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David Sedaris on China and Chinese food

Robert Lauriston Jul 16, 2011 02:30 PM

"Hugh ... said he couldn't eat sea horses because they were friendly and never did anyone any harm, this as opposed to those devious, bloodthirsty lambs whose legs we so regularly roast with rosemary and new potatoes."


  1. Robert Lauriston Jul 16, 2011 02:36 PM

    "... the rest of the world isn't like America, where it's become virtually impossible to throw a dinner party. One person doesn't eat meat, while another is lactose intolerant, or can't digest wheat. You have vegetarians who eat fish and others who won't touch it. Then there are vegans, macrobiotics and a new group, flexitarians, who eat meat if not too many people are watching."

    5 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston
      Nyleve Jul 19, 2011 07:24 PM

      Hilarious. I think you either REALLY like Sedaris or you don't. No point dissecting his commentary - he's an equal-opportunity offender.

      1. re: Nyleve
        HillJ Jul 20, 2011 04:07 AM

        Nyleve, what a refreshing comment.

        1. re: HillJ
          Nyleve Jul 20, 2011 07:27 AM

          Actually one of my favourite Sedaris pieces is about how he and his partner, during a time when they were apartment hunting in Paris, took a trip to Amsterdam and visited the Ann Frank house. Sedaris ends up spending the entire tour imagining this site - an iconic holocaust memorial of sorts - as if it were a piece of real estate for sale. He envisions renovations etc. I thought it was hysterical but I'm sure some would have found it extremely offensive. He cares little for political correctness and I appreciate that.

          1. re: Nyleve
            linguafood Jul 20, 2011 08:02 AM

            That's one of my favorite stories, too.

            1. re: linguafood
              HillJ Jul 20, 2011 08:23 AM

              Ditto. Sometimes (we) take ourselves too seriously. Sedaris, both David & Amy hit my funny bone.

    2. g
      gothlig Jul 16, 2011 02:59 PM

      I've always enjoyed reading and listening to David Sedaris. This piece was a real exception.

      15 Replies
      1. re: gothlig
        buttertart Jul 18, 2011 07:37 AM

        Join the club. I've travelled a bit in China and a lot of what he says is complete balderdash.

        1. re: buttertart
          chicgail Jul 18, 2011 07:07 PM

          Folks, stop trying to defend something from the evil David Sedaris. Most of what he says begins with something true and evolves into complete balderdash. And therein lies the humor.

          1. re: chicgail
            free sample addict aka Tracy L Jul 18, 2011 09:53 PM


            1. re: chicgail
              soupçon Jul 19, 2011 07:32 PM

              There's a line between humor and racist invective and Sedaris went WAY over the line.

              1. re: soupçon
                HillJ Jul 20, 2011 04:09 AM

                Racist? Ugh.

                1. re: soupçon
                  chicgail Jul 20, 2011 04:42 AM

                  I didn't think this was his best work, but Sedaris? Racist?

                  There are different cultural mores and standards in different parts of the world. To say so (and to say so from the perspective of someone like Sedaris who acknowledges that he is just a little OCD) is not racist.

                  You are entitled to your interpretation. Is this the first thing of his that you've read/heard from him?

                  1. re: linguafood
                    Lizard Jul 20, 2011 04:57 AM

                    It would also be worth pointing out that Sedaris is addressing national and regional characteristics (caricatured, yet) and not racial ones. There is a distinction to be made here. Also, 'invective' is simply too strong a word to be applicable here. (And if soupçon really think that the colourful descriptions are singular to this case, s/he has obviously not read Sedaris's descriptions of his brother...)

                    1. re: Lizard
                      sedimental Jul 20, 2011 08:59 AM

                      ...........s/he has obviously not read Sedaris's descriptions of his brother.........

                      You mean Paul- "The Rooster"? Every family has one :D

                      1. re: sedimental
                        hill food Jul 20, 2011 06:50 PM

                        shit yeah dude, little fucker's like born of motherfucking aliens I tell ya.

