Harbin Diary October 18-20, 2011

October 18, 2011       Tuesday

Ah, what a misspent morning! I should have risen early and begun my little tap-tapping. It was cold yesterday, but the blustering winds finally swept the chill rains out of the city. This morning it is bright, cold, and frozen, but the sullen buildings seem somewhat cheered under the strong angles of light penetrating the concrete canyons with a promise of warmth.

Abraham has left to teach class and I am alone, happy in my solitude.

My frustration over my blog mounts with each passing day, however. I need to actually post my scribbling online otherwise of what use is it? I am having a difficult time finding a good title. Simplicity dictates: Teaching English in Harbin, China. But such a utilitarian title grates against every aesthetic nerve I possess—dulled though they may be by years of living among North American Philistines. (I should just say barbarians. If I say Americans, I will cause a ruckus. When I say North Americans, however, it is vague. Moreover, I have no experience of living among our Northern neighbors, those lackadaisical Canucks, so I cannot say with any certainty if they are indeed artless Neanderthals—or even lackadaisical for that matter. Nor have I spent much time among our hot-blooded, sanguinary Southern neighbors, the Mexicans. They would seem to be a nation that is not bereft of creative sensibilities, having given birth to many notable and prodigious talents; in addition, Mexico seems to be a nation one insults at great risk, given their penchant for mayhem, mutilation, and murder. But I digress.)

I need a title for this damn blog!

Frozen City—Melted Hearts?

Am I devolving into a poetaster? Heaven forfend! If I start writing poetry—inevitably bad poetry, as I am not a proficient enough wordsmith for verse forms—then you know I have pitched in the towel. No, I will stick to outrageous fiction and these small desultory reportages.

I cannot name the blog Adventures in Harbin or Harbin Adventures because many of these entries are incidental or meandering in essence; hardly the stuff that merits the titillating nomenclature of exploit or escapade; there hasn’t even been a proper rumpus, or a ruckus, or a melee, hardly anything that warrants the stigma (or thrill) of danger or peril. While it is certainly perilous to one’s health to cross the street in Harbin, it is a decidedly pedestrian peril, unworthy of the stuff of high adventure. I suppose I could get cute and say Low Adventures in Upper China, but then this too is misleading, as then my readers would rightly assume that the blog contains material of a perhaps prurient or concupiscent nature. That has not occurred, sad as I am to report this.

What story is not enlivened by romance? My life story certainly could use a strong infusion of romance, but of course only for literary purposes, mind you. I have no interest in being distracted from the main thrust of my life, which is writing.

October 19, 2011       Wednesday

I had lunch with Ice and Gerry after class.

Classes went very well this day. The discussion of Frost’s poem Fire and Ice went smashingly. I lucked out. The students were more than lukewarm in their responses about how they thought the world would end. Afterward, several wanted to take a picture with me. Should I reciprocate I wonder? There is more I could add here, but I cannot. The adulation of a large group of pretty young women—pretty young Chinese women—causes a disturbance in the Force, in my Force. I am being honest and I am trying my level best to behave as my father would: like a complete and utter gentleman with nary a whiff of impropriety.

This is difficult as it is not in my nature and I have to remind myself that I am forty-five and old enough to be their father. They like me very much, that much is evident, but they like me because they have been starved of intellectual nutrition and I am at least partially qualified and whole-heartedly enthusiastic to share this wide world of culture, history, poetry, and art. I brought a photo of Klimt’s The Kiss and they had never seen it before! I was shocked. It fit in well with the discussion of “desire” in Frost’s poem. I also had a political cartoon that showed three vultures: Asia, Europe, and the US waiting for a man—labeled Africa—to “perish,” another word in Frost’s poem. Ah! To share poetry with people who also have a love of language! It’s sweet to find some of my tribe here in Harbin.

So: the lunch with Ice and Gerry. Jeff followed along part of the way and then he begged off saying he had some things to do, but not before he bought me not one but two bags of this weird kind of Beijing delicacy. They were these small apples baked lightly and slathered in heavy white sugar. I had one (nearly cracked my molars on the pits inside) and it was delish! I have to ask for the name of this food. I can’t eat that every day! Each bag cost 5 kuai, not a small amount. He literally had to shove Ice aside in order to get to the vendor and pay for it. They were arguing over who gets to buy me a treat. How about that?

After, I pulled them aside and said to them that I was happy to spend time with them, but if we were going to hang out, then they could not purchase every item that I was curious about! They laughed.

