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

Missed Connections – a review of This Modern Love




It’s like real life, but better – Tinder slogan.

Apps like Tinder are a natural consequence of a world of pickup artists and pseudo-harems, where 10% of the men fuck 90% of the women and everyone else is left paying hucksters thousands of dollars to learn how to play a game they were never fit to play in the first place.

Datings apps play a big role in Ray Hecht’s new book This Modern Love. Everyone is connected but everyone is lonely and we follow four of these lonely lives in Los Angeles as they seek attachment.

Ben Weiss stands at the crux of this book. Ben is an introverted coder whose relationship coldly ends because his girlfriend discovered his profile on dating websites while maintaining such profiles herself. Ben comes off as particularly emasculated, lost in a world of text seduction. “Cuck” might be the going term, though I’d never advise you to use it.

The others fare no better, even Jack who understands how the game is played. As they seek meaning, Ben pays for a sensual massage, Jack goes through women, Andrea sleeps with a middle-aged man and Carla writes fanfiction and does drugs, and no one comes away satisfied. There is no app or social media website that fills the void in their lives and love, if it exists in this world, cannot be distilled into a few kb of data and remains elusive to these people.

Although I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the people in This Modern Love, I think I understand them. In college I tried my hand at dating, with terrible results, and while I can’t empathize with Jack, I do pity Ben. Like many young men, lost in an increasingly disconnected world and a contest of counterintuitive rules which no one ever wins.

This Modern Love is available at Amazon.


by Travis Lee

Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’


by Travis Lee


Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.


Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.

Interview with Ray Hecht on writing and his new book, “South China Morning Blues”




Interview with Ray Hecht on writing and his new book, “South China Morning Blues”

For author Ray Hecht, the answer is a psychedelic experience at Burning Man.

Author of Loser Parade411, The Ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel (which I reviewed here), and Pearl River Drama, his most recent book is South China Morning Blues. available now at the publisher’s website and for pre-order on Amazon.

I asked Ray his thoughts on writing, his inspiration for South China Morning Blues and much more:


Can you recall a single instance that inspired you to be a writer or is it something that you’ve always had an attraction to?

I can’t recall a specific incident, it’s something that developed slowly. I originally wanted to be an artist before I wanted to be a writer. I felt like writing would be a good thing superfluously in my teens, and tried some stories. It was in college – late years in college in my twenties – I decided to study film screenwriting. I remember at 23 for some reason I vowed to write a novel a year. I didn’t follow up on that particular pace, but I have been writing seriously ever since.


Do you work on a specific schedule, where you write every day?

I mainly like to write in the middle of the night, but life doesn’t always let me. Usually I do first drafts after midnight. Then, next day at noon to the afternoon I might slowly do rewrites. It would probably be a good idea to get a consistent schedule, wouldn’t it!


Do you have a preferred writing program? (Word, text editor, etc.?)

Microsoft Word of course. I’ve even been studying some of the more intricate ways to edit and use the software to the best of my ability. Got a lot of typing shortcuts memorized. If it’s not too obvious to say, isn’t Word basically a must in this day and age?


You’ve mentioned that your love for ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Snow Crash’. Could you tell us more about why you like these novels?

I love the danger and the outlaw attitude and the intelligence and the punk rock aesthetics and just how damn sexy it is. The novels are quite different, although they are both written in present-tense first-person narration. They are also both novels that exploded their respective writers on the scene.

‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh is magnificent literary achievement. The phonetic dialectic in writing, the grittiness of the drug culture, the power of each separate narrator’s unique voice. And yet, it is a free-flowing art work that explores all over without sticking to the rigidity of a narrow plot. Plus, it can even be darkly funny.

‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson is incredibly smart, a complex cyberpunk postmodern science fiction epic, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is often hilarious. I wish I was smart enough to write science fiction, but I’m not. I do highly admire Stephenson’s ability to be brilliant and at the same time be that cool.


What do your friends and family back in America think of you being a writer? Are they supportive? Do you ever find that some people just don’t understand what being a writer actually is?

I’ve been very surprised how supportive most of my old friends have been. Although, due to the nature of my writing topics I tend to keep family at arm’s length. Hopefully though, I impress everyone back home and most are proud of me.

However, I tend to think most people don’t understand what being a writer is at all. Rather, they imagine that being a writer is this thing to be. Especially people who want to be writers. Nobody seems to imagine what it is to write. Writing is a thing to do. Lots of people want to be writers; most people do not at all want to do any of the writing. That’s the part people always get so particularly wrong.


What was the impetus for writing South China Morning Blues?

To put it bluntly, I feel compelled to spend endless lonely hours writing. I needed subject matter to write about. I ended up in China, studied a bit, observed here and there, and the stories had to be told. That’s the short version.


While reading your book I saw a lot of familiar people and situations. Was it much the same for you, in that you were drawing from personal experience?

Some of it was personal. Much of it was hearsay. A whole lot never happened to anyone I know (that I know of) but things I only learned of online.

I’ll go ahead and reveal this right now: The drug stuff was based on personal experience. The sex stuff was not.


Were there any big scenes / characters cut at the editing stage?

Not too much. Perhaps there should have been. I rewrote and rewrote and polished, and perhaps this is bad writing advice, but I don’t like to cut out too much.


The presence of Chinese zodiacs. Did you know about that when you started or did it happen naturally?

I knew the basics of the Chinese animals, even when in America – though never a believer – I knew I was dog year and so on. When I set out to write this novel, I further researched. The acknowledgments gives a shout out to the book I mainly used.

Can’t say it happened naturally; it was a conscious choice from the beginning to structure the characters that way in the foundation and then see which way their stories would go…


In the book we see people struggle with identity and ambition. Danny says, “Back home, my old college classmates are surpassing me”, a feeling I can relate to. Do you think the ambition that many foreigners in China have — opening the business, becoming the great writer, etc. — is a way for them to keep up with their contemporaries?

Sure. But not only for expats, many people often feel anxious that the people from their past are surpassing them. With expats in particular, the contrast between one’s own weird life and those left in the home country can be stark. It’s a positive thing to healthily compete and start a business or forge a craft. At least expats in China tend to be interesting people (even if weird) and that can make for good goals. Being motivated by old cohorts surpassing, whatever works.


Going with the previous question, do you think there is something about China that attracts these kinds of people?

Good question. There is something about the expat phenomenon that attracts odd people. Odd in good ways and bad. Adventurous, or the dreaded loser stereotype, I don’t know. But there’s something there.

And why China of all places? I suppose it’s a big place, and it’s blowing up right now in world history. I’ve always liked that the economic growth puts it in this sort of limbo between undeveloped and developed, full of cheap outdoor restaurants and expensive shopping malls, and somehow that can suit certain people.


To close it out, do you have any advice for new writers who are reading this?

Going back to perceptions of the writer versus writing, I can only say to write. You’d think it would be obvious. Don’t fantasize about being this mythical creature called the writer. Be a person who writes. Then, when the writing gets good, whatever your niche may be, go out there and network and best of luck to you in getting published.

That is all.



Big thanks to Ray Hecht for doing this interview. To learn more about Ray, visit his website. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

South China Morning Blues is available now on the Blacksmith Books website and for pre-order on Amazon.

Continue reading

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:







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