“How can someone who exists on the fringes of a society understand that society?” Jack said. “You’re a laowai, a wai guo ren, an outsider. You can’t understand pigs without shoveling pig shit, you shouldn’t even fucking eat bacon. How can you be an expert on death without taking the occasional life?”
With Matt gone, nobody really did anything. They bitched. We all avoided Keith like the walking kindergarten plague he was…but none of us did anything. I won’t say that I tried but had no support, but really, what were we to do? We were English teachers in China, lucky enough to have these jobs. God knows we weren’t going to jeopardize it.
Keith was also put in charge of coordinating the English courses for postgraduate students, and while his predecessor had been content just to throw together a few lessons and be done with it, Keith had far grander ambitions. For him it was an actual program. So it needed a name.
He named it Concentration Camp.
You may ask “why?”…among other, more pertinent questions.
Antisemitism? Senility? I take the latter and raise you one more: a display of power. He called it ‘concentration camp’ because he could. Because he could get away with it. We did complain about that, but to little avail; as long as Keith licked their asses properly, this university was his playhouse, and he would do what he wanted. Anyone who disagreed could get out.
Keith’s three “recruits”, as he called them, were Tom, Ashley, and Peter. Peter had been a business major at Louisiana State University. Not exactly a background that produces many winners at the game of life, Peter had piled up enough losses to make ESL in China a viable option. He lasted two and a half months, though not because of Keith; he pulled a midnight runner, after weeks spent bitching about how “stupid” everyone here is and how “annoying” his students were. Good riddance.
The other two were Tom and Ashley. They were a couple, and the first teacher they met was me.
The second teacher?
“I had a very violent past you see, right,” Jack said, his eyes watering. “I used to just go up and grab people.”
We had lunch at the backstreet. Tom had the menu, but Jack snatched it out of his hands and pretended to read from the menu. He said things to the waitress, who repeated them. The waitress said them in Pu Tong Hua, Jack said them in his… unique brand of Hua, and at last he turned to Ashley.
“They have trouble understanding standard Chinese.”
“But isn’t that like the official language here?”
“It is, but not everyone understands it, you see, among the local peoples, there is a good deal of pride in the local dialects, by refusing to conform, they keep their culture intact. It’s actually quite brilliant.”
No one said anything.
“So you’re from America then?” Jack said to Ashley, his mammoth frame pointed directly at her.
“Yes…we both are.”
Jack waved a hand of dirty, uncut fingernails at Tom. “He’s American.” Jack did an exaggerated eyeroll. “So you know what that’s like, but you, for you I will TRY and make an exception. I will TRY.”
“Oh,” she said to her rice bowl.
I asked them some basic questions, where they went to school, how long they thought they’d stay. Stuff like that.
Then Tom said he was keeping a blog about China.
“How is that possible?” Jack said. “How can someone who exists on the fringes of a society understand that society? You’re a laowai, a wai guo ren, an outsider. You can’t understand pigs without shoveling pig shit, you shouldn’t even fucking eat bacon. How can you be an expert on death without taking the occasional life?”
“So…what?” Tom said. “You’ve taken lives or something?”
“I was a hitman.” Catching their looks, he added, “It’s normal. It’s all over the world. Everyone does it. It’s just so normal.”
Whereas I had learned to avoid Jack except when necessary, Tom and Ashley had little training in that area. As such, they ended up at Starbucks with him.
After Jack had informed Ashely that he’d been a bodyguard for women in the UK, that was, before he’d traded away his BMWs for a “simpler” i.e. “better” life here in China, they’d begun talking about one of Ashley’s projects. The girl was a death penalty abolitionist, not just for the United States, but for the whole world. Tom nodded, reciting a story he’d read on the internet about the infamous “Chop-Chop” square in Saudi Arabia.
“Well what the fuck are you supposed to do with all these pedophiles?” Jack roared.
“Uh,” Tom began.
“What the fuck are you supposed to do with all these pedophiles?” He smacked the table. “They had this case here recently, I think it was Fujian, where this kindergarten teacher was touching little girls, so they just took him out back during recess and–” He pantomimed shooting a kneeling man, “–BAM!”
Tom tried to speak again. “Well–”
“What the fuck are you supposed to do with all these pedophiles?” He smacked the table. “They had this case here recently, I think it was Fujian…”
When he’d finished, he informed them that the school owed him “summer pay”, and after that, the tale of his affair…and how he’d made her “scream”, of course.
“He talks about killing pedophiles and his affair like all the fucking time,” Tom told me one day. “He’s even started telling his classes. What can we do about it?”
“Nothing,” I told him. “Just huddle up, pray, and thank God you’re not him.”
Not that Jack saw it that way. One of the man’s favorite remarks was, “You’re American, but I’ll try not to hold that against you”, and when he wasn’t breaking the creative barrier with that one, he was generally putting down Tom and the other young Americans as much as possible.
“I read this stuff he writes,” Jack said right in front of Tom one day. “Yeah, okay…” Jack reached out to pet Tom as he would a dog, a smirk on his face. Tom jerked away. “He’s American, he tries, but he is American.”
To Tom’s credit, he never dropped down to Jack’s level. It would be so tempting, especially since it’s so easy to see Jack for what he really is. I think Tom realized what we all knew: that with Jack, and people like him, it’s futile to hate them. Yes Jack, he’s American, and no, he just can’t understand China the way you do you Critical-Thinking-Hitman-Adjudicator-Alpha-Male-Extraordinaire…but tomorrow when he wakes up, he’ll have his youth. His sanity. While you’re rambling about your “violent past”.
As for the stuff Tom wrote, that’s what pissed Keith off. On the surface it seemed like no big deal: westerner comes to China, grows dissatisfied with teaching, writes about it. No big deal. I read Tom’s stuff, and lots of foreigners come to China…and say a lot worse than Tom ever did.
But Tom questioned the naming choice. He mocked the name Concentration Camp.
He questioned Keith’s authority. In Keith’s Playhouse.
And as Keith himself later said, when assassinating Tom’s character on an ESL blacklist, “…you can guess what happens next.”