Exposing Pains of Life Abroad

book reviewI once knew the manager of an English language training center here in China who had a hiring preference for middle-aged, white males. Her reasoning: “They looked professorial.”

Trouble was, many of her hires turned out to be profoundly damaged human beings. She refused to accept the basic premise that if a 50-something white guy shows up at your doorstep in a provincial Chinese city telling you that his lifelong dream is to teach English in China, your first question needs to be: “warrant, divorce or bankruptcy?”

As it was, she would have loved Thomas, one of the two alternating narrators in Quincy Carroll’s latest novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside. Thomas is a man of a certain age, on the downward slope of life and quickly picking up speed toward expat oblivion.

We don’t know much of his backstory, but it’s clear he’s more damaged than most. Alcoholic. Sexually frustrated. Unable to see past his life’s failings and lacking self-worth, he lashes out. He is a man convinced that the only way to shine brighter is by blowing out somebody else’s candle.

Not that his fellow narrator, young and ardent Daniel, is without his own baggage. The more cynical reader, especially one familiar with the archetypes of foreigners in China, may find Daniel’s over the top idealism just as tiresome as Thomas’ endless kvetching. Daniel builds harps. He practices his tones. He rationalizes dead bodies in the middle of the road. He is a credit card hippy with no real responsibilities or life experience. He wonders if Thomas might be a fraud as a teacher—with only the slightest trace of self-doubt that he, all of 23, might not be all that qualified, either.

Daniel is also alarmingly lacking in self-awareness. He deplores Thomas’ drunkenness and supposed lechery, but in one sordid chapter, Daniel has a night out in Changsha, which leads him to momentarily abandon his idealism and seek solace in a manner which would no doubt be shocking to his student fan base waiting for him back at school.

In the end, however, the two narrators are less dueling archetypes of foreignness in contemporary China than they are representative of the fractured psyches of almost all of us who make China our home for any extended period of time.

Few of us, fortunately, live as tawdry an existence as Thomas, but it is also the rare expatriate who can maintain Daniel’s level of idealism in the face of the day to day challenges of China. Most of us exist on a spectrum somewhere in between.

Ultimately, there is no final chapter in which one or the other of these two narrators is revealed to be imaginary. Though, one wonders if Daniel and Thomas had real world analogs during the time when the author was teaching in Hunan, or if these were simply voices in his head, battling for the soul of a Lao Wai.