8 Questions for Tom Carter, Photographer and Vagrant

Tom Carter

Tom Carter is a Shanghai-based photographer and editor. He’s been in China since 2004 and has published two books. He was kind enough to sit down and talk to about his latest project, a collection of stories from prominent expats in China.

What brought you to China?

I had no particular fascination with Chinese culture prior to arriving here. I had spent 18 months backpacking down the length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America and wanted to keep the journey going but was strapped for cash.

Teaching abroad seemed like an ideal way to travel and get paid for it, so I responded to one of those random “Teach English in China” ads on Craigslist, which of course turned out to be a sham. The “school” was run out of an apartment by some old guy in his bathrobe. Seriously.

So there I was, in the February of 2004, lost in Beijing. It was 4 am on a Sunday when I came across a pulpy expat magazine now known as the Beijinger blowing down the soon-to-be-destroyed streets of south Sanlitun. The winter winds whipped open its pages to the job listings and the next day I was hired to teach at a public primary school down in Shandong province.

A rough introduction to China, yes, but I think that allure of adventure is exactly what enticed me to stay.

What have you been up to since then?

I taught tirelessly for two straight years (I moved back up to Beijing in 2005), saving my salary so that I could go backpacking across every part of China, a journey that took another two years.

Logging over 35,000 miles, the snapshots that I took of all the people I encountered and all the places I passed through resulted in a book deal with boutique Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books. In 2008 they published CHINA: Portrait of a People, which is now in its second printing.

What are you working on now?

I had hoped that CHINA: Portrait of a People would open doors to a photojournalism gig with a news agency somewhere, anywhere, in the world; photography is my passion and what I really want to be doing full-time. But, just my luck, the bottom dropped out of the photography profession around that same time thanks to the Internet and iPhones.

So while I was waiting for job offers that never materialized, I delved into writing and editing. Unsavory Elements, an anthology of true stories I edited about the lives of foreigners in China, was published this past spring by Earnshaw Books in Shanghai.

Why a book of expat stories?

If CHINA: Portrait of a People was my tribute to the people of China, then Unsavory Elements was my nod at China’s unofficial 56th minority—foreigners.

I originally conceived the book as a showcase of all my favorite adventurer-authors such as Simon Winchester (The River at the Center of the World) and Graham Earnshaw (The Great Walk of China), whose travelogues I read whilst backpacking across China.

But as the editor, I wanted Unsavory Elements to be more than just a collection of adventures and misadventures. I wanted there to be a thematic progression throughout the entire anthology that offers the reader a wide range of timeless experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly—that all foreigners who have lived in China have had, while also capturing the stigma of being a waiguoren. For it seems that no matter how long we live here we will always be “outsiders” in the eyes of the Chinese.

How do you feel about that, always being seen as an outsider?

Let America have its Great Melting Pot and its green cards. China is China. I’m content with being a “guest” here, and even if I wind up spending my whole life in China I have absolutely no longing to obtain citizenship; I consider myself a citizen of the world anyway.

But I can understand why certain old China hands who have invested decades in China have become exasperated about why they’ll “never be Chinese,” though there’s really no reason to throw a tantrum about it—China doesn’t respond well to fits from foreigners.

Someday the Chinese will realize on their own the benefits of multiculturalism, but for the time being I think it’s pretty impressive that the government has resisted for so long.

You’ve literally met someone from every Chinese ethnicity. Can you tell us about one of those encounters?

Tibet tended to offer the most memorable moments, both terrifying and touching.

Once I was walking a Kora (spiritual circuit) around Mount Kailash, Asia’s most holy mountain in western Tibet, in early summer and except for the occasional passing pilgrim, I was the only person there. On my second day, about half way around Kailash, at the remote 5,600-meter Drolma-la Pass, I at last succumbed to the low altitude.

I collapsed right there on the rocks, gasping like a fish out of water. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a young Tibetan woman appeared, like my own private Guanyin. She picked me up, put on my pack and literally carried me and it the remainder of the Kora (which was an entire day), without ever breaking a sweat. Needless to say that encounter left a deep impression on me.

What’s one of your most memorable China experiences?

Where do I begin? Every day for the past decade has been action-packed—the sour-sweet-bitter-spicy of daily life in China—but I think nearly dying takes the mooncake.

Six months into my first year in China I had somehow contracted encephalitis, a viral infection of the brain. The doctors at the small city hospital in Shandong, where I was living, were completely mystified until my mother, a veteran emergency room nurse back in the States, instructed them via telephone exactly how to diagnose and treat me. Fun fun fun!

Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?

For me personally, it was the mind-blowing realization that China is not just one race, one people. This is coming from someone who grew up in San Francisco, home to North America’s largest Chinese population. I simply thought all Chinese people spoke Cantonese; I didn’t know what Mandarin was before I arrived here.

So one of the goals I set for myself during my travels was to personally meet the indigenous tribes of each of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, from the Manchurians of northern China to the Yi of Yunnan. I documented every encounter and those photos comprise a good portion of CHINA: Portrait of a People. The book has been praised for this very reason; apparently there are many people out there as unaware of this fact as I once was.

BONUS QUESTION: What is your favorite hangout spot in China?

I absolutely adored Beijing. For the years that I lived there, I explored every corner of that city from the seat of my 40-year-old Flying Pigeon. Shanghai, where I am presently living, not so much.

Fortunately I divide my time in Shanghai with a rural farming village in neighboring Jiangsu province, which is where my wife is from, where we were married and where our child was recently born (in a public hospital; a “memorable experience” on a whole other level). It’s a very small community—only 20 families—and we are surrounded by traditional homes and vast fields teeming with farmers.

However, it has also been a tragic lesson in Chinese hyper-modernization. I have witnessed property confiscation and the wholesale obliteration of agrarian culture. But as long as our village continues to hold out against encroaching developers, it remains my favorite place.