I was in a club with my Chinese buddies one night in Shenzhen.  This club, like many, had club singers.  Some could be called pretty, but it was hard to tell.  The lights and makeup, the sexy clothes and sultry voices, topped off with alcohol, played tricks with the mind. 

We found our table next to the stage however, and thus had a good close up of the club’s star attraction.  She was short but moved very, very well.  The “boss” amongst us(I called him boss as he was the wealthiest of us all, always foot the bill, and he and I always got along well.   Like most young Chinese, he was “only” in his 30’s, loved his mother and was semi uber nationalist.) took one look, observed her closely and simply uttered to no one in particular,


We all nodded in unison.

She would be no easy pickup.

But it could be, and was done.  I learned later a laowai I know “quite well” saw her alone at the bar one night, simply sauntered over and said “hi”.   Thinking the poor sap couldn’t speak Mandarin she simply smiled, put on her “hostess” hat and immediately started playing dice with him.  Turned out he was a regular and after a night or two, she simply started going over to where he was at the bar, after her nightly performances were through.    It took her several days to realize in the din of the club just how good his Chinese was.  He sometimes had to resort to simply texting her in Chinese the place was so loud, even though she stood next to him the entire night.

Late night dinners lasting til “dawn” followed for the next 30 days.  That’s how long it took for them to consummate things.  After that, she moved in and they had constant sex for 3 months until she had to transfer to Guangzhou, where she still sings today.

This laowai of course had a job at the factory.  And his staff realized after a while he wasn’t getting enough sleep.   Of course said laowai would respond by simply lifting up his shirt to expose all the bite marks this cabaret singer had left on his chest and shoulders.  They were quickly turning purple. 
China is Sin.  Meatloaf wrapped in fatty bacon.  Grilled salmon with Cabernet.

We go there to work and work hard.  I still recall the nightly 10pm and 11 pm conference calls with the States.  Sometimes making it back to my apartment only minutes before the calls began.  Tired of course, ready for anything but a damn conference call with company executives, none of which knew a damn thing about China, yet all of whom made double my annual take and more than that in bonus.  How could I not develop an attitude?

Yet I was a major reason they were all gathered in a room every morning at 10am.

Come Friday night it seems I frequently would find myself on some damn call with a cadre of low ranking company workers with nothing but time on their hands and a big cup of coffee to keep them energized.  None of them high enough with the company to merit a company paid visa to China let alone a ticket on a plane to come and see my world.  Fuckers could talk all day.  I quickly learned one lesson; the higher ranking one’s colleagues are on the other side of the line, the shorter the calls.  They simply had too much going on.    Thus I did all I could to walk the proper balance,  communicating properly with everyone while getting off the call asap.

We’ve all heard the stories about China, but they’re true.  China is the world’s biggest playground, but career wise can be quite rewarding.  Either way if you hate the culture and just feel China isn’t for you then perhaps you are right.   All the same without question my hardest and most rewarding work has been done in China.  I’ve earned all the fun I’ve had there.  Yet working in China can be some of the most stressful times you will have in your life.

I still recall when my company first stationed me in China.  It felt like I had the whole corporation on my shoulders. Everyone was focused on my hitting my monthly production numbers.   As I’m sure I recounted in one of my much earlier posts, the only place I could find with Wi-Fi at the time was Starbucks.  I needed Wi-Fi in order to send out my daily “end of day” production reports.  

I remember the sweat and humidity like it was yesterday. While there I was surrounded by hordes of casually dressed and very happy looking Chinese, all post dinner(I’d yet to have mine, but the heat and nerves ripped away my appetite all the same)  and I felt nothing but pure envy.  They all seemed so stress free and happy go lucky.   As for me, I was wrapped in sticky blue jeans and heavy work boots, feeling like I was about to pass out, either from the crazy heat or the nervous energy that seemed to be constantly building up inside me.

Is it any wonder I couldn’t wait for the weekend?

Being posted to China is not a random experience and they do not send “casual” employees there at all.   Being posted to China means having a target on your back.   One’s profile within the organization is instantly magnified.   After all, the Company is spending a lot of money on their “China Adventure”.

The nature of the work of a China expat is twofold.   One must work during the day, ie get things done, hold meetings, visit with suppliers, argue, negotiate and sometimes travel from supplier to supplier.  There is rarely “air conditioning and iced tea”, unless you work in a bank.   Afterwards one faces the task of reporting back to Corporate what has transpired.  Find me an expat that doesn’t work at night while in China and I’ll find you one either close to retirement or one not long for his posting.  I find I usually shut down my laptop around midnight.  

The small things matter.  I found once Shenzhen started to have a subway I could easily gain an hour by simply sitting on the floor in a corner, laptop opened, papers scattered about,  all the while trying to remain oblivious to the stares of the Chinese. Except I wasn’t.   Indeed, I only recall one Chinese conducting such work on the train, and that was because she was their version of Dolly Parton, and of course that got my attention.  Chinese simply never took advantage of that time to be industrious. But that extra hour on the train helped me greatly to get ready for the American Morning Shift, when I knew the deluge of emails would begin to arrive.

