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.

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


23 Comments
  1. Fitting end to a pretty darn good series.

    Wuhan…“the graveyard of all ambition”

    It ain’t just Wuhan, pengyou…it’s the Middle Kingdom itself.

    • Profile photo of

      I agree, on both counts.

      I kind of hope Travis’ serial sparks some more creative fiction contributions from other writers, as I really enjoyed this series as well.

      Too true about this place easily being a “graveyard of all ambition”. I think the larger cities, and certainly once you get outside of ESL, it’s a bit different. I heard someone once say that ESL is where careers go to die.

  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

    • Totally agree! It’s ironic how many laowai living in 2nd, 3rd tier cities feel they’re living in ‘the real China’, yet because of the ‘big fish in small pond’ syndrome talked about in the article they get treated like celebraties and often develop a massive sense of self-importance. This sometimes happens in Beijing, Shanghai as well of course, however it’s much less frequent. In such 1st tier cities where laowai are two a penny we tend to get treated much more like ‘normal people’. Not saying we’re treated exactly like Chinese (that would be horrible!), but the exotic factor is far less, and thus in a way we get a more ‘real’ experience of living and working here.

  3. I’m living the oral English teacher experience in China I’ve met these people too. It’s frightening how many I have met. And Sir, I do believe you get it. Eloquently written; your prose delivers what I have seen first-hand, and struggle to find the words to express. Thank you.

    My thoughts on the idea of Oral English Teaching are these:
    Oral English is an adventure for youth. An eye opener, if you will. For myself, the experience has been positive, though somewhat jading. I wouldn’t recommend it as an avenue of escape for the disenchanted. One needs not look further than this cautionary tale to understand it’s pitfalls. This work in fiction carries more truth than I would have believed before I came here and experienced it first hand.

    • Profile photo of Travis

      “Oral English is an adventure for youth”

      I agree totally. I went right after college, and on the whole, I’m happy I did it. Like you though, I would not recommend someone use it as a “fresh start”.

  4. This stereotype of the Western loser who comes to China to escape from it all and ends up teaching English is very pervasive, but I wonder how common it is in reality. There certainly are some foreigners like that in China, but at least in Beijing I don’t think it’s the majority. In places like Beijing there are loads of foreigners who are not just teaching English, but studying something or doing a job which actually leads somewhere.

    • Profile photo of Travis

      “…but I wonder how common it is in reality.”

      It’s very common. Now, in the more developed cities like Beijing, you’ll see more westerners doing something other than teaching English. It depends on different factors.

    • Profile photo of

      I agree with Travis — Beijing and Shanghai aren’t the right litmus tests to use in gauging how common it is — they both offer very different laowai cultures and communities than the 2nd and 3rd tier cities. I’m sure it was one of Travis’ reasons to set the story in Wuhan and not Beijing. As much as both Beijing and Shanghai offer up just as much Chinese oddness and uniqueness, they are also foreigner meccas and so have higher demands for entrance into the laowai cultures there — not a climate someone wishing to get away from the standard cultural norms of back home would gravitate to. Go to a small city of <1m and sample the laowai population — it’s most definitely not everyone teaching ESL, or even half of everyone, but it’s definitely not uncommon.

    • I know this comment section is effectively dead, but for all the people who may come later:

      It’s common. I don’t even teach ESL, but I’ve met them. They’re horrible.

      While I think overall it’s a stereotype (when applied to ALL foreigners), I think that when you’ve got something like ESL in China, when the barrier to entry is very low, you find this more often. I’ve had more than one ESL teacher say, “I had to get out of there. Those people that have been doing it for years, I didn’t want to end up like them.”

      • Profile photo of Ryan

        Fair point, though I’m curious how the new tighter regulations about qualifications and visas that came in over the summer are going to affect things in future. I’m sure it will take a while for these laws to weed out the unqualified teachers and language mills, but it’s sure to have an effect.

        • I’d be surprised if it changed anything. As long as the basic structure remains the same, they’ll pound the drum a bit, make some arrests of “illegal” foreign teachers, and then? Back to business as usual.

  5. Sigh..another laowai loser writer who writes about how other laowais make him angry. This topic is beaten to death.

    Sorry, anytime I see beating up on “those people” it reminds me of how my grandpa used to talk about blacks. No matter who “those people” are.

