Harbin Diary October 15-17, 2011

October 15, 2011       Saturday

I have arrived early for my 8:30 AM POPS class at Jianshe. POPS classes are the young children classes ranging in ages from three to thirteen. This is my first time here. I am of course less than thrilled to be here. Despite being early by 23 minutes, no one is ready to give me the material that I am to teach. Ah! Cindy has arrived with the textbook, a limp, paltry thing that only barely passes for curriculum. She hands it to me and I handle it as if someone had passed me a plastic bag of dog poo.

October 16, 2011       Sunday

My day began with washing my hair in the kitchen, as our shower is still off-limits. Then I went to teach Adam. Today was better I think than the other days, but I have to work hard as the boy is taciturn beyond belief. He answers with one or two syllables. Typical twelve year old I suppose.

Then, Ice canceled our appointment, which disappointed me. I enjoy helping students with their writing, but perhaps I am too rough on them. I don’t know. I think she was shocked by the number of mistakes I found in her essay. I had a little time so I read some of Mailer’s TNatD and then went to teach at the Xin Dong Fang at Tongda Jie. It was a large class of children which has only been studying for about a month. The teacher’s name was Emma. I had one boy student named Mars and one girl student named Kitty—the infamous Hello Kitty. Let’s see, I had a Jerry (chubby boy who shlumped everywhere with decisive lassitude, crazy Sara, sweet Emily, quiet Tina and loco Coco and Mars. Then, Cici, Anna, and Vivian. Up front, there was Rocky (Adrian!), John, Lili, then David, Jason, James, and in the last row there was Yuki, Maggie, Sherry, Mike, Kitty and Cindy.

So twenty-one children in all and considering they were about seven years old, the class went miraculously well. I just laid the charm on thick, drew pictures, and goofed around. I employed enough pedagogy to make it seem like there was a teacher in the class, but only barely. In my defense, lowering the affective filter is part of the battle. When the kids enjoy the lesson, they learn and absorb better. I also constantly repeat words and have them repeat the words with actions. The latter is something that Abraham often talks about and he is correct: vocabulary coupled with actions is a powerful combination. The most powerful, however, would be listening to/speaking the vocabulary word, performing a corresponding action, and then writing it down. In different colors.

The weather is turning colder. It’s around 43° Fahrenheit. It was actually hailing or perhaps it’s called freezing rain, not sure, but whatever, it was coming down in little hard frozen pellets. I felt the bite of the wind through my clothes and I know that tomorrow I really should go out and buy a winter jacket. Time to invest. I will need gloves as well.

October 17, 2011       Monday

I rose and took a shower in our (hopefully ready) bathroom. It had been over forty-eight hours so the sealant should have been dry. After Hammy got up, we went out to meet his student, Steven. We took the No. 119 and crossed the Song Hua River. Once out of the city, the landscape changed dramatically. We passed many long orderly stands of trees with small sculptured gardens. It was pretty and enlivening. The air seemed to glow with freshness. Hammy and I were of course not enjoying the scenery, as we were too busy arguing about where we were exactly. So funny! We are not suitable companions. He was in a mood to roam about the city at a leisurely pace while I still had to prepare for two classes that I had to teach later; moreover, I had not exercised in days, which lack of activity was making my body ache.

People who exercise vigorously know exactly I’m talking about. When your body is accustomed to exercise and you suddenly for whatever reason must stop, your body will begin to ache for the stretching, pulling, and twisting. The pain will go away to be replaced by lassitude and a general sense of slow decay—the normal state of being for the majority of the population. Exercise is a daily battle for life against the forces of darkness, against death itself. You can accept this battle, or you can settle on withering and putrefying as you age. I hear one gets used to the stench of rotting flesh after a while. In any event, the lack of exercise had put me in an irritable mood. I am not a bodhisattva and I have never professed to be one.

