A 35,000 Mile Walk About – guest post by Alec Ash

June 29, 2016

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Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography [China: Portrait of a People] based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.

I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.

Alec Ash [AA]: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?

Tom Carter [TC]: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.

Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.

AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?

TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].

The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.

AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?

TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.

Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.

AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.

TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.

In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…

TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.

I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.

AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?

TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.

I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …

AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?

TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.

And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.

This interview was first posted on Tumbler September 25, 2013 and on The Anthill.org September 26, 2013

 

 


Driving almost 8-thousand miles in 38-days in a 67-year-old car called Roxanne

May 24, 2016

This is the real life story of Dina and Bernard Bennett driving in a road rally from Beijing to Paris in 2007.

The closest books I can compare this reading experience with is Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia” and Tom Carter’s “China: Portrait of a People“.

The big difference is that Theroux rode the rails, and Carter walked for almost two years across China. In Peking to Paris, Dina and her husband drove a 1940 Cadillac-LaSalle Series 52 Coupe that Dina called Roxanne.

On page 79, Dina says, “China is full of surprises.” Then she dives into a description of a café that specializes in Mongolian hotpot, and said, “Behind me is a full wall of shelves and bins stuffed with vegetables, fish, poultry, pork, lamb and beef. I count four sections, each easily five feet wide, divided by eight shelves reaching the ceiling. Every shelf is crammed with ingredient bins …”

With this description, Bennett shows us that China is an eating culture, and that food is very important to the Chinese.

In another chapter, she discovers that the Chinese and Americans have more in common than she had thought when they stay a night at a rustic Chinese dude ranch where urban Chinese come to rough it on vacations spending time with Mongolian herders.

While driving across China, the roads were smooth, but once they crossed the border into Mongolia, a band of boys exercising their democratic freedom, threw rocks at Roxanne and shattered the driver’s side of the windshield helping to explain why China built the Great Wall.

In addition, a few hundred yards into Mongolia, the smooth, paved roads they had enjoyed in China ended and the rest of the trek across this landlocked country was mostly on dirt and sand taking a heavy toll on the mechanical health of Roxanne. And in Russia the biggest challenge was avoiding potholes capable of swallowing whole cars.

Because of their road trip from China to Paris, Dina and Bernard were bitten by the travel bug and they have now completed more than a dozen road trips all over the world. After reading this true life adventure, you might want to follow their road trips at Dina Bennett.net

The LaSalle in the above video is not the one that Dina and Bernard drove in the 2007 rally from Beijing to Paris, but the video gives you an idea of the car they drove 7,800 miles across China, Mongolia, Russia to Eastern Europe and eventually Paris, France — a journey that took thirty-five grueling days.

I think reading Peking to Paris was an adventure, and I highly recommend this book as a safer way to travel without the risk of flat tires and breakdowns.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

A1 on March 13 - 2016 Cover Image with BLurbs to promote novel

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Where there’s a Will there is a Way – China’s Legless Chen Zhou

May 18, 2016

Chen Zhou’s said, “God of Heaven took my legs, but he gave me a beautiful wife and a pair of healthy children granting me a platform where I can make my life meaningful. Everyone gets knocked down in life. The winners get up no matter how many times they get knocked down. I’ll keep fighting as long as I breathe.”

Born in 1983, Chen Zhou, age 30, lost his legs in a train accident when he was age 13. He then started singing for money on the streets.

To survive, he also shined shoes, sold newspapers and repaired electronic appliances.

Chen Zhou is more than a traveling musician. He is a mountain climber, an inspirational speaker and an advocate for the handicapped.

In fact, he has climbed China’s Five Great Mountains including Mount Tai eleven times (more than 5,000 feet above sea level—the base starts at 490 feet—an elevation gain of more than 4,500 feet). Mount Tai has been a place of worship for at least 3,000 years and has served as one of China’s most important ceremonial centers—emperors often traveled to the summit of Mount Tai to pay homage to heaven. – Viral Nova.com

The stone stairway to the summit has 7,200 steps. To give you an idea of how high that is, the stairway in a two story house usually has 14 steps. If Mount Tai were a house, it would be about 514 stories high. For a comparison, the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates, only has 163 floors.

