Tom Carter Interview – CHINA: Portrait of a People

If you know Unsavory Elements — the anthology published earlier this year which includes my essay, “Red Couplets” — chances are you know Tom Carter as well. He edited the anthology and contributed his own essay.

But prior to his “unsavory” endeavors, he became known for his book CHINA: Portrait of a People. This collection of photographs from all 33 provinces in China offers the most comprehensive view of China in book form. Tom spent two years backpacking around the country to capture these photos, which amazes me.

A San Francisco, California native, Tom has been hailed as  “one of China’s foremost explorers” by The World of Chinese magazine. You can buy CHINA: Portrait of a People and Unsavory Elements on Amazon.com, and also follow Tom Carter at his website and on Facebook. For more information on Tom’s work, see his photo gallery on the Atlantic, this video on ChinaFile, and an article he wrote for the Huffington Post.

In this interview, Tom talks about CHINA: Portrait of a People — and shares some of his favorite photographs as well.

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(photo by Tom Carter)

It’s clear that you have a great passion for China. Could you talk about how the experience of photographing your journey around the country changed your own perspective on the country?

To be completely candid, prior to coming to China my estimation of the Chinese was not very high.  As a San Francisco City native growing up in North America’s largest Chinese community, I found Chinese immigrants to be rather aloof and unapproachable.  They didn’t seem to “mix” well in our Great American Melting Pot, which in turn validated the Caucasian community’s prejudices towards them; a kind of self-perpetuating vicious cycle.

I eventually came to China (in 2004) not out of any affinity for Chinese culture but simply because I wanted to travel and see the world, but once I got here it didn’t take long to fall in love with the place and its people.  Having immersed myself in its society, my appreciation and passion for Chinese culture far outweighed any occasional lapse in tolerance I still might have been guilty of.

(photo by Tom Carter)

Could you tell us about the most romantic place you photographed?

(photo by Tom Carter)

Gosh, I’m not sure that’s answerable; the notion of romanticism is relative to the person you are at that time.  I’ve watched my own ideas of romance and love mature over the past ten years here in China, from a swinging single American male just looking for a good time, to eventually meeting the woman who I have no doubt is my soulmate.

We were married in a rural village in the Jiangsu countryside and she recently gave birth to our son there as well, at a small public People’s hospital. So for me, that little farming village is one of the most special places in my life.  Romantic?  Depends on how you feel about peasants and pitchforks and livestock and rice fields and bamboo groves…

(photo by Tom Carter)

You brought your wife along with you during your trip. What was it like traveling together as a couple?

Tom Carter showing his camera to some new friends in China. (photo courtesy of Tom Carter)

We met in Beijing in 2005 while I was working there, but then the following year I departed to go backpacking across the entire country alone, which had been a dream of mine since I first arrived.  We stayed in touch – she even bailed me out of not a few hard situations via phone and rendezvoused at her home village over October holiday so that I could meet the parents (and like 50 other random relatives).  When I finally returned to Beijing the following year and landed my book deal (to publish CHINA: Portrait of a People) I decided to go back out on the road for another year to obtain more photos, but this time I invited her to come with me.  She quit her job, bought a backpack, and we re-traced my steps through the 33 provinces and also discovered new places together that I never would have found without her.

I think spending that much time with someone is a true test of any relationship, but for us the balance of bliss and hardship that comes with budget backpacking in a developing country seemed to bring us closer together.  We did a similar trip across all of India in 2009, a rough, brutal journey that she seemed to handle far easier than me (she’s publishing her own book about India next year).  She’s small in stature but even more of a bad-ass than this 6’4” American!  By the end of that trip there was no question in my mind that she was the woman I intended to marry.

Tell us about another fascinating couple you photographed during your travels.

(photo by Tom Carter)

In spite of China’s rapid modernization (and westernization), public displays of affection are still not very common in this country, so I was sure to steal a snapshot on the rare occasion that I spotted one, such as the uniformed highschool students sneaking a kiss behind a bus-stop billboard.

But for me the most special and personal photograph is of the elderly couple in Beijing celebrating their 55th anniversary.  I feel so blessed to have captured their embrace in that photograph – it’s not something you often see any couples let alone old folks in China do.  About a half-decade after taking that photo, that elderly couple became my in-laws (they are my wife’s grandparents) but the following year Laolao passed away, followed quickly by Laoye, whom we can presume died of a broken heart.  But they have been immortalized in the pages of this book for future generations of our family.

(photo by Tom Carter)

What message do you hope people come away with when they read your book?

(photo by Tom Carter)

I think each photograph in this book conveys its own personal message about life and humanity in China: deep-rooted traditions, the importance of family, a dwindling yet proud agrarian class, rich indigenous culture, and dire widening economic and regional disparity. But I try to let the photos speak for themselves without shoving a message down anyone’s throat, which is why I decided against narrating my journey or being too heavy-handed in the book’s captions (which some readers have actually complained about on Amazon).

