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ON THE ROAD
Foreigners in China
By Cool Han

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? ForeignerCN.com correspondent Cool Han sits down with China photographer Tom Carter to seek out the answer.
The author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, Tom Carter is a rising star in photojournalism. His new book of photography is the largest collection of images on contemporary China ever published by one author. Already in China, Tom has become a minor celebrity for being one of the first foreigners in the history of our country to have journeyed extensively to all 33 provinces and autonomous regions. Following the upcoming international release of his book, I expect the media spotlight on Tom will become much brighter.

In this Information Era, no one can keep any secrets from the public. But to truly understand this fascinating explorer and photographer, can a simple Google search provide interviewers like me enough background to portray Tom as in-depth as he has portrayed Chinese people with his camera? I spend a cold, winter afternoon with Tom Carter in his modest Beijing apartment so that I can give it a shot.

“BEFORE I MET YOU, I THOUGHT ALL FOREIGNERS DRESSED WELL”

Chinese have a certain stereotype that foreigners from the West are all well-to-do. While this preconception might hold some validity, Tom Carter is an exception. Sleeping in flop-houses and on bus station floors throughout his 2-year backpacking adventure across China, Tom more than likely surprised a great number of my fellow countrymen. The quote Tom is most fond of occurred on a train when a Chinese girl sitting in front of him commented: “Before I met you, I thought all foreigners dressed nice.”

“She didn’t mean it as insult, nor was I insulted," Tom recalls. “That’s just Chinese directness.” Asking Tom what clothes he was wearing at the time, Tom laughs and points at himself: “Exactly the same thing I have on right now. Same pants, same T-shirt. I literally haven’t been shopping for four years.”

While this memory might provide an amusing anecdote, it also points out a profound difference between Tom and the common western tourist in China. “What she said highlighted exactly my whole experience here in China: I’m a foreigner who is more comfortable in a village in the middle of China. I have no desire to socialize with rich expatriates and get drunk at bars or eat at the new hip restaurants.”

“I AM A MIGRANT WORKER”
Prior to beginning his career as a photojournalist and travel writer, Tom served for two years as an English instructor in both Beijing and Shandong province. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Tom writes about being scheduled for up to 30 classes a week and spending most of his free time preparing for lessons. “I’m up at dawn with the older folks practicing their Tai Chi and not back home until after 10 p.m., about when the migrant construction workers also are getting off work.”

Considering that most Americans, as well as China's rising elite, tend to boast of their wealth and would never admit to associating with the lower classes, I am intrigued by this parallel with migrant workers. His response is self-depreciating: “Look, these guys come from all over China to come to Beijing to work, just as I came from America to Beijing for work. I make a little bit money like them, and we work similarly long hours. I AM a migrant worker."

“A PASSIONATE PROFESSION”


To unearth the roots of his affection for the working class, I pressed Tom on his background in politics, something he is understandable hesitant to discuss in Communist China.

“It is really a passionate profession. To be in politics you must believe in something and you must fight for those beliefs. You have to love dialogue; you have to enjoy argumentation and persuasion. I love communicating at different levels, that’s why I was attracted by politics”.

Tom, who comes from a fairly conservative Catholic family, even took 2 years off from studying Political Science at Washington D.C.’s American University to work on a Republican presidential campaign during the 1996 U.S. primaries, "Not because I studied politics, but because 100% I believed in this particular candidate.”

In the ten years since Tom was first able to vote and when finally he dissented from politics, he found the Republican Party had changed considerably. “I witnessed that change first hand because I was there on the front lines. I saw the party become more dependent on corporate interests. It turned from a party of social conservatism into a party of big money. It repels me.” Even from his simple words you can tell he was more than disappointed: “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.”

TURNING POINT


After disassociating himself with politics, his one-and-a-half-year backpacking trip around Mexico, Central-America and Cuba was aimed at literally “finding himself”. Tom’s father is from Panama and his great-grandfather from Cuba. So throughout his travels he was trying to rediscover his heritage within Latino culture because “that’s half of what I am”.

“It is poor, but colorful; it is beautiful, proud and strong.” But even the Latin America he visited just 8 years ago has already dramatically changed. Under the process of globalization, Tom realized this kind of cultural conflict must be happening in many other countries and regions around the world, and thus he eventually arrived in China.

Since carrying the same patched-up backpack all the way to the P.R.C., Tom has found amazing similarities between indigenous Latino and Chinese cultures. "If you put the Indians of Guatemala and the ethnic minorities from Yunnan together, you might be hard pressed to tell who is from where. Visually, they are almost identical: dark brown skin, colorful hand-stitched clothes with remarkably similar patterns, agrarian-based societies residing primarily in the mountainous regions, and each struggling to subsist while fighting to preserve their ancient heritage."

“I think that strengthened my bond with Chinese culture. It made me realize that we are alike, that we are all related in some way."

