On the surface Zachary Mexico is the archetypal rock star: long, shaggy mane, rumpled T-shirt and a pair of poured-on black jeans. Back in hometown New York he even plays with indie band the Octagon. But talk to him, and you realise there's much more to this guy than music.
Right now he has modern China in his sights, more specifically the hidden underbelly of the rising dragon.
Proficient in Mandarin at the age of 30, Mexico is perhaps the youngest among serious authors writing on China. And judging by the runaway success of his first book, "China Underground", sold out and awaiting a second printing, Mexico is the star student of Chinese social history.
Aware of the competition from an army of western writers, Mexico is hoping his alternative slant on the country and its people will be a breath of fresh air in a field choked with cliches: China's rise as an economic superpower, its miraculous economic growth, its challenge to US supremacy.
"The majority of what I found in the mainstream media focused on China's booming economy, but I wanted to read something different," he says. "I wanted to read about the crazy people I'd met in China. I wanted to read about the streets that hum with the energy of constant change, and how that change affects the young Chinese of my generation."
Based on a series of interviews, "China Underground" celebrates an alternative China inhabited by the people left behind by its recent economic revolution. These include a peasant-turned-photojournalist (the self-styled "Little Monkey King"), young women who work as prostitutes in the booming sex trade, the ketamine-dealing Triads, coal miners literally scraping a living, the "Jimi Hendrix of the Uighurs", young students still raging against Mao's legacy, homosexuals organising themselves in clubs, and other young people caught in the turbulence of change.
Mexico first got hooked on Chinese culture while at school, where he took a class in Mandarin.
"I was 16 then, and interested in Chinese philosophy. After visiting China as an exchange student I was hooked," he says.
Mexico enjoyed his time with a host family, none of whom spoke a word of English but were willing to sacrifice the only bed in the house to accommodate their guest.
"I hung out and played majong with the young father of the house. Chinese folk can be a little harsh sometimes but they're very friendly when they like you," he says.
After five years of study he was able to read Chinese newspapers. Now, with 15 years of practise, Mexico can speak Mandarin fluently. He's kept in touch with his host family but met hundreds more people on his visits to the country since 1995.
The best thing about being in China is making a lot of friends, he says. Some of them crop up in "China Underground".
"These people [featured in the book] don't work in offices. They don't wake up in the morning and go to work and check their bank account every two weeks. The book is about people who pursue whatever alternative existence is open to them -- mostly people under 40, young people."
Mexico spent May to August in 2006 recording conversations on his iPod with those he met. Knowing that he was American, his subjects opened up easily, realising the book wouldn't come out in Chinese.
The interviews took him to some out-of -the-way places. In Qingdao he met prostitutes who told him they made 200 yuan per day for having sex with 10 clients in the space of six hours. One of the women explained that she was lured into prostitution by her own uncle.
"I had a lot of sympathy for them," Mexico says.
He travelled to Shanxi province's Linfen, and watched the sun set through the pollution haze that hangs over China's coal capital. Here he learned of the desperate situation of the miners working deep down in unregulated mines.
In Shanghai's Tang Hui Club, he stumbled upon a fame-hungry Uighur guitarist and was struck by his Middle-Eastern looks -- hence the "Jimi Hendrix of the Uighurs". Then, he delved into the world of organised crime run by the Triads, the Chinese "mafia" who control countless rackets including the sale and distribution of illegal drugs like ketamine.
He found a brighter side of China's counter-culture in Yunna's Dali, an "earthly paradise" of bohemianism.
Mexico reckons his subjects furnished him with an insight into what's going on in the minds of China's young generation.
Besides material wealth, youngsters want China to become a powerful force in the world -- the centre of the universe, he says. Some professed their admiration for the US but others harboured real hatred for their western economic rival.
"I met people who said they cheered watching the 9/11 attacks," he says. Mexico thinks such extremism was fuelled by George W Bush's hawkish foreign policy. "Personally I think the past eight years has been a travesty for my country."
Through all his encounters Mexico says he's retained his love for the people of China and its landscape -- especially that of Yunnan.
Asked what he dislikes about China, he takes a long pause. "Umm, the traffic in Beijing and the pollution."
How about the Chinese government?
"I'm not really against the Chinese government. A lot of western people criticise too much and too quickly. Of course the government makes mistakes, but it's a hard job… like raising 30 kids. Sometimes, they get angry and hit the kids," he says.
He finds even his negative experiences in the country have been rewarding.
"I've learned as a foreigner that in China you need patience or you go crazy. In the west, if you want something, you go and get it. In China, the direct route is not always the best. Sometimes you have to be cunning."
By Zachary Mexico
Published by Soft Skull Press
Amazon.com/Asia Books, $11.53/Bt399