A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #9: Hector Lakemonster

Welcome to the 9th interview in the series. It’s been an interesting ride so far, and a good excuse for me to step back and let others take over for a while.

My thought processes had been cloudy and dark for quite a while, stupidly mirroring Shanghai’s grey skies. Winter is passing though, and we’ve been having blue skies and pretty sunshine for several days now. Unfortunately my work schedule has been such that I’ve barely seen daylight, let alone enjoyed it. I have noticed, however, that my mood has picked up. Yes, I’m that malleable.

Today’s exapat interview is slightly different from the previous interviews. We’ve only had two men so far in this series, and both of them were white and human. Things change somewhat when you are neither.  Not everyone who is an expat is so fully by choice. While not exactly exiled from his place of birth, our next interviewee was never actually accepted by his homeland and knew from an early age that he would eventually have to leave. He has made a life for himself in Shanghai, as much as a water monster the size of a mini bus can.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet the lovely and talented Hector Lakemonster *applause*

Leaving

Dressed up for the holidays

I was born a second generation land dweller, raised just outside of Cambridge in the UK. My parents were talented but ideologically frustrated strike breakers, used primarily in the early 1980s by the Thatcher government in dealings with the Welsh and Cornish miners. Children threw rocks at them; dogs chased them, and the rightfully pissed off miners shouted at them. This was not the life they had hoped to lead, I know.

My parents had very limited job options in Britain, being de-laked lake monsters with no claims to the strictly human track of full citizenship. They were poorly adapted to office work, and too physically frightening to integrate. We are rather like a monstrous version of the Travelers of Ireland, the ones people stopped calling Tinkers when the name became in poor taste.

My parents grew up moving around the country, packing up every few years, picking up odd jobs related to frightening people or scaring farm animals. They were successful shepherds for a while, until factory farming put an end to that.

I was born during a more stable point in their lives, when they had found some land they could squat without bother. The landowner had been methodically broken down emotionally until he was unable to tell them to leave. They grew vegetables, raised some livestock, home-schooled me and my two sisters, and picked up odd-jobs for cash whenever possible.

Even though I was a lake monster, I had only ever seen lakes in the distance as a child. I thought they were generally pretty but I felt no innate tug toward them. As a child, I enjoyed reading, and spent most of my free time studying physics and astronomy for pleasure. I was still a lake monster, however, and I knew I would never be able to do anything with the sciences I had studied. Universities don’t have tick boxes on their application forms for monsters. I knew there wouldn’t be much for me if I stayed where I was.

When I was twenty, I left Britain on a cargo ship, as a stow away. I couldn’t buy a legitimate ticket for anything, boat or plane.  I have no idea how no one noticed a stow-away lake monster on their ship, but I was successful.  By the time I was twenty five, I was sharing this Shanghai lane house with the other water monsters, Bob and Alphonso. We get on well, have self-contained dinner parties and late nights of intense conversation, trading stories of what we have been through to reach this point. We’ve been through a lot together.

Staying

Artist's sketch of the water monster house hold

I was recruited to come here, initially.  I met my current housemates through work here in Shanghai. The Sino-Water Monster Placement Agency had found jobs for each of us at different times so we all came separately from different places. We did not know each other until we were put in a shared dormitory at one point.

I got here first, many years ago. I’m nearly forty now.  Small jobs, like scaring people out of their houses so developers could tear them down without killing anyone. Temp jobs, really. Nothing long term, nothing really satisfying, career-wise. They pay well though. Good hours, easy, free housing. Can’t be beat, really. Some residual guilt but nothing too scarring.

The work permits are hard to renew though. Very hard. And I have had a horrible time getting photos taken to renew my residence permit. All the photo studios refuse to let me in. A lot of quiet, subtle racism here. Or maybe speciesism or entityism? I’m not sure how to define it.

I speak English as well as some Chinese but no one ever expects a water monster to be able to speak anything aside from roaring and growling or snarling. It’s frustrating. We have our outside selves (roar! growl! snarl!) and our inside selves (multi lingual, well-read, well-traveled, thoughtful, erudite) and we are good at keeping these halves separate.

My house mates come from different countries- Bob Seamonster is from the Faroe Islands to the north of Scotland,  Alphonso Bogmonster is Argentinean- and they speak different home languages but we talk to each other in English or Chinese, depending on how we feel, and sometimes we speak to each other in a limited pidgin mish mash of monster tongues. Sometimes, when we are feeling snarky we speak to each other in meaningless roars and growls and snarls, because that’s what people expect of us. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a Chinese person mimicking Rosie O’Donnell’s moronic Ching Chong Ching outburst with a totally straight face.