MILESTONES


Tom is a new voice, a man of the people. He is American yet captures a peculiarly Chinese sense of humanity. His art, like a mirror, reflects China honestly: tears and smiles, gaiety and gloom, success and failure, pride and prejudice, pain and embarrassment.
"I associate with these people and I interact with them, I feel a connection with them," he says. Maybe that’s why Tom could take great pictures: what he saw was not simply a subject in his lens, but people and all their characteristics, their culture, their history and their life philosophy. Even I didn’t ask him what made a good photographer; I knew I had just gotten the answer.

For some, a visit to China might provide enough material for a lifetime of writing or photography. However, Tom Carter the photojournalist has already traveled across China twice. He is someone who can claim confidently that he saw an entire China and the people he met covering an entire spectrum of humanity.

But does entirety means reality? “I think reality is relative. What I saw is what I know. What I experienced and what I understood is MY real China. I don't claim to know all walks of life in China. However, my photographs are thus far the most complete work about China. I sum that up as ‘reality’.”

His work is exquisite, but his vision is not melancholy or nostalgic. It is clear that he has adopted the basic values of strength, courage and honesty. To some extent, his travels across China have become a metaphor for a journey through life.

“I THRIVE ON NEW EXPERIENCE”


Tom’s articles and photos have been published by every English magazine and newspaper in China, and his book CHINA: Portrait of a People has "best seller" written all over it. But for the time being he is still a freelancer hunting for a decent job. Conversely, he is famed throughout China for his photography, but right now he even doesn’t even have a camera. “My only camera died after my travels. It was an old one and took a lot of beatings. I’m too broke to afford a new one, so for now I’m like a bird without wings.”

Asking for his plan in the New Year, he was a little bit hesitant but then confided in me: “I’m moving.” Seeing my confusion, he added, “It’s time. I’ve seen everything and done everything in China. I want to experience more of the world. I thrive on new experience...that’s my nature.”

Like a philosopher, Tom Carter and his now-deceased camera explored the fate of the Chinese individual, as well as himself. Tom is fascinated by life, and life responded to his diligence with great harvest.

Forty years ago, Bob Dylan asked: how many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” Tom Carter can be called a man, for love, truth and honor stand firm in his heart. He said he will keep going and that he needs to be on the road, for it is his fate. “But no matter where I go, I’m always associated with China.”

Tom Carter’s photography can be viewed at http://www.tomcarter.org

(By Cool Han)

在路上

    汤姆•卡特是《中国:人物肖像》的作者,也是摄影界正在升起的一颗新星。作为一名独立的摄影师,到目前为止,他的摄影集是关于当代中国影像最全面的集合。汤姆在中国已经颇有名气,因为他是第一个游历过这片广阔土地上全部33个省市自治区的外国人。伴随着新书的全球发行,我想媒体对他的关注将会更密切。
在这个信息时代,没有任何人能够在公众面前掩藏自己的秘密。但是要想真正理解这位颇有魅力的探险家和摄影师,一个简单的网络引擎搜索能给我提供足够的背景信息来描绘他吗—就像他用相机深入描绘中国民众那样? 一个寒冷的冬日下午,在他北京的家中,我和汤姆聊了一个下午,这也是我来检验自己资料搜集是否有效的一个机会。


“在我遇到你之前,我以为所有外国人穿的都很光鲜”

    中国人有一种特有的偏见,觉得所有西方人都很有钱。也许这种假设在某种程度上是正确的,但汤姆肯定是个例外。在他当背包客横穿中国的两年探险生涯中,他一直住廉价旅馆,有时还睡在公共汽车站的地板上。这样的一个外国人让很多中国人大感意外。他最喜欢的一句“名言”是一个中国女孩子说的,当时他正在火车上,对座的女孩评论道:“在我遇到你之前,我以为所有外国人穿的都很光鲜。”
    “她无意冒犯我,我也没觉得被冒犯。”汤姆回忆说,“那只是一种中国式的坦率。”我问他当时穿的是什么衣服,他大笑起来,指着自己说:“ 和我现在穿的一模一样:一样的裤子,一样的上衣。我已经有四年没去购物了。”
    这样的一段记忆当然饶有趣味,但同时它也体现了汤姆和其他在华的普通外国游客之间根本性的不同。“她的话很精准地概括了我在中国的全部经历:作为一个外国人,我更喜欢待在村镇中,却一点也不想和那些有钱的外国人打成一片,泡吧或者在最新潮的餐厅吃饭。”


“我就是个民工”

    在做摄影师和旅游作家之前,汤姆曾在北京和山东当了两年英语教师。在一篇为《华尔街日报》撰写的文章中,他描述了他是如何一个星期给30个班级上课,把大部分的课余时间都用在了备课上。“我清晨起床时,老人们在打太极拳。直到晚上10点我才能回来,那也是建筑工地的民工们也下班的点。”
    考虑到大部分美国人和正在壮大的中国精英阶层都乐意炫耀自己的富有而从不把自己和底层人民扯上关系,我很好奇汤姆为什么会把拿自己和农民工比较。他自嘲地回答:“你看,这些民工从全国各地来到北京找工作,就像我从美国飞到北京来工作一样。我和他们一样只能赚一点点钱,但我们都要工作这么长时间。我就是个民工嘛。”