To walk up those steps with his arms, Chen Zhou uses a pair of home-made wooden boxes that each weighs seven pounds (watch videos to see how he does it).

Yu Lei is Chen Zhou’s wife, originally from Henan Province. They first met when she heard him singing in the streets for donations in the town of Jiu-jiang in Jiangxi Province.

She was deeply touched by his story, introduced herself and they became friends.

Chen’s positive attitude toward life and powerful will impressed Yu so much that she fell in love with him, and they married. She felt that she had found her hero.

Chen Zhou promised to have a traditional wedding ceremony on the top of Mount Tai. It took him 19 hours to complete the hike to the summit. In the ceremony both Chen Zhou and Yu Lei wore bright red Chinese traditional costumes to celebrate their marriage and happiness.

The couple has a daughter and a son.

The CCP, China’s government, promotes Chen Zhou as a hero in the media. He has traveled to hundreds of towns and cities in China and has held thousands of street concerts.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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Trekking Sky High in China

May 4, 2016

The Daily Mail says, “Don’t look down!” In the first two videos, you will see tourists walking on glass attached to the side of a cliff 4,700 feet above sea level.

Another perilous site may be found on the slopes of China’s Shifou Mountain. Thousands of feet above sea level, and the Chinese workers building another cliff-walkway are using little or no safety gear.

When finished, the wooden ‘road’ – that’s the width of a dinner table – will stretch for 1.8 miles making it China’s longest sightseeing path.

Then there is walking on air at Huang Shan in the Yellow Mountains.

Next to last but not least, the Hua Han plank walk.  At my age, I’d rather walk on glass. Huckberry.com says, “This is no pirate’s plank walk. Located 7,000 feet above sea level on China’s Hua Shan Mountain, the Huashan Plank Walk embodies peril of a different kind.

The ascent begins with a short set of steps carved into the side of a mountain. Soon after, the steps turn into a “ladder” of iron rods. Both require extremely careful steps to compensate for precarious footing. Then comes the notorious plank walk.

Hua Shan has also been named the “Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World” by tourists.

Last, we join trekkers on their way to the top of Huangshan. Is that a hiker wearing high heels—the one that’s sitting down? You may notice that these hikers are not letting go of the rope. Would you?

China Mike offers wise advice for domestic and foreign tourists: “Since Huangshan is a top tourist attraction and popular travel destination for the Chinese, book ahead, especially on summer weekends.” The photographs on Mike’s site are worth seeing.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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Zhouzhuang, China’s Ancient Water Town

April 27, 2016

We arrived early when the parking lot and the streets were about empty.  That’s the best time to get there.

Zhouzhuang is surrounded by water, and boats are needed for most short trips.

Zhouzhuang history is rooted in China’s Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) more than a thousand years before Venice was established. However, it would not be called Zhouzhuang until 1086 AD .

The town is well known for its preservation of numerous buildings from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Zhouzhuang, the Venice of Asia,  is on the United Nations Reserve List for the World Cultural Heritage and the Dubai International Best Practice to Improve the Living Environment.

As you can see, it gets crowded. Most of these tourists were Chinese citizens from the growing middle class.

This is where I was a photo thief. I wanted to take a picture of these captured birds but the owners wouldn’t let me.  He pointed at a sign that said I’d have to pay.

I walked a distance and used my meager telephoto lens to take this shot of the birds tied to the owner’s boat.

For a comparison with Europe’s Venice in Europe, while there are no historical records that deal directly with the founding of Venice, available evidence has led some historians to agree that the original population of Venice were refugees from Roman cities near Venice (420 – 568 AD), and then from the ninth to twelfth centuries Venice became a city state.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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On the Great Wall: Part 2 of 3

April 7, 2016

In 1999, we visited The Great Wall at Badaling.  We returned to visit a different section in 2008. The second time, I carried a digital camera (a few of the photos appear with this post).

