Prose | Harlan Whatley

Laowai: My Midlife Crisis in China


“Evacuation of the world of fancy, Inoperancy of the world of spirit.” – T.S. Eliot

            It was a typical “hotter than hell” day in August where the humidity is so bad that you must drink the air as opposed to breathe it. My storage unit near the island airport was completely full now. After forty-four years of life, everything I had was crammed into a ten by ten metal closet. Except for one thing. A box of wedding photos from my nuptials in New York City in 1995. The box was navy blue and had originally contained Ralph Lauren cotton towels.
            We had a fashionable wedding at a Presbyterian church on Park Avenue followed by a tony reception on the second floor of the 21 Club on West Fifty-Second Street. My wife’s dress was custom-designed by Oscar de la Renta in the style of Jackie O. Some of the well-heeled guests included Dominick Dunne, a couple of Bill Murray’s brothers and some scions of Wall Street. My relatives from the South and a few high school and college pals also attended. The food at the reception was incredible and, yes, there was a full bar. We honeymooned in Montreal.
            The marriage lasted about thirteen years, not counting two years of dating. We lived in her apartment on the Upper East Side. When we met, I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Hoboken with a friend. She worked for a luxury handbag designer and I worked in what was known as market data and research. My clients were investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other types of institutional financiers. We had a strawberry blonde cocker spaniel named Raffles but no children. He wore a Coach collar and a Burberry raincoat. A truly urban dog.   
            As my career began to fall apart, I went back to school and obtained an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College, where I learned about media convergence and how to make documentary films. I began to change and drifted far, far away from the world of Gucci loafers, Hermes ties and pin-striped suits to more casual attire. A more casual everything.        
            After spending two years in a condominium in the suburbs of Westchester County, we divorced in 2008. I moved into a loft apartment in a renovated piano factory in the South Bronx but got laid off from my magazine job six months later. My mom and my brother and his family lived on St. Simons Island. It seemed like a good place to recover from eighteen years of being in New York City. Plus, my mom’s health was not so great and she seemed a bit lonely. After she passed away in the spring of 2010, I decided to teach in a foreign country. I figured I would go away for a year and come back to America and teach at a college or small university.
            I picked up the box of wedding photos and gave it a gold medal heave into the dumpster. I sauntered over to my navy-blue Jetta wagon, and drove away while listening to NPR. A lot of memories of “the Island of Feral Cats” raced through my mind. As I drove across the causeway to the mainland, I felt like I was evacuating. I had read a newspaper article about the aboriginal Mocama people, where in the 17th century, the Sea Islands of Georgia were depopulated by infectious disease. At first they evacuated to St. Augustine, Florida. Eventually, after ceding the territory to the British, they went to Cuba with the Spanish. I was evacuating from the Georgia coast, but not to Cuba. I was going to China.
I drove north to Savannah on the old Highway 17, taking in the sights like the Smallest Church in America in Darien, Georgia. My flight to Beijing was early the next morning. There was nobody to take me to the airport or send me off. That’s okay. I was kind of getting used to being alone. Fuck John Donne and his island. I was going to China to teach. Just as Flaubert’s character, Bouvard, felt that Europe would be regenerated by Asia, I felt that I would not only be regenerated by China, but could possibly reinvent myself.


“In no way was I ready for the swirling filth that constitutes air in Beijing.” – J. Maarten Troost

