She continued to badger him in Mandarin. She asked him why he had come to China and, more pointedly, what he was doing in Ningyuan. Daniel told her that he was bored of America, and when he spoke, the others started, taken aback. They considered him as if he were crazy.
One of the things you learn about China, once the initial excitement wears off and having a white face is no longer a novelty, is that you are an outsider. Master Chinese or not, you are still an outsider.
Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is the story of two outsiders. Daniel is a young ESL teacher who tries to ingratiate himself with China. He has great Mandarin, understands the culture and takes his job seriously.
Thomas has recently arrived from a kindergarten in Changsha, where it’s implied that his departure was not by choice. Daniel gets him signed on at the last minute, and Thomas is not the least bit grateful. Quite the opposite: he believes it is the school’s duty to hire him, China is his playground.
In that way Thomas is like many older men I worked with in China. Compared to Daniel, Thomas is cynical, making no effort to understand China. He passes cold judgments and gives his teaching duties the same enthusiasm you would muster for sweeping a dirty floor.
Daniel is the young optimist, less set in his ways. Throughout the book he displays a fondness for Chinese culture absent in Thomas. For Daniel, as for many expats, China is a place for discovery. For Daniel, that dream is still vivid:
They asked [Daniel] about China, but he could not articulate how it had changed him, for, despite trying his hardest, he could not explain it to himself. There was a wildness to the country that fulfilled certain promises in his heart, promises he had made to himself as a boy but had long since forgotten.
The China described in this book was brimming with possibility, opportunity, and the barriers that held you in check back home are gone. Daniel seeks what he wants, understands what he doesn’t want: to live a quiet life of work like his friends. As for what he does want, he decides the best solution is to integrate himself into Chinese culture.
Thomas makes no effort, thumbing his nose at everything they do, barely speaking Mandarin. Tension between Daniel and Thomas grows, climaxing at a Spring Festival dinner. After Daniel calls out Thomas for being a creepy lecher, Thomas points out:
After all is said and done, he’s here for the exact same reasons as the rest of us: easy living, zero responsibility, and a chance to make himself into whatever he wants.
The truth of that statement cannot be glossed over. No matter what Daniel tells himself, the Middle Kingdom is a place where Daniel can work little, live freely and dream the eternal dreams of youth in a developing Never-Never Land where responsibility comes to die.
Daniel understands that Thomas has a point, that Daniel is also an outsider no matter how hard he tries. He gets a taste of this earlier, before argument with Thomas. Daniel is close to the carpenter and his family — the carpenter’s son shares his English name — and Daniel agrees to celebrate Spring Festival at their house, bringing the carpenter some whiskey.
Over dinner they commend Daniel on his Mandarin, and we slowly see what Daniel is: an oddity. A show. They pressure him into eating a dog’s paw, and after a heavy round of drinking the men turn on their new karaoke machine. Daniel doesn’t want to sing, but…
When Hong noticed him standing there, he stood up and started pointing — first at Daniel, then at the screen. He pulled him by the forearm to where he had been standing, then gave him a microphone and sat down. Laowai chang! he shouted, to the approval of everyone else. Then he started chanting: Laowai chang! Laowai chang!
They want Daniel to dance for them. He refuses, but in the end he does what every other laowai does, no matter how hard they try to resist.
All of us who teach English in China are migrant laowai. Some just acknowledge it. For all of Daniel’s attempts to integrate himself, one must ask, is he successful?
Thomas isn’t, and it is clear that he stopped trying years ago. While Daniel is a migrant laowai in denial, Thomas understands not only what he is, but that it is too late to change. After Thomas wears out his welcome, he pulls a midnight runner; we then find him in Bangkok, ready to start fresh:
Hailing a cab, he paid the driver using the last of his money, then climbed into the backseat and nodded off, dreaming of Bangkok. He knew that he would have a drink in his hand soon enough, and, after all, he had always been a believer in second chances.
East Asia offers many men second chances. For men like Thomas, it offers third and fourth chances too. Men like Daniel are still on their first.
Men like Thomas better hope the supply never runs out.