Harbin Diary Sept 17-18, 2011

September 17, 2011  Saturday

Today we organized our phones. We went to one of those enormous box-like buildings buzzing like an angry hive and housing endless small stalls with every conceivable saleable item in existence. Everything being sold was a pirated version and you had to keep your valuables under close watch because the pickpockets were out in force. We ended buying these cheap disposable phones for about 130 Yuan. I heard my Pa’s voice intoning solemnly in my mind like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father: you get what you pay for. We were in a bit of a bind because both of us possessed iPhones that would have to undergo jailbreak in order to function in China. That would take some time to organize, so in the meantime we needed some form of communication. Hence, the plastic toy-like cell phones. Then, I took Hammy to the Century Market to buy some necessities like soap, shampoo, towels, and slippers for the shower, underwear, etc. It was an average super market where prices where slightly more expensive, but at least every item was ticketed with a set price and scanned by the cashier. Hammy was tired of haggling and feeling like he was getting ripped off. It was draining. He was being overly fussy. It’s true that some prices were jacked up as soon as a vendor saw our faces, but it was also true that once they heard me speak Chinese, they backed off. If something was outrageous, I just sneered at them and the price dropped by half. Perhaps we were overcharged by a couple of kuai or the equivalent of thirty cents. I agreed with Hammy on the principle of the matter, but the fact is he bitched and moaned the same way back in the States. He was sapping my strength and draining my patience.

We got some coffee at McDonald’s afterward. The coffee was good even if the company was irritating. Along the way, we stopped at a za-shi dian. I love these little stores that can be found anywhere along the side streets of China and Taiwan. I say little, but in actuality they recede magically into the depths of the building and store all kinds of household goods. Hammy picked up some more things and lamented that we had not gone there first. The prices were very cheap, but they were also made very cheaply, as he would soon discover.

Back at Eve’s and Gabe’s apartment, Hammy lounged on the filthy, broken down couch while I worked on this diary. Then I did about 45 minutes of exercise. It felt good. My body needed a decent workout. This is the beginning. Later I went and got something to eat and fell asleep pretty early. They had invited us to go to Karaoke but I declined. Hammy went with them. I watched him leave with the herd and said nothing. I awoke about 2:30 AM. I should not have allowed myself to sleep so early. I did get some work done however. It is imperative that I have my own place I can see now, otherwise I will be at the mercy of these young drunks who crawl in at all hours of the night, pass out on the couch, and stink up the place with their besotted stench. That’s a little harsh, but it’s accurate. I really don’t mind being around young people. I was kind of an observer during such festivities back in college as well. Not that I didn’t indulge (and overindulge) in drink like every run of the mill university student. To the contrary, I drank, and drank with a purpose. I misguidedly thought I could channel the spirits of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Faulkner through my bacchanalian binges. Other than bits of bad poetry and lame lachrymose paragraphs bemoaning the fate of literature in America, all I got was horrible hangovers and some skinned knuckles. I think, however, these youthful ex-pats unconsciously dislike the fact that I am so different from them, my age, my values, the fact that I exercise and won’t drink with them nor agree to go to places that are lung-destroyers. The KTV—Karaoke TV—are generally rooms rented out to a party of people. Then, cases of beer or liquor are brought in along with some snacks and people belt out popular tunes. The air is green with smoke and I have never left a KTV without feeling absolutely polluted from the inside out. Life is tough enough without voluntarily sucking in all those fumes in a Karaoke bar. Sorry. Besides that, I can’t sing and when I have tried to participate a surly mood overtakes the partygoers and not just in our room either. Somehow my voice travels (teacher’s voice I reckon) into the other rooms, and soon the manager arrives with a black face making a not very polite suggestion that I refrain from using the mike and stick to consuming large amounts of alcohol.

I saw the look on their faces this morning, eyes cast downwards refusing to meet mine. They feel ashamed at their behavior, but I’m not judging them. Yet, I too refuse to be judged for wanting to be healthy. I will have to redouble my efforts. Hopefully, after we have enough pleasant experiences exercising and talking and traveling, they’ll understand me better. It’s good and useful to have friends that don’t drink. Someone has to drive or at least speak intelligible Mandarin to the taxi driver.

September 18, 2011              Sunday

The most significant event today was Hammy’s demonstration lesson. He had gone home after the KTV party and did some research on the IELTS test even though it was about 3:30 AM. That is Hammy. I knew that his OCD would compel him to excel. I went over to his place around 2 PM.

The morning had been rather slow for me and I felt disturbed because Mitch from Minnesota was still sleeping on the couch. At some point Eve woke and moved him into her room while she swept the place and gave it a once over. After a while, I felt fidgety and needed some coffee. Sadly, the best place I’ve found thus far is a MacDonald’s at the intersection of Xidazhi jie and Kangning Lu next to the Shiji Lianhua, the Century Market. I thought about going to the St. Sofia Church. But when I got back to Eve’s I saw that there wasn’t time. I sat and continued to download the classical piano music I had purchased on iTunes. It was a modest luxury, but I needed some Mozart and Beethoven to accompany me in China and drive out the raucous noises of the city and the guttural speech of its denizens. I was stupid for not having the foresight to organize my music files before I left.

