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.