After long stretches of desolate manicured fields, we began to pass large, prettily designed buildings set along spacious avenues. The streets were broad and clean and very lightly populated—a stark contrast to Harbin City. Yet, to our knowledge we were still in Harbin, merely across the river in one of the outlying districts. Hammy marveled at the newness of it all. And this was really the factor: these were recent constructions unlike where we lived and worked.

In between ignoring Hammy’s badgering and gazing at the clean cityscape rolling past, I strove to decipher the map. The bus stations were few and far in between on this side of the river so it was not easy to discern exactly where the 119 was going. I would jump up from my seat and try to read the sign at the bus stop. We stopped at one that had almost all of the characters that Steven, Hammy’s student, had sent him via text. It read Shangye Daxue, Bei Xiao Qu—Business University, North District. It was almost exactly like the text, and then the bus had pulled over and sat still as if this were the last stop on its route, which was another fact Steven had told Hammy: it would be the very last stop. So we got out. But it was not the last stop; it was the penultimate stop! Hammy bitched. Surprise, surprise. After connecting on the cell phone, Steven ran across his campus to meet us.

Steven was not an unhandsome Chinese youth, but his face was warped by the fact that his glasses sat askew on the bridge of his nose. He was medium height and very thin. He had pleasant unremarkable features and better English-speaking skills than most Chinese we had met thus far. As usual he remarked on the quality of my Chinese. Yes, I speak Chinese, etc., etc. He was a nice guy and a bright one as we found out: he had won a scholarship and his professor had no qualms in giving him the day off to accompany us on this little sortie to purchase proper boots and jackets for the coming winter.

The campus was like the rest of the neighborhood: clean, bright, and seemingly freshly painted like a fairytale town only it was a town composed of enormous box-like buildings. It was slightly disconcerting to be adrift in such large open spaces with so few people about. It made me think of Brasilia and the strange effect the odd designs that capital had on the mostly government-employed populace. This was not like that however. The day, however cold, was much too nice for manic thoughts and Steven’s genuine enthusiasm soon made Abraham and me forget our spat on the bus.

Steven brought us over to meet his friend, Zhang Xing-Zheng. This youth was older than Steven, thin, with a strong jaw and clear forthright eyes. His posture was straight and made him look taller than he actually was. We found out that he was only a junior but was a few years older than his classmates as he had spent two years in the military. In fact, this bit of guanxi allowed him to offer us inexpensive prices on the military grade boots and other footwear. Xing-Zheng’s English was nonexistent although he said that he could understand us. I kept to Chinese with him while Hammy chatted with Steven. Xing-Zheng offered us some delicious freshly made soymilk, which I lapped up like a hungry foundling given suck at a large, bounteous teat. Hammy, I knew, did not like real soymilk. Hell, he did not even like the plastic saccharine beverage that passes for soymilk back in the States, but this “adventure” in China cannot always revolve around him. I enjoyed that drink like it was manna from heaven.

Hammy and I tried on several pairs of shoes. Xing-Zheng and Steven did not lead us astray. The prices were rock bottom. As Xing-Zheng explained, he was able to offer these cheap prices only to students, but seeing as we were friends, he was also able to offer them to us. I bought a pair of sturdy military boots that were lined with wool. The wool I am sure is imitation, but for 220 kuai it was a bargain. Hammy would have to return later when Xing-Zheng brought some more of his stock from the main store off campus. He would have to move the stock around, first bring the items to the college before we could purchase them so cheaply; otherwise the prices rose steeply, very steeply in fact. Silently, I hoped that this would not cause any serious repercussions for him. I know that sometimes the Chinese students would go to extremes to please their teachers and perhaps even more so to please their foreign teachers. We were happy to get such bargain prices, but neither of us wanted anyone to get in trouble for it. Xing-Zheng did not accompany us to lunch, although I pressed him to come along. He seemed like someone with whom I could become friends. We both liked sports and although I am not a military man, I have a Spartan attitude towards life. I was hoping that he practiced martial arts and that maybe we could get together and train. He was very busy, however.

