Ashley / Chengdu / China in the media / Food

Dear Mr. Sedaris, It’s Chicken Feet. Get it Straight.

David Sedaris, author, essayist, humorist and satirist extraordinaire used to be cool in my books. I enjoy listening to him on “This American Life” and often found myself doubled over in laughter during his bits, I enjoyed his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, I even enjoyed listening to him speak as an pre-cursor to Chengdu’s International Bookworm Literary Festival this January. But then, Mr. Sedaris in all of his witty surmising recently wrote an article for the Guardian, turning his sights and sarcasm onto China, Chengdu, its hygiene and its food – I didn’t find him to be very funny.

The article, titled, “Chicken Toenails, Anyone?” recounted some “highlights” of Sedaris’ visit to Beijing and Chengdu this winter. In the article he tells tales of duck tongues, rooster blood, phlegm, turds and urine – oh, and how Japan is so much more wonderful than China. As if harping on hyperbole isn’t enough he has to go and reinforce the age old face-off of China vs. Japan. Sedaris writes:

Another thing one notices in China is the turds. “Oh please,” you’re probably thinking. “Must you?”

To this I answer, “Yes, I must”, for if they didn’t affect the food itself, they affected the way I thought about it. In Tokyo, I once saw a dog pee on the sidewalk. Then its owner reached into a bag, pulled out a bottle of water and rinsed the urine off the pavement. As for dog faeces, I never saw any trace of them. In Beijing, you see an overwhelming amount of shit. Some of it can be blamed on pets, but a lot of it comes from people. Chinese babies do without diapers, wearing instead these strange little pants with a slit in the rear. When a child has to go, its parents direct it towards the kerb or, if they’re indoors, to a spot they think of as “kerby”. “Last month I saw a kid shit in the produce aisle of our Chengdu Walmart,” a young woman named Bridget told me.

This was the seventh day of my visit and so desensitised was I that my first response was, “You have a Walmart?”

First off Mr. Sedaris, no foreigner, no matter how long they’ve been here, is desensitized to the “developing hygiene” of a place like Chengdu. Second off, comparing phlegm to an freshly shucked oyster is hardly original as a good hearty loogie (especially at the dinner table) is known here by many a Chengdu expat as a “Chengdu oyster.” Finally, there is absolutely no reason to compare Tokyo to Chengdu. There is already enough embedded hatred between the two countries they don’t need foreigners fanning the flames.

Just like you I am constantly grossed out by babies peeing in Carrefour or having to dodge various forms of human excrement on the sidewalk. But, minus one blog post on food cleanliness in China, its not what shapes my time here and its not what I choose to share with people who know little about a place like Chengdu. Writing on such topics gives in to sensationalism and it is unfortunate that such a well known writer, regardless of his comedic leanings, chooses to do so.

Mr. Sedaris unfortunately moves on to food in China:

At the Farming Family Happiness, rather than being carved, the rooster was senselessly hacked, as if by a blind person, a really angry one with a thing against birds. Portions were reduced to shards, mostly bone, with maybe a scrap of meat attached. These were then combined with cabbage and some kind of hot sauce.

He Continues: Here, though, I thought of the sanitation grade, and of the rooster, pecking maggots out of human faeces before being killed. Most of the restaurants in China to me smelled dirty, though what I was smelling was likely some unfamiliar ingredient, and I was allowing the things I’d seen earlier in the day – the spitting and snot blowing, etc – to fill in the blanks.

Sedaris picking on food in Chengdu, is like a stranger picking on one of your younger sibling. It’s ok if you do it because you’re family, but for an outsider to start digging in is just not ok. Nothing Sedaris writes about, from the hygiene to the cuisine, is untrue, just a bit unfair, and not very funny. Our local expat forum Gochengdoo posted a pretty half-hearted response, but more interesting and thought provoking (especially the comments) was nerve.com’s blog post. Ben Reiniga writes:

Isn’t it terrible when you realize that two things you really like hate each other? Like when your best friend confesses he’s always kind of hated your boyfriend, or when a cute dog gets in a fight with your dog as you’re walking him. Or, when one of your favorite gay satirists confesses his weird, biting hatred of the world’s most delicious food. 

Commentor “duh” writes:

Please don’t try to argue that Sedaris’ article is acceptable because that’s how all of his work is. The fact is that context counts for a lot, and in this context–a travel essay written for a major periodical–I think Sedaris’ attitude is pretty disgusting.

I think Reiniga and “duh” hit it right on the head. I’m disappointed with Sedaris. I also understand that he’s neurotic and picky and biting and that’s part of his brand. When Sedaris writes his pieces about homosexuality or French culture, language and cuisine he does it from a variety of experiences and accounts, and they’re funny because of that insight. But the isolation that Sedaris draws his observations from is what sets him so off the mark. UNESCO wasn’t stupid when they named Chengdu a gastronomical city. The food is good here and I feel the need to do some damage control.

There is already enough of an uphill battle for foreigners living in Chengdu, just tonight at dinner with our friends of esteemed Fresh Ginger fame (and the person who first got me onto this whole Sedaris-hating-on-China article) we were ridiculed more than once. The staff made fun of our accents, of the amount of dishes we ordered and even the shoeshine guy got going on the size of our noses. But you know what, the food was wonderful and we devoured it happily despite all of the attention we attracted.

We don’t need some self-proclaimed whiner bashing something that gives us comfort far from home. It just provokes the increasingly common opinion (especially in the latest CNNgo.com pidan scandal) that “Americans are fat xenophobes with terrible dietary habits.”

You’re not fat Mr. Sedaris, but you have a pretty terrible stance on Chinese cuisine, a serious business in this culture; so much so that in some parts of the country a morning greeting would be “have you eaten yet?” China prides itself on is its ability to not only eat but to host at the dinner table. Remember, this is a country that uses every part of the animal because at one point they couldn’t afford the “standard butchering of the leg, the breast, etc.” And I must say, America isn’t immune to its own food hygiene hiccups, do you second guess your local diner? Most disappointingly though would be your inappreciative stance towards your local and expat hosts here in Chengdu, who seemed to be eager guides in cultural assimilation. I have taken many a Chengdu-newbie to their first hot pot and they consumed with an open mind, many who were less traveled and worldly than you, which leads me to believe maybe you should stick to more sterile locales closer to home.

Or just keep picking on the French, you’re good at that.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Sedaris, It’s Chicken Feet. Get it Straight.

  1. Interesting commentary. I agree that Sedaris is pretty short sighted in his observations of China in this article. It doesn’t sound like he really ate anything, since he was always ruining his appetite with his own anxieties. The last issue of the New Yorker, however, did feature a really funny Sedaris piece about learning languages. I laughed my typical David Sedaris-inspired belly laughter. I think nerve.com has it right. I am still a fan of both China and Sedaris–even though both come up wanting from time to time.

  2. Pingback: WTF Sedaris! | fresh ginger

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