Harbin Diary Sept. 21-23, 2011

September 21, 2011  Wednesday

Today we had to teach at the Jian-Qiao College. This was a different beast altogether. My first class was packed with young women eager to learn English for the most part. They had a variety of reasons, ranging from the practical to the poetic. They also were a variety of sizes and shapes: the ethereal and angelic to the course and earthen, but all of them were lovely in their own way. I met bright clear eyes observing me politely and engaging with me inquisitively. It was a delight to teach this group of intelligent, ambitious young students. Some were so captivating I was swept away in an instant; some were so awkward in their self-consciousness of their lack of traditional beauty that they broke my heart, but, as I said, they were each and every one a beauty.

Some were so shy, they could barely speak to me. I told them that they should adopt the personality of a clown in order to learn a language. Moreover, each day they should look in the mirror and tell themselves that they are great. To have mastered English to such a degree and never to have been out of the country nor have met very many foreign English-speakers, they were indeed great in their achievement. I quit studying Russian when I was trying to learn by myself in Riverside. I could not feasibly sustain the immense energy to learn that remarkable but thorny language in such isolation. It was a damn good class, powerful, with intense participation; emotions ran high as we shared our stories. Such an incredible contrast from teaching at the Green School. One precocious pupil, a great beauty named Katherine, approached me after class with eyes blazing and pressed upon me her phone number, asking me to get in touch with her. I was reluctant to take it, but I tapped her number into my iPhone and promised to call her. It was awkward because she literally charged at me like a tigress when the bell rang. I felt so self-conscious, I lost my composure. I wasn’t sure what it meant. Chinese people are very reserved, and women especially so, therefore I dared not read too much into it, but I was still set back on my heels. To date I have not called her because it feels inappropriate. If we meet with other students for tea and practice English in a big group in a public venue, that would be fine. I would like to think that I learned from my buddy Perseus’s mistake: one should never date one’s students. Guide them, yes; be their mentor, certainly; date them, never.

The next class was almost as great as the first and there were a number of wonderful young ladies who endeared themselves to my heart: there was a painter and a musician and a young talented very beautiful girl—in a tomboy sort of way—who sang and practiced tae kwon do!

Hammy had a fairly good experience as well, although he was given the students who were not such a high level and consequently he was disappointed; but Hammy tends to malign and bitch about all things Chinese. I think both of us were riding high after our experience and indeed after the unmitigated fiasco at the Green School, we needed some kind of triumph. Too many blows to the ego and one’s sense of reason like what we experienced at New Oriental and even the hardiest ex-pat teacher would make a quick break for the exit stage left.

September 22, 2011              Thursday

Today I was again at Jian-Qiao College. I had to find my own way there and despite a bit of confusion I got there okay. Eve told me to find the office in 404 or 403. I accidentally walked into Grace’s office! Surprise, surprise. I told her my predicament that I was not given a classroom number so I did not know where to teach. She located the professor and she came down and escorted me to the second floor. While I was waiting in the Overseas Student Office, I spoke a little Russian with two Russian boys who were playing on some kind of Gameboy device. They were ruddy, blonde, and blue-eyed specimens, ready for rough and tumble. I thought it was so strange that they cooling their heels here at the college. Later I would learn that Jian-Qiao also has a primary school at the back of the campus. It really is a large college, complete with a stadium, track, dormitories, a primary school (!!) and several large buildings in which college classes are conducted.

Today’s classes were nowhere near as thrilling as yesterday’s and the first one was packed with young women who had no trouble telling me that they hated studying English. What could I say to that? I felt dismayed and dispirited. I had trouble recalling their names and individual histories, a trick I use to impress the students that I have half a brain. Yesterday’s classes almost stood in ovation when I pulled out that rabbit. That and my Chinese language skills was enough to endear me to them. Today’s classes would not be won over quite so easily.

