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October 14, 2009

The Marco Polo Effect

Some might say that my writing about how Peter Hessler ruined my China life was like a monkey slinging feces. In my experience (of writing the article, not flinging feces), I found that it was actually a lot more like another poop experience: scooping poop out of my cat’s litter box.

When I was young, one of my household chores was to scoop out my cat’s litter box every week. Whenever I set out to the revolting task of putting scoop to poop, I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. Unfortunately for me, cats are fond of burying. So every time I thought I had finished, a little more scooping would reveal another fecal treasure deeper down in the box. The garbage pail trail always ended up leading much deeper than I thought upon first scoop. My discovery of the massive chain of the China psych-out worked exactly the same way.

More than a year into China, I was psyching myself out because I was convinced that I was living in the shadow of Peter Hessler, who had already been here, done this, and published it in an award-winning book. Later, when Pete sent me a message, he revealed that he had been living in the shadow of Mark Salzman, whose book Iron and Silk was read across laowai China, leading some publishers to ask Pete to re-write his book in the style of Salzman’s. Having wallowed in my jealousy and formed my opinions all while Hessler was God, I never imagined that he had been through what I was going through.

But the story didn’t end there. Further digging proved that writers have been psyching themselves out not just for years, but for over a century. Pete wrote about Archibald Little’s 1887 book Through the Yangtse Gorges, in which the author apologizes for writing about Chinese banquets, which “have been described over and over again.”

Crunching the numbers, I realized that foreigners have been psyching themselves out about writing about China for at least 122 years. My psych-out experience was not simply my experience. It was only a reappearance of a cycle that has been repeating itself for a long time.

I knew then that the next step was to point blame. Marco Polo—perhaps the first widely successful western China writer—may be the ultimate source of this phenomenon, so I’ve decided to call it the Marco Polo Effect. That would pin the origin of the China psych-out as early as circa 1350.

After Marco Polo establishes his namesake effect, he does NOT have to psych out each individual writer after himself. Instead, he’s just at the epicenter of a large chain reaction, like a stone falling into a pond, with each wave repeating itself through each successive China author.


The problem with the diagram, of course, is that I am by no means a famous author. But considering how the Marco Polo Effect works, that doesn’t matter. The Marco Polo Effect affects eventual famous authors (who then go on to pass along the effect), and it affects authors who never even put pen to paper. The flu works the same way: some people get it and pass it on, while others just get it.

In the end, it was somehow inspiring to find that I was far from the only turd in the litter box. The Maro Polo Effect has been going on for far longer than I ever imagined, and I see no reason to say it won’t continue on indefinitely. My litter box duty, on the other hand, is now a chore of the past.

October 31, 2009

Get Into my Africa

In my informal search with Peter Hessler into the Get out of my China Fantasy Effect—the possessiveness foreigners feel toward China and their shunning of other foreigners—we’ve surmised that several causes might be pushing foreigners to feel possessive about China:

  1. The learning curve: learning Chinese is difficult, and after we’ve completed the arduous process, we come to feel like we’ve earned it, and this place is ours.

  2. The hardship factor: living in China can be difficult. As with language, this gives us hardcore points for living without internet, clean air, etc., so we come attached to the place, perhaps like someone who struggles through working to pay for their own college education then thinking that others should do the same.

  3. The adventurer myth: foreigners in China have in the backs of their minds the romantic dream of being an adventurer in a strange land. Whether they’re in a remote place like Fuling or a metropolis like Beijing, the addition of other foreigners dashes this dream, so we want them out.

Yet throughout all of these explanations, I can’t shake my suspicion that things happen differently for foreigners in Africa. To understand exactly what happens when Westerners go to live in Africa, I asked an old friend who is now in his second year volunteering with the Peace Corps in Cape Verde. He responded:

Hey Tom,

I’ve thought about more or less the same question as well, throughout my time in CV [Cape Verde]… . I don’t think many of us PCVs [Peace Corps Volunteers] feel hardcore here, with the main dangers of alcoholism and STDs. Even tourists feel that way, that it’s Africa-lite. That would tend to lessen the possessiveness factor, I believe.

It’s almost like the least involved people think they’re most hardcore. As PCVs we’re deep in our communities and kind of live like locals, whereas other development people make much more money, live in the nice cities, and can’t believe how terrible it is that there are power cuts every so often. We feel different as well because we live here, have lived with Cape Verdean families for two months. We resent it when Cape Verdeans tell us we’re just tourists spending two years visiting.

We at times resent tourists, businesspeople, or NGO workers who are here to play and mess around without respecting or helping Cape Verdeans… .

So I guess in the end, I can’t rule out a sense of possessiveness, but I don’t see it much in CV.

Best, or as we say in Kriolu, fika dretu,


It looks like the answer is tricky. On one hand, visitors and residents in Africa certainly do seem to have the same criterion of hardcore-ness that visitors to China have. The harder, dirtier, and more dangerous the place is, the more hardcore points you have. Conversely, people who jet about the “easy” places with steak houses and fancy hotels become an object of sneering or resentment.

On the other hand, the feelings of hardcore-ness seem to exist in Africa without a feeling of possession. Andrew may judge other foreigners for being tourists and decry his own “Africa-lite” experience, but a sense of possessiveness is not a part of the equation.

That leaves a nagging question: if Africa doesn’t inspire a possessiveness in visiting Westerners, then what is it about China or East Asia in general that does inspire this possessiveness?