laugh at such quirks, all of us have at some point and, given Sedaris' fame and innocent, wide-eyed ignorance, are able to indulge in such laughter once again. There was nothing anti-Chinese at all about his tone, or the response of the audience, though I do wonder whether the Chinese audience members might have found the spectacle offensive at all.

Having spent three and a half years here, Sedaris' comments reminded me of how few things that happen in China ever surprise me. I look out on to the same streets that I walked wide-eyed when I first arrived years ago, and all of it now seems so commonplace: the old men in Mao suits chatting outside, the carts of shouting street food hawkers, the freelance recyclers with their bicycle-carts piled precariously high with refuse. All of it, where once so utterly strange, is now the everyday. Even a few years ago, if I'd seen a car pull up on the side of the highway and a man hop out and pee against a tree, I might have uttered “What on earth is he doing?” But at this point, I acknowledge the forthrightness with which he expels his urine and walk by. The ferocity of the crowds that push and shove (in China, one never has to travels far to discover crowds), is met with gruff acceptance, and only the occasional outburst, on my part.

This familiarity extends to individual habits too. That guy in the gym lifting weights in ass shorts and flip flops? I've christened him “Ass man.” The drying cabbage which my neighbor stacks outside his door? Well, what else is one to do with cabbage in winter?! Subtly and only slightly conscious of its happening, we assimilate into everyday life; the cognitive adaptations in our personal understanding of what constitutes 'odd' only become aware to us when new visitors from abroad share their wide-eyed perceptions.

Some of it becomes old very quickly. The same familiar tropes arise, about the hilarity of Chinglish signs (I still find them funny, but only the exceptionally unfortunate ones), and the tackiness of nouveau-riche furnishing and fashion. I generally try to explain the reasons for such phenomena as part of my self-designated mission to broaden others' understandings of China. But it reaches the point where one naturally seeks out other foreigners who've lived here long enough to get beyond these early observations and who seek or possess a deeper understanding of the country. In that way, Beijing's foreign society tiers off somewhat into different levels of China expertness. What many of we young Mandarin-speaking foreigners lack in career experience and salary standing, we seek to make up for this in terms of local knowledge and gossip. Ours is a snobbery of yuppie ethnographers; while many of us would readily admit aspirations to join the ranks of those decidedly non-China savvy elites, we are particularly admiring of those who are able to do so from humble 'foreign explorer in China' beginnings. For many of us, that hero is Peter Hessler, who turned two years teaching English in the Peace Corps in rural Sichuan into a staff writer position with the New Yorker.

But sometimes, it's nice to check the China expertise hierarchy at the door and be united in our appreciation of the vast abundance of things about this society that we find so mind-bogglingly weird. In a way, it's all a bit Jerry Springer-like, where the extreme behavior of the locals makes us feel more secure about our middle-class Western civility. However, it's certainly not one-directional; I've has conversations with Chinese friends in which we've shared laughs over some of the oddities discovered while living abroad (for example: the blandness of English cuisine, the excesses of Japanese etiquette). Finally, it also invites one to ponder how much longer we'll be able to play this role of haughty expat. Who knows? Soon enough, Chinese expats will be doing the same thing, laughing amongst themselves in their literati circles in New York and Delhi about the quaint habits of these 'uncivil locals.' Perhaps they already are.

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