The original ending to The Seven Year Laowai

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.

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated

The Seven Year Laowai is the backstory for a long novel called Little Red King.

I’ve spent years revising Little Red King‘s mammoth 260,000 word manuscript, eventually shelving it indefinitely.

A book I recently read inspired me to go back and set it right. If I succeed, I’ll self-publish it. This is not the kind of book that lends itself to traditional publishing; if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

The Seven Year Laowai is more than backstory though. It’s a prologue, told through a series of interludes in the main text of Little Red King, providing crucial background info and build-up throughout the book.

I have annotated the first chapter of The Seven Year Laowai.  Read on for some trivia, my thought process, etc.

Enjoy it for FREE!

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated

Two Little Red King Sample Chapters

Two sample chapters from the novel Little Red King are now available. The first deals with John’s introduction to expat nightlife. It’s found here.

The second is LRK’s first real chapter, following The Seven Year Laowai 1. It’s found here.

Set in 2008 Wuhan, Little Red King is more or less about the doomed romance between a new foreign teacher and a Chinese graduate student. The never-sent query is here (or the post right below this one), and the structure of the book goes 7YL1, Ch 1, 7YL2, Ch 2…and so on, with the 7YL departing midway through while the main story takes over and returning at the end to help tie everything together.

More sample chapters are coming. The next one will be about a bad baijiu hangover, based on a true story of a certain former expat who had the bright idea of mixing Sprite with ricewine, to mute the taste. Unfortunately, it worked.

I said it in a Facebook message and I’ll say it here and I’ll say it again and again: I want Little Red King to be a fucking gut punch. So, while things will start out innocent enough, keep in mind this is a doomed romance. I want the sense of doom to set in, and I want it to set in quickly. I want this story to linger in people’s heads for years.

I want a lot of things. Right now, what I want most is for people to read the damn thing.

So feel free to have a look, and yes, I am open to feedback. Some four to five years on, the book remains a work in progress, though less of a work in progress than last time. So what do we call that?


Little Red King Query Letter (Welcome to Hell)

If you’re lucky enough not to know what a query letter is, I’ll let Nathan Bransford explain:

A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don’t worry, you won’t catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.

The following is a query letter for Little Red King. I never sent it out. As of now, I don’t have a final query letter that I’m ready to send. From here:

“Hold strong,” Michelle, a traditional Chinese woman, tells John Ingram as he tries to use chopsticks. John has come to China to teach English, and thanks to her, he learns how to use chopsticks. He holds strong.

He holds strong when he finds himself more sideshow than teacher.

He holds strong as he descends into an expat lifestyle of cheap alcohol and easy women.

And right as he finds the strength to put that life behind him and pursue Michelle, another teacher assaults a student. John finds himself being blamed.

Now he must hold strong, or lose Michelle forever.

LITTLE RED KING is literary fiction complete at 123,000 words.

Gimmicky as hell, but the Hold Strong metaphor is vital to the story.

Gao Wen walks home ; An uncle makes an offer

Gao Wen hoisted his fishing pole over his shoulder and started home. The sun broke through Wuhan’s perpetual haze and played in trapped prisms over the lake. The boy had been coming here to fish for a long time, ever since his uncle had taught him. He had once asked his uncle if the fish were all from Wuhan, or if they had migrated here like his parents had. His uncle had taken a drag from one of his small, homemade cigarettes, and told him that fish could go everywhere. All they had to do was swim.

The boy knew that if he were a fish he could go anywhere he wanted, but as it stood, he was not a fish. He was the only son of two merchants, and he was going to the only place he could: home.

So he followed the road beside the lake. There were benches with older brothers and sisters but some chose the grass, all on that large barrier where road met grass, grass met concrete, and concrete met lake.

Green, brownish stuff was accruing at the shoreline. Gao Wen knew better than to ever drink this water and so did his classmates, but the promise of 20 RMB had changed the mind of one boy who had spent the next week or so puking up his meals. After that, no amount of money could convince Gao Wen to drink it, not even a thousand U.S. dollars.