It was exhilarating to be so visible within the organization if not downright seductive.  Yet it also added to my workload.  Too many people simply wanted to feel important, rather than focus on what was actually important work to me.  That is, people only a cubicle or two away from me back in the States’ that rarely gave me the time of day, much less an email would suddenly feel the the urge to “reach out” to me once I was overseas. 

For me, ironically enough, I felt it more important to impress the Chinese than anyone 8000 miles away from the front lines.  I felt that in order to be effective with the Chinese suppliers I had to show I was not lazy.  I made sure to walk through the front entrance to the factory on time every day.  And though I could never prove it I always felt there was someone in the American office watching me remotely as well.  Monitoring my emails.   Perhaps they felt I was not at the factory, but at the golf range knocking balls around.   As such I knew not the first thing about golf.   All I knew is that some anonymous asshole within The Organization would always want to pay more attention to my monthly phone bill (which is what happened) than to any savings I was able to create at home within a particular month.  Something which over time took its effect not perhaps on my health but without question on my mental makeup. 

The ironic thing is that the tonic I needed while salving my mental makeup eventually indeed did affect my health.

The cure to my ills was simply hitting the clubs, once I figured out where they were.   I soon found suppliers, if not my staff, knew all the places Chinese liked to go.   As such, quite often I was the only laowai in the place. 

And that’s where things got interesting.  The booze first became a weekend thing.  Something to blow off steam.  I found the crowds, the sweat, the noise all exhilarating.  Indeed, it led to drinking more booze!    Then gradually over time it became a “Thursday thing” as well.  

I would bring my company cell into the bar….and I can work from the bar, too, right?  Who’s gonna know?  Who’s gonna care?   (I’ve finished my conference calls!   Leave me the fuck alone!) 
Suddenly I felt “foolish”.   Foolish to have been such a corporate slave for so long, in a city of 12 million that never truly sleeps.    Why was I locking myself in?   

And I should’ve known better.

I once woke up at 430am and drove 230 miles from my house to corporate for a 30 minute conference call.  And no one said a thing about it.   You think anyone is gonna wonder if I’m not at my laptop at 10pm?   But more than anything else I think I just got tired and angry that my co-workers back in the States’ weren’t working as hard as I was.  And I knew it.  And they knew I knew it.  And they didn’t give a fuck. 

I can’t tell you how many times I called a colleague at say 5:15pm his time and heard my call go straight to VM.  

Did I tell you I was working 6 day weeks?   I still recall the day it hit me. 

There I was on a Saturday night, trying to fix an engineering problem with a product.  It was a rare problem for me, but the assembly line back in the States’ really needed that product and in their eyes I was dropping the ball.   Rightfully so, ain’t no Chinese gonna get his assed chewed out.  They aren’t the ones making 6 figures.

I called an engineer on my team and asked for an update, to no avail.   Frustrated at the lack of progress and just plain pissed off I was knee deep in factory grease while my American colleagues were probably grilling that weekend in their flip flops. I simply let my emotions get the better of me.
I dressed my engineer down in words more filled with frustration and perhaps loneliness then anything else.   All I heard was a meek voice on the other end.  I didn’t feel bad about it at the time, but I do now.  I know now I had lost a wee bit of his loyalty. 

After the call I looked down at my watch.  It was 930pm Saturday night.  I just snapped.  My VP in America was just walking into an IHOP with his family for breakfast no doubt, and I’m quite positive FFF and his goings on simply were not on his mind. 

So once the driver dropped me off I changed into a fresh shirt, grabbed a quick bite to eat and went straight to the club.  I figured the smoke in the club would kill me long before the booze did anyway.  My drink of choice was Long Island Iced Tea. 

Coca cola.

The funny thing is to this day I cannot stand either tequila or gin, but the sum of the parts is Shangri-La.

Drinks were 50 yuan.  I constantly drank them, and the sweetness of the first sip was like an antidote rushing through my body just in time to wash away the poison.   Finally after a few months of this, the bartender yelled me over.  Silly boy I was I had never known the place also made Long Island’s by the pitcher.  For the exorbitant price of 100 yuan.

Holy Fuck I was in paradise now.

Afterwards I discovered Mojito’s Shenzhen Style.  Probably the best drink for the Shenzhen Summer. (Someday I will have a “real” Mojito in Havana.  Then I will have become a Man.)

