Category Archives: Fiction

The prodigal expat returns to Asia

Realizes the inviting bosom of the motherland is in fact a graveyard of all hope

He had had enough. It was time. Time to flee the hell-matrix of the West, the spiritual tundra of America. Time to reboot, course-correct, go back to square one. To admit utter, crushing defeat and failure in regard to the past six months of his life, a blur of suffering, signifying nothing. To shrug off said humiliating defeat and the colossal waste of time and life it represented, accept that he had gained literally nothing from it, not even a “learning experience” that would somehow enable him to make better decisions in future, not even a new relationship that he valued – it had really been completely pointless from start to finish – and just charge it to the game and move on.

Yep, it was time to go the fuck back to Asia.

ASIA. It was funny, because during his whole ordeal in Indianapolis, whenever he thought about moving back to Asia his pulse would quicken and he felt as if he were waking up from a deep, cold slumber. Almost as if the true orientation of his life were towards the East. As if, by LARPing as a working stiff in corporate America, he was fooling himself and others and doing violence to his true nature.

Was it possible that he belonged in Asia, that his destiny was to remain an expat forever? Because he would never, ever belong to any Asian nation – as long as he lived out there, he would always be a stranger in a strange land.

Mike pondered this, but the answer eluded him. How much of his hideous experience in America could be blamed on his job, versus the nature of the country itself? He had to admit that life in the US hadn’t really been that bad – quite the opposite, in fact, from a material standpoint. He had lived in a large, comfortable dwelling. He had enjoyed healthy, palatable food every day. He had never had an appetite or want that he could not rapidly satiate.

And it wasn’t like America was lacking in arts and culture, or people who shared Mike’s interests and priorities. There was always the internet for whatever conversation and community he couldn’t get in real life – and unlike in China, you didn’t need a VPN because the good stuff was hidden behind a great firewall erected by tyrants. Not yet.

Mike’s social and romantic life had hit a nadir during his agonized months in Indianapolis, but that was his fault, it stemmed from the anarchic state of his personality. There was no shortage of people he could have met, women he could have dated and/or fucked. He had just never tried. His few lame efforts in that direction had promptly smashed against the rocks of his massive indifference.

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” said Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. No, neither did Mike. But between believing and doing, a great gulf was fixed. The truth was that Mike had achieved, during his wintry exile in Indianapolis, levels of morbid introversion that shouldn’t even be possible.

Could he have learned to love the motherland? Perhaps. And there would be more chances for that in the future. But what most bothered him about America, he suspected, what really made it impossible for him to settle down and get with the program, was boredom – that most underestimated of human emotions.

Life in America in the current year was just indescribably dull. It was hard to explain, but he felt that the absence of real hardship or large-scale adventure had reduced human life to a series of pointless chores, a mindless rearrangement of matter on the surface of the earth, followed by death. You didn’t get that sense in Asia. There was something different in the air. History was moving there, titanic forces had been unleashed. Asia was a continent-wide adrenaline rush. Life was interesting. And maybe that was just an illusion produced by his borderline mental illness, but it felt real, and that was all that mattered.

“These people have got something that we’ve lost. … There’s a velocity and density of life there that you don’t get in the West, and that I found oxygenating.” -David Mitchell

And then there was his job, that florescent-lit hell. That chain gang of Excel and performance reviews. Every second a micro-death.

Did he exaggerate? No, he did not. It really was that bad. And when he realized it would only get worse – that the climb would only get steeper from here on out, that working his ass off would only bring more responsibility, which meant the torture would be increased, intensified – they would bring in the real professionals for this, oh yes, the instruments were being readied in Uday Hussein’s private dungeon – then he understood it was time. He had to go back.

No more feminized corporate cuckspeak. No more pretending to be “excited” by bullshit. No more fake joviality with people he would pay money to avoid. No more shuffling to his cube in the eunuch uniform of a wageserf.

It was over. He was going to Asia.

His first serious attempt at repatriation had ended in total disaster, and now he would become an ex-ex-expat. A re-expat, perhaps. Whatever. He had bought his ticket. Fuck this place, he was going back.

My story at The Casper Review

Very pleased to announce that my short story, “The Mall of Babel,” has now been published by the brilliant and quirky e-zine, The Casper Review:

Dirk studied the corpse on the floor of the mall, oblivious to the muzak that wafted through the light-filled atrium. The body had hit the polished marble head-first after plunging from a great height. Flanked by humming security drones, Dirk knelt and inspected the body, which had belonged to a 35-year-old cartoonist. Now the man’s skull was cracked and his brains were fanned out on the floor, splattered like spaghetti.

