(DISCLAIMER: Book reviews are the only posts I write that are not written sarcastically or with a humourous angle. So if I say within the review that I hate or love the book, for once I genuinely mean it.)
I thought about writing a book about foreigners living in China once. The idea I had was a Catch-22 style book that featured a huge cast of characters with each chapter focusing in on a particular laowai. The book would spin backwards and forwards in time (just like Catch-22) and would only make sense at the end. All of the thirty or forty characters would have some form of interaction with one another, and all of them would come from different walks of life. They were teachers, students, expat wives, businessmen, drug dealers and convicts, but they all shared the fact that they were all living in the fictional city of Huaishi and they were all utterly utterly miserable. I even thought of a great title for the book – China Has Many Hells.
Of course, the fact that I’m writing this obscure blog and not being interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey show tells you how far I got with this idea.
I did however write the first page of China Has Many Hells. It featured the two main characters of the book – Mark and Jack – two teachers in China at different stages of life. One was still young and had some idealism remaining in him; the other one older and already sunken into bitter pessimism. Here it is:
“China has many hells. This is just one of them.”
The older man put down his drink and picked up the half-lit cigarette that smouldered and gave forth thick black smoke from the grimy ashtray soaked in water and swirling tar. With a brief pause to contemplate the poisonous cheap coffin nail he was about to sully his lips with, he took a deep breath on the yellow filter and blew out the acridity with a long swollen sigh.
“Of course,” he continued, staring at the burning paper, “the fact that the Chinese have so many hells compared to our meagre Western one speaks volumes for their unending inventiveness in creating new ways of misery and torture.”
The man, though embittered and more than a few years past the brightest flame of his brief youth, did have a point. Mark looked around at the nicotine stained walls of the bar, the empty tables dimly lit by lonely candles floating in bulbs, and the fat lonely men who either gazed forlornly into space or into the bored eyes of deadened Asian girls. This was a place of broken dreams. A place where compromises were yet to be made. The dead end for those who had somehow failed along the way.
Mark was not yet one of these things, though the thought of its inevitability strangled him with dread. In the bloodshot eyes and alcoholic faces of the middle-aged around him, he shivered as he dimly perceived his own future. At least Jack was intelligent and insightful: a man who not only had achieved the impossible feat of realising what he was, but who stoically accepted his fate and to Mark seemingly offered a way out. It was evenings like these when he hoped to hear a piercing insight or stumble across a clue to his own salvation.
Jack knocked back another shot of the imitation whisky and slammed the chipped glass back down upon the table. From the faraway look in his eyes which always signified an oncoming barrage of perception, Mark knew he should pay attention.
“The only question is… whose hell is this one?” continued Jack, finally directing his gaze upon Mark. “Is it our hell? Stuck here in a cultural wasteland where the locals spit and shout at us hoping to someday catch a hold of all that success and money we read about in the newspapers which supposedly is happening all around us? Congregating together in bars we would avoid back home in order to bitch and gripe about the chinks whilst hoping someone will magically offer us a ticket one day to that exciting job with all the riches that come with it? Is this hell?”
A momentary pause as the waitress slouched over the table to replace the filthy ashtray with a slightly less filthy ashtray she had just cleaned with a greasy rag.
“Or is it their hell? Their heads so full of xenophobic propaganda and hatred for anything that’s different but still forced to live beside us and flirt with us so that they can steal a few extra dollars just to survive? The deluded fucking the intruded. I don’t know whose got it worse.”
As if to demonstrate his point, a loud American man in his late forties noisily settled his bill from the table opposite. An empty bottle of Chivas Regal, an untouched dish of peanuts, and the smoking remnants of a whole packet of Marlboros were the external remains of a man who had been trying to give the impression of a foreign businessman to his bored female acquaintance. Mark had seen him around the area a few times and knew him to be one of the new English teachers over at the No. 15 Middle School and that the Chivas Regal had probably cost him the best part of a week’s wages. The clue, anyway, was in the choice of boasting. The whisky, the peanuts and the cigarettes were the outward displays of a moderately successful local bureaucrat, and the English teacher was just aping what he saw around him in order to impress a naïve student who was probably more calculating then he could possibly realise. With loud cries and insincere high fives to Chinese waiters addressed by inconceivable English names like Alex and Justin, the American left the bar with his girl in tow while the once smiling waiters reverted quickly to their sullen frowns as soon as his back was turned.
The waitress sidled up to Mark, noticed his empty glass, and asked in heavily accented English: “One more?” A feeling of emptiness suddenly washed over him and Mark shook his head and asked for the bill in Chinese. Feigning confusion, the waitress asked in a desultory tone “You want pay?” to which Mark nodded with a heavy sigh.
“Whose hell are you living in, Mark?” asked Jack with a knowing, amused glint in his eye. Looking at the older man sat opposite him with the thinning hair and the growing paunch, Mark reached over and took one of the cigarettes which beckoned from the wrinkled dirty packet like a witch’s finger.
Thick black smoke blew into the air and continued to stain the peeling wallpaper with a deep yellow.
China Has Many Hells never made it past that first page. My tale of two expats at opposite ends of the spectrum will never come to pass. Therefore it was with some curiousity when I discovered that another writer had managed to do something with the same idea.
