Harbin Diary October 7, 2011

October 7, 2011         Friday

Hammy was pacing outside my bedroom door.

I am a light sleeper; the slightest sound wakes me and then it takes me forever to get back to sleep. As I’ve gotten older, I have taken to sleeping with earplugs, but even those can’t shut out every single noise. I just can’t take so many sleepless nights in a row. Jean Paul Sartre wrote a trilogy of novels (don’t I wish I could get back that month of Sundays) and one of them was titled Troubled Sleep. I hate that damn fact rolling around in my head. It makes me feel that I have “troubled sleep” for some ulterior reason, some hidden guilt—some anxiety besides Sartre’s nauseous horror of pure being.

I never get to sleep the sleep of the just. Why? I’ll tell you: I was poisoned with this peculiar attitude about sleeping a long time ago. I can’t remember how it got into my head, but it went something like this: if you were a superbadass, no one could sneak up on you. You would react with the speed of a cobra should anyone approach you. So when I was young I used to practice waking myself up as I began falling to sleep; if I heard a sound, any sound—I’d leap up with my best imitation Bruce Lee yawp: Ay wai YaaAhhooah! A mouse farting constituted a mortal danger; the subconscious alarms would wail, and then, I’d bolt from under the covers and start karate-chopping and kung fu-kicking the air. I was training to be a world class superbadass. If you allowed yourself to be caught unawares, well, you were less of a man. These kinds of retarded ideas are the result of living in a city exposed to fantasy literature like The Dark Knight and Romeo and Juliet, far away from country farms and far away from traditional modes of raising young boys into men.

There’s something to be said for ancient rites of passage. A young Kalahari bushman doesn’t wake from a sound sleep because he hears the wind soughing through the thorny Acacia trees. He might wake with alarm if he heard the sound of soft leather-like paws padding through the scrub brush, otherwise he might end up in the belly of some savanna predator. I wonder if there are youngsters living in modern-era tribes who have outré ideas of how they would prefer to live? Or are they too busy surviving to invest much cerebration into the fantastical? Instead, they sow their imaginative powers into the harsh second by second field of temporal existence, conjuring better ways of hunting, farming, and coexisting in their unforgiving terrain. In any event, I bet they get a good night’s sleep.

Master Yi once told me a parable about his Old Master from his days in the temple. One spring day his Old Master was walking to the nearby village with a young acolyte. An acorn fell from a nearby tree and the young acolyte, hearing the noise and fearing an attack from bandits, spun around and whipped out his sword, slicing the acorn perfectly in half. The acolyte was proud of himself, but he wondered why the Old Master had not reacted at all.

“Master, didn’t you hear that sound? It could have been highway robbers!”

The Old Master, who had not altered his slow steady pace one bit, said with some scorn, “Ach! It was just an acorn!”

I think Master Yi lifted this story from somewhere else, but that doesn’t matter. He was really good at introducing these Eastern nuggets of wisdom that went against the Western grain of ludicrous ideas I was forming about my identity. It got me thinking: maybe some of my lifestyle choices weren’t very healthy. Or intelligent. Too bad I didn’t act on those thoughts. I’d have been much happier. Or at least better rested.

The polar opposite of such odd non-sleeping behavior is sleeping like the dead, and I once knew such a person, a lovely young woman who was the best pal of my erstwhile girlfriend whom I’ll call K. I had heard stories of the enormous difficulty of waking her friend, but I assumed that my red-haired beauteous girlfriend was exaggerating, as people often do. When I visited K’s hometown, I saw for myself the truth of her statements. Pony—her friend’s sobriquet—could not be woken by conventional means. It was as if Morpheus had taken her to some far off land of enchantment in the dream sphere and erased the dim path that would show her the way back to the gates of wakefulness.

We spent the night at Pony’s apartment after the customary night of drinking and chatting. In the morning, a god-awful ringing woke me, strident, obnoxious, and incredibly loud.

“What the hell is that?” I asked K.

“Pony’s alarm,” she said.

“It sounds like a fire truck going off in there.” It was clanging ceaselessly, relentlessly, pitilessly. God damn! It was loud. “Is she going to turn it off or what?”

“She probably doesn’t hear it.”

