Book review: Up to the mountains and down to the countryside
Many foreigners who come to China work as English teachers. Some are very qualified and love teaching, and others… just have a white face. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, a lot of Chinese people automatically think that all foreigners are English teachers. This causes that, unfortunately, some English teachers in China are people who don’t care about providing a good education to their students, at all.
This is partly what this novel is about. Thomas Guillard is an old man who moves to a small town in rural Hunan and starts working in the high school there. He is a mess of a person, drinks too much all the time, and doesn’t give a damn about his lessons or the students. Daniel is a young guy who has worked at that same high school for some time. He is idealistic and passionate, but also feels some doubts in his heart. Is teaching what he wants to do for the rest of his life?
Up to the mountains and down to the countryside is Quincy Carroll’s first novel. He is an American man who taught in Hunan province for several years and wrote this novel based on what he encountered there. I like reading stories of other foreigners in China because everyone has different experiences but there are always similarities. However, I didn’t find many similarities with this one! For two main reasons: I have never lived in rural China, and it has to be completely different from living in a city. Also, I have never been a teacher. I’ve heard lots about it, of course, but didn’t experience it first hand. So at first I had a hard time with the two main characters in the book: one is so bad, in all aspects, and the other is so naive, that they seemed too forced of a caricature. Especially for the character of Thomas Guillard, the antagonist, I thought that no one can be so mean, so selfish, so uncaring and without any positive trait at all. He’s like a cartoon villain! But then I thought that there really are a lot of detestable expats in China, so he acts like a mishmash of all the bad traits you can find in foreigners here. Daniel is also not without guilt. He is supposed to be the “hero”, but I didn’t like him too much. He seemed too self-righteous.
There is also a third main character: Bella, a Chinese student. She is the typical Chinese good student, obsessed with getting the best grades and dreaming about attending university in the US. She is the closest student to both teachers (because she wants to practise her English at all times) and ends up having a decisive part in the story.
The characters were not the kind of people I would befriend in real life, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. I specially liked the descriptions about what it is to live in rural China and the interactions with the local people. I also liked the confirmation that many foreigners feel that their life in China is not “the real life”, that it is like some kind of bubble. I have been here for more than 8 years and I still feel like that!