Quincy Carroll is an American who taught English in China and who recently published his first novel: Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside (which for the rest of this book review I am going to refer to simply as “Mountains“). The title refers to a type of punishment during the Cultural Revolution when bourgeois urban youth were sent away from their comfortable city homes and forced to live amongst the peasants out in the countryside. China, indeed, has many hells. However in Mountains, it isn’t Chinese youth who are being sent to faraway villages, it’s two American teachers.
Here’s the marketing blurb for the book:
Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside tells the story of two Americans living and teaching in rural China. The first, Thomas, is an entitled deadbeat, content to pass the rest of his days in Asia skating by on the fact that he’s white, while the second, a recent college graduate named Daniel, is an idealist at heart. Over the course of the novel, these two characters fight to establish primacy in Ningyuan, a remote town in the south of Hunan, with one of their more overzealous students, Bella, caught in between. Quincy Carroll’s cleverly written debut novel examines what we bring from one country to another.
As the blurb says, the book focuses in on the yin and the yang of Thomas and Daniel. Thomas is an aging and cynical teacher who doesn’t have much good to say about anybody. Daniel is an earnest young chap with dyed red hair and a passion for integrating himself with the locals. The plot of the book is very much centred around a clash of personalities between the two English teachers. An overenthusiastic student named Bella presents most of the opportunity for conflict between the two. Apart from the three main characters, there are also a few other members of the cast including a foreign teacher couple, a washed-up divorced Chinese teacher who lives in the library and a hustling wannabe entrepeuneur.
I’m pleased to be able to say that Mountains is actually rather good. I don’t give ratings on these book reviews but if I did then it would happily get a nice 4 out of 5. I have mentioned previously that I have a guilty secret of enjoying badly written books by foreigners about their time in China. There are many many of these memoirs doing the rounds, not only in China, but across all of Asia. I enjoy reading them because there is a certain sense of schadenfreude that somebody out there is having it worse than you and/or is writing about it in a way that oneself could do better. Carroll still focuses on the empty floating lives that many foreigners in China experience, yet he has managed to avoid most of the pitfalls that expat writers tend to fall into. For starters, the book isn’t just a chronicle of a series of drunken exploits (that in itself wouldn’t be too bad, but nobody so far has ever done a good job of doing so). By injecting autobiographical elements into a fictional story spread across two antagonists, Carroll is able to explore a multi-faceted view of the expat experience that wouldn’t be possible when just discussing himself.
That’s not to say the book is perfect: it isn’t. In fact, there are a couple of parts that are downright annoying. However, these are stylistic problems rather than thematic. The author is obviously a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and it shows a little too much. Out of Cormac McCarthy’s bibliography I’ve only personally read The Road; and while I can fully appreciate imitating the prose style of a book about a post-apocalyptic poisoned wasteland when writing about China, at times it is taken too far. The non-usage of quotation marks during conversations seems unnecessary and is often confusing. Likewise, the author (especially at the beginning of the novel) occasionally uses needlessly obscure words that I had never even heard of (and I’ve read every single one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories) thus forgetting George Orwell’s maxim “Never use a long word where a short word will do.” The usage of these strange words like “muntin” and “clerestory” seem to add touches of local flavour that would seem more suited to a novel set in New England rather than rural China.
However, these are minor flaws. Where Mountains succeeds it succeeds well. The best and most accurately described character in the whole book is not one of the teachers or their students, but the city of Ningyuan itself.This gloriously filthy backwater comes alive in Carroll’s descriptions of dingy back alleys and bland concrete buildings. The writer also is obviously a keen reader and student of fiction as he weaves in detailed metaphors and allusions throughout the book – I particularly enjoyed the constant comparisons between dogs on the street and the two foreign teachers. When Carroll describes the “mindless Pomeranians panting in the gutter, dressed in clothes” I immediately knew what he what he was alluding to. The final chapter is also delightfully ambiguous.
My only wish for this book is that Carroll had expanded more on the “bad” foreigner Thomas. It’s clear that neither Daniel or Thomas are really as black and white as they initially appear, but I felt that the author was at times unnecessarily biased against the older, more cynical teacher. This isn’t to say that there isn’t balance. Far from it, Carroll goes to great pains to illustrate the dark side of the younger Daniel (sleeping with prostitutes, his self-delusion, his attention seeking, etc). When Daniel announces with a great pride that he tattooed the words of the Chinese city he lives in on his arm and is building an aeolian harp on the school roof so that the students can remember him forever, I laughed out loud and shouted “What a cock!” Unfortunately this balance is not extended to Daniel’s antagonist Thomas nearly as much as it should be. We are told that he is “arrogant, lewd, and racist” but we are not shown much evidence to support this. There is hardly any backstory to Thomas at all. Mountains is a short and breezy read, so it’s a shame that a few extra pages on how Thomas became so cynical were not added.
The moral of the story is that neither an overly-idealistic approach or an overly-cynical approach to living in a foreign country is the key to happiness. One way will lead to continuous attention-seeking and naivety, the other will close you off to anything positive before it even happens. I was happy to see that Carroll briefly mentions a third teacher – Christopher – who appears to have the balance right: working and playing alongside the Chinese but not trying to make himself a clown in order to gain attention.
Most foreigners in China claim after their TEFL stints have concluded that they could write a book about their experiences. Here, Carroll actually does so and with great success. Despite the huge numbers of foreigners who come to teach in China every year, there are still very few good novels describing the experience. Finally we have a decent book that digs deep into the life of the TEFL teacher, and unlike Peter Hessler’s sterile River Town, actually isn’t afraid to reveal some of the dark side too.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.