The Life of Laowai5 min read

Quincy Carroll reviews An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

A common explanation for the dearth of quality fiction set in modern China is that nothing invented by the mind of a foreigner could ever compare to the everyday stories out in the streets. China is complex, dynamic, at times bewildering, and in the 18 years since the release of Peter Hessler’s River Town, global audiences have exhibited a sustained appetite for factual, firsthand accounts of life in the Middle Kingdom. During that same time, many writers have tossed their hats into the ring to varying degrees of success. Yet there has been a noticeable lack of attention paid to what some might argue is the most curious subject of all in China: the laowai or foreigner living there. This is by no means an appeal for more navel-gazing memoirs about Asia as seen through the eyes of the West, but rather a call for more stories critically examining the attitudes and motivations of those who have come to make China their home. Tom Carter’s recent work, An American Bum in China, a true-to-life account of Iowan Matthew Evans’s “bumblingly brilliant escapades” from Guangdong to Shanghai to Yunnan to Hong Kong, tackles these themes head-on, and upon reading, even the most ardent defenders of fiction will be forced to admit: you just can’t make this stuff up.

Although the term laowai isn’t a pejorative per se, anyone who has spent time in China will pick up on the connotations when it’s used a certain way: that hapless, dopey Westerner, usually male and rarely able to speak Mandarin, who approaches the country and its culture with ignorance, condescension, and a tendency to blame. This is surely too harsh of an introduction to give Matthew Evans, who attracts (and rightfully deserves) sympathy at the beginning of Carter’s book – underprivileged and abandoned by his father, he is diagnosed with leukemia at the age of thirteen, spends most of seventh and eighth grade in the hospital, then returns to school with thinning hair and a lifelong limp, only to be ostracized by his peers. Yet as the narrative progresses, and Evans moves to China as a young man, his behavior grows increasingly difficult to tolerate as he plays into the FILTH (Fail in London, Try Hong Kong) stereotype: forging his work credentials, trying to date his students, and taking handouts at every turn. Indeed, there is a page-turning quality to the book based on the simple, foreboding question: just how bad is this going to get?

Pretty bad, is the answer. Evans is indigent throughout much of the story, squatting in hotel lobbies, vacant stairwells, ATM vestibules, and 24-hour McDonald’s. He’s deported, yet somehow finds his way back into the country. He loses his passport. He goes a full month without showering. At one point, he’s thrown into jail for living on an expired visa. In each instance, he relies on the benevolence of strangers, and often his family, to bail him out. Although the choices he makes to get himself into these situations are exasperating enough, what is perhaps most upsetting is his inability or unwillingness to change, making the same mistakes over and over again – often just moments after averting some previous, similar disaster. He is his own worst enemy, and like a roadside pileup, it’s hard to look away. But he’s also stoic, diffident, and self-deprecating at times, specifically during his interactions with the author – who appears as a character in the book – making it difficult to judge Evans too quickly, even if he does prove more “bumbling” than “brilliant” in the end.

‘Foreign detritus’ such as Matthew Evans epitomize the if not tragic, then surely inevitable, nature of the West’s decline”

Carter adopts a folksy, Mark Twain-like tone throughout the story, equating Evans to a sort of vagabond antihero, à la Huckleberry Finn. While plausible in the context of the hero’s disadvantaged upbringing and lawless jaunts across China, this feels stretched and inappropriate by the book’s conclusion, as not once does Evans perform a morally correct, albeit misguided, action – which another character, Buchanan, a mutual acquaintance of both subject and author, identifies as a “failing to differentiate between right and wrong.” This muddled impression bleeds over into the narrator’s attitude toward Evans, which feels inconsistent at times, oscillating between disapproval and understanding, perhaps due to the fact that Carter feels a certain measure of responsibility over his protagonist. (Toward the beginning, it’s revealed that his work of photography, China: Portrait of a People, was part of what motivated Evans to move abroad.) While not a major impediment to reader enjoyment, this apparent hedging on the part of the author does detract from one of the book’s more salient points: that the power dynamic has shifted, and “foreign detritus” such as Matthew Evans epitomize (or as he would say, “persananify”) the if not tragic, then surely inevitable, nature of the West’s decline.

In this regard, Carter does an admirable job of blending the macro with the micro, and once again, fact proves stranger than fiction. Evans’s hometown of Muscatine, Iowa, a rural community on the banks of the Mississippi (“the American equivalent of China’s Yangtze River”) represents everything that an economically resurgent China is not: in recession, decimated by methamphetamine use, and generally unremarkable in just about every way. Except one. In the 80s it accommodated a delegation of visiting Chinese agronomists, including Xi Jinping. Years later, returning to Muscatine as one of the world’s most powerful men, Xi is quoted as saying, “To me, you are America” – a backhanded form of glad-handing that might as well have been made directly in reference to Evans. Where American Bum succeeds is in its ability to humanize these larger global issues, and while it will be a challenge for many readers to maintain sympathy for the protagonist throughout, many will also be left wondering if that was an intentional message on the part of the author, as Chinese patience for Evans and those like him has perhaps run out. ∎

Tom Carter, An American Bum in China (Camphor Press, September 2019).
Header: “Our hero in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement in 2014,” an illustration from the book.