Maintaining Stability

We keep busy with lucrative seasonal work, scaring squatters out of empty, newly built high rise apartment buildings. When Shanghai turns cold, the residence-permit-lacking migrant workers sometimes resort to trying to inconspicuously break into the many unsold units that fill the acres around the periphery of Shanghai’s vast outer suburbs. For such a huge and crowded city, there are an awful lot of very empty rooms. We have the emotionally draining task of making sure they stay empty. Empty until filled with people who can legally afford to move in. These are not cheap flats.

The squatters remind me of my parents, with nowhere else to legally go in the city. They just pack their bags and go back to their farms and factories far away or try to find new places to squat. They don’t want to be eaten by monsters. This was not how they had envisaged their big city life. I can’t say we love our jobs but we know that, like the migrant workers, we really have no other choice. We need the money and we need the residence permits that come with the jobs.

 

In Beijing, with tea

It’s not easy living here, living in such close quarters with humans. It’s a crowded city and I know I’m being watched. I have to try hard to hide certain aspects of my self.

I can’t smile. My teeth are frighteningly long, pointed and razor sharp and I feel quite self conscious about them. Humans find them horrifying and intimidating. I really don’t want to horrify or intimidate anyone.

I can also breathe fire, but it is so socially awkward and frequently illegal. I often need to hold my breath, swallowing involuntary flame belches.  I must clamp my  lips shut when in polite company. Amongst the other monsters I don’t feel such an urgent need to hide these aspects of my own body and its natural functions.

When I’m out in the street, people stare. A lot.  Children rush to open doorways to watch me pass,  jaws agape. Mothers pull their babies back in from where they had been playing and quickly close the doors. Because of me. Cats and dogs run off, assuming there will be a confrontation. I have to just shrug it off. I’m used to it, though I can’t say I like it. I know I don’t fit in and never will.

Being cold blooded is quite difficult in Shanghai’s changeable climate. Winters are hard, especially the cold, wet winters we have been having for the past few years. I’m always cold. Nothing is heated here. It is difficult to get coats or sweaters that fit me and tailors are reluctant to work with me. Often I have wintered with just bare skin, trying to stay active enough to keep warm.

The Future

I like my big, cosy bed and my hot mugs of coffee and my comfortable soft blankets and my bookshelf full of lovely thick novels. I like our lane house with the art on the walls and soft rugs on the wooden floors. It’s home for me now. I feel safe here. I’m not particularly brave or curious or adventurous. I’m not a traveller.  I think I would have made a fine and satisfied housewife had I been born human and female. Hell, I would make a perfectly happy house husband for any female who might fancy supporting me. Unfortunately, as a monster, as an exiled male monster in a country that has not yet allowed entry to any female monsters, my personal preferences are not really an option. The average Shanghainese woman has yet to show any interest in me and if they had I doubt their families would have approved.

On the beach with a human

I have had to do things far from my comfort zone for most of my adult life. I’ve had to do monstery things that make me feel tired and frustrated. Sometimes I’m tired of being brave and I’m tired of having to roar and growl and be fierce.

Sometimes I think I’d just like to leave, to pack up and emerge into the streets of an elegant, tree lined Paris, strolling as casually as a lake monster can stroll through human streets. I think about sipping coffee and reading newspapers in a cafe on a bustling yet attractive side street full of bistros and boutiques.

I would probably terrify everyone though, and fail to get any service due to being a very large and fierce looking lake monster.  I do still try to maintain the dream that the little cups of strong coffee tinted with just enough steamed milk to colour it could be mine for the taking. After all, if humans can do it– if humans can drink lovely strong coffees and talk with friends in cafes and look quite dashing and sophisticated and whatnot in the endeavour– well then, so I ought to as well. I don’t think it will ever happen though.

Sometimes I feel quite melancholic about having been born a lake monster. Devoid of cultural context, being any sort of monster, water or otherwise, is nothing to be ashamed of . Hell, there are innumerable qualities that call for much rejoicing at being a water monster. However, within the human-dominated framework of the world as I have always known it, my flesh, my bulk, my roar have all betrayed me. Doors close, both physically and metaphorically, and can only be opened by force, which I am loathe to do as it is never with a happy, positive energy, but rather with fear and intimidation.

Will I stay here? Probably. For whatever reason, the Chinese government has cleared a space for us water monsters to exist and we can live here safely and legally, which we were never able to do in our homelands.  I have my comforts and my routines. This is home to me more than my parents’ squatted land ever was. At least I have a room I can legally call my own and a strong circle of close friends.  We’ll see though. I would love to be able to find a new career, something that doesn’t involve exploiting my looks and my voice. I would love to use my mind in my work for once. I’m still looking.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.