An Empty Chair Interview with Dan

Thank you for joining me today, dear reader. This particular interview is somewhat different from the usual light-hearted sort you may be familiar with (if you are a regular reader, that is), and is also quite a difficult story to tell. But it is one that I feel needs to be told.

Today I am interviewing a very good friend of mine – my best friend in fact, who I first met during one of the loneliest periods in my life – Dan.

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The thing is though, Dan is no longer with us. I’ll get to the details of just what happened exactly (or rather the few details I am aware of), but first, let’s get to know the guy a little…

Dan, like me, was employed as an English teacher in Harbin, China. This was my first year in China, and it was a difficult one. I was struggling to find my feet in this strange new country, and it was thanks to him, in no small way that I found them.

Dan was an American chap. If you’ve met a few Americans before, then you’re probably familiar with the stereotype:

Americans are often loud and obnoxious; obsessed with themselves and their country’s place in the world, and they want everyone to know how great they are. To be fair, not all Americans are like that, but I’ve met enough who are.

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The first time I met Dan, I was tempted to judge him immediately as just another fucking American douche bag, but as I got to know him a bit more, I saw another side to the guy. Dan was certainly loud (the loudest in the room at any given time by far), but he was also humble in a way we can all learn from.

Dan never once judged another person, EVER. He was always welcoming to newcomers (like me) and treated them like a long-lost friend he hadn’t seen in years. He’d share his jokes and stories and accepted everyone for who they were, without exception.

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I was still a very shy sort of guy at the time, like a little turtle peeking out of his shell, and Dan really helped me to come out (no, not in that way).

I had never met such an open and genuine person before in my life. Dan was FULL of life and exuded love and happiness to everyone around him. There was never a dull moment in his company.

So I got to know the guy, but as I did, I found a darker side to him.

Dan was a deeply depressed individual, and I believe bi-polar. He had lived a tough life back home, and had come to China for a fresh start.

He was the sort of foreigner the country needed; not necessarily a great teacher (in fact he was fired shortly after I was hired by the company) but he immersed himself in the culture in a way that few foreigners ever do.

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Dan loved China and its people, and never once gave up an opportunity to get to know the locals on a personal level.

It was thanks to him that I got to know many wonderful Chinese people too.

There wasn’t a single person in the ex-pat (foreign) community who didn’t know Dan. Everyone loved his company, and he was everyone’s friend.

Dan and I had a game, ‘Drunk Game’ we called it. It wasn’t terribly original, but the goal was simple: we’d drink… and drink… and drink… until one of us eventually decided to call it quits, and the other was declared the winner. This game of ours regularly lasted into the early hours of the following morning, at which point we would call it a draw.

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I even briefly considered creating a pair of matching t-shirts with ‘Harbin Drunk-Game 2014’ emblazoned on the front. Regrettably I never did.

As our drunken adventures continued, Dan opened up more and more about his darker side. These were stories told in confidence, and not mine to tell, so I won’t out of respect for my friend. But I gained a new appreciation for him as a person given everything he had been through.

One theme in particular kept popping up – women. Dan never related well to women, and they often didn’t relate well to him either.

“They’re all pigs!” He once said to me.

I tried to correct him on this misdirected remark which he blurted out one particularly drink night, but given his history, I could see where it was coming from…

I don’t believe Dan was really sexist – he was just as friendly towards the lady-folk as he was towards the gents, and NEVER did he do anything untoward.

He just didn’t get them.

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I still remember clearly one night in which I held my friend’s hand as he sobbed and told me one of the most heart-breaking stories of betrayal I had ever heard in my life.

Dan deserved better.

He was a religious fellow who believed deeply that God resided in all things which expressed love, and he lived by that philosophy – loving everyone he came into contact with.

I only wish that other people had loved him the same way he loved them.

I’m not a religious person myself, but I believe Dan was a true gift from God, if ever there was one.


Inevitably I left Harbin for greener pastures (it really was a cold and miserable shit-hole of a city) and moved to Shanghai.

I kept in contact with Dan over the following couple of years, and told him he was always welcome to visit. I even offered him a couch to crash on. He seemed taken by the idea, and assured me that we would “wreck the town” just like we used to back in Harbin.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be…

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I received a message one day from a mutual friend that Dan had passed…

He was on his way back home to visit his folks and stopped by Shanghai (where his aunt and uncle apparently lived) on the way.

From what I understand, an argument ensued between him and his family, and Dan threw himself off a hotel balcony to a drop many stories below.

There are few things in life so awful as the loss of a loved-one, and I truly regarded Dan as my brother.

