Expat Jimmy comes out May 11, available for pre-order now. It’s about James’s first day in Wuhan, China, as he’s shown around by Adam, a jaded seven-year laowai.
I’m at the end of a two-week trip to China. I found the original typescript for Little Red King, the source material for The Seven Year Laowai. Much changed from draft 1 to publication, but looking at it again, I was surprised at just how much it had changed.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some excerpts from the original draft, unedited. You won’t find anything *completely* new below. Different wording, speculation to John Ingram’s fate (Little Red King’s main character)…in the context of Little Red King, The Seven Year Laowai becomes a richer tale. It also provides an impending sense of doom — we know what Keith did to Walter and Tom, and that it got worse with Tom. How will he show John Ingram out of China, and how much worse will it get? Add in his developing romance with Michelle, a local Chinese woman, and that she is risking being unmarriageable by dating him.
I’ve already talked at length about how for a lot of people this is the place where they can succeed, where they can reinvent themselves into whatever they wish, sometimes constructing narratives so strong they come to embrace them whole heartedly.
In China, dirty old men from the West can indulge their fantasies and still be allowed to walk into a classroom. The lack of structure, the lack of qualifications, it allows these men a life. Jack ought to be in an institution somewhere, locked far away from daylight for the sun’s protection. But if his latest incoherent ramblings are any clue, this is the face representing a top five UK university: graveyard teeth, purple spider veins, red patches and eyes that when you look at them you know that whatever’s behind them is lost–and never coming back.
When one teacher leaves, often what happens is that teacher is not spoken of again. They’ve left, they’ve betrayed the unit, they’ve abandoned desperate KTV girls and cheap beer for the rat race in the West.
John Ingram did not do that, but don’t think he didn’t get that treatment. John was a young man from Tennessee, like Tom. One of Keith’s recruits, like Tom, and like Tom, and like Tom, Keith saw to it that John was given a special farewell.
Except this time, Keith upped the ante: he threw in a rape charge…a rape that lead the Hubei Finance Minister’s daughter to commit suicide.
Where was the evidence? What exactly did they have on the poor boy? Before I left, I did so some checking. Candy had referred to a “laowai”, and if she’s referring to a laowai, then she’s not referring to no one. She’s not making it up, in other words. Who could she have been referring to? I checked and found out that semester she had a foreign teacher.
Who’d gone crazy and shot someone, before killing himself.
Here’s what I think happened: Jeff was dead. What he did was a serious loss of face for Wuhan Computer University. They needed to cover it up somehow, while suggesting to people that although they had a problem, they remedied it. They harmonized it, and quickly.
John Ingram was already on the hot seat for accidentally reminding Keith of how inadequate he was. He was gone, and since he was going…why not send the problems with him?
And so they did. And if you check the local newspaper website at that time, you can see it for yourself. Rapist, sent home. You should know that they paid good money for that newspaper spot. You can bet on it.
Except…something happened, something off the record. Something they’d rather you not know about. I got this from one of the guys who used to work in the Foreign Affairs Office. I later got it from Jack, and other students I’d taught there. Much like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution, the topic of John Ingram’s true fate had become something that everybody knows…and yet no one will speak aloud of, for fear of repercussion. That’s how it is in today’s China. You know the truth. So you shut the fuck up about it.
On that day the police took him to the station, John Ingram escaped. To this day, he has not been found. For every shot of the Great Wall they export, China is still very much a developing country. Mostly countryside, and there are just so many places for someone to hide. All that space. He could have gone anywhere.
Like the other teachers who left, John Ingram became something of an unperson. Jack found it shitty what they did, yet at the same time mocked his newspaper columns. “He’s just American,” Jack said with a heavy roll of his eyes while his barely legal jailbait girlfriend giggled on cue. Yes Jack, he is just American…which is so much better than whatever the fuck it is you are. John Ingram has left us.He could be dead, he could be alive, but whatever he is, I think he has the last laugh here. Keith wanted him gone, not just from Wuhan Computer University, but China itself. The borders of Keith’s playhouse extended far and wide. It had to cook his ass knowing that John was still in _his_ China in some capacity, as he lay in that cold hospital room, as he inched towards a forgotten death.
Now I’m gone too. I can only imagine what they say about me, when they bother to speak of me. No doubt Jack is cooking up some story about who he held me over a balcony and then threw me out on my ass, another fine anecdote to go with his past life as a worldwide hitman-bodyguard-lawyer extraordinaire.
I started writing this a day or two before I left and here I am, thirty-hours later, finishing it right before we touchdown. Strange how things work out sometimes. I spent seven years in that place, and now I’m coming back to a home that is in its own way as strange to me as China was when I first arrived. Will I be okay here? I couldn’t make it before. I hope I can now.
I think the first thing I’ll do when I arrive is to take a moment and look at the sky. Then I’ll check into my hotel. Then…
I got the numbers before I left. They’re sitting in my pocket. Several times I felt down there, just to make sure they hadn’t gone anywhere. Just to make sure they were real. I’ve never felt so nervous about anything in my life. All I’ve got is a couple hundred dollars and some phone numbers. It might be stupid, but so is going to China to teach English. So’s any chance, if you think about it long enough. Long enough not to take it.
Here is mine. I know I’d feel worse for not trying. And that is all I can do.
The rest is out of my hands.