Harbin Diary Sept. 25, 2011

September 25, 2011              Sunday

Today was a very interesting day. I got into my first argument with a Chinese teacher.

Before I go into that let me just quickly mention that I taught a POP class from 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM without incident and have not taught any class thus far with any kind of conflict; disillusionment certainly, but aggressive conflict not in the least. This class of students was particularly sweet, filled with little humans about four to five years old. They may have been older, perhaps six, but their bodies were too small and their behaviors too uncertain to have been seven. The teacher was a young woman of medium build, long brown hair with  tinted highlights, a wan face, and—according to Hammy—with a large bosom for a Chinese woman. The latter detail I had not noticed, but I put it in for accuracy. She was very curt with me, slapping down the materials and spitting out the instructions. Then, she sat on the sidelines and took notes for the rest of the class, occasionally barking at the children to can the chatter. If she was terse with me, then I could forgive her as she was at least an organized teacher who had large flash cards, toys, and a water bottle with which to spray the back of the laminated cards and then stick on the white board by water suction.

When I first saw how small the kids were, my heart sank. It is difficult to teach such little people, but I worried for nothing because they were a sweet, well-behaved group. Gabe later on quipped that they were so well-behaved because they were so young—not yet seven or eight—for when a child realizes his or her own capacity to inflict torture on a foreign teacher, the classroom dynamic quickly changes. It takes a few years of experience before they aware of their ability to drive a language coach around the bend.

Nonetheless, I got the children seated and they quite sweetly performed all of the little impromptu games I thought up and repeated all of my sentences and answered all of my questions with perfectly lovely obedience. Hammy sat on the side and tried to make a PowerPoint, but there wasn’t a lot of material to work with: ergo, repeat these words: big apple, little apple (not small apple—I was reproved for using the word ‘small’ just as I was reproved for uttering a few directions in Chinese), black, brown, and triangle. When the teacher showed me these few items, I incredulously asked her exactly how long did she expect the lesson to last. She hesitated a fraction of a second, biting her lip, looking at the clock, before saying forty-five minutes.

I tried to be as animated as possible for the children. I jumped around like a monkey, sang like a gargling parrot, and begged them to run out of their seats to come up and repeat to me the phrases or to use “Thor’s” Hammer to smash one of the vocabulary words stuck onto the whiteboard. I sped down the line of diminutive seats and asked them individual questions. I tried to vary the routines quickly enough to hold their short attention spans.

In the second half of the class period, I had to teach the phrase, “Is this a big circle?” and “Is this a little circle?” plus the song If You’re Happy and You know It. Hammy got some footage of that and thus my life as a cautionary tale for all would be teachers has been recorded for posterity. The kids mucked up our little and big circles something awful, which prompted the busty teacher to cut the air with a searing reprimand. They were starting to get a bit unruly as the novelty of my bag of tricks wore thin. The beginning of the end. I used a very low quiet voice to calm them down a little. When we were holding hands in a large circle to sing the song, a little girl, unbelievably adorable, kept snatching my hand to her mouth and kissing it. I had to institute a no-handholding policy, which she ignored. The teacher called her over to correct her inappropriate behavior. The little girl threw her arms around the teacher’s neck and planted not one, but several enthusiastic smooches on the teacher’s smooth cheek. After she was done kissing the teacher, she ran back to my side, snatched my hand up, and began the kissing routine all over again. Love one, discipline zero.

This type of behavior did not bother me in the least. I extricated myself from her squid-like clutches and kept the song bouncing along. I have had enough experience with little children to know that a few of them are natural kissers. I think I was also such a child. Nowadays it worries the parents and the community-at-large if a boy is a kisser. I think they fear that such a child is destined for homosexuality, a bizarre assumption. I suppose the female corollary would be to fear that she is going to turn out to be woman of easy virtue. Again a strange assumption.

