The 7 Year Laowai: Part 8 – The Graveyard of all Ambition

… He died an old man in a cold Chinese hospital an entire hemisphere removed from everyone and everything he had ever known. Surrounded by strangers, he couldn’t even have read his own obituary.

Be sure to start at the beginning with “The 7-Year Laowai: Part 1 – Introduction“, or see all posts in the series here.

After Tom, that was it for me. I decided not to “renew the contract”. I applied for math-teaching jobs at international schools in many different cities, but come September, I was across Wuhan. In another university.

Teaching oral English.

I never cut down on my drinking. In this place, how could you? I need it. It’s as simple as that. I know I’m not alone in this feeling, but perhaps I’m the only one who’s okay with it. Sure, you could argue that I should not be okay with it, that I should seek help, that I should just do so many fucking things. But I won’t. And that’s okay, too.

I did limit my drinking to my apartment. I drank one bottle after another, browsing the internet. Googling people I had once known, seeing where they were, wondering where I could have been, which turn lead me here, which turn would have led elsewhere.

I found my daughter.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gone looking for her, but man, the internet must’ve grown a lot in the past few years. There were several pages on there. The first was a LinkedIn profile. She’s working in finance now, but that’s all there was. Just information on her career.

Nothing about her.

The other page was a Facebook profile. I’m not a member of Facebook, so I only got to see the initial page, but there it was, right there in the upper-left-hand corner.

My daughter.

All grown up.

I went outside for a walk. I only looked at the picture for a second…but maybe that was enough. I had always had this image of her, as she may be now, and I liked it. A beautiful young woman who took after her mother in the looks department but after her father in the brains department, who still liked Math puzzles. She played the same ones, and I played them too. We even talked. We had a lot of fun.

But that picture…was that even her? I’ve spent a lot of time telling myself that it might not have been her. I know how many people have my name, God knows other people share hers.

Then again…

It was her. I can’t bullshit myself about it. You know certain things as a parent. As a father. No matter how old your kids get, no matter how far they go, you still know them.


Keith is dead.

He’s been dead for about a year as I write this. Pneumonia took him that next December. I didn’t find out until the June after, when I just happened to be on QQ and a former student messaged me.

Am I happy about it? No. Am I sad then? No. I don’t think you should be happy when people die, even if they wronged you. As for being sad, I think the tragedy of Keith’s death is the tragedy of his life. He died an old man in a cold Chinese hospital an entire hemisphere removed from everyone and everything he had ever known. Surrounded by strangers, he couldn’t even have read his own obituary. He died serving a corrupt, low-tier university. He died, his life one in which he’d always left people worse off. He died trying to justify his failures, trying to convince a lifelong audience all of whom were deaf to his words. He died.

In his emails, Keith had called Wuhan a “real Chinese city”. Jack echoed a similar sentiment. I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they really mean by that.

They don’t like Shanghai and Beijing because in those cities, the fish bowl is a lot bigger. In those cities, they are reminded of how inadequate they truly are, and that is the absolute worst thing to remind someone of. How inadequate they are.

You come 12,000 miles to forget about it…but the more you try to forget, the more you remember.

I made a lot of mistakes, but I’m happy to say I never harassed or bullied my younger co-workers. No matter how shitty I felt, I refrained from doing that. I can’t say the same about the others. What can I say about them, other than what I’ve said so far?

Right before I left that second university, Jack told me he was getting back into “business”. He had been tooting that horn for as long as I’d known him. Told me he had lots of ideas for business ventures between Chinese and UK universities. Called himself “the visa agent for the UK”. Teaching had gotten old, the office still hadn’t given him his “summer pay”…so it was time to leave. It was time to get out.

He’s still teaching oral English.

Jack had another reaction to something Tom had written, this time via Facebook. Around the time he told me about his new business ventures, he discussed a story Tom had posted, about a foreign teacher who gives private lessons to a rich Chinese girl, but as it turns out, her parents are making her do it. The character in the story has little common ground with her and wonders whether it is worth 350 RMB an hour.

“Her parents are handing him this money, and it’s like ‘dance, dance you white fucking monkey’, you know, just fucking dance. I wanted to hit this stupid cunt right in the face. He just doesn’t understand anything. Typical fucking tourist bus laowai, finding refuge in Starbucks and McDonald’s, culturally inept to a mind-boggling degree.”

Jack talks, he keeps talking, and long after I’m gone, he’ll still be there. Talking. Teaching oral English.

And discussing his future “business ventures”.


Well, here we go again. I began this a few weeks before I left China and here I am, sitting in a hotel room with the same notebook I bought for 1.5 RMB…sitting here under a smoke detector. A working smoke detector.

I’m back. I knew things would be different, but I never imagined how different! When I left, Survivor was on and Big Brother was just starting. Now it seems like every show is a reality show. Who watches this shit? Is this what we have come to as a society? It seems like our entire country is living in the shadow of what it once was…a shadow that shrinks as the sun sets for the final time.

No one cares about anything, except what they’re told to care about. Ground Zero Mosque? Everything is so divisive now. I was when I left, but Christ almighty, it’s just so. Much. Worse. Hearing about it just doesn’t to it justice. You have to be here to really understand.

But…I guess what I’m really doing now is stalling. The longer I write, the longer I can put it off. I once heard Wuhan referred to as “the graveyard of all ambition”, and as I stall, I think of what my options were, and it comes down to how I want my ambition to die. Slowly as I try to convince myself that I’m so happy, that all my screw-ups were not all for naught, that by coming to China and indulging in the fringe benefits of being white I am somehow vindicated.

Or I can come here. I can try.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Surrendering to a life of quiet desperation…or…

I have an address. A couple hundred bucks in my pocket.

I don’t know if she’ll be there. She may not even accept me if she is.

I think what I’ll do is have a drink first. For Matt, for Tom, but especially for Jack. Keith, and all the others who went to China seeking a better life, and all those who will go this year.

Then I’ll head out over there. I can try, that’s all I can do.

The rest is out of my hands.

DISCLAIMER: While drawn from real life, this post is fiction.