  6. -I got rather upset by the whole series, maybe because I read the whole thing in one sitting while drinking vodka!
    -I don’t know, I’m on year two in China in what would be considered a 5th or 6th tier town. Yes, it’s rural. Yes most of the students are terrible. But there are plenty of nice students mixed in their. Out here students are poor and many are happy to have a real american teaching them. For many I’m their first foreign teacher.
    -I guess I feel that people sometime blame the place for the ambitionless screw-ups and failures one meets in this line of work. I’m young, (under 30) with a foreign language degree. I don’t think there’s some birghter better future waiting for me in the US, certainly not with 10% unemployment and a liberal arts degree. Maybe instead of it being something about China, we should just realize that a washed up 40 year old with a drinking problem isn’t going to be too functional anywhere.
    -Finally are the ‘normal standards of laowai society’ really such a high bench mark? I mean people saying they make 20,000RMB a month, and sleep with every girl they meet, and spend every weekend in 5 star foreigner bars are these people ‘better’ or more interesting than those who live in the strange backwards bizzare ‘real’ China? That’s my beef with Beijiang and even Shenyang. If I want to meet type A money chasing types, I was only 150miles south of NYC.
    -Lastly in terms of fiction, this whole series runs all over the place, from funny satire to terrible sentimentalism. And the line “he couldn’t even have read his own obituary.” is terribly terribly funny for all the wrong reasons.

  7. Wow…
    I have just been sat reading this entire story for the past hour (curse the slow Internet speeds here). And this really brings everything home for me. From my colleagues to the other foreigners teaching in my city.

    I am actually living in a tier 2 city in Hunan – Which from what I hear often is the “real China” and I have met all these characters. I work closely with a person who is the epitome of both Keith and Jack, luckily my FAO aren’t stupid and sussed him quite quickly and they refused to resign him – instead making me their “head laowai” – woopie.

    It’s funny, this guy seems to have 20 different lives, in fact he tells me during the span of his 1 life (he’s late 40) that he has probably lived the lives of 5 people. He worked for the government in the science division, he used to be a bodyguard for the “Heffmiester” himself and he even got cheated out millions of dollars by microsoft for a program that doesn’t exist because it’s “too advanced” which is why he arrived in China to work in a training school, of all places.

    This story makes me want to go home, yet at the same time I’d like to hope and pray I don’t ever turn into this because I really do hope I’m different. I came here simply to get something on my CV, unfortunately or fortunately however you look at it, I fell in love with a nice girl who has been a real diamond. And now I’m trying to establish myself in exporting.

    The funny thing is; I showed this how story to that teacher I work with. He just said “Yeah you will meet a lot of wasters like that in China, just be careful you don’t get close to them and stick with us honest folk”.

    Thank you so much.

    • Profile photo of Travis

      Don’t you love the complicated narratives that lead to one teaching English in China?

      And I understand about the girl part; that’s what led me to staying in China well past when I had “planned” to go back. I don’t regret it one bit.

      Good luck, and enjoy your time over there.

      • Hey,

        Sorry to reply to this thread again; I’m just wandering who else has encountered these types of people in China? I’m having a bit of an issue with 2 of them in my city. Like real big problems.

        I’ll start from the beginning, both are previous employers of my school and both got refused to renew again (at different times), as such they left in a sour mood – and the last one to leave was angry not just at my school but at me for “taking his job”. I’ve kept my head down for a while just trying to avoid them as I don’t want to contact them at all. But I coincidently bumped into the older guy (the first one to leave – who’s even more psychotic), and he seems to know an awful lot about what I’ve been doing, what I’m doing, where I’m living etc. Apparently there’s a whole secret society of top Guan Xi and some of the richest men alive who are out to get me and my school. I don’t know… All I can say is for the first time in my life i’m genuinely scared about something.

        It turns out these foreigners are out to get my school telling people it’s not an ESL school but a school about a certain F word cult that is not to be mentioned in China, and also implying that I am involved with it too. They are telling lots of people this and because of the nature of my job my ugly mug is plastered all over the city in buses, on billboards and i’m often in the newspaper or on TV.

        The older guy complete psycho, he basically nearly attacked me in broad daylight, but the other guy seems to be his apprentice, they both have left extra-ordinary lives, are both holders of doctorates that don’t exist. And neither have Z visas attached to any schools, but instead bought Z Visas from Beijing that gives them the role of an “Education Consultants”, I don’t know if they are working here legally or not and this is the first thing I’d like advice on. The second thing I’d like advice on what can I do to tackle these guys? I’ve tried avoiding them but it seems like they’re bringing the fight to me for no real reason other than they don’t like me. 1 guy is 3 times my age and the other guy is more than double my age.

        Any help whatsoever would be greatly appreciated – moving is not an option as I have a great job where I’m happy, appreciated and my girlfriend and good friends all live here.

        Thanks for reading this guys.

        • Profile photo of

          Hopefully Travis can give you some solid advice via e-mail. If you’re employed legally (ie. not on an F or L visa) and the school you work for is legit — I would get the authorities involved. First, try to get your school to clear it up. Explain you’re being harassed, who the people are, and ask what your options are. If that leads nowhere (and it might need more than a stiff poke to get admins to see it as anything other than a problem between foreigners — that “don’t get involved in other people’s business” line runs deep), get a Chinese-speaking friend to accompany you to the PSB and start putting their name to use.

          And definitely if it ever turns physical, charge the fuckers. I’ve heard of more than one laowai on the quick boat home for assault. English media, and laowai sites like this one, tend to downplay the effectiveness of the Chinese legal system, but it does exist and you do have rights.

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