Harbin Diary October 13-14, 2011

October 13, 2011       Thursday

I have not written in the diary for two days. I had to prepare my college lessons and I also had to start preparing for the SAT demo. Moreover, this “cold” from the dust has lingered. I have begun exercising again however, which is something.

I finished classes at 剑桥学院 Cambridge College and afterward I helped “Ice” with her oral presentation for the Speech Debate the following weekend. Ice is a tall, full figured young woman with high cheekbones, dancing eyes, broad smile, and a small nose that is just so imperceptibly hooked. Her otherwise lovely features are marred by a severe case of acne, which calls to mind a beautiful but neglected Greek statue speckled with pigeon droppings. I sat with her and shred her essay to pieces. I tried to be politic, but I had to let her know that she was using Chinglish in her essay. Her pronunciation is quite good, but she will suffer in the cross-examination as she cannot respond fluently nor does she possess an extensive vocabulary. I helped her correct the essay and gave her some advice. She will have to re-write the essay tonight. I agreed to meet with her tomorrow to help her with her pronunciation.

As I took the #338 bus back to my neighborhood, I was able to stand by the wide-open window and hang out of it like a dog, the breeze flying over my face, caressing my hair. The weather by midday is quite pleasant, even warm, a nice change from the chill night air. I cannot remember when it stopped raining, but when it did rain, the city became a drab, miserable, and lonely place, worsened by my illness that indeed made life a cold bitter hell.

Several things happened during these two days that I should note. I would like to jot down some of the city’s poetry. Every city has poetry I think and Harbin is no exception. Its strange urban poetry can be seen etched in the lines of an old woman’s face, her body bent almost double. I stare amazed at the nearly ninety-degree bend of her back. It folds as neatly as piece of paper. She shuffles along slowly, her face a wan moon glowing in the dim light of dusk not a meter from the pavement.

I watch two grizzled road workers swing their pickaxes in the green air of the morning, sweat rolling down their grimy, seamed faces, their army caps barely covering their hoary heads. A pack of well-dressed young men stand close by, looking like a murder of noisy crows, and argue over something wrong in the pavement design. The pickaxe rings off the black implacable stone. I am desperate to take the ax from them and bend my back to the task, use my still-hard muscle to cleave the stone from the earth and give them some reprieve. They are older than I am and still they must work so hard for their daily bread. I feel shame: while my life is not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination it is still easy compared to theirs.

I watch a man—he could be any man—tall, stout, face red and swollen from drinking, standing with his small, hard potbelly exposed to the bright midday sun; he is waiting for the bus. He looks angry; he looks irritated; he looks defiant: he is Harbin. He is the soul of the city. To survive here, one must be proud of one’s belly, stand defiant in the street, stand drunk in the street, and glare with menace for a bus that never comes.

The dusty wind flies over my face and I feel happy.

I must recap all of the misadventures with this “company” at Cambridge College. They are slapping new charges against us. Apparently we must pay 2200 kuai for the Expert Visa Extension. Hammy is understandably adamant that we will not pay. I sure as hell don’t want to pay. Recently, they emailed new amendments to the contract that stipulates that the teachers must also pay a deposit for the bedding! This is of course absolutely ridiculous: the bedding I received is so oily and soiled that it is only suitable for the lowest class of person, a person just like…just like me! Even it is too disgusting for me, sweet anarchist that I am. All of the teachers are pretty upset about this new development. Hammy, again, is dead set against paying for any of these spurious charges. After several volleys of angry emails, Eve informed us that we would not be expected to pay the deposit, given the horrendous state of the apartment. I am starting to not care. I am angry that I allowed myself to get sucked into this instead of saying no and looking for another, better company. I got Abraham out of his shit-hole job in California, only to slide into a literal bed of fire where we are at the whim of an irrational, uncaring, and ruthless company. I essentially jumped into the dark and took the poor sap with me—all because I wanted to escape Texas and California to go somewhere cold. Christ! I could have moved to fucking Canada! I am angry and disappointed with myself to say the least.

