Cultural Readjustment

“–you have too good a mind to throw away. I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fiber of my being. A man must live by his light and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

She is right. I will say yes. I will say yes even though I do not really know what she is talking about. – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

I try to shut off the nostalgia lens when thinking of my two and a half years in China. Coming back to the States was something I felt obligated to do; if it were up to me, I’d still be in Wuhan, breathing in the poisonous air, drinking crates of beer, with my neverending head cold, forty pounds heavier than I am now, if not more. I can see why coming here was a good idea, and I can make myself understand this is all temporary; there will come a time when the benefits of returning begin to manifest. There may even be a time when I look back on my time in China with a slight shred of regret. There might come such a time.

But not now.

The slow eroding of any hope you had for your future is a process best endured among kindred spirits — at the office, bagging groceries, or pissing away time and money and bits of your sanity to earn a PhD, only to find yourself an overworked adjunct with no benefits. Those people are better off because they’re together.

When you endure it in isolation, there is no hiding from the truth. It’s there, staring you in the face every single day. Your failures. Where you’re going, where you’ve been, not to mention where you’ve fallen on your ass along the way.

A side effect of this is that you long for a better, simpler time. A chance to take a left instead of a right, and see if that lands you in your fabled dreamworld of the “good life”. What you left behind wasn’t so bad — hell, compared to your current situation, it was heaven. Why the fuck did you ever leave in the first place?

The point is: I’m romanticizing my life in China.

I have to take the time to remind myself that it wasn’t all dancing in the sun and shitting rainbows. For starters, what sun? Unless our fearless leaders seed the atmosphere. And as for rainbows…good luck.

I try to forge a conviction that my reasons for returning home were sound, and that since my wife worked hard to get her visa, even if we fail, it was worth a shot. Right?

And if we fail? What are the consequences for failure?

A few weeks ago I did something I have not done in a long time: I went through all my old China photos, remembering things I had forgotten about my arrival, going back down that tired road of what-could-have-been. And sometimes, right before I fall asleep, I can draw myself back to that first day, when an entire new land awaited me. That first dreary jetlagged dinner, that first cigarette, first rice wine, first rice wine hangover, and I can still see her. She is standing at the heater by the window. She is offering me a cup of tea, and she pronounces tea with a slight rhotacization, something close to tear. She looks nice. I can’t take my eyes off her.

Then I wake up to…my current life. Everything that has gone before, and everything yet to come. Where am I headed, and I have to wonder if the consequences of failure might not be consequences after all.

But a kind of reprieve.

The Leaky Air Conditioner

Little Red King
Deleted Scene: The Leaky Air Conditioner

This is a deleted scene from Little Red King. It occurred near the beginning of the book, and is pretty much word-for-word something that happened to me.

John is a French major who has come to Wuhan, China, to teach English for a year. In his first days, he is jet-lagged, having stomach troubles, and comparing what he’s seen so far to his semester abroad in France.

Part of it was amusement, part of it was expressing some thoughts I hold about language learning. I never belittle anyone’s attempts at a foreign language, and I can’t stand the pieces of shit who do. There’s nothing more damaging to someone trying to speak a foreign language than ridicule, whether it’s foreigners learning Chinese, Chinese learning English, or in my experience, Americans learning French.

Unedited from the first draft.


John was in bed. Staring up at the ceiling. Thirteen hours. He was thirteen hours ahead. What was his mother doing now? How about Sandra? In class? Working probably. She started her first job soon. How about the rest? In class too? Or killing time in the library between coffee and study? He had seen a Starbucks on the ride in from the airport but it was across town and it was too far and what if there was no place to get coffee this was the land of tea after all and what if–

These thoughts put him to sleep.

The pounding woke him up.

A shirtless foreigner pale sparing his upper arms and neck opened the door to an old Chinese man with a beard, wearing moccasins that looked to share his age. The man uttered something. The sounds indistinguishable in meaning for John from a bird’s morning cry. John then uttered something back. The sounds indistinguishable for the man too and he said something else, held up a finger, and went downstairs.

John closed the door. Another knock came.

This time it was a young man who greeted him in English.

“Hello! How do you do?”

“I’m fine,” John grogged. “How about you?”

“Yes. My father says the water, it falls from your…” He drew a square in the air.


“May I please come in to see it?”

“Sure.” John stepped aisde and cast his arm out. “Come on in.”

The young man strode across the foyer and through the bedroom. He stepped out on to the balcony, John still in the foyer. Swaying. The young man saw something and waved John over.

John went.

“This is the water,” said the young man. Eyes awake many an eon followed the invisible line his finger drew. Water was indeed leaking, dripping steadily from John’s air conditioner to theirs and announcing its arrival a dull, hollow thud. There was a silence as the young man stared straight at John, expecting something, but the problem was, John didn’t know what. So he just said the first thing that popped in his head.

“What are you going to do?”


Perhaps the young man hadn’t been waiting. He was thinking, John realized. Rehearsing, even. Drawing up and revising his words, words he now spoke to John.

“I wonder could you shut down your AC.”

John wiped his arm and stepped back inside. Under the cold air, he said, “I’m sorry. But I don’t think I can.”


Again that look of concentration. The supreme effort it took to speak a foreign language to that language’s native speaker. The fear. The fear of failure, of making a mistake, a mistake that the native speaker would then pounce on. Jesus, no wonder so many people were quite in his French classes. There were fucking graduate students who just sat there except when called upon, and no wonder. The higher up you went, the more the pressure. The higher the expectations, and God knew the expectations you held for yourself beat the expectations others held for you any time. God only knew what expectations this guy held for himself and what the penalty for failure was.

“My father come up here and fix it. Okay?”


He left. His father came up and gave a short ni hao with a wave and a laugh and John managed to return the wave but nothing else as the old man moved on past him to the balcony. He stood where his son had and reached down and twisted a pipe. The leaking stopped. He turned, said something and then headed to the door. John followed and when the old man disappeared down the stairs, the young man appeared up them.



“It is fixed. Okay?”

“Okay. Good.”

“May I have your name please.”

“I’m John.”

“Excuse me?”

He cleared his throat. “Sorry. My name is John.”

“John. So common name.” He said this with a big, bright smile. “My English name is Matthew. It is very nice to meet you.”

John returned the smile as best he could. They said goodbye and John closed the door. He drew the curtains shut and went back to bed. He had been tired before but after their visit he wasn’t too tired and wasn’t this just like France where on his first day he’d short-circuited the room, oh that room, that terrible room they shoved him in it —

John took another trip. To the land of dreams. Memories of France carried him there.

A knock brought him back.

He opened the door. The old man was standing there.

“Ni hao!”

With a tool in his hand.