Harbin Diary September 26-27

September 26, 2011              Monday

This morning on the way to McDonald’s I saw a dead rat on the pavement. She looked so peaceful lying there that I was ready for her to get up, stretch, and then scamper away. She didn’t even notice the buzzing black little winged irritation that flitted over her rear end looking for a good place to lay its eggs. I glanced around wondering where she could have come from. Then I looked up. Did she fall from the sky? Did she jump? Did the rat cast itself from the building as though from a sinking ship? Did she realize in her last desperate moment that her only exit was one without a return ticket?

Her fur looked amazingly soft, so much so that I wanted to touch it, pet it, caress it. Her nose—untwitching—so completely still in the final freeze of death—was so cute and small like a rolled piece of lint from one’s pocket. And miracle of miracles! Her eyes were not staring wide open with the shock of death, the shock of shuffling off this mortal coil into another. No, her eyes were sweetly closed, facilitating the illusion that she was only asleep. I wanted to touch her, but I was afraid, as if suicide were infectious. I had to tear my eyes away and force my feet to step away.

At McDonald’s I met a Canuck named Bud Free, which name I found a bit strange. Good thing his first name wasn’t Scott. He was older than me, had a middle-aged paunch, thinning tawny hair streaked with grey, and wore large horn-rim glasses. He sat right next to me despite the whole place being vacant—close enough for me to reach out and touch him, something else I thought was strange. After a while he started up a conversation by handing me a scrap of paper torn off the place mat that McDonald’s puts on their plastic trays. It had the name of a Lutheran church and the times during which they met for prayer.

I stared at it, trying hard not to look like someone had just handed me a soggy cat turd.

“Ah,” I managed to say. The dead rat was an omen. Of all the gin joints….

So this guy’s story was simple on the surface: came from Canada to teach English at a church affiliated middle school. Nothing wrong with that, but Harbin is not a typical place for missionaries to gather. It’s really still like a frontier town. Culture, civilization, and religion have not made any inroads, perhaps daunted by the chilblaining winter, I don’t know.

I knew why I was here. I too had a cover story. There was something off with this guy, like a neophyte agent who hadn’t gotten his cover story down. It wasn’t just the eager beaver ‘praise Jesus’ cloud of optimism that envelops evangelical types either. I was polite, but I had to stand my ground.

I thanked him for the invite, but told him that I was Catholic (that in and of itself usually sends Christians running away in fear or loathing or both) and that I wasn’t much of a churchgoer, but hey, “thanks for the invite!”

He didn’t flinch at my cold shoulder and kept his monologue going.

He mentioned that he wanted to start a hockey club and that piqued my interest. I said I would be very interested in that. I also said that my colleague Abraham was interested in going to church, and that I might consider going along to witness (ha) how prayer was conducted in Dongbei, China. We exchanged phone numbers.

Then, he mentioned something that I found troubling: “Have any of the Chinese men tried to pick a fight with you?”

“No,” I said, “everybody has been very accommodating, very friendly.” I kept my mouth shut about the idiot at the Tongda school.

He said that he had met several men who wanted to start a fight with him. I wondered why and said to him that the only times that that had happened to me in Taiwan was when I went to a bar and started chatting with a Chinese girl. Some Chinese men took exception to that or took exception to the fact that I arrived with a Chinese girlfriend. He looked away and down at the ground, mumbled that he didn’t go to bars. I did not ask under what circumstances he received these threats, but it begs the question, doesn’t it? Hopefully he is a nice person and maybe we can be friends and even start up an ice hockey club in Harbin. It is a perfect place for hockey, that’s for sure.

The cleaning ladies came over at 7:58 AM sharp. It’s been a marathon. The place was dirtier than anyone realized. It has taken them over four hours. They have gotten the three bedrooms and the balcony done and just started the kitchen. They are doing a thorough job, but I don’t like that they are not using a variety of cleaning materials like disinfectant.

The Cleaners are two middle-aged women. They arrived with a change of clothes, some mops, and some small plastic bags of white powder looking like the kilo bricks of cocaine one sees in the movies. They wriggled out of their street clothes right in front of me and slipped on their work frocks. I picked up my jaw off the floor and walked out to the balcony to give them some privacy. When I came back in, they were spreading the white cleaning powder over the windows and then proceeded to scrub the hell out of them. They are spry women and hung out of the tall windows, crouched on the sill as fearless as Spiderman. It was impressive to see them crawl up there and step out on the ledge as nonchalantly as someone crossing their living room floor to flop down on a couch. My mind spiraled into a daydream fugue and I imagined the little Chinese woman losing her grip, her eyes widening in fear, her small body dropping away shrinking in perspective, ripped downward by gravity, until….

“Uh, isn’t that a bit dangerous?”

Her partner laughs. Speaking through the open window, she says to her friend, “He’s asking if it’s dangerous!” They exchange smiles and titter in delight, polishing the windows inside and out simultaneously. “Don’t worry. We do this all the time.”

Okay. I watched feeling pretty useless, but I did help move the heavy furniture and lugged the big window panels off and back onto their tracks. I was exhausted when they were finally finished. I swear the entire place looks two shades lighter.

September 27, 2011              Tuesday

Today I woke to the flash and sound of thunder. I lay in bed (almost wrote dead and indeed I feel dead!) and watched the dark early morning sky light up with a menacing glow and then listened as a few minutes later the rumble of thunder rolled angrily in long waves over the dirty city. I got up and looked out the balcony windows. The city streets were slick with rain and the buildings looked worn and tired without the rosy hint of dawn. A few people stirred down below, worrying the city streets like caretakers of the deceased, like nurses of the terminally ill, like harbingers of harm yet to come.

Rain always brings out my happy inner child.

I taught at the Green School with the usual less than ten minutes prep time. The teacher seemed glad to see me though, as I was able to speak Chinese, a nice surprise for her, and her English was broken at best. There was one little girl (they were about the age of third or fourth graders) who was absolutely bananas. Her name was Rain and she got up every few seconds to write someone’s name on the board, most often to write down Bill’s name, another boy who invariably was busy inspecting navel lint or fiddling with something in his desk instead of following the lesson. I tried to get her to settle down and not worry so much about the other students, but to no avail.

A man was watching from the back of the room for a while and then left. I have no idea if he was a parent or an administrator. The lesson was incredibly dull and I felt dull teaching it, an awful feeling. There were insufficient verbs to allow me to spontaneously teach a fun lesson. It was ninety minutes of substitution drills in essence. That’s okay if you’re in the military and are learning for a purpose, but children don’t learn best that way. I did try to correct their pronunciation at every turn and offered heaps of encouragement. I suppose I was rewarded for my efforts because after the lesson the teacher—Candy was her name I believe—requested that I return. Why, I could not imagine. That was one lesson I would rather forget as soon as possible. I could not promise her that I would return to her class as this outfit to which Danny and I find ourselves indentured farm out teachers in a most haphazard fashion.

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