Harbin Diary October 3, 2011

October 3, 2011         Monday

Odds and Ends: Today I had to teach a “COS” lesson which means my students are generally young women of means who have or feel the need to pay for exorbitant private English lessons. My three were to have been Mary, Nancy, and Grace. The latter was not there and in fact never made it to the class. I had taught these three women in one of my first lessons in Harbin. They remembered me and had in fact requested that I return to teach them. A trio of young women: the Fates are aligned against me! I am struggling today as my dreams were shamelessly tortuously sexual during the night—I will have to crack open my dream journal afterwards. How responsible is one for one’s dreams?

Mary was a young advertising graduate looking for a job. She had plain features made plainer by the nondescript wide black glasses fixed on her broad nose. She suffered from acne and had none of the typical attributes that would prompt one to comment on her beauty. Her skin was sallow; her eyes glinted dully and fishlike under her thick lenses; her large lips were cracked from windburn and stretched over her mouth in a perpetual frown. Her coal-colored hair was thin and hung limply from her oily head. She was in fact homely, and as usual it made me like her. I am drawn to the underdog, naturally. She was shy, but not hesitant in her answers. She spoke English in a packaged, clipped manner as if each word were air-sealed before leaving her lips. I urged her to insinuate some tone and casual drawl in her speech. She did not need to accentuate the robotic-ness of her language.

Nancy on the other hand was a real cutie. She had the small, slightly pointed nose of a Hello Kitty girl. She had perfect rosebud lips, glowing skin, warm chocolate eyes, and an obviously curvaceous body. Yes, I found myself drawn to her as any man would when confronted by a remarkable beauty. She was not a dumb beauty either: she was a graduate student in international management. Nancy’s English was much more natural, but pocked with grammar errors as numerously as poor Mary’s face was with blackheads. Both had a fair command of English and both applied themselves assiduously to the tasks assigned to them.

I was feeling very low in energy and just wanted to deliver my lesson and skedaddle. As it was, the damn school delayed the lesson by thirty minutes and looked at me as if I were at fault for arriving early. This ploy is common apparently. Arriving early is one thing; they also like to move the lesson up and then have the gall to upbraid the foreign teacher for arriving “late.” This in fact happened to Abraham who had the luck of arriving thirty minutes early and thus only thirty minutes late.

My lesson went well despite my lackadaisical attitude; some drivel about dialing 911 if an emergency should arise. I knew that I would have to interject some personality into the lesson before it was over. The lesson finally took off when I finished the “lesson” and engaged in free conversation. I began to prompt them with questions and they had to exert themselves to express their meaning in unstructured language. Moreover, my questions solicited opinions, about how they felt Harbin had changed in the past decade. Their answers were singular in content, but differed in degree.

Nancy and Mary were agreed in that Harbin had become busier, dirtier, more corrupt, more dishonest, more expensive, and more polluted. There was however more business being made, and thus the net worth of some people seems to have increased. Nancy was the less vehement of the two. Mary was decidedly against Harbin; she reiterated in no uncertain terms how greedy everyone had become, how dishonest and quick to cheat the buyer. Nancy politely agreed, but she seemed less concerned with the obvious downsides of modernization and its concomitant capitalistic voracity. She was looking to study and work abroad; honestly, with a quick mind and such lovely features, it was difficult to imagine her not achieving her goals. Mary was a different case.

Struggling to find employment, she desperately wanted to break from the chains of her hometown and escape to Qingdao, a coastal city famed for its beauty, its cleanliness, and its tourist trade. It was the city that brewed China’s only international beer, Qingdao pi-jiu, legacy of the German people who built a brewery in order to tide themselves over as they joined in on the general raping and pillaging that the Europeans disgracefully perpetrated against the innocent and defenseless Chinese during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Mary had quite a number of friends there, and yearned to join them, but she felt vexed that she could not leave her mother and father, and especially her grandparents, who apparently raised her for most of her life. She expressed to me how much she loved her grandparents. I could infer that she was essentially in limbo, waiting for them to pass on. This was the unstated message. I urged her to move on with her life. Her family wants her to be happy, I reminded her, and she could bring her parents to visit on holidays and she could also return to Harbin to visit her grandparents. This was the natural course of life that a child should grow and leave the nest. I spouted these platitudes and other eternal verities as we left the school. My words seemed to have some effect, despite their insipidly obvious and avuncular nature.

