I remember the first time I met Avery. I had walked across the street from my apartment building to get some lunch and we noticed each other immediately as this restaurant is quite small and there aren’t that many foreigners in that part of China anyway.
Even though he was sitting down, I could tell he was about 5’, 10” in stature and at least 40lbs overweight. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the late 50s to early 60s. His face was bloated, with a ruddy complexion, and his nose was bulbous with dark red spider veins common in older alcoholics.
He was sitting with an Asian girl who appeared to be less than half his age and she looked far more Korean than Chinese to me, although I would later learn she was in fact born in the Middle Kingdom. To me she looked like a prostitute, at least she was dressed like one, and she had that hardened look that comes from growing old before one’s time by having to do things to survive one might otherwise would not have done under different circumstances. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that they had met in bar while she was working as a barmaid. Her English was good, perhaps too good, which suggested to me that she was no stranger to foreign men.
The first question out of Avery’s mouth was to inquire about my nationality, to which he answered “OH NO… well that’s okay—we usually don’t allow Americans in here but today we’ll make an exception.” His girlfriend (who he had introduced as his wife), as if on cue, forced out some well rehearsed laughter to alert me to the fact that Avery was “only kidding,” in case it wasn’t clear. She was obviously used to doing that for him.
Over the course of a two-hour lunch, I learned that Avery was French Canadian and a retired military engine mechanic (initially, he had referred to himself as an “engineer”). He had been in China about five years at that time and was now on his sixth teaching position. He was apparently working for a private kindergarten and nursery school and I couldn’t imagine a worse fit (actually, it was difficult for me to imagine that any school, even in China, would be desperate enough to send him into a classroom with any age group). On the basis of having taught oral English at a private university somewhere in China a couple of years prior, he had first introduced himself to me as a “professor” but later corrected himself when he learned, much to his apparent chagrin, that he was sitting across from a real one. From that point forward, there was a tension in the air that you could cut with a knife, but that is something I’ve grown accustomed to among foreign teachers in China.
As it was obvious that there was no potential here for even a casual acquaintanceship, I made a mental note not to encourage further contact with him and managed to leave lunch without exchanging phone numbers. It was clear to me that he was suffering from Korsakoff’s syndrome, a brain disorder caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency common in chronic alcoholics, marked by memory loss, confabulation, poor insight, meager content in conversation and apathy. Unfortunately, because the foreign teacher community in that town is small, I would soon meet up with him and his girlfriend again as they were mutual friends with several foreign acquaintances of mine.
At that time, I was new in town, had only been in China for less than a year, and so I was easily persuaded when he offered his girlfriend’s translation services whenever I might need them. She helped me get my Chinese driver’s license and was very useful in negotiating a few other things that needed to be taken care of. Of course, there was a small unspoken fee for her services. Every time I needed help from Kat, Avery would arrange it so that the errand would end just around lunch or dinner time so that I could “join him” at the restaurant he had been sitting and drinking at for hours. It just worked out that I would pick up his food and beer bill each and every time. I didn’t mind paying for Kat’s services, for if I had asked a student to help me out, I would have given him or her something as well. What bothered me was his dishonesty, how he clearly felt he was being clever in the way he “engineered” this, and that he was basically leasing out his girlfriend to subsidize his alcohol addiction.
After two or three such encounters, I decided to decline all future offers for their “help” as sitting across from him, even for one hour, was painful and even embarrassing (he was quite loud and obnoxious and often insulting to the waitresses). From that point forward, I relied upon my students who were more than eager to accompany me whenever I needed an interpreter and they were much better company.
So, as it turned out, I hadn’t seen or heard of Avery or Kat until one day, about two years later, I received a desperate call for help. Apparently, Avery had taken a severe turn for the worse and hadn’t been able to teach for weeks. He was subsisting on a diet of beer only, had stopped eating and had lost fifty pounds. He was too weak to walk to the bathroom, was confined to the use of a makeshift bedpan and Kat had become his full time nursemaid.
Kat had called in the hope that I could talk Avery into returning to Canada for medical treatment. She explained that the school had stopped paying him as he had stopped teaching, the money was almost gone, they had only a couple of weeks left in the apartment and Kat was beside herself with grief and fear as Avery was unable to attend to any of these realities. All he could do was fight with her to bring him another beer.
I had worked in a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for some time back in the states, so I knew there wouldn’t be much sense in my attempting to talk to him in the condition his mind was in. Instead, I offered to meet Kat at a restaurant to discuss her options. Once there, I helped her to see that he was no longer her responsibility and encouraged her to call his brothers back in Canada and make him their problem instead of hers. As the money was gone and she hadn’t eaten that day, I also gave her a few renminbi for which she thanked me profusely. (I later learned that she had offered a mutual foreign acquaintance of ours sex in exchange for the same amount of money I had just given to her freely. I remember wondering to myself if I should regard that as a compliment or an insult.)
Avery did soon thereafter return to Canada but declined long-term treatment. He wasn’t about to give up drinking—certainly not at this point in his life. He sold whatever of his was left to sell and soon returned to China without a visa. Much to my surprise, they allowed him to enter anyway as he claimed he was married to a Chinese national. Apparently, the police gave his girlfriend a call and, on the basis of that conversation, decided to give him a 30-day tourist visa at the airport.
Kat, who hadn’t as of that point found a better foreign replacement, agreed to meet Avery in Sanya (a beach resort community in the southernmost part of China). His drinking resumed, accelerated in frequency and, of course, he was soon unable to work again. The money he had brought with him from Canada ran out in about six months time, as did the lease to his apartment as well as Kat’s patience with him. Last I heard, he was deported back to Canada when the police responded to complaints from local restaurant owners about a homeless foreigner who was spending all day and night loitering in front of their establishments, disoriented, belligerent, and begging for beer money. When the police finally caught up with him, they could find no identification of any kind. He had either lost his passport or it was stolen. At any rate, he certainly hadn’t been living in China legally for quite some time.
I was reminded of Avery when I received a phone call, out of the blue, from Kat just a couple of days ago. She remained in Sanya, found a job at another restaurant as a barmaid and had been living with her Italian boss just long enough to have acquired something of an Italian accent, which sounded quite strange coming out of the mouth of a Chinese girl. Anyway, she sounded happy and asked if I had heard anything about Avery, which of course I had not. It was a brief phone call as I really didn’t have anything of substance to say to her (nor her to me).
After I hung up with her, I thought long and hard about Avery. His story, although somewhat unusual, is not unheard of. It certainly wasn’t the first time I had been told or read about a homeless foreigner in China—and then I thought about all the Western men in China who are, more or less, one beer and one paycheck away from the same fate.
I briefly reflected back over all the various foreign refugees I’ve met over the years, most younger, a few older than Avery, who remain in China year after year doing something they loathe, and are rarely appreciated for, because they have become economic prisoners of teaching English as a foreign language in Asia.
I said a small prayer for Avery as I imagined he had probably passed on or, far worse, was rotting away somewhere in a nursing home in Canada, slowly dying from the end stage of dementia. I then thought about all the Western men who will arrive in China this year with the fantasy of forging lives for themselves in China that will be better than what they had left behind, and wished there was some way I could magically spare them from making that tragic mistake.