My flight left Savannah at the crack of dawn and I arrived in Newark for a nice two-hour layover before the flight to Beijing. There was a church group of young people gathered at the gate. I eavesdropped and learned that some of them had been to China before while others had not. One of the church kids commented on the weight of his luggage. I couldn’t be bothered with that. I just packed what I thought I would need. Other than watching a few documentaries and reading some Wikipedia, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was getting myself into. I figured, if this was a mid-life crisis, then it was far better than buying a sports car or dating a Russian woman. I had done both of those things but my psychological itch still needed some scratching. China was the drug I needed. It was my panacea.
When I landed in the Beijing airport, I took my two huge checked suitcases and stacked them on a luggage cart. I threw my carry-on bag on top and wheeled my way through customs. We were almost an hour late, due to a mechanical problem with the plane in Newark. I had missed my connecting flight to Zhengzhou and the next one wasn’t until tomorrow night. I decided to book a room at a nearby hotel and take a taxi. There were several travel agents located in the Beijing airport that were willing to accommodate me. Their English was comme il faut considering that my Mandarin did not exist. That would soon change.
I stood in the taxi line at the Beijing airport. The Beijing air in August was not only hot and humid, it was hazy and polluted. I handed my driver the printout with the hotel name and address. He muttered something to me in Mandarin and offered me a cigarette. I declined gracefully. We wove through the six-car wide traffic accompanied by a symphony of horns.
I woke up early and had a breakfast of porridge, oranges and tea in the dining room. The front desk clerk arranged a driver to show me around some of the key places in Beijing. For 600 RMB, about $100, the driver would take me to the Olympic Stadium, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square. Later, I learned that if you searched for “Tiananmen Square” in a search engine while using the Internet in China, you get no results, due to the student protests on June Fourth of 1989.  The closure of the Avant-Garde art exhibition sparked the events in Beijing where performance artists used surveillance footage as part of their exhibitions. Xiao Lu was arrested after she fired two shots from a pellet gun into her work. I don’t know of many American artists that would go to this brazen level of protest in order to express their sentiments about the government. I found this to be both brave and bold.               
I nicknamed my driver Snoopy due to the Snoopy and Peanuts stickers all over his Volkswagen Jetta. Some foreigners call this “Chinking your car,” which is like “pimping your ride.” He spoke no English and I spoke no Mandarin, but we managed to make it through the day and he got me to the airport on time. Kudos to the people that published the Berlitz Mandarin to English dictionary. After touring the Summer Palace, we ate lunch at McDonald’s. Snoopy seemed quite pleased to be eating at McDonald’s with a foreigner. I found it to be ironic that on my first day in China, I was eating American fast food as opposed to dining on Peking Duck or Beggar’s Chicken. Later, I learned that many foreign teachers, especially Americans, will eat at KFC, McDonald’s and Western hotel restaurants, as they are fearful of eating Chinese food. Why someone would travel half way across the world and not eat the local cuisine is a mystery to me. 
Beijing – Summer Palace

White Monkey

Irene from the Foreign Teacher’s Office at Huanghe S&T College called me early on a Monday morning and summoned me to her office in her best-spoken English. Saying my name was not easy for Chinese people as the letter “r” proved to be tricky. I was chosen to give a speech on behalf of all thirty of the foreign teachers at an outdoor convocation that would include the President of the college and all the faculty and students. They wanted me wear a suit and tie and they needed me to write a speech. I left the Foreign Teacher’s office to return to my flat so I could begin preparing my speech. I ran into “Big Nick” from Boston and told him the news about the speech. He smiled at me and said in his classic chowder head accent, “You’re the white monkey!” He laughed heartily and walked away. I wasn’t familiar with the term but later learned that this is when Chinese people like to show off their white employees to others. I assumed that this was pejorative but didn’t let it bother me.The speech was the next day. I gave them my speech in the morning and they edited it with words like “beautiful” and “harmonious.” Due to my lack of Mandarin tones, they suggested I call the school by its English name, “Yellow River Science & Technical College.” The head of the Foreign Teacher’s Office translated the speech from English to Chinese. There were over a thousand people in attendance, many of them in military uniforms. It was the propaganda machine of Communist China as its best. The stench from the metal smelting at the bus factory across from the campus was not too bad that day. On most days, it would make your eyes turn red and water. It turned out to be a harmonious day and a lot of people in suits and ties had their pictures taken with me. The ceremony included dance routines and singing performances. That night, the foreign teachers got together and drank warm beer at the ex-pat bar in Zhengzhou while eating beef satays. The teachers were from Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States.


