I know the author, Tom Carter, of the book, An American Bum in China and he was kind enough to send me a copy of it. I loved it, especially because I spent four years in Iowa and I’ve been to Muscatine (more on that below). I also loved that it is 102 pages and I was able to read it in a day. Oh, and it also has great drawings. What’s not to like?
So I promised Tom I would write a review of it. But because I am no book reviewer, I found myself stumbling to do so. Tom stepped in and said he’d send me a review and I could publish it if I liked it and I do and so I am. Below. It’s by JFK Miller (more on him below).
Enjoy. And buy the book.
Muscatine, Iowa, is a backwater in a flyover state with no rightful claim to attention. This small city of barely 24,000 on the Mississippi bled Trump in 2016 because it is exactly that: forgettable and forgotten, an overlooked if not entirely abandoned part of the American Dream. Mark Twain spent two years in Muscatine in the 1850s running its local newspaper, but in Life on the Mississippi the greatest impression the city seems to have left on him were its sunsets.
If Muscatine has any meager claim to relevance today it is because, for a brief time in the spring of 1985, it served as a representation of homespun Americana to a delegation from the People’s Republic of China led by a serious young man who was, his hosts recalled many years later, unfailing courteous.
That young man was Xi Jinping, then 31, and a rising star in the party he would later lead. “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” Xi told his Iowan hosts, Roger and Sarah Lande, when he returned to Muscatine in 2012 on a carefully staged nostalgia trip before he became China’s president. “To me, you are America.”
I doubt Xi would be so courteous in his remarks about Matthew Evans, the protagonist of Tom Carter’s new nonfiction book, An American Bum in China. Evans is also from Muscatine, the same American heartland as the Landes, but he represents a very different America and a very different type of American, one who is, perhaps, more suited to these fraught times. The Chinese name for the US is Meiguo — the beautiful country — but in the Xi-Trump era the beautiful country has turned ugly to China, and China ugly to it.
This makes Carter’s book, recently published by Camphor Press, a timely release, and Evans an unlikely anti-hero. We first meet him stealing across the Chinese border from Ruili, a border town on the Shweli River, to Muse, in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. The 27-year-old is there to sell the only thing he has left of any value, his American passport, for which he has been assured a quick US$15,000 by a black-market broker.
“Dreamfully driven to do things regardless of their consequences, Evans was singularly determined to get this money — and willing to compromise China’s territorial integrity, sell out his own country’s national security, and brave Burma’s ongoing civil war in order to obtain it.”
This prologue sets in train Evans’ downward trajectory. His is a cautionary tale, all of it true except for a little dramatic license taken by Carter for the narration. The message for Westerners today is that if they want to try their hand in 21st century China they should come well-prepared, if not with a solid plan then at least with solid credentials. If they don’t, they’ll be chewed up and spat out by a mercenary employment market that no longer suffers from a cultural cringe.
Foreigners like Evans may have prospered in China 20 years ago, perhaps even 10 years ago, but today they are crowded out by locals who are eminently better qualified, better educated, and generally better equipped. Westerners are no longer attributed superiority by virtue of the color of their skin; in today’s hubristic China, chances are it will actively work against them.
Rednecks like Evans don’t stand a chance. He is clueless, a slob, a chancer, a reprobate; the kind of person who ordinarily doesn’t make it out of America let alone Iowa. His saving grace is that he knows it. He is, by his own admission, the personification of “everything wrong with America”; he is a drifter, a dreamer, a Willy Loman but alive to his own inadequacies. He shares Loman’s disenchantment with the American Dream and seeks to supplant it with a Chinese Dream of his own.
Only a nightmare awaits. Evans crafted his own doom when he left Muscatine against the wishes of his overbearing mother who thinks all Chinese are “damn Commies.” She tells him, “They’ll shoot you. The moment you get off that airplane they’ll shoot you. Or they’ll arrest you. They’re Communists. And Communists hate Americans!”
As it turns out she is not far off the mark. Evans is in fact arrested, but you can’t say he didn’t bring it on himself. He does the one thing a foreigner should never do in China: break the law. His first infraction is not having the correct visa. For this, he is arrested and sentenced to eight days’ pretrial detention in a Shanghai jail before he is formally deported.
A sensible person would have quit at this point. Not Evans. This is why I have little sympathy for him. Evans’ exploits serve as a primer on what not to do, not just in China but in life generally. After a brief stint back in Muscatine — which coincides with Xi’s 2012 visit there — he returns to China.
