Within certain expat circles, stories about one’s first day in China are almost akin to stories about losing one’s virginity. There is a certain oneupmanship involved in trying to depict the first moments of one’s time within the Middle Kingdom that wouldn’t be out of place within a male locker room. Considering the physical symptoms of jet-lag that normally occur after a long-haul economy-class flight it’s amazing how few people readily admit to just falling straight asleep on their first day in China, but these are probably the same people who claim that the first time they had sex it was with their Double-D endowed babysitter and lasted all night till the bed broke.
(When people ask me about my first day in China I normally regale them with the tale of how I went alone to a hotpot restaurant and ate all of the food when it was still frozen as I didn’t know I was supposed to wait for the waitress to bring along the bowl of hot soup. That actually happened… but it was not until about three weeks after my arrival. If I was to tell them that my first day in China involved nothing more than a three hour wait in the airport for somebody to collect me followed by nothing more exciting than an early night and 45 minutes trying to translate the remote control for the air-conditioner than I imagine that they’d probably wander off bored and look for a Hunter S Thompson novel.)
Travis Lee may be known to long-term China expats as one of the occasional writers for the now defunct Lost Laowai blog. He has previously released a novella entitled The Seven Year Laowai which is a semi-autobiographical story about being an English teacher in the third-tier city of Wuhan and the strange types of fellow educator that is often found in these schools. Now Travis has released Expat Jimmy – another short story (very short, in fact) which acts as a spiritual prequel of sorts to his previous work.
Across its hundred or so ebook pages, Expat Jimmy details the first day in China of the aforementioned “Expat Jimmy”. Like the protagonist in The Seven Year Laowai, Jimmy appears to be a semi-autobiographical stand-in for the author – a fact he clarifies within some of his blog posts. Jimmy arrives in Wuhan and is shown around the city of Wuhan by long-term
sexpat expat and Head Teacher Adam. Throughout the long day they go through an implausible number of activities and places for just one day – let alone the first day in a new country fighting against tiredness and jet-lag. Jimmy visits a few bars, a nightclub, a KTV joint, a restaurant, the house of a Chinese family, the house of another foreign teacher who wishes to buy drugs, and even witnesses an attempted suicide on the streets. Compare this to my own list of activities that I accomplished last Sunday which is composed of nothing more than ordering a pizza and watching five back-to-back episodes of Breaking Bad.
The amount of places visited is unrealistic, though I can understand that the author is trying to present an introduction to all the weird and wonderful aspects of life in China within the vehicle of a one-day timeline. It doesn’t quite work and there is almost a little too much happening within the one hundred pages of this story for it to settle in the reader’s head and leave an impression. In addition to the numerous places visited, there is also an underlying story of Adam’s past hinted at, as well as fears within the newly arrived teacher that he is setting out on the same path.
Travis is a good writer and has a knack for describing the feelings of emptiness and vague fear that are experienced by young rootless individuals seeking out meaning in a new set of surroundings. His characters all carry an air of being lost or searching for something that isn’t there to be found. There is an existential dread lurking in the background that I enjoyed. Both Expat Jimmy and The Seven Year Laowai have some great elements but I felt both were not quite the finished product. Now that Travis has some experience in writing I would like to see him perhaps combine his two stories into one whole and create a tale greater than the sum of its parts. I hope he can rise to the challenge.