Harbin Diary Sept. 20, 2011

September 20, 2011              Tuesday

Yesterday I got up and worked on this diary. Then I ran around HaShiDa, Harbin Normal University, for forty minutes. It wasn’t bad, but certainly not ideal.  There was a lot of construction on the backstretch and the air was green with dust. I’ll have to buy a mask for sure so I can keep up with my exercise routines without turning my lungs black. In other health related matters, Hammy and I found a restaurant that did not absolutely drown their food in oil. We’ll return and request them to lighten up on the use of oil. Consuming so much oil cannot be good for one’s weight or one’s heart.

We met with Grace, the director of the program, at noon—High Noon. She did not blink I will tell you. Grace is a pig-faced woman of average height and above average girth. Her eyes are piercing black fathomless pools. She has a round moon-pie face and full lips–not sexy Angelina Jolie lips, more like chubby Bette Midler lips. Her hair is done up in a round bun, a fairly unflattering style. She would look better with shoulder length hair, but she may very well desire to conjure up the image of an evil monk wearing a woman’s wig. She began speaking in English, but soon switched to Chinese, which was fine with me. She spoke with a very clear Mandarin accent, but I find that educated Harbiners can switch in the blink of an eye into the fast, course, and cold river that is the northern accent when speaking with each other. The meeting began with apologies on her part for not greeting us at the airport and for not meeting us sooner to address our concerns. As if. This woman has money and she may even have some political power. She would not stoop to an airport pickup. That’s reserved for flunkeys. We exchanged the normal pleasantries: welcome, hope you are happy, we love Harbin, people are warm and friendly etc etc ad nauseam. Hammy and I sang Eve’s praises of course and these elegiac comments are well deserved as was the condemnation that I levied against our living conditions which are nothing short of deplorable, disgusting, and bordering on the diabolical. We may have to call a priest to exorcize the dirt that infests Hammy’s apartment. Perhaps a priest is not enough; may have to call the Pope himself.

Strangely, she acquiesced to our respectful demands. I proposed that Hammy and I stay where we are, but that upon Seth’s departure I hire a few workers to come in and under my strict supervision give the place a complete boiling over. She said yes after barking at Eve as if it were her fault, which I did not like. After this brief colloquy, Grace whisked us away in her large and immaculate SUV (as sure a mark of affluence as would be a golden ruby-studded tiara perched on her head) to a hot-pot restaurant of allegedly high caliber. The food was quite good as far as hot pot goes. Hammy really loved it however, and I was glad for that. They were all endeared with his cute and comical mannerisms. Grace quickly lost interest in us and most of the conversation centered around watching Hammy manage his chopsticks as best as he could with the slippery items swimming around the hot pot soup.

Grace took us home and Hammy and I went to prepare for our afternoon lessons. This devolved into a noisy scene during which I felt I had to have it out with Abraham. His rude manner had become intolerable. I did not have time—scratch that—I rather had spent my time writing and exercising than preparing for these lessons. He poked fun at me in front of two other teachers, Gabe and David the balding New Yorker. After they left, we had a battle royal. Hammy—rightly enough—accused me of always being in a monstrous mood, speaking tersely and as if I were talking to a child instead of an adult. I countered that I was sick of being the butt of his many crude and raw jokes and that he was a massive ego. Hammy was able to keep his cool and he upbraided me several times for raising my voice, which I begrudgingly acknowledged. Of course, it’s immaturity on my part. I should be equanimous and impassive, but I am an incorrigible hothead. It pisses me off when he physically challenges me; he knows that I will not raise my hand because if I did I would beat him like a red-haired step-child in a black family. He has never been in a fight and is of course horribly out of shape. The idea of soiling my hand against his puffy face is odious to me. Yet, he eggs me on and puts his nose within an inch of mine and tells me he is not afraid of me, to ‘bring it on.’ It’s tempting to hit such a large and perfect target with a sharp palm strike to his throat followed by a quick strike to the groin, after which I grasp him firmly and throw him to the ground, post on his padded chest, and pummel him into oblivion. It would be easy, deliciously easy.

But I cannot do that.

What kind of human being would I be? One should not strike one’s fellow brother in anger. I was heated up then. But I was able to keep my voice level and we discussed our grievances, reaffirmed our loyalty to one another, promised to work on our individual peccadilloes so as not to irritate the other, and shared a brotherly hug with a few slaps on the back thrown in. When all is said and done, we only have each other.