For lunch we had four large dishes that were all delicious in my opinion. I have some of the names recorded on my iPhone and I will write them into this diary when I get home. One was a kind of spicy soup with boiled pork swimming in it over layers of Chinese cabbage. Then we had a kind of spicy eggplant dish and another spicy fish dish and then a cabbage and baby shrimp plate. I will get the names. I have decided that it is high time that I learned how to order food properly.

I regaled them with stories from my past, as they were very curious about my life. I think I slipped the bounds of propriety once however when they asked me if I were married and I had to admit that I wasn’t, but I was almost married twice! They asked what happened, to which I replied: 說來話長!They cracked up over that one and I did too! Well, it was the truth. I went a little overboard because I mentioned that my American girlfriends had caused me much anguish, but that my non-American girlfriends were so much fun and that we still got on as friends and even kept in touch via Facebook. They were alarmed to hear that I had so many misadventures with women, but what did they expect? I have been loving women for thirty years, longer than they have been alive. Maybe I needed to vent or maybe I needed to get something off my chest. I don’t know. Maybe I wanted to warn them. Probably the latter.

Ice I have described: she is a tall, large-boned woman who is quite pretty with a nice figure whose pretty features are slightly marred by a rash of acne speckled across her face. That aside she is delightful and has excellent pronunciation, which got her selected to represent Jian Qiao at the Oral English Competition this coming weekend. I would have preferred to spend more focused time with her, getting her to speak smoothly and precisely. I felt that she did not really want to do that and was more interested in just hanging out. She sent me a text afterwards stating how happy she was to have had lunch with me and that she hoped we could be real friends. What she means by that I am not sure, but she cannot aspire to a relationship: I am twenty years her senior and I have said repeatedly that I am a very serious teacher who does not tolerate drink or smoke and prefers exercise and poetry to people. I always must remind myself that these students want to meet and hang out with foreigners because they want to practice their English. That is fine with me. I always sneak in some Chinese and they are happy to slip back into their mother tongue as well.

Gerry. Hmm. This is a very bright child whom I have gotten to know on some level of intimacy, but this day she mostly hugged the perimeter of our conversation. Gerry is also a tall young woman. She is not thick-boned, but not thin-boned either and I got the impression that in another life she could have been an excellent athlete if someone had pressed her into that field. She looks like she has a good body for sport, but has dedicated herself to a life of the mind. Gerry has short chestnut hair, sharp square shoulders and a nice face if somewhat plain. She has a wide smile and large teeth that would be sterling but for one tooth that is slightly discolored. One sees this lack of proper health and dental care all over China. Her eyes are large, warm, and bright with intelligence. She shared with me that she also loves poetry and literature. This I like!

Ice told me how they had met only recently and when she find out that Gerry was 內向 she promised to change this girl into an extrovert. Gerry blushed when Ice showed me some photos of them drinking, essentially drunk. They have become fast friends, thick as thieves. We ate and then went back to the college where we chatted for a bit more until they had their next class at three. I went home drunk with pleasure. I felt as if I had finally made some personal connection in this vast gray city of Ice. Hmm. City of Ice.

Later I had dinner with Hammy after our classes at the Green School. This was no fun as usual. We ended up at some place that was having a Grand Opening, which meant lots of drunken men, chain-smoking and yelling at the top of their lungs. Hammy has an irritating habit of smoking right before we eat. If this were a crime novel, then this is the place where I would foreshadow the death of this rotund dullard. But I am being unkind.

October 20, 2011       Thursday

I woke and tried to finish preparing for Thursday’s lessons. The night before the internet had disappeared and we feared that it had been cut off as we had not paid the bill in some time, or ever. But it was mysteriously back on in the morning so I was busy trying to get my work done and feeling pinched. Hammy woke early and began to talk to me even though I was obviously ignoring him and steadily working. He did not notice. I swear I think he does this shit on purpose. He distracted me enough that I left without the photocopies I had made and for which I paid forty kuai on Tuesday and which I needed for my lesson.

God damn it! I was very pissed at the college and had to make a monumental effort to contain myself. The class period was not 45 minutes, but 90 minutes. I would have to stretch my lecture and the other activities. I finished the first lecture on Advertising and it was a fucking yawner. I promise here on out never to lecture for more than twelve or fifteen minutes. They need to perform activities that force them to speak English. I had these four funny videos downloaded on my computer. On the spot I made up an activity.