I feel very annoyed. Abraham does what he always does and I hate him for it. I realize he can’t help himself because he is a megalomaniac and a grotesque egotist. He must have all of the attention; subsequently, I have been marginalized. Like a walking black hole, he has sucked up all of the attention. If I were less emotional, hotheaded, and impulsive, I would not be in this very screwed position in Harbin. I am alienated and Hammy is perfectly happy. He has all of the ex-pats speaking like gang-bangers. It’s shameful. He doesn’t realize what an anti-intellectual he is. We argued about Orange County. He hates “OC” and speaks of Orange County with bile and venom. I understand where this anger and envy comes from, but he has committed the error of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I try to tell him this but he refuses to listen. He gets so arrogant, literally bouncing up and down declaiming against the snobs of OC that I just want to slap him silly. Perhaps we are too much alike.

On the way home from the New Oriental School at Daoli, I met a young man from Nigeria; Emmanuel was his name. He came out of the exact same school. When he saw me, he turned on his heel and left quickly. I was surprised to see him. In an ocean of Chinese people, foreigners are rare, and black people are rarer still. We ended up on the same bus back home and he struck up a conversation with me. He was an intelligent well-spoken young man, tall, thin, skin black as ebony and handsome strong features. He spoke English with a slight accent, but his accent in Chinese was barbarous! He was an engineering grad student at 林业大学 Linye Daxue, the Forest University.

We had an amazing conversation on the way home. He was actually defending George Bush’s foreign policies! I of course decried the loathsome toad as a usurper and mass murderer. Neither one of us got our noses bent of joint, however. We were strangers, that’s true, and perhaps diplomacy prevailed perforce, but still, we expressed our opinions with conviction sans vehemence. It was a delight to talk about politics rolling along on a public bus on a cool evening in Mainland China! I was so engrossed in our conversation that I almost forgot my stop. Both of us leaped off the bus at the last second before the doors swung closed. He got off with me so we could exchange phone numbers.

Suddenly there was an explosion in the street. Everyone was stunned for a moment. Dust filled the air. I grabbed Emmanuel and pulled him to the side. No one knew what it was. I thought for a moment that it might have been an act of violence, some kind of political protest, but no, there was a construction truck smoking in the middle of the street. Since no further explosions followed (or gunfire) everyone on the sidewalk began chuckling nervously and then went back to whatever they were doing before. It was strange; the force of the explosion was enough to rattle everyone in the immediate vicinity and the fear it produced only slowly evaporated. I could see this phenomenon on the faces of the people in the crowd and on Emmanuel’s face. I’m sure it was on mine as well. Something must have gone wrong with that truck; the workers leaped off and were crawling all over it like ants on a corncob. Emmanuel and I quickly exchanged phone numbers and he jumped on another bus to go home.

At this same corner where the behemoth truck lay smoking, there was a traffic accident. A car and a taxi were mashed together, back to front, and the drivers were standing sullenly back-to-back yakking into their cell phones. That was enough for one day. I went home.

October 14, 2011       Friday

Yesterday was an irritating day. Nothing, almost nothing went as scheduled. I had planned to get up, write, train, have lunch with Emmanuel, and then help Ice with her essay. After my appointment with Ice, Hammy and I were going to clean up the house, buy some necessary items, and then I was going to enjoy my evening. Selfish Hammy decided, Hey, we are not going to get together, as he wanted to hang out with Winnie. He denies that they are “going anywhere,” but I know Hammy and his penchant for self-deception. Well, let’s be honest here: when it comes to lust, we are both deceiver and deceived.

In any event, I told him in no uncertain terms that if she was indeed not that important, then why is he dropping our plans? He said nothing and scowled. I laughed at him. Still, I have my prejudices. It never ceases to amaze me how fat fools can get women to like them! I choose women who are athletic and powerful, thus I expect women to choose men for similar reasons. But many women care less about physical appearances and more about personality. It makes sense if they feel attracted to men who make them laugh. I—in this middle age of life—do not have the effervescence of joy. Do I feel the beauty of life around me? Yes, indubitably. But I also am dread aware of the iniquity, the corruption, and the abuse that men and women (to name Grace for one) perpetrate on those less fortunate than themselves. When did I lose the capacity to laugh? When did I become so morbid?

