Harbin Diary October 1-2, 2011

October 1, 2011         Saturday

Today on the way to McDonald’s I saw that the dead cat was gone. I was seriously contemplating burying the poor little calico. I could not bear the sight of it decomposing beneath my sixth-storey window. I have seen enough death in Texas and if I could I would avoid as much as possible the sight of a once-living thing bloating up with expanding gases, exploding, then the slow process of decomposition, bones eating through the blackening flesh, revealing the cold white rictus of its skeletal structure, that awful twisting figure emblematic of death. Someone had removed the carcass during the night. I looked about as if looking for a culprit. I was surprised. There’s trash all over the place; I didn’t think anyone cared about one dead little cat. I was wrong. No one paid me any mind and I went on.

In the market I saw live eels wriggling in a metal tub of cold water. My stomach no longer turns at the sight, but I am glad that I am trying to eat like a vegetarian again. Next to the eels in a white plastic box, I also saw dark green frogs—so dark they were almost black—and very much alive. A dead one had been picked out of the jam-packed amphibian throng and lay on the edge of the opening cut into the corrugated plastic. It lay flat and still as if pressed into death and stamped into a perfect still likeness of a frog—a real frog made to look like the frozen dead symbol of a frog—very unlike his brothers and sisters endlessly groping up the sides of the slippery white walls, endlessly clambering over one another, eyes tiny dull black orbs…. Were they aware however dimly that their placid lake-world has morphed horribly awry? Don’t look now, Toto, we’re not in Kansas?

Once upon a time I watched a program called Dead Like Me. The associations I have with this show are complex and even somewhat painful, but it was such a delightful black comedy, smart, sassy, in your face, and well-acted (how can you not like Mandy Pitinkin?) that I kept watching it over and over, becoming a guilty pleasure-cum-self-medication ritual I reserved for myself whenever I could catch a break from my whacked out girlfriend-of-the-week. I was surprised to learn that the frog held a place of prominence among amphibians, sharing a close bond with death and all things death related. Apparently, frog was to blame for letting death loose in the world, all creatures heretofore possessing immortality. Now, watching these little rubbery chocolate-looking things squirm and suffer in a plastic box on a dirty Harbin street left me feeling hollowed out. They would sooner or later end up on the business end of a pair of chopsticks.

At six in the morning, the streets are not yet crowded with traffic so the taxis and produce trucks barrel along the dirty broad avenues with deadly reckless abandon. A taxi driver blares his horn at me as he sees that I prepare to enter the road. I stop right in the middle and point to his red light, daring him to run me over. He screeches to a stop and everyone in his cab are shoved forward by inertia, their eyes wide and staring with shock and anger. In China, pedestrians take their lives in their hands when they cross the street, even when they clearly have a green walk signal. This deadly game of cat-and-mouse is worth the risk after seeing the frightened angry looks on the faces of the driver and his passengers. I chuckle to myself as I finish crossing the street. You take it where you can.

Along the way, I see a long, enormous cylinder of thick red plastic lies on the dirty sidewalk, limp and dew-slick like a giant used prophylactic. The Chinese still celebrate the Grand Opening of a new business with traditional firecrackers and raucous music, but with the advent of the modern age, other accoutrements have been added. Besides the balloons, they also decorate the front of the store with these colossal air-filled arches that have streamers whipped into frenzy by small electric engines. The sounds of the engines are drowned out by the karaoke singer who has been hired to belt out pop tunes all the livelong day and all the livelong night next to human-sized speakers powerful enough to make one’s flesh throb and ripple as though manipulated by fingers made of sound. Tall columns of balloons rise into the air next to these arcing air-filled gates of heaven. But the balloons are gone; they have been cut in the night and cast aloft into the dark, wet sky.

A woman, still pretty but whose backside has spread with middle age, races hand-in-hand down the street with her tall, ungainly, fourteen year old son. They race for maybe forty yards—not far—before they stop to catch their breath. They giggle like little children, their faces so ecstatic, so incredibly illuminated now in this one moment that I wish I could capture their guileless joy with a photo and preserve it for all time.

Time. Elemental force as implacable and inexorable as gravity, dragging us forward into the whirlpool of the uncertain and unknown future. We can go kicking and screaming, or perhaps we can race with our loved ones hand in hand like the mother and son I just witnessed. And how do I go? How do I go into the future? With whom do I hold hands? Is there a little giggle left for me at the end of my time on this earth? Fuck me and my solipsistic worldview. There’s a giggle left for me; of that I’m certain. Certain that God, if s/he exists, has a wicked sense of humor, emphasis on ‘wicked.’

