Review: An American Bum in China

https://chajournal.blog/2020/03/07/american-bum

[REVIEW] “A PERPETUAL HARD-LUCK CASE: AN AMERICAN BUM IN CHINA” BY RAY HECHT

{This review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.}

Tom Carter, An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bubblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, Camphor Press, 2019. 132 pgs.

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“Disparate as they sounded back then, however, I realize now that the arc of his adventures share the same timeless threads that, throughout world history, have driven other immigrants, expatriates, and refugees to the United States, only in reverse. His singular story has all the makings of an un-American folk tale…”

So author Tom Carter tells the story of his friend Matthew Evans, a perpetual hard-luck case who might just be the oddest expatriate you’ve ever heard of (and if you’ve been around a good number of expats, that’s saying a lot). The full title of this tome is An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, and it is a fitting title indeed.

Evans’s tale begins in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa—where Xi Jinping actually visited in 2012. The comparisons of rural America to rural China are vivid and foster much conversation. In a way that makes it only natural that such a person would be driven to Shanghai and elsewhere as he seeks a better life. Spoiler alert, he never does get that better life.

He does try. Sort of. As he drifts from one town to another, somehow surviving while apparently making no money, it’s not always clear how bumblingly brilliant the man’s so-called escapades may be. The lingering question is never fully answered: Is he an idiot savant or just a slightly-luckier-than-average idiot? In this sense, there are several ways to interpret the book.

Either way, Evans most consistent trait is that he takes it all in strides. “Like everything else that had happened to him in life, from leukemia to being deported, Evans took his dismissal stolidly and as a matter of course.” That just about sums it up best.

Within this slim tome, we are quickly taken on this man’s journey around the world. First, he pushes himself to run away from his controlling mother’s shadow, even as she dismissed the “commies” in China. Usually, he does this by way of spending his loving grandmother’s money. Also, he gets diagnosed with cancer.

He arrives in China after some QQ flirtations. His first relationship is never consummated due to his terrible bad luck of hitting on a lesbian, but he keeps trying. He then gets his first kiss and the book is even so personal as to describe how he loses his virginity. Time after time, he bumbles and messes everything up. He gets deported a couple of times, returns, orders up a fake degree most unethically, and so on, and so on.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be particularly remarkable to describe an American who teaches English abroad. That sort of expat memoir has been done many, many times and wouldn’t make for much of an engaging book. Rather, An American Bum is more unique, and full of legitimate surprises. For example, somehow Evans actually briefly becomes a “professor” at not one but two prestigious Chinese universities!

Matthew Evans is certainly interesting, and at the same time, not necessarily likeable. He becomes increasingly hard to empathise with, specifically when it comes to how he obliviously treats his female university students. There’s no question this poor fellow was not equipped with the skills necessary to make it in the world, whether in the States or in China. But he does keep making it worse for himself and most readers will probably not quite root for him.

In the end, whether one approves of his character or not, it certainly can’t be denied that he keeps one’s interest and I suppose that makes this a successful book.

Author Tom Carter began as a photographer, and there is a large visual element to the book featuring illustrator John Dobson’s additions. The black & white artistic depictions round out the story nicely, leaving an impression that resonates with the scenes described. If it was only prose, the book would frankly be too short at only about one hundred pages.

Eventually, the narrative rounds out with a Burmese misadventure involving several illegal uses of a passport, and finally jail time and outright homelessness. At last, Evans is permanently exiled from China. Justifiably so, it must be said. He arrives in Hong Kong as many such people do, and he is unable to even make it in Chungking Mansions. However, it turns out that there were other options at the time. The year is 2014 and he finds himself teargassed during the Umbrella Movement.

It happens to be a very poignant time to tell this particular story right now. In Evans’s own way, he joins the encampments purely out of personal convenience while undeservingly receiving credit for his brave political stance. That’s one way to witness history in the making.

The book is certainly a page-turner. Carter philosophises from time to time, speculating on what it all means. An American Bum can be very introspective, analysing the state of the West and China and modern societies. It does feel bigger than merely describing one random person’s misadventures. It’s a bit difficult to sum up these musings, but there are things here worth thinking about. Where does a man like Matthew Evans belong? In just what kind of culture would he be able to live a life worth living?

The book is over before you know it, leaving the reader with a strange yet authentic taste of life in the margins of expathood. Honestly, the book may not be for everyone and certain people will be offended and turned off by Matthew Evans. Whether one reads with feelings of compassion and empathy, or just can’t look away from the train wreck, one way or another, it will definitely be worth the read for some people.

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