I was a foreign teacher in China for seven years.
They say life is too short. Well, then they ought to come to Wuhan, China. Life here is not short. It drags on; on through the scorching summers, on through the wet, freezing winters, on through the smog and the sun lying concealed beyond it like something peeking at us through mesh. On through the nights in bars, in KTVs, or alone in your apartment as you visit what sites you can, thinking about your life. Still trying to scratch that itch, that itch you can never quite reach no matter how many miles from home you go.
I spent all seven in our loud metropolis. It takes a special kind of person to stay in Wuhan for seven years–indeed, it takes a special kind of person to come here and teach in the first place. But I differ from them in two key ways. First, I left China. They don’t, won’t, and most of all, can’t. They’ve spent years working themselves into a nook of drinking, fucking, smoking, rambling, drinking, traveling, and drinking. Trading all that away for the destitute lives they left behind is simply not an option.
Secondly, I admit who I am, where I come from, why I’m here. They don’t. In fact, listening to some of these guys talk makes you wonder why they ever left home in the first place. Oh, I’ve worked with former CEOs, former engineers. Former bodyguards, even one guy who told me he used to be a hitman. Men who were living gods back home, men who drove BMWs, who slept with only the most beautiful women, men who owned three-storey homes and just one day had an epiphany and swapped all of that for a few hundred bucks a month, a small apartment.
And an outlet for their lusts.
The truth is, most older foreigners are total basket cases at best, or else something that defies description entirely. One claimed his female students propositioned him for sex. Another said he had fought in secret battles during the Cold War. This same man told many of this female students that he knew university presidents in America and could guarantee them admission. In exchange for what, I wonder. There’s something you’ll see at least once: the older men with their younger Chinese girlfriends, their much younger Chinese girlfriends. It comes in different forms, but what I saw the most were the old men bragging about how much they got laid as if someone was keeping score and everytime we went out, there she was. Decked out like the lead in a red light district parade. At dinner she laughs at the right times as her boyfriend goes on, unaware of what he’s talking about or even where he is, and she’s there beside him. Quiet. Hardened, and you can tell she’s tallying the time served with this man, and all the time she has left to go.
Very few of them were in their right-minds before coming here, and after a couple years of cheap beer they’re tap-dancing their final years away in left-field. As for me, I’m neither right-minded nor wrong-minded, I just am who I am.
I was a math teacher. I had a love for math. I also had a love for twelve ounce cans–six years and three women later I was fired. Not given a leave of absence. I didn’t take a Far East sabbatical that I turned into a seven year vacation. No, I showed up hungover one day and spent the better part of my Algebra II class puking in the boys’ restroom. The principal smelled the alcohol from down the hall and gave me an ultimatum: get sober or get out. So did my wives. Get sober or get out.
I got out.
I haven’t seen them since. Haven’t seen my kids either. I did speak to my wife once–I needed our last address together–and she told me that my oldest daughter was getting married. My oldest daughter. Married. That was three years ago. I find myself thinking about them sometimes, wondering what they’re up to, and on those lonely nights in my apartment, where my walk from here to death seems an ever narrower path, I can see us together. It’s Christmas morning, under the tree exchanging presents and the grandkids call me Papa and we open gifts and laugh and smile. These are dreams, sure, dreams of a smaller world that are but phantoms here in the real world.
Where dreams go to die.
We’re drawn here, we stay here. There is a real joy at being the big fish in the small pond, which is another thing I think keeps pulling these men back year after year. And in a city like Wuhan, the pond…well, the pond was not big when I got there. I’d still say it’s small, but growing. Like the rest of China, it’s just growing and growing.
I taught at three different universities. The first was fine; they wanted me back, I jumped ship for more money and the honor of teaching the Interpretation class, light years beyond mere oral english; but when I got there, I found what that really meant was being handed a book full of Chinglish and being left to cobble something together for these poor students, all of whom were as confused as I was to what the hell was going on. They were rich kids who’d done badly on the Gao Kao and whose parents could afford to pay the outrageous tuition fees for this special “Australian Programme”. I ended up showing them movies, letting them create Chinese subtitles to match the English ones. It seemed as good a thing to do as any.
I suppose my reason for writing this is to tell you who I am, what happened to me and why I did the impossible and came back home after seven long years.