With the second class, I went into overdrive to try and win over the students. It mostly worked. I was amazed by the variety of strange English names I encountered: I had a young loquacious lad named Metric, a name he chose because he wanted to be different from others; another young lady was called Water because her classmates said that she liked to drink so much water; I had two Rainbows; a Clover; a Rabbit; an Apple; a girl named Seven and a boy named Eight, the former because it was her lucky number and the latter simply because that was his student number; and I had a girl, pretty and tall, named Aquamarine from the movie Mermaids.

Let’s see if I can recall one class: Casey, Emily, Lily, Elva, Nana, Yolanda, Rabbit, Carrie, Apple; Ada, Eva, Jane, Aquamarine, Nancy (who was a mental powerhouse), Yang Jing-na from Inner Mongolia, Rainbow too came from IM—but I think she was from another class,…AH! I cannot see the other girls. You see I am a man of very limited intellectual powers. I remember Jane because she was tall and thin, but in a powerful way as if she were an athlete, and such women are very appealing to me. She came from Qiqihaer, the second largest city in Heilongjiang Province. She wants to become a “successful translator.”

Since I had so few boys they are easy to remember. I had one boy John, but he left after the break. Then, there was one boy who had no name and then after break disappeared before I could give him one. (Interesting to note how many skipped my class after break!) Then, I had Metric, Alex, and Eight. Very few boys all in all.

After class I met Hammy and we took the 104 down to the Xue Fu Bookstore. David escorted us part of the way. He is the New Yorker, a thin, spare, balding fellow with a cap of bright yellow hair, a narrow, round skull and rectangular glasses. His voice is not that high-pitched, but comes off that way as he always seems to be in a state of constant excitement. He was upset because they took away his university classes and gave them to us. Grace the Director must feel that we are more qualified to teach these classes, but the real reason may be that a rumor was circulating that he was living with one of his students. A real looker apparently that begs the question how in the world did he ever bag such a good-looking, smart, articulate, and wealthy young woman. David stopped short of accusing us of stealing his classes. I told him that we were very willing to turn them back over to him, but he really should take it up with Grace. I let him know that I would support him in this as I would not like someone to come along and take my classes without sufficient cause. If I were really struggling, then I could understand, but there ought to be a protocol in place for such situations, protocols which were not followed in the least it seems. Typical I am afraid. They are paper protocols with no power in reality. Hammy was demure and relatively quiet, a nice change. I was afraid the two of them would start arguing. He and David are quite an opposite pair. Hammy: corpulent, tattooed, scruffy, rasquache, and ‘Chicano’ to the bone. (I say this with one eyebrow raised as I feel that a true ‘Chicano’ would be fluent in Spanish and well-versed in the ideology, not just born in the barrio and evincing rudeness as a shield to cover up a feeling of inadequacy, which is pretty much an apt description of Hammy.) David: thin as a knife, articulate, and, smooth like a baby’s bottom, as white and middle class as you can get. Anyway, David spoke his piece, gave us directions to the Bookstore, and took off.

At the bookstore, I was thoroughly depressed. My speaking skills are hanging in there, but I am experiencing that feeling of inundation whenever I try to read simplified characters. I wanted to find a book of Business English conversations in order to create some skits and dialogues for my new students, but I just felt overwhelmed. Hiking among the endless stacks of books, hunting for the right book was daunting and I gave up after an hour or so. Hammy and I snacked on xie-pai (crab cake) and then took the bus back to walk over to Harbin Shi-fan Daxue (HaShiDa) to get proper sustenance. He got this crepe dealie that was not sweet, but salty and I got leng mian—cold noodles that are great in the summer in Taiwan, but maybe soon will not be the best choice for the chilblain cold of Harbin winter. Somehow I tweaked my pectoral muscle so I was loath to work out. Not a good sign. I read Chapter Seven of Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and went to sleep.

