In 1949, China’s peasantry, more than 85% of the population, was still largely individualistic, illiterate, superstitious and lived in extreme poverty. Fast forward to the early 21st century and we may understand how much China has changed in the sixty-three years since then. Today, more than 90% are literate and learning English is mandatory in China’s public schools.
“Yes China” by Clark Nielsen is an honest memoir written by a young American going to China to teach English in an alien and foreign culture. Nielsen pulls no punches in describing himself and his experiences teaching ESL in China, and is not shy when it comes to scorching himself and his former religion in the process.
In fact, his vivid descriptions of teaching in China reminded me of my three decades as an English and Journalism teacher in US public schools.
In the late 1970s, I worked as a substitute teacher and the descriptions of the first classes Nielsen taught reminded me too much of the American grade school, then middle school and eventually high school students I taught 1975 – 2005.
Songs that help teach English as a second language.
For example, in 1977, I was a substitute teacher in Southern California and as the fifth-grade students I taught one day—and never to see again—flooded into the classroom at the beginning of school, one boy saw me, squealed “Sub!” and then started to chase and pummel other students while knocking over desks as if having a substitute teacher was a ticket to mayhem.
I suspect that the young Chinese students Nielsen first taught may have had similar thoughts when they saw his foreign face.
Like Nielsen, I had classes I loved to teach and others I hated to face each day, and this went on for the thirty years I was a classroom teacher.
I hate to say this but the old phrase, “kids will be kids” has a ring of truth to it even though I hate hearing it since many parents seem to use it as an excuse to do nothing to correct unacceptable behavior.
From Nielsen’s vivid descriptions of the behavior of Chinese grade-school students, I discovered that there is little difference between America’s children and China’s — it seems that “kids will be kids” in any country/culture if the parents allow them to behave as if they were wild animals and/or barbarians.
However, similar to my experience as a teacher, Nielsen also found gold in some of his students. In fact, the last semester he taught in China, he fought back tears as he said goodbye to one of his good classes.
There are also vivid scenes, from his foreign perspective, of what it must be like to live and work in a developing country where more than a billion people still live in poverty. Before 1949, the average life span in China was age thirty-five. When Nielsen arrived to teach ESL, that number had changed drastically. Today, the average lifespan is 73, and less than 3% live in severe poverty.
China is a developing country on steroids and Nielsen’s experiences in China reflect that. For this reason, when wanting to discover what it is like to move from a Western culture such as America’s to an alien and foreign land, it is best to read more than one memoir on that subject for a better perspective.
For example, I found “Yes China” an interesting contrast to Janet Elaine Smith’s memoir, “Rebel With a Cause”. While Nielson rejected and abandons his Mormon religion, Smith went abroad to spend nine years as an evangelical missionary in Venezuela. She was not a Mormon and her motives were almost the exact opposite of Nielsen’s.
Before becoming an expatriate, Smith worked with Native Americans and Latinos in the US, so the culture shock was not as great, and Nielsen did not work with people living in extreme poverty as Smith did.
However, Smith was not prepared for the extreme poverty of most of the people the mission she was with were serving, and, unlike Nielsen, she used teaching English to become more of a part of the culture.
Smith was “warned” by her superiors not to minister to the wealthy class, as they would never accept the gospel. Nielsen probably worked mostly with children of middle class and wealth parents in urban China.
When Smith was approached by a bank president, a physician, a teacher and a government officer to teach them English, she took the open door as a “sign” from God and defied the orders and held free English classes out of her home.
For a richer experience and to understand the culture she was living in, she exchanged the English lessons for Spanish classes to help her learn the local vernacular of Spanish and the customs of the Venezuelan people—something Nielsen and most Western/American ESL teachers in China do not do. Instead, they arrive in China ready to criticize anything different that does not fit the Western lifestyle they are used to.
For Smith, this different attitude paid off. Later, when Smith needed help for paper work, cashing checks, medical care, etc. Venezuelans were available to help her, while her American Evangelical overseers struggled trying to find such help.
