The Wild East, or Don Draper in China

Years ago I read a fascinating book called You Can’t Win by Jack Black. It’s the autobiography of a low-life criminal who lived around the turn of the last century. The book has had a cult following for years, having been a major influence on William S. Burroughs in his youth, and more recently even being made into a film by Michael Pitt (apparently not-yet-released.)

Jack Black (not the actor)

I was struck by something Black wrote about being a criminal in the days before they invented fingerprinting, about how easy it was because, basically, unless somebody directly saw you committing the crime or you were stupid enough to leave your wallet at the scene, you were going to get away with it.

Fast-forward a few decades – and into the alternate universe that is television – and we have the story of Don Draper / Dick Whitman in Mad Men, who assumes another man’s identity after World War 2 in order to break with his personal past. I doubt it was quite as easy to do as the show makes it out to be, but I’m sure such things did happen.

It’s easy to forget how different the world was before the invention of today’s technology – from fingerprinting, to ID cards that need more than an Exacto knife to alter them (ah, the glory days of underage drinking) to the NSA watching me write this and you read it.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the character of Selina Kyle is desperate to acquire computer software that would completely erase her identity and give her a “clean slate,” a fresh start. In this day and age, it seems nearly impossible to do such a thing.

But a hundred years ago – and any time before that stretching back to the dawn of our species – all one had to do was go away and find a new town. You could travel to another city or village where not only did no one know you, but probably only a few people even heard of where you came from. You had a clean slate – you could be whoever you wanted to be, at least within the limits of your talents and abilities.

This desire to start over, to build a new life from scratch, has been a driving force in American history from the very beginning. Many of the earliest European settlers had dollar signs in their eyes (or rather pound signs, since the dollar didn’t exist yet) when they set sail for the New World, fueled by dreams of getting rich. There’s an excellent scene in Terrence Malick’s film about the Jamestown settlement in which Captain Smith has to deal with a motley crew of idiots who would rather dig for nonexistent gold on the beach than plant food to ensure their future survival.

Later, the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s drove tens of thousands west. If you were one of those migrants, there was likely nothing stopping you from pulling a Don Draper and becoming someone different from who you were. You didn’t have to worry about changing the name on your credit cards, or even your paperwork, and you certainly didn’t have your whole life story encapsulated and preserved on Facebook. Your name was whatever you said it was, and your job was whatever you could show yourself able to do.

If that was the situation in the Wild West and before, then there’s a case to be made that China, and perhaps Asia in general, has been the Wild East. I’ve lived here for four years now and have met a lot of travelers from all over the world. People come for many different reasons, but a significant number come to start over, to become someone other than who they were back home. (There’s even a pejorative term for those who are a little too obvious about this: LBH, “Loser Back Home.”)

And while you can’t change the name on your passport or escape your credit history or debt, the fact is that many people do change their lives when they find out that they are much more free to reinvent themselves here than they are back home.

There’s a problem in America with fake resumes – people who put false information on their CVs in the hope that no one will check it. If it’s a problem there, where it’s quite easy to verify an employment history or college degree with a simple phone call or internet search, then how much of a problem must it be in a foreign country, where employers are for the most part completely unable to verify anything on an applicant’s resume because they don’t even speak the same language?

A man with no teaching experience whatsoever works his way up to being the head of a department in an expensive private high school. A woman with no tech experience works her way up to become essentially the third-in-command, and partial owner, of a software company with dozens of employees. And those are just the people that I know. For many expats from America and Europe, China has been the fresh start that Selina Kyle was looking for.

But of course, not everyone who seeks a clean slate does so for noble reasons. Some come to succeed, but others come to hide. Some come to start over, but others merely to do the same bad thing again in a new place, like a traveling snake oil salesman looking for a new town that he hasn’t swindled yet.

The foreign kindergarten or training center teacher who takes the money he makes teaching little kids and spends it all on drugs, booze and Chinese prostitutes is so commonplace as to be cliché. Likewise the old-timers, the dirty old men who have been here for who-knows-how-long, who do who-knows-what for a living, and who fit right in with the lowest of the locals in their slovenly dress, unkempt appearance, and expressionless indifference. They waddle down the street in the same slow manner as the old Chinese peasant men, wearing oversize shorts and flip-flops, a cigarette dangling out of their mouth and a large bottle of Tsing Tao in their hands, unless of course they’re headed to the store to get one rather than returning with it.

Meanwhile, a foreign man in an expensive suit dines with his Chinese co-workers at an upscale restaurant. He got hired for the job – in finance, or electronics, or perhaps marketing – because he has a top notch degree from Harvard, or Princeton, or Yale. Or does he? Fake diplomas from any university in the world are available here for under a hundred dollars. They won’t check out if anyone bothers to inquire with the institution, but how often does anyone actually do that, especially here?

How many Don Drapers are there in Asia, pretending to be someone they’re not because, ultimately, they can, since they get the job done well enough for all involved? (And sometimes in China, “well enough” means nothing more than showing up to work with a white face.)

There’s no way of knowing. But if reading this has sparked your imagination with dreams of a journey to the East to reinvent yourself, I’m afraid you might be too late. Earlier I wrote that Asia has been the “wild east,” but every day there are more and more signs that it will not continue to be. The Chinese government has been slowly getting more and more strict in enforcing the requirements for foreign teachers of English, which state that you have to be from an English-speaking country and have an actual education background. (Which is too bad for the Chinese, because the best English teachers here are all eastern Europeans who come to work hard and save money, not the degenerate wannabe-playboys from the U.S. and U.K. who are just here on a poor-man’s holiday.)

As China continues to develop, they will weed out more and more of the various kinds of fakers and frauds who have heretofore had a fairly easy time of things. And technology will make it easier and easier to do this.

For the most part, this will be a good thing. But someday, someone might look back and long for the days when there were still ways to escape one’s past and reinvent oneself somewhere else, like ol’ Jack Black pining away for the easy days of being a crook in pre-FBI/CIA/NSA America.


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