Fleeing Middle America For Homelessness in China
A new book about a man from Muscatine perfectly captures the bleak zeitgeist of our age.
With a population of just 24,000 people, Muscatine, Iowa, along the Mississippi River is the quintessential small Midwestern town. Such places are often called the truest representations of America by both its supporters and also, ironically, its detractors.
In 1855, Mark Twain, then a cub reporter for the Muscatine Journal newspaper, declared the region’s summer sunsets to have no equal, though he wrote little else about Muscatine. Years later and from further down the Mississippi, Twain’s iconic American hero Huckleberry Finn embarked on an odyssey that embodied the independence and adventure that awaited pioneers during the age of the antebellum south.
Indeed, young men seeking new frontiers were once considered the foundation of the American story, at least until Ellis Island was retconned into the Union’s founding myth. Tom Carter’s new nonfiction book, An American Bum in China, similarly features a young pioneer from Muscatine heading off to faraway lands. But the reality of such an adventure in the 21st century is wildly different from Huck’s scrapes along the Mississippi.
Carter, who originally hails from San Francisco, is a long-term expatriate who settled in China more than 15 years ago and has published critically acclaimed works about that country. These include the photography book CHINA: Portrait of a People, which was endorsed by Donald Trump prior to his becoming president, and Unsavory Elements, a collection of tales of foreign ne’er-do-wells getting up to all sorts of mischief in the Middle Kingdom.
For his latest work, Carter has chosen to relate the tale of a real-life son-of-a-Muscatine, whom he first encountered during one of his book promotion tours around Shanghai. What follows is a hilarious story of misadventure as we follow Evans through increasingly worsening situations across China. Yet the story also has an undercurrent of tragedy, as Carter probes the ravaging of Middle America’s way of life by the gods of the global economy. The protagonist of this true-life story is one Matthew Evans, whom we meet in the first chapter as he illegally crosses the Chinese-Burmese border through a hole in a fence in a misguided attempt to sell his American passport for $15,000.
Evans, a homely, uncharismatic figure, has reached this desperate situation after a series of unfortunate events that are all too common in this atomized age of anomie. He is “brimming with hormones and emotions and bodily fluids that can drive lonely young men mad,” and first comes to China after making contact with a Chinese girl on an online forum dedicated to anime. Yet he is quickly rebuffed when the girl realizes that her newfound American friend is no dashing figure clad in designer clothing; she undergoes a swift transition into lesbianism to evade his advances.
Evans is the product of a forgotten America where economic prospects are dim and what little industry remains proves toxic to its future generations. This toxicity is quite literal in the case of Evans. As the author explains, Muscatine has “always had an issue with waste management,” which led to a landfill being constructed in the city so the garbage of nearby factories, mills, and mines could be dumped. It was upon this landfill that Evans’ elementary school was later built. It is no surprise what happens next: “In the year 2000, Matthew Evans along with at least eight other students and teachers attending Washington Elementary School fell ill and were subsequently diagnosed with cancers. Several female teachers came down with breast cancer. Students like Evans developed leukemia. Some died.”
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.
American Bum chronicles Evans’ odyssey through a number of miserable jobs, a stint in a Shanghai prison for overstaying his visa, and homelessness on the streets of various Chinese cities. His possession of an American passport offers little protection or benefit other than the prospect of selling it to shady Burmese businessmen for $15,000. Later, having failed in this attempt but succeeded in losing it, Evans is forced to visit the American consulate in Chengdu in order to procure a new passport. In China, foreigners are unable to book a hotel room or even buy a train ticket without this precious little blue book.
Upon arrival at the consulate, he is greeted with a unique form of American bureaucracy straight out of the DMV, and is turned away from the gates of his country’s consulate a number of times as he doesn’t come with the correct paperwork. No longer does the American government send gunboats to foreign shores to provide assistance to its citizens in peril; instead it closes its doors to them, both home and abroad.
An American Bum in China can almost be read as a comedy, one where we laugh at the increasingly dire situations the protagonist finds himself in. More than a wry smile is elicited when we learn how Evans, in desperation, resorted to standing outside a Macau casino with the words “rub the lucky foreigner’s tummy” scrawled in Chinese characters held aloft on a piece of cardboard in an attempt to beg for money from wealthy gamblers.
Yet funny though it is, 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 (“a poor man’s computer science degree,” valid only in Muscatine) leaving him without any prospect of a job or home ownership.
Carter’s book ends with a 27-year-old Evans living homeless on the streets of Hong Kong during the 2014 protests, which never really disappeared and have now escalated with a vengeance. Set against this backdrop of great power play between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, Evans sets up camp among the protesters, not in order to express his support for their cause but to share in some of the donated food and drink delivered to Umbrella Square.
Beamed to the world by CNN cameras, this lone white boy seen bumbling around the protest camp held no strong opinions on democracy or constitutional reform. He was just a piece of flotsam carried away by life.
Aside from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, one of Twain’s other great fictional creations was the Connecticut Yankee who traveled back in time to King Arthur’s court. If we could recreate the Yankee’s time travel but instead whisk an Iowan from the 1960s or ’70s to present-day America and show him the story of people like Matthew Evans, what would he think?
How were the roles of America and China reversed? What caused the madness and political upheaval of China’s Cultural Revolution to be transplanted onto American shores while the economic growth and entrepreneurship of post-war USA moved from Detroit to Dongguan? Where did America’s spirit go?
Tom Carter should be applauded for daring to publish an unconventional work that is not only a fun and whimsical read about one of America’s oddest new pioneers but also a tale that captures the bleak zeitgeist of our age. Complemented with old-timey drawings by artist John Dobson, Carter’s prose is deliberately folksy and anachronistic, so as to portray Evans as a modern counterpart to one of Twain’s characters.
In an uncanny coincidence, Evans isn’t Muscatine’s only connection to China. The country’s ruling strongman, Xi Jinping, stayed in Muscatine in 1985 as part of an agricultural delegation for Chinese bureaucrats to “learn from America.”
In 2012, as vice president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi returned to the boarded-up storefronts of Main Street, Muscatine, for a second visit. As he toured this typical forlorn town barren of progress and riddled with what Carter via Evans describes as “high unemployment, high industrial pollution, high meth abuse, and high teen pregnancies,” he declared to the Muscatine Journal: “To me, you are America.” The future chairman may have meant it.
Arthur Meursault lives in China and is the author of Party Members, a black-comedy novel about corrupt low-level Chinese Communist officials.