Although Nielsen meets his future wife in China—a Chinese citizen—and they both live in Utah today, I doubt that he truly understood or embraced the Chinese culture as Smith did in Venezuela due to the differences in how they approached their experiences as expatriates teaching English in a foreign land—a developing and/or third world country, which is very different from being a citizen in North America. In Smith’s memoir, I do not sense the love-hate relationship that Nielsen had with China. He seems to have no purpose for going there to teach English other than some need to rebel and escape Mormon Utah where he grew up.
In fact, Nielsen’s passages that paint an unflattering picture of Mormonism reveal his true motive for going to China. I felt as if Nielsen fled to China to escape the reaction of his Mormon friends and peers after he let them know he wasn’t going to go out as a missionary, which is expected of all Mormons, and in spite of himself, once he arrived in China, he found more acceptance from the Chinese than he did in Utah. After all, he came home with a Chinese wife and that was not the reason he went to China.
I enjoyed reading Nielsen’s memoir and found myself laughing at his misadventures while teaching ESL in China. In addition, on his days off from teaching, he traveled about the country as more than a tourist but less than someone like Janet Elaine Smith who found a way to reach across the culture gap and accept and understand the differences that exist.
Another book I recommend is Tom Carter’s “China: Portrait of a People”, which shows his experiences in China in mostly pictures with some text. Carter, like Nielsen, taught ESL in China and then married a Chinese citizen, but Carter is still working in China. In addition, he visited, often on foot, every province of China and took thousands of photos of his two year epic journey.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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What just might be the funniest if not first autobiography ever penned by a drug-addicted foreigner in China, Chris Thrall’s “Eating Smoke” contains more spiritual pollution than all of the titles on the Communist Party’s banned books list combined.
In a country whose history was irrevocably altered for the worst by the scourge of foreign-imported opium throughout the nineteenth century, it is no wonder that today’s China has one of the world’s least-tolerant anti-drug laws – including executions for traffickers. Basically, buying or selling drugs in China is a really stupid idea.
Enter Chris: “I’m not a stupid guy, just an average guy who does stupid things”.
Thrall, a 25 year-old Royal Marine who hastily quits the service to pursue a business venture in 1990’s-era Hong Kong, a city “where situations can only get worse,” just to find himself broke, homeless and fulfilling his own ominous prophecy.
Recalling the commando’s motto of “cheerfulness under adversity,” Thrall tries to make the best of his lowly situation by spending his time dancing in discos or hanging out in the notorious Chungking Mansions, “the world’s all-time greatest doshouse.”
The immigrant ghetto of Kowloon is not, however, the best influence on Thrall, who befriends all the wrong people, including a hebephile drug dealer from Ghana and a Filipina working girl, and soon succumbs to that favorite of Chungking pastimes–drugs.
To fund his new crystal meth habit, our detritivorous narrator forages the South China city-by-the-sea like a bottom-feeder for any job that will hire a white face.
From cubicle fixture to phone-book scams, English teacher to nightclub DJ, businessman to bouncer, Thrall manages to get fired from every gig dumb enough to hire a spun-out “chi sun gweilo” (crazy foreigner in Cantonese) who doesn’t sleep for 9 days at a time and tends to forget his own surname.
By the time Thrall reaches his last-resort of a job–as a doorman at a bar operated by the 14K, the largest Triad (Chinese crime family) in the world–he has been reduced to a hyper-paranoid shadow of his former self on the verge of drug psychosis.
“I would listen to the radio phone-ins, suspicious of the Cantonese conversation and wondering if people were calling in to report my movements,” he says during one of his many speed-soaked conspiracy theories.
What ensues is a hilarious amphetamine-paced cautionary tale of what NOT to do when addicted to drugs in Wan Chai gangland, “where the Dai Lo’s rule is law, pride is everything and life means nothing.”
Chris Thrall’s true story evokes Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” and Alex Garland’s “The Beach,” both of which have been licensed to Hollywood, as “Eating Smoke” is sure to follow.
Tom Carter, author of “CHINA: Portrait of a People”, catches up with Chris Thrall to discuss his new book “Eating Smoke“, a memoir about Thrall’s descent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland.
“In the fall of 2009,” says Tom Carter, “whilst traveling in India to create my next photography book, I was contacted via email by a British writer who had read Down and out in Hong Kong, one of my online travel articles, which described this poor, dusty backpacker’s real-time impressions of Asia’s wealthiest city.”