It was difficult to process his loss, and I’ll never know the true depths of the demons which plagued him, but the outpouring of love from his friends back in Harbin was remarkable!

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I regret that I wasn’t there for his symbolic funeral held by his Harbin friends.

Dan’s family, to their credit were present too, before taking his body back home.

I will never forget my last encounter with Dan as I shook his hand a few days before I left Harbin and told him I’d see him soon.

Had I known it would be the last time I ever saw him, I might have said something more sincere.

I often dream about having contacted him that same night he decided to end it all. Could I have made a difference? No doubt many of his friends wonder the same…

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Being as I can’t undo history, I’ve decided instead to speak to the ghost of my friend and say goodbye.

I sit down before the empty chair and speak to my friend one last time…

(The following is a transcript of the last few messages Dan and I exchanged, only my words have been edited.)

“Hey man, how’s it going?”

“Yeah James! What’s good?”

“Nothing much, just getting by in Shanghai.”

“Whoah cool, for how long? I’m home, it’s like coming back from the dead.”

(seriously, he said those exact words)

“Might see you there, stay in touch.”

“Where are you now?”

“Back in the Bin, you?”

“I’m planning to stay in Shanghai for a while.”

“Wicked good! You visited home? It’s like coming back from the dead.”

“I haven’t been back this year, but hopefully soon. How was your last trip home?”

“It was like coming back, seeing everybody, I hadn’t seen them in so long, and it was like, you know… it was just like a breath of fresh air coming back from the dead,
because like, yeah I hadn’t seen anybody in forever, and finally I came back to life seeing everybody… it’s like, you know, it was like a picture coming back to life,
coming back home, it was SO FUCKING COOL!”

“That sounds great, I hope you had fun. I really miss our old Drunk Game.”

“LOL Yeah! me too, James. Those times were so ridiculously fun. Nobody pulled off that shit like we did.”

“Do you think you might visit Shanghai soon?”

“Yeah, got an aunt and an uncle down there too still, got to visit, definitely find you sometime this year. James, how is everything? looking at your pic on the wall in that trivia team.”

“Yeah those were good times.”

“Hell yeah, what are you up to man? Fucking how the hell is Shanghai? Fuck! What the hell have you been doing?”

“Just getting by…”

“How long are you thinking about staying? Do you know where I am… I mean you know, besides Harbin, but you know seriously how long you thinking of staying there, it’s fucking cool!”

“I’m here for as long as it takes.”

“What job, what the hell are you up to… wait wait wait, no way…
I’m at a place where your picture is on the wall with the trivia team, hehehe, you know where that is.”

“Yeah man, I remember. I’m getting on with a pretty sweet gig right now, you?”

“Yeah me too, I’m also teaching VIPs, yeah you got that shit right… VIPs are the shiiiiiiit, they’re the best, I fucking love them, so much better than EF, holy fucking shiiiit snnnnnaps!!!”

“Yeah they’re alright, I guess.”

“Dude, so you doing good, you still together with Feriel, or what? how the, how the, how the, hell the, hell is Feriel? Yeah, I’m stuttering… I’m that guy. You know I’ve been drinking…”

I’m touched that he remembers Feriel, despite their odd relationship. She always thought he was a weird guy, as did most girls, but it’s nice to know he remembers.

“We’re doing pretty good man, how about you?”

“I’m doing fucking great! How the hell is Feriel, are you and Feriel good? are you good? Is everything good? Damn it it’s been a long time! Shit’s fucking good!”

There’s so much to say about the past few years which I’d love to share with my friend, but I of course need to keep it short.

“Everything is going great, buddy.”

“That’s fucking awesome, James. I’m watching ‘Demented Death Farm Massacre’, for the first time, what the fuck… Party on!”

“That sounds terrible…”

“Yes James, and I’ll tell you something, so far, this movie sucks ass from a straw, it fucking felches like pffffftttttssssssss… that bad so far, it’s like holy fucking shit snaps… That’s what it’s about…”

This is the last message I would ever receive from my friend, but I think it’s fitting… I’m sure he would have loved to know that his last movie-recommendation to me was the worst piece of garbage in history, and I have no doubt that he’s up there laughing at us idiots who watched it too (‘Demented Death Farm Massacre‘, seriously?) but that’s Dan in a nut-shell.

Dan, I want you to know just how much you meant to me as a friend, and I wish I was there for you like you were there for me.

I miss you.

I hope you find the love you deserved in the next life.

See you soon, my brother,

– Empty Chair Interviews