The English teachers in Harbin do constant battle with time. Gabe once said, “there is nothing sweeter than the end of a POPS class” and in his wry British comment there is much truth. The assail on the adult human mind of a classroom filled with screaming unruly little Chinese children can be considered cruel and unusual punishment. The bone-crushing pressure the teacher feels in the small, warm box-like room—heady with the stench of all the little aromas that each child exudes: exotic foods, perspiration, scented soap, the odors of human emotion like fear, joy, and anger, all commingle and stifle the foreign teacher—releases with thunderous jettison force once he or she steps outside the classroom. That pressure is abysmal, palpable, and relentless. The seconds eke by sluggishly, sloughing through the canal of time in mud-like chunks, and the English teacher prays, begs, cries for Time to hurry, to quicken and free him from this great torture. The pressure coils about the teacher as he fumbles through a lesson completely unprepared yet conscientiously striving to deliver the lesson.

If he is lucky, his lesson has stupefied some of his tiny torturers into lethargy, then some yawn brazenly and put their heads down for a rest. Most however remain awake and express untrammeled irritation at having to sit still and repeat endless chains of English phrases into the long evening, a time when any normal child after having done their homework and finished with supper would be ensconced in front of a TV or wrestling with a sibling or a parent or an uncle, or just plain relaxing from the long day of lessons. The Chinese child is captive, too: torturee and torturer. The English teacher must perforce try to entertain these belligerent diminutive prisoners as he teaches, as he strives to pound a foreign tongue into their little skulls, much like trying to nail Jello into the wall. A nigh impossible task. And time crawls forward, never hurrying, never stopping, but never hurrying, and THANK GOD that sometimes there is an island of interest, an archipelago of excitement surrounded by a cold gray sea of boredom and feckless routine.

And when the Chinese teacher finally announces that the lesson has ended and the foreign teacher can finally escape from the clutches of this demented experimental hybridization of education and capitalism, then the sweetness is so profound, the joy penetrates so deep, it feels like being impaled with an electric meter-long spike flushing the body with short but powerful waves of gladness, so powerful the English teacher must stand a moment outside the school, drawing in long ragged breaths and savoring the freedom, the return to normalcy. It is as if the Supreme Deity had purposely slowed time during the lesson, smashing out the microseconds into a one long, pulpy unrecognizable mess that the English teacher must then traverse until the Supreme Architect releases the slow-play button and then, and only then, can he experience the return to normal gravity, the normal drip and constant suck of time’s vortex.

Time in Harbin as felt by the itinerant English teacher is not segmented as it is in the West. There are no weekends for the English teacher and indeed it seems as if there are no days of rest for the Chinese and I wonder why. Are there so many people that they cannot all have a day of rest? Weekends must be divvied up among the citizens during the month on odd and even days and never all at once. In our troop, we are given Mondays off. The other day off is squeezed in whenever possible despite the fact that we were told that we would have two consecutive days off. We’re getting by with one day off most weeks.

Hammy and I spent the morning trolling through the disgusting mess that Seth Ambrose Gell left behind in his room. We filled about a dozen black trash bags and a few large cardboard boxes with his repellant crap. What a bastard he was that he couldn’t organize himself enough to leave me a reasonably clean room to move into: the room (as was the whole apartment) was frightful. There were food wrappers everywhere, dirt and dust slathered thickly like black cream along the wall trim, a pair of Lavender’s torn stockings forlornly crumpled in the corner, numerous half-empty lighters, paper, trash, chicken’s feet in air-sealed baggies, dismantled computer equipment, soiled linen, and more. He was a packrat of enormous dimensions.

After, we returned to Eve’s to rest and make lesson plans. I tried to focus but Hammy was such a nuisance. He is incapable of shutting up and letting one think. He has to think out loud and incorporate everyone into his activity. I barely get one line read when he begins pestering me with inane questions. Sometimes I want to take the forked end of a hammer and slam it into the back of his fat head. He drives me to despair. After a while I was able to get some work done, important as I had to give a private lesson the next day.

Winnie came in my room to see what I was up to and began to ask me some questions about English. She entered toting a book the size and weight of a two-year old. Apparently, she had to undergo a thorough study of the subjunctive, a little regarded tense in the English language that I try to do without, favoring to state things in the indicative or imperative mood. I have always hated the subjunctive, ever since I had to learn it when I studied Spanish grammar for educators: it made my genital hairs uncurl. The English subjunctive—that mythical beast—made them curl right back up. Not  a pleasant experience. I had difficulty distinguishing her example sentence as having been written in the subjunctive or the conditional, as much because I know how notoriously scarce are examples of the true subjunctive, and because the sentence was syntactically awkward and indirect, rasping on my ear like nails on chalkboard. Not, of course, because I was grammatically challenged, no, not that, never, not me. Had I known that she was merely testing me, I would never have even attempted to answer her damned technical queries; I would have begged off, stating I was feeling brain dead (which I definitely was) or just plain brain dead (which I usually am). If she were serious about the whole endeavor, I would not have minded as much, but it was soon quite evident that she only came in to play head games, fucking little minx. She was cute about it though.

