A Response to David SedarisJapan, China, and old China hands.
My reaction? Yawn. Although some might object to the crass manner in which Mr. Sedaris points out certain facts about China, none of them are blatantly untrue. He has cherry-picked some of the more disgusting facts about China, but many of them are the very things that the Chinese deplore about their own society. I can’t recall off-hand any Chinese person who explicitly encourages blowing snot on the street—however widely it might be accepted.
One could easily point out some similar defects in the Japanese society that he so reveres. For example, squat toilets are still widely used throughout Japan, especially in public areas because they are considered more sanitary than sit-down toilets. Many sit-down toilets still come with signs instructing people not to squat on the toilet seat so clearly there are still people who do that. I’m also not sure that a country where elementary school kids will use an entire roll of toilet paper to wipe their butts with is an indicator of a healthier society than one that treats defecation as an ordinary part of life.
One might also note that Sedaris uses Chinese food as a foil to mock Western gastronomic over-delicacy.
All in all, there are a thousand reasons why many of the comparisons Sedaris makes are unfair or biased in some way. However, I don’t think that his essay was meant to be a fair and balanced look. It sounds to me like he was taken around by a bunch of old China hands to many “authentic” locations. Unfortunately, a streak of perverse masochism runs through China hands. The dirtier, the more disgusting the experience, the more we purport to enjoy it because it’s “authentic.” I still recall my favorite Peking duck restaurant in Beijing—a filthier, more decrepit restaurant I have never met. But I loved the food, and I loved the atmosphere. At the very least, Sedaris traveled widely, and experienced a lot.
In contrast, what I found more offensive was a book I saw while browsing the Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Titled “Yuck!” or something like that, it was written by someone who was purportedly a traveling food photographer. However, a cursory inspection found that about 70% of the “disgusting foods” were from one night market in Beijing. If you’re going to make a snap judgement about a country’s food, at least visit more than one place. By that standard, Sedaris passes.