Chris Thrall said he connected with my article’s conclusion that, in spite of my western heritage, and due to my personal circumstances, I ultimately had more in common with the destitute third-world inhabitants of the Chungking Mansions, the infamous immigrant ghetto of Kowloon, than I did with the rich white bankers et al who comprise the other half of Hong Kong’s multinational population.
Chris went on to explain that he was writing a book about his own experiences living in Hong Kong, which was dramatically different from mine or any other expatriate I ever knew, and that he once worked for the 14K, the world’s largest Chinese crime family.
Attached to his email was the first chapter of his memoir, a gripping opening salvo that finds the narrator hiding from pursuing henchmen on a roof top—alongside two corpses, a disemboweled mother and child.
As a voracious reader, I know a bestseller when I see it. I immediately forwarded Chris’s manuscript to my publisher in Hong Kong, Pete Spurrier, who runs the iconic Blacksmith Books, which specializes in Asian-themed literature.
Pete likewise was knocked off his feet by Chris’s incredible story; the next I heard, Chris was a fellow Blacksmith label mate with a book deal.
Chris Thrallwas born in the UK. At eighteen, he joined the Royal Marine Commandos. Following active service in the Northern Ireland Conflict and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachutist’s ‘wings’ and went on to serve as part of a high-security detachment onboard an aircraft carrier. In 1995, Chris moved to Hong Kong to oversee the Asia-Pacific expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he’d built, part-time, while serving in the Forces. Less than a year later, he was homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest triad crime family, as a doorman in Wanchai’s infamous red-light district.
“Eating Smoke“, a humorous yet deeply moving first book, is his account of what happened.
On October 16, 2011, nearly two years since Chris Thrall originally contacted me, his long-awaited book, “Eating Smoke”, will be released in America and Amazon.com.
Advanced sales have already brought the title to the top of the Hong Kong bestseller list (patting my own back for my prediction) while Eating Smoke has achieved a massive cult following on Facebook. Hailed as a “Sin – Shantaram” in a review by the South China Morning Post, and being compared by fans to Alex Garland’s The Beach for its drug-adelic theme, we can now confidently predict that Eating Smoke will, too, be optioned for film rights and follow those popular books to Hollywood.
Despite his past connections with Chinese triads, and in spite of his newfound celebrity as a bestselling author, Thrall remains one of the nicest and humblest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing…even though I have yet to actually meet the man in person. So it wasn’t too hard to twist his arm into putting my Q&A at the top of his to-do list of media interview requests (ah, the fame!).
TOM CARTER: My first and most pressing question, Chris, is if you are at all worried that the 14K will be hitting you up for a percentage of your book royalties once word of Eating Smoke’s success trickles up the Wan Chai gangland hierarchy?
CHRIS THRALL: Ha ha! The news from Hong Kong is that “serious players” are reading my book as we speak. But I’m not worried as it’s not a tell-all on Hong Kong organized crime. It’s more the story of a former Royal Marine Commando who thought he knew a bit about life, who then moves to Asia to run what was a successful business but spirals down into psychosis from drug addiction.
In that respect, Eating Smoke is unique. I’m not aware of any other book that gives the reader the opportunity to experience what it’s actually like to descend into mental illness through the eyes of someone as they do. I just happened to work for the 14K as a nightclub doorman – moreover, their “East-West go-between” – when it happened.
CARTER: Eating Smoke is about your decent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong’s triad heartland, but it’s also about the series of unfortunate, albeit hilarious, events that prevented you from ever finding your financial footing in Hong Kong, ironically Asia’s wealthiest city; a “testament to the stark reality and ephemeral nature of the relationship between people, drugs and profit,” as you wrote in the book.
Do you have anything to say to all those coked-out rich white bankers that Hong Kong is notorious for?
THRALL: No! I have nothing to say to anyone – coked-out rich white bankers included. If people truly enjoy what they do, they should carry on doing it.
Personally, I didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit as I chased dollar signs at the expense of more fulfilling experiences. So having overcome addiction, I made an inventory of what I wanted to get out of life. Then I set out across six continents through seventy-five countries to get it. Writing a book was the last thing on my bucket list.
CARTER: China is adamantly anti-drugs, and the court system does not hesitate to execute drug traffickers, even foreigners.
