Harbin Diary October 5-6, 2011

October 5, 2011         Wednesday

I went to Hammy’s apartment and played babysitter for the two female workers. I had to supervise to make sure they did the job right.

Hammy made a mountain out of a molehill, or perhaps I should say a pair of double D cups out of a training bra. This is what happened: The two women arrived slightly early and Eve and I arrived slightly late (for which lateness we were soundly castigated). Abraham didn’t understand them, but he knew they were arrive this morning. They ignored him apparently, forced their way in, and prepared to get to work. The two middle-aged women proceeded to get changed into their work clothes, stripping out of their street clothes and pulling on their protective garments for the wet work ahead. Hammy was caught unawares and of course made a big show of how he saw the women taking off their pants and blouses. Outside in the street, he mimed the actions for Eve, shimmying his grotesque obesity in the impression of a slim Chinese woman shucking off shirts and pants. I felt ill.

This same thing had happened to me as well with the other female workers whom I arranged to clean Eve and Gabe’s apartment. I did not make a fuss over it: I merely turned my head politely and waited until they were ready. But for Hammy, as with so many things, if there is a kernel of sexuality in it, he would kick up a dust storm and milk every salacious drop out of the extraordinarily ordinary occurence of a pair of lower class workers changing into their work clothes, turning the commonplace into an event tantamount to Caligula’s dinner party.

The corpulent buffoon only recognizes that these women flashed him their flat or flabby bosoms, exposed their grub-white midriffs. He misses a larger, more significant point: what he fails to understand is that the lower classes do not have the privilege of modesty. More telling, they do not have the privilege of feeling sexual. They are stripped of sexuality. They are not male or female: gender has been taken from them and they are automatons. If Winnie or Eve stripped their clothes in front of us, it would indubitably contain a sexual element—not much, that’s true, they are not great beauties—but some tiny ember of the risqué. These worker women are so debased by the economic system that the mere implication of sexuality between them and, say, someone of higher status, like Danny or me, is as far removed from their minds as it would be from the minds of insects.

And they are insects. They are worker ants in the communist colony. All around in Harbin, we now see the results of Chinese capitalism: BMWs, Mercedes Benzes, even large gas-guzzling American SUVs can be seen. Mostly young men whose fathers have accumulated disposable funds in the new liberal economic atmosphere drive these large ostentatious vehicles. The gleaming behemoths are kipped up with strobe lights and police sirens, apparently legal to possess but illegal to use, yet the obnoxious little twits blast their sirens with impunity as they drive, imitating ambulances and whatnot, and no one does a damn thing about it. This represents an enormous amount of accumulated wealth in the hands of a very few. And the majority? I shall have to take Hammy into the countryside to visit a peasant farm and a country hospital. Then, he will have a grip on the infernal disparity that exists between the elite and the rest of the country.

China should be concerned. Egypt is not that far away. Ha! I wish.

Hammy went with Eve to jailbreak his phone and I was left to languish in the apartment as the women cleaned, my mind dull with lethargy. I could not even concentrate enough to read a comic book. I did read Tolstoy’s short story God Sees the Truth, stroking through it on my iPhone, and then lounged on Jimmy’s chair, wishing I could be released from this Promethean torture. I felt as if vultures were pecking away at my innards. The dust that swirled in the cramped spaces of the apartment assaulted my lungs and the corrosive chemicals pricked my nose and eyes. It was horrible. The women continuously commented as they worked: This is the dirtiest apartment we have ever cleaned!

One of the ladies got smart and put on a mask. The other did not; I asked her if she wanted one; I volunteered to go buy one for her. It was worth it to me. I feared for her health. The dust was getting thick, inescapable and venomous. But she said no, no, I’m fine, and I relented, falling back into the chair, consumed by hueva again.

Hours later Hammy and Eve returned, but the women still had quite a bit to finish. Actually, they had the worst to do: the nasty refrigerator. It stood in the dark corner with almost phantasmagorical menace. I swear the thing was swelling, inhaling and exhaling with unnatural mechanical life. Hammy refused to spell me and left to work on his PowerPoint lessons for tomorrow. I knew he would not stay, the lazy fucker.