“Is she deaf? My God!”

We went to her bedroom and sure enough, there lay pretty Pony, eyes shut in sweet dulcet repose, face as placid as a babe fast asleep in a quiet bonny bower. My girlfriend began shaking her awake. Nothing. For a moment I thought Pony had died, perhaps killed by some strange disease that affects pretty women and takes them in their sleep. K pinched her nose shut. Pony’s mouth dropped open. K countered by stifling Pony’s mouth. Slowly Pony shook her head, seeking air, returning to this world, swimming up from unimaginably profound depths.

I was in awe; I was in shock. I had never seen such a thing. I was so jealous.

Pony eyes opened momentarily and K shoved her, “Get up, sleepy head!”

Pony rolled onto her side and K slapped her soundly on the ass. Normally such a thing would spin my mind into the gutter, but I was too busy marveling at Pony’s physical idiosyncrasy. God, how I wished I could sleep like that! Long gone were the days when I imagined I would grow up to become a premier ninja working for the highest bidder (only jobs from ethical sources of course) and thus needing to sleep like a dragon with one eye open through the night. No, I was a simple schoolteacher and sound sleep was high on my priority list. Every second lost was agony. If only I could get through the night without waking!

The other strange thing about “troubled sleep” is the nerve-racking fact that it might be hereditary. My father suffers from “night terrors,” an aftereffect of his horrific time working for the State Police in one of the banana republics south of the US border.

It’s disorienting to get woken up in the middle of the night by bloodcurdling screams of pure terror—to say the least. My poor Mom. As children, we’d wake after hear these horrible howls, huddle more deeply into our blankets, too afraid to move, and stare into the night until Hypnos claimed us once again. We never once asked our parents what exactly was going on. Well, I never did. Years later, as an adult spending the night in my parents’ home and after being woken in the night by his awful bellowing, I did ask her about it.

“Yeah, he’s gonna give me a heart attack one of these nights. I just kick him until he wakes up.”

My father does not talk about it and asking him only puts him a foul mood. Whatever it is that haunts him must be something truly awful. My father is many things, good and bad, but one of them he is certainly not is easily spooked.

I broached the subject to him only because I too found myself also suffering from terrible nightmares; this, besides being a light sleeper, has really put a crimp into my slumber and I wondered…well, I wondered many things both logical and macabre. I thought it might be a bad habit I unconsciously acquired during childhood. Or perhaps we had a genetic predisposition to such things. I also imagined that there might be another, less scientific reason. Occasionally I convince myself that the things that go bump in the night are indeed of unnatural origin and malevolent in disposition. I, unlike my father, don’t believe in the Devil with a capital letter ‘d.’ But, exactly because I tell myself that Lucifer is a manmade construct and cannot possibly exist, and because I am a human forever condemned to self-doubt, I wonder if I might be wrong, and that there is in fact a Devil, and he enjoys sending some of his underlings to screw with my sleep. Probably not. The Devil more than likely wears a human face, an all-too-human face.

Hammy heard me stir. He rapped on the door. No Satan; only God with a funny sense of humor.

“Zen! Are you awake?”  Christ in heaven, give me strength.


“We have a meeting with Grace this morning….”

Abraham in his inimitable OCD/ADHD manner conveyed to me that we would have a meeting with the director, our boss, and I’m not sure how else to describe this bloodless, predatory dragon-lady who terrifies all of the foreign English teachers. I am not afraid of anyone who cannot physically harm me. Grace is…is fluffy, nattily dressed with a big moon-pie face and a big pig nose; your basic middle-aged businesswoman. She cannot kill me, but she may do me in via apoplexy.

How can I describe the following so that there is no misunderstanding?

Hmm, she drives me to lurid fantasies of gross inhuman violence. The amount of frustration I have felt over this Harbin situation could cover Mount Everest in black snow. All for greed. There is no other way of saying it. It is out of pure unadulterated greed. We were lured here under false pretenses and she acts as if this were all quite a normal way of conducting human affairs. Lying is apparently par for the course in China. We are not teachers; we are trash; we are idiotic workers to be exploited for her selfish gain. The latter I might very well be for signing that execrable contract without insisting on changes.

It infuriates me. It infuriates me.