In fact, China even blames foreigners for being responsible for a majority of its drug trade, a grudge no doubt held over from the Opium Wars. Even though there are arguments to be made against the death penalty, the fact remains that, due to their zero-tolerance policy, China has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, a statistic that, all things considered, I’m sure America and the UK envy.
As a former drug user, what’s your take on criminalization of drugs, and do you think the west should follow China’s example?
THRALL: I don’t have a take on it. I’m not a spokesperson on substance use or the law surrounding it. I just told my own story.
However, research would likely show that mankind has always taken drugs in various forms and continues to do so (alcohol and cigarettes often cited as the most damaging), which might suggest that education on their usage and dangers is the way forward, in addition to harm-prevention strategies.
As for crime, a sociologist once said that a zero crime rate would make society a frightening place to be. I think Orwell’s 1984 was meant to imply this. I take no stance on drugs per se or cast judgment on people who choose to buy, sell, or use them.
It was addiction that I battled and that’s a separate issue. It’s a psychological condition that could relate to gambling, sex or food. It makes you wonder how prohibition could ever fix this.
CARTER: One of the main characters in “Eating Smoke” is a Filipina prostitute named Apple who, after being your friend, sells you out to the triads. Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group in Hong Kong, however their career paths seem to be limited as nannies for wealthy families, cover bands, or bar girls.
Why is that, and do you think their situation will ever improve?
THRALL: I think it’s because the Philippines’ economy is relatively poor when compared to Hong Kong’s. Even with the pittance they receive in wages, these women are able to send a lot of hard-earned dollars home to their families, while getting a travel experience they likely otherwise ill afford.
As to whether their situation will improve, Filipinos are generally humble, in my experience. They don’t complain and seem to appreciate the chance to earn money abroad.
Of course, wherever there is inequality, they’ll be incidents of exploitation, which isn’t nice. But if their union – if there is such a thing – pushed for higher pay then perhaps the demand for their services would drop off as there are Hong Kong locals who could fill these jobs.
CARTER: Another reoccurring character in Eating Smoke is an expatriate named Cameron who insists on trying crystal meth despite your warnings of its highly addictive nature. Cameron shows up later in the book exclaiming how much he loves the drug even though it’s obvious that he, too, is now addicted. To quote a passage in your book, “Unable to stop and not wanting to anyway.”
What about methamphetamine makes it so popular even though everyone knows that it can, nay, will destroy you?
THRALL: I can only speak from my own experience. Some people try meth and say, “Ah. It’s OK. But nothing special.” Then get on with their life. For others it seems to be the key in lock, the answer to all of life’s insecurities and problems. Perhaps people in the former category have had more stable upbringings and hence less insecurity and the resultant need to feel “right” for a change.
A drug that makes you feel cool, calm and supremely confident, in addition to giving you a massive surge of creative energy – allowing you to discover abilities you were told you were a failure at in school – is always going to be in demand.
The problem is, like Superman with his Kryptonite, you begin to crave that feeling more and more to the point where you no longer feel normal without it. That’s called addiction. Either you beat it or it destroys you.
CARTER: A really interesting observation I felt you made in Eating Smoke was of those expatriates who come to places like China looking to assert their dominance over the culture, and those expats who “go native” and completely immerse themselves in the language and customs, sometimes to the point of arrogance towards other foreigners.
Why do westerners behave like this in other countries, and why, in your opinion, do Asian immigrants in America or the UK have seemingly the exact opposite attitude?
THRALL: That’s a good question but probably a long-winded answer. It’s important to remember that not all westerners misbehave when abroad and not all Asian immigrants immerse themselves in or accept western culture and etiquette.
When you consider the West’s history and of colonialism and capitalism – arguably practices that require the population of one country to believe they are racially superior to another’s – it’s not hard to appreciate why some westerners behave this way.
Add to that a “functionalist” education system, a class system, a one-sided record of history…I could go on, couldn’t I?
CARTER: Comparisons are being made between “Eating Smoke”and Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” (about a drug-addicted escaped convict who joins a crime family in Mumbai, India) and Alex Garland’s “The Beach” (young backpackers living on an isolated island in Thailand who goes mad from solitude and drugs).
Have you read either of these, and how does Eating Smoke stand apart in this genre?
