David Sedaris and the China Controversy

david sedaris

Mild mannered essayist? Or enemy of the state?

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.

Fan blades

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.


Does Sedaris have a potty mouth?

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.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

A simpler time

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!


America's new gay memoirist sweetheart!



2 responses to “David Sedaris and the China Controversy

  1. This whole controversy shouldn’t really be so controversial. I have lived in China for 4 years now, I see men and children peeing in the streets at least once a week, and spitting everywhere (often indoors). Is it really so outrageous that a person like Sedaris would pick up on these filthy habits?
    The controversy is just that a foreigner saw something that embarrassed the Chinese, not that it doesn’t happen.

  2. Gloria Klein


    –Gloria Klein

    The pop singer Sheryl Crow’s recent contention that only one sheet of toilet tissue is necessary after using the bathroom finds many sitting in wonder. In fact, her recommendation has a long history. The green and the brown have gone hand in hand for centuries. When we look at the world from the bottom up, we soon learn that what is new is really old.

    Living outside the U. S. taught many of us to be frugal to the point where Sheryl Crow may be viewed as being excessive in her use of just one sheet. The goal of our frugality in India was to live like a character in Heinrich Böll’s book GROUP PORTRAIT WITH LADY. Böll has a character, one very frugal nun, who believes that a truly healthy person doesn’t need any paper at all after doing their duty.

    If you can’t be like that nun, then here are directions on how to use the minimum: Take one sheet of tissue and fold it in half, then fold it in half again and again. You should be left with what looks like a triangle of paper. Gently tear off about a half inch of paper from the top, pointed end. Save this small piece. You will need it later.

    Now, unfold the paper. You should have a square with a hole in the center big enough to insert your left hand pointer finger.

    Insert your finger in the paper’s hole. Approach the area that needs wiping. With a circular motion, do your cleanup, and then with your right hand, slip off the tissue from your finger, cleaning the finger as you slide upward. Discard the used toilet tissue.

    Finally, take the small piece you saved torn from the tip, and use it to clean your fingernail.

    Halfway into our tour of India we ran out of toilet paper altogether. We were forced to search the local market for a replacement and discovered airmail stationary. I can report that this stationary was crisp but reliable, something an e-mail never will be.

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