South of the Clouds, Exploring the Hidden Realms of China by former New York Times reporter Seth Faison is a balanced and interesting China expat memoir. Why? Because the book includes the background to the stories he reported on and also intimate details of his private life. He writes about some fairly edgy stuff like dating a transsexual woman and visiting dodgy massage parlours, and he does it without being a gratuitous lecher or a tiresome anti-discrimination warrior.
Arriving in Xian, home of the Terracotta Warriors, in 1984 to study Chinese, Faison describes a city of bicycles and poverty. He eats rice, boiled vegetables, and fat with traces of meat attached at the campus canteen filled with Mao suit wearing students. He befriends the woman serving the food with some thoughts of romance, although she hardly sounds glamorous in her dirty smock. This is Faison’s period of innocence: everything is new and interesting as he takes his first steps learning the language. Most Chinese women seem afraid of him and when he dates a Westernised girl, she disappears on him, marrying a rich man in Beijing to realize her dream of studying in America. Faison learns that much happening in China is below the surface and not directly spoken of. This inspires his career:
“I became a journalist and used my calling card to peek into the mysteries of Chinese politics, the netherworld of underground business, and remote areas of the vast countryside. Uncovering secrets became my domain.”
One of these mysteries, discussed in the prologue, is that of the poor farmer Yang who discovered the buried Terracotta Warriors. Faison wants to interview Yang, but finds there are two men claiming to be Yang — both making money off their reputation by signing coffee table books. He then has to interview both and to find the real Yang, a real riddle.
After Xian, Faison moves down to Hong Kong and gets his start as a journalist at the Standard. In the job ‘interview’ he proves himself by going beer for beer with the crusty British editor. He fights his way up from the bottom of the industry and ends up in Beijing for the South China Morning Post. The chapters which follow about the Beijing Spring of 1989 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre are readable but don’t include anything not well-covered in other books.
I found the chapters on the less famous stories he covered more interesting. The Golden Venture was a ship that got stuck on a sandbar just off the coast of New York in 1993. Inside were hundreds of Chinese hoping to enter the US illegally, ten died from either hypothermia or drowning. The conditions on the boat were terrible and Faison goes to Chinatown in Manhattan to investigate. He had moved back to the States and got a job at the New York Times but this Golden Venture story once again draws him to China. Back in China as the chief of the Shanghai Bureau for the Times, he follows up, travelling to Fujian province where the unfortunate Golden Venture passengers came from.
“A mysterious region of craggy mountains and a rocky coast, Fujian sent millions of immigrants to America. For reasons no one could pin down, more than ninety percent of smuggled men and women came from one small area of Fujian, three counties near the provincial capital of Fuzhou.”
What is surprising is that people in Fujian believe in the American dream and will pay $30,000 to people smugglers to take their sons and daughters on a terrible, dangerous journey. Faison interviews relatives of young people smuggled to America and immediately after wonders whether this will cause them trouble with the local mafia.
One of the best chapters, Into the Pirate’s Den, is about a businessman involved in pirating DVDs.
“He had greased-back hair and the puffy face of a man who lived on cigarettes and alcohol.”
Faison writes a newspaper story about this character, Wang, who sees nothing wrong about intellectual property theft. (I’ve made my own views on buying pirated DVDs clear.) Wang then calls Faison, wanting him to set the record straight in a new article, because the one he’s published has got Wang in hot water with the authorities. Faison is very conflicted.
“Besides, Wang’s crimes were similar to those of hundreds of other Chinese businessmen. The main reason Wang was punished was that he made the mistake of talking to me. I felt bad. If I had more guts, I would have warned Wang during our interview that I disagreed with his assessment of pirating and that my article would reflect it. Face to face, I was afraid to be direct. I preferred the Chinese way, to up the appearance of friendliness and to stick the knife once I was out of sight.”
In Beijing, Faison has a relationship with Jin Xing, a famous dancer and transsexual. I doubt Faison would have dated a transsexual back in America so why did he do it in China? Well, as an outsider it’s easier to date another outsider. Living in China when you don’t look Chinese is a constant struggle against Satre’s bad faith: it’s hard not to lose your own identity and just play the role of the foreigner, which is what you are always first seen as. In Jin Xing, however, Faison finally finds a Chinese person who can see him for him:
I felt she could see me as a person, not as an American or as a reporter. I felt accepted by her.
Satre’s waiter is the classical example of ‘bad faith’ — playing the role that you fall into in the world and not being your real self. The following is from a Psychology Today article written by Neel Burton.
“One example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a waiter who does his best to conform to everything that a waiter should be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. However, in order to play-act at being a waiter, the waiter must at some level be aware that he is not in fact a waiter, but a conscious human being who is deceiving himself that he is a waiter.”
Now it’s not hard to stop being a waiter, but to stop being a foreigner or laowai you have to leave China altogether. The role is overwhelming, full time — only in your apartment can you become you again, outside you the laowai, crudely put — the entertaining Westerner who eats hamburgers, parties hard and places their parents in a retirement home. Now being laowai isn’t so bad (or at least didn’t used to be) you are given special treatment, and so some enjoy taking on the role, it can be much better than the role they had back in their own country. But for a sensitive person like Faison not being seen as who he is becomes a problem.
In general Faison seems successful with Chinese women, and that he is not a very masculine type is no handicap in China, even an advantage. He also talks about his visits to dodgy massage parlours when lonely on the road. He feels guilty about this, and so should be congratulated on having the courage to write about it. I don’t know if there was any kickback against him by the PC crowd, his eventual wife encouraged him to write this book, so I don’t think she would have minded his admissions. It was only because of the chapter on his massage addiction that I heard of South of the Clouds. I read an article in the LARB China Channel by Robert Hoyle Hunwick about sexpat writing, which unfairly included South of the Clouds. After reading I bought Faison’s book online, read the massage parlour chapter — and then didn’t bother with the rest of the book until about a year later — I’m glad I came back to it.
The title “South of the Clouds” refers to Yunnan, the Southwest province with a mild climate and a lot of minority cultures, a place where Faison visited before moving on to find greater spiritual awakening among the Tibetans. He recounts seeing a Tibetan sky burial where a body is hacked up and left for the vultures, instead of being horrified he finds some peace in witnessing this. The Tibetan stories are readable, but not especially original.
Faison realises it’s time to leave China in the early 2000s. He sees a lovely woman reporting on CNN and decides he has to meet her. That woman, Siobhan Darrow, became his wife. I intend to one day read her book Flirting with Danger, about her experiences reporting from Russia. Faison does a good job of analysing the doubts working as a journalist and being a foreigner in China can create. Westerners who have lived in China will encounter familiar complicated feelings about their experience well articulated here. Faison was in China in the 80s and 90s: the less hyped decades between the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and China becoming a huge player on the world stage. This book gives a good picture of those times, but will probably never be widely read, which is a shame. As yet, Seth Faison has not written another book.