China

The adorable expatriate eccentric

A lazy, hidebound assumption has long held sway about people who work as English teachers abroad: it’s the only job the “losers” and “bottom feeders” can find, as they lack the qualifications to hack out a career back home. But it’s a hackneyed cliché, one that obscures the real class of losers. Think about it. To be able to go abroad, all by yourself, is an impressive feat. You need, for starters, to have a certain imaginative capacity, a conception that there are other countries in the world, and that it’s possible to visit them and even live in them. This is more than can be said for many Americans. On my occasional trips back home, I am thrust into a sharply different reality. There is a dim awareness of my just having returned from somewhere, though I no longer entertain any expectation I will be asked about my home of the past twenty-five years. Except for: “Beijing? Where’s that again, Lebanon?” The conversation soon reverts to the insular world of personal problems inhabited by family and friends. Then there’s the smarts required to plan a trip: how to apply for a passport and whether you even qualify for one, and a visa, whatever that is. You need spare money, enough at least for international plane fare. For those seeking to find work abroad, you need the savvy to know how to procure a fake diploma and to pass for a college-educated person in your job application, not to mention where to apply for a job. To be able to do all of this requires a mental sophistication above and beyond a great many people. Yes, people back home, people around you, the real losers.

Tom Carter’s An American Bum in China (Camphor Press, 2019) is the real-life tale of what happens when one has just enough native wit to make it to China but not enough to hold down a job. It is saying something, however, that Matthew Evans is able to wiggle his way into the country not once but five times (albeit twice illegally) and live out his days there in the most dramatic fashion. While it’s painful to watch as the universities which hired him in turn, Nanjing Agriculture University and East China Normal University, realize all too slowly “Professor” Evans had faked his academic credentials and had never taught a class in his life, nonetheless we cannot but admire his nerve, or should I say verve, in pulling off the ruse. Otherwise mostly jobless in China, arrested for vagrancy, penniless, sleeping in hotel lobbies, McDonald’s restaurants and ATM booths while subsisting on ketchup packets, losing his passport while attempting to sell it in Burma after sneaking through a border fence, the guy indeed has incredible staying power and an unfathomable knack for living on the edge. We begin to root for Evans as little acts of sympathy enable him to extend his misery in the country a few more days without perishing — thirty dollars wired by his grandmother here, girls met online throwing a few coins his way there — though he’d have been better off back in a Chinese jail where he at least would have been fed before once again being deported directly back to Muscatine, Iowa, instead of sneaking over to Hong Kong and mooching off umbrella protesters and begging on a Macao sidewalk, after being spat out of the Mainland once and for all. Weeks without showering or a change of clothes are minor inconveniences; what’s more enlightening is how many days one can survive without food before mental disorientation from extreme ketogenesis sets in.

I suspect many readers, U.S. readers in particular, will regard Matthew Evans as a disgrace. Carter’s engaging narrative, at once wry and affectionately told, has a built-in liability, its distasteful subject matter, which may keep book reviewers at arm’s length as well. To wallow in such a life and have it decked out as literature will not gain much sympathy from those of Protestant work-ethic heritage (those who read books anyway). Evans stands for everything people of all creeds, persuasions and lifestyles — from Christians to anarchists, all whose calling is the purposeful life — are mortally against. Even the publisher betrays uneasiness with its subject matter, gathering up the dirt and the mess within the confines of a neat and tidy cover design and carefully spaced rustic font. The fact that hordes of people do live like this, like tramps and bums, makes the narrative all the more disturbing — for serving as a mirror and commentary on the darker side of American capitalism. John Dobson’s homespun illustrations nicely complement the text, but I would have preferred to see the designer take a more roughshod approach, more fitting to the content, one imitative, say, of a torn and frayed cover and stains and splotches on the interior pages, what a book would end up looking like in Evans’ hands after a few days, now sitting uncomfortably on your coffee table.

