Interview: Tom Carter, Editor of “Unsavory Elements”, Talks About Life in China

Interview: Tom Carter, Editor of “Unsavory Elements”, Talks About Life in China
Apr 09, 2014 By Cynthia Lopez ,

China is one of the top places for expats to work; the number of expats in China has increased significantly over recent years. As companies from abroad flock to China, foreigners from all over the world are moving here in pursuit of bigger, more lucrative career opportunities. Not only do expats in China gain valuable international work experience, they also gain their fair share of unique experiences and stories.

I interviewed Tom Carter, editor of Unsavory Elements, to get more insight into his new anthology about life as an expat in China. Here are 10 questions I asked him:

Tom Carter. Photo by Yixiao Tan

1) How did you go about collecting all the stories? Why did you pick those particular authors? Do you know any of these people personally?
I did not personally know any of the Unsavory contributors; I was just a fan of their respective memoirs and wanted to read new stories from them, especially the sketchier ones. Luckily, most of these authors were familiar with my photography book CHINA: Portrait of a People, so I had that name recognition going for me. Then, once I had a long-list of writers assembled, it was only a matter of finding a publisher. Graham Earnshaw, an “Old China Hand” based in Shanghai for 30+ years who authored one of my favorite travelogues, The Great Walk of China, also runs a boutique publishing house (Earnshaw Books), so it was an ideal match. That process took over a year, then I had to spend nearly another year editing everyone’s essays.

2) How much involvement did you have editing the stories that they chose to write? Did you feel a connection to them?
I took a bit of an untraditional approach to editing this collection. Most commercial anthologies are just compilations of previously-published book extracts; their editors mere curators whose only role is to obtain licensing rights. I, on the other hand, sought to commission all-original writings whereby I worked closely with each contributor, nurturing their topics and crafting their words with them. So, yes, there was that intimate connection. As opposed to the fragmented feel of the average anthology, in Unsavory Elements I wanted there to be an obvious continuity between each piece that, when read as a whole, took the reader on a single journey through “expatdom” in China, from the disorientation of new arrivals to the brusque assurance of a lifer.

3) There has been some controversy around your own story and I have to ask, why did you choose to write about that experience? And why did you tell it in the way that you did?
I wrote about my visit to a brothel because it is one of the most absurd experiences I have ever had. It started out as a typical boys’ night out – which, whether you want to admit it or not, is a time honored tradition among lads the world over – and yet by the end it all goes wrong in every conceivable way, but in a surreal way that can only occur in a place like China. As far as the oft-criticized slapstick tone of my writing, I simply sought to capture the hilarity of that night exactly as it occurred. To turn it into some tragic event about human trafficking just to appease the humanitarians would have been disingenuous. I’m a story-teller and red-blooded male with a mischievous streak, not an ambassador.

4) To what extent do you feel China has changed since you first moved here? Do you believe being a foreigner in China today is different from what it was when you first arrived?
I have been fortunate enough to witness the greatest period of progress and development in China’s history. This past decade I watched entire cities of “lao fangzi” get razzed and steel-and-glass skylines erected in their place. Modernization at the expense of cultural identity; cultural revolutions circumvented by a digital revolution. And yet, in spite of all this change, being a foreigner in China is really not much different today than it was in the 1800s or the 1960s; we are still “waiguoren”, outsiders. Many of us call China home, and yet there is always a looming dread of being expelled at any moment. But if one can get past that, I can’t think of any more fascinating and exhilarating country for foreign expats.

Tom Carter in Tibet. Photo by Eelco Florijn

5) So you spent approximately two years backpacking 35,000 miles across all 33 Chinese provinces. First, how was that? Second, what was your most memorable experience?
It was a very humbling experience, whereby I set out on the road with limited language skills, and an even more limited budget, with no itinerary or direction accept the intention of fully immersing myself in Chinese society. At the full mercy of China, I was beaten, arrested, almost died (more than once), lost, lonely but never alone… It was the adventure of a lifetime, happy moments constantly balanced out with harrowing ones, every experience memorable.

