I learned about Quincy Carroll’s debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, through Jocelyn Eikenburg’s wonderful blog. I really enjoyed it! Quincy Carroll’s levelheaded and nuanced depiction of the two main characters’ experience in China gave us a wonderful, honest perspective that was rarely offered in similar novels, memoirs, or news reports.
It is not unusual for a white person to exhibit superiority complex in a developing country like China (Guillard, the old male teacher from Minnesota in the novel). Similarly, it is not unusual for a non-white person from a small place in a developing country (Bella, the scheming student from Hunan province) to display signs of inferiority complex when engaging with white people from the all mighty America (or UK, Canada, Australia, Germany…). Superiority and inferiority complexes are two sides of the same coin. When they collide, things happen, sometimes comical, sometimes awkward, sometimes sad, mostly sad.
The author, (the other main character in the novel), is honest and compassionate. He is also curious and humble: he took the time to learn the language and speaks it fluently. This enables him to understand and appreciate the local culture and be effective in his teaching. I think that’s the reason he is beloved and respected in that high school. With his observant eyes and the ability to put things down on paper, we ended up with a wonderful book to learn from and enjoy.
I got my bachelor degree in China in the 90s, and had various English teachers in my college from the US. I think I met both types. One was a Vietnam Vet, who must have been traumatized by that war. He taught English and made a decent living by simply being a white American without solid skills and/or certifications, from what I could tell. I’ve also had young Peace Corps volunteers, who were recent college graduates, that were friendly and helpful. For example, looking back now, they must have been tired of all the similar questions being asked again and again, yet they were patient enough not showing it and still being helpful.
Comparing my experience with what’s depicted in the novel, I think the fact that Guillard-types had to go to a small town in Hunan for a job is a sign of progress. It’s tougher for him to make a living through his whiteness and native English language ability in coastal, more developed areas
By the way, I think the toxic combination of superiority and inferiority complex is the reason that we have crappy foreign news reporting from mainstream media: on one hand, we have the arrogant journalists from a developed country with plenty attitude and preconceived notions, but without the necessary openness and curiosity; on the other hand, we have the local interpreters/compradors type who have their own complex motives. I’m not saying all journalists are like that, but there are enough such that the western audience is misinformed on many important issues.
Anyway, great book, highly recommended!
Also posted at Amazon, with some edit here.