David Sedaris thinks Chinese people (and food) are repulsive, which makes me sad, because I used to like David Sedaris.
What do you do when a literary idol decides to take a huge metaphorical dump on the culture and civilization from whence your ancestors emerged? I'm not sure I've figured out the answer to that question yet. Because master mock-and-droller David Sedaris, who's unequivocally one of the great essayists of our time and a personal favorite of mine, has chosen to take his parodic talent and point it at China, its people and its food. Except the piece he's written for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper is less amusing than it is venomous, xenophobic and dissipated.
Which, to be fair, describes many of his genuinely funny essays as well.
The difference, I think, is that in his adventures in France, Japan and, well, Raleigh, North Carolina, he is usually as self-deprecating as he is other-; he comes off as a general, equal-opportunity misanthrope in the classic Molièrean vein. He also actually bothers to create human characters and enliven them with dialogue, and often wit — they become his comic foils, or he theirs, in a widening outspiral of mannered absurdity.
Not so here. Sedaris announces from the outset that he dislikes Chinese food — "I'll eat it if the alternative means starving" — and thinks of visiting China itself as an unpleasant prospect: "'I have to go to China.' I told people this in the way I might say, 'I need to insulate my crawl space' or, 'I've got to get these moles looked at.' That's the way it felt, though. Like a chore."
But he goes anyway, after spending a week in vastly more civilized (but no less exotic) Tokyo — which he describes as sublime, delicate, and sanitary. And then, China. China, as described by Sedaris, is a land of phlegm-hawking savages who eat animals that no right thinking person would consume, and eat parts of those animals that no sane person would consider, preparing and presenting them in the most foul and revolting fashion possible. Also, Chinese people shit everywhere, they practically bathe in the stuff, and of course they have no problem eating shit, or at least things that eat shit.
In fact, shit, in its many forms — stinking, floating, abandoned, stepped in or, in his mind, coyly tucked into entrees — ends up being the closest thing Sedaris finds to be the satirical counter his prose always seeks out. He and shit engage in a kind of capoiera-like combat ballet throughout the 2700-odd word piece (though mucus and urine do occasionally enter the fray); by the middle of the piece, Sedaris's preoccupation has become less shocking than annoying, and by its final throes, less annoying than tedious. (He's brilliantly noted before that "Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires"; the larding-up of his narrative here with shit references points to what this essay really is, e.g., bulk filler with limited taste and nutritional value.)
So look, David: Chinese people eat weird food. There is a saying that "Chinese will eat anything with its back to the sky," and another that says "Chinese will eat anything with legs but a table and anything with wings but an airplane." These are Chinese sayings, I might point out — a sign that Chinese aren't exactly unaware that the "delicacies" that send prim Westerners off to their fainting couches are a little off the beaten path. But Chinese are far from the only culture that eats weird food, and fuck, given that you're from North Carolina, have you looked at what American Southerners traditionally eat? No? Chitlins! Possum! Muskrat! Bull testicles! Oh wait, you're from suburban Raleigh, so probably not, given that most of the more exotic dishes in Southern cuisine, like in most culinary traditions, was the offspring of necessity — invention midwived by destitution. If you're hungry enough, rodents will start to look tasty, as will chicken claws, stray innards and balls. And once you've eaten them long enough, all these things evolve into nostalgic signifiers — especially after you've pulled yourself out of poverty. They go from things you have to eat all the time to things you choose to eat once in a while, to remind yourself you don't have to eat them all the time anymore.
And this is what's truly ugly about your piece, David: For someone who's spent a lot of your career puncturing middle-class aspiration and self-delusion, your essay is unpleasantly blind to the fact that all of China is just a few generations removed from dire, desperate want, and that many people, like the peasant family you had such a bad experience sharing a meal with, continue to subsist on an annual income that's a tiny fraction of what a sophisticated awesome American literary superstar like you loses in his sofa. In a country of 1.3 billion people, even having braised pig's stomach to occasionally go with your daily rice is a fucking luxury.
But you should note: Those 1.3 billion people has a standard of living that's skyrocketing upward. They're crawling up and out of the economic muck, while we seem determined to drag ourselves down into it. And more and more of them are learning English and traveling abroad and reading international newspapers like the Guardian. So, just sayin': The next time you're eating at a fancy New York restaurant near a table of tourists from Shanghai...maybe you shouldn't turn your back on your Coke.