A candid, offbeat account of expat life on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:05pm

For the past six years, Mitch Moxley has lived the life of a young expat journalist in Beijing. In that time he has appeared on a Chinese dating show and in a music video, written about his time posing as a fake Western businessman at the behest of a mainland company, and worked in the bowels of state media. He has also written for The Atlantic , Time , The New York Times and other international publications. His first book, Apologies to My Censor , charts this period of his life. He talks to Kit Gillet .

What is Apologies to My Censor about?

Where books by writers such as Peter Hessler ( Strange Stones) and Michael Meyer ( Last Days of Old Beijing) look at China through the eyes of a foreigner, mine is very much about the life of a foreigner in China. I felt no book had addressed the foreigner experience in China since Foreign Babes in Beijing, which took place in the 1990s and might as well be a different eon in China-time. Apologies to My Censor is about the six years I spent in China, chronicling the year I spent at the state-owned China Daily, my attempts to learn the ropes of freelancing in a foreign country, as well as some of the more offbeat adventures and misadventures of being an outsider in China. It's part travelogue, part memoir, and hopefully a bit more humorous in nature than most China books out there. I wanted to write a candid book about the expat experience, even if that meant exposing some details about myself that I wasn't totally comfortable with sharing.

Can you explain your journey to China?

I came to China on a whim. I was working as a freelance journalist in Canada and was less than satisfied about where my career, and life in general, was heading. One day I found an advert online for a job as an editor and writer for China Daily. I had never really imagined coming to China, but I figured I had nothing to lose. The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Beijing with a one-year contract. I planned to stay for a year but quickly got addicted and ended up staying for six.

How does censorship manifest itself at a state-owned newspaper?

The most common form of censorship at China Daily is self-imposed. Most people know what they can and cannot report, and rarely push boundaries. Of course, once in a while it's more overt. I filed stories that never went to print, editors can cut anything remotely sensitive from articles, and on a few occasions I was told beforehand that I couldn't report certain things.

How did the book come about?

An agent in New York contacted me after I wrote an article about my experience posing as a fake businessman in China, and together we brainstormed ideas. Initially it was going to consist of independent stories, sort of like a David Sedaris book, about fish-out-of-water experiences in China, but thanks to the input of editors we found a way to connect the stories to develop more of a narrative. I actually started thinking about a book the minute I got the job offer at China Daily, and I took a lot of notes when I first arrived in Beijing. The portion of the current book about China Daily is probably my favourite because everything was so new and exciting and I hope that earnest sense of discovery comes through.

Are there any experiences that, when writing them down, you thought: "Did that really happen?", or "Only in China?"

Definitely. In Harbin, a few friends and I saw a bear riding a bicycle while wearing women's lingerie. I was tempted to include my friends' e-mail addresses just in case somebody thought I was making it up. But it's all true. You can't really make that stuff up. Getting hired to pose as a businessman for a factory opening simply because I was a foreigner, appearing on a dating show, being included in Cosmo's hottest bachelors issue even though nobody at the magazine had ever seen me before - I still shake my head at some of those things.

In recent years there have been a glut of China books. Do you think there is still room for more books on China?

China is such a huge story I think there's definitely room for more China books. People are still buying them. Eventually writers will need to be more creative about the topics they choose, but I know a lot of exceptional reporters working in China who I'm sure will come up with great material for books.

Who are you hoping will read ?

I think my book will appeal to readers who are interested in the China you don't often read about in newspapers and magazines. The China I try to portray is not just about a corrupt government and polluted rivers, although that definitely exists. I wanted to bring to life the expat universe that I inhabited for the past six years, because I think it's a story that deserves telling. More broadly, I wanted to appeal to anyone interested in narrative travel writing, or who might want to live vicariously through someone who was willing to embarrass himself dancing in a Chinese music video, for example. Basically I wanted to write a book that I would want to read, the type of book I still sometimes pick up in a bookstore and think to myself, "I wish I was there".