I was perhaps being petty, but I told Abraham that since he was not going to be around—and lately it seems more and more that he was increasingly otherwise engaged (and in truth if given the same choice: pal around with a young cute Chinese girl or sledge through a muddy day with a morose anarchist, I too would also choose the former) I announced that I was going to go ahead with the needed purchases and if he paid for half that would be a welcome surprise. He left in a huff.

I had called Eve about the broken washing machine and she called back and said the man was coming over. Thank God for small favors! I busied myself cleaning my room as it had already accumulated a great deal of dust; moreover I did not like the way I was stuck against the radiator pipes where I slept. The repairman showed up. In short order he replaced the burnt-out computer board (dian-nao ban). He showed me what the problem was. It was as much as I expected. I knew that showering right next to the machine would inevitably damage it. I had always lugged the R2-D2 sized machine away from the showerhead and did my level best to keep the water from spraying all over the small bathroom. My roommates were certainly never as considerate or judicious. It tickled me pink to be correct. He suggested that we protect the machine with some sort of plastic cover; I agreed and then he left. I went back to putting my room back into order. Not a few seconds had passed when the doorbell rang again. I thought the repairman had forgotten something, but no, it was another man, a well-dressed and fairly tall Chinese man. He barked some sentences at me and I stared stupidly at him for a moment.

“Oh, you don’t understand Chinese,” he sneered.

Then I blasted forth: “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Our electricity bill is due and if we don’t pay then we are in danger of getting it cut off? Right? I understand, but the previous tenants should pay that bill, not us. We’ve only just arrived and are right now trying to clean the place up.”

“Oh, you speak Chinese!” Then his attitude changed and a broad smile replaced the disdainful sneer of moments ago.

“I assume you are the landlord?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” And he forced his way in. Like a fool I acquiesced. How the hell did I know who he was? I was angry with myself immediately. He began snooping around, looking the place over.

“Since you’re here,” I began, trying to recover my wits, “I must tell you, if I were the landlord, I would really get this floor fixed. Look at this: the water is seeping through the tile in the bathroom and rotting the wooden floor in the adjacent sitting room. And that’s not all. Take a look at this leak,” and I led him to the kitchen. I explained that we did not use the kitchen, and there has been water intermittently seeping up from the middle of the floor. Then I showed him the broken latch on the balcony window, a safety issue and of great concern since the freezing winter winds would soon begin to blow. I must say that he looked very worried and this concern seemed genuine: rarely do I see Chinese people express concern and they don’t seem to fake it. They merely blandly acknowledge a problem and may or may not (usually will not) do something about it.

Eve showed up about that time and introductions were made. We all became best friends and the landlord promised to invite me to dinner and we could chat and practice English and Chinese and I would father a son and name him the Godfather and he would beget a daughter who would marry my son etc., etc., ad nauseam. He went to fetch the workman who would start work by 1 PM. I tried to call Hammy to see when he was coming back. Since he and Winnie were going to pal around, they could stay here as I had other plans. Mysteriously, Hammy said he was busy and would not compromise his plans. I was left holding the bag. I called Emmanuel and luckily he was not even up yet so our lunch plans were easily re-set for the evening. I was still hoping to meet with Ice to help her with her essay, but I had to cancel; there wasn’t enough time, and I felt bad about it. It did sound like I was dissembling to get out of an awkward commitment, but that was not the case whatsoever. I did want to meet with her.

I went with Eve to try to pay the electricity bill as I had promised the landlord, but the spirit of Kafka prevailed. The number of the account was no longer valid. The amount due existed, but the number was invalid so there was no way to pay the bill. Without paying the bill, the electricity would soon be turned off. We would have to go elsewhere to try to get to the bottom of this mystery. Time was short. We had to jump in a cab (which I paid) and then stop at the BOC (Bank of China) to get money and march to the Main China Post Office to try to plead with some official to give us access to the defunct account. March! March! March!

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