Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside by Quincy Carroll tells the story of two very different expats in a small Chinese city.
Although Thomas barely speaks about his pre-China life, it’s clear that there’s nothing for him back home. He has no privilege at home, so he revels in living like a king and being treated as a celebrity in China. He is one of the expats who doesn’t learn the language. I don’t mean to mock expats and visitors who aren’t fluent (my own Mandarin tones are pretty garbage), but there’s a particular foreign teacher mentality captured here, a refusal to put in the time with Chinese vocab and an expectation that someone else will be able to speak enough English to accommodate his needs.
This is fiction, but throughout this novel I kept feeling like it was memoir. I know that guy! I met that guy! Even the minor characters, like an expat friend earning tons of Maobacks for wearing a suit and nodding thoughtfully in meetings, or a couple who blame each other for the hardships of their placement, are terribly realistic. I met those guys, too.
Daniel is insufferable in his own way. His very arrival is borne out of his privilege. An unfulfilled new grad at home, he’s gone abroad because he wants to Experience Life and work to Change the World. I was planning to link one of the essays I wrote while working my first post-college job in Yantai, but it’s just too green, and I can’t bear to share it with you. Carroll captures that naivete perfectly in Daniel.
I would have loved this book for the descriptions of Chinese scenes alone. There are a couple scenes on Chinese buses that really captured traveling in a country with so much natural beauty and such an incredibly long cultural history… while someone is spitting the shells of sunflower seeds on the floor and someone else is shouting into a cellphone. The low cost of living, the high salary of laowai laoshi, and then spending those stacks of pink RMB going to the next city over to drink in a different expat bar. Carroll captures being an interested but endlessly foreign observer of daily Chinese life, sensitively detailing Daniel and Thomas’ reactions to what they encounter, without generalizing about the culture.
Despite their extreme differences, the two men are often seen the same way by the locals. They are both foreign novelties. One student, Bella, loves them both because they are foreigners, others in town view foreigners with suspicion.
Daniel is often focused on his legacy in China. He wants to leave his mark and leave the city and school better than he found them, and in this goal he seems aware that many of his local relationships are based on Exciting Foreign Other and not Daniel as an individual. Even as he considers re-signing for one more year, he knows that his life will lead him back to a career in the US. It’s Thomas — the expat with no Mandarin skills, who doesn’t particularly like Chinese culture, who doesn’t care too much about teaching, once again leaving a school on bad terms — who’s spending his life drifting from school to school in China.
I received an eARC from the author to review (I also went to hear him read at the Boston Public Library!), but opinions here are my own.