She jumped up and down and swiveled her hips back and forth, ecstatic that she was “correct” and that I was “wrong.” She gloated over my indecision, simpering and chittering like a small monkey; all I could do was utter a sigh. She insisted that I answer her questions on the subjunctive despite the fact that I felt it would be a waste of time. If I were inclined to perpetrating violence on innocent books, I would have pitched that massive tome on English grammar out the window. She seemed to feel that mastery of English required mastery of such abstruse grammar rules. If that were true, then she would speak better English than she does presently. Hell, all of China would speak better English than the Queen herself, and that is obviously not the case, their test scores notwithstanding. Language acquisition cannot live and die by grammar. It needs the meat of organic discourse, not the thin gruel of stultifying and abstract rules.

Eventually they all left for parts unknown and let me have some peaceful solitude.

October 2, 2011         Sunday

I had to teach Adam in a private class and the lesson went better than last time although he will be a tough nut to crack. His mother came into the classroom for the last twenty minutes and hovered over him, criticizing his study habits, and shoving him in the elbow, telling him to copy down everything I said. I will have to speak to her at some point. All she is doing is making him hate studying English. I want Adam to look forward to class, not abhor it.

After I met with Amy (Che Jingyi) and Sharon (Tang Shi) for a private class. They were lovely young women, on their way to becoming professionals. Amy was an unconfident tall and ungainly young woman with slight acne. She was not comely, but not homely either. Sharon was prettier in the traditional sense and had more fluent delivery. It was a pleasure to meet the both of them. The class went quite well even though I had not prepared much and merely followed the PowerPoint lesson that Abraham had created.

Sharon was a remarkable girl. Her hometown was the city that was devastated by the 2008 earthquake and she was part of the local volunteer team that searched for survivors and provided succor to the victims. I was almost in tears listening to her. She said that the earthquake was indeed a horrible event, but she did not feel bad. She saw her fellow villagers and her whole country unite and endeavor to bring relief to the disaster victims. The sight of the national flags flying from car antennas everywhere is forever burned in her memory evoking soaring patriotism.

These moments are so different from my exchanges with Americans. America is so plastic and artificial. Even when we are laid flat by natural disasters, there is this oily, disassociated veneer that lays over everything and one can never be sure if what one is doing is really meant to have the proper effect. Are we really helping? Or are we pawns manipulated on someone else’s chessboard? In China, where suffering is a common and daily event, it forms a part of the social background in which everyone participates; it is an essential ingredient in the gestalt that is the Chinese experience. In America, our suffering is mainly self-inflicted and for the most part, most of us pass through life relatively unmolested. The proportion of people mired in poverty is growing however, and as counterintuitive as that seems, that might just very well be our salvation. To be rich is to be divorced from the essential in life. Americans have been rich for so long, they have forgotten essential values. Those platitudes, the common inheritance from our forefathers, have been coopted by the political elite as weapons to be used in their specialized battles in DC. But I digress.

After this private lesson, I ran back to Eve’s apartment where I found Eve and Gabe enjoying a private little meal. My phone had stopped working and I would need it in order to link up with Professor Anna and Snow. I told them about my broken, frozen phone and they quickly dismantled it and got it working again. I felt abashed that I had done this.

I got into a taxi—the driver had picked up a woman already, then he dropped her off along the way. The cab drivers in Harbin often try to increase their earnings by stuffing others fares into their musty cabs, and this one was no different. He finally settled on two soldiers on their way to the train station. I watched the entire scene with a nonchalant air. I just couldn’t be bothered to complain. When he finally got me close enough to the Ha Yi Bai across from the St. Sophia Church, he tried to overcharge me. I laughed at him and using perfect Chinese I told him in no uncertain terms that I was not about to be rooked by a taxi cab driver. I told him I’d pay fifteen kuai and that that was more than fair seeing as he already collected money from the woman and the two gomer pyles. He said nothing and took the fifteen kuai with a sullen air.

After a time, I met up with Anna and Snow and Anna’s son, David. They took me across the street to the Ha Yi Bai, a large mall that specialized in foreign brands. On the street corner we passed an unkempt middle-aged man who was kneeling on a square of cardboard. He was clutching his teenage son in his arms. The son had his pants pulled down and his backside revealed. He had a horrible wound on his tailbone: it was black and suppurating, the white gauze dressings having fallen away and exposing the wound to the chill October air. A small dirty felt cap lay on the ground filled with one kuai bills.

