Harbin Diary Sept. 16, 2011

September 16, 2011              Friday

After I got up, Gabe accompanied me to the place where Hammy was staying. I could not remember exactly which apartment it was and neither could he. We ending up banging on several doors, but either no one answered or a raw Chinese voice told us to fuck off. I started shouting Hammy’s name up the sides of the building just as I did when I lived in NYC. Hammy did not hear us or he was not home or he was dead. Gabe and I gave up and decided to take a walk around the block. We bought some snacks at the street market, some 饼干and pork pieces. The cookies were all right, but the pork was kind of rancid. I am used to these wild markets where everything is on display in gory glory: live fish, whole chickens, pigs with heads and feet still attached or sold separately for your delight, chocolate bars sold right next to the latest styles of women’s lingerie right next to a guy stripping the guts out of a fish the length of a baseball bat. After drinking in the sights and smells, we meandered back to the apartment to try and get in.

Outside a young pretty Harbin girl with big brown eyes and a nice figure was batting a shuttlecock all by herself into the air. I was bored with trying to find Hammy so I indicated to her that I would like to play with her. It was tough going with the wind whipping down between the canyons created by the tall tenement buildings, but the air was brisk and the sun was warm, a perfect combo for exercise and fun. I mentioned to her that it would be nice to have a net and she said there was one right over there, pointing with her racket behind me. She escorted us over to the next set of apartment buildings and indeed there was an immaculate badminton court. We had a blast: she and I had several excellent volleys. I did not want Gabe to feel left out; moreover, this girl was about his age and it would be more appropriate for him to enjoy this exercise with her. He was glowing with joy at the opportunity. There is nothing on this planet as invigorating as taking exercise with a warm, smiling, pretty, young lady.

Gabe knocked the birdie on top of this rickety multi-colored gazebo. I started to climb the tin iron monstrosity to retrieve it, but jumped off when I saw that the damn thing was about to collapse under my weight. Nan, that was the name of sweet young lady, went to fetch another one as she became alarmed when she saw me begin to climb the delicate structure. She returned with a youth, slight in frame, grinning with a vapid glaze in his eyes. He was nice enough if a tad deficient in his metal faculties. I think that both of them were not the brightest of bulbs. For example, when I asked if they were uni students, she caviled and mumbled that she did not attend school. Then, she did not answer me directly when I asked her if she was still in high school. She merely said she was not studying. It was hard to guess her age, but she did not have the doe-like innocence of a middle school girl and seemed older, a young woman, maybe 18-20 years of age with some experience of the world. She was playing the mysterious young woman. Fine. I wasn’t looking for trouble.

I had great fun when we decided to get the birdie down from the gazebo. The replacement birdie was much too light to hit into the face of the gusty winds. So I hung from the tin eave while Gabe got under me. I placed my feet on his shoulders and then stood up and quickly crawled onto the top of the gazebo. Nan and her dim-witted friend stared wide-eyed, in shock. I found it and we continued playing to our heart’s content. Gabe thought that we might get in trouble for doing this, but I’m more of an ‘ask forgiveness’ type and less of an ‘ask permission’ type of guy. I told Nan that I would be living here soon and we could play whenever she had some free time. She cast a bright and sly smile at me as she bounced away down the alley. Hmm.

We finally collected Hammy and by that time Eve caught up with us. Gabe went off with Jimmy, the boy from Austin, Seth from Bristol, and David from NYC. Eve took Hammy and I to the police station so that we could register.

The three of us spent fruitless hours at the police station. We met up with Sophia, a pretty teacher of Korean and Chinese language, pretty but goddamned frigid. The two young ladies took us to a small dusty side shop to take passport-sized photos. Then, we walked down to the police station. Sophia literally had the run of the place. They allowed us to walk in and use their computers. I assume that her shapely body and flashing almond eyes had something to do with the deference that the officers showed her. There was no explanation for this macabre behavior. She was just a young chippie and this was an official police station, rundown and unkempt, but still a 公安局. When I asked how this Sophia had access to an official computer, Eve just replied with an enigmatic, “Uhn.” After a few hours cooling our heels in this smoky dingy cop station, we finally gave up. There was an unnamed problem with the computers, our visas, or God only knew what. Again, zero explanation.

Later I had to teach a demo lesson at the New Oriental School to three young adults all female, all cute, all hardworking students. We figured out later that this so-called demo lesson was just a way for our boss to squeeze an extra free class out of us, as no one came to observe us during these demos. We arrived at the lesson late because the host in the foyer told us that this particular demo lesson was at another branch. We walked back to find Eve and tell her. We ran into her and Lorelei, another manager, coming back from shopping. Eve got on the phone right away, barking in her thick Harbin accent. She confirmed that the lesson had been scheduled correctly and that the host had made a mistake. It was cause for some embarrassment. I made a mental excuse for the lack of organization.

The students were pretty good though; they did need practice with free conversation, however. I had to teach a lesson on ‘going to the dry cleaners.’ It was painfully dull, and I tried to interject some life into this piece of deadwood. Hammy sat in the back of the class looking bored, occasionally offering up some tidbit of his lower-class Mexican-American ‘rascuache’ wisdom. After the lesson was over, one of the young college girls gave me a present. It was a sweet gesture and I was touched. She gave me two bottles of the special yogurt drink that her agricultural college makes.

After the lesson, Hammy and I went to get some dinner. We had a spat because he did not want to share the meal with me. He was disgusted by the Chinese manner of eating food. They bring out large plates and everyone fills their little bowls from those plates with their chopsticks. He felt this was tantamount to double-dipping. He had no qualms eating with his fingers however, which I could not help but point out to him, honey-tongued bastard that I am.

We returned to Eve’s apartment and hung out with her, Gabe, Lorelei, and Seth. They were having an impromptu picnic inside Eve’s room. The conversation was desultory and I had trouble staying awake. By the time Mitch arrived—a tall, shaggy Minnesotan with an overbearing manner as obtrusive as the hooked nose on his triangular face—I was ready to crash. After he and I exchanged a few slightly vitriolic volleys, he and Gabe left to drink at a bar. Hammy left with the others to return to their apartment. Eve and I were left alone.

We had a chance to have an intimate discussion. This was the kind of conversation that occurs when two people are left alone in a confined space. Even though we were complete strangers, we quickly started pouring out our guts, dragging out skeletons from the closet, and dredging up the painful past. Both of us became teary eyed as we shared details of our lives, our dreams, and our hopes for a better life than the one we were presently living. I felt my heart swell with a deep respectful love for this young hard-working woman. She had accepted this difficult position as Foreign Teacher Manager in hopes of improving her English and moving onto a better-paying job, willing to suffer the indignation heaped on her frazzled head by teacher and superior alike. I promised to help her with her TEM-8 exam, a Test for English Majors, a promise I will keep con todo gusto. Jetlag eventually made my head swim and I fell onto my bed into a heavy, dreamless slumber.

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