6) Since you’ve seen an ample amount of China, what would you say is the best place to visit in China? (Besides typical tourist spots, such as Beijing)
It’s probably the most frequent question I receive from prospective travelers, and yet the most impossible to answer. When you’ve been everywhere and seen everything, like I have, it’s not easy to narrow down your affinity for any one place. But I will say that the far western regions (Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang) offered the most challenges (and ensuing adventures) for this budget backpacker, and some of my best photography also came out of those provinces.

7) You are also a photographer, what do you aim for in the photographs you take?
My first four years in China I had a camera in my hand every moment of the day, anywhere that I went. I didn’t have any particular aim (cute pun), I just wanted to capture life in China exactly as it presented itself to me. Street photography in its purest form! During my travels across the 33 provinces I also became aware that the Chinese are not a single homogenous race, so as I drifted from province to province I made it a point of documenting China’s ethnic diversity, including the 56 minorities, through portraiture. My photography book, CHINA: Portrait of a People is a visual record of all the people I encountered during my journey.

8) Are you planning on moving back to the US in the future? Or would you be content living in China for the rest of your life? What keeps you in China?
I don’t think I would be content living in any one place for the rest of my life. China is home for the time being, certainly more so than America (I’ve only been back to the States once in the past decade), but I’m eager to keep exploring Asia (I lived in Japan for a year in ‘08 and spent ’09 backpacking across all of India). I have my sights on Hong Kong for my next destination, but finding work there might be tough.

9) What are you working on next?
I’d like to keep editing anthologies; I have a variety of China themes in mind. There’s also a fiction novel that I have been working on at my leisure for several years. And I’m seeking backing for some photography projects that I’m hoping to pursue. Overall, the goal is just to stay creative and do my part to keep literature alive.

10) Lastly, what should every expat do before they leave China?
Get lost! Literally. China is developing fast, but there’s still good old fashioned adventuring to be had. Leave your GPS thingies at home, pick a random spot on a paper map and just go there. Or spend a weekend wandering in the countryside beyond your city walls, making friends with every single person you encounter. This is what I did for two straight years, and it resulted in some of my most cherished memories.

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Keywords: author of unsavory elements Expats in China Tom Carter


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The fornicating foreigner who visits brothels. Whooptiedoo. State-approved literature. I won't be reading it, that's for sure. Oh, he's a pioneer all right... in being a dancing bear, pandering to Chinese stereotypes of laowai. He's even got the silly hat. I swear, he looks just like the Dream English dude from YouTube children's videos. My training center uses them every day.

Apr 12, 2014 15:37 Report Abuse



What you expect from a Yank? Pandering to the blindingly obvious is as good as it is going to get...

Mar 12, 2015 23:39 Report Abuse




May 30, 2018 14:53 Report Abuse



I have this book. Several of the stories, like Carter's, are "unsavory" and might be too provocative for sensitive readers, but overall it's an inspiring read, Dan Washburn's and Susie Gordon's essays in particular.

Apr 11, 2014 02:12 Report Abuse



I agree, get out there and visit cities on your own without the tours and "get lost". Take a bus or a subway and see the people and walk the beat. I've found paint, plaster, tools, wood and screws for my projects by just poking my nose in the stores and looking for what I need. It's there if you look for it. People are so helpful. Been to 36 cities in China and went to all corners of the maps. It was great and I will remember it all. I would not have been anywhere else these past 12 years.

Apr 10, 2014 07:34 Report Abuse



Obviously hasn't heard of the current exodus due to pollution.

Apr 09, 2014 18:10 Report Abuse



I could not get past this: " foreigners from all over the world are moving here in pursuit of bigger, more lucrative career opportunities."

Apr 09, 2014 08:28 Report Abuse



not sure what your problem is. Many of us here do aspire to more than just teaching, even if it means roaming the country for years, as Carter did, before we find our niche. Good for guys like him, boo on you for being such a downer.

Apr 11, 2014 02:13 Report Abuse