Smithsonian Magazine reported, “Few cultural landmarks symbolize the sweep of a nation’s history more powerfully than The Great Wall of China. Constructed by a succession of imperial dynasties over 2,000 years, the network of barriers, towers and fortifications expanded over the centuries, defining and defending the outer limits of Chinese civilization. At the height of its importance during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), The Great Wall is believed to have extended some 4,000 miles, the distance from New York to Milan.

The sections of The Great Wall we visited are about an hour out of Beijing. The most popular site is at Badaling.  I think the second choice, Mutianyu, is more dramatic. This portion of The Great Wall runs along the ridge of a mountain range. Badaling, meanwhile, starts in a mountain pass fortress.

The best way to reach The Great Wall is by taxi or bus. After you get there, you’ll discover the usual tourist shops. Since I enjoy haggling, I spent time shopping.

At Badaling, there were camels and horses you could pay a fee to sit on while having your photo taken.

Once you reach Mutianyu, you have a choice—take a few hours to climb the mountainside  to The Great Wall or ride a ski lift to the top in fifteen minutes.

China’s Great Wall was not built by one emperor. It was built in segments by the kings of several nations over a period of centuries. Those walls were eventually linked together by China’s first emperor in 221 BC.

When you are on The Wall, if you get thirsty or yearn for a snack, there are vendors that carried their goods up the mountain often using horses.

Once you are ready to leave The Great Wall at Mutianyu, the toboggan ride is worth the price.( see the embedded video with this post)

Continued on April 8, 2016 in Part 3 or start with Part 1

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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On The Great Wall: Part 1 of 3

April 6, 2016

Like so much about China, The Great Wall is also the victim of myths that are not always true. Did you know that the history of the Great Wall of China started when fortifications built by various states during the Spring and Autumn (771 – 476 BC) and Warring States (475 – 221 BC) periods were connected by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi? But the best-known and best-preserved section of The Great Wall was built in the 14th through 17th centuries A.D., during the Ming Dynasty—more than two thousand years later.

If you want to know more about The Great Wall, I suggest reading Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. The first part of his book is about the months he spent driving the length of The Great Wall all the way to Tibet.

If you watch the video you will discover that before there was one wall, there were many—all built by different kingdoms before China was unified in 221 BC.

Although I enjoyed reading Country Driving, I think that the hundred and twenty-two pages that focus on The Great Wall are the best part.

Before reading Hessler’s book, I wrongly believed, as so many do, that The Great Wall was a failure as a defense against invaders. However, Hessler proves that myth wrong. For the most part, the wall did keep marauders out.

In fact, on page 116 of the paperback, Hessler quotes David Spindler who found evidence that the Ming Great Wall actually worked as a defensive structure.

The Great Wall failed when the unified Mongols invaded China in the 13th century but it didn’t happen overnight. It took sixty years for the Mongols to conquer all of China.

Before Genghis Khan unified the Mongols, there was no unified Mongolia—only nomadic tribes that fought amongst each other and raided into China whenever one or more tribes decided on a whim to go raiding. That is if they could fight their way past The Great Wall guarding China’s heartland.

Hessler points out that no archeologists or historians have studied the history of The Great Wall but there are amateurs that have, both Western and Chinese, and these Great Wall amateur (experts) have discovered original documents written by Ming Dynasty military officers and troops detailing the defense of the wall against nomads intent on raiding into China to loot, rape and steal. According to this information, the wall succeeded more than it failed.

Continued on April 7, 2016 in Part 2

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

A1 on March 13 - 2016 Cover Image with BLurbs to promote novel

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Subscribe to “iLook China”!
Sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top of this page, or click on the “Following” tab in the WordPress toolbar at the top of the screen.

About iLook China

China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


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