Afterwards, we experienced the crucible of fire at the Green School. The Green School is a monstrous edifice designed like something in 50s or 60s bureaucratic communist party style. The hideous pale green color aside, the New Oriental School is a slick operation.  There are adverts everywhere with handsome and gorgeous male and female teachers glowing with exuberant vitality, gazing coolly from the walls like the paintings in Harry Potter, slightly unnerving. A not insubstantial CV is posted beneath these Chinese Venuses and Adonises. Parents are thoroughly assured that their children’s education is in the capable hands of China’s best and brightest and, not incidentally, some of China’s best looking. After we checked in with the hostess (imagine a school with a fulltime hostess as if one were entering a law office or better yet a Hollywood casting office), we went to our assignments. From my previous demo lesson, I knew that the floors were divided into common rooms and VIP rooms. The VIP rooms were kipped up with technology—projectors, adult-sized chairs and desks, a short podium, and of course the ubiquitous white board. We would not be in the VIP rooms this afternoon. We were sent to the common rooms, the equivalent of being sent to a Russian mine in Siberia.

The rooms were large enough if there were only eight or perhaps ten students. But Hammy would end up with thirteen to fourteen students and I with eighteen to nineteen. And none were older than seven. They were a wild, unruly bunch, a pack of wolf cubs, itching to stretch their limbs after being cooped up all day in school at a cramped desk reciting their lessons. Did they mean to torture us? Not at all. They were not to blame. The school administration and lack of curriculum and lack of coordination between primary teacher and foreign language coach was to blame. The children were the unwitting guinea pigs in a demented experiment that crossbred capitalism and education.

The primary teacher charged with my crew of miniature demons spoke English competently enough although with a heavy accent. She asked me to teach two pages of lessons covering ‘My Day,’ essentially basic phrases about what one does in the morning upon waking and then a few sentences about the afternoon. I reviewed the first page and looked up. She was gone. Bamf! I imagined tendrils of smoking curling into the air. Okay, I’m on my own. I tried to corral the little broncos and get them to repeat the short phrases and vocabulary words, but they were dead set on screaming at the top of their lungs and racing around from desk to desk. Some of the parents looked on sheepishly, some looked on suspiciously. I looked on with dread.

In Taiwan, I once or twice ran into such circumstances and, not being under contract, I left promptly to find schools that actually held themselves accountable for the education of their students. In the Montessori school in which I taught, the children were amazingly competent, fluent, little problem-solvers. Children can learn foreign languages quite easily enough, but under these circumstances the best one could hope for would be tantamount to puncturing a can of spray paint and lobbing it into a room and hoping the explosion reached the corners. In this case, the can of paint merely fizzled. Poor Hammy was without Mandarin language skills. At least I could bark and beg in Chinese at the roiling herd to quiet down and to please listen to my directions. Listening to a foreigner did not frighten them in the least. It merely elicited peals of laughter and comments that they didn’t understand what I was saying. Perhaps if I were tall and possessed a large barbarous red beard, I would instill in them enough fear to settle them down and then could begin to teach. I was searching to find some object or comment to hook their attention long enough to complete the lesson. In Chinese I told them to repeat my words, but only about a third complied. I pantomimed the actions, but this only created more chaos although some did follow along. Finally after thirty minutes of this brutality, the teacher returned and I told her in no uncertain terms that she needed to help bring some order into the classroom. She had two set phrases in English that the students had drilled into them that commanded quiet. She would say, “You, me, good?” and flash her thumbs up. The students would respond with “one, two, three” and fold their twig-like arms over their small chests. Another was “Attention!” after which the children would snap their bodies straight and shout, “One , two!” and gaze stonily into the distance for a moment.

But only for a moment. The pull of entropy was too much for this modicum of drilled order, and the children returned quickly to chaos. The best we were able to do was play a few games that required patterned repetition as, for example, when the children ran singly to the board and smashed a vocabulary word with a toy hammer or jumped in groups of two over laminated pictures of the vocabulary words. Earlier, Hammy had made a PowerPoint with several interactive games that would enable the children to practice vocabulary and have fun. That PowerPoint was languishing on my laptop, sitting on the window sill. Afterwards I gave it to the teacher along with the few descriptions of games I had found online. I told her that if we could at least get the content one day ahead of time, we would be able to plan a great lesson. But the nature of this beast really wasn’t designed for coordinated curriculums. The foreigners were poorly used resources, mostly show ponies to placate the parents and prove that their children were indeed learning standard English and not some skewed Chinese approximation.

After class was over, Hammy felt ready to return to America, but I thought to myself: return to what? What did he have to look forward to? A job at a Wal-Mart or at a gas station or backbreaking work at a landscaping company? Teachers were getting laid off right and left, all over the country. For the past two years, while waiting for an assignment to open up somewhere in my old district, I was humping across Texas scrubland, chopping cedar–backbreaking work. Even as fit as I am, I realized I could no longer perform such manual labor at a pace in which I could make my boss content. As strong as I was, I would fall down the proverbial mineshaft and never be heard from again. No, we would have to tough it out. I told him that things would get better. We would find some way to get advance knowledge of our assignments and plan accordingly.

We found a somewhat decent place to eat that didn’t drown their food in oil. It was some consolation. Some.

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