Harbin Diary Sept. 19, 2011

September 19, 2011              Monday

I woke up early and began organizing my life, tidying up, creating a budget, writing down appointments, and making a list of necessary things (essentials like a soccer ball and a pair of nunchaku). I tried to download my newly purchased classical music but the Great Firewall of China was making the download time interminable. I left it while I went to take a shower. When I got out I had missed an urgent phone call and two text messages from Hammy. He had tried to take the #114 bus to Eve’s apartment and had gotten lost. I called him immediately, but the connection was horrendous (you get what you pay for). Something wrong with his phone, I thought. I got him calm enough to understand that he should head back to the Green School, the nickname for the New Oriental School on Xida Zhijie and Hexing Sandao Jie. I hustled to get my clothes on and shut down my computer. Hammy was less than patient and kept texting me over and over: Where are you? I wrote him to please wait: I was naked and wet and had to get dressed. Then, literally a few minutes later he was banging on the door. It flashed through my mind: it was Hammy and he was playing one of his infernal mind games. He got tired of waiting for me and decided to try to find the apartment on his own, which he did. Without a problem. In only a few minutes.

All that drama for nothing.

I opened the metal door and there he was. “So you found the apartment after all?”

“Yup,” he said and plopped down on the couch. I was a little incredulous. Rusty nails were scraping down my mental chalkboard. I went back in my room and got ready to leave.

Hammy wanted to take a bus downtown to do some sightseeing, but first he wanted to organize our bank accounts. He was very adamant about not carrying all of his savings in his backpack any longer. I told him that we could surely find a bank downtown in the city center and not to worry. I suggested we take a cab, but he persisted in wanting to take a bus. We spent (well…I spent) 15 minutes trying to talk to one of the locals and getting the right bus information. I knew that it was a mistake to try to ask someone. Chinese people feel ashamed if they don’t know something and then they will either lie to save face or put themselves through hell trying to solve the problem. And the latter is exactly what happened. This poor woman began ringing friends and family and bugging other Harbiners at the bus stop for the information. I told her that it was okay and we mercifully walked away.

Firmly, I told Abraham that we were taking a taxi. He was loath to spend the money. I told him that I would pay. This is very much like our relationship back home. He takes pride in being what he calls rasquache and wants to do everything as cheaply as possible. I had no desire to spend an hour on the bus during traffic hour. It cost 18 kuai (less than three dollars) and along the way I spoke to the driver whose Chinese was very clear and understandable, not muffled by the thick northern accent which ends every other syllable with a harsh sounding ‘arrh.’ The driver said, despite the lack of this accent, that he was in fact a Harbin man born and bred, tu sheng tu zhang土生土长. He was middle aged, balding, with a small round skull, tiny ears plastered flat against his temples which sandwiched his beady eyes. He had age spots speckled over his skin, but other than that he looked pretty damn hardy.

At first he gave me the party line about how great China was and how evil America was. I cut him short. I just have no more patience for that kind of fish bait. I told him that wasn’t exactly true: he was laobaixing and I was laobaixing. Did he really think that his government—or mine—or any government for that matter, gave a dry mouse turd about us commoners? Furthermore, guys like us, we worked our fingers to the bone to feed our kids and care for our wives; we just lived day by day. The fat cats and the political bootlickers take advantage of that and suck up all of the resources. That put him back on his heels for a second and he literally shifted over in his seat to look at me from a greater distance. I had to remind him to watch the road. An angelic expression came over his face and his thin lips smiled broadly with surprised pleasure.

Shi! Shi! Dique shi zheyang’er!” It is! It is! It’s just so!

And his voice changed from a stilted robotic tone to a warm, personable one. We chatted about American politics, how America’s wars were bankrupting the country, and how China still had a long road to travel in terms of a decent life for each of its citizens, especially in terms of the environment. I of course cursed the two Bushes and denigrated the weak hand of the present Obama administration.