As for me, I look upon such children with awe and admiration. I imagine that these divine little angels still have the ethereal atmosphere of heaven cleaving to their flesh. So used to the sweet and untroubled realm of God’s pastures are they that they greet all and sundry with nothing but enormous and unbounded love. Thus a kiss for everyone and everything, even the homely middle-aged foreign teacher who leaps and canters about like an electrocuted wolverine. Such lovely children.

After, Hammy and I went to find some breakkie at the baozi shop on the market street. There are several kinds of baozi, or steamed buns stuffed with meat, and I prefer the ones that have thin skins. Eve joined us there. After, she took me to organize a cleaning crew for tomorrow. I offered to pay for the cleaning crew to give her apartment a thorough cleaning. I could not take living in near-squalor for another day. Moreover, I had a secret agenda: I wanted to find out for myself exactly how much it cost and how difficult it was to organize an apartment cleaning. This took about fifteen minutes to organize, so not long. Then Eve escorted me to my next lesson, with Hammy in tow. Hammy and I are trying to attend as many lessons together in order to brainstorm strategies. We went to catch a bus, the 104, or 107, or 64. But I pointed out that we only had eleven minutes so we tried to catch a cab. Our first error.

We could not catch a cab at all. Either someone beat us to it or the cabs  all whizzed past packed with passengers. Even when we tried to join a fare–not legal, but not illegal–they were not going our in direction. Finally I told Eve we ought to just bite the bullet and jump onto a bus. A Number 64 was careering to a halt. Hammy and Eve joined the furious throng. A middle-aged woman was trying to help her elderly mother onto the bus so I took a step back to allow them some room. The second mistake.

The doors slid closed, shutting me out and I watched in phlegmatic amusement as I was left behind. I thought for a second of grabbing onto the window as they do in some parts of the world, but this is not India or a jungle town in Colombia where such behavior is quite acceptable. This was China and if I fell off, more than likely a closed casket funeral would quickly ensue after a perfunctory international inquest.

I was not stricken in the least. I was tired from running 40 minutes that morning so if I missed a lesson I plainly did not give a damn. I walked quickly back to the apartment to get my “new” phone and call Eve. She sent me the address via text (which I had already located on the map before we even contacted each other) and set off to get a cab. The cab drive was smooth and quick and I was not fifteen minutes late. Hammy had already begun the lesson. I found out that he had signed my name in my absence and not his own name. The third mistake.

The lesson was exactly like another we had done earlier so it was quite easy and almost all of the students were compliant except for Mike, a large morose-looking twelve year old who bent his head down, lips grazing the book, and mumbled the English phrases with horrendous pronunciation. After the lesson was almost over, a smartly dressed young Chinese male with rectangular glasses and a stylish haircut–a Chinese version of Tom Cruise with nerdy glasses–came into the room and sat down in the very back of the room. The teacher apparently and I recognized him as one of those whose faces that glared down with cool disdain from the hallowed walls of the Green School . This time his basilisk-gaze was fixed on me.

At first Hammy and I thought he came in to chastise Mike for his lackadaisical performance. But no, he came in to accost us. He demanded to know why there were two foreign teachers. His English was not very good. He spoke clearly, but the syntax and diction were muddled so it was hard to understand exactly what the problem was. What was evident was that there was a problem. I was burning up that this fool did not extend us the professional courtesy of speaking to us in private. He just sallied forth, booming his disgruntled voice from the back of the room without a care for the welfare of the children.

I said, “Maybe we ought to let the children have a break and then we could discuss this in private?” He angrily waved his hand and barked at the students to “xiuxi shi fen zhong.” The students did not budge an inch and sat glued to their seats.

I approached him slowly and sat down opposite him with my chest perpendicular to his so as to seem less confrontational and politely asked him, “Can you please explain to me what is the problem of having two teachers in the room.”

He made no sense other than to repeat that his class should not have two foreign teachers, only one foreign teacher.

“OK,” I said, “but he,” pointing at Hammy, “is not getting paid. He is only auditing the class. We like to help each other.”

