In Jia Zhangke’s 2018 movie “Ash is Purest White”, the protagonist, Qiao, gets off a Yangtze river ferry near the Three Gorges Dam. She knows nobody in this new city and has no money. Desperate, the ruse she employs is to walk into a restaurant, call a rich looking young man out of a private dining room and tell him he has got her younger sister pregnant. She demands money as compensation. The trick works, the scared man hands over a bunch of red hundred RMB notes. Qiao, a gangster’s girlfriend fresh from jail, has skills that Matthew Evans, the antihero of Tom Carter’s An American Bum in China, couldn’t dream off. Evans, like Qiao, finds himself broke and alone in China. Unlike Qiao, he is not a character in a movie where wild schemes succeed.
Matthew Evans starts out at his mum’s house in Muscatine, Iowa, and ends up homeless in Hong Kong. On the way he is kicked out of mainland China, goes back there to work as a teacher, and is then banished again. He is a childlike adventurer in a world that Carter steps in to interpret because, even if he wasn’t preoccupied with mere survival, Evans would be incapable of doing so.
As I would come to learn Evans embodied that apocryphal Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”; he seemed to revel in his wretchedness and, going against all ordinary reasoning, practically sought it out.
The author meets Evans at a book signing in Suzhou. Carter self-deprecatingly tells us this event for his book of photography is not well-attended, and so he has the time to get to know Evans, a young man of dishevelled appearance.
He was missing some teeth, he slouched defeatedly, he wore rimless glasses, his jowls were pudgy and scruffy, his wheat blond hair prematurely thinning, and the left corner of his bottom lip droopy.
Taken with this eccentric, who reels off his various plans and experiences in a stream of consciousness style, Carter will meet up with Evans many times over the next few years, seeing him as a kind of American pioneer in reverse or a luckless Huck Finn. Given the various references to Mark Twain, Carter is obviously a fan of his style. The book is illustrated by “catchpenny” prints by John Dobson. The pictures often give welcome comic relief to what is a tragic narrative.
We first meet Evans in the prologue, humming the Doors’ “Break on Through” as he illegally crosses into Burma from China to sell his American passport. This first glimpse has us wanting to know how Evans has come to this low point, but we’ll have to be patient while Carter fills us in on the necessary background of his scruffy protagonist.
Xi Jinping visited Evan’s hometown, Muscatine, both in 1985 as an agricultural delegate and later in 2012 just before becoming president. Xi allegedly has a soft spot for this place in America’s agricultural heartland. But through Evans’s eyes Muscatine is decaying: businesses are failing, manufacturers have left, while teenage pregnancies and the opioid crisis point to a dysfunctional society. There is no future for him, beyond a long sentence of loneliness living with his mother and working at a Hyvee supermarket. While the American dream is over the Chinese dream is just taking off and Evans wants a piece of it.
Evans had cancer as a child and the treatment has left him with a limp in addition to the missing teeth and thinning hair. He was a social outcast at high school. No dates or parties for Matthew. Rather than giving into frustration, the 21-year-old Evans hatches an escape plan, yes, China to see a girl he has met online. As former New York Times reporter Seth Faison noted in his memoir “South of the Clouds”, you don’t need to live up to Western standards of masculinity in China. By crossing the cultural divide romantic opportunities can be created for those marked as weird looking and offbeat in their own culture.
The story of the bumbling (young) Western male going to Asia to find love and (often) teach English is not a new one. There are countless memoirs detailing these adventures, whether it be in Korea, Japan, China or elsewhere. Often it leads to a different kind of isolation due to culture shock. As apparently anybody can get on a plane to Asia and teach English, the topic is not seen as a serious one to write about. Also, for some its unsavory because of cultural insensitivity of many of these sojourners, who indulge in excesses of alcohol and sex—or at least sexual intent.
