11/19/19

&: An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

Pulling up my hometown newspaper's front page, the top story today is about a man, woman, and ferret injured in a home invasion. And, really, there isn't a "hometown newspaper," and I'm referring to a website operated by Golden West Broadcasting, who run the town's two FM stations (one playing country and the other easy listening adult contemporary) and one oldies AM station. The only daily newspaper was bought up by Hollinger in the '90s, then sold off to Transcontinental in the early-2000s, and then given away in 2016 to Star News Publishing, who closed it down. It had a good run—a hundred twentysomething years—but what're you gonna do? It was that newspaper that gave me my first paid writing job. I remember going down to their offices on Fairford Street, just across from the police station and city hall, just off Main Street, and they were still using typewriters.

The city was a transport hub, with the Trans-Canada and the CPR running right through it, in the middle of prime agricultural land. The last boom was in the '50s, and it was mostly a slow decline after that. The city's population peaked in 1961 at just over thirty thousand and the slow hollowing-out only stopped in the last decade or so, when it became a commuter suburb for the largest nearby center, fiftysomething kilometers up the highway, which was experiencing its own boom. There wasn't much going on, especially when I lived there. There were no jobs on the railway anymore, the potash plant wasn't hiring, and everything seemed to be shutting down. The jobs I held while living in my hometown included: overnight clerk at a roadside chain hotel, working the line at a slaughterhouse (first, a beef slaughterhouse then a pork slaughterhouse, and I believe both operations have since been shut down), then various warehouse and shelf-stocking jobs. I never kept in touch with anyone from my graduating class at high school, but I sometimes see them surface in headlines on Golden West Broadcasting's news site, sometimes for coaching a girls volleyball team and more often for methamphetamine trafficking or domestic violence arrests. I was, I think, one of four that ended up leaving town: one went to teach high school in Grande Prairie, one moved to Edmonton and worked for the Edmonton Police Service, and the third is a mezzo-soprano who has performed with minor orchestras and is currently getting a degree in Deaf Studies at Vancouver Community College.

What would I have done if I had stayed home? I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. I'd managed to get myself to a university down the highway, but thank God, a year or two into a disastrous undergraduate career, someone offered me the chance to go to China.

I can't help but see something of myself in Tom Carter's American bum—Matthew Evans—who escaped rural Iowa for Southern China, in search of a girl he met off Myspace and wound up bouncing between shady teaching gigs, begging cash off women on QQ, and ending up in various detention facilities. What would he have done if he had stayed at home?
Evans spent two years studying at Muscatine Community College for his associate degree, then another two years in coding courses for something called a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement.
That certificate, what Evans called "a poor-man's computer science degree," wound up being valid only in Muscatine; Evans was laughed out of every IT company he applied at (whether because of the certificate or because of Evans, who knows). Without any career prospects, the twenty-one-year-old went back to the dairy cooler of Hy-Vee.
Evans makes his way through the expat underground of the 2000s, a time and place when a flyover state refugee with a forged diploma could find a way to get by, as long as they stayed one step ahead of the mostly ineffectual local Public Security Bureau. Even after some time in detention and deportation, Evans returns to China again, after a visit by Xi Jinping to Muscatine, a town that the Chairman had stayed in first in 1985:
Having been imprisoned in China, Evans felt embittered watching the heir apparent of the new world superpower saunter through the decaying city of his birth. But looking back, Evans admits he was angrier with his fellow Americans, whom since Xi's first visit in the 1980s had shipped the nation's entire manufacturing base to China, effectively killing off small towns like Muscatine.
Like his hometown's namesake fish, the musky, known for its low reproductive rate and self-destructively slow growth, what Evans saw upon returning to Muscatine was the end of the American Dream that his European forefathers had immigrated to Iowa to pursue.
"I couldn't believe what a wasteland Muscatine had become since I'd been away," Evans told me. "All the family-run shops were shuttered, the strip malls were empty, factories closed... I couldn't find work anywhere!"
For me, for lots of other temporary refugees in China in the 2000s, it wasn't so much that China held much promise, but it was one of the only places left to escape to, if you had no other prospects and enough cash for a round-trip ticket. I sold a 1992 Chevy Beretta to get the cash up and went over as a student, at first. The Western world was at war with much of the rest of the world, and, even if you had the means to, there wasn't much to hope for in going to Europe or elsewhere in East Asia. China was at the perfect point in its development, where it still needed the lowest rung of Westerner, who were given a little red book stamped with Foreign Experts Certificate 外国专家证 for showing proof of a community college associate's degree.