Then he barked that Hammy started the lesson and why was I now teaching. I explained what happened, but it didn’t matter. He was getting worked up and his imperious and supercilious attitude was exhausting my patience. Hammy saw that both of us were getting heated up and he offered to leave right away which I repeated to the teacher. It didn’t matter. He was spoiling for a fight. His mind was made up and he wanted to berate us in front of everyone. I am not a very good Buddhist I must admit. I did not flinch from his bellowing voice and asked him if Hammy’s leaving was acceptable. He merely repeated things like, “This is my class. And in my class only one foreign teacher.”

A woman dressed in a pink leisure suit came in with a clipboard. She was the class manager, an employee of little rank, who makes sure that teachers arrive on time and sign in so that the company and the teacher get paid. As soon as she stepped in, he went off on her in Chinese and began accusing us of trying to pull a fast one. I was not going to stand for someone maligning our reputation so I also began to speak vociferously, explaining the situation as I saw it. She was terrified. Two males trying to outshout one another: not pretty. Gabe commented later on when I explained to him what had happened: you rarely see such altercations in Harbin because when they do break out, a physical confrontation usually ensues, so people generally try to avoid getting so worked up.  Tom Cruise continued ranting and raving and I told him in Chinese in front of everyone that he “meiyou daoli” which means that he makes no sense.

That really set him off and he screamed, “This is China! This is China!”

We were face to face now. The woman in pink had run off to call for help. Hammy was to the side in my peripheral vision. I felt the ominous looks of the parents around us. I smiled at him and said to him firmly that since he was unhappy with the level of teaching that we would leave and he could try to teach the students English on his own. I leaned closer. Try. His face turned a deeper shade of red. “This is China! This is China!”

I believe what he meant by that comment was that in this country no one ever broke a rule or regulation, and Hammy and I were obviously commenting a serious felony by team-teaching in English. Truly laughable. I shook my head and stormed out, Hammy following in my wake. Once we got outside, I hustled Hammy as far away as quickly as I could. Hammy doesn’t speed walk very well, but we would do well not to linger, just in case.

Hammy was nonplussed. I was livid. What a jackass! Dare to raise his voice and treat us so dismissively. I truly felt like cracking him one on the jaw. But I know this would only cause huge problems and it’s not the Buddhist-Christian thing to do. Lord, I’m trying. I really am, but I need Your help. Ah! I wish I could be as cool as a cucumber and as equanimous as the Dalai Lama. But I am trying. I think I am getting better. The other part of it is that one has to defend oneself. You can’t just roll over for everybody. You have to stick to what is correct and fair and just. This fellow was over-reacting. Perhaps he had bad experiences with foreigners. Perhaps his lover threw him over for a handsome American man, I don’t know. Perhaps he suffers from Napoleon syndrome or Miniscule Phallus Disorder, I don’t know. What I do know is that I was not genetically predisposed by the Grand Architect to eat manure dished up by cretinous coxcombs. I could. But I won’t.

Perhaps this problem could have been avoided if Eve and Hammy had immediately described our predicament rather than having Hammy pass himself off as me; and maybe I could have been more accommodating, but as it turns out my assessment of the handsome little fascist-teacher was correct. Gabe told me he hated the guy. He was always rude and mean. Eve told me he had conflicts with every teacher, not just foreigner ones. I had predicted the exact same thing to Hammy as we walked back home.

When we got back to Eve’s apartment, she was there with a colleague named Andy. Previously he did her job until he decided it was too overwhelming and left for greener pastures. His English is also not bad. He was a thin, sturdily built young Chinese male with a wistful disposition. He smiled demurely as he asked and answered questions. I wondered if he and Eve were lovers, the secret kind. He left after a little while. Then, Eve escorted Hammy to his class. I didn’t go this time as I was washing clothes and getting ready for the cleaning women who were due to arrive early tomorrow. I had had enough for one day.


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