He again breaks the law, this time by forging a diploma at a Shanghai print shop. His muddled thinking is that today’s China is something like America’s Wild West — to hell with the law; all that is needed is some swagger (and a bogus degree) to bluff one’s way into a job. As Carter writes,
“Evans had bought a fake diploma thinking it would get him a better life, yet I could barely make ends meet with my real degree. “You know this can’t end well,” I sighed. “All those friggin’ Chinese schools cheated me, so why can’t I cheat them back?” he responded with childlike plaintiveness, then asked in a whimper, “What else am I gonna do?”
It works, at first. Evans manages to wheedle his way into a teaching position at Nanjing Agricultural University. But his students catch on about halfway into his first semester. They lodge a complaint and he is summarily dismissed. Sometime later, he manages to blag his way into another teaching position, this time at East China Normal University in Shanghai. His fraud is once again exposed, he is dismissed a second time, and flees Shanghai in disgrace.
He drifts to Yunnan, then to Sichuan, living mostly like a tramp. He tries, for once, to observe the law by applying for a new passport. But the US embassy is wise to him, having gotten wind, courtesy of his mother, of his attempt to flog his passport on the Myanmar black market.
“Locked out of his country’s diplomatic post and with no papers to prove his nationality, he was, by definition, ‘administratively stateless.’ A spiritual person might consider it sweet, karmic retribution for all his transgressions.”
His nadir comes in Macau. Here he takes up residence on the street in front of Hotel Lisboa, the city’s iconic casino where fortunes are made and lost. Now utterly destitute, he asks a local to write “Rub the lucky foreigner’s tummy” in Mandarin on a piece of cardboard which he then proceeds to hold over his head. He hopes to appeal to superstitious Chinese tourists by charging them to rub his tummy for luck, similar to the way they do to statues of deities in Buddhist temples. He is eventually chased away by hotel security. Undeterred, he tries his luck in front of other casinos but suffers the same fate. Fortune may favor the brave but not the clueless.
Perhaps I am being unkind. Carter, the narrator, is far more sympathetic. There is a morality tale here but he tells it in good humor; it is an enjoyable romp and a quick read, clocking in at only 130 pages. Carter was a natural fit for Evans’ story, as it was his own book of lush photography, 2008’s CHINA: Portrait of a People, which drew Evans to China in the first place.
Carter also sees a little of Evans in himself: a mischievous interloper with something of Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Finn about him. But if Twain was a non-participant in his protagonist’s story, Carter plays a more active role, coming in and out of Evans’ life at various points during his Chinese odyssey. He even offers Evans friendly counsel, urging him to quit China when there’s nothing left there for him. Evans, not surprisingly, is deaf to this sage advice.
If Carter’s book draws inspiration from another source it is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. He employs Swift’s technique of chapter summaries to give the reader a useful guide as to where the journey is heading, described in olde English: “What happened to Evans in Chinese prison, and how he was expelled thence,” “In what distress Evans flees, and the traveler’s adventures in Yunnan,” and so forth.
Carter’s previous book, 2013’s Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, was an anthology of essays from noteworthy writers such as Simon Winchester and Peter Hessler, which he commissioned and edited. The title of that book was a tongue-in-cheek stab at the Xi administration’s first social policy, a nationwide crackdown on foreigners, who were referred to as buliang fenzi, which means “unsavory elements.” In Carter’s words:
“Beijing in the East and New York in the West — each place thought that it was the best. But with fluctuating employment rates, scarily high crime stats, and arguably one of the worst public education systems, the United States has lost its right to be called a land of opportunity. That title now goes to China, whose shores are now teeming with Western refuse such as Evans and myself. But unlike McDonald’s, which refuses to close their doors to anyone, the People’s Republic does not want our tired, our poor, our huddled.”
Evans, however, more than fits this description. We last see him in Hong Kong in 2014. Here he finds himself penniless, living like a bum in a makeshift cardboard home, and an unwitting observer of the Umbrella Movement. It is a fitting place to end his story. In hindsight, it was a good time to check out of Hong Kong as Evans seemed on the cusp of doing at the end of the book. The passive resistance of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution has now been surpassed by the fury and ferocity of 2019’s anti-extradition law movement. Many foreigners have since seen the writing on the wall and bailed from Hong Kong. For once, Evans was ahead of the curve.
JFK Miller was born in Brisbane, Australia, where he currently resides and is working on a book on the city’s migrants. He has also worked as a lawyer in London and was editor-in-chief of that’s Shanghai magazine, a six-year experience he recounted in his 2015 book, Trickle-down Censorship.