What you need to know
Justin Mitchell's new book is dirty, witty and deeply personal.
Let me tell you a story. No. Let Justin Mitchell tell you a story. It’s a story that spans 10 years but will take you just about three and a half hours to read (according to my Kindle version). It’s a story that travels from Shenzhen in southern China, to Hong Kong, through Hua Hin in Thailand and then up to choking, cloying Beijing on two occasions.
It will make you laugh, cry (mostly with laughter), and rejoice in the wonder of people wherever they are from, including Mr. Mitchell himself. "Shenzhen Zen: An accidental anthropologist’s decade of life, love, and misadventure in the Middle Kingdom," written in a tantalizing mix of present and past senses, is laid out as a diary, a format which lends itself to the reader feeling like a naughty voyeur.
Inspired by Mitchell's 2003 decision to travel to China to teach English to schoolchildren on a six-week assignment, the book traces parallel paths of awakening: that of a Coloradoan man in his fifties swept away by the most populous nation on earth; and that of the Middle Kingdom itself.
At this point I should add a disclaimer. Mitchell is an old friend and colleague. We worked together on the Hong Kong Standard many moons ago and shared more than a few beers in Beijing more recently. I even make a cameo appearance, though my name is not used, which is probably for the best. I think the world of him, so writing this review was not easy. I told myself that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t write a review. But here we are. In the review. So yes, I loved it.
The book is wry, funny, self-effacing, insightful, respectful, at times bawdy, and more than anything extremely human. If you’re a prude, you’re not going to like it as there’s a lot of sex. But if you’re a prude, you probably don’t like a lot of things so never mind. It’s an honest and brave narrative that spares his partners in crime – whether the partner in his love story or those involved in his misadventures – the potential embarrassment of being named.
Mitchell wrestles with landlords, horny women, exotic Chinese cuisine, dog meat (“I declined a dog doggy bag and accepted some leftover goose”), China’s censors, a fair sprinkling of crazies of all nationalities, and some more horny women. It’s fast paced, sometimes disorientating, but there's a decade worth of material to cover. He slows down at the important bits.
As a professional writer – Mitchell's been a journalist almost all his working life – his prose flows, and he has the journalist’s desire to bring stories full circle, a satisfying climax if you will, with a witty flourish. He’s a man that loves his women and loves his words. Take this for example, sourced from his very early days as a stint as an English teacher in the southern city of Shenzhen:
"Highlight of class today? While having the kids – sixth and seventh graders – interview each other and then tell me about their new friend. One boy told me that his pal “like to fuck.” I congratulated him on using the word correctly but told him that it wasn’t one we would be using in class."
His cantankerousness, especially in the second half of the book, is another great source of humor. Working as editor for one of China's leading English-language newspaper, Global Times, Mitchell reflects on the stinginess of the paper’s Christmas entertainment plans. No booze, no food, but maybe some free fruit.
“Hand Santa baby another brown apple, a wrinkled, saggy Mandarin orange and a couple of those gratis grapes, won’tcha my little Sino-elf.”
He saves his scathing wit primarily for institutions and himself, but what underpins it all is Mitchell's real love of Chinese people, from friendly shopkeepers to a grammar-savvy beggar and, most of all, his long-time love, referred to only as C.
There are lots of books written by foreigners who did the China thing. This one is different – it’s not about the important people he interviewed, or the exotic places he traveled, or pontificating about his understanding of the nation. It’s a simple tale that’s deeply personal, about the people he met and sometimes loved. And by doing that without the ego, it tells us about the China which is missing in many of those other books. The human one.
I’ll leave the last word with Mitchell.
"It’s that sense of common humanity that I celebrate whenever anyone here in the U.S. asks me what I like best about China. 'The People,' I always reply. 'It’s the people.'"
"Shenzhen Zen: An accidental anthropologist’s decade of life, love, and misadventure in the Middle Kingdom" is independently published. A copy can be found on Amazon here.
Editor: David Green