                        and I would agree with Lizard it's more of a regional assessment, out here in middle of nowhere US these characteristics are certainly not unheard of.

                        1. re: hill food
                          sedimental Jul 20, 2011 07:01 PM

                          Exactly. Laughing at the irony in culture, traditions, dysfunction, family, work, whatever....it makes a moment in time humorous -in an otherwise very serious world. I say...........good on 'em. There are plenty of English, Irish, Chinese, American, Japanese, etc. "spitters", farters, weird brothers, mothers that drink too much, pervy uncles, holiday traditions, etc. that we *should* call attention to and get a chuckle from. Equal opportunity funny.

                          1. re: sedimental
                            greygarious Aug 3, 2011 10:37 AM

                            He can be very poignant as well, as in the stories about his mother's dying of lung cancer. And his commentary after 9/11 really hit home: Originally from upstate NY, then raised mostly in NC, as an adult he lived for a long time in NYC. He said something to the effect that he lives in Paris, but it is not his home.
                            Home is the place where, when something bad happens there, your instinct is to drop everything and get back there to be with, and try to help, those who are suffering. He is judgmental and mocking of no one so much as he is of himself,
                            inherently shy, and with a very big heart.

                            1. re: greygarious
                              mpjmph Aug 3, 2011 10:58 AM

                              I think you hit on a really important aspect of this particular vignette - he mocks himself as much, if not more, than anyone else. He definitely expressed discomfort with personal habits he encountered in China, but he seems to recognize that a lot his negative experience was due to his own personal quirks.

                              1. re: greygarious
                                mariacarmen Aug 3, 2011 11:59 AM

                                you nailed it exactly, greygarious.

                    2. re: soupçon
                      lynnlato Aug 3, 2011 10:01 AM

                      David Sedaris, racist? Now, that's hilarious! Seriously dude, that's the most ridiculous thing ever. Clearly you're unfamiliar with him or his work. He's the exact opposite of racist. And throwing that word around ignorantly is just wrong.

                      On a lighter note... my husband is in China right now. Just before he left I read him this Sedaris piece after I saw it on NPR's FB wall. We had a good laugh and I do think he may have packed a few extra protein bars - ha! But, he has thoroughly enjoyed the food he has had in Shanghai and I've enjoyed his photos that he has sent me.

                  2. re: buttertart
                    bulavinaka Jul 18, 2011 07:12 PM

                    My wife's family travels to China quite a bit - they are Chinese Malaysians. The things they've mentioned about these things in China are somewhat similar to DS's assessment - mostly the hacking, spitting, nosespraying and smoking. In fact, I've seen my FIL do his share of spitting and nose spraying himself (don't get me started on the cigarette smoking). These habits carry over from the old country to here in LA as well. I regularly visit the San Gabriel Valley and often observe (usually) older guys hacking, spitting and nose spraying in shopping center parking lots. I'm glad they at least have the decency to do it outside. They also tend to line up outside grocery stores and smoke like nobody's business (and hack/spit/nosespray) while waiting for the families to finish their shopping.

                    The one that really caught me off guard was after letting a handful of old ladies exit the door at the market, as I started to walk in, I felt a hand on my shoulder, got pushed aside as this really old guy with a cane walked through. I was flummoxed as to what happened but I was even more confused as to how that old guy could be so strong!

                    As the saying goes, it is what it is. They're there and we're here.

                2. e
                  Evilbanana11 Jul 16, 2011 03:48 PM

                  I like how keeps saying "but in Japan..." just to prove he likes SOME asians....

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Evilbanana11
                    Lizard Jul 16, 2011 11:58 PM

                    I really don't think that's the reason he did that...

                  2. s
                    small h Jul 16, 2011 04:00 PM

                    I know Sedaris often exaggerates for comic effect. And I've never been to China. So how accurate is the description of rampant spitting, etc.?

