“Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll – An Interview

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Ask foreigners in China what they do for a living, and chances are you’ll hear a common answer – teaching English.

I’ve done it before. Most of my friends here have too. In fact, it’s such a prevalent gig for foreigners in China that you might even call it a rite of passage.

But anyone who has taught English in China also knows there’s a dark side to the profession.

During my first year teaching in China, this one white American guy who had signed on to work for our program never showed up and placed us all in jeopardy. (I later discovered he was a hard-core alcoholic.)

Later in Hangzhou, I bumped into a white American guy on a Hangzhou bus who confessed his secret for getting English teaching jobs – lying about his credentials. He smirked about how he had hoodwinked schools in China into believing he actually had a college degree, even though he was only a high school graduate.

Egads.

It’s hard to believe that I could actually inhabit the same profession as those two guys. But it happens, more than we’d like to talk about.

For writer Quincy Carroll, this is the stuff of a great novel. In this case, his new novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the CountrysideSet in the rural town of Ningyuan, Hunan Province (where Carroll himself actually taught English as a volunteer), the story centers on the clash between two white Americans — deadbeat Thomas Guillard and the idealistic Daniel – and the young Chinese student who gets caught between them. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is a thoughtful look into the experience of being a foreigner in China, as well as the good, bad and the ugly of teaching English.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Quincy Carroll and his new novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside through this interview.

Quincy CarrollHere’s Quincy’s bio from Goodreads:

Quincy Carroll is a writer from Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale in 2007, he lived in China for three years, where he taught English and worked as a copywriter. He currently teaches Mandarin in Oakland, California. His debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, was published in November 2015 by Inkshares.

You can learn more about Quincy and his new novel at his website. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site.

As a bonus, Quincy has an original song from the novel that you can hear at Soundcloud. (It’s the song Daniel performs in Chapter 12 for his students at the English competition in the school gymnasium.)
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What drove you to write this novel?

I arrived in China with quite a bit of uncertainty; I’d just quit my job in finance, and I was looking for direction. I didn’t know how to define myself. One of the first things I noticed was that there were a lot of other expats in the same boat—people of all backgrounds and ages, looking for some type of purpose. What I found most interesting, however, were the different ways in which people handled said uncertainty. For the most part, the volunteers in my cohort (I served through a program named WorldTeach) were gracious and curious when it came to interacting with people from another culture, but there was another group of foreigners (Westerners, especially) that seemed to view everything in China as beneath them.

That was really what spurred me to begin brainstorming a plot for the novel. I understand that Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is far from the first story to examine the questionable influence of Westerners in Asia, but given the massive influx of foreigners in China over the past several decades, I believe it’s a timely, important tale worth retelling.

How did you conceive of Guillard?

Again, I was astounded by the number of “arrogant, lewd and racist” people I met when I touched down in China. Similarly to other characters in the book, Guillard is an amalgam of numerous expats I had encounters with over the course of my time abroad. I have been surprised since the novel’s release by how many readers have written to ask if I based the character on so-and-so from such-and-such a province, most of whom I’ve never met and most of which places I’ve never even been to before. Just goes to show how prevalent the archetype is.

I’ve also had many people ask me whether all Westerners in China are “that bad.” I’d like to state that I met some of the most thoughtful, kind people while abroad. I hope the story avoids coming off as an indictment—it’s more of a critique.

How did you conceive of Daniel?

I’ll just say it to get it out of the way: Daniel is the most autobiographical character in the book, although I’m sure that surprises no one. His struggles with questions of identity and purpose were written as a form of catharsis, but I took inspiration from additional sources as well (both literary and personal). I like to think that there is a bit of John Grady Cole in him, but that’s probably an overestimation of my writing. Fellow volunteers from the WT China program will probably be able to pick out aspects of Daniel’s personality that were drawn from their own or those of others we knew. In the end, a writer’s primary source of inspiration is almost always direct experience—what’s fun is that you get to play with the details you’re given and turn disorder into art.

One example of this in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is Daniel’s appearance: long, dyed hair, sleeve tattoos and gauged ears. Now, as far as I can remember, I didn’t meet anyone who looked like that in China, but just like Guillard’s deformities, I chose to give him these characteristics to add an external layer to his personality: in this case, a young man who has gone off the beaten path and is desperately trying to stand out. Another reason I think this worked is that, as a foreigner in China, you’re constantly under the attention of others. I was trying to capture some of this in Daniel’s outlandish physical appearance, but maybe it was just hyperbole, more than anything else.

What are some of the greatest challenges of teaching English in China?

