Expat Jimmy

Expat Jimmy is the latest by noted China-expat author Travis Lee. This quick read of an eBook is more of an eNovella, or even eNovellete, and the brevity of the piece is in fact one of its greatest strengths.

Expat Jimmy takes place over the course of one day in Wuhan in the summer of 2008. Basically, it’s about the impressions of a young graduate named James as he is introduced to second-tier China. In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

The main character can be passive, as he is led around town by Adam who is certainly a stereotypical ESL teacher with issues. Yet neither James nor Adam are the true stars of the show. It’s the city of Wuhan that steals the limelight, and that is the point.

Then there is the one-page epilogue which maps out Jimmy’s character arc in more long-term fashion for a good sense of closure and leaving the reader wanting more, but overall it’s just about that one normal day…

It does strain credulity a bit that so much fills up one jet-lagged day. But it works, and I wouldn’t want to read it any other way. Even as the day progresses into bouts of drinking (yes, there is Baijiu), with all the harshness of sex and drugs and cynical interpretations of Chinese family dynamics, climaxing even to near-death experiences as Jimmy witnesses one progressively seedier scene after another; even including all this, the overall feeling of the story is enthusiasm. The initial enthusiasm still outweighs all else.

This quote says it best:  “I want you to take it all in. Every sight, every smell, everything. Because this is a once in a lifetime event. You will never again feel t his optimistic, the sense of wonder you’re going to feel at being in China the first time. Nothing compares to it and nothing ever will.”

There is just nothing like the first time moving to a new country.

So read Expat Jimmy, and learn much about Wuhan and explore that elusive concept of the so-called “real China.” Being such a pithy read, there’s no reason not to.

 

Expat Jimmy is available at Amazon.

Author Travis Lee blogs at www.travis-lee.org

Advertisements

Book Review: Year of the Fire Dragons

Fire-Dragons_A-259x400

https://thenanfang.com/year-fire-dragons-memoir-documents-expat-life-hong-kong/

 

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong is a new memoir by Hong Kong-based American writer Shannon Young, who is also editor of the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

In Year of the Fire Dragons, Young gets very personal, and begins with the romantic story of meeting a Hong Konger named Ben in London. The long distance relationship continues while she intimately explores the Special Administrative Region.

The book details Young’s time as a NET teacher (Native English Teacher) in her first year in Hong Kong as she figures out how to maneuver the city. With an outsider’s perspective, she gives vivid descriptions of shopping markets, embraces the glamour of Central, learns about tensions with the mainland, discovers cultural differences in teaching, and travels the world.

The prose is often fanciful, with lines such as, “The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling,” and, “As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we fell silent, watching the way it reflected through the quiet ripples marking our passage.”

Young is a talented writer. Her knowledge of food in particular truly gets to the core of Hong Kong culture. However, she can get lost in details at times, with scattered chapters ranging from Cantonese classes to clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. She repeatedly introduces various friends over drinks and then we never see them again in the course of the book. Of course, it is a memoir and real life often doesn’t translate into novel-style story structure. Still, one of the most intriguing and consistent subplots is about her sister’s expat romance and wedding, which contrasts with Young’s own relationship.

The main bulk of the narrative concerns the challenges of having a long-distance partner, focusing on the tragic irony that her boyfriend Ben is from Hong Kong yet she lives there and he doesn’t. As the book progresses, Young finds it harder and harder to defend the two-year plus relationship to her coworkers and friends. No spoilers how it all turns out, but rest assured Young’s perspective is always optimistic despite tough times.

One of the most interesting parts comes in the midpoint when Young reveals her roots: her father was born in Hong Kong (though not raised there). Quotes from the letters of her Asia-traveling grandparents are included.

From 1955: Actually, Hong Kong is a wonderful place to live—we think. Of course there are many things one could complain about, as there are wherever you go, but we think there are far more things to enjoy and be thankful for.

Truly an amazing find, to see the similarities between expats of that era and those of today!

The book as a whole may not be particularly interesting for old China hands. Experienced expats and English teachers probably won’t learn many new things. But for readers less familiar with Hong Kong and life abroad, this memoir can make the perfect introduction.

Recommended both for Hong Kong newcomers and as a good gift for China-based readers to share with friends back home in order to explain what life is like for expats.

Year of Fire Dragons is published by Blacksmith Books, available in Hong Kong and on Amazon.

 

Shannon-Young-Writer-267x400

Author Shannon Young

Interview with Travis Lee

Today’s interview is with up-and-coming author Travis Lee, who writes about expats and China. Topics to be discussed will include the nature of living abroad as well as meditations upon the act of writing.

 

More from Travis Lee can be found at these links:

http://www.travis-lee.org

https://www.facebook.com/travislee19

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/travislee

 

44

 

Firstly, can you tell us about how you came to China?

My how I came to China story is nowhere near as interesting as yours, I’m afraid. I was a French major in college, and as graduation loomed like a fall into a deep pit, I applied to teach English at a French high school, in the assistant d’anglais program. I wasn’t selected.

To this day, I’m not sure why. I had a high GPA, good recommendations, good French and previous in-country experience, so I had all the right checks in the right boxes. It could have been the sheer number of applicants; the professors who assured me that everyone gets in had done the program in the seventies and eighties.

Whatever the reason, that changed everything. Had I gone to France, I wouldn’t have my wife, my daughter, the books I’ve written. We wouldn’t be doing this interview. Right now, I’d be finishing my PhD, praying for tenure.

So instead of preparing for a summer in France, I moved back home and worked on plan B: volunteering in France. While I looked for positions, I received an email through my university’s career services distro: a Tennessee alumnus who worked in Wuhan was looking for English teachers. I read through the email. Free apartment, travel money, chance to see a dynamic country in a real Chinese city. Plus, a Western toilet. Don’t you love how he used Western toilet as a selling point?

I did all the paperwork, and on August 26, 2008 I touched down at Tianhe Airport in Wuhan, China.

 

What your life was like here?

Like most experiences, it looks better in hindsight. The earlier times are not better, just earlier, but it can hard to acknowledge that.

So, my life, in a word? Free. I felt like I had a lot of opportunity. I had enough time to pursue any hobby I wanted. I studied a lot of Mandarin, kept up with my French, taught myself some Calculus, and I wrote. This was the time in my life when I began to take writing very seriously. I “turned pro”, as Steven Pressfield would put it.

Although I was poor and twenty pounds overweight, I look back on my two and a half years fondly. My life changed completely. My first year and a half or so wasn’t easy — a lot of ESL teacher politics, personal issues — but once I moved past that, things got better. One thing that helped was Wuhan University. There I had only one co-worker, a normal guy, and I never saw him anyways. I taught great students in the afternoons, freeing up my mornings to study and write. I made friends with some great classmates. Wuhan University has a sizable international student population; a very cosmopolitan atmosphere.

I read a lot of expat blogs too. There was a certain buzz in the air. I found some great writers, who unknowingly helped me a lot, just because I read what they wrote.

 

What do you miss about China? What do you not miss at all?

I miss the free time I had. I miss how even the simple act of going to the store and buying a soda could turn into a story. And travel. I saw some nice places; wish I’d seen more.

What do I not miss? Respiratory infections, one. Internet censorship, the typical stuff that can make life in China hard.

At Wuhan University we were letting my brother-in-law stay over sometimes. The guy who worked the front desk noticed him coming in and out, and he asked us for 200 RMB a month. I said no, and the Foreign Affairs Officer came over and told me to either pay more or my brother-in-law couldn’t spend the night. Their excuse was the electric bill.

 

Can you describe your writing process?

I’m very much a cover-the-canvas guy. I can’t do outlines; I’ve tried it before, and I ended up either deviating from the outline or not writing the actual story. Outlines work well for class, not so much for writing. I prefer the spontaneity; I can’t write if I know exactly what’s going to happen. It kills all the fun.

So I write and write and write until I have something, and after some time has passed, I revise it. I go through about three drafts. I used to retype my drafts, I stopped doing that. I don’t have the time. I work and right now go to school full-time; I write new stuff in the mornings, revise at night unless I have a big test coming up.

I listen to Final Fantasy music when I write, either Final Fantasy Radio or my own playlist. It helps lock me in my own little world.

 

Which books and authors have inspired you?

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Beautiful writing, very emotional. Child of God is good too, mainly for the prose. There’s a line in Child of God where Cormac McCarthy describes a woman’s widening pupils as a “breaking brimstone galaxy”.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo. This book captures what it’s like to chase your dream against many obstacles.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It has the best writing advice I’ve ever seen. But it’s not limited there; you can apply it to any calling.

 

What are you working on now?

The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors, about a missing foreign journalist and his friends’ efforts to find him. I want to publish it through a China-based publisher.

Richard, an amateur foreign journalist, goes missing while investigating a blood cult in Hubei province. Four people are affected: Mary, a newbie China writer who dreams of cementing her name alongside the expat greats; Ying Li, a small-town police sergeant; Chris, a freelance translator whose own experience with the cult has left him scarred; and Daniel, an expat media mogul with drug problems and a failing marriage.

 

Why did you choose to write this particular story? Continue reading

Expat Demographics in 4 Quadrants part the first: Loser English Teachers and Cool English Teachers

In my latest post, I shall attempt to categorize the demographics of the mainland Chinese expat in four quadrants. Just a theory of mine I like sharing. Please note this is very much generalization. It is not meant to encompass all foreigners, it’s about Westerner expats and their scene. In fact, this mostly goes for males so I’m going to assume masculine terms below. Forgive me for painting with a broad brush, there are degrees and exceptions but I think it by and large counts.

Often the casual observer makes an even simpler observation on expat demos; there are loser English teachers, and everybody else. There is more than a kernel of truth in that stereotype to be sure, but I hope to be a bit more detailed so as a to give a break to our ESL friends and simultaneously not give a break to some other sorts.

It breaks up as so: Loser English Teachers & Cool English teachers, and Good Businessmen & Evil Businessmen

 

Loser English Teachers: This is an archetype we all know well. The dropouts, the drunks at clubs, the young and (sadly, sometimes very) old who don’t seem to be employable anywhere else in the world and tend to have no skill sets and are only hired because of a foreign face. It’s downright profiling.

Not necessarily native-English speakers at all, they can hail from any country in the world and simply bounce from one ‘performing monkey’ job to the next. The blond Russians, the aloof central Europeans, and some seriously awkward French-Canadians.

The native speakers themselves are more often than not terrible at English, especially in writing, and obviously have no business teaching anything. Yet here they are. The Australians with serious alcoholism issues, the Americans with barely a high school education, the British sex addicts.

They drink, they party, they fuck, and they learn nothing. And, without being too crass, let’s just say they are into Asian chicks. And they generally can’t get chicks back home. You surely know what I mean.

It should be noted, however, that as China has progressed these past years the average Chinese female citizen is not so easily impressed by a white face and expects more. Time to learn some new skill sets, people.

Simply put, these guys are not TEFL-certified and the desperate shady schools that hire them are not doing a service to their students at all.

 

Cool English Teachers: But it’s not all bad. A lot of people take up the opportunity to move to China because they are actually interested in Chinese culture. They might go after graduation, or later in life to reinvent themselves, perhaps take advantage after a gap year of backpacking, and ESL is an easy enough job to see the world and get your foot in the door in China.

They might party, but that’s not all they do. With more long-term plans in mind, they learn Mandarin and can eventually get jobs in other fields. Then there are the very long-term expats who settle down here and raise families as well.

Anyway, no shame in being that kind of ESL guy at all, and I for one think they are undeservedly lumped in with the losers. As for teaching, credentials aren’t everything and there are solid people out there who just have a knack. There’s my defense.

What do you think? Recognize any expat friends up there? Ever taught English yourself, where do you fall on the scale?

(Btw, a group I notice left out is the qualified international school teacher. Like, they can teach math and actually majored in teaching. That is a wholly different animal, more like the Good Businessman than anything else as far as being people with “real jobs” who just happen to work in China. With that…)

Part the second, Good Businessmen & Evil Businessmen, to be continued…