I think Mary was more impressed by the fact that I spent time with her and engaged in a heartfelt conversation outside of the parameters of the classroom. Most teachers probably bolt as soon as the lesson is up. In truth, I was in just such a mood, but Mary’s story pulled on my heartstrings and I forgot my hunger, submerged in the drama of her life as she described it. Her pain and seeming loneliness resonated with my own. Perhaps I tried to give her some succor, some consolation, the very same succor and consolation for which I too desperately and secretly yearn. At least when we parted, she flashed a wide, toothy smile that split her face with an emotional and genuine glow. She said she hoped that I could remain her teacher and I said I would be only too happy to serve in such a capacity.

I felt light and happy. Obviously, I was filled with the fatuous self-satisfaction of the moralist, except in this case I was behaving like some species of emotional philanthropist, always a dubious position. My negative spin on the events to the contrary, I did indeed feel a real, visceral joy. I felt happy that someone seemed to want me, need me, that I served a purpose on this earth. The stultifying lethargy one feels from being out of work for an extended period of time creates both a moral and psychological despair. On the street corner, as I turned away from Mary, my eyes caught three singular-looking Chinese women looking at me, staring fixedly at me, in fact.

I am of course a very nondescript-looking man: I am short, neither slim nor portly, brown-haired with a touch of gray at the temples, neither homely nor comely, and I dress in very plain clothes. I am everyman. I am part of the vast gray ebb and flow of the city streets. Why should they stare at me? I am no one. I am “a nobody,” beneath the notice of everyone, even the damn street cats pay me no mind, little vixens that they are. Why should this trio of fearsome, splendid-looking women give me the glare, the hairy eyeball? I gave them a small smile, small but unabashed.

The women were unique in appearance: they were very tall—especially for Chinese—and very statuesque, veritable beauties, a trio of Asian Amazonians. Their bodies were straight, tall, and extremely beautiful: they exuded a very physical sense of force, of physical strength. It would be a real dust-up if they assaulted me. And they were not dressed in fashionable clothes either; in fact, they seemed dressed very modestly and befitting the chill autumn evening. It passed through my mind that they could be thinking that I was a middle-aged teacher preying on my young, librarian-looking, unsuspecting student. Or perhaps they were just staring at a foreigner coming out of the New Oriental School, which employs many foreign English teachers. Or they may have been struck by the earnest exchange between the two of us. I don’t know. Another trio of women.

I was filled with an honest joy, the pleasure that truly seems innocent and forthright and genuine and sincere and untainted by ulterior motive. I will say that it is easier to feel that ulterior motives don’t come into play when one is dealing with a lady who is not a particular beauty. With obviously gorgeous women, I as a man, always feel slightly uncomfortable and unsure of my subconscious desires working behind the scenes or under the tapestry of my conscious mind as it were. I want to think that I am a righteous man and more in control of my animal drives than the average person. Perhaps I am like everyone else and subscribe equally to this delusion.

In any event, I waved at them and walked off into the chill dark air, my step light, filled with untrammeled and unsullied joy. It buoyed me and set me aglow. I hailed the food vendors in the street with familiarity and they each in turn called me to patronize their stalls. I sought out the man who fried up potatoes and tofu. I was adamant in trying to stick to a vegetarian diet as much as possible. Unfortunately it was late, and he and several others had already closed up shop for the evening.

“You’re finishing class late, tonight,” he commented.

“Yes,” I said, “today we finished late.” I went off a little disappointed, but not overly much. Food is not in short supply in Harbin.

Laoshi!” He called me back, he and the sausage vendor and the woman who boils up these little skewers of meat and vegetables. They pressed upon me a big bag of fried potatoes and onions.

Duoshao qian?” When I asked the tall man how much, he waved me away. I was awestruck. “Zhende? Really?” He would take no money.

I thanked him and waved delightedly to everyone, hungrily stuffing my mouth full with the savory, peppery, hot chunks of onion and potato. There is no meal quite so delicious as a free meal seemingly delivered from Heaven, especially when one is hungry.

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