Steven took us to a nice restaurant and got Hammy a big plate of Guobaorou or something. It is fried pork drenched in a sweet golden paste that tastes suspiciously like sweet and sour pork from back home. Steven also ordered a chicken dish and, for me, a plate of vegetables stewed in garlic. I am trying (and failing miserably) to maintain a vegetarian diet. The cold has an effect on me I notice. It instills a hunger for heavy thick food as if it offered protection against the cold.

After lunch, we walked around the spectacular shopping mall next to the Business University. Hammy was smitten with the glossy boutiques and thick perfume wafting everywhere. He told Steven that he wanted to live in the condos next to the mall, in fact he wanted to rent the penthouse. When he asked me for my opinion, I demurred and said it was worth looking into, but I knew that we would never move out here. The commute across the river during non-peak traffic was over thirty minutes alone.

I shopped for a jacket and Hammy shopped for long johns. I found a jacket that would be suitable for outdoor sports in the dead of winter and at a cheaper price than at the Bo-si-deng clothing store in Harbin center, but Steven did not want me to buy it, saying that the price was too dear and that he would ask his friend Xing-Zheng to try to get a better price. I was willing to pay the 1,100 kuai as I knew that the jacket would undoubtedly keep me warm.

One incident bearing mention was that I left my book bag at Xing-Zheng’s little shop in the college. I have never done such a thing. There was nothing in it of value luckily: I had my money belt on my person and I had left my laptop at home. But still. There were only a few papers and my map and a small notebook. What shocked me was the complete idiocy of the slipup. I am supposed to be better than this. Chinks in my armor.

We said our goodbyes and I told Steven I would return on Friday to see about the jacket and hopefully I can come out without Hammy. Actually it seemed to me as if Steven preferred my company. He was excited to hear that I was into sport and invited me to come back and go swimming at the college pool and to come and go ice-skating after the pond froze over. After we got on the bus, Hammy of course asked if I thought Steven was gay. Christ, preserve me.

Hammy wanted to do some laundry when we got back, but I was tired and had more to prepare for my 3:30 and 6PM classes. It set us on another spat because he wanted to get it done—now—and I told him we could, but it wasn’t as cut and dried as he thought it would be. Then, he accused me of being difficult and I accused him of being selfish, both accusations being quite accurate. I ignored him (being the difficult person that I am) and set about putting the finishing touches on my PowerPoint slides.

I ended up being late for my 3:30PM by three minutes and it set a bad tone for the class. There were seven adults, three men and four women, and they were not an enthusiastic bunch. I had trouble discerning just what they wanted from these classes. I was not feeling very inspired, but there was no way to teach the class perfunctorily. We all did our best to contain our boredom. If their English were better, we could have chatted about anything and that would have been fine, but half of them were really lost. I had to backtrack and re-explain the vocabulary and phrases, which ate up almost all of the time so we did not have time to perform the dialogue properly and went over the class time by thirty minutes. It was a miserable lesson and I knew I was to blame.

I could not kindle any excitement into the classroom. It’s my job to stoke a fire and turn it into a roaring blaze of enthusiastic learning. But I didn’t care enough to do that. I don’t mind plying my mind in a kind of a professorial manner, but I am not very keen on rudimentary language teaching. Especially with these stiff adults who are intent on saving face—which I do understand and am sympathetic with—but it interferes with language acquisition. I explained at the end of class that we would have to adopt better strategies and employ a kind of clownish attitude if we were going to make any progress. Of course I was really talking to myself.

When I released them, they fled from the class as if the devil were at their heels, indeed, a foreign devil. Susan stayed behind a few moments and tried to make a little chitchat as if to assuage my injured ego. She left and I wiped off the egg on my face as best I could. At least I had Mary, Grace, and Nancy to look forward to. I had established a rapport with these three young women so our class had gone quite well each time we had gotten together.