Still, I have a different take on things. I see Evans’ role and agenda as quite pointed and intentional, almost poetic and celebratory, even if he himself could hardly articulate it: that of comic protagonist, jester, in the staid court of Communist China. Evans caught the tail end of an era when lowlife expats were allowed in and indulged to a degree, before being spat out. He took this project to its logical extreme, seeing how far it was possible to push things, how low he could go, and to this extent was a pioneer, of a very special sort.

There was a time indeed when buffoonish and incompetent foreigners had a role to play in Chinese universities as “teachers.” With no teaching experience whatsoever they got up in front of the class, acted the clown, English came out, the students laughed, and it was all chalked up to education. That was all they were hired to do. In Japan and Korea they call these schools for cheap hired foreign labor the “factories,” where twenty-one year olds fresh off the college conveyer belt could get a leg in, and after a year of thirty-five contact hours a week, work their way up to better schools and pay. And here we do move up to the next rung of expats, those with the wherewithal to hold down a teaching job, or just barely, and earn a salary. Quincy Carroll’s novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 2015) presents portraits of several such types, fictionalized but clearly based on real people or composites thereof. There’s an intimacy to Carroll’s novel that would lend it to a screenplay or to the stage, with its three central characters: Daniel, an idealistic loner in his twenties from the U.S. but fully in his element at the rural college in Hunan Province where the novel is set; Bella, one of his Chinese students, a goofy, naïve loner in her own right who gravitates to foreign male teachers for companionship; and Thomas, an aging, cynical American with a crippled leg and a dodgy CV, seeking out English teaching jobs wherever he can find schools still willing to hire him, who winds up at the same college. Expats who have taught in China have all encountered these three types in one incarnation or another.

The action turns around Thomas and Daniel’s bristling dislike for each other, and Bella’s conflicted and rebuffed attempts to enter their lives. Under friendlier circumstances, the trio might have made for an intriguing hippieish triad (Daniel builds an Aeolian harp on the rooftop of his campus apartment), of the sort discussed below in Chris Taylor’s Harvest Season. But they bring out the worst in each other. When Thomas accidentally smashes Bella in the face with a pool cue while drunk in a bar, the delicate balance among them begins to unravel, with consequences I won’t reveal here. It’s a moving narrative, as Carroll succeeds in limning his characters with deftly etched realism. We even feel affection for the thoroughly unlikeable Thomas and somehow grow to care about what happens to him. I hope Carroll can pen a sequel, with the old grouch’s subsequent adventures in Thailand where he winds up at the novel’s end, final resting point of so many aging expats whose will to live remains stubbornly intact.

Also enriching the novel is the strong supporting cast of secondary characters we get only a glimpse of but are curious to know more about. In a lengthy middle chapter, one of the novel’s most successful set pieces, Daniel escapes to the city of Changsha over the Christmas holiday to visit an acquaintance, Neil, a tall heavy-set wannabe businessman from the UK. The haphazard, contingent manner in which these rakes with their tenuous philosophy of social commitment hook up and interact is nicely captured. Neil fails to respond to Daniel’s efforts to reach him by cellphone upon his arrival. Daniel tracks him down at his apartment, only to be dragooned into teaching an impromptu class to fill in for a missing teacher at the English conversation school where Neil teaches — and to ogle female students of the sort familiar to expats who have taught at such venues: generally in their 20s and 30s and single, their primary goal to land a foreign teacher boyfriend and only secondarily to improve their English. Daniel is hit on by two of them in short order; a “buxom” and “raven-haired” Zenith, and with her own alluringly unkempt hair, the manager Angela. He proceeds to Neil’s favorite bar run by a friend where a Christmas costume party is in full swing. The owner’s Chinese wife wears a bikini made out of coconut shells and grass and doesn’t speak English. Of course, it’s rarely expected of the expat to speak Chinese, though Daniel happens to be fluent. He gets into a testy exchange, which almost erupts into a fight, with a morose Welshman fond of sarcastically belittling fellow teachers. Carroll’s style of dialogue without quotation marks suits the obtuse struggle for awareness that is the novel’s aesthetic:

Daniel frowned. Do you have some sort of problem with me? The man lit a new cigarette, then ashed it into his mug. What do you do? Wait, let me guess. A teacher? The question was dripping with condescension. As a matter of fact, yes. You have something against teaching? The man shrugged. He picked up an imaginary object and presented it to the table. WATER, he drawled, loudly. Either because he was drunk or trying to act like a fool, he spoke like a moron, distinguishing each syllable. JUICE, he continued. The girls regarded him uncomfortably, staring down into their cups, like tea readers. He pointed to a spot on the table in front of Daniel. APPLE. BANANA. Seriously, he said. The job is an absolute joke.

In a fitting conclusion to the tawdry evening’s events, Neil departs early for his studio apartment with a woman he picked up at the bar, and refuses to let Daniel in later as it’s interrupting their sex. Daniel finds a taxi and gets off on a random street to spend the rest of the night with a prostitute in a hair salon cubbyhole.

We are left with complex, nuanced portraits of the three main characters. Daniel is young, good-looking, enthusiastic about his job, and respectful of his students, his host country and its culture. He also doesn’t quite fit in, which is why he’s happiest at this most undistinguished rural college, with the space to do his own thing and few other foreign colleagues to get in his hair. He keeps the one student who tries to get closer to him at arm’s length, and we’re not left with much confidence, finally, that he is able to connect intimately with anyone, apart from the odd sex worker. Thomas is depicted as an unsavory misanthrope who at this point in his life is thoroughly unfit for teaching, if he ever was. Yet there are glimpses of friendliness, when for instance he grudgingly allows Bella into his apartment to cook for him (this after the violent injury he gave her). Gradually we see that his negativity stems from some deep, unspeakable pain within, rather than sheer hostility, and if one got to know him better a more likable side might emerge. Bella for her part is neither pretty nor gifted academically but endearing nonetheless in her steady childlike optimism, a purity of character one often encounters among Chinese youth, less so among their more jaded counterparts in the West. Carroll refrains from praising or judging his characters but simply lets them loose on the stage and stands back to let us watch. Though it’s not a didactic or moralistic tale, there are lessons to be learned on the communication pitfalls of even the best-intentioned Westerners who venture into China.

Also set in a gritty backwater locale of the early 2000s, Chris Taylor’s novel Harvest Season (Amazon Services, 2013) presents a different sort of scruffy expat, the Western hippie, eccentric not for who they are individually but for what they represent as a group, a whole tribe of them, forlorn characters drawn to China as if to their alter ego, and a sequence of events that bring things to a decisive and, if not quite disastrous, resonant conclusion. Matt, the narrator, a British expat living in an idyllic mountainous region of southwest China, is torn between two women, Fei-fei and A-hong, but unable to act decisively with either of them. Partway into the story there’s an unlikely sex scene, so fleeting, awkward and intimate I’m hesitant to describe it, except to say that while not a direct cause, it heralds the events that gradually spin out of control:

“Matt, you’re inside me,” she gasped.

I pulled at her sweater, and dragged at her bra and we rolled over onto our sides. The condoms were still in the drawer. We stopped.

She rolled away from me onto her side, her back to me, and said “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure. I’m just wondering whether we should be doing this.”

I couldn’t tell whether the sound she made was a stifled tear or whether she was controlling the anger of rejection.

Wiling away their days in Shuangshan, their self-styled Shangri-La, the community of hippie expats dope themselves up with beer, ganja, acid, ecstasy and anything else they can get their hands on, as if to maintain their perpetual state of ambivalence. The catalyst that moves events toward the Greek tragedy-like conclusion is the arrival of a yet more extreme contingent of hippies popping over from Thailand — dreadlocked vegan anarcho-communalists who live in tepees, don’t believe in bathing and don’t know what they’re getting into by setting up shop in China. The “Family of Light” or “Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes” do exist and travel from country to country. I attended two Rainbow Gatherings, in Kentucky in ’93 and the French Pyrenees in ’03, enough to know what they’re about and found them curiously interesting but not my style. Euro and American local authorities already have to contend with them (police helicopters hovered over us at the Kentucky gathering); one can imagine the incomprehension of both the authorities and locals in China.