But mostly I just hope the book inspires people to get out there and explore some of “real” China beyond the touristic sites and the glistening steel-and-glass skylines of its major metropolises. It’s a big, beautiful country, and the regions that aren’t getting any attention are the places that are, in my opinion, the most deserving of it.

(photo by Tom Carter)

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Thanks so much to Tom for this interview! Once again, you can buy CHINA: Portrait of a People and Unsavory Elements on Amazon.com, and also follow Tom Carter at his website and on Facebook. For more information on Tom’s work, see his photo gallery on the Atlantic, this video on ChinaFile, and an article he wrote for the Huffington Post.

Why I Write Q&A

Along with other contributors for Unsavory Elements, I was interviewed for the site Why I Write. I talk about everything from how I started writing and how I handle writer’s block to my favorite books and what I’m working on. Here’s a snippet:

Why I write
I think I’m like many writers, afflicted with the urge to share my experiences with the world. But for me, writing is a deeply personal endeavor. I began writing first in journals when I was growing up. Journaling was a way for me, a highly sensitive and introverted young girl, to make sense of the world in a safe space. It was through writing that I found strength, hope and – much later – my vocation in life. It’s no wonder then that I still find myself drawn to subjects that I’m personally connected to in one way or another.

I also write because I see the need for a new perspective on a subject, or even the potential to change someone’s perspective.

You’ll find the full Q&A on Why I Write. And if you love it, share it!

P.S.: Thanks to Tom Carter for this opportunity, and also to Susan Blumberg-Kason for already sharing the Q&A online!

South China Morning Post Mentioned My Essay + Unsavory Elements Available for Kindle

I’m on a major deadline again this week and need a break from my regularly scheduled Friday programming. But I still have some share-worthy news, including one that was a definite jīngxǐ (惊喜, pleasant surprise) for me!

First off, the South China Morning Post recently came out with a review of Unsavory Elements. Mark O’Neill, who did the review, happened to single out my essay — titled “Red Couplets” — as one of “the most moving” contributions (along with essays from Kay Bratt and Kaitlin Solimine). Wow.

Here’s what he had to say in the review:

Jocelyn Eikenburg describes courting her Chinese husband. “From the first time I started to love a Chinese man, hiding became part of my life.” This is a rare account from the inside of a relationship that is much less common that that of a western man with a Chinese wife.

For anyone interested in reading the full review from the South China Morning Post, you’re welcome to peruse this PDF version. (Special thanks to Janet Brown, author of many great books including Tone Deaf in Bangkok, for sending me the original review!)

Also, for all of you enthusiastic e-readers, Unsavory Elements is now on sale as a Kindle e-book. So go ahead and download your copy today! And if you do, let me know what you think of my essay.

“Unsavory Elements” Anthology On Sale Through Amazon.com Starting Today

The wait is over! Unsavory Elements — the China anthology featuring my essay (titled “Red Couplets”) — is finally available for purchase through Amazon.com in paperback form (note: Kindle edition will be available August 1 — I’ll make another announcement at that time).

For those of you who missed it, back in March I announced the exciting news about my essay being published in this anthology (which was featured in the Shanghai Literary Festival):

As my friend Susan Blumberg-Kason wrote, the contributor’s list reads like “a who’s who in the China expat literary world.” Those 28 writers include big names such as Peter HesslerSimon Winchester,Michael MeyerDeborah FallowsAlan PaulJonathan Watts and Susan Conley. So for me, it is truly an honor to be in same publication as these distinguished writers. Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, edited the book and also contributed an essay.

FYI, the essay I wrote centers on love and relationships between Western women and Chinese men, so I’m sure it will resonate with many of you!

Additionally, to whet your appetite, you might also enjoy this take on my essay by a book reviewer for the Global Times: Continue reading ““Unsavory Elements” Anthology On Sale Through Amazon.com Starting Today”

Essay Published in “Unsavory Elements,” An Anthology Featured in Shanghai Lit Festival

I have some extremely exciting news! My essay titled “Red Couplets” is going to be published this month in the anthology Unsavory Elements — a publication also featured in the Shanghai Literary Festival.

As my friend Susan Blumberg-Kason wrote, the contributor’s list reads like “a who’s who in the China expat literary world.” Those 28 writers include big names such as Peter HesslerSimon Winchester, Michael Meyer, Deborah Fallows, Alan Paul, Jonathan Watts and Susan Conley. So for me, it is truly an honor to be in same publication as these distinguished writers. Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, edited the book and also contributed an essay.

If you’re in Shanghai and you’d love to get a copy, they should be available at the March 15, 7pm event for the anthology. (NOTE: This event is going to be SOLD OUT soon, so ACT FAST if you want tickets to attend!)

Otherwise, it will also be available on Amazon.com shortly — and I will share that link as soon as I can. You can also visit the Facebook page for the anthology.

FYI, the essay I wrote centers on love and relationships between Western women and Chinese men, so I’m sure it will resonate with many of you!