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 in poverty out on the other side of the country. Meanwhile, people are driving Ferraris down the street in Shanghai. These aren't rich people. These are middle class people who can afford a Ferrari ... You can't have that much economic disparity and regional disparity without consequences."
Q: From your travels, how do India and China compare?
A: "I think that India is about a century behind China still as far as infrastructure and modernization. I think I can say that with relative authority having traveled on the ground all over - north, south, east and west. It's a really, really magnificent country. The culture and the religions are just amazing to witness and to see. I love it ... But politically and economically, I can honestly say that I do not believe that India is any kind of competition for China."
Q: Why the disparity?
A: "I believe it's a combination of rampant corruption, and just a kind of defeatist attitude. I'm not talking about the average Indian person. I'm talking about the government itself ... People say Chinese leaders are shameless about their corruption, but I think India's on a whole new scale."
Q: How did you get so immersed in photography?
A: "The camera was really a gateway into introducing me to people, ways of life I otherwise might not have had an access to ... There's a realism that you feel in the book that you don't get with other books about China, that are really glossy, and have been Photoshopped and are really pretty to look at."
Q: What else are you working on now? What are your goals?
A: "My head is just exploding with ideas ... I've got about five different book projects on the burner as we speak - in addition to teaching full time, which I do in Shanghai, and in addition to starting a family."
Q: Why have you only returned to the United States once?
A: "I don't feel there's anything in America for me right now. I see myself as a citizen of the world and I'd rather just keep traveling and seeing as much of the world as possible. And I think actually more people need to do that. I think travel and immersing yourself in new cultures - that's the key - that's the secret to world peace. War's not actually working."
(Reporting by Solarina Ho; editing by Patricia Reaney and Cynthia Osterman)