Along with my wife and, when they were little, our children, I have spent several multiyear stretches living in Asian countries. Our longest stays have been in Japan, Malaysia, and most recently in China.
The theme for my selection is “Outsiders in Asia.” Perhaps I am biased because that’s been my own role, but usually I’ve found this perspective enlightening. Of course, some books or movies in this genre say much more about the observer’s prejudices and hang-ups than about the place where they’re set, from Passage to India to Lost in Translation (which, as a former Tokyoite, I loved). So too with Lost Horizon, The Quiet American, The Ugly American, The Year of Living Dangerously, almost anything about the Vietnam War, and even Madame Butterfly or The King and I.
Still, an outsized share of the books I remember best about Asian countries involve foreigners’ immersion there. For Malaysia, the list would start with Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy. For Japan, it could start a million places but perhaps most enjoyably with Robert Whiting’s The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (or Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, or Edward Seidensticker’s This Country, Japan).
Here’s a list for China. I omit works by my immediate family members—otherwise, I would obviously begin with the wonderful Dreaming in Chinese, by my wife Deborah Fallows—and, with one exception, books by friends.
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence
The author, a celebrated academic at Yale, has become one of the Western world’s deans of China studies. Many of his works involve the outside/inside interaction in China, including the short and interesting To Change China. For me, Matteo Ricci is the most illuminating. This is the story of the Jesuit who more than 500 years ago made himself part of Cathay.
Two Kinds of Time by Graham Peck
In contrast to Spence, Graham Peck is almost unknown. In the mid-1930s, as a 21-year-old Yale graduate, Peck visited China, while the Communists and Nationalists were struggling for dominance and the Japanese were about to invade. He came back in 1940 and stayed through the years of World War II. His book, first published in 1950 and long forgotten until its revival by the University of Washington two years ago, is funny, touching, and well-illustrated, with Peck’s own numerous cartoons and sketches. Today’s elderly in China lived through the almost-inconceivable world that Peck portrays.
The Banquet Bug by Geling Yan
The “outsider” in this satirical novel is foreign in a different way. He is an illiterate migrant worker from the Chinese hinterland who, while on a grueling assignment in Beijing, figures out how to pass himself off as a “journalist” and gets a look into the lives of the crony-capitalist elite. Funny, and caustic.
Mr. China by Tim Clissold
This book was published in 2005, and it describes the China of the 1990s. But it is the first item on my “you have to read this!” list for anyone with dreams of easy money and quick success in the Burgeoning China Market. It’s the hilarious tale of Brits and Americans trying to get rich in the auto-parts business in China—the tone will be familiar to anyone who has seen the play Chinglish. It’s also a parallel to the equally charming Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin, about a young American woman who for a while became China’s leading TV soap opera slut/villainess.
Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret
An American journalist (and friend of mine) who went to China as a grad student in the early 1980s visits his schoolmates 30 years later—and begins to hear about their lives earlier, during the Cultural Revolution. The goods and bads of modern China in one volume.