Eve and I had very negative interactions during this whole ordeal. She seemed very unhappy with the entire situation. I had to be very firm with the workers otherwise they would not do a thorough job; they were ignoring me as they had ignored Hammy, smiling and tittering behind their small hands, telling me they knew their jobs quite well and not to worry. I would not accept that since I wanted—I needed them to do a very good job, which translates into: me, yelling my head off at them, belittling them and telling them that they had better do the job exactly as I stipulated: they’d better clean every fucking corner, every baseboard, every speck of dirt, every cobweb, every glob of grease, everything; and if they couldn’t or didn’t then I’d chuck them out on their scrawny asses without me paying one single dime. As it was, I was accepting less than I wanted: I wanted four women working to clean this pigsty up.

Normally, I would never raise my voice to a woman and even less likely am I to bully common laborers, but these two took it into their heads that they would perform a perfunctory job (perhaps at the behest of Grace the Dragon lady, our evil unscrupulous boss) and I had to disabuse them of that notion. I had to get them to take me seriously. For one, I had to placate my fat colleague and for another, I had to placate my own Felix Unger-esque germophobia. Eve looked on in horror as I unleashed a stream of Chinese vituperative. The two women shut up and hopped to it.

Eve left, not surprising, with a dismayed look on her face. I stayed of course to see the work completed. There was some more unpleasantness regarding the payment. Eve didn’t have the money that Grace had promised. I sure as hell wouldn’t pay. I paid to clean Eve’s apartment—partly because I could not stand to live in such filthy circumstances, but also to determine how costly or inexpensive it was to have done. It ended up being very cheap, which means Grace and Company did not have our apartment cleaned out of sheer ineptitude and/or disregard for our welfare.

Hammy deigned to pay the amount as Eve had no money of her own and Grace was conveniently unavailable. I told him not to do that, but he ignored me. I am sure it was an opportunity for him to act like the Big Man. Anyone who knows Hammy knows that he is a notorious skinflint. He only acts generously to aggrandize his self. Whenever we tried to get him to ante up some money for a cause in the school, it was like pulling teeth. And usually he would promise to get back to us and then stiff us in the end. Perhaps his finances were always in disarray from his disease and from having to fork over money over to his destitute parents. Still, no one was asking him for that much. It was just piddling stuff for birthday cards and Christmas gifts. With grand pomp and circumstance, he gave Eve the money. I shook me head.

When she left I helped the women finish and then I gave them a fifty kuai tip. It was not much, about twenty-two percent, and may have seemed magnanimous to them—especially after I yelled at them and acted the devil—but I knew that this little donation was nothing compared to the Herculean effort it cost them to stay and attack this disgusting filthy apartment. And it was a Herculean effort, equivalent of destroying the Hydra: after cleaning one spot, two more filthy dervishes raised their dusty heads. We’d have been better off using a flame-thrower on the place. Anyway, it was done. All that could be done was done. We were promised a brand-new two-bedroom apartment, but we would have to make do.

I felt sick from the dust and chemicals as I walked over to Eve’s apartment. My head was giddy and my stomach churned violently as I walked down the dirty broken pavements and oily pocked streets, dodging buses and taxis moving past me like lurching whales and darting sharks. It was a sea of pollution, an ocean of noise and dark and menace. I needed sanctuary, Hemingway’s clean well-lighted place, but I wasn’t likely to get it. Eve’s apartment would have to suffice.

At night, the sky lit up with lightning, flashing dazzling light into my sixth floor room. The heavens cracked open and the rain fell in gusty sheets against the windows. Once its force was spent, a steady drizzle descended on the city.

The five of us went out to get something to eat. I went although I was not hungry, in fact nauseous. The Spaniard Ethan was going to meet us downstairs. We settled on the noodle shop across the street from Eve’s. Paul and Stony, two other English teachers, showed up with Ethan and we had to leave to find other accommodations, as we were too many to fit in the small greasy shop. I couldn’t take all the sociality so I ditched them. They turned right and I turned left. They shouted after me, asking where I was going. I shouted over my shoulder that I would catch up with them later. Yes, I am eccentric and some could interpret my actions as that of a jerk. But not really. It is love that drives me from them. I felt a bad mood coming on and I didn’t want to subject them to it, so I left them. Better they feel scorned than they experience my unchained choler. And after this long day I was feeling angry, cantankerous, and wrathful. And polluted. My cells felt invaded with grime and dust. I went home and showered again, brushing my teeth vigorously, cleaning my ears, my eyes, every orifice, trying to rid myself of every last microbe and chemical from that disgusting apartment.