I may be imagining things, but I felt that Hammy was burning up that he was left out of the conversation. He was probably just playing on his iPhone. Abraham is an egotist; it’s one of the traits I most loathe in him: he cannot stand it when he’s not the center of attention. I had hoped that by bringing him to China he could see how desperately other people live and then he might grow a conscience. He has one, but it is nascent and inchoate. His bloated ego has shoved the poor little starving thing to one corner of his brain. It’s an amazing and curious dance that his psyche does: he’s an incredible teacher, but he’s also one of the hugest narcissists I have ever encountered. Not that the two drives are antithetical, but it’s rare to find a good teacher who can foster learning and also be that self-centered. The narcissist teachers I’ve met are too busy preening about their knowledge to care much about the quality of learning occurring in their classroom; they might push their students to achieve, but not nurture them. I think that the strain of the two divergent drives is behind the breakdown he suffered back home. I am not a psychiatrist, however. In any event, it was really enjoyable chatting with the driver and I felt as if some floodgate had been opened in my mind; language poured forth in gushing waves. I think that since this man was so easily understandable and clear it made something click in my mind.

We arrived at the St. Sophia Church. It was a spectacular red brick structure standing proudly at one end of the broad square, its green onion dome soaring strongly into the blue sky. Before we went to get new bank accounts we took a quick spin around the Church and shot some video. On the way out, Hammy spotted some souvenirs that he was interested in. This frustrates me. I pay for the taxi to get us here because he is unwilling to foot that bill, but has no qualms dropping money on tourist fodder like gaudy knives and crap like that. He was looking for Chinese bling-bling. The two young merchants were playing with jianzi, kind of a Chinese hacky sack, a hard metal hemisphere weighted down with several thin metal discs and plumes of feathers radiating from the nucleus. I have played this game before and it’s not unlike juggling with a soccer ball. I knocked it around for a little bit with these two guys while Hammy and other Chinese people looked on. It’s always a sight when a foreigner does something quintessentially Chinese. I love activity. I love sports. I love the pleasure of the body in movement. In this, I am an egoist—note the difference from egotist please. In simple terms, the former is the fountain for human endeavor and the latter is a source of neurosis.

We walked down to the Bank of China where I asked the manager to help us set up accounts. She was a woman of medium height with a very pretty round face and wore contact lenses that gave her eyes a scintillating grey-green look like malachite. She was slightly heavy, only just so, and still had quite a curvaceous figure. I could not suppress a flash of appreciation and she saw that light in my eyes. It was not unwelcome and she smiled coyly. She was probably just glad that I spoke Chinese and she wouldn’t have to fuss over getting a translator. Her English was precise, but limited. In no time at all we had bankcards and a new account. To use the Bank of China was no charge in Harbin, whether to use ATM or the counter services. Outside of Harbin, we would be charged one one hundredth, not to exceed 50 kuai, so no more than $8 USD. I think it was fine. Hammy was happy now and I rudely pointed out that he ought to be thankful.

“Yeah, four days late,” was his response.

This is the way we are. We cannot really stand one another, but here we are. Hammy does not yet know how to be a good friend. I am suddenly filled with foreboding. I should terminate our relationship as quickly as possible. I feel that I have fulfilled my duty to him. I wanted to help him get out of the pit he was in and provide him with the means to return to teaching and a decent life. But we cannot really live together. He knows he can trust me, but we will always bicker and nag at one another. I am course and rude in my responses to him, which he naturally resents. I am easily irritated by his low manner and crude humor. I know that I should be more patient and gentle, but this is difficult for me just as it is difficult for him to not be ‘rasquache.’ But even though I am a cantankerous bastard at times, I will also be true and loyal to him. So I am good for him during a crisis, but miserable for daily living. That is the bane of my existence. I have always been a great friend during times of need, but I am hell to get on with. I know. Believe me I know. So I usually banish myself from the company of my associates to spare them my gloomy and stormy moods.

I loved visiting the Russian Church even though it had been scrubbed clean of any trace of spirituality—sort of like a glorious human body whose organs have been removed by a vivisectionist and replaced with an assortment of clockwork gears and shafts and spindles: it was interesting but incongruous. The inside had been converted into a photo museum that chronicled the earlier periods of the city. It was amazing to see the numerous Russians and local Chinese captured in black and white. They had several photos of Russian call girls for lack of a better word. They were actually quite beautiful with striking looks, some haughty and brazen, others sad and hollow. The photos of the local Chinese also were interesting. There was not much translation so I imagine it was difficult for Abraham to fully enjoy and it was fatiguing to translate all of the captions. Moreover, I was frustrated because I did not understand all of the characters, although I got the basic gist. It would be nice to get some character recognition software for my iPhone.