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: small h
                      bulavinaka Jul 16, 2011 09:33 PM

                      They spit more than cobras over there...

                      1. re: bulavinaka
                        small h Jul 17, 2011 03:50 PM

                        Oof, I would not like that at all. I live close to Manhattan's Chinatown, which is spittier than the rest of Manhattan (although the rest of Manhattan is hardly a spit-free zone). But it sounds like Beijing would take some getting used to, for me.

                        1. re: small h
                          celfie Jul 19, 2011 03:44 PM

                          holy crap try going to a university that is very popular with chinese students
                          the bathrooms are spitsville!

                          1. re: small h
                            Joanie Jul 20, 2011 05:33 AM

                            I remember walking on the edge of Chinatown in NYC a couple years ago and this woman in front of me lets a big spit go and barely misses me. Not nice.

                        2. re: small h
                          Papuli Jul 17, 2011 05:09 PM

                          The spitting, the vomiting, the pooping ... I love China, but it is horrifying on that front. I happen to think the food is delicious, generally speaking, but I've paid for it with some public vomiting of my own every time I've gone. (Maybe my body was just trying to fit in...)

                          1. re: Papuli
                            southernitalian Jul 18, 2011 07:00 AM


                            1. re: Papuli
                              T Long Jul 18, 2011 07:04 AM

                              I love Chinese food...in Canada. I actually had not heard or read too much about this side of China except around the campaign to reduce public spitting during the Olympics. I initially read this piece by Sedaris with a skeptical eye, but when I shared this article with friends who have been to China recently, none of them so far have suggested it is off base.

                              1. re: T Long
                                Papuli Jul 18, 2011 08:58 AM

                                @T Long @southeritalian Yup, any bodily function can you think of. It's really just a cultural difference (in China, you get rid of the nastiness when you can), but it becomes a bigger deal because it's an issue of hygiene. And listen, I was horrified to throw up in public there; I was just that sick. And I tend to think getting sick is just luck of the draw, which is why I don't travel to China with my own Costco pack of chopsticks from home, as I saw other tourists do.

                                1. re: Papuli
                                  chowser Jul 18, 2011 09:39 AM

                                  Anyone queasy about all of that should also avoid running long races because you'll see that there, too. Nothing like running and having to avoid bodily liquids from the runner in front.

                          2. mariacarmen Jul 16, 2011 11:11 PM

                            Oh I loved it. Anything that comes out of his mouth/pen.... Thanks Robert.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: mariacarmen
                              walker Jul 17, 2011 12:12 PM

                              I've read most of his books and "Thank you Robert, for this .. I'd not seen it." In one of his books he talks about having, as a teenager, a driving learner's permit. Well, he manages to sideswipe a mailbox and his father yells at him, telling him he could have killed someone. He said he threw away the permit, "his nerves were shot" .. (that's the part I think is so funny) and from then on he just arranges to live in cities with good public transportation systems.

                            2. soupçon Jul 17, 2011 12:03 AM

                              I knew nothing about David Sedaris until somebody stuck that piece under my nose. Now I know he is a xenophobic asshole.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: soupçon
                                casalbore spirit Jul 17, 2011 12:46 AM

                                Sorry,have to agree with the author.Work in the country and area monthly(Mainland,Hong Kong and Macau).Different cultural standards concerning hygiene.The most public nose picking,phlegm spewing culture I have seen and I have been world wide.Agree that Japanese culture has different hygienic and aesthetic standardsAlthough there is much great food especially seafood,fish and greens,much of the organs,innards and other preparations are a turn off to me.Was bit last week by something(spider maybe) in a Hong Kong restaurant that resulted in severe allergic reaction and doctor visit.However that could happen anywhere in the world.

