The Complete and Total Loser taught English for a year in China. The year was 1985 and the city he was in was Guiyang. The word Guiyang means “precious sun” because there was so little of it and the Lonely Planet travel guide began its brief description of it by saying, “Frankly, this place is a dump.” It was not a popular destination for tourists. The Loser liked it because of that. He wasn’t always being hustled for money by people on the street. Also, to do anything on his own he needed to learn at least some Chinese. He’s bad at languages but he found that the best way to learn about the city and the language was to go out, wander around and let himself get lost.
The Loser had a long break during the summer halfway through his year there. He headed east. A major leg of his trip was along the Yangtze River, which flows that way. It’s the longest river in Asia and this was before they built a huge hydroelectric dam on it. He traveled by river boat. Most of the people on it were Westerners, like him, and most of them were Europeans.
The trip took about five days and one evening the boat pulled into Wuhan and tied up at a dock. They were to stay there for the night because the next day’s trip was scenic and too dangerous to navigate in the dark. They all got off to see a bit of the city. The Loser had become friendly with two Swedish women about his age—mid 20s. He liked their great accents, and they got off to walk around together. Being the cautious sort, he used his limited Chinese to make sure the boat was staying there that night. He asked a guy who worked on the boat and he said yeah, which he said in Chinese. He said other things that were beyond the Loser’s listening ability so he just smiled and nodded idiotically as if he understood. People always tell y0u more than you want to know.
The women and the Loser walked around the city enjoying ourselves, with him using his language skills to get around, sample street food and buy little things. Most of what they did was just talk and people watch. It was a hot city and a hot time of year but it felt nice. They wandered out of sight of the dock, but they could hear a boat horn in the distance. It was a little romantic, the Loser thought.
He started having a funny, new feeling. There he was with two nice women—Europeans!—and guiding them and talking and feeling sure of himself. And they were listening to him and looking at him when he spoke. He realized that this new feeling was confidence. He’d never any confidence with women but now the Loser felt an inkling of what it’s like to be a cool, smart guy who does. He was feeling that a page may have turned in his life, that knowing how this felt would take root and grow and become a part of his nature and that he would soon take his place among others and live the life of the man he was meant to be. The Loser would be the kind of man who approaches any situation with self assurance and poise. He would be, not the kind of man who reads GQ and Esquire magazines; He’d be the kind of man who doesn’t need to read GQ and Esquire. He would be the kind of man who can wear sunglasses without feeling that people are laughing at him behind his back, and who can put his hands on his hips sometimes instead of in his pockets. He’d be the kind of man who would one day buy—and wear—a leather jacket.
By the time the three of us walked back to the dock the Loser wasn’t walking with his shoulders hunched, looking down a few feet in front of me. Instead he was looking far out into the wide river with my head held high. And that’s where our boat was. It had left the dock. He’d been wrong and now the three of were lost in China.
The women looked at the Loser now with faces contorted with fear, worry and anger. “You said it was going to stay here all night!” one said, her accent no longer appealing.
The Loser had the usual response that men use when they’re flat-out wrong: “No!”
They ran to the dock and shouted and waved and we could see tiny figures waving back as the boat chugged away. Someone had written on the dock in a bizarre language. Swedish. It was one of the women’s friends and the message said they’d wait for them in the next city if they could get a boat or bus there. None of them knew how they’d get to that city. They were screwed and the Loser felt two inches tall.
The story has a happy ending because it turned out that he wasn’t completely wrong. The boat stayed in Wuhan that night but not at that dock. It went down river a mile or so to moor until morning so other boats could use the dock. It was probably what the Chinese man had been trying to tell the Loser. The women found a Chinese man who spoke English and through him they found someone with a small boat who took us out to our boat. The other Swedes on the boat, the ones who’d left the message, said they did their best to get the boat to wait for them and even got them to blast the horn.
In those days when you traveled with someone for a few days, you’d usually exchange addresses with them when you parted. It was the 1985 equivalent of liking someone on Facebook. You’d write a postcard, maybe two just saying hi, it was nice to meet you. In this case, though, the women the Loser had nearly stranded in China didn’t ask for his and he didn’t dare ask for theirs.
It was a happy ending because they found their way home. But when it comes to women, the Loser has been lost ever since.