Ah, the Expatriate Memoir…a crowded genre of journaling masquerading as would-be literature, written almost exclusively by and for westerners, and usually the debut publishing effort of their authors. Regardless of their cultural goodwill and intentions, many have trouble finding that delicate balance between insightful memoir and blasé travelogue, with many falling victim to the latter. It’s a genre that needs constant refreshing, if only because time and history have a funny way of changing the cultural and economic landscapes of their subject matter.
And few countries have been so dramatically altered recently as China, land of 1.3 billion people, many aching for western-style success and increasingly with the access and means to make it happen. Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China follows said adventures of Mitch Moxley, a naive would-be journalist whose floundering career leads him to accept a position at the China Daily, a state-owned English-language paper steeped in propaganda on the eve of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The book’s title is something of a misnomer, as there’s very little censorship here, apart from earlier chapters focusing on Moxley’s short-lived career at the China Daily and his frustrations dealing with state-run media. In darker hands the idea of a clandestine look into the fast-changing world of Chinese journalism might have made for a Tom Clancy-like political thriller, given the country’s track record when it comes to journalistic freedoms is spottier than a leopard.
Instead, Moxley crafts a far more whimsical journey into the Far East, one that at first seems more concerned with career apathy and disappointment than keen insights and observations. Indeed, the book’s good intentions and charm are nearly waylaid early with banal chapters recounting late-night boozing, skirt-chasing, and drug-fueled partying – which are really only interesting until they stop being so interesting. Hardly an unusual prescription for any 20-something bachelor dealing with his self-professed “quarter-life crisis”, but Tucker Max he isn’t (thank heavens).
To his credit, Moxley seems to realize this halfway through and quickly gets his narrative back on track with a soft touch and wry sense of humor, focusing on becoming a good expat and even better freelance writer. This was wise, because by his own admission he wasn’t that great as a propagandist at China Daily: “I never gave it 100 percent – not for one day, not for one minute. I didn’t even give it close to 50 percent. I gave it about 7 percent.”
Moxley’s most profound revelation comes from the book’s prevalent theme, that that most censorship in China was “self-imposed” censorship, even remarking that “change wasn’t coming from the bottom, and it certainly wasn’t coming from the top”. Change or not, that’s about as deep as things get as Moxley gives little thought of insight to the idea that Chinese style self-censorship is likely the intended result of decades of intense and often violent behavioral conditioning. It’s disappointing the central theme of censorship is given so little scrutiny by someone with the opportunity to explore it further, but I suppose we’ll have to wait until the book’s sequel for talk like that.
And what would a expatriate memoir be without a little cross-cultural shock? Later chapters are filled with gems like Moxley becoming one of China’s “hottest” bachelors (courtesy of Chinese Cosmo), a singing dating show contestant, and just narrowly missed becoming a minor film star. The most hilarious is, without question, the whole “Rent a White Guy” fiasco, a scheme in which Chinese firms hire foreigners (i.e. white guys) to dress to impress – window dressing, as he calls it. The whole affair leads to one of Moxley’s most controversial pieces and even leading to a brief dalliance with Hollywood.
More serious – and satisfying – are his honest forays into real journalism, including more exhaustive pieces detailing the plight of Mongolian prostitutes (Dinosaur Bones and Brothels) and the growing influx of African immigrants into Guangzhou province, sometimes called “the World’s Factory”, trying to hitch themselves onto China’s economic miracle (Chocolate City). Those following Moxley’s recent output or his Twitter feed will find this iteration of the author the most familiar, and that’s probably for the best.
Those seeking a transformational, life-altering memoir will likely be disappointed with Mitch Moxley’s Apologies to My Censor, a well-written and often very funny look back at a key moment in the life and career of a burgeoning freelancer. It’s much too light on intimate details and introspection to qualify as a modern classic in the genre. This is less a book about China as much as its author’s baptism by China – modern China – and an honest self-assessment by a professional slacker who managed to become a serious journalist in a land where just just about everything is possible.