September 23, 2011              Friday

Today I went with Eve after working at McDonald’s–yes I had to give an English class at McDonald’s–to the HaShangDa, which when I asked one of the students what it stood for, he told me it meant Guoji Jiaoyu Xueyuan or the International Education School.  I thought that I was going to be teaching class, but I ended up giving an IELTS exam, very preliminary and boring. I had to ask them their name, where they were from, about their studies, if they exercised, what they did on the weekend, and what food they liked. Afterward, I asked them to speak for a minute about a novel they had read. Almost all of them discussed Harry Potter. Harry. Potter.

I am sure that hardcore English majors are cringing at that fact, but look at it another way. I find it amazing that J.K. Rowling created something that obviously resonated with the mass of humanity. Not just little children, but the MASS of humanity. They loved reading the books and they loved watching the movies. That is an impressive achievement. About the only thing equivalent to that would have to be the way in which the large mass of humanity feels about US Foreign Military Policy. There is another mass of people that equally and across the spectrum feels a common feeling—albeit not warm fuzzy love.

Besides those Potter-philes, a few students read a couple of books that I had read: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. There was a book that one boy discussed that seemed worth reading: The Tea Road to Something or Other. I will have to look it up. You’d think I would have remembered it. So among the fifty or so students that I interviewed for this diagnostic type test, only about ten to twelve were able to really complete the test and only about six or seven of them spoke about any kind of interesting books. I felt sorry for the youngsters, all about eighteen to nineteen years of age. They so obviously needed more practice speaking with foreigners. But I wonder if they even have time to do that. One girl came in and said she was excited to study English because she wanted to grow up and be a Tour Guide. A Tour Guide! Imagine. That is the extent of her aspiration and perhaps in a country of 1.32 Billion it is acceptable to have such humble dreams. After all, room must be made for all. In a small village, there is plenty of room for all types of dreamers, but in a country that is so populous, only one can be the emperor and the others must sew his clothes and wash his clothes and press his clothes and guide the tourists to see him wear his clothes.

I was bedazzled by all of the different types of faces that I saw today less than a yard from my nose. I watched them bite their lips in consternation, their eyebrows furrow as they became puzzled, their noses twitch in exasperation, small beads of sweat pool on the wings of their nostrils, dark brown eyes dilate, chests of all shapes and sizes swell and deflate. I felt like I was given a parade of the best of Dongbei’s youth—well, perhaps not the best, but these at least were going to college. Such a curious and amazing lot!

My co-proctor was a young, short, unattractive woman named Carrie. She spoke quite well having recently graduated from a university in Sydney majoring in computer science. It seems that she was not working in her field, but rather as a teacher for the New Oriental School. She quickly got sick of this task and rushed the students through the interview. I was the parrot and asked the questions while she marked their papers and gave them grades in fluency, grammar, vocabulary, and listening. I don’t know how she did it, as she did not even have a rubric in front of her. She just had a box and filled in a number. Perhaps she had a lot of experience. I heard from Gabe (who was called in to help with the huge workload of ninety students who had to be tested this morning) that the interview was supposed to be fifteen minutes long and Carrie and I were ripping through the kids in well under five minutes. So much for English Acquisition. In any event, I completed the assignment and left.

I ended up eating at the Gai-fan place downstairs from Eve’s apartment with Hammy and Gabe. Basically gai-fan is cheap stir-fry. It was not very good. Eve caught up with us. Then, the four of us set off for downtown to the beehive of pirated goods so that Hammy and I could get rid of our crappy cell phones for better ones. The woman would not come down on the price. We haggled and haggled but in the end all we ended up doing was swapping the phones out. Later we will jailbreak the iPhones and just use those. At least these new cell phones work better than the old ones—somewhat.

Gabe is an interesting fellow. He studied at a fairly good art college in spatial design. He and I should explore the Harbin art world. I kind of twisted his arm into going with us because the thought of listening to Eve braying like an ass at every little stupid phrase that drooled out of Hammy’s mouth was terrifying to me. I think he understood why I desperately wanted him along. It’s just that listening to Hammy for such a long time is like plugging your brain into an American sitcom for hours on end. It might be a somewhat funny sitcom, but who wants to watch it for hours on end? My God, I need more intellectual stimulation than that!

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