Book Review: Justin Mitchell's Shenzhen Zen

By Bailey Hu, June 7, 2018

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The title – Shenzhen Zen: An Accidental Anthropologist’s Decade of Life, Love, and Misadventure in the Middle Kingdom – really says it all.

For those who haven’t read the book, it also raises more questions than it answers. What is an accidental anthropologist, what’s the Shenzhen-Zen connection and is this just another (s)expat memoir?

Our answer to the last is: not quite. Because while veteran journalist Justin Mitchell does recount the odd gratuitous sex scene, most of the Colorado native’s narrative is devoted to documenting strange, serendipitous or downright bizarre episodes from his life in Asia over the ’00s.

The book is loosely structured as a diary, based on the blog through which Mitchell charted his decade abroad. It starts off in a free-wheeling Shenzhen packed with a wide-ranging cast of characters, from “shoe repair families” doing business on the sidewalk to “wealthy, young, very glossy Chinese men and women sipping $6-$7 javas” in the city’s sole Starbucks.

READ MORE: Man on the Street: Shoe Shiner

Mitchell, a Shenzhen Daily copy editor, revels in the newness of it all while also occasionally overcoming the ‘stranger in a strange land’ trope. Early on, for instance, a work-related English salon devolves into an earnest intercultural discussion at a bar, ending with “a toast to better sexual relations and sex education – both in China and the USA.”

In between educational moments, the author entertains with humorous highlights from his work and personal life, like the time a date dressed as a “budding S&M starlet” visits his workplace on the day of the mayor’s visit, or when a rent-a-foreigner gig required him to pose as an American “bamboo king.”

Although Mitchell moves to Hong Kong in 2004, he still maintains a connection to the mainland, thanks largely to a long-term relationship with Shenzhen resident ‘C.’ And, after a stint in Thailand, the author eventually finds his way back – to Beijing, where he works for China Daily before switching to a brand-new, unsullied Global Times.

It’s small gems like these that keep Mitchell’s stories engaging for a foreign audience already well-acquainted with China. Through his work at various news centers, the author also offers an informed perspective on major cultural touchstones like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or the devastating Sichuan earthquake that preceded it.

READ MORE: 2008 Beijing Olympic Venues – Then and Now

But while illuminating, Mitchell’s narrative has its limits. There’s nothing like a central thesis for the book, just different colorful vignettes about living in Asia – or as the author put it on one entry, “lots of little tales that make me glad I came.”

The words that follow afterwards are revealing: “Where from here, though, I dunno.”

Although he obviously values his experiences in Asia, it’s just as apparent that Mitchell harbors doubts. As time passes, they begin to outweigh the joys of living abroad.

It’s telling that over a decade-long stay, the author never seems to pick up more than a bare minimum of Chinese, reflected by various misspellings of place names throughout the book. Even a foreign friend from Hong Kong calls him out on his (lack of) Mandarin, quipping, “How long have you been here?”

Eventually, factors outside his control make Mitchell take the great leap out of China, and lead to other changes besides. We won’t spoil it for you, except to say that the “accidental anthropologist” ends on a positive note, neatly wrapping up a decade of vividly detailed life abroad.

Shenzhen Zen is available on Amazon.

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