|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.”
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."
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)