He also knew not to swim in the lake and so did his classmates, but something had changed the mind of one boy, who after school had discarded his backpack and gone in. Gao Wen and the other classmates had watched the boy swim out a little ways, then disappear under the water. They never saw him again. The boy had left their mouths first, then their minds, and along the way people had been very direct about what had happened to him. Gao Wen pretended to go along with it, but he knew what had really happened.

His classmate had turned into a fish, and swam away.

He passed twin towers. This university was rich, with a lot of minorities and when he’d asked father if he’d one day come here, the old man had laughed. Not here. Wuhan University, Beijing University. Places like that awaited him.

Good study, day day up. That’s what powered him at school. Next year they had the Zhong Kao. Hard, but a mere prelude to the gauntlet awaiting them in a few years: the Gao Kao. The college entrance test.

College. The boy couldn’t even begin to imagine that.

Past the towers he turned left at a half-globe with English letters balanced atop a hollow, silver mound. He passed more school buildings and took a right. Tucked in a nook were motorbikes and the entrance to the backstreet and beside this a guard chatted with an old man, his face a crumpled quilt. He leaned on a bamboo cane as the boy’s grandfather once had and his lips sucked at a cigarette, draining its leaves of their poison vitality and both blew smoke, laughing and talking, the guard in Wuhan Hua, the old man in a toothless Hua only his friends could decipher.

The boy stepped on to the backstreet. He did his walk past the stores, the puddles, the shanties. The trash. He had been doing this since he learned how to walk.

Down the road, two old men faced each other on stools playing weiqi on a door laid sideways over two poles. Others played Mahjong and smoked and faintly he heard mealtime cries of Gan bei! and powerlines over shanty metal roofs hung low to the ground, tied together in a strangled mess at the entrance to an alley.

The boy turned.

Down a short hill the ground changed from cracked street to hard mud. A bit further on an old woman sat on the steps before a great oak door framed in red strips of paper. She was perched on a cane, her skin a coarse leather.

“Xiaowen!” her ancient croak filled the alley.

They greeted each other and the woman’s laugh matched her voice, a thick speech more ancient than the revolution itself. From behind her came the call to lunch. She pivoted on her cane and stood, her feet shaped like diamonds in handcrafted moccasins.

“Gai ci fan le.”

“Hao de.”

She swayed up the steps and through the door.

He went over to his home, unlocked the door, laid the pole against the wall and went back out. At the end of the alley he turned right. Further down, the street opened to a lot. Golden characters arched over a gate, the name of a high school. And at the corner, his parents’ store.

Father had his head down on the counter. Gao Wen went up the steps.



There was a small room in the back of the store with a bed and a coal stove. Mother had food, one meal ready, another frying.

“Tai re le ma?”

“Mei you.”

He got a bowl of rice and stood eating as his mother finished the second plate and then piled a little of each into two bowls of rice and took them to his father. The boy followed.

Out front they sweated and ate and talked.

“Wo jin tian he yi laowai suo hua le,” the boy said.

“Ah,” father said. “Ta shi na ge guo jia de?”

“Bu zidao. Wo xiang ta si ge laosi.”

“Nimen shuo zongguo hua ma?”

He giggled. “Dang ran shuo de, suo yi ta han yu bu tai hao.”

“Ni yingyu ne?” mother asked.

While they were eating, an uncle approached.

“Nimen chi fan ah!” the uncle called.

Father went over to him offering a cigarette. The uncle took it and the two stood smoking and chatting.

Gao Wen sat on a short stool, listening. Mother disappeared in the back and returned.

“Jin tian re si le ah,” she said and handed him a fan.

They spoke too fast to catch every word, but the boy heard enough.

The uncle wanted Gao Wen’s parents to loan him money. Like always, father did not say yes or no. The boy wasn’t even sure which uncle this was. He had many uncles, not all of them true kinsmen. Father had many uncles too, plus eight siblings. All with uncles of their own. For all he knew, half of Wuhan was an uncle in some way.

The uncle went on his way and father returned to the counter and lit a cigarette. Mother came and they discussed whether to loan the uncle any money, and at the end they were no closer to a decision than before. And all the while, Gao Wen stared at where the uncle had gone, trying to place who he was, and what he needed the money for.