In the back of my mind I wondered how much of my success had to do with the subtle and almost indiscernible sexual current passing underneath our conversations. I have been very professional, but this libidinous subtext has been thriving in the shadows of my mind throughout our lessons together. This trio of young women has enjoyed teasing me as well. I have ignored it (mostly), striving to turn it into a genuine enthusiasm and I have been very successful (mostly). I have tried to make myself feel like the avuncular Mr. Rogers caring for his young charges and endeavoring to help them with their learning. It has not been easy to yank my wandering attention back into place when I see them however. I know that my eyes drink in such pretty figures and smiling faces with the same rapture as I drink in paintings at the art museum. They are three pretty young professionals and their English is advanced enough that our conversations can penetrate the penumbra of the diurnal and arrive at deeper more significant issues.

Grace and Nancy did not show up and it was just Mary and I. Mary is the least “beautiful” of the trio and the one with the most trouble in her life. She has no job, little ambition, and a melancholic and unappealing perspective on life. Always one to root for the underdog, I have tried extra hard to get her to perk up and stake a more positive position on life. As we were alone, we went through the lesson rather quickly and then chatted about life in general.

She confided to me that she no longer wanted this advertising job that she had been keen on landing. In fact, she felt that she had only stubbornly gone through college studying advertising to thwart her parents’ wishes to study accounting or something they felt was more viable in the economy. One of her problems was a disease that afflicted her two years ago that really put a strain on her heart. She is recovered now, but she has a definite distaste for sport and physical activity in general. My mind, being as it is, cannot help but think that vigorous physical activity (and a healthy bouncing sex life) would improve her disposition immensely. When the body feels good and has plenty of good nutrition, then it is easier to take life by storm, by the short and curlies as it were, and make something out of yourself. Poor Mary, quite contrary, moped along through life like a Chinese version of the despondent, floppy-eared Eeyore.

She broke my heart and women who break my heart also tend to steal my heart. I am a sucker for ladies in distress. Several times we were on the verge of tears talking about her life and its many vagaries and seeming wrong turns. She could not find anything positive about her self and with deft prestidigitation I was able to snatch rabbits out of the tattered, dusty, threadbare hat that was her life. When she said that her life was a failure thus far, I told her that was because she had very high standards and had yet to attain some of those high goals. Having high standards is very laudable. Moreover, out of all the three women, she never once missed class and was always on time, all worthy virtues in a person. She replied that was because she had no job and nothing else to do, so showing up for class was quite easy. I agreed, but told her that people can find all kinds of excuses for not studying and she had to admit that she was persevering to improve her English.

Then, she confided to me that this past month—the month in which I had been teaching her—she felt she had an epiphany, that her English was not as good as she thought it was previously. This was indeed a blow and I felt rocked to my core. In short, my class revealed to her the deficiencies in her English! The irony should have galled me into silence. Still, I pressed onward like a general marshaling his troops for victory. I had to win over this four-eyed disconsolate star-crossed maiden!

Am I a fool? Yes, but that would not prevent me from trying to get this poor girl to walk out of here with a smile on her face and hope in her heart. I debated with her, urging her to re-examine her life and find something she could commit to, heart and soul. If she did not like her life, then she should change it! By all means, just do it! Damn the Nike commercials, it’s true. Sometimes one must jump in feet first. Slowly, she came round. The sweet Plain Jane creature had prepared a small bag of home baked cookies, as this was our last class together. I thanked her warmly, but I left off giving her a hug as such behaviors are not within the purview of Chinese custom and would have seemed highly irregular between an older man and a young woman. The Chinese are a passionate people, but their intense feelings are carefully circumscribed and delineated by tradition and custom just as cattle are hedged in by a barb-wire fence. We said goodbye and I walked off into the cold night, trying to ignore the demons laughing at me trying to pump this girl full of joie de vivre when I could barely find a reason every morning to prevent me from cutting my own throat.

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