In the Church, Hammy spied two foreigners and said they were Americans. I said they weren’t. I petulantly challenged him to ask since he was always bugging me to ask people in the street for this and that. God punished me right away as the elderly couple was starving to speak English. We must have spent at least an hour chatting about China, traveling, and family, you name it. Chris and Sandra were their names and they were British. Hammy went into narrative mode, describing his first experiences teaching in China, how shocked he was that several of his students evinced a British accent. From there we split into two dialogues, Hammy chatted with Chris and I with Sandra. It was very funny because I saw how the two dialogues (which really consisted of four monologues at times) broke off and one pair would look beseechingly at the other pair for an end to the encounter, but as one side ebbed, the other pair flowed until finally I just refused to speak any longer and gazed as placidly and innocently as I could at Chris to put an end to it. Sandra was grateful, as I am sure she did not relish my political and economic diatribes. I am aware that I am an irritating gadfly for pointing out to the wealthy how their largesse is derived from the gross exploitation of those less fortunate. For my part, I was less than enthused about her opinions on her sons and on Chinese cuisine. They were nice enough in that reserved, urbane British sort of way. Lately, I notice how people always seem to look away from me as if I bore some horrendous and awful-looking scar on my face: the mark of Cain? Hmm.

We finished looking around the Church and then I needed a shot of coffee to brace my flagging energy. We found it in a MacDonald’s some way down on Zhaolin Jie. I had also stopped in a KFC to use the bathroom while Hammy stood lusting at the picture menu. To my dismay, he spied the entrance to an underground shopping mall. Even though I warned him that those clothes would be pricey being located downtown in a tourist area, he insisted on wanting to try to buy some jeans. The busy hive of illicit trade that takes place in buildings all over the city (all over the nation) also occurs in the underground footpaths that allow pedestrians to avoid the occasionally deadly boulevards. Vendors cram their wares into narrow little lean-tos, each stall separated by only a sheet and some piping. If a fire were ever to break out, I imagine that most would people would not escape being crushed to death in the mad panic to evacuate, to say nothing of the flames and smoke. In such a place, there are of course no changing rooms. The proprietor, man or woman, holds up a sheet while the prospective buyer—large Abraham in this case—sheds his pants and tries on the garment. Hammy reacted with indignant shock at shucking his pants in public, but ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ I walked away to explore the colorful maze while he carried on about his large legs, his tightie-whities, and whatnot.

Eventually we made our way out of there and over to Stalin Park. Hammy remarked several times about my rude speech. I was indeed very curt with him. I did not curse him, but I spoke very brusquely as if I were upbraiding a child. That is just it: with him I feel like I am baby-sitting rather than sharing time with a friend. I really have to try to be better.  He doesn’t know the country and in fact has never been out of the States except to visit TJ. I can’t get worked up like when he talks to touts after I warned him not to even look in their direction. He stated that he had never been approached by a tout in his whole life and that he was curious. I was a little dumbfounded at that. My hands were clenching and unclenching.

I sighed and apologized, reiterating that he knew my manner was sometimes intolerable, but that in other things I was sterling and in the future I really would try to moderate my speech. It did not last long I will tell you. Abraham irks me. The worst of it came—and I have to say in my defense that I really was being pretty good even as my blood boiled in my veins and cooked my anti-commercial heart—when we chanced upon a colossal Wal-Mart on Youyi Lu—Friendship Road, ironically enough. He wanted to scratch things off his list of necessities. I knew that I would have to be patient with him in this. Few people are as Spartan as I am. He needed to buy things that he felt were indispensable for his stay in Harbin; these things would comfort and console and ease the burden of living under a lower standard of living. I refused to buy anything as I boycott Wal-Mart because of their despicable record regarding the exploitation of their domestic and international labor force. He ended up buying quite a number of things: an ironing board, an iron, more hair gel for his quickly vanishing strands of hair on the top of his bulbous head, Coke Zero, and body wash, among other things.