Taylor’s novel breathes with the realism of something that must have taken place as recounted. I begrudge fiction publishers their standard but nonetheless annoying and disingenuous disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction and any resemblance…”, when it’s plain the only thing that’s been altered is the names of the characters. Which brings up the question, why fiction? What makes it qualify as a novel? The telling, of course: the melding of distinct characters and events into a unity forming a compact little universe and an unforgettable atmosphere that lingers. Taylor’s narrative is laid out in uncomplicated linear format, as if no other narrative style was appropriate for sorting out reality amidst the drug-and-booze haze. The style is clipped and concise, plain but economical, though with the occasional tendency to telegraph too much into characters’ thoughts. Harvest Season exemplifies why novels generally do a better job than nonfiction at conveying the Zeitgesit of the times. It’s less a sociologically inspired cross-section of expat life in China but a small slice of some very odd and oddly familiar people.

If we go back a mere few decades, we notice a curious disjuncture. It’s no longer the eccentric expat that stands out in China; it’s all expats. The country was so different then that we were all equally eccentric to the Chinese. The most ordinary of forays into the country was a shocking adventure. As recounted in Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), among that first wave of solo foreigners allowed into the country were Jane and Claire, two spoiled young American females fresh out of college, neither previously having set foot outside of the U.S. They embark on what they had planned to be a yearlong worldwide tour, beginning with an indefinite stay on the Chinese Mainland, in 1986. After a brief stopover in Hong Kong, they last a respectable six weeks before they are spat out, their global romp aborted, after Claire literally goes psychotic and has to be accompanied on the flight home by a registered nurse. Don’t let the book’s title and cover mislead you; there is not much that’s sexually gripping here; the suspense is all psychological.

Things get off to a panicky start with a turbulent flight before they even land in Hong Kong (neither has much flying experience); things only get worse amidst the squalor of their Chungking Mansion cubbyhole when Jane, our narrator, threatens to head right back home and needs to be slapped back into reality by Claire. I worried the author’s histrionics would prevent me from making it past the first ten pages. But it turns out to be a clever foil framing the rest of the narrative, as we discover it’s Claire who has the bigger difficulties adjusting to their starkly different reality on the Mainland. While the two are shunted around from one mysterious, disorienting location to another by shady locals who may or may not be trying to take advantage of them, dealing with hostile hotel staff with no English ability, unpalatable food and nothing to do, Claire grows increasingly paranoid not just of the Chinese but the CIA, Mossad and other nefarious agents she thinks are out to get her. She stops eating and becomes ill and delusional. By this time we are in the more hospitable surroundings of a Western hippie enclave in the city of Guilin. Just as Claire meets and falls for a hot male traveler from Germany, Claire wades naked into a river in a suicide attempt. The tense final pages of this psychological thriller-cum-memoir have Jane and the German frantically contacting the police to locate Claire. They find her and things are brought to a breathless conclusion.

For another rollicking perspective on that decade, we have Robert H. Davies’ memoir, Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China (Mainstream Publishing, 2002). Englishman Davies recounts an enviable and exciting time for foreigners in China’s Western Xinjiang Province, when it was still very much China’s Wild West. Davies ran bars and tourism ventures and married a beautiful Muslim Uighur woman, Sharapet, before being arrested for hashish smuggling on partly trumped up charges and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. These years were the height of the Xinjiang hashish trade, with all kinds of characters drawn to the area like a magnet, and Davies and those busted with him were the first group of expats to be made an example of by the Chinese Government.