I held two very different positions when I was in China that I believe are common among expats. Both are touched upon in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside. As I’ve already mentioned, I volunteered in the Chinese countryside for two years via a Western NGO. Resources were scant, enthusiasm among our students was mixed, and aside from a modest stipend we received each month, payment was non-existent. For me, one of the biggest challenges was maintaining a sense of commitment throughout the year when it felt like we were there more because we were foreigners than because we were dedicated teachers. I certainly took the job seriously, but at times I wondered if anybody—my students, the administration, fellow teachers—cared about what I was doing. I collected grades my first semester in town, for example, only to find out that they were never included on my students’ report cards.

When I lived in Changsha, the provincial capital, several years later, I tutored high-school students from affluent families who were willing to pay through the roof for an American teacher. Since I had graduated from Yale, rates were even higher than expected, and even though I came prepared to each lesson, it was hard not feeling at least a little extortionary. Once again, my status as a foreigner made me uncomfortable, but I was in need of money and trying to support myself as a writer, so I didn’t say anything.

During the second half of that year, I started working for a local consumer tech company, and in addition to my copywriting duties, I ran a class in Business English every Monday. That was undoubtedly the most satisfying teaching experience I had in the country, as my colleagues genuinely wanted to learn. Most of them were in customer service, so they had to use the language every day.

What do you want people to come away with after reading the book?

More than anything, I hope that readers come away from the novel with a greater sense of humility and the ability to see themselves as part of a larger, globalized world. In addition to that, I hope the story makes them feel somewhat uncertain of who they are. I know that probably sounds a bit strange, but I’m a staunch believer that many of the greatest evils in our world result from one thing: an overinflated sense of self-importance. As the U.S. and China continue to challenge each other on the world stage, I hope that stories like Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside continue to remind us that we’re all lost in this together.

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Thanks so much to Quincy Carroll for this interview! You can learn more about Quincy and his new novel at his website. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site.

As a bonus, Quincy has an original song from the novel that you can hear at Soundcloud. (It’s the song Daniel performs in Chapter 12 for his students at the English competition in the school gymnasium.)

Guest Post: “Am I in the ‘Wrong’ AMWF Relationship?” How a Woman Who Loved China Fell for a Korean man

Linda and Jeongsu in Korea.
Jeongsu and Linda

What happens when the man you love isn’t from the country and culture that first captured your heart? 

That’s the conundrum Linda Dunsmore of Linda Living in China — a self-professed “China fan” — faced when she fell for a man from Korea. She writes, “I was worried because he was Korean, while I was passionate about China…. I kept asking myself, ‘Why do I have to fall in love with a Korean man?'”

Do you have a fascinating AMWF relationship story or other guest post you’d love to see on Speaking of China? Check out the submit a post page to learn how you can submit your story today.

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Linda in China

I am a total China fan.

I started studying Chinese in 2010, went to China in 2012 for an internship, and also dated a Chinese man (the relationship failed but that is another story). In 2013, I had to return to America to finish my Bachelor’s degree in San Diego, California. Every day, I was still reminiscing about my life in China. I cooked Chinese food, started writing my own blog about China and made almost exclusively Chinese/Taiwanese friends. I was sure to return to China after I graduated.

However, one day, I met someone who changed my life completely.

Linda and Jeongsu with heart

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was helping a friend to find an apartment in Pacific Beach (San Diego’s party area). She wanted to move in together with two other students from our university. We were going to meet him in front of the apartment and he was also going to bring a few friends to help him. We arrived at the scene and a few minutes later they arrived — our classmate from Turkey plus three Asian guys (including one particularly handsome fellow). I had hoped they would either be Taiwanese or Chinese or even from Hong Kong, and I was super excited. But then I discovered they weren’t from any of these places – they were Korean.

There was something incredibly special about this one handsome Korean guy. He was extremely charming; he even asked me about my heart-shaped sunglasses and mentioned that they were really cute. He had something about him that literally drew me to him. I also noticed how he was also suddenly really interested in me. We started talking every day on Facebook or text messaging. Then, before I knew it we met for our “first date”, which was one of the best nights of my life.

Linda and Jeongsu on a date

I started to like him more and more, which should have made me feel amazing. Except, I actually felt incredibly worried. I was worried about what would happen if things worked out. I was worried because he was Korean, while I was passionate about China.

I was worried that I was in the “wrong” AMWF relationship.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but not for someone who invested so much of herself and her life into China. I already lived in China before, loved the country, and had finally mastered conversational Chinese. Meanwhile, I knew nothing about Korea and couldn’t speak a word of Korean. I didn’t know what to do and felt horribly confused! I kept asking myself, “Why do I have to fall in love with a Korean man?”

Jeongsu_Linda_Victorysign

Of course, all of this was my head talking. But the thing is, you don’t love with your head, you love with your heart.