There was no way in hell I was going to clamber aboard a bus with all of this stuff—he allowed me the honor of carrying the ironing board as he was weighed down with the rest of his purchases. It took a while before a cab finally pulled over. The driver was a thin young man with a horse face and large teeth. He was affronted when I offered to show him a map and he declared with exaggerated pride that as long as I told him where to go, he could find it. But after a few minutes, we started talking and his demeanor changed radically. We entered into a warm dialogue (two intermittently connecting monologues). I had some trouble following him as his northern accent was very strong and he used some words I was not familiar with, but we understand each other enough that the talk flowed almost uninterruptedly for the entire trip. This fellow was not so charmed by our talk, however, that he forgot to use his horn and leaned on it frequently. In the States, only extremely rude people blare their horn. Here it is commonplace and seems quite acceptable and even necessary as pedestrians are either suicidal or oblivious, wandering into the midst of heavy traffic as casually as picnic goers on a Sunday stroll.

Again Hammy let me foot the bill for the taxi. It came out to 15 kuai. The cabdriver so thoroughly enjoyed our conversation that he not only did not tack on the extra kuai that they usually do at the end of a trip, but took off one kuai. These conversations with the drivers were no small consolation to me. We took the stuff up to Hammy’s apartment. I said hello and goodbye to Jimmy and Seth because I wanted to go downstairs and get some exercise in the little park out front. I told Hammy to come and fetch me in a short while. I performed some gymnastic moves on the equipment outside: it was a brief but extremely vigorous workout. It felt great to stretch my legs so deeply. The previous day’s workout had left me sore and walking about downtown had also stiffened my muscles further.

Hammy actually came downstairs rather quickly and sat observing me, puffing on yet another cigarette. Petulantly I asked why he didn’t video me while I was working out. I didn’t really want him to, but I said that to point out to him that he was so self-absorbed that he had yet to video me doing anything whereas I had already taped him at various junctures in our sojourn. Almost all of our video has him in it and none of me. I am the unseen eye.

Does it matter to me? It must on some level, and it is really childish of me to carp about it. To be adult about it, I should directly tell him to video this or that. Instead I immaturely carp about it. I am aware of my behavior, but I’m struggling trying to modify it. It seems like Hammy always wants the world to give him suck from her teat. I’m not so inclined, but when I’m around him I catch myself feeling imaginary nicks and cuts to my ego. It’s bizarre. Around other friends, there is this joyful obliviousness, an absence of the monkey chattering in the back of my mind. Around him, that damnable monkey is howling and hooting, rattling my conscience and threatening to hammer out of my head like a simian Athena. We walked back to Eve’s and I grew very tired after being with him all day. To add insult to injury, I was irritated to hear Gabe and Eve burst out with raw laughter at his shenanigans. But it has always been this way with Hammy. He is not without charm, but his charm is a distinctly blue collar one, pandering to the lowest common denominator. He is the cuddly pig that points out to the rest of the farm animals how delicious it is to wallow in filth. I would like to see them throw off their yokes and leave the filth behind. Good luck with that, I know.

Hammy smokes menthol cigarettes of all things. Bad enough that he smokes, but he smokes these sickly sweet things that truly wreak havoc on the lungs. And he insisted that Eve try them. I was stunned and warned her not to, but he persisted. It infuriated me that he was spreading poison. Christ, one should try to minimize the death and unnecessary suffering, not increase it. But I realize now that this is a lost cause with these fellows. I have to go my own way. They like this vegetative life; look how they live in their apartment: it is truly a pigsty. Later Hammy told me how Eve snuck off to try the cigarettes fearing my condemnation. He watched me carefully as he said this, observing my reaction. I told her the next day not to lie. She said that it was out of respect for me that she lied. I said respect doesn’t involve deception. Better she just be honest and state her choice. I will respect it. I may not agree, but in the end, everyone must make his/her own choices in life, hopefully after being well informed of the consequences.

That evening I could not bear to listen to Hammy’s asinine jokes and went to sleep. Gabe and Eve could not understand why I didn’t just hang out, but I tersely remarked: nine years! Nine years was a long time to know Abraham. Perhaps too long. In the distance, I heard the dark rolling peals of thunder. Hephaestus was on the horizon working on his anvils. Thank you Lord for the melodramatic sounds effects. Ah!

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