I have been thinking about communicative language theory, which basically states that a language learner learns best when he has a meaningful message to communicate. Simple enough, but most of China studies language using…not sure what they approach they take: memorize things for the test with little to zero oral practice. Anyway, CLT is a powerful approach, but you have to find out what is significant/interesting for the learner. Some lazybones cannot be forced to drink even the most divine elixir of the Gods. However, almost everyone had a great time watching the funny videos and trying their best to explain what they saw to the rest of the class. I had divided them into teams and let them each watch one video and then describe what they saw to the rest of the class using whatever methods necessary. It was quite funny.

I had a video of a boxer (the dog, not the athlete) that was out in the forest and did not see a deer run around in a large circle and sneak up behind him. The deer then rushed at him like a runaway bullet train. The dog heard a sudden pounding of hooves and ran like a bat-dog out of hell. It could not escape the deer and was promptly run over. It rolled over and over and then got up, but by that time the deer had vanished into the dense foliage. The initials WTF floated onto the screen and wavered over the pitiable dog’s head, its eyes wide and staring in fear and amazement. It was very, very funny!

Then we had a gag video where a man was pretending to carry a small child on his shoulders. He was walking along the sidewalk with his earphones on and bopping to the music. He did not notice his “child” getting his head smashed against several conveniently placed parking signs at just the right height. Passersby were horrified and rushed to warn the inattentive father, only to be shocked to see that the child was a gray-colored no-faced doll, Chucky without the scars.

The third was my favorite. It showed real footage of these West African soldiers teasing a medium-sized ape. Amazingly, they teased the animal that walked up to them unafraid. One of them handed the monkey an AK-47. Another soldier pretended to shoot at the beast with his weapon. All the soldiers were laughing at the dumb beast. The monkey looked confused for a moment, then toyed with the rifle, and suddenly released a few rounds. The men jumped out of their boots! They were shocked into silence. The monkey quickly squeezed off a few more rounds, aiming randomly, nearly killing a few men. The soldiers dove for cover. The monkey continued to fire until everyone had disappeared. Even the “camera man” dove for cover. The ape upon seeing everyone fleeing before his newfound power raised the weapon high above his head and barked in victory. It was an amazing real life commentary on the deadly ease of using guns. Afterward, I taught them this English saying: so easy even a monkey can do it. Vicki in the second class caught on when I asked them what they thought the message was. I had to bring their minds around to the fact that it was not about the monkey being smart, although that much was also true. No, the frightening thing about guns is how easily anyone can fire a deadly weapon, even a small child, as many parents have discovered to their everlasting pain.

So, the lessons went well and I was grateful for my ability to think quickly and to implement an effective lesson out of so very little. Let’s see. There was an odd thing that happened. I called a group of girls up to see one of the videos and one of them stank. She was rancid as if her clothes and her body had not been washed in some time. Everyone noticed it and the smell was so heavy one almost had to cover one’s mouth or else begin gagging for air. I brazened through it and pretended like I could smell nothing. I feared that they might think it was me! But I had showered and I had recently washed my clothes so it could not be me, although the stench was so strong I thought it was a man’s smell at first and didn’t know where it came from. This was a strange event and stuck in my mind.

The classes went well and everyone left except for a few girls who lingered and wanted to spend some time with me. Gerry was last and waited everyone out because she wanted to practice English. We sat and she had a stack of questions that she expected she would be asked at her interview to study abroad. I selected a few and we got down to it. I had to probe her for answers and push her to include details and try not to be so general. She stood a better chance if she could include as many high dollar vocabulary words as possible. She told me about how shy she grew up and also how smart she was. She was not bragging at all. She merely related that she was selected because of her high grades and outstanding performance to go to the best high school in their province and then her father found an even better one that she attended for two years. There, she met a headmaster who influenced her greatly and counseled her on the obstacles of life. She told me that she wanted to learn Hindi because her father, a teacher and avid newshound, believed India would one day be a world power and one day soon. She also talked about wanting to learn to design clothes and produce her own line of clothes for young ladies. She dreamed of starting her own business in which she could design and sell her own line of clothes.

Gerry spoke hesitatingly, but she spoke with good pronunciation and with accurate vocabulary. She does need practice to sound more fluent and smooth. I hope she calls on me. I would be proud to help her. It is amazing to sit close to such a young soul, a young yet profound one, just beginning her journey on life’s path. I hoped I could help her on. My heart ached to be of some use, to be of some help. An hour or more flew by and the poor child had not had time to eat lunch! I felt bad and said to her that we would have to set parameters next time.