The young detective disagreed with the forensic drone: This was not a normal suicide. There were euthanasia booths for that, vast gleaming rows of them easily accessible within every wing of every sector of the mall. Dirk had never seen a man take his own life like this. Whether private or live-streamed, suicide was always a quiet, predictable act, similar to buying a new pair of socks. This on the other hand was performance art, offered to a crowd of unsuspecting shoppers on a busy Sunday afternoon.

If rebellious cartoonists, exploding mall cops and dystopian visions of consumerism sprinkled with a bit of the old ultra-violence are your thing, you should, of course, read the whole story here.

From the website’s About page:

the casper review is an arts and culture platform for underserved communities: a non-ideological venue for ideologically excluded artists, or anyone seeking an authentic alternative.

the world is changing. let’s create parallel institutions.

Quite. Is this not an exhilarating time to be alive?

Crucible

Mike’s seven years in Asia receded into the distance. They seemed increasingly remote and strange. Still, he kept having flashbacks, as vivid as ever – like a combat veteran, except that these were happy memories that haunted him, bursting into his gray, purgatorial existence in the Midwest.

Above all, he thought about the girl he had left behind. Leaving her was either a wise move or the epochal blunder of his life. Of course, he would never know which. They kept in touch occasionally, but he thought about her often, wondering if they still had a chance together, if he should go back to be with her, or bring her over here. In the end, the answer was always the same: he didn’t know.

Otherwise, his life was devoid of personal drama, and indeed of normal human contact. He had no real friends and no girlfriend in Indianapolis, mostly because he didn’t feel like putting in the effort. He kept his colleagues at arm’s length without any particular intention to do so, and conversations at the office were frequently awkward.

A colleague named Jordan gushed about the musical Hamilton, which he had seen on a recent visit to New York. Mike’s interest in Hamilton could only be described as non-existent, but he agreed to listen to the soundtrack on Spotify to ingratiate himself with Jordan. He did not enjoy it and had to find a way to tell Jordan without either lying or doing more damage than if he had simply declined to listen to it in the first place. In the end he decided to lie.

Mike had to admit that things weren’t going well, overall. He was inexorably slipping into a mindless, bovine state. Hating his job, yet lacking the energy and conviction to apply for another one, he simply drifted from day to day, hanging on through a series of increasingly severe workplace crises. Here again, he had no energy to improve the situation, to manage the crises in a truly effective way; his only ambition was to keep going, to the growing exasperation of his boss, until the final, unforgivable cataclysm that would get him fired. That was his true ambition: to get kicked to the curb.

It was probably delusional to expect any other job to be better. The problem was that things were so much easier in China, at least for Mike, who struggled to accept the ramped-up workload and demands of corporate America. Punctuality was taken for granted here, and your work had to be accurate and of consistently high quality. People would ream you out in front of your colleagues. You couldn’t even take naps at your desk – I mean, what the hell. Offices in China were like a slumber party after lunch. He had the photos to prove it.

Socially, too, the adjustment was vast. In America, everyone was a celebrity (in their own heads), and nobody really gave a shit about you. It was a weird feeling, not being the center of attention anymore.

Also, you couldn’t bullshit your way out of a difficult conversation by talking fast and using big words (so as to blame the “language barrier”) or deflecting with a joke or an empty platitude. That dog don’t hunt in America. On the other hand, your guard was down when people pulled that crap on you. Unlike in China, you couldn’t just dismiss them, couldn’t hide behind your foreignness; the best-case scenario was to be a remorseless sociopath.

Mike was aware that his social skills needed work. Much had atrophied during his mini-lifetime in Asia, and his self-imposed isolation was making things worse. He needed a girlfriend, that much was obvious. Friends urged him to try dating sites or apps. His answer was that he didn’t need an algorithm to meet girls. The dearth of actual women in his life suggested otherwise.

Over and over again he thought about the girl in Chengdu, the possible key to his current mental crisis. They had complemented each other so well. But now they were separated by 7,000 miles of planetary crust. Just getting his ass to her apartment would burn 50,000 gallons of fuel. You might say the logistics were bad.

Yet, there was no way for either of them to move to the other’s country without radical, and possibly irreversible, disruption to their lives. As with his job, his romantic situation was untenable, yet he could do nothing to change it. He hovered in an eternal present of intolerable stasis.

Or maybe it was more of an interlude, and he would soon be seeing more of the girl, in some unexpected context. He genuinely had no idea. The only thing he felt sure of was that he was going through some kind of trial, the meaning, purpose and outcome of which he could only guess at.