This attitude seems judgmental though, there are many jobs “anybody” can do. No matter if it’s teaching or working at 7-Eleven you still have to turn up—and they’ll be material for a story if you are a good writer. Quincy Carroll’s 2015 novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is one example of a quality work about the English teaching scene in China. Carroll’s book is fiction though, Carter’s is non-fiction—well most of it, remembering that his source was the unreliable Evans.
When he gets to China, Evans finds out that his MySpace girl is a lesbian. Out of cash, but not ready to go home, he hits up other women on the now obsolete chat platform QQ. A real estate agent takes pity and allows him to crash in one of her apartments in Shanghai in return for odd jobs. For a while he has the kind of life he’d been hoping for, finding regular female company through QQ. But he neglects his odd jobs and the real estate agent gets fed up and sets the police on him. Evans visa has expired. He makes a run for it but is caught, briefly locked up and deported.
In his second stay in China Evans, armed this time with a fake college diploma, becomes a professor at a reputable university. He gets fired only to find an even better university teaching job— at a time when China was starting to try to get rid of unqualified, shady foreigners. Carter uses the term professor, but this seems like one of Evans’s own embellishments and his title should be “English teacher”.
Once again Evans is somewhere near happy: the university is out in Shanghai’s Minhang district far from the glitzy nightlife of the French Concession, but he has his own place. One of Carter’s friends, an editor of an expat mag waiting on his first paycheck, moves in with Evans and they have a boozy time of things. One night a couple of female students join them, the editor gets the girls and Evans heads out to look for a hairdresser open in the middle of the night, these places being brothels in weak disguise.
Carter at various stages tries to convince Evans to clean up his act and go straight, but the Iowan cannot help but self-sabotage. He asks all his female students out on the WeChat app, China’s WhatsApp. In due course complaints lead to the discovery that his diploma is fake and once again Evans is on the run. This time it will be worse.
After losing his passport in Burma, Evans has to sleep in hotel lobbies, ATM booths and McDonalds. He alienates his family as his grandmother pays for a plane home that he can’t board sans passport. He experiences the hippie backpacker scene in Yunnan province but doesn’t seem to enjoy it much. In between dribbles of money from his family and QQ girls he nearly starves to death.
Eventually he gets a new passport from the US consulate, but is given ten days to leave the country. He goes to Hong Kong and tries to get a new visa for the mainland but is now blacklisted. Evans thinks he will get a job in Hong Kong, noting the many illegal Southeast Asian prostitutes can work there. He fails. Far from the only one doing so in a city of ridiculously high rents, he sleeps outside on a piece of cardboard. He tries for a job in Macau but again no, the city is in a downturn due to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Evans, by this stage a 27-year-old going on sixty, retreats to McDonald’s, near to starvation again.
Evans brilliantly, albeit unwittingly realized, that for just thirteen Macanese patacas per day (about a buck and a half), he could live off one small order of McDonald’s French fries daily, along with free water and condiments packets, which from morning to night came down to one single ketchup-covered fry per hour — exactly the minimum amount of nutrition, salt and sugar that the body and brain require.
Back in Hong Kong he has a slice of luck at last. The umbrella protest movement of 2014 has begun, students camping out and are only too happy to give Evans food. They assume he is showing solidarity with their cause. Evans much like Forrest Gump lives through some of the major events of the day with no idea what’s going on. However, eventually this too will have to end.
Carter has created an entertaining tale about the lower rungs of the expat scene in China, including the bar streets and backpacker hostels. He also captures the atmosphere of the early years of Xi Jinping’s reign—the crackdown on foreigners, the end of the party in Macau and the beginning of the protest movement in Hong Kong.
This is a tale of being away from home and out of your depth that many can relate too. Evans is, I would guess, proud of this portrait—apparently the book was his idea. It grates that he didn’t wise up and have more fun, but I wish him the best and hope he doesn’t try to go and make a life for himself in, for example, Japan or Thailand in the future—he is not the type to learn from his mistakes.