Tom Carter found himself homeless, jobless, with little money and 6,000 miles (9,656 km) from home after answering a job posting on Craigslist that turned out to be a scam.
But rather than return to San Francisco, Carter found a teaching job along China's Yellow River Delta, which is a world away from Beijing and Shanghai.
Two years later, in 2006, he saved enough to embark on a 35,000-mile (56,325-km) two-year journey to every corner of China that inspired his 600-plus page photography book, "China: Portrait of a People."
"I was literally just a dusty backpacker who just wanted to travel and see the country. My eyes were open to everything," the 39-year-old said.
Carter, who is married to a Chinese woman and a new father, spoke with Reuters in a telephone interview about his journey and reconciling the old with the new.
Q: How many years have you been in China?
A: "I arrived in 2004. I stayed for four straight years, so I didn't even go home for holidays or anything. In 2008 I decided to move to Japan for a year, just to give that a try. I was living up in Beijing at the time and it was just getting weird with the Olympics ... I saved up to go to India the following year, so all of India in 2009 ... We came back to China and realized this was going to be home."
Q: A lot of your photos show striking contrasts between old and new, rich and poor. How do you reconcile the disparities?
A: "It's like watching a child mature and grow, but on fast forward ... I think progress and change is inevitable. You can't lament it. But I think the way the Chinese government has gone about it has been a little bit shameful. (It is) like they're purposefully trying to erase swaths of history and culture because they want to catch up with America and Japan.
"What they do now is say, 'We understand some people want to see that traditional villages still exist, so we'll build a new old village.' They turn it into a tourist zone and it's all fake, it just looks old and they think that's good enough. It's not."
Q: How do you think the Chinese are adapting to the changes?
A: "Everything is off-balance and that doesn't really make a lot of sense to anyone, especially to the villagers who are still living