“富有激情的职业”

    他对工人阶级的深情显然是有深层原因的,所以他在政治方面的过往经历是我想要刨出的故事。不过,在这里谈论政治,汤姆的犹豫也是可以理解的。
    “政治是充满激情的职业。从事这个职业你必须深信一些理念,而且要为这些信仰而奋斗。你要喜欢对话、辩论和说服。我喜欢各种层面的交流,这也是我为政治所吸引的原因。”
汤姆一家都是非常保守的天主教信徒。在华盛顿特区的美利坚大学读政治学专业时,他甚至停学两年为1996年美国总统大选的共和党前期选举工作。“不是因为我学的专业是政治(才去工作),而是因为我完完全全支持这个候选人。”
    然而,在从汤姆有权选举直到他彻底脱离政治的10年之间,他发现共和党发生了巨变。“我亲眼目睹了这种变化,因为我处在最前线。我看到这个党派越来越依赖利益集团。它从一个支持社会保守主义的政党变成了追逐金钱利益的党派。它背叛了我。”就是从只言片语中,你也能看出来他很受打击:“并非我离开共和党,是它先背弃了我。”

转折点

    远离政治生活后,他花了一年时间游历了墨西哥,中美洲和古巴,为了“找回自己”。汤姆的父亲是巴拿马人,曾祖父是古巴人。在旅行中,他试图在拉美文化中重新找回自己的根。毕竟,“我是半个拉美人。”
    “它贫穷,但文化却五彩斑斓。美艳,高贵,浓烈。”但就是8年前探访过的拉丁美洲也已发生了巨变。他已认识到,在全球化的进程中,文化的冲突正在世界许多个国家和地区发生。因此,他最终来到了中国。
    同样地,背着行囊走遍中国之后,他发现拉美的原住民文化和中国文明之间有着惊人的相似。“如果你把危地马拉的印第安人和云南的少数民族放到一起,你很难分辨两者的区别。他们看起来几乎是一样的:深棕的肤色,几乎相同样式的手工缝制的服饰,最初在山区定居,逐渐建立起农业社会。都要为维持生计而奔忙,同时还要努力保护他们的传统遗产。”
“我想,正是这种对比加深了我和中国文化之间的联系。我认识到,在某种意义上,我们都是相似的。”


里程碑

    汤姆发出了全新的声音,这声音来自人民。作为一个美国人,他却能够体察到中国意义上的人性与博爱。他的作品就像一面镜子,真实地反射出中国的全景:泪水和欢笑,欢乐或哀愁,成就与失意,骄傲或偏见,苦痛和尴尬。“我和这些人联系在一起,和他们交流,我感觉我们之间好似亲人。”他说。也许那就是汤姆能够拍出好照片的原因:在他镜头里的并不仅仅是目标,而是实实在在的人,带着他们自己的个性,文化,历史和生活哲学。尽管我没有问他一个好摄影师所必须的品质,我想我已经找到了答案。
    对有些人来说,中国是取之不尽用之不竭的素材库,可以供一位作家或摄影师享用一辈子。但是摄影记者汤姆•卡特已经把中国走了两遍。因此,他有资格自信地说,他看到了一个完整的中国,他遇到的中国人也折射了人性的所有维度。
    但是,完整是否就意味着真实呢?“在我看来,真实也是相对的。我所知道的这些全部来自我的所见所闻。我的经历,我的感悟就是我眼中真实的中国。我从不觉得我知道中国的方方面面。但是,至少我的照片是目前关于中国最完整的描述。我把这一切称之为‘真实’”。
他的摄影作品很细腻,但他的视角却完全不是忧伤怀旧的调子。显而易见,他一直坚守着毅力,勇气和正直的最基本价值观念。也许在某种意义上,他横跨中国的旅行已经成为了一个关于生命旅程的比喻。

“我活在新体验之中”

    汤姆的文章和图片已经发表在中国所有的英文杂志和报纸上,他的新书《中国:人物肖像》也会让畅销书重写历史。但目前他仍然是自由职业者,想要寻找一份正当的工作。尽管他由于摄影而闻名,但他现在甚至连照相机都没有。“我仅有的相机在旅行之后报废了。它太旧了,再难维持了。我买不起新相机。就像一只鸟,却没有翅膀。”
    问道他的新年计划,他有点犹豫,不过又透露我说,“我要走了。”看到我一脸疑惑,他解释说,“是时候了。在中国,我已经看到了所有,也做了我该做的事。我要体验这个世界。我在新体验中才能生活。那是我的本性。”
    就像哲学家,汤姆•卡特用他已经光荣牺牲了的相机探究了中国人的命运,也照见了自己的命运。汤姆为多彩的生活而痴迷,生活也回报他的勤勉以丰实的收获。
    40年前,鲍勃•迪伦问道,“一个人要走过多少路,才能被称作男子汉?”汤姆可以被称为一个男人,因为他把爱,真理,和尊严一直牢记在心里。他说他还要继续行走,在路上,因为这就是他的命运。“但是无论我走到哪里,我都永远和中国连在一起。

 

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