Great Films about Life Abroad: The Rum Diary
The autobiographical tale of Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary,” has found a special place in my heart. There are many angles and truths about life abroad found in this movie. The aspect worth highlighting:
Many of the foreigners you meet are best appreciated as being the characters that they are. They are strange and sometimes act strangely. They live in a world within a world, neither the host country nor the lands they hail from.
In “The Rum Diary,” there are businessmen looking to exploit local resources. There are clueless tourists. There are bored housewives. But don't be fooled. Slim chances that you will come across any of them that look like Amber Heard. Mostly there are rag tag groups of tired, jaded, and cynical old men who feel sorry for themselves. Among them you are most likely to find the character who sits as the main character of this story--the alcoholic.
The alcoholic may be fully functional and a lovely person. Just don't catch him early in the morning while he is hung over or past 11 PM when he is full swing in one of his benders. Allow me to digress.
Spend enough time in expat circles and you will come across the alcoholic. Drinking is a common habit among expats who find themselves away from their families, unable to access familiar modes of entertainment, and who have no local friends. Add the permanent vacation vibe and every night becomes a reason to celebrate at the bars. If you have walked such circles but have never come across the alcoholic, then you just might be the alcoholic of that group. You wouldn’t know because no one would ever tell the alcoholic that he has a problem because he is important to get the party started, pressure others to drink, and is up for late-night adventures with yet more drinking. He is useful and used by people who want to party without the responsibility that comes with real friendship.
The alcoholic I knew was names, Singlet. That was not his real name. He just always wore sleeveless sports jerseys as part of his work attire. One of his more notable incidents that happened when I knew him happened when he was brought out to the countryside to teach at a nearby village schools. He would travel a couple hours with a group of teachers. They would spend the morning giving lessons to hopeful village kids, have lunch, and return to their dormitory on campus at the university where he worked.
At lunch, the school would treat them to a banquet of Chinese dishes, which was a generous custom in China. They would offer beer and baijiu (80-100 proof sorghum liquor). Most foreigners would politely toast with the harsh tasting baijiu out of respect to the host. One thimble-sized glass was enough to show appreciation. Nothing more. But Singlet would return the gesture by toasting others. There is no telling if this was appreciated or looked down upon. Eager to please the foreign guests, the Chinese were happy to oblige.
I met Singlet one night soon after one of those weekends to the countryside. I saw that his face was cut up and bruised. i asked him what happened. He had fallen down. Returning from the countryside, he was still very drunk in the car ride. He had fallen down on the pavement at the university. When a young woman came to help him, he began groping her. He only learned later that the university student he groped was one of this own students. He was taken to the campus medical clinic to get patched up. The following Monday, he would have to teach his part-time classes at the primary school with his mangled face that now had cuts and bruises hidden under bandages.
Something like this happened a few other times too. After a while, I realized that there was nothing that he could do to get fired. Chinese schools are so desperate for teachers that a sweaty, poorly dressed, tattooed, drunkard with a high school education and a thick Australian accent is tolerable for university students and primary school students.
Eventually he got fired. The offense had nothing to do with being a sweaty chain smoking mess. He happened to get caught writing disparaging things about China on social media. I found this hard to believe because Singlet was not much of a writer. Although I could see him writing a text message in frustration about the daily that teachers often bitch about over drinks at the bar. My theory is that the acting authorities needed an excuse that wouldn’t incriminate the many other people who also enjoy drinking and acting rowdy. It could be seen as hypocritical if they punish someone for drunken debauchery. Everyone else would get nervous. Chicken Littles around would run around in a panic looking for protection. Singlets problem was that he felt that as a foreign teacher, he could party like a fictional corrupt official. He got away with it for a long time. But what couldn’t be tolerated were alleged libelous text messages. Acting officials could agree that that was a line which could not be crossed while at the same time not get nervous themselves. .
So he took the two hour train to look for a job in Wuhan. He had to buy a pair of pants for the job interview. This proved to be a challenge for him because he only owned basketball shorts. His style choice was due to his large size. He wore something like a 53 shoe size and stood nearly two meters. Still this is no excuse. He is not the first big and tall man who needed to cover his knees. His prospects seemed slim, except that as luck would have it, he ran into another foreigner’s ex-girlfriend on the train to Wuhan. She had some connections with a school and easily got him in touch with them. He would move there and is there to this day.
