I have often wondered whether David Sedaris, quite possibly the world’s most celebrated contemporary memoirist, would ever get himself embroiled in a public snafu. After all, the higher you ascend the ladder of fame, the closer you get to the fan blades of public scrutiny.
Well it has finally happened. Sedaris has created a disturbance. But it’s not just any disturbance. He has stoked the ire of an entire country. And it’s not some trifling nation like Gabon. It’s motherfucking China!
The essay, which appeared in the British paper The Guardian, details Sedaris’ gastronomical journey through the Sleeping Dragon as well as the journey of the cuisine through Sedaris. Yeah, there’s a lot of poop talk.
What some have found offensive is Sedaris’ criticism of Chinese culture and cuisine, particularly casting negative judgments on its people based on their alleged unsanitary practices (e.g., spitting in the streets and peeing in sinks). While Sedaris is a humorist, many point out that unlike his previous works, he does not portray himself as the buffoon-like stranger in a strange land. Instead, he illustrates himself as the lone oasis of sanity in a world gone mad. There are also no quotes from the Chinese locals to help play comedic foil to Sedaris’ cultural ignorance.
As someone who has spent a tremendous amount of his time writing essays and idolizing Sedaris, I am more forgiving than some critics when it come to this piece. Personally, I think the accusation of cultural insensitivity actually stems from the real problem with this piece: It’s not that good.
When I read the China essay, I felt like Sedaris just kind of phoned it in. It’s not all that clever. It’s not all that personally revealing other than we find out Sedaris appreciates sanitation (and who doesn’t?). There just wasn’t that relatable vulnerability that drew me to Sedaris in the first place.
Now, I can see where he was going with this piece. The nugget of wisdom is buried and unpolished, but it’s there:
I don’t know why this so disgusted me. If I was a vegetarian, OK, but if you’re a meat eater, why draw these arbitrary lines? “I’ll eat the thing that filters out toxins but not the thing that sits on top of the head, doing nothing?” And why agree to eat this animal and not that one?
If I were Sedaris’ editor, I would have told him to focus more on this element of the story. Why are we so naively arbitrary when it comes to what we will and won’t eat? Isn’t it kind of egocentric of us as a culture to criticize the habits of one society while our own habits may seem just as oddball to another? It is this kind of self-reflection and self-awareness that makes a strong comedic personal narrative. And unfortunately Sedaris missed the mark on this one.
So is Sedaris guilty of racial/ethnic/cultural ignorance? Probably. Who isn’t to some extent? Does that mean I’m going to stop reading him? Nope. But I do expect more from him. I hope he returns to writing humorous and meaningful essays that are centered around a kernel of vulnerability. And if he doesn’t? Then move over, David! I’m going to be America’s new gay memoirist sweetheart!