The Chinese prison experience is all about regimentation and psychological control, as it is everywhere, but then so is the entire Chinese education system and workplace. “Reeducation” camps from whatever time period in China, prisons, schools, etc., differ only in the degree to which they seek to erase the personality and substitute sheer mindlessness. Reeducation there is none, only mass lobotomization achieved without invasive surgery. The population has been dumbed down to such an extent I fear it may lack the imaginative capacity to change. I need not mention developments in Xinjiang since the 1980s: the mass surveillance and incarceration industries. Life was actually much freer back then and in the 1990s when I first visited the province. On a recent business trip to Urumqi in 2019, I had to pass through six airport-style checkpoints to get from my workplace to a downtown restaurant — the subway, two intersection underpasses, the entrance to a shopping street, and the entrances to two shopping and restaurant malls on that street; during these checks I had to remove the pollution mask from my face to allow the facial recognition camera to scan me.

Davies turned his eight years of severely altered life circumstances into a learning experience, and his meticulous account of prison life, which takes up half the book, is absorbing reading. That he survived with his mind intact is reassuring and reason for faith in the creative human spirit. I have met enough wise Chinese as well to know that the system doesn’t crush everyone. I should add that Davies’ account is very well written — particularly when he applies the same colorful detail to his regimented life in prison as he did to his love-making with Sharapet back in Xinjiang. It is a highly readable if unlikely introduction to Chinese culture and society — from within the belly of the beast. It may be the single most eye-opening book on China I have ever read.

The further back in time we go, the more eccentric the expat appears in Chinese eyes, until we are all equally strange and horrific and take on the proportions of foreign devils or yangguizi (洋鬼子). As recounted in my Chungking: China’s heart of darkness, much of the country was a pretty dangerous place for foreigners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The average expat didn’t regard the Chinese in any more favorable light. Carl Crow’s Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom (Harper & Bros, 1940; Earnshaw Books, 2007) is truly of another era. Crow (1884-1945) provides a sweeping discussion of the centuries of maritime trade up through the opium wars, the occupation by the Western powers and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. The narrative then circles inward to give us a close-up view of life in foreign-occupied Shanghai over the early decades of the twentieth century — right up to the day the author is forced out of the country by the Japanese in 1937. Despite being less than a century ago, it is an era as strange as that of Marco Polo’s, or the US antebellum south, or the world of “gay cocktail parties” penned by Crow’s contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald, when “gay” had a significantly different meaning than it does today.

Crow is not entirely able to extricate himself from the biases of his age. This was still a time when it was fashionable to be racist, there being a “very large class [of foreigners in China] who looked with considerable disdain and disgust on all Chinese people.” The expat bachelors, the married and their bored bridge-playing wives, were too busy with their ponies, polo and racing matches, golf courses and yachting clubs to be conscious of living in the Orient. Crow spends much space detailing the petty controversies preoccupying the exclusive foreigner clubs — the proper dress and the knotting of ties, the election of new members to a club, the etiquette of buying rounds of drinks — and little on the people of his adopted country. It would never have occurred to anyone on either side of the racial divide to extend social intercourse beyond business relations or transactional necessities. Not a single fleshed-out Chinese person is described in the entire book, nor any even named, apart from the brief, touching mention in the final pages of one “Ching,” a servant of Crow’s hastily delivering some food as he and his family flee the Japanese attack. The remaining cast of hazy locals occupy the background as ciphers, so many shadowy and inscrutable Fu Manchus, “boy” servants, amahs and anonymous kitchen hands. We do see a knack for the telling anecdote, even when it doesn’t reflect too well on the author himself. He relates without irony being once picked up by a taxi driver whom he failed to recognize he had previously employed as his personal chef of four years. Or the bizarre methods of communication designed to keep relations impersonal, such as between this American bachelor and his servant: “Seated at his breakfast table he would strike the table bell as a signal to put the eggs in boiling water and, watch in hand, would strike it again when it was time to take them out.”