THRALL: “Eating Smoke” is 100% true life – whereas “Shantaram” and “The Beach” are fiction, though loosely based on their authors’ travel experiences, no doubt.
Although it’s on my shelf, I haven’t read “Shantaram”, but “The Beach” is one of my all-time favorites.
The reason “Eating Smoke” stands apart in this genre is that it works – or so the reviewers say – on so many levels and therefore appeals to readers of all ages, sex and genre.
I’m told my story is unique and an eye-opener and that my writing style – honesty, humor, originality, and pacing – makes the book impossible to put down. Even though it is over 500 pages as a traditional paperback, I often receive Facebook messages and emails from people who have read it in two days.
CARTER: I’d like to go on record as saying that I think “Eating Smoke” has “Hollywood” written all over it, and I expect your story to be optioned for film rights. Johnny Depp is slated to play the lead role in “Shantaram”, and Leo DiCaprio starred in “The Beach”.
Do you have any preference for actors to play yourself in “Eating Smoke”:The Motion Picture, like Shia LaBeouf or Justin Bieber (just joking!)? Who would you want to direct?
THRALL: *laughing* So long as the guy was English, a good actor, and resembled my character at the time, I wouldn’t mind. I don’t have a preference – I’m not that clued up on 25-year old English actors, to be honest!
As for a director, Danny Boyle would be my choice. I loved “The Beach”, “Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours”. It would require someone with his perception to be able replicate the psychosis that I experienced, accurately.
CARTER: Let’s talk about the publishing of Eating Smoke, because I’m sure there are dozens of expats across Asia reading this who feel that they, too, have exciting stories which deserve a place on bookshelves, yet are unsure of how to go about getting published.
So once Blacksmith Books expressed an interest in your proposal what kind of writing process did you embark on to complete the book?
THRALL: After six months of writing, when Blacksmith Books contacted me, I had pretty much the first draft written – 230,000 words at the time. The problem was I’d never studied English above high school level, so I spent a year referring to books, websites and online forums, teaching myself proper punctuation (not what we were taught at school!), grammar, and the art of self-editing.
CARTER: What kind of final editing was done to Eating Smoke? Were there any major changes to it and, overall, was it a hostile or pleasant experience? I ask because editors and authors don’t usually see eye-to-eye.
THRALL: According to Blacksmith’s editor, the manuscript was structurally sound. I’d pretty much worked out for myself what did and did not need to be in there.
Any anecdote not taking the story forward or adding to the understanding of a character or situation, I took out.
As far as the end result is concerned, it was great to see the manuscript polished, with some incorrectly used words amended, some over-ripe humor taken out, and some excess sentences deleted. That’s not to say it wasn’t a stressful experience at the time.
Editors are good at spotting mistakes and cutting out excess lines. But that can leave un-poetic passages that don’t flow well on the page. My editor and publisher were completely accommodating, allowing me to rewrite any amendments myself in my own writing style – or understanding when I insisted that certain lines were left in the book, for continuity, or sentimental reasons because the story is true-life.
CARTER: The literary landscape is changing, some say deteriorating.
Where once New York publishers actually sought out quality literature that would last through the ages (John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck), today they only seem interested in boardroom-created-blockbusters like “Twilight” or throwaway celebrity memoires.
What’s your advice, then, for aspiring authors who lack literary connections but feel that their book is too good for CreateSpace?
THRALL: If you truly believe you have a story that will be of interest to many people, think carefully about sending your manuscript to a busy executive in a publishing house that probably has fifty other manuscripts land on their desk everyday and no time to read them.
Instead, consider hiring (or find) an agent that has some influence with the big players or simply send your first chapter to an author in a similar genre. Authors tend to be very kind and approachable people – as I found out, Tom! – and having been through the process themselves, they know what a publisher is looking for. If they like what they read then there’s a good chance they’ll recommend you.
Writers want other writers to have success. In addition, you’ll get pointers if your writing is lacking in any area. I’m currently writing a free e-book that will be available to download soon from http://www.christhrall.com to guide people through the process of writing a memoir and getting it published.
CARTER: What’s next for Chris Thrall? Tales from your time with the Corps of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines? Or perhaps some fiction?
THRALL: Not sure. You’ll have to ask the readers of Eating Smoke that question!