It was a terrible scene and I could not understand how in a communist country this could be allowed to happen. The communist party could look on his lurid display as a criticism of their system. This man was begging for help in front of a capitalist venture through which rivers of money sloughed with almost reckless abandon. With so much money being tossed about, how could there not be something set aside to alleviate the suffering of this poor boy. It was shameful, but this is how China is now. They could never build the essential infrastructure to service the enormous populace under a purely communist paradigm, and now as they are beginning a torrid love affair with capitalism, those with the resources and the mental acumen will rise above the thick mud of the masses, gaining wealth and health, comfort and commodities, unimaginable to the majority of the masses who will be left only dreaming of such a paradise. I am a member of that very inclusive club. I am one with that poor father; one with that poor son; one with the spirit of the poor! Poor in material things, but rich in suffering. If something should happen to me, I will not be far off from a dirty, spit-covered, shit-smeared street corner on a tattering sheet of cardboard begging for help from passing strangers. I comfort myself with that thought that as I pass into the marble-floored, golden–lit department store to go shopping. It’s nice to feel as if one were part of the ninety-nine percent of the world’s poor, but the reality for most Americans is that we are privileged, even when we are dirt poor. Dirt poor in the U.S. is not dirt poor in Mumbhai or Kinshasa or Sao Paolo.

Anna took me to the sixth floor. There were umpteen small little kiosks that served delicacies from all over China. It was not much better than the food courts that one can find in American shopping malls back home, but it was a bounteous gesture on her part. Later, I found out that her salary was half of mine. The foreign teachers are overpaid. Well, I am not overpaid, as I am an excellent resource and a dedicated professional. I may hate teaching and would rather spend all of my time writing and exercising and sleeping with beautiful women, but given a responsibility, I will execute my mandate with severe and exacting professionalism. Mostly. Usually. Well,…sometimes.

Her son got into a bad mood because he went to find a place to sit and we had grabbed a few dishes and sat without him elsewhere. He was only waiting perhaps fifteen minutes but it was long enough to send him into a fugue of cantankerousness. I tried to placate him, but really could not fathom the depth of his anger. Why he should be so put out over such a small and insignificant incident was beyond me. Then again, I had met his mom already: a thin, flat-chested Chinese woman, high cheekbones and a long sharp not unhandsome nose, but with a baffling habit of speaking in circular terms as if stuck on a loop. That would be enough to send any teenager into riffs of furious anger. He baldly chastised his mother in front of Snow and me. She and Anna laughed it off. I was awestruck. I marveled at how these two females acted as if such behavior were acceptable and normal. I would have pulled my son aside and spoken with him sharply to curb his behavior. If he were my son I might have been tempted to sacrifice him as decidedly as Abraham was to going to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Jewish god.

After I got him to smile a bit, his mom ruined my progress by returning to that same refrain: oh my son is bad-tempered; he is angry with me because I left him waiting, etc. etc. ad nauseam. One had to sympathize with the boy. We ate and began shopping for my winter clothes. After a bit, David ditched us saying he was “uncomfortable” but we all knew what was the score. Anna admitted the truth a bit later: he was still angry with his mom and now she was ignoring him and paying me all the attention. Moreover, she had lured him to this meeting with the promise of purchasing him some new clothes and as far as he could see, all that was going on was that we were shopping for the funny foreigner.

Snow had to leave for her bus a few minutes later and I was stuck with Anna alone. We could have been a couple, she and I. She wasn’t bad looking as far as toothy women go, but she was married, and the Catholic in me really couldn’t look past that cardinal sin. Besides, I really wanted a really short woman or a really tall woman: I don’t know why. I wanted someone I could lift into the air with perfect ease or a large woman whom I could crawl over like a Lilliputian. I am sure that the bastard Freudians would have an analysis of these kinds of demented predilections. Anna was married to a computer software designer. Although she complained about him, she did so in the manner of a doting woman, firmly dedicated to her family despite how much they complained about her annoying habits. This is the character of familial love and devotion that I think Tolstoy referred to at the beginning of Anna Karenina. If families are happy, then they must have some ingredients of mutual blindness and orchestrated ignorance mixed in with the islands of true bliss in order to preserve the harmony. If anyone looks too long into the abyss that comprises the average family, well, we all know what Nietzsche has said about that.

I ended buying some boots with real sheep’s wool lining for 450 kuai, discounted at half price for the National Holiday. Around six o’clock we went outside and we caught our separate buses home. At Eve’s apartment, I found Hammy there with Gabe and Winnie. Winnie shouted hello, but the two men did not and that piqued my anger. I didn’t want to feel insulted, but it felt like they were thumbing their noses at me. I stood there quietly for a moment and they continued chattering to each other as if I were ghost. Winnie smiled sheepishly.

I went in my room and shut my door, leaving the lights off. My bed beckoned me. Later, someone knocked. I firmly ignored it. It was Gabe. He shouted at me, asking if I wanted to go with them to get something to eat. I refused politely. He said okay and moved away from the door. More people poured into the tiny apartment and the volume of hilarity resounded off the ceiling. Hell. I was a bad person in a past life obviously. I stuck my earplugs in and went to sleep. Tried to go to sleep.

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