In the course of my 15 years in China, many friends have simply disappeared. They flared up for a short period of time and then just as quickly burnt out. Most of the time, it was them leaving. Sometimes, it was me saying goodbye. Most of them I have forgotten. But not Pete Shelton.
Pete–that’s his real name. I have half a hope that somehow–perhaps from googling his own name–he’ll someday stumble on this article and we will be reunited. I have searched all over the free sources of the internet and haven’t found him. He’s not on Facebook. He’s not on Linkedin. Several months ago I spent a good hour persuing whatever leads I could find in the white web. As far as the internet is concerned, he doesn’t exist. But he did once.
I met Pete within a month of moving to China. I lived in Wuhan at that time. I had just taken a teaching post at a minorities college, though I called myself Professor and for a year I was Professor Lee. Somehow, I knew that if I ever wanted to be be called professor, that year was my chance.
Pete and I met because we both took part–foolishly–in a weekend trip organized by a local television channel as well as the tourism board. They were all about promoting tourism to Shennongjia–a big patch of wild in Hubei province where local legend said yetis and savages lived. They even took us to a museum, but all that was there was some sort of monkey in a cage.
Pete was one of only two foreigners among us who spoke Chinese. The other was this gay German named Jorg who had been employed in China by the Goethe Institute for something like 5 years–which was an eternity to us. But maybe because of that, Jorg didn’t want much to do with us and certainly didn’t want to get trapped into translating between our handlers and a bunch of dumb fresh-off-the-boat laowai. So we all sort of forced Pete into it. I think we even made Pete deliver a benedictory salutations on behalf of all us foreigners at the end of the weekend when we were all drunk and dancing wildly to Sha-na-na-na-na.
One of my strongest memories of that trip was one night all of us running down our favorite movies. I think mine was Star Wars and a girl from Quebec’s was La Strada. Pete’s was about a series of serial killers each more evil and supernatural than the last one. We were glued together after that.
We all piled back to Wuhan and we saw each other regularly over the course of the next few months in various situations, usually stuff organized by the two Brits at the Hubei Yike Daxue (Hubei Medical School)–Sarah and Nick. Sarah was from Ulster and was B’hai and had no hair and reminded everyone of Sinead O’Conner. She was serious about things, but not in any obnoxious way. She was still trying to figure things out–like the rest of us. Nick was a lanky Brit with a pinched face who was harmless and annoying. He had the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only laowai who ever came to China and was converted to religion, in this case B’hai.
I once heard something terrible that Nick’s father had been killed when a hotel room exploded in France.
At that time in China, we watched VCDs and we bought loads of music CDs with holes punched in them. It was the last year the cassette tape was useful. VCDs were so limited that a single movie would be spread across two or more VCDs. So we were always losing one of the pair in the huge pile that accumulated wherever a laowai lived.
It turned out that Pete was a writer–and quite a good one. This is one reason that today I find it hard to believe there is no trace of him on the internet. I figured that he would become a successful writer, particularly as he had a clear niche–sci fi / fantasy. He could easily have been the next George RR Martin, or Dan Simmons. He had the talent and the anti-socialism necessary to create outstanding art. And he most definitely was an artist. He had a great ear for music and a well developed sense of humor. He particularly liked the absurd, the satirical. He was a huge Simpsons fan. He turned me onto Lovecraft and Robert Howard.
Pete did strange things. One of his favorites was to ditch out on cab fares. Not because he needed to save the money, but because he liked the adrenaline rush of running through the alleys and finding a place to hide.
I never knew Pete to have a girlfriend. There at the beginning I recommended that he get one because he was clearly suffering from a toxic reaction to China. On a few occasions he became irrationally violent toward Chinese people. I once saw him smash through the glass a woman ticket taker on a public bus. On another famous occasion he assaulted a noodle seller in the wee hours of the morning in the Three Gorges and landed us at the police station where he had to write out and sign a confession and give the woman a few hundred RMB.
Pete didn’t make it through the entire academic year. He left in May. I remember seeing him off at the Wuhan train station. That was in 1999.
Though I kept up quite a correspondence with him over the intervening years, I did not see him again until March 2003 when I visited him in Atlanta. He had his own apartment in some sort of suburb–a subdivision of a suburb really. He was on leave of absence from a job at an insurance company. I believe he had assaulted a fellow employee.
I came to Atlanta on an overnight Greyhound bus from Washington DC. I had been accepted to Harvard graduate school and, as a consequence, I had just quit my job. It was also my birthday and it also happened to be the eve of the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
So while the rest of the world was glued to big media, Pete and I spent a weekend listening to The Swans, Rammstein, Psychic TV and Gypsy Kings. One of Pete’s favorite sayings was “bullet hole in the face of reality”. He used the phrase with relish. When we weren’t listing to music we were watching Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim–Sealab 2024 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The Tick too probably.
Sometimes we would tramp around the subdivision. The brown and orange trees were just budding a light green fuzz. The air was damp and cold. It’s the kind of place where you cross over a nicely-blacktopped curbed driveway to get to the bank of a stream where the water bounced over rocks and decaying vegetation.
We read aloud to one another pieces we’d written. His stuff was way better than mine. He was working on a pretty big sci fi book called Corridor Ultra. The ideas was fantastic–an infinite labyrinth whose walls and ceiling and floor are composed solely of gears moving at different speeds. Pete told me he dreamed the setting of Corridor Ultra. Yes I have googled “Corridor Ultra” (many times) and found nothing.
After the weekend was over, I left Atlanta and went to graduate school and subsequently got one more letter from Peter J Shelton before losing touch with him completely. In that letter he told me he was living in upstate New Jersey driving a delivery van of some kind. He didn’t mind it because he could listen to music all day long–death metal primarily.
There are some people you know you have karma with. And you always figure that somehow someway they will come back into your life through some trapdoor so long as you keep an eye out and make your own overtures now and again. Pete was one of those people for me. His influence still lays long on me somehow and I find myself thinking about him quite regularly, especially when I feel particularly misanthropic. Pete was the ultimate misanthrope who spent 4 years learning Chinese at university only to find out that he hated Chinese people even more than he hated everyone else.
But he was channeling something pure and it was that purity which attracted me to him and which made me believe that he would someday emerge back into my life. So this is my call to Pete Shelton–and to all of those of us back in Wuhan 1998-1999 who knew him–to get back in touch.
I know you are out there.