Thank You David Sedaris

Satire finally pays off.

It all happened so fast. When I wrote my satire of David Sedaris three months ago, I didn’t think anyone would read it. When it comes to writing for this blog, that’s usually a safe bet.

But this time something happened. From what I can piece together, Amy, an intern at Sinica, read it and sent it to Kaiser Kuo, who, among other things, writes the back-page column of the Beijinger. Kaiser put out an APB and got my e-mail from his cousin Arvin Chen, who was my TA in film school. Small world. Kaiser, who had been looking to step down as the back-page columnist, asked if I was interested in taking over the column and I almost shat myself before saying yes. After some back and forth with Jonathan White, the managing editor of the Beijinger, I was confirmed as the new back-page columnist on September 22.

During this time, Kaiser also put me in touch with Holly Chang, the founder of Golden Bridges. One of their projects, Project Pengyou, seeks to create a social network of Americans who are living or have lived in China. They needed writers so I signed up.

All of this happened in three months, and none of it would have been possible without the witticisms of one David Sedaris. So thank you David Sedaris. And thank you Amy the Sinica intern, Kaiser Kuo, and Arvin Chen for making the kinds of simple connections that change and enrich our lives. Thanks to fellow writers Caitlin Cashin and Oscar Moralde for their wonderful edits that contributed greatly to the tone of piece. Thanks to everyone over the years who has supported my writing or edited my work or helped me relax during bouts of writer’s block. Thanks to all of you, people now give me money to put words together.

What This Means

I have had noticeably less time to write for The Hypermodern since taking these two jobs, though I plan to post some of my writing for the Beijinger and Project Pengyou here. I’m not the only writer here to feel crunched for time. Others are busy with school or their jobs and I don’t feel comfortable pressuring anyone to write. So, updates to this site will likely become less frequent (though they have never been frequent) but the posts will still mainly be carefully-crafted essays about China and expat life. Our writers now back in the States will cover everything else.

Writing a Wrong

Since so many people read my satire, a couple standard deviations more than anything else I’d ever written, I’d like to clarify a couple things:

First, I do not hate David Sedaris. In fact, I regularly read his work in the New Yorker.

Second, I don’t deny that everything he wrote in his piece in The Guardian is true, and some of his formulations are quite splendid. But just writing what is true does not make said writing funny or responsible.

What prompted me to write my satire was the lopsidedness of Sedaris’ piece. As GoChengdoo put it perfectly, “It’s like reading a China-newb’s first blog post, but with more sophisticated writing and copyediting.” I agree with everything except the editing part. You can compare, for example, Sedaris’ piece in The Guardian, which was published July 15, with his piece in the July 11 & 18 issue of The New Yorker, which details the author’s struggle to learn foreign languages. The latter is unrelentingly funny, self-deprecating, and never malicious. The closest Sedaris gets to offending is a Holocaust joke which is quickly qualified. To me, this is Sedaris at his strongest, using humor not to discredit, but to highlight the absurdity of our lives.

It is unsurprising, though no less disheartening, that those who have praised Sedaris’ piece in tweets and comments share many of the qualities of his piece: an obliviousness to Chinese history, an obliviousness to Chinese cultural history, and more than just a little pride in being a Westerner. They defend whingeing about China as “classic Sedaris!” as a Bolshevik might praise the deportation of millions to gulags as “classic Stalin!” Forgive my bluntness but just because you were dragged to a book signing by someone smarter and more well-read than you does not make you an expert on Sedaris’ writing.

I don’t want to make my bones through the denigration of others. I meant my satire piece as an admonishment, not a slap in the face. It is a reminder that as writers we should try our best to place things in perspective and empathize with our subjects, especially if we expect a lot of people to read our work.