There wasn't shit to do back home. So, if you're going to spend your twenties stumbling from dead-end job to dead-end job, you might as well do it somewhere interesting—that's what I thought, at least. Carter describes them as a "new generation of young, restless, socially unmoored American expatriates fleeing to the Middle Kingdom, just as they did to Paris in the 1920s and to India in the 1960s." (I suddenly don't like the Paris in the '20s comparison, even though I've made it myself.) "The United States has lost its right to be called the land of opportunity," Carter writes, and he decides, "that title now goes to China, whose shores are now teeming with Western refuse such as Evans and myself." And me too, once upon a time.

I wasn't putting off a career in finance or journalism or anything like that to bum around China; I knew I couldn't work for a few years and start saving for the downpayment on a house; and my parents had already split up, so I wasn't going to return to some Norman Rockwell home life, hanging around the house, waiting for my big break. Whatever job I managed to lie my way into in Guangzhou or Dalian or Nanjing, at least I wouldn't be working outside, I'd have plenty of time off to party and write and do whatever, and I was learning another language, and I could completely escape from whatever was destined for me back in the heartland.

The story of Evans securing a teaching job at Nanjing Agriculture University sums up perfectly how people got by. He gets a fake degree from a diploma mill called Ashford University, goes into an interview secured through a friend of a friend, claims to the staff that he has an "agricultural background" and signs the contract. He held on for half a semester before caught out by his own students, who were expecting something more than elementary language lessons. But he bounces back. Nothing to worry about. He take his Ashford University diploma, takes a train to Shanghai, and talks his way into a job at the even more prestigious East China Normal University. Whatever happened, it was better than working the cooler at Hy-Vee.

Once I spent a very brief stretch in a detention facility, I decided it was time to get out, but Evans never makes that call. I mean, Carter never quite comes out and says it, but it sounds like Evans might have some degree of cognitive impairment. You say enough times a guy can't make eye contact or form relationships, it goes without saying, he's probably on the spectrum (and the John Dobson illustrations add to that impression). That probably goes a long way to explaining some things. (And so I think part of the greater point about the heartland hollowed out by deindustrialization and neoliberal vampires sucking all the vitality out of the American Dream is undercut somewhat by having your hero be such a fuck up, but, hey, first, maybe that's exactly right, and, second, it's a true story, right? But anyways.)

The book closes with Evans' adventures in Hong Kong, after his "soft exile" from the Mainland. He can't get a visa to get back in, so he crashes in Chungking Mansions while poking around trying to pick up illegal work, then winds up sleeping down at a ferry pier, surviving off McDonalds french fries. His musing on the 2014 Occupy protests and the Umbrella Movement are timely again. "He didn't know it yet, but Matthew Evans was witnessing history." Evans is somewhat ambivalent:
Evans was there every day, all day long, fixatedly watching the swarming wisdom of the streets. He saw it all—the brutality, the blood—but he never got involved. It wasn't his fight, and, frankly, he didn't get why the agitators were so determined to keep their city's government democratic.
Democracy, he felt, had not worked out very well for American, which since his youth had been on a steady political, economic, and moral decline—just as America, with its divorce rate, cancerous toxic waste, corrupted politics, failing education system, and stagnant economy, had not personally worked out for Matthew Evans, Iowa's own unfortunate son.
It is interesting to see the split, politically, between elite, educated observers of China, who, even if they spent considerable time there, hold out hope for some kind of liberal reformation, and the people that I know, who spent a considerable amount of time in the country but don't have an opinion column or a Twitter account and, who are broadly sympathetic to the Chinese state's ways of doing business. I've mentioned my friend from Iowa before, who did a degree in Chinese, then ended up teaching at training centers in Nanjing and bumming around that city, before going back home to work on windmills. People like him, who have no particular stake in the prevailing social order are, like Evans, more likely to be suspicious of the idea of a liberal reformation. My friend from Iowa has no particular concerns about freedom of speech, since he is too busy trying to pay off student loans and save up enough to buy a house in some Des Moines suburb (I don't actually know where he lives). What I mean is, I think if you've been completely fucked over by the way the world works at home, you're more likely to identify with those people being fucked over in other places, too—or, if not, then perhaps to identify some of the same forces at work: I can't buy a house for the same reasons that someone in Tianjin can't buy a house; I am forced to work in a warehouse on a zero hour contract or drive for a ridesharing service for the same reasons that someone in Zhengzhou is forced to do the same jobs. It's not quite class consciousness, I guess, but close enough.