                                1. re: soupçon
                                  RealMenJulienne Jul 18, 2011 02:36 PM

                                  Xenophobe asshole? Maybe, maybe not. But he didn't write anything that isn't basically true. In Beijing people spit in restaurants, classrooms, on the sidewalk and wherever else they feel like it. The nose-blowing thing is common, and the feces thing is only slightly exaggerated.

                                  I wouldn't call Beijing a great food city within China either. When I'm away I miss the excellent handmade noodles and steamed dumplings that you can get at even the cheapest places, but that's about it. Many other northern dishes are too greasy or salty for my taste.

                                2. Kagemusha Jul 17, 2011 08:24 AM

                                  Can't wait to read his coverage of a major NASCAR race...

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Kagemusha
                                    Lizard Jul 17, 2011 09:00 AM

                                    So my guess is that you haven't read anything he's written about his family, or his earlier life?

                                    1. re: Lizard
                                      Kagemusha Jul 17, 2011 05:38 PM

                                      Quite a bit, actually. It's a repugnant schtick that's worn thin, this latest piece being a good example of a style that's neither informative or particularly funny. Too knowledge dependent, I guess?

                                      1. re: Kagemusha
                                        chicgail Jul 17, 2011 05:50 PM

                                        <<repugnant schtick that's worn thin>>. As my mother used to say, "that's why there's chocolate and vanilla."

                                  2. chicgail Jul 17, 2011 10:12 AM

                                    Wow. I'm amazed at how many people totally missed the point. He's funny. And he'll take on anything. Sedaris talks that way about everything in every country he's been in. Including his own family. This is humor, people. Irony. Exaggeration. Not an indictment of a culture or a people.

                                    Here's the story that first got him noticed.

                                    6 Replies
                                    1. re: chicgail
                                      linguafood Jul 17, 2011 10:18 AM

                                      It's useless to explain the concept of humor to those who don't understand it.

                                      1. re: linguafood
                                        globocity Jul 17, 2011 11:21 AM

                                        linguafood, you started it perfectly. Hilarious that Sedaris is labeled as a xenophobe, particularly by someone who is unfamiliar with his discourse. Stick with Dean Koontz, people.

                                      2. re: chicgail
                                        bulavinaka Jul 17, 2011 10:59 AM

                                        I think his humor comes across a lot better for many once it is heard live. If you read it in his voice and intonations...

                                        1. re: bulavinaka
                                          sedimental Jul 17, 2011 11:51 AM

                                          You are so right about that. I have read all his books and I love him. Last year I bought some CD's of his though...OMG they are even more funny. When his stories are heard in his own little ironic semi depressed voice .... hysterical.

                                          1. re: bulavinaka
                                            mariacarmen Jul 17, 2011 11:03 PM

                                            agree, i've seen him read and "perform" his pieces several times, had him sign a couple books and he has always been charming and self-effacing in person - a very sweet man. i cannot imagine anyone being further from a xenophobe or an asshole. he's writing from his own point of view, his own experience, his own impressions, and he makes it pretty clear that he believes some Americans (i.e., HIM) have a hard time getting used to SOME cultural differences. It's HIS opinion. And i find him absolutely hilarious, witty, intelligent, and wry. Live and on the written page.

                                            1. re: mariacarmen
                                              HillJ Jul 18, 2011 04:15 AM

                                              I've also had the pleasure of attending a Sedaris book reading in a concert hall. It makes a tremendous difference to hear Sedaris read his own books. Because since seeing him live when I read his new stories I HEAR him reading it and the words have a funnier impact.

                                        2. h
                                          HillJ Jul 17, 2011 12:07 PM

                                          I have always loved his commentary on Paris.

                                          Thanks for sharing this article, I would have missed out.

                                          1. a
                                            AngelSanctuary Jul 17, 2011 05:12 PM

                                            Well if he's supposed to be a comedic writer than he's not exactly David Mitchell (an actual hilarious person).