I fell into bed. My sleep was fitful.

October 6, 2011         Thursday

I cannot recall anything with any certainty for this day. I felt horrible from inhaling all of the dust and chemicals from the previous day. [This could be the start of a Harbin Zombie story!] I keep sneezing and coughing and hacking up a lung.

I remember from college Nietzsche discussing philosophers who philosophized from a “sick” point of view. I wonder if this is what he meant.

I packed up all of my things and left Eve and Gabe’s apartment. No one helped. Hammy offered several times, but it was difficult for me to imagine him lifting his vast, jiggly bulk off the couch and grabbing some of my gear and marching with me a mile or so down the road. No, this was a job for supermen, not puling, mewling weinies. I’m not sure I spelled that right.

I was quite a sight, toting my massive Northface backpack and a pair of smaller book bags. On the way out I passed the young Xinjiang Muslim who cooks skewers of meat of unrecognizable origin on the street corner. Perseus had warned me that Xinjiang people were reputed to be notorious thieves, drug runners, etc. I studiously avoided this guy because of their nefarious sketchy reputation. Besides that, once I saw a man toss half a skewer on the sidewalk in front of a street dog. The filthy matted mutt sniffed at it, but didn’t eat it. In fact, thought I saw its lip curl. That’s quite a culinary critique.

I should probably give a quick rundown of Xinjiang. It’s the far, far northwest of China, bordering Mongolia, Tibet, Russia, India, Pakistan, and a host of hard to pronounce places. It’s known in the press for being a place of continual unrest. The ethnic and religious minorities are constantly giving fits to the local Chinese government by rioting, pitching crude bombs, threatening to hijack planes, the usual litany of Muslim responses to an undesired government. Historically the place is a hotbed of trouble, surrounded on all sides by fractious bellicose cultures. But regardless of the shit the local denizens dish out, China will never give away Xinjiang for two reasons, three reasons: oil and natural gas, and of course pride. It’s also a place where China performed nuclear bomb tests. That’s all well and good—everybody should have the bomb right?—but the trouble was they didn’t inform the local populace that said tests were going to happen. Hundreds of thousands died. The Communist government of course disputes those figures.

Many of the people from Xinjiang are Persian looking, with fair-colored eyes and occidental features. The ones I have seen wear these white fez-looking hats, something else that sets them apart. The hats remind me of Master Wang Ziping, Madame Wang Jurong’s father. Master Wang was of the Hui ethnicity, practiced Islam, and was a kung fu legend. His daughter, a certified national wushu treasure, taught me wushu at the Houston Academy of Chinese Martials Arts and Medicine. Teaching Americans kung fu was her way of enjoying a quiet relaxed retirement; one has to remember that she was used to coaching the greatest coaches in China so her teaching me was kind of her way of slumming in America; nonetheless, she always made me feel welcome and she appreciated that I spoke Chinese with her. She even used to give us homemade cookies after blasting our muscles for five straight hours. She was extraordinary. Despite the warm fuzzy feelings I have for her and the Hui minority, Xinjiang people have always given me the willies. They remind me of gypsies and as my experience of New York gypsies is not exactly rosy, I steer clear. It’s the typical fear of the unknown.

The dusky-skinned chap and his scraggly-bearded partner were giving me the hairy eyeball. I assumed that he was offended because I was probably the only neighborhood foreigner who never sampled his wares. Since I was leaving and didn’t expect to be back any time soon, I asked him: Which way to Beijing? They looked at me in shock and surprise: Beijing? Beijing? You want to go to Beijing?

I jogged back to Eve’s after dropping off the heavy load. The worst of it was over and I only had a few small light things left to bring over to the new place. Winnie wanted me to stay and wait for Eve who wanted to cook some food for me, but I said, “NO THANK YOU” and left. Sorry, but her cooking was not gonna be any good for me. Besides I would feel compelled to do the dishes in that cramped nasty kitchen and that was also something that I did not want to do.

The second trip did me in. I grabbed some street grub, wolfed it down, went back to my new home, and fell into the nasty, soiled, dusty bed, nickeled and riven with fatigue and fever.

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