Shaolin Temple - Dengfeng
One of my students, Candy Wang, agreed to accompany me on a day trip from Hangzhou to Dengfang. Candy had lips that were shaped like fruit that ripened rapidly. Her eyeshadow was often glittery and was finished with a dusty powder that created a dramatic starry-eyed effect. Her shoulders were universally flattering with a simple rectangular shape.
This area was known for the Shaolin Temple and is the birthplace of kung fu. This appealed to me as I was an avid fan of the 1970’s television show, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. While in college, I practiced kung fu and was in the best shape of my life. It was an overcast, dreary day but the wushu show was amazing. Seeing Buddhist monks in orange robes for the first time, I learned that they did not like to be photographed. I bought a white silk shirt with a gold dragon design. Candy haggled firmly with the old woman on the price. She pointed out the many flaws in the shirt. Once they agreed on a price, she told Candy to never return to the shop. Despite Candy being tall and athletic, she suffered from a form of halitosis called “dragon breath,” due to her consumption of spices. This was common with many of my students. We bought a bag full of snacks and soft drinks for the bus ride. Candy used my shoulder as a pillow and slept the whole way back to Zhengzhou in the pouring rain.


“All wealthy young men of Chang-an have rich-smelling meat and garlic served;
but they don't grasp literate drinking, skilled only in getting red-skirted courtesans drunk.”
– Han Yu (768-824)                                                                                                                                 

It was the Mid-Autumn holiday and all the trains and hotels were fully booked. I stayed in a modern hotel near the Muslim quarter in Xi’an that was within the city wall. Xi’an, formerly Chang-an, is where the Silk Road begins and, being one of China’s oldest cities, has a rich and colorful history that includes the terra cotta warriors, a collection of funery art buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 210 – 209 BC, located just outside of the city. People come from all over the world to see the bīngmǎyǒng, as they were known in Mandarin. The terracotta army of over 8.000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were discovered by local farmers in 1974. Due to the huge number of tourists, it was nearly impossible to photograph the warriors. Fortunately, I had a very enthusiastic guide who gave me a very thorough tour and suggested I avoid buying any jade items from the vendors as it was all fake. After visiting the Great Mosque, I found several tee shirt vendors nearby. I decided to buy a Ferrari shirt for my student, Ma Ning, whose English name was “Morning.” The students were very creative with their English names which included soccer players such as Lampard and Ronaldo as well as NBA players like Kobie and Shaq. In one class, I had two students named Jesus and another named Christ, which made me feel blessed. Picasso was in one of my classes. When I asked the woman vendor “How much? / duōshǎo qián?” for a Ferrari tee shirt, I decided it was too much. She kept dropping the price by 1 RMB increments while attempting to shove the shirt into my hand. I had never experienced such an aggressive merchant in all my travels. I slowly walked back to my hotel past several street vendors who sold various kinds of bread.

National Day

“If China organized itself (as it would), it would be no laughing matter.” – Edward Said

October 1st was National Day in China, a holiday that shuts down the entire country as it is the beginning of “Golden Week.” Red and gold Chinese flags fly everywhere with the ubiquitous smell and sound of fireworks. Bands perform concerts in public places and people hit the streets and stores for a lot of conspicuous consumption as everything is on sale.
I braved the masses with my student, Morning, on an overcrowded bus from campus into downtown. What would normally take half an hour, took over an hour. Thousands of people on e-bikes and bicycles as well as cars, buses and pedestrians clogged the streets like a bad sink drain. I was in search of a printer so I could print my quizzes and handouts and have them photocopied for the students. The printer in the Foreign Teacher’s Office seldom worked or was out of ink, so we were forced to seek other resources. Morning is the President of the Student Government Association and is a member of the Communist party. He grew up with three sisters on a small corn farm just outside of Zhengzhou. His father had made some decent money by selling his land to the government to build the railway for the new high-speed trains. He explained the “one child policy” to me where his father had to pay a substantial fine for each child born after the first one. This family planning policy was created by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 and is restricted to ethnic Han people living in urban areas. Having a son in China is so important to Chinese parents that daughters are often given up for adoption. Abandonment, abortion and infanticide are other options. It has created a culture of “little emperors,” where the son is doted on by his parents and four grandparents. Morning loves exotic sports cars. He had me take a photo of him standing next to an orange Lamborghini so he could show his friends.

