Books

8 Memoirs to Read by China Expats

As an expat living in China for many years, I love hearing stories from others who also live and travel in the Middle Kingdom. I think for all expats living abroad it’s quite entertaining (and therapeutic) to share our stories with each other, to laugh, to reflect, and to commiserate.

I enjoy hearing these tales in local expat bars (if you’re in Beijing, you can easily stumble upon expats sharing stories at the Local and Paddy O’Sheas), and I also enjoy reading expat memoirs, which offer a chance to read unique experiences and travel tales from all around China.

I’ve put together a list of many memoirs and travel tales published by China expats, covering everything from Chinese culture and cuisine, conversations in taxis, and hilarious encounters in the countryside and far reaches of China. Some I’ve read, and some have been highly recommended to me and are now waiting to be consumed in my Kindle library.

Note: For this list I’ve included mostly modern memoirs, written from 2000 and on. These are also all English authors. There are so many more books and memoirs to read about China, stretching farther back in time and encompassing more historical perspectives, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds. In the future I’d like to make more lists including more authors, so I’d love to hear more recommendations.

Check out these 8 Books by Expats in China below:

1. River Town: Two Years on the Yangzte by Peter Hessler

When asking for recommendations about travel books and memoirs to read about China, Peter’s books are always at the top of the list. Peter taught English and American literature at Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan for two years, which became the subject of his first book, “River Town.” It was published in 2001, and was followed by two others about China: Oracle Bones (2006), and Country Driving (2010).

2. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop

Fuchsia Dunlop is the first Westerner to train at the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. In this memoir, she recalls how she attempts to immerse herself into Chinese culinary culture and cuisine and how that translates to life back home.

3. The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China by Frank Langfitt

“One of the best ways to get know a country is by talking to its people.” Frank takes these words to heart and starts a free taxi business in Shanghai to get to know the colorful and charismatic people of China.

4. Fried Eggs with Chopsticks: One Woman’s Hilarious Adventure into a Country and a Culture Not Her Own by Polly Evans

In this entertaining memoir, Polly’s recounts her adventures traveling across China by sleeper train, ferry-rides, and mules.

5. Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid by J. Maarten Troost

The name alone sums up pretty well what this book is about. Troost shares a hilarious and insightful account of his traveling in China, from Shanghai to Tibet to Taishan, weaving through the delicacies, dangers, and daring adventures he has in this past paced and ever-changing country.

6. China Blonde by Nicole Web

Nicole picks up her life with husband and three year old daughter and goes from being a TV newsreader in Sydney to being a hotelier’s wife in Xi’an, China. She shares her culture shock moments, new friendships, and daily life adventures in their new home in the Middle Kingdom.

7. Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing by Alan Paul

Big in China explores Paul’s journey moving to Beijing with his family and starting a blue’s band with both Chinese and expat members, eventually becoming so big they go on tour and are named “Beijing’s Best Band.” It’s a great memoir touching on family, intercultural collaborations, and getting comfortable outside your own borders.

8. Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China by Assorted Authors (Edited by Tom Carter)

If you can’t choose just one memoir to read, this book is for you. It features 28 original stories written from foreigners who have lived or currently live in China and touches on the many themes that expats face here: travel, culture, love, family, society, and more. I’ve just finished reading this and felt it was SO relatable, entertaining, and enlightening to expat life in China.

More Media and Books by Expats in China

This is a list recommended to me by many expats in China, and I’m still working on completing it! Have you read any of these? Do you have other recommendations to share?

I previously wrote about travel books that will give you wanderlust! Check those out here: 10 Books That Gave Me The Travel Bug

Check out some of my other posts about expat life in China:

I share daily updates and stories about life in China on Instagram! Follow me @rachelmeetschina to see more about being an expat in Beijing and traveling around China.

2 comments

  1. Hi Rachel, great list! I’d add “Foreign Babes in Beijing” by Rachel Dewoskin for insight on a 90s tv show featuring a foreign lead.

    I compiled a humorous ethnography of laowai lifestyles and social classes in Chengdu. I can send you an ebook if you like it, and I’d love a shout out. It’s “LaoWhy? Identity Crises in China’s Capital of Spice”

    Like

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