                                            What he's writing is exactly what a lot of foreigners think of China already so if it's hyperbole it doesn't really work here and all this article does is reaffirm the rather unfairly negative view people have of China already.

                                            And the comparisons to Japan...really?!

                                            1. r
                                              rockycat Jul 18, 2011 07:11 AM

                                              pseudo-Chinese food in Raleigh in the 1970's could probably put anyone off Chinese cuisine permanently.

                                              1. Kagemusha Jul 18, 2011 07:29 AM

                                                Why the fascination with turds AND resto dishes? Some people just shouldn't travel.

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: Kagemusha
                                                  buttertart Jul 18, 2011 07:40 AM

                                                  I recall seeing more of the former on the street and in the subways in NYC than I do in China (and not very often in NYC either). Spitting, yes.

                                                  1. re: buttertart
                                                    Kagemusha Jul 18, 2011 07:52 AM

                                                    Agreed. Who needs a tour of the sewer in a glass-bottom boat?

                                                    1. re: Kagemusha
                                                      linguafood Jul 18, 2011 08:01 AM

                                                      Thankfully, nobody *has* to read any of David Sedaris' stories, if they are so inclined.

                                                      1. re: linguafood
                                                        buttertart Jul 18, 2011 08:11 AM

                                                        I love his stuff usually - but I was taken aback at the tone of this one.

                                                        1. re: buttertart
                                                          linguafood Jul 18, 2011 08:18 AM

                                                          It's not nearly as funny as most of his stuff, agreed.

                                                          OTOH, if I were surrounded by people hacking up phlegm all day (one of my few sensitivities in life) for weeks at a time, I might be lacking my usual sense of humor, too.

                                                          1. re: linguafood
                                                            buttertart Jul 18, 2011 08:47 AM

                                                            Was he there for weeks at a time? We have been. This strikes me as partaking of the bash China sentiment that you see a lot these days. It's truly not as bad as he portrays it (and yes, some of the exaggeration is for comedic effect, obviously), either in Beijing (where we were decidedly off the tourist track) or any of the other cities we've visited.

                                                            1. re: linguafood
                                                              free sample addict aka Tracy L Jul 18, 2011 09:57 PM

                                                              I think that is what I liked best about the story.

                                                            2. re: buttertart
                                                              chowser Jul 18, 2011 09:42 AM

                                                              I liked Me Talk Pretty One Day but didn't care for his follow up book for the same reason I don't care for this article. I've never heard him talk (pretty...) but might like him better if I did. In my mind, I hear him sounding whiney with articles like this one.

                                                              1. re: chowser
                                                                buttertart Jul 18, 2011 10:36 AM

                                                                The articles that have been in the New Yorker recently have been fall off the couch laughing funny (I presume a travel book is in the works?). I haven't read all of his stuff.

                                                    2. Kagemusha Jul 18, 2011 09:49 AM

                                                      Funny he never paid attention to the near-lethal levels of air pollution in major cities.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: Kagemusha
                                                        bulavinaka Jul 18, 2011 06:56 PM

                                                        Probably because he was always looking down...

                                                        1. re: Kagemusha
                                                          linguafood Jul 19, 2011 02:54 AM

                                                          Yah, weird. Cause that's some hee-larious shit for a short story.

                                                        2. Monica Jul 18, 2011 07:03 PM

                                                          LOL, Just watched Shrek with my daughter and I laughed so hard when he said 'better out then in I always say'..made me think of this article.

                                                          1. hill food Jul 18, 2011 10:26 PM

                                                            anyone posting who hasn't read him before this needs to know he's a notorious OCD clean-freak and he makes fun of his own foibles traits too.

                                                            8 Replies
                                                            1. re: hill food
                                                              Worldwide Diner Jul 19, 2011 06:46 AM

                                                              I've tried to read his stuff before and I just don't find it funny. I started this piece and again I couldn't finish. Yes, some of what he says is true but it's not like the subject matter hasn't been written about before by everyone who's traveled to China from a "clean" country. To me it's trite.