He told me about his troubles and was feeling really sorry for himself. He couldn’t understand how his social media habits could land him in this situation. He claimed to have said hardly said anything on-line. I believed him. So I told him, “Singlet, it is not because of what you wrote. It is because of that time you brought hookers to your dorm room and smoked meth with them until 3 AM,” to which replied, “ I only did that twice.”
The fact that I had heard about such an incident only meant that lots of other people knew about it too. Over the course of his time there, the foreigners were all relocated to a new building that had a guard and a key card. The guards saw his comings and goings. Antics like his were likely the reason why the foreign teachers had to move. While his living situation changed, his habits hadn’t.
Once while he was living in the old building, I had gotten a phone call at midnight. A German man called me and told me that Singlet needed to go home. They were at Happy Nest—a local night club. It closed at midnight, as all the great clubs in Yichang did, and Singlet was drunk. The German man didn’t know where he lived.
When I went down there, Singlet didn’t looks very drunk but he was confused. His nose hairs were covered in white powder. It was most likely ketamine—a horse tranquilizer that was all the rage in the clubs. In low doses it give a mild state of euphoria. Over a long period of time, it destroys the lining of your bladder and leaves you living a life of inserting a straw up your urethra every time you want to urinate. During the American War in Vietnam, it was trialed as a battlefield anesthetic before it was disregarded as inferior compared to the tried and true alternative, morphine. Circa 2010, it was the club drug of choice, obviously.
I took them in a taxi and brought Singlet to the university. He struggled to open his door and banged and slammed it as he tried to jam the key in the lock. It wouldn’t work. After 10 minutes we all had a good laugh when he realized that he was trying to open the wrong door. He lived one more flight up.
I can only imagine what other similar incidents he had with his neighbors over the years. Eventually, moving all of the foreigners to a guarded building seemed like a smart idea.
Multiple times he lost his bank card, keys, and wallet. He often had no money and was up for drinking but only if someone else paid. One of the old tricks of such people is inviting everyone out and buying the first round. People want to get started on beers and beers are cheap. As others want to drink more and more, others buy rounds. Eventually a contingent wants to go to a club and split the cost of a bottle. Here is where he borrows money and outpaces others. After the clubs, that end at midnight in a dirty Chinese town, it’s off to barbecue where a dollar can afford you an 125ml bottle of herbal liquor.
In the spring of 2011 I was invited to a dinner. A Chinese professor at the university invited me. There were other teachers, MA students and some foreign teachers. Singlet was there.In China, the dinner table is less about food and more about politics. Something as simple as who sits next to whom reveals truthful information about a lot of other things. This is information that can be obtained through something as simple as a dinner meeting. In other words, if a Chinese work relation invites you to eat, the purpose is probably not innocent. I was listening in on the conversation.
My former student was there. He was one of those rare students who can actually speak and converse in English. His parents had realized that cartoons and listening is the best way to activate a child's ability to acquire language. Lee was leaps and bounds ahead of most of the Chinese English teachers. One time a group of visiting American teachers came to the school. They were looking to partner with the primary school in Yichang and were hoping to handpick students for a study exchange. When the principle met Lee, he gentle told him, "Well you see, some of your students will study in Texas and some of our students will come study here." Lee looked squarely at him and said, "Oh, you mean like an exchange?"
I thought it was a little inappropriate for Lee to be at the table without his parents where his teachers were drinking and smoking. Singlet, especially was being fouled-mouthed and blowing smoke on the table. That was when Lee told Singlet that he had best not talk that way. Every time he wants to say a bad word he should say, "Beep," instead. I thought it was so funny and had the mind to plead with him to retell what he had just said into my camera. He was reluctant because who wants to shame a smoking, drunken, foul-mouthed bogan to his face. I do. And because the young student was previous in my class, I reminded the boy that he was technically also my student and therefore should obey me. It worked.
"The Rum Diary," is fun to watch. But underneath its enjoyable characterizations of sick men living abroad, is a less sympathetic and definitely less heroic character it is based off of.