Harbin Diary September 28, 2011

September 28, 2011  Wednesday

My feet plashed over the wet sidewalk on the way to the bus stop. I had slept little and prepared as much as I could for today’s lessons at Jian Qiao College. Not enough probably.

I had a pack of beautiful young ladies in my first class and a few more men than the last time. The boys’ names are easy to remember since there are so few: Jon, Cang-qiong, Marty, and Jeff. Among the female student names, I had two Annie’s, a Seven, Eve, Katherine, Freeze, Matina, Candy, Candice, Lily, Liz, Sophie, Sara, Suki, Cookie, Jessica (my ‘daughter’) and more. I will have to create a roll list since the company did not provide one, thus no accountability for them or for me.

I selected Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and in my estimation the lesson went smashing. I chose Frost for the obvious reasons: his colloquial, simple language with lots of juicy rhyming; then, his poetry is set in the northeast (mostly) and Harbin is of course Dongbei; and finally, because he’s damn good. I prefaced the lesson with a discussion of my idea of poetry, priming the pump with some strong visuals. I selected two illusions to show the students, the idea being that poetry can be illusory, representing one thing, but subtly also indicating others. I also showed them a Rorschach test because poetry is often personal, revealing as much about the psyche of the interpreter as it can about the poet. That and the fact that in one sense all interpretations are valid. The lesson was meant to be brief and not at all an in-depth analysis, but it took time for them to form their ideas. I saw mostly enraptured looks: they engaged with each other, discussing the possible interpretations of the poem, and eagerly shared their ideas. One student, Liz, ignored the lesson and worked furiously on something in the back of the classroom.

I tried to squeeze in some conversation practice, Who’s the Greatest? But we ran out of time. The next class (for which one student Eve remained to study twice) had one of my favorite students, Amy, who is a Taekwondo practitioner and a singer of some merit among her peers. She is a tiny girl with blazing orange hair cropped short, a big happy smile, huge dimples, and freckles sprinkled over the bridge of her nose. She has the build of a tomboy of course. Today, she was otherwise occupied to afford the lesson much attention. Too bad.

The teacher can work hard for his class, but it is difficult as there are various levels of proficiency in the class. They are divided by year and by major, not by ability, and there’s the rub. So, in one sense, it’s like back home where you have a classroom filled with students at different levels of ability. This is difficult when you are teaching English as a Foreign Language. I would have expected them to at least follow a curriculum of study: English 101, then English 303, etc.

After class, I met with Abraham and his student Steven who was a very jolly fellow. We went to the college cafeteria and the food was not as heinous as we were told or even as Hammy himself had said. Steven told us that he has been with his girlfriend for eight years and he is only 23 years old! They will be married after he graduates. When I asked him if he knew any gong-fu teachers in the city, he told me that Harbiners did not like Chinese martial arts as this was a cultural aspect of areas to the south of Dongbei, something which I neglected to consider. Steven turned serious all of a sudden when I brought this up. It is true they are descendants of the Manchu people, and therefore technically a part of the barbarian throng that crossed the plains and mountains to ravage the ancient dynasties. The modern Harbiners take more to taekwondo and Russian influences, he said. As a joke, I said that I might consider starting up a traditional kung fu club. He did not crack a smile at my comment.

When we returned home, we lounged about and did nothing. I wanted to get motivated, but it is impossible to work around Hammy. He is a colossal annoyance to me. He is loud and always crying out for attention. He is incapable of sitting still. Truly, he creates many instances in which one is forced to practice Buddhist virtues of patience and tolerance and compassion, things of which I’m generally in short supply. I allowed myself to be swayed by his constant complaining and ludicrous comments. I will have to be firmer with him. He is a terrible distraction. In the midst of this, I made a suggestion about us perhaps going to the Lutheran Church service. Whenever I urge him to consider this, he scoffs at me, as if he were such a pious person and I an infidel. He is an awful hypocrite and he knows I know this, yet he persists in adopting this supercilious air. I know his horrible past, as I was a victim of his numerous lies.

I think he resents my trying to have a relationship with him in this particular sphere. I think he feels that we are not on an equal footing. He was a junior minister or something with his congregation of mystic holy rolling bible-beating evangelical types. Yet, he was a stereotype of all of these hyper-hypocritical preachers: they preach the word of the Lord while committing foul and execrable sins in dark secret. At least I am an open and avowed sinner and have committed my life to Buddhist transparency, even to my detriment. The truth is I haven’t the energy to keep up with false lives and involute lies. Nonetheless, although I am a very, very lapsed Catholic who considers the institution of Religion morally bankrupt, I recognize and cherish the practice of worship and gratitude. Moreover, as an observer of humanity I am curious to see how people—foreign and local—practice religion in Heilongjiang, the province of the Black Dragon River.

And what did I get exactly for my suggestion? Condemnation, derision, contumely. Abraham challenged me and asked me in a derogatory tone if I had finished my novel. He said this in front of Gabe as if to shame me and suggest that I was a mere talker and had not accomplished my pre-stated goal of focusing rapt and singular attention on my Drug War novel. In other words, stay out of church, and keep my nose in my book.

I paused, paused at the gall of his attitude. I did not reply with anger or even with a well deserved reminder that I had spent a significant portion of my time helping him acquire his necessities like soap, iron, underwear, etc. I merely stated the truth, that I had not, in fact, written one single word since arriving in China. Then he scoffed, saying that if I had not done that, then why should I try to start a martial arts club and a hockey club, etc etc. I replied I had not had the necessary head space to tackle my novel. In my heart I was only half-kidding and dreaming of these clubs in any event, but it would be nice to find a brotherhood here in Harbin.

The truth is I feel a need to escape from Eve’s apartment. There are too many distractions; but perhaps Hammy’s goading can serve a purpose. After all, a true writer will overcome all obstacles to insure that his writing gets done. It is a drive, an unstoppable force that propels the writer to secure whatever space and isolation to keep working. So it will be done. I may need to get my own apartment after all.

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