The Chinese couldn’t drink.  Oh they thought they could, but no I’m here to witness to you they could not.  Baijiu is one thing, a Long Island or Mojito another.   These are both sipping drinks.   Not shot drinks.  And the Chinese just couldn’t quite catch the concept.  That is, the reason to drink is not to get drunk.  For me, it was more for the wind down.    However, over time, as my frequency of going out inevitably increased, so did my alcoholic intake.  My tolerance went up.   My body took it all in.   There was something about the noise, the crowds that attracted me.    It was in great contrast to life in America.  The walks through the quiet park.  I can sit out in my backyard and hear nothing but the birds.   To this day I’m woken up not by my alarm clock but by the birds singing, chirping outside my window.  In a sense China is the world’s biggest party.   The sweat, the bodies crowding against one another, the frenetic energy.  It was new to me, yet I found the atmosphere combined with my oh so reliable Long Island the perfect mix.  Something I simply had not seen when I first came to China so long ago.   What the hell had become of this country?  

I got too good at enjoying the night life.  I learned not to bring things that could get lost.  I stopped bringing my wallet, and brought only a limited amount of cash, the better to control my drinking. I even decided to not bring my ID, risky I know.   I simply got tired of looking for my wallet upon waking in the morning the night after.

And yet to my surprise I began to notice other expats frequenting the same places.  Usually Overseas Chinese.  Married of course, with a family at home.  Always with a pretty girl at their side.  I could tell they were immensely surprised at how things were going for them in China, yet had no intention of going home whatsoever.  And why would they?  We never asked about each other’s private lives.  

Who did you work for? Where were you from?  That was it….

Then gradually over time, I began to have a feeling of bored discontent.   Subtle.  Nothing overwhelming.  I had run out of books to read, movies to watch.   I had no more music to download. I had been to all the parks, and my share of restaurants.   My workouts didn’t really change.   And yet I kept doing the same thing over and over again.   Many a time my colleagues had wondered at “how I did it?”, as regards living in China.   

“How could I take the inconvenience?”

“How could I put up with the rat race?”

And sometimes their true meaning would bubble to the surface.
“How can you put up with the fucking Chinese?”

At first I simply smiled to myself.  Feeling sorry for My Fellow Man while utterly and ruthlessly looking down on them.  

“You are the Americans the world talks about.  The ignorant, meat eating, sofa surfing Yank devoid of either intellectual curiosity or cultural worldliness.  The one unable to speak a foreign language, wondering why the Shenzhen taxi drivers don’t speak English like they do in Hong Kong.”

This type of barely concerned arrogance I usually held up in ample reserve for the executives cum Stanford and West Point graduates that populated my company.   And it got me in trouble.   

Executives want modesty and obedience from their bitches(and if we don’t know who Deng Xiaoping is, well fuck you), and anything more they will simply find a way to cast you aside at the earliest opportunity, which is why I simply started my own business.  

But the questions from your equals within the organization grow old, too.  Their lack of cultural curiosity all too much of a turn off to me.

Alas, China was no longer growing on me, but poisoning me.  I blamed China for spoiling my relationships with my friends, though China was an excuse and nothing more.   It is hard to stay modest when one goes back home, after having lived in China so long.  I fell into this trap.    I refused, consciously on my part, to wear the rubber mask when walking through the front door of Corporate HQ.

Over time, I simply realized China was a crutch.   A way to explain away my behavior.  The booze, the sneering attitude towards my colleagues, the rather hedonistic lifestyle I led.   The “rotation” I kept.   I’ve lived a lifestyle that would make Hefner blush.   And it was normal.  There are different roads that lead to Sodom and Gomorrah.   Mine simply passed through China.

In time I felt hollow inside.  The Chinese call it 空虚生活。A life with no meaning.  Hollow inside.  And despite my career success overtime I began to feel the same.  Though work was absolutely tiring, the means to the antidote were the same.  Always the same.   And yet I really didn’t put too much effort into resolving the issue either.  As long as there was antidote available…another Long Island, another addition to the rotation, I felt I could handle the poison.

In short, China drained my sense of purpose.  My moral compass, I realized was at stake.   I simply needed to return home.  So I did.  

The yearning for alcohol soon faded, but the energy of the nightclub lingered on.  In America I faced a different lifestyle.   Quiet Sunday mornings on my balcony with blue skies and noisy birds.   
Nothing in common with my neighbors.  Playing soccer dad.   Going to the local gym.   Free of all the bar smoke that probably would’ve killed me if I lingered.   Will I be tempted to return to that lifestyle?  I’d say yes.  I know not when. 


  1. Long Islands are a good drink...
    I think you are tempted to go back, and that is why you write so longingly about your time in China. Don't get wrong; nature is nice. However, living in US Suburbia after China for a bunch of years has got to be pretty depressing at times. I can last about two weeks in the States and then it is time come back to Asia. My mind may change when I want to retire, but at least now during my working years, it would take a great deal of money to get me to come back.

  2. I have cardinals in my yard, bunnies, too. A pool. Blue skies and rain. But this stage of my life, ie raising the kids in a proper environment is something I must go through. You've already seen many expats leaving China for the same reasons. It was easy to "live" in China when the kids were tots, but not anymore. But its hard to relate to anyone here.


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