Dumpling Day

“Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling.” – Herman Melville

Dumpling Day - Zhengzhou

Dumplings were first created in the era of the Eastern Han (AD 25 – 220) by Zhang Zhongjing, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. They were used to treat frostbitten ears and earned the nickname “tender ears.” In the restaurant on the ground floor of the foreign teacher’s dormitory, the staff from the Foreign Teacher’s Office reserved a large private room where tables of flour, dough and various fillings such as pork, cabbage and scallions were laid out to prepare dumplings orjiaozi. Some of the cooks from the restaurant were there to show us how to roll the dough to create the perfect crescent shape of the dumplings. It’s not as easy as it looks.  A few of the students joined in on the making of the dumplings, which turns into a lot of photos of students and teachers holding up the “V for Victory” or “peace sign.” Later, I read in Time that this was a product of the exportation of Japanese culture of kawaii, a visual culture superficially based on cuteness, in the 1980’s to China and other parts of Asia.

The Christmas Pageant

Irene called me on a Friday afternoon and I was summoned to the Foreign Teacher’s Office to discuss the annual campus Christmas pageant. If Irene lived in New York City, she would have been referred to as a “nudge.” She wanted me to organize the foreign teachers to sing Christmas carols at the end of the pageant. One caveat was that, in addition to organizing the group, I had to wear a Santa Claus outfit. I told her that “Big Nick” would be a better candidate but she insisted that I do it, probably because I was both corpulent and older. Also, my blonde hair was fading to white, so I had the look of Santa. I managed to get about half of the foreign teachers to meet early on a Sunday morning in the ballet studio of the Academic Building on campus. It had a piano, which we did not use, and the other Nick, “Ohio Nick,” showed up with a guitar to help with the singing of the carols. We used instrumental versions of the songs from YouTube. The practice session went really well, considering many of the teachers were hungover from Saturday night. The three teachers from Ghana showed up late but turned out to have phenomenal voices. Despite the usual bitterness and cynicism of the foreign teachers at the college, this was a fun gathering of multinationals. 
The pageant turned out to be a popular event where all the students, faculty and staff packed into a gymnasium that served as an auditorium. In addition to performing on stage with the foreign teachers, I was escorted by Irene to distribute gifts to some of the children. It turns out that the recipients of the gifts from Santa’s bag were all the children of school administrators and Communist party officials. Nothing like a little corruption to make Christmas complete. The foreign teachers stormed the stage and we performed the carols the best we could. We were all white monkeys that night. A lot of students had photos taken with Santa and the ubiquitous “V” sign was flashed. I lost my Santa hat, which did not please Irene. She responded with the quintessential pout that Chinese girls often do. It was time for the Chinese New Year.
The decision to go to China to teach was a difficult one. It was cheaper than buying an exotic sports car like a Ferrari or a Porsche and probably less risky than having an affair with a tall drink of water, of which there were many in Manhattan. I feel that this was the right decision for me as it provided a sense of fulfillment. I was helping the Chinese students by exposing them to Western culture while opening my eyes to the reality of twenty-first century China, warts and all. A China that included gaming addiction, pollution issues, food and water quality problems, conspicuous consumption and overcrowding in cities. It wasn’t the historic China of silk roads, pagodas and shrines portrayed by Hollywood. It was the China of a resilient people who were resourceful and could achieve their goals with minimal resources. Overall, a youth that craved both knowledge and a sense of purpose in life.


bingmayong – 1. Terracotta Army 2. Figures of warriors and horses buried with the dead
comme il faut – French. proper
duōshǎo qián – “how much?” as in “How much does this cost?”
Erqi Ta – a 14 story tower opened in 1971 in memory of the Erqi strike of 1923
jiaozi – a kind of Chinese dumpling, commonly eaten in China and East Asia
kata – Japanese. Detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or   in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts      in general.
kawaii – a Japanese visual culture superficially based on cuteness
laowai - lit. "Very foreign", an informal term or slang for "foreigner," usually neutral but possibly impolite or loose in some circumstances
meinu – 1. beautiful woman 2. pretty girl
nudge - a person who nudges; pest. Yiddish in origin.
shan – mountain
stupa - a dome-shaped shrine erected by Buddhists
wushu – martial art
zaijian - goodbye

* All the photographs in this essay were made by Harlan D. Whatley in the People’s Republic of China.