Adaptation

Mike was floundering after several months back in the US. It wasn’t that he wanted to throw in the towel and move back to China, per se. But something wasn’t clicking; something about his new life didn’t “take.” An important part of him had missed the flight from Chengdu.

He walked aimlessly around the capital of Indiana, as exotic-seeming to him now as the sloppy villages of rural China or the Beijing subway at rush hour, choked with black-haired humanity. Mike had left the US as a kid, for all intents and purposes – a dumbass with a diploma – and had spent most of his twenties in Asia. Coming back home now, he felt immeasurably older, more seasoned, and also more detached, a stranger in America, like an anthropologist studying the folkways of a remote Papuan tribe.

It was the little things: Everyone drank their water cold here, even in winter. Like the Chinese, he found it bizarre. Americans treated business cards with a nonchalance bordering on contempt. It was harder to send money to people – nobody used WeChat Wallet here. Tipping and being asked for donations all the time. A major difference: Large white people everywhere, hot white women commonplace. His people. The Chinese were again a minority, albeit a significant and growing one.

Mike felt vaguely dazed all the time. Unable or maybe just unwilling to shed his Chinese life, to “move on.” He still talked to his expat friends in China every day. He posted photos and funny memes on his WeChat account so cute girls on the other side of the planet would “heart” them. He ordered the occasional batch of dress shirts from his tailor in Chengdu – sent her the money and had the shirts shipped to his apartment in Indianapolis. Received visitors from China, girls he fucked. Hell, he was still chasing Chinese girls *here*, or perhaps more accurately, they were chasing him. What was it about him that they found so fascinating? In any case, he had come back to the US to fuck white chicks, not East Asians, and he was failing even at that simple task.

His moral standards had collapsed in Asia; there was no question about that. Even the degenerate moral climate of post-modern America seemed prudish and uptight compared to China. Or maybe it was just easier to get laid over there. Everyone was more easygoing, less coked up on stress. American girls were much nicer than he had remembered, but he was always turned off by them in the office. They reminded him of schoolmarms. Few things in this world were more boner-killing than an attractive woman spitting out phrases like “implementation specialist” and “success-based team” briskly and without irony.

Mike felt constantly outsmarted and outclassed by his hard-working Midwestern colleagues. His inadequacies gnawed at him, but that was not his immediate problem. His immediate problem was his job. He was overwhelmed on a daily basis by his job, the hideous and unrelenting pointlessness of it. Layer upon layer of mindless process that withered the human spirit. He was bad (slow, error-prone) at the tedious stuff, and the rest of it, the parts that required “soft skills,” made him want to sell all his possessions and go on a vision quest.

He had to persist, though. If he went back to Asia he would never be hired by anyone again, ever. Destitution would await him. He would have to go on food stamps; a slow spiral of despair, alcoholism, and petty crime would ensue; he would ultimately be murdered in a back alley. No, he had to stay in the US. More than that, he had to stay useful to his company long enough to save up some money, get a side business going with a reliable income stream, before the machines took his job. That was his quest, and it gave some semblance of a purpose and structure to his life.

Mike flew to New York and met a couple of American friends he had known in China. They both worked for the same consulting firm, which had relocated them back to the US, several months apart. He couldn’t believe how happy they were. They gushed about their new jobs, how exciting it was to be back, all the cultural adaptations they had to make, which bemused them. They joked about how chaotic things were back in China, the kids pissing and crapping in the streets. The toxic air and the tap water you couldn’t drink, even if you boiled it.

“I always drank boiled water,” said Mike. “I had one of those kettles.”

“No, that doesn’t work,” said Joe, who had brought his Chinese-American wife and three kids back to New York. “You’re just heating up the heavy metals in the water. You’re drinking hot pollution. In fact, you’re concentrating the pollutants because a lot of the actual water evaporates.”

“Fuck.” Mike felt reasonably healthy, though, after all those years of drinking lead and cadmium by the gallon. Or did he? Maybe that explained his malaise, his persistent mental fog.

Joe had become a full-blown China-hater before he escaped. The other friend, Sandra, spoke fluent Mandarin and was much more ambivalent about the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Nevertheless, Mike had never seen her so excited. Normally cool and reserved, she laughed with delight at their China anecdotes and rambled on about her fancy new position in New York. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, tossing her blonde hair. She was getting married in a few months.

Mike’s heart went out to them both. Joe and Sandra had lived abroad longer than he had, and they had moved back successfully. They were happy and well-adjusted. Mike was not. But had he ever been?