If open elections for the National People's Congress were called tomorrow, the men I shared detention facility quarters with in Datong would not be much better off. They were petitioners, grabbed in Beijing by Datong PSB for protesting for compensation for the homes they were forced out of. I have trouble picturing any result in those NPC elections that would benefit those men. They were—and, of course, still are—poor, and were fucked over by a municipal government beholden to real estate developers. I know it's more complicated than that, but my point is: if you have no particular stake in a liberal democratic worldview because it's left you sick, sad, and hungry, it's much easier to ponder the alternative, or just say, well, fuck it.

Arthur Meursault, reviewing the book in the American Conservative, says: "This type of tale of chemical poisoning, child cancer, and nefarious collaboration between industry and government is often viewed more as a product of corrupt Asian despots like Xi Jinping, but the toxicity that put Evans in a hospital bed for his entire seventh and eighth grade years happened right in America’s heartland." And he continues:
...this book should be read more as a tragedy. It’s the tragedy of Americans without prospects who, as Patrick J. Buchanan would have put it, have been left behind by globalist trade deals, open-border immigration policies, and foreign interventionism. Matthew Evans, as well as his biographer, Tom Carter, come from this younger generation whose current and future prospects are a pale imitation of what their parents enjoyed.
In Evans’ case, his parents were able to build a life for themselves back in the 1980s just by attending Muscatine Community College. For their son, two years at the exact same school gifted him little more than a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement ... leaving him without any prospect of a job or home ownership.
It is tempting to see something worthwhile in the PRC's mode of governance, especially if you, personally, don't have much to lose...

Evans crashed the occupation out of desperation, since it provided him a place to stay. He hunkered down with "Cantonese millennials" in "jubilant little circles taking selfies and singing English songs from the 1960s: 'The West is the Best, the West is the Best!'" He made himself at home, but eventually the protesters were driven out and returned to their actual homes.

That was when he ended up catching a flight back to American.

Evans is pretty much stuck, once he goes back. Even if he was not barred from returning to China, there wouldn't be much sense in going back, now that the golden age for Western refugees has ended. Where else is he going to go? He's trapped.

My friend from Iowa went to community college and works on windmills, like I said. The friend that I got locked up with in Datong ended up going straight back into Shenzhen after being deported to Hong Kong, getting hooked on methamphetamine, and coming to a sad end. Most people I know like Evans ended up marrying Chinese women, often daughters of rural elite who were going to school in larger centers, and they sometimes got involved in various business schemes, opening their own Happy Giraffe English School, settling into life in a third tier Chinese city, or taking their bride back to the heartland to raise kids, settling back into American life.

Where I come from, some of the highest poverty rates in the country, the highest violent crime rate in the country, and not much hope to do anything but work in a warehouse. The first time, I ended up going back to school for a while, staying in a series of one-room rentals and working in warehouses and restaurant kitchens, and the second time, I ended up working at a liquor store out in the suburbs, crashing at my mom's place, and the third time, I wound up getting back into the same old cycle of shitty jobs and grim rentals... But I never even went all the way back, I never got further than Vancouver or Edmonton, except for a single summer.

A guy like Evans doesn't have much hope, back home, either:
Iowa has been stuck at the federal $7.25 minimum wage for a decade. When local counties attempted to increase their local minimum, the state squelched it. When you factor in the increase in the cost of living over those years, you are talking about an implosion for working class families.
Several years ago, the United Way of Northern New Jersey started noticing that they were fielding calls from people suffering significant economic hardship in counties with a relatively low official poverty rate.
Working with Rutgers University, they developed a metric that tracked local housing costs, childcare expenses, property taxes, health care costs, utilities and transportation expenses along with wages. They dubbed this bare minimum economic survival cohort ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Constrained Income, but Employed.
Close to a decade later, working with local partners, the United Way has identified this struggling population — one that has remained largely invisible in 19 states, including Iowa.
"More Iowa households are struggling to make ends meet," said Deann Cook, executive director at the United Way of Iowa. "We are now approaching 40 percent.
"It is because the cost of living is rising faster than wages," Cook continued. "Iowans are hard-working people, but they are having to piece together multiple part-time jobs with no benefits. In the breadbasket of the world people assume we don’t have food insecurity issues, yet we do."
The United Way reports that, in 2016, 12 percent of Iowa families lived in poverty, with another 25 percent in that ALICE cohort struggling week-to-week. That combined 37 percent cohort reflected an increase of 27 percent since 2010.
There is no broad-based political movement in the United States that seeks to change the prevailing social order. Things will get worse. Whatever Evans is doing back home, I wish him the best, but I don't want or need an update.