Those first few years were the worst. You enter a period in your life where you can’t say for sure what you’re doing or even who you are. Each day the same as the last, they blur together like a flipbook. You can only see flashes of what you did, what you were. Little isolated fragments that do nothing to illustrate what happened and everything to add to the mystery.
“Why do you come to China?”, my students ask me, which is pretty much “What’s a nice laowai like you doing in a place like this?”. Well…I suppose I came here for a better life. I suppose. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to know what I was thinking. Look at it like this: I was treading water in the middle of the ocean, waiting for a boat to come by.
China just happened to be the first.
If I was an alcoholic before I came here, then I’d hate to know what I became in that first year. Whatever drinking I did got worse. We had this little store right by our apartments that sold a crate of 12 bottles for 24 RMB. At a salary of 4,000 RMB a month, I could afford a lot of crates. And I did.
I think what kept me alive–not to mention employed–during those initial years was my ability to show people the part of me I wanted them to see. That’s one thing life as a functional alcoholic will teach you. When our foreign affairs office bothered to interact with us, they saw just another laowai, passing through. When I interacted with the girls at the bars, young ladies with unnatural brown hair, caked in makeup like they’d just escaped a circus, they saw just another laowai, passing through, one who had money, who could show them a good time.
On some of those lonely nights, I would get up from the computer and stagger into the bathroom. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a drunk. A deadbeat father, a terrible husband, a man who pretended to be a teacher, a man who pretended to be many things…a man who wasn’t fooling anyone. An old man was looking at me. We all have to grow old, but none of us want to do it alone. What did I do that led me to this point? When you get like this, you’re no longer living. You become a pile of bones and organs, hostage to your own faults, and all you can do is listen to time tick away.
Until you can hear it no more.
One thing does stand out: my first trip to KTV. We were over at the bar when one teacher got a message from another, and off we went, down dirty backstreets to a place with a single light on over the door. The doormen grilled us, and when they finally let us in, we followed dark hallways to a room. And when we went inside, there he was.
His gray hair around the dome of his head like a smoke ring around a volcano tip, his teeth skeletal, scarred things waiting to break apart. He had in his lap a small Chinese girl, squeezing her breasts like he wanted to bust them. His mouth hung open and he grunted loudly as he squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, as that girl looked over at us. As she did everything but beg us to save her.
Do you feel sorry for her? As one teacher put it, “Yeah, she looked at us like ‘help me!’, but I’m like whatever, you chose to do this”.
Perhaps…though looking at him, I can’t say this was in the job description.
I can’t say she had any choice in the matter.
Yessir, those first few years were indeed the worst. Changes came in my fourth year.
That’s when I met Wei Wei.
I met her at an English Speech Competition. She was an English professor over at Wuhan University, one of Wuhan’s three universities. This speech competition, like all of them, was just a chance for English majors to practice speaking in front of an audience and gain some self-confidence in the form of encouraging comments.
Wei Wei asked for my number. She was the first to set a date, the first to initiate sex. She was divorced, one son. Her husband managed a private bus line that for all intents and purposes operated off the books…way off the books. He had his embezzlements, his bribes.
She left her son too. We never did talk about that boy, outside of a morning in which she’d bought him a bowl of hot dry noodles before school. He’d taken one look at it, and knocked it out of her hands. It seems he didn’t like carrots.
The final straw came when her husband locked her out of the apartment. She had gone out and gotten them breakfast, as was her routine, and she had not stirred her husband’s hot dry noodles. He began to yell at her. Usually she took whatever he offered, but on this day, she defended herself. She told him to stir them himself.
Oh, the nerve.
He grabbed her by the hair and shoved her out the door and locked it. She stood out there screaming in the winter cold, in just her nightgown, screaming for him to open the door. Then she screamed for help. A few people did pass. A few even stopped to watch.
But no one helped her.
He let her back in a few hours later. Under his orders, she apologized and then he went out to “tend to his business”, a daylong activity which included smoking, drinking bai jiu, taking bribes, offering bribes, and fucking his various mistresses. Hard work. What must the perks be like?
After he left, she told me that she took a look around the apartment. At all the shit they had. Then she took a look at her son, sitting there on the computer playing games, a shell of a boy absorbed entirely within himself. It occurred to her then that he could die, that both him and his father could die, and she would not care. She wouldn’t even attend their funerals.
She put on some clothes, packed a few of her things in a bag, and then went straight to the marriage bureau. It took thirty minutes. After that, she was a free woman.
She told me these things on our nights, lying there in post-coitus, in that brief period where the two of us could let our guard down. One night she spoke up about her daughter. The doctors here are not supposed to reveal the sex of the baby, but then again, here there are lots of things that are not supposed to happen. Whether they do or not depends on various factors.
In this case, it was guanxi. Her husband leveraged it to find out his wife was seven and a half months pregnant with a girl. They were allowed to have one kid. And don’t think that if they could have had two kids, he would’ve let this go. Don’t think that.
Because he didn’t let this one go.
He screamed at her, yelled at her, hit her. He kept at it and kept at it, until one morning she woke up crying. She put on her clothes crying. She cried all the way to the woman’s hospital, cried as she sat there in the waiting room, cried as she went in and laid out on the gurney, the door right there in the waiting room so everyone can see who goes in and out, and on the night she told me all this, she was shaking.
And still crying.
On those nights I held her, I felt that anything was possible. All the mistakes in my life laid out before me, and all of them rendered insignificant in this moment if in no other. I knew that I would never again feel this, even if I ended up living another half century. I pulled her close.
A couple years later, she was gone.
She went to America for a 6-month teaching position. That was about three years ago. She hasn’t come back, and I doubt she ever will. I rode with her to the airport, I handed her her bags, and we hugged. As I stared into those eyes, as polished as sunstones in a frontier stream, I knew I would never see her again. She never told me she would write me. She never has, and that’s okay.
And Wei Wei, if you have found a man over there, do him a favor. Make him feel the way you made me feel. Make him unafraid to trust someone with his true self. Do it for me, do it for him.
You might just save his life.