On the way to Hammy’s place I saw an accident. This was a bad omen to me. Hammy was ready to teach. Eve, however, was late. When she arrived we took the 114 bus downtown near Zhongyang Da jie. The school was another slick operation on the sixth floor. There were about twenty college-age students. Hammy had prepared a PowerPoint to teach the students tips on the interviewing process. It was a smashing lesson—very focused and delivered in his usual jovial and silly manner. Hammy’s genius is his ability to remain tightly focused on the learning target while acting like a buffoon. Eve and I sat in the back and participated when called upon.

After the lesson was over, a young spare youth with a round face whose eyes shrank into his cheekbones and with a discernible British accent stayed after class to chat with us. He zeroed in on me and he continued to pursue me until we got outside the building. I began to feel very awkward with this intense youth. Hammy and Eve began to titter at my predicament. He was effeminate and this is what they were enjoying a chuckle over. My heart was divided. I felt sympathy for him, but the lesson was over and I was ravenous for dinner. I did not feel like sharing a meal with a doe-eyed youth who wanted to improve his language skills. I took his phone number and lied to him when I said I did not yet have a cell phone but that I would call straight away as soon as I did. I felt a pang of guilt as I walked quickly away and looked over my shoulder at his downcast face. He did not believe that I did not have a cell phone, for who in this day and age goes without one?

We walked briskly along the uneven pavement, enjoying the cool evening air. Eve had to leave us to teach her jiajiao. Hammy and I had to find our own way back. We found the bus stop, but Hammy did not want to get on the bus right away. There was a small park next to us so we went in there and watched the kids playing in the near dark, old men and women lolling about, and young lovers sitting on benches holding hands under dark shrubbery. One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese culture is that they regularly make use of their parks and gather in great numbers to share public space as if they were one enormous family. There is a qualitative difference between the way Americans use their parks and the manner in which the Chinese do. This is of course just my opinion. Perhaps it’s a result of the fact that the Chinese are so populous and have to learn to get along and share. They are thrown together, literally, in so many ways and in so many places. Perfect strangers become uncles or aunties or cousins. Even foreigners are absorbed into these impromptu family gatherings and can join in on the fun. I have had similar experiences back home, but there it was remarkable, and here the occurrence was quotidian.

I was brimming with genuine pride for Hammy. He was an overweight, unctuous, foul-mouthed Mexican-American with thinning hair. But he also possessed the gift of being able to teach. And it was because of this that I agreed to bring him to China to escape the hell that had become of his life. China could be a grand opportunity for him to reinvent himself. Thus far his shortcomings were aptly concealed amongst the hordes of Chinese and the ranks of foreigners; moreover, his stellar qualities enabled him to stick out like a diamond winking in the mud.

I reveled in this sensation of pride. Usually his character and rasquache mannerisms vex me sorely, so for me this was an extreme pleasure to finally be able to feel sincere joy for his success. We took some video of the park, but it was too dark and I was too hungry. We took the bus home and stopped in at the Lao Malamian and ordered some food. I tried the malamian soup and then ordered some pork-fried rice for Hammy. While we waited for our food I went and used their bathroom, the squat toilet kind. In the west, people sit on a porcelain chair to move their bowels. In the East, people squat down on their haunches over a porcelain hole in the floor. This narrow water closet was foul—yet amazingly enough not the worst I’ve used in my lifetime of traveling. I was, however, afraid to touch anything inside the dank, dark chamber of horror. Luckily, I only had to pass water. I thought for a moment that I should video this for the folks back home and I may yet do so. I hoped that Hammy would not need to use the restroom because he might flee the premises screaming in terror.

When the food came, the rice was too oily, swimming in a puddle of grease. I advised Hammy to skim off the top. The malamian—a red spicy soup of shredded beef and thick noodles with a few limp green leaves thrown in for decoration—was rather good however, so we may be back. We really have to force ourselves to eat at different places every night. I find that I cannot trust our fellow teachers as they seem to do what most humans do and that is find a place and haunt it until boredom drives them out to seek another place. I’d rather be adventurous every night and really hunt out some tasty dishes.

After we ate, we went to Eve’s apartment and hung out for a while. Then I took Hammy home since he was still unsure of the directions. It was exasperating because we did not find the damn bus stop. I had wanted to walk, but Hammy was adamant that we would not—exercise being anathema to him. We ended up having to walk some and this turned out to be a bitch since we kept walking northwest on Xidazhi jie and ended up trapped under the Kangdan Lu Bridge. We negotiated the deadly roundabout under the overpass and grabbed a taxi. This fellow was carrying a young male and was playing the game of trying to cram as many passengers as possible in his cab. We jumped in because we were so tired. I will say this for the cab driver: he did not try to rob us. We went out of our way by five minutes. Hammy got dropped off soon enough and I only had to suffer the indignity of picking up another couple and getting dropped off under the bridge again from where I jogged back home.

I spent a little time talking with Gabe and Eve until midnight and then went to sleep. Hammy and I had made plans to go to the bank and do a little sightseeing downtown for tomorrow.

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