Harbin Diary Sept. 15, 2011

September 15, 2011  Thursday

This diary should have detailed my experience getting an English teaching job in Harbin while I was still Stateside. Moreover, it should have included those events when we knew that we were indeed going to end up in Harbin. The experiences of sorting out our plane tickets and passports and visas and health exams were as illuminating as they were frustrating. But, not to put too fine a point on these things, we interviewed, accepted the job offer in Harbin, China—one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet—and organized the steps necessary to put our American shoes on Chinese soil.

Our flight was nondescript and uneventful. Hammy (short for Abraham), my colleague from SoCal, seemed to go in and out of sleep. I only dozed off very, very briefly and spent the first part of the flight reading and taking notes for my Z project—a book about the American Drug War seen through the skewed lenses of a zombie apocalypse. Yes, I know: it sounds awful; however, the book has morphed beyond sophomoric zombie horror and instead makes use of a wild cannibal outbreak as an analogy for the destructive and senseless War on Drugs. I am searching for something with this project, and as soon as I have discovered it, I promise to make it public.

The woman seated next to me jabbered at me for the rest of the time. She had limp red hair and a fine network of wrinkles lifting the surface of her waxen skin around her eyes, mouth, and forehead. The whites of her eyes were yellowed and pulpy with middle age, but her teeth had recently been whitened. It was an odd contrast. I have a bad habit of scrutinizing people’s physical features when I talk to them. It doesn’t matter if they are homely or comely. I assume that people do the same with me. Airplanes, therefore, are horrible for me. You are thrust next to a stranger for a prolonged period of time, examined under a microscope, with nowhere to hide. I always sit in an aisle seat and hide out as much as possible near the flight attendant station. On this flight, however, I was trying to get some writing done. Wishful thinking. She was nice enough though, middle class, and mildly interesting. She worked for Universal studios preparing environmental packages that should be implemented by Universal’s overseas partners. Her husband worked in film, designing the special scaffolds utilized by the cameramen. She was sweet and gave me her business card. Of course, being the rabble that I am, I had none to offer her.

In Beijing, there was an endless line at customs; consequently, we ended up missing our flight onto Harbin and had to take a much later flight. This, after I pleaded (in Chinese) with the custom officer to let us through. He smiled, the bastard, and said it would only take twenty minutes to process the paperwork: not to worry; very fast. Ninety minutes later we were still in line. It was a minor hell that Hammy was determined to make a major one. His only concern was finding a place to smoke a cigarette.

Finally, we arrived in Harbin Airport. It was midnight. Eve, one of the staff members for Cambridge, was waiting for us. She was a young pretty sweet girl who just finished college and decided to work with Cambridge as a kind of HR manager. Poor thing was waiting for over three hours. We stowed our bags in the belly of the airport bus and then climbed aboard. The bus barreled through the night, illuminating dark stands of leafless trees, broken safety railings, trash, and large green traffic signs written in Chinese and Pinyin English. To my colleague from America, it resembled TJ—Tijuana. I made a smart aleck comment to the contrary: Tijuana is a decadent city overrun by drug lords. Harbin is the home of the spectacular Ice and Snow festival. In my mind, however, I was making another unfavorable comparison: the first time I visited New Delhi. Gratefully, the uninspiring landscape was not accompanied by the stench of burning trash.

We got another shock when we finally got into the city center: our apartment was not ready! And we would be separated for fifteen days until Seth, another foreign teacher, went home to England. In addition, we would not have our own apartment as promised: we would be living with an American, Jimmy. At first I thought this would be okay as I had spoken with him through Skype and he seemed like a good kid. He said he was interested in practicing martial arts and I thought I might have a training partner. But then, when he greeted us at the gate to the apartment complex, he had a cigarette in his hand. The apartment was less inspiring than the landscape from the airport. Seth popped his head out of his room and said hello with a strong London accent. I told Hammy to stay here with the two English-speaking teachers. He looked at me with sad puppy dog eyes as I was leaving.

I went to stay at the apartment where Eve lives. There I met Gabe, another Englishman, jovial, young, and easy-going. He was medium height with a slender build and bright blonde hair. He had an open, honest face and spoke with a SW English accent pronouncing his ‘ths’ as an ‘f.’ “I ‘fink’ you have to register at the police station as soon as you arrive.” We chatted for an hour or so after I put my stuff away in the extra bedroom. Living here with them might not be so bad were it not for the strange bulge in the middle of the living room as if an enormous butt-cheek were straining to push through the wooden slats in the floor. That, and the general lack of tidiness; but then again, I am a neat freak. Tomorrow we indeed must register at the police station. Sleep.

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