                                                              1. re: Worldwide Diner
                                                                hill food Jul 19, 2011 07:15 AM

                                                                I'm not defending this piece, but a few folks posted they hadn't read him til now and I felt that bit of back story was crucial to at least understand his perspective (nobody needs to like this one) I have yet to read this one, but the premise would seem to be a too easy shot.

                                                                (edit) ok read it, and yeah he's done better.

                                                                1. re: hill food
                                                                  chowser Jul 19, 2011 09:05 AM

                                                                  I think he can be funny and liked Me Talk Pretty One Day, as I said above, but I find some of his comments about other countries to be kind of like "Ugly American who is appalled that the rest of the world isn't to his liking."

                                                                  1. re: chowser
                                                                    Kagemusha Jul 19, 2011 09:55 AM

                                                                    Seems no one here has read any Giles Coren, my favorite food writer. Sedaris isn't a patch on him.

                                                                    1. re: Kagemusha
                                                                      buttertart Jul 19, 2011 10:01 AM

                                                                      Never heard of him before this - but of course UK authors are much less well-known in the US than in Canada. What books must I get?

                                                                      1. re: Kagemusha
                                                                        Lizard Jul 19, 2011 10:23 AM

                                                                        Sedaris isn't a food writer. And I thought trying to compare his style of comedy (comic writing, really) to that of David Mitchell was a stretch!

                                                                      2. re: chowser
                                                                        greygarious Jul 19, 2011 10:54 AM

                                                                        Actually, far from it. In Me Talk Pretty One Day he roundly puts down Ugly American tourists complaining about Paris. He also takes jabs at his own Greek heritage, and is generally self-mocking. I have been a fan since hearing his first piece on NPR, must be close to 20 years ago. Like Garrison Keillor's work, Sedaris's is best enjoyed in audiobook format, as he reads it aloud.

                                                                        1. re: greygarious
                                                                          hill food Jul 19, 2011 11:37 AM

                                                                          the NPR work in 1991 was the first I had heard of him (word to the wise - don't listen to Santaland Diaries while in a car during LA's rush-hour unless you're fully cathetered) but yes his cadence and tone do add a lot to the writing. the 'ugly American' theme does recur in his work, but half the time it displays his discomfort in trying so hard to be the easy-going cool, go-with-the-flow person that he clearly and admittedly is not and what that costs him.

                                                                          which is why this work pales, and seems unfinished, he never laughs at himself except a faint allowance that Japan is perhaps the only place outside of a surgical suite he'd feel the most at home - and then he goes to China...

                                                                2. MsDiPesto Aug 1, 2011 12:56 PM

                                                                  Thanks for alerting me to a piece by Sedaris I had not seen before, it's totally what I'd expect of him. And I have no plans to travel to, let alone eat in China.

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: MsDiPesto
                                                                    bulavinaka Aug 1, 2011 06:30 PM

                                                                    It's a real buyer-beware climate in many parts of China from what I've been told. My in-laws go at least annually, I regularly run into folks who've lived various cities there for months to years, and they all say pretty much the same thing - you do have to be careful. Quality of food and ingredients (when cooking at home) can be a problem but the issue of "counterfeit" food (e.g., fake eggs!) is becoming more of an issue as well. I know for folks who either don't get Sedaris or just don't care for his kind of humor/satire have an issue with this piece, but it really is light compared to the real issues that folks there face every day.

                                                                    1. re: bulavinaka
                                                                      casalbore spirit Aug 2, 2011 12:54 AM


                                                                  2. danna Aug 3, 2011 09:01 AM

                                                                    I'm late to this party, but thank you SO much for posting that. It was hilarious, and I probably shouldn't have read it at work, i think others can hear the muffled snorting.

                                                                    I hope Sedaris will have a new book out soon with more of the same. His last one was a touch dark.

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