Few foreigners living in the concessions dared venture into the alien realm of the walled city, either Shanghai’s or elsewhere in the country, but we should not let that shape our assessment of the era. There is a long pedigree of intrepid and adventurous foreigners who insisted on diving right into native territory (see my Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai wall came down). The quintessential expatriate, not merely eccentric but flamboyantly so, has got to be the Swiss artist Theo Meier (1908-82). His brief sojourn in China in 1933 was sandwiched between years of island-hopping in Polynesia and Melanesia (the more wild and fearsome the island the better) and forty-five years in Bali and Thailand, painting endless nudes. He threw himself into each of these locales, picking up language after language and mastering the native cuisines. His behavior in China was classic Dadaist irreverence: maybe it was his Swiss blood or maybe it was the Surrealist’s instinct for random wandering. When a Chinese doctor invited Meier to accompany him on foot from Guangzhou to Fuzhou without giving a reason for the 1,000 kilometer journey, Meier strapped his easel to his back and happily tagged along. He dealt handily with the first bandits they encountered along the ox trails by painting their portraits on the spot; an island of cannibals in the Pacific had made him do the same. They were robbed of their money by the next group. The leader of the third was waiting to be treated by the doctor, who disappeared with him. The doctor’s servants guided Meier safely back to Guangzhou.

And there was the great Emily Hahn (1905-97), the American writer with a knack for living in Chinese cities which were under attack, who witnessed the Japanese assault on Shanghai in 1937-39, the bombing of Chungking in 1939-40, and the brutal occupation of Hong Kong in 1941-43. Well, she didn’t exactly seek out these cities for this reason, it was just good timing. Among her other proclivities were consorting with Chinese litterateurs and prostitutes, smoking opium and cigars, keeping pet gibbons, and aiding the anti-Japanese resistance. More impressive still was the old China hand Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944), resident of Beijing from 1899 till his death. His frequenting of the bathhouses where gays (in the modern sense of the term) and Palace eunuchs mingled after dark, and his mastery of the Chinese language, bubbled up to the attention of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had him summoned to the Forbidden City to become her sexual plaything. His 1943 memoir of his dalliances with her, Décadence Mandchoue, is so astounding and offensive it has only recently recovered from the silence and hostility imposed on it by such guardians of morality as Hugh Trevor-Roper, who sought to prove its fraudulency in Hermit of Peking (Knopf, 1977). In the Earnshaw Books publication of 2011, editor Derek Sandhaus has sought to rebut Trevor-Roper. Décadence Mandchoue speaks for itself. Backhouse’s attention to the singularities of Cixi’s person and her surroundings is so keen, its veracity seems self-evident. In one of his encounters with the Empress in 1904 (out of many more explicit passages that could be pulled at random), the Chief Eunuch Li Lianying instructs Backhouse to expose his buttocks to Cixi’s caresses:

She was clad in a light robe of Hu Chou 湖縐 [crêpe] open at the front and unveiling her pudenda. Several electric fans, as well as large blocks of ice in lovely cloisonné chests, cooled the room: I had no fear of offending Her Majesty by the perspiration which she held in such abhorrence, for I was as one in a desert drought, burning with desire — what for? the woman of sixty-nine who awaited me, or was she only the symbol, the substitute, for other [male] persons nearer to my heart?

English expat John Blofeld (1913-87) spent almost all of his adult life in China (1932-51) and Thailand (1951-87). Like Backhouse, China was his passion. He too effectively disappeared into the landscape, consorting almost exclusively with locals, mastering the Chinese language and devoting himself to the study of Buddhism, while developing a connoisseurship of Chinese cuisine and tea and dallying with local prostitutes and courtesans, all frankly imparted in his delightful City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures (Shambhala, 1989) and My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu’s Travel Diary (Inner Traditions, 2008). On his deathbed in Bangkok he was visited by a younger Sinophile eager to imbibe the art of tea, Daniel Reid (born 1948). A hippie out of UC Berkeley in the 1960s, Reid got turned on to China at a sinologist’s lecture while frying on a “mega macro-dose” of 400 mikes of LSD. As recounted in Shots from the Hip: Sex, Drugs, and the Tao (Lamp Light Books, 2020), he was nonetheless able to retain the entirety of the lecture in his memory, over fifty years later, and quote the professor verbatim. On that kind of dose of acid I wouldn’t have been able to process the lecture’s content, much less remember it, nor would I have been able to sit inside the lecture hall for more than five minutes without finding the environment hostile and getting the hell out; in fact, I wouldn’t have been able to find the lecture hall at all, but Dan assures me it happened exactly as described. He then left for the Middle East and India. If we can learn anything from a steady diet of opium, hashish and acid, they burn in the mind grooves of intuition enabling you to ease through life without an established career and always find yourself in the right place at the right time (the title, by the way, refers taking shots from the opium pipe while lying on your hip). In Taiwan he embarked on serious study of the Chinese language, aided by oral instruction from more than a thousand women he claims to have slept with over his sixteen years in the country. Along with his interests in Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine and diet, it all came together in his cult classic, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity: A Modern Practical Guide to the Ancient Way (Simon & Schuster, 1989; Touchstone, 2015).