Originally, I indulged myself and wrote a hallucinatory piece of which I was quite proud because of its brutal, realistic, and stylistic qualities. I composed a few paragraphs in which my boss was given her comeuppance. She was abused in a vile manner—physically, sexually, and psychologically. While I enjoyed the feelings of vindication and revenge and was indeed appreciative of its amazing pace and attention to detail, I realized after some consideration that this was not a healthy way to spend an afternoon. Without a doubt I would horrify my female friends and I decided in the end to censor myself. My favorite professor once pointed out to me that Russian literature is essentially very chaste despite the hyperbolic plumbing into humanity’s spiritual abyss. There isn’t the lurid detailed rendering of each and every vice that one may find in other pieces of world literature. They treat such matters truthfully, but with elegance, making use of the oblique glance rather than the direct stare. It’s too bad I don’t possess the skills of even the least talented Russian writer!

I must admit that I was partially prompted to write such an offensive piece out of curiosity. Could I pull it off? I had read Ha Jin’s Waiting in grad school and the rape scene in it was terrifyingly realistic. I wondered as I read that part of the book how could Ha Jin have conceived of such a scene? I was not the only one whose writer’s admiration was piqued or whose moral sentiments were scalded by the scene. I read an interview with him in which he described why he included the scene: essentially the novel had hit a lull and it needed something to jumpstart the plot. The main protagonists had settled comfortably (behind the writer’s back) into this feckless platonic relationship whose sexual tension leaned toward lethargic and monotonous limbo. Not a winning combination, hence the vicious brutal rape scene. Ha Jin admitted he doubted if he could pull it off, but after performing some research he put pen to paper and gave his languishing novel the defibrillation it needed.

I thought to myself: what should I do? How do I manage this moral quandary? I don’t have a narrative purpose for the scene (the fact that I am a fictional person notwithstanding). So, how should I proceed? What would I do in the real world that I could imitate in this fictional one? In the real world I might seek out therapy. Or vent my troubles to some friends. Ironically enough the choice was clear: I should resort to the teachings of the Dalai Lama to manage this cauldron of venomous hatred boiling in my heart for this horrid abusive woman.

Master Yi would approve. After all, he often quoted stories to us that involved throwing buckets of love at a problem before resorting to physical violence (of course this was a man who once threatened to chop off my friend’s head because he thought he was betraying him in an aborted business deal…but still, the idea was nice). WWJD? Or in this case: WWDLD? The irony is perfect. I would resort to the philosophy of a man whose country was devastated, raped and pillaged, by China. I would think of the Dalai Lama’s words in order to negotiate this bilious repugnant spiritual moral morass that I found myself in. My anger and loathing was corrosive. Never mind Grace, I needed to deal with this in such a way that I could heal from the wrath I felt over getting so resoundingly screwed. How? How to heal?

Indulging in violent rape fantasies might feel good but it would inevitably be accompanied with feelings of guilt. Someone else might not feel the sting of compunction, but I certainly would. What process would work to soothe and overcome? My time in Dharamsala and other holy places taught me the power of compassion. It’s not easy. In fact, the hardest thing to do is forgive someone who has wronged you. I was not going to shoot for forgiveness, but I needed some happy middle ground of acceptance.

I tried to think about Grace as a little child. This was an enormous task. Children, most children are innocent little pudgy cherubim. Later, they might turn into monsters when society and genetic disposition realized their malevolent potentialities. Grace as a child? What changed her? What made her so cruel, callous, and covetous? Maybe she was molested as a young girl! That thought really cranked up the guilt and set my compassion-ometer blinking and chiming like a pinball machine. Perhaps family members abused her or a gang of students tormented her daily about her weight and porcine looks. Perhaps once upon a time she was as innocent as Snow White, pure as driven snow, until a series of miserable unfortunate events twisted and corrupted a gentle and ingenuous heart into a warped and razor-edged one. Where once her soul was downy like soft cotton and redolent like spring honeysuckle it was now transformed into a bellicose wasteland of twisted burning metal, exploding landmines, and noisome vapors. She transformed from a Disney cartoon into the Terminator.