In the States, I always felt so useless. Just a piece of garbage. Teachers are looked down upon, let’s be honest, and perhaps deservedly so. I read one statistic that most teachers in America come from the bottom third of graduates, so the weakest minds end up being the guiding force for our future generations. That’s sad. How to turn that pyramid upside down? Well, Finland has found a surefire trick. They pay teachers well. They pay teachers handsomely. And they are accorded the respect that such high pay merits. To walk about town as a teacher in Finland is to hold your head up high. You could have chosen law or medicine or engineering, but selected education, the noble profession and incidentally in Finland a damn well paid one too. It was a choice that carried weight in society. In Finland, the brightest graduates do not eschew the education field. In America, our best minds go to Wall Street. And look where that has gotten us. In America, we have lost our pedagogical compass and with it I think our moral compass as well. But…again…I digress.

I went out and walked through the campus against the tide of students coming back from lunch and swarming into the buildings to attend their afternoon classes. Several students recognized me: Freeze, Matina, and I think Snow. I yelled hello at them. I felt loved and cherished in a way I had not felt in a long time. The sensation was warming. This recalls another event on the day that I had lunch with Ice and Gerry. They said that they “loved” me. I lightly chastised them. I said that they could not use such a strong word to express the respect and care they felt for a teacher. But then they corrected me. They said that I was a caring and hard-working teacher and as such the students could not help but love me. We were friends and friends love one another, is this not so? I had no ready answer and I did not want to dispel the sweet feeling we had been sharing. Some may raise an eyebrow and I will not begrudge those jaded men and women their cynical and suspicious opinions, but I had no ulterior motives in my heart, I can say. Did I have lust lurking somewhere in the recesses of my mind? Of course. Lust is one of the wolves with which I must learn to live. Lust and wrath and envy and pride: my four apocalyptic wolves. Nonetheless, I was not feeling that way. I felt that I had to acknowledge the purity of her spirit and the innocuous and genuine manner in which she stated these words.

I went to the stadium feeling uncertain however. I was not feeling entirely sure of myself and felt afraid to go out on the field and start kicking the ball around. My fear only intensified when I got out there and saw hordes and hordes of students playing different sports; moreover, the professors were running many teams of students through PT tests. There was no way I would go out there and act a fool in front of all of those kids. I would have to settle for sitting on the sidelines. Damn my old age! If I were younger and surer of my derelict skill I would go out there and play, but I didn’t want to seem like…like an old fool! I did meet some young fellows and we chatted for a bit. One of them wanted me to run a couple of laps for him because he was tired! I said that that was impossible as I was much older then he and it would be unseemly for such an old guy to run his laps for him. He would have to manage by himself. We laughed. I sat and watched some of the guys kick the ball around and the boys and girls run laps while their teachers timed them. It was funny to see these young girls of all sizes and looks running not in gym clothes but in plain everyday clothes. It was as if they either could not be bothered to change or they had been surprised with a sudden PT test and had to run regardless of their inappropriate dress and shoes. Some were running around the track in dress boots! With high heels!

Poor things.

I left at two o’clock. I took a short cut and hopped the broken brick wall. The barbwire was down and I got over easily. I ran for the bus that was just then passing by and I leaped on like an action hero and the ladies on board were tickled by my spry demeanor.

I jumped off and stopped to eat some cold baozi at the corner dumpling shop. The fuwuyuan apparently could not be bothered to heat up my supper. What are you going to do? At home, I was filled with lassitude; a stultifying mood possessed me. I languished on the bed unable to work. I felt depressed and lonely. I did not want to speak or even see Hammy as he had not asked Steven the simple thing I had asked him to do, which was find out about my winter jacket. His answer via text was: You didn’t tell me to ask him about that; but I got what I needed. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Selfish! Fat! Bastard! I shut my door and prayed he would leave me alone. He came home and left almost immediately and did not return until about 11:30. I practiced with my nunchakus indoors, but when I went outside the air was thick with smoke and dust. There was no way in hell I was going to subject my lungs to that much contamination so I had to go back inside. This depressed me even more so I turned off the lights and went to bed, my soul black and heavy. Hammy did not disturb me when he returned; thank God for small favors.


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