Your typical Siddhartha type (of the Hermann Hesse novel) acquires spiritual wisdom only after a lifetime of experimentation with, and rejection of, worldly indulgences and distractions. I call it spiritual snobbery. What makes Reid different is he embraces it all, or perhaps we should say the Tao incorporates it all — spirituality, pleasure, sex and drugs. All drugs have medicinal properties, indeed are medicines, and none is more worthy of the term than opium, the Chinese drug par excellence. After moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand (and incidentally first taking up residence in Theo Meier’s old house), Reid, an aficionado of opium as well as Chinese tea, secured the rights to translate into English Peter Lee’s marvelous Opium Culture: The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition (Park Street Press, 2005), the most informative account I have read on this most reviled and regal of drugs.

Reid is flamboyantly and proudly eccentric, “eccentric to the max, and I don’t mind being labeled as such. In my view it’s a virtue, as well as a path to happiness in this day and age” (personal communication). This ultimate expatriate shows why the term “expatriate” is a misnomer. He is as far removed from the hidebound notion of the patriot as true spirituality is from organized religion. For my part, I have always been wary of “spirituality,” a suspect term that’s often yoked to religious dogma or coopted by New Age flakiness, a redundant term, which has nothing to offer that you cannot also get from Taoism, and I’m wary of that as well. More to the point, the inclusiveness Reid celebrates, or rather takes for granted, is a philosophy in its own right, that of freedom, and a philosophy that cannot be pinned down. But what can be affirmed is we’re not talking about the illusory notion of “freedom” Americans are indoctrinated with, but that of self-determination, without which life cannot be lived to the full:

Today most Americans seem to have lost their spirit of self-reliance and have drifted instead into daydreams fabricated on the screens of electronic media that now captivate most of their time and attention. What Americans need most now is not more money and more ways to spend it but rather a wake-up call to turn off the screen and reclaim control of their freedom and energy. Traveling and living in faraway places are good ways to unplug from the American fantasia and become what my favorite Kipling character, the indomitable rogue-child Kim, called himself: “A citizen of the world.” That’s what I’ve become, and the world at large is where my loyalty lies. (Shots from the Hip)

*     *     *

Of related interest by Isham Cook:

Chungking: China’s heart of darkness
Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai Wall came down
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Forthcoming by Isham Cook (March 2020):
CONFUCIUS and OPIUM:
CHINA BOOK REVIEWS

2 replies »

  1. Really enjoyed your review of “An American bum in China” Isham. I could add a few names to the list from among the types who turned up to be interviewed when I was hiring teachers for various courses.
    The worst part was when I was overruled by the establishments I was working in , forced to hire people with no knowledge of teaching simply because they spoke English, then having to pick up the messes they left behind when they eventually worked out that this was not the job for them and just walked out !The students soon worked out they were “duds” and justifiably complained about them to their institution.
    I do miss teaching in China but not the above scenarios I was forced to endure on a number of occasions. Keep up the good work!

    • I recall one British expat at a prestigious Beijing university where I was teaching in the 2000s who arrived to class drunk, once at 8pm when he thought it was 8am, barging into another teacher’s evening class.

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