When I searched the depths of my heart, I realized that I fell in love with Jeongsu because of who he is — not because of his race or nationality. In the end, isn’t this what the AMWF community is really all about? We all fall in love with someone because of who he is not because he is Chinese, or Korean or Japanese. These men just happen to be Asian. It doesn’t mean we are completely obsessed with Asian men and strictly ignore all men of other races. It just means we found the right love for us.

Now I work for a Chinese-German company in Hunan, China as I maintain a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend Jeongsu, who is living in Korea. I’ve learned to balance these two parts of my life. While my heart still remains filled with China in so many ways, I’ve started studying Korean, trying Korean foods and reading up about his culture as much as I can. I’m coming to embrace Korean culture just as much as I’ve embraced Chinese culture. I’ve already visited him in Korea twice, including my most recent visit earlier this month. I consider it my second home now and his family my second family — my Korean family.

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In the end, life cannot be planned. It always comes out differently than how you thought.

Linda Living in ChinaI never expected that my China-obsessed self would fall so hard for a Korean man. But as long as you’re following your heart, there’s no such thing as a “wrong” relationship.

Linda writes about life in China and Korea, her AMWF relationship with a Korean man, traveling around Asia and studying Asian languages at www.lindalivinginchina.com . She is also very active on social media, especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts and love stories! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan

Mao Zedong's Childhood Home, Shaoshan, Hunan Province
Chairman Mao's Childhood Home in Shaoshan, Hunan is a delightful pastoral retreat from the city.

Nestled in the sun-kissed hills of central Hunan, there’s an ordinary yellow mud-brick peasant house with a not-so-ordinary neighbor — a permanent People’s Liberation Army guard station.

That humble — and now fortified — abode was laojia (老家, home) to one of China’s most commanding (and controversial) figures of the 20th century: Mao Zedong.

In a China hell-bent on modernization and the the whole idea of “out with the old, and in with the new” (旧的不去,新的不来), Mao’s home offers a delightful respite from the usual concrete-block urban depression. Yes, delightful — even if you’ve sworn off the Chairman for personal reasons, or after reading Wild Swans (or, more likely, Mao: The Unknown Story).

That might be hard to believe when you’re touring his home. People’s Liberation Army soldiers had us bustle through in a neverending line of tourists, leaving no more than a moment or two to admire the wooden canopy beds, or imagine the fiery aroma of local Hunan dishes being cooked over the old-style hearth. (At the very least, the privilege of gazing upon the humble home of Chairman Mao comes gratis, in a China where, nowadays, there’s a price on everything.)

But then John and I rambled up a dusty trail above Mao’s home, between the terraced ponds and the fringe of forest beside us. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha

mawangdui mummy
The over 2,000-year-old Mawangdui mummy is amazing, but it's not the only amazing thing on display at this special exhibit at the Hunan Provincial Museum (image from http://www.goutx.com/)

There’s something so fascinating about mummies, allowing human corpses to (no pun intended) survive for thousands of years.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Hunan Museum continues to pack in the visitors, with the body of Lady Dai — dating back more than 2,000 years ago — on display as part of the Mawangdui exhibit.

Of course, you won’t see the body right upon entering the exhibit. They’ve made it the climax, letting visitors, at last, see Lady Dai lay to rest safely beneath protective glass. And it’s just as well. In life, the journey itself is often as valuable as the destination — and in the Mawangdui exhibit, the artifacts are as curious and spectacular as Lady Dai’s mummy.

The Chinese discovered the Western Han Dynasty Mawangdui (translated as “horse king mound,” a reference to the saddle-like hills where the tombs lay) tombs in 1972 around Changsha, Hunan Province. While one (Tomb 2) had fallen prey to tomb robbers, Tombs 1 and 3 rewarded archeologists with a rich collection of historical artifacts, including lacquerware, silk texts and, of course, one amazing ancient corpse.

Besides the mummy, what makes the collection so special? Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha”

A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution”


As I’ve written before, Chinese men and foreign women — dating or marrying — are a rarity. But when Liang Heng and Judy Shapiro fell in love in China in 1979, they weren’t just a rarity — they were pioneers at a time when the idea of marriages between foreigners and Chinese were still questionable.

Most people read the 1983 book Son of the Revolution — written by the couple — to learn more about the experience of living through Chairman Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution. I, however, was anxious to know about the challenges they faced in their relationship, and how they overcame the odds to marry in a China that had barely opened up.

Liang Heng, studying to be a Chinese language teacher at Hunan Teacher’s College, first met Judy Shapiro, the resident English teacher and foreign expert, when he needed help with a translation. But pretty soon, the two made more than just beautiful prose together. This relationship — a Chinese man and an American woman — was something that not even the two of them could keep secret forever. Continue reading “A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution””