Down and Out in Wuhan

Sex, lies and English teachers – by Travis Lee


I was a foreign teacher in Wuhan, on the Yangtze river, for seven years. It takes a special kind of person to stay in Wuhan for seven years. But I differ from the other teachers in two key ways. For starters, I left. They don't, won't, and most of all can't. They've spent years working themselves into a nook of drinking, fucking, smoking, bullshitting, rambling and drinking. Trading all that away for the destitute lives they left behind is not an option.

Second, I admitted who I was and why I was there. They don't. Listening to some of these guys talk makes you wonder why they ever left home in the first place. I've worked with former CEOs, engineers, bodyguards, even one guy who told me he used to be a hitman. Men who were living gods back home, men who drove BMWs, slept with only the most beautiful women, owned three-story homes and just one day had an epiphany and swapped all of that for a few hundred bucks a month and a cramped apartment.

The truth is, most foreign teachers in China are total basket cases at best. Very few of them were in their right minds before coming here, and after a couple years of cheap beer they're tap-dancing their final years away in left field. One claimed his students propositioned him for sex. Another said he had fought in secret battles during the Cold War. The same man told his female students that he knew university presidents in America and could guarantee them admission. In exchange for what, I wonder.

What I saw the most was old foreign men bragging about how much they got laid, as if someone was keeping score. Every time we went out, there she was. Young enough to be his daughter, decked out like the lead in a red light district parade. At dinner she laughs at the right times as her boyfriend goes on drunkenly. Quiet. Hardened. You can tell she's tallying the time served with this man, and how long she has left to go.

I was a math teacher back in the States. I had a love for math. I also had a love for twelve ounce cans. One day I showed up hungover and spent the better part of my Algebra II class puking in the boys' restroom. The principal smelled the alcohol from down the hall and gave me an ultimatum: get sober or get out. I got out.

I taught at three different universities in Wuhan. The first was fine, but I jumped ship for more money and the honour of teaching “Interpretation class”. When I got there, I found what that really meant was being handed a book full of Chinglish and left to cobble something together. My students were rich kids who'd done badly on the gaokao and whose parents could afford to pay the outrageous tuition fees for this special "Australian Programme". I ended up showing them movies, letting them create Chinese subtitles to match the English ones. It seemed as good a thing to do as any.

There is a real joy at being the big fish in a small pond, and in a city like Wuhan you won’t find too many other fish. That's how it goes for a lot of men. You reach a point where you just take what you can get, and once you reach that point you're ready to speak English in China for five hundred dollars a month.


"Why do you come to China?" my students ask me, which is pretty much "What's a nice laowai like you doing in a place like this?"

Look at it like this: I was treading water in the middle of the ocean, waiting for a boat to come by. China just happened to be the first.

If I was an alcoholic before I came here, I'd hate to know what I became after. There was this xiaomaibu right by my apartment that sold a crate of twelve bottles for 24 yuan. At a salary of 4,000 yuan a month, I could afford a lot of crates.

I think what kept me alive and employed was my ability to show people the part of me I wanted them to see. That's one thing life as a functional alcoholic will teach you. When our foreign affairs office bothered to interact with us, they saw just another poor laowai passing through. When I talked with the girls at the bars, young ladies with dyed hair and more makeup than clothes, they saw just another rich laowai passing through.

One of the few things I do remember from those years was my first trip to KTV. We were over at the bar when one of my teacher colleagues got a message from a friend, and off we went, down dirty backstreets to a place with a single light on over the door. The doormen grilled us, and when they finally let us in we followed dark hallways to a room. When we went inside, there he was.

His grey hair clung around the dome of his head like a smoke ring around a volcano peak, his teeth faded and waiting to break apart. He had in his lap a small Chinese girl, squeezing her breasts like he wanted to bust them. He grunted loudly as he squeezed, while the girl looked over at us, doing everything but beg us to save her.

Do you feel sorry for her? As my colleague put it, "Yeah, she looked at us like 'help me!', but I'm like whatever, you chose to do this."

Looking at that man, I can't say this was in the job description. Yes, those first years were the worst. We might have been big fish, but it was a dirty pond.


A foreign affairs officer once said that to renew our contract "the teaching must be really excellent". If they wanted to sing that song, then fine. But we all knew our jobs were based on anything but how "really excellent" our teaching was.

Paul joined my second school a year after I did. He was a professor, by which I mean a real professor with a real PhD. Imagine that. Following his wife's passing, he had taken an early retirement and looked for a small teaching job abroad. He should have kept looking.

He ran his oral English classroom like a class back home in America. Needless to say, that didn't last long. There are certain types fit for teaching oral English at a low-ranking Chinese university, and Paul wasn’t one of them. He started a chess club, had great relationships with all his students, and even found a Chinese girlfriend. She was half his age, but I'm not to judge whether it was a "real" relationship or not.

It took a week before Jack was after him.

Jack came at the same time as Paul. He claimed he had been a lawyer in the UK, and whenever women were around he became a world renowned adjudicator who had helped write the constitutions for newly democratic Eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had witnessed several historical events, and been a bodyguard for high society women. Whenever he said this to a girl, he leaned in towards her, grinned his blackened teeth and raised his eyebrows exactly once.

Jack had a million different opinions about America, and not one of them positive. Despite proudly boasting that he'd never once set foot on American soil, he could still tell you about American society inside and out, about all its problems, about what a horrible, dreadful place it was to live in and how both it and the rest of Western civilization was going down while China rose.

You see, Jack understood China in a deep way that none of us ever could. Of course, he didn’t consider himself Chinese. When he wasn't telling you about the women he'd slept with or the BMWs he'd given up to come here, he declared himself a "fucking savage". When you meet someone like Jack – and in the ESL world you will – the best thing to do is nod in the right pauses and pray for the storm of bullshit to pass.

Paul’s special privileges as a PhD and a professor included a higher salary. Ours was 4,000 yuan a month; his was 4,500. I guess that extra 500 yuan bought a lot of cigarette cartons. But it rankled Jack, so he claimed that Paul liked to touch his female students, and that he had encouraged one of them to come back to his apartment and share some wine.

Maybe because of that rumour, our foreign affairs office got the idea that Paul was dating one of his students and letting her live in his apartment. His girlfriend was living there, but she wasn’t one of his students. He told them this, but they just stared at him with a blank expression and told him not to bring her over anymore.

When the time came to renew contracts, Paul's wasn’t among them. They told him he had ten days before his visa ran out. He was horrified at the prospect of leaving China. There was nothing for him back in the States. Come August, he was gone.


Keith, Paul’s replacement, was unassuming at first. From somewhere in New England, he said he had been a public accountant, taken early retirement and decided to see China before settling home with his pension.

Later, he changed that story and said rather than die in a home he had come here to offer China his leadership skills. He was no Bible-thumper, but he believed that God had chosen him for this task. He always said that last bit with tears in his eyes.

Matt came at the same time as Keith. Also American, he had just graduated with an Asian Studies degree and was looking for an adventure. Matt partied, and once got arrested for setting off fireworks in the middle of a highway. He spent a lot of time in Wuhan’s expensive clubs, visiting the old assassin of the youth.

That summer, the school took us on a trip to the Great Wall. All the foreign teachers came along, as well as the leadership from the foreign affairs office, including the Party Secretary himself. It was our first school-sponsored trip, and you might not be surprised to hear it was our last.

The bus ride that was supposed to be four hours turned into eight. Matt, with all the wisdom afforded twenty year olds, decided that the best way of dealing with it was to complain loudly. When we got off the bus, Keith self-righteously told Matt that he was degrading the Chinese nation.

We had dinner at a fancy restaurant that night. The Chinese leaders at one table, the foreign teachers at another. Except Keith, who was right there next to the Party Secretary, while us laowai were tucked away in the corner.

As dinner got boozy, Matt and Jack tore through cigarettes and poked fun at Keith. Somewhere in the middle of the third pack, I brought to their attention that at the other table Keith was gesturing wildly at the Party Secretary and pointing to Matt.

I put it very simply: you need to do something if you have any hope of having a job after this trip. For the foreign affairs office, stuck babysitting an unwanted segment of another country's population, you can imagine how they might feel when someone blows smoke up their asses. I imparted this on Matt as best I could. After dinner, just as the Party Secretary and other leaders were leaving, Matt stopped them, and started dancing.

It was a bold move, but my God if they didn't go right along with it! He taught them the electric slide, the chicken dance. Since Matt spoke Chinese, he joked with them and they loved it. We were all having a great time. Then just as he was hitting his stride, he took the Party Secretary’s hands and started waltzing with him.

He was fired a month later.


After Matt, that was it for me. I decided not to renew my contract, and applied for math teaching jobs at international schools across the country. But come September I was still in Wuhan, in another university. Still teaching oral English.

I never cut down on my drinking. In this place, how could you? I needed it, and I was okay with that. Sure, you could say I should have sought help, but I should have done so many fucking things. I didn’t, and that's okay, too.

I did limit my drinking to my apartment. I drank one bottle after another, browsing the internet. Googling people I had once known. Seeing where they were, wondering where I could have been. Which turn lead me here, which turn would have led me elsewhere.

In his emails, Keith called Wuhan a "real Chinese city". Jack echoed a similar sentiment. I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they meant by that. I think they don’t like Shanghai and Beijing because the fish bowl is bigger. In those cities, they’re reminded of how inadequate they truly are, and that is the absolute worst thing to remind someone of. The thing they came 12,000 miles to forget.

After seven years, I came back. Here I am, in a Nashville hotel room writing this journal. I'm using the notebook I bought for 1.5 yuan just before I left.

I guess what I'm really doing is stalling. The longer I write, the longer I can put off trying to get a job or a life. I once heard Wuhan referred to as the graveyard of ambition. As I think back to why I first went there, it boils down to how I wanted my ambition to die. Slowly, as I convinced myself I was happy, that all my screw-ups weren’t for naught, that by coming to China and indulging in the fringe benefits of being white I was somehow vindicated.

I could have surrendered to a life of expat privilege and quiet desperation. But I came back, with nothing more than a couple hundred bucks in my pocket and a useless CV. Now I have to figure out what comes next.

What I'll do first is have a drink. For Paul, for Matt, for Jack, and even for Keith. For all the others who went to China seeking a different life, and for the ones who will go this year.

Travis Lee is now studying Meteorology in Forecaster school for the US Navy, while working on various novels. This is a cut and edited version of his self-published ebook The Seven Year Laowai