In my mind’s eye I see Grace: she has a body like little Bo Peep, but her face is as big as a bobble-head and still middle-aged. She traipses over the four-color landscape, singing sweet ditties and shepherding milk-white lambs to and fro. The scene shoots forward with cinematic velocity: there are men in jackboots (always there are men in jackboots) who perform unspeakable acts; her family is abused by the political incumbents and her grandfather is vilified unjustly, maybe even hanged for imaginary crimes; then, tearful scenes ensue where Grace is left alone in dunning solitude, shunned by her better-looking politically-correct classmates; she falls in love, but the man only uses her to help him pass the national exams and then he dumps her; college is more of the same; she gets a decent job, but is passed over for promotion in favor of other women whose talents pale next to hers, but whose beauty far outstrips hers; she learns that in this life only the fittest survives: she pledges to be as cutthroat and bloodthirsty as any corporate raider or seafaring pirate; she will not be poor, but carve a life of luxury for herself using anyone and any means she can. There are many unsuspecting foreigners who look for work in Harbin. Ah ha! And there you go. She is a product of ruthless historicity, a product of generations of stultifying fear, pitiless abuse, bitter suffering, and unending toil.

Or she’s just a plain BEE-otch! In any event, by forcing myself to feel compassion I cultivate two things: a heart predisposed to relinquish the hate and then, I feel an honest moral joy that I am doing the right thing. Do I know for sure that this is the right thing? Would it be better to act like Tony Soprano and hire some pipe-wielding Chinese brothers to whack her? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But these Walter Mitty-cum-Goodfellas daydreams are doing me no good. Better to take the high road, as my dear old dad would inevitably do. Pretending I’m Robert DeNiro or Al Pachino exorcises no demons, contrary to what I might have thought as a youth. I know better. Keep my mind here and now; keep my mind light. Happy. Soft. Resolute, but soft.

Bella taught me an interesting chengyu: 害人之心不可有,防人之心不可無. Hairen zhixin bukeyou, fangren zhixin bukewu. It basically means: don’t be bloodthirsty, but be wary. Never trust until you truly understand the other’s person heart. This piece of wisdom tells me my goose is cooked over here: I am a trusting fool, I am Dostoevsky’s Idiot. C’est la vie, mes amis!

Strangely, I edit these past entries now in its future, knowing what will come, knowing what will pass. I need to catch up because the temporal dislocation I feel when I work on these old diary entries is wreaking havoc on my psyche.

The meeting with Grace is pathetic. No one mentions the real problems we face, the lack of materials, the lack of prep time, the disorganized living arrangements, the scattered venues. Grace just wants to know if we can indeed teach Chinese students the SAT materials. We say we can, well, I say we can. Hammy just sits, ankle propped on knee, smoking a cigarette. Once I see Grace, my stomach sinks. I realize the same thing will happen all over again. Grace will yell at Eve and blame her for not taking care of us. It’s all a farce. We’ve been duped. I am angry with myself. I allowed myself to fall into the typical teaching English trap. In Taiwan, that had not happened; I sniffed out the worst offenders and dodged them. Years later you’d think it even less likely to happen, but I walked into it and brought poor Hammy into it too. Goddamn. I tell Grace that Abraham paid for the apartment cleaning. She looks at me. I look back. She snaps her fingers at Eve. They speak in the raw Dongbei accent, too thick and fast for me to follow, but I get the gist. Eve disappears into the back office and comes out with some fresh crisp 100 kuai bills.

After the meeting we take Hammy to get bedding at Fuzhuang Cheng, Clothing City. Hammy goes on and on about how he needs a tight fitting sheet for his bed. It must fit tightly! Tight. Very tight. As tight as his underwear under his jeans. He goes on and on about his tightie-whities. He gesticulates with his hands and spreads his jeans tightly against his ass. I want to vomit.

Hammy and his tight underwear analogy irritates me to no end and I leave to prepare my lesson for my three sweet students: Grace, Mary, and Nancy. Nancy does not show up. The lesson is about “meeting the in-laws.” Poor good-natured Grace suffers through it with perfect Chinese aplomb: she has just broken up with her boyfriend! I barely make it through the lesson as well. I still feel ill and that meeting with the Grace-inator didn’t help. I walk home hurriedly and pass out.


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