I live in Asia and I teach English. This colored my reactions to Quincy Carroll’s novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside -- a book I enjoyed reading.
The story opens with an easily irritated and easily irritating older Western man, an English teacher, trying to make sense of a bus station in Hunan, China. A few pages in and I had a strong negative reaction to this guy. Oddly strong. Why? I happily meet all sorts of people in fiction that I wouldn’t want to hang out with in real life, but this washed-up man and his context struck a little too close to home. Surely it can’t be that I’m afraid of becoming him, if my life goes horribly wrong? No, I don’t think that's it. Rather, I think I'm afraid there are people who might lump all of us long-term language teachers in Asia into a category, and think he is a good representative type.
This is a tale of two Westerners working as high school English teachers in Ningyuan, a small town in Hunan. Daniel is a young man who sincerely wants to help his young students. He speaks good Mandarin and is generally well-liked in the community. However, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He’s a good teacher and he’s interested in improving his professional skills, but he also doesn’t want to remain a teacher his entire life, and he’s afraid of wasting his youth in backcountry Hunan. (Personally, I think even if Daniel doesn’t stay a teacher forever, he’s still gaining experience and developing useful skills in Ningyuan, and so even from a purely selfish perspective he is hardly wasting his time, but he’s a fictional character so it doesn't matter what I think.)
Unfortunately, Daniel’s insecurities eventually get sussed out by his newly arrived coworker, my friend from the first chapter. He is called Thomas by his students but he calls himself by his surname Guillard in his POV chapters. Guillard is a cranky, jaded American in his 60s who has been bouncing around China teaching English for years, usually through an alcoholic haze. He sees Daniel’s desire to help his students and improve his community as youthful idealism that he just can’t abide, as he loudly makes clear to anyone within earshot when his patience runs thin.
We see Ningyuan entirely through Daniel and Guillard’s eyes; the local Chinese people generally do not get complex characterization, with one exception. Bella is a student at the high school where Daniel and Guillard teach, and is quite eager to improve her English skills to secure a better future for herself; as a result, she tends to latch onto foreign teachers to maximize her English speaking practice time, and she figures prominently in both Westerners’ time in Ningyuan.
The story unfolds over an academic year, as we follow the experiences of these two English teachers in Ningyuan. Daniel has a large circle of local and foreign friends, both in Ningyuan and back in Changsha, but he’s unsure of how he himself fits into either Ningyuan or the local Westerner scene. Meanwhile, Guillard has no friends. At best, other people merely tolerate him. I’m not sure I mustered enough empathy to really feel sorry for him, as he’s so clearly made his own bed.
As I said above, while I’ve never lived in China, I’m also an English teacher in Asia, and I can’t help but have purely idiosyncratic reactions to this book. I will sheepishly admit that I started out as an inexperienced kid who didn’t really know what I was doing. (To be fair, a lot of us did.) Now that I have far more experience and some certifications, I’m able to see language teaching as an actual profession, not just a thing that one does.
As time goes on I’m increasingly amused and befuddled by people who can’t seem to conceive of language teaching as anything other than what inexperienced backpacker-teachers do. I liked the ridiculous Welshman who Daniel meets in a bar in Changsha, who seems to think TEFL consists of pointing to a glass of water and saying “WA-TER”. (If I met him in real life, I would say in a gentle tone of voice, “You obviously had a bad experience as a teacher. Would you like to talk about it?”) What I would have liked to see in the book was an actual professional teacher, someone with a Master’s and/or a DELTA or equivalent, who could refute Guillard’s cynicism without the baggage of Daniel’s insecurities.
That said, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside isn’t so much about TEFL specifically, as it is about Westerners in East Asia. Guillard is a negative stereotype of Westerners in Asia, to be sure, although most of us would be lying if we said we’d never met real-life Guillards. Daniel is the more interesting character. Outwardly happy and popular, Daniel could have found a good job in the USA if he’d wanted one. Instead, he came to China, where he is working towards something he himself can’t define yet. Did I like the novel? Yes, I did. Daniel's an engaging enough character to spend time with, and I was curious to see how the human train wreck called Thomas Guillard would play out.
The novel, which I read in the 2017 Camphor Press edition, certainly gets us thinking about the current global dynamic, that allows Westerners to come to Asia, often get a job with few (if any) formal qualifications, and make a modest living. This doesn’t really flow in both directions. And it’s not going to last forever.