No doubt Mike had left a lot of loose ends in China. His transition back was “unresolved,” like the end of the Korean War. It was about as far from a clean break as humanly possible; but then again, that was classic Mike – he was the still the same dumbass kid who had refused to attend his own college graduation ceremony. Stubborn, myopic, and fixated on the past. Nothing ever, ever changed.

He wasn’t suffering reverse culture shock. The problem wasn’t America; the problem was him.

Indianapolis

Every day was better than the next. Quote from There’s Something About Mary. How true it was. Every morning was a vicious struggle to get out of bed and then a miserable death-march to the office to face the inescapable. Its tolerability decreased as a function of time.

The lobby attendant at the building where he worked had become the focal point of his morning rage. Tall and bulky, with cadaverous skin and a cylindrical head, he stood at the elevators with his hands clasped behind his back and said good morning sir or good morning miss to the arriving workers. Mike found it excruciating. The man looked like Herman Munster. The way he shouted good morning at everyone, even from a great distance as they were fumbling through the security barrier, struck Mike as aggressive and challenging. He wanted to sock the man in his pasty, misshapen face.

It wasn’t personal, Mike reasoned. The lobby attendant was merely a symbol of everything Mike hated about his morning routine – a scapegoat for his generalized rage against the system. Perhaps that was why the man existed, why the system had put him there. As a psychological whipping boy.

And what was this 8:00 shit. Why did people have to be in the office at eight o’ fucking clock in the morning. At his company in Chengdu, the workday started at 9:00 but most people moseyed in between 9:00 and 10:00. Wasn’t 9-to-5 the standard in America? When did it become 8-to-6, with “lunch” being a bestial act of ingestion performed in front of the computer? China might be completely dysfunctional but at least people knew how to eat lunch properly. Lunch was a relaxed, social affair that lasted a full hour, not one goddamn second less. What was wrong with this country.

Whenever he paused to think about the accelerating disaster of his life, which was often, Mike wondered why he had moved back to the US. To be closer to his family, of course. So now he saw them several times a year instead of just once a year, and he could call them at all hours of the day. Which was nice.

And then there was something about his career. How he needed to go back ASAP because the longer he stayed in Asia, the harder it would be to escape. And how was that working out for him? He had traded a fun-filled existence in China for the grim life of a castrated corporate drone. Sneaking out of the office for beers now unthinkable. Sexual debauchery worthy of the late Roman empire replaced by blank stares from blonde marketing girls with 500-point compatibility checklists. Every day a desperate battle against the swirling chaos at work.

The pointlessness of his job amused him. Staring at Excel sheets all day so he could afford to eat at Whole Foods. Also, talking to his coworkers, a thing he loathed from the very pit of his soul. He was essentially a bot that converted unstructured information into actionable insights so that some jock wearing a pocket square could make more money.

Scanning the newspaper headlines every day as he waited for the elevator. ONE KILLED AS HUGE TORNADO TEARS THROUGH INDIANA. Good. What else? 11-CAR CRASH LEAVES TRAIL OF BLOODY DESTRUCTION IN AVON. Fantastic. A GUNSHOT, A CHILD’S DEATH AND… Ah, fuck it. Enough of this negativity. Focus on happy things.

The problem was that his happy thoughts revolved around China, not here, not fucking Indianapolis, not these disintegrating United States. Putting aside his occasional visits to friends and family at home in Boston, his most joyful memories lay in that parallel universe called the Middle Kingdom. The mystical Orient of lore.

Sometimes, as he trudged to work or filled his shopping basket at Walgreens, he remembered. Endless, lavish banquets lubricated by rice wine. Riding the bullet train across China from north to south, like flying on land – 1,300 miles in eight hours. That threesome at Shanghai’s Puli Hotel.

That expat bar in Chengdu. What was it called? Two fat, middle-aged men with bloodshot eyes, Canadian and American, slumped on stools and downing beers there every night. One had a walrus mustache. And the sensual Chinese stewardess there who had tossed a Negroni in his face (an overreaction, Mike thought).

Visiting Japan with his then-girlfriend. The endless megalopolis of Tokyo and those tiny, intricate backstreet restaurants. He should move there, get outta dodge. And the girl – just thinking about her face triggered a paroxysm of emotion so intense, he almost had a cardiac event.

Everything he had left behind – memories so vivid, they made his life in America seem as drab and depressing as a Soviet apartment block. But what could he do? He couldn’t just go back. He had to give America a chance.

He had to.