Harbin Diary October 21-23, 2011

October 21, 2011       Friday

I woke a little past five in the morning and spent some time returning emails and reading. Hammy was stirring in his room but thankfully he did not come to talk to me.

Around 8:30 AM I spoke with Angelina and Brad for an hour on Skype. The Jolies are good friends of mine who first gave me sanctuary in Southern California after a disastrous crash landing. They gave me the recent news from SoCal. Angelina has contracted not one but two forms of cancer, apparently. The level of severity remains to be determined, but guarded optimism is the proper response. Humans are seemingly unaware of the many carcinogenic toxins they expose themselves to in everyday life. I felt very tired afterwards. I don’t know what I can do for them. I know that I am beholden to them for the succor and safety they gave me and will forever be in their debt, but my new assignment is in China and there is little I can do from here. Moreover, alien therapy will not work on Earth’s carbon-based life forms. Sometimes I feel at such a loss that I want to crawl into a wormhole and disappear. As if Gaia (a small planet really) has gotten too huge and then been heaved onto my shoulders. But this is part of engaging with humanity and as an alien researcher I have been sent here to this remote satellite to become familiar with its teeming life forms and low-level civilizations. Difficult to be a human creature I have discovered, to say the least. That compassion part is so, so tricky. But I am trying.

Steven called and wanted to change where we were going to meet. He said that it would be easier to meet in Harbin center at the Provincial Museum. I said that was fine. I felt very proud of myself for looking up the museum online and finding the exact directions. Daodao.com is a good website for finding addresses with maps. I will have to play around with the website however.

I went outside and did vigorous exercise for forty-five minutes: I stretched, did gymnastics, threw kicks, and jumped rope. It was a good workout. I went in, showered, got ready and left to meet Steven and his buddy at the museum.

I am writing this on Sunday and the memories of the day have evaporated. Anton Chekhov was right. You really need to capture feelings immediately and not wait. Reading it over, I sound cold and distant. I really must carve the space I need in order to work uninterruptedly. My head feels empty and it shouldn’t. I have a ton of things to write down!

For example, that afternoon with Steven and Liu was exultant. As I said earlier I figured out where the Harbin Sheng Bowuguan (哈尔滨省博物馆) was; it was not exactly where it said it was on the map, that much I discovered. The large yellow structure with the onion dome was the sure bet. I made it over there fairly quickly, but crossing the street was an endeavor equivalent to the most extreme of X-treme Sports. The corner is a large roundabout; consequently, there are no lights. Buses, pedestrians, taxis, trucks, private vehicles, government cars, everyone must negotiate this swirling maelstrom without any kind of order. It’s a deadly game of Frogger. The drivers lean on their horns unabatedly, stretching already overextended nerves to the breaking point. I, however, was in ecstasy. Yes, it was dangerous, but I felt incredibly alive dodging buses and skipping in between the rushing SUVs and shiny BMWs. I marveled at the sight of all the beautiful automobiles now in evidence in China as I scrambled and sidestepped with all the dexterity of an NFL running back. (I think it’s a running back; I am not familiar with the American variant of football.) China has grown rich in the last two decades with America’s bottomless appetite for cheaply manufactured goods, that much is plain.

We crossed the roundabout again (Yee-haw! More Frogger!) and then Liu walked right down the street where I am sent occasionally to teach English classes, past the yellow McTuch’s Hamburger restaurant, a blatant Chinese rip-off of McDonald’s replete with their own grotesque cartoon sendup of Ronald the infamous Clown. Liu wanted to shop at these clothing stores that had steep rickety wooden steps. The first place had quality clothes imported from all over the world. It was a Trekkers heaven: Northface, Helly Hansen, and other top brands were sold (at full price). Seeing as all the prices were labeled on the items I knew that this was not a place where we could bargain. The fellows were nice enough and they really did have good quality stuff. I admired two coats from the aforementioned brands, a pair of waterproof gloves, and a facemask. I took some photos and wrote down the prices on my iPhone and we went next door. We visited several shops and they all had their pros and cons. Some were less expensive, but they weren’t waterproof.

We ended up running through quite a number of Russian shops, which tickled me pink. We saw a number of weapons, some of them old Chinese wushu weapons, a long sword and a broadsword which I would have loved to have purchased. I saw hockey skates, matryoski, military gear, a whole bunch of wicked stuff. One guy who sold these small kegs of foreign beer even offered me a Russian woman—for only 100 kuai. How about that? Lovely. I told him in a facetious but firm tone that a zheng zheng tang tang teacher such as myself did not engage in such activities. The man was a giant for any ethnicity. He towered above all three of us and had a face as large as a Thanksgiving dinner platter and hands like bear paws. He had the easy affable manner of the large man, always at ease in his skin and aloof around the rest of humanity, gazing at them as if they were little children whom he could dominate with a snap of his thick fingers. This is not hard to understand: large trucks don’t dodge small compact cars, cyclists, or pedestrians. They move out of the truck’s path or get crushed. He was forthright in his offer and his tone was so congenial that he just barely avoided being sleazy, but still, I felt a tiny twinge of embarrassment for my students.

In that same store where we saw the hockey skates, the owner was dressed to go fishing. We looked at his coats and they were much cheaper than the others. Much, much. They were a Russian brand, but were labeled as Gore-Tex. We asked him if they were real and he immediately said, “No way, man. The stuff is fake as hell.” It was funny to hear him tell the truth an not dissemble as I expected him to.

We couldn’t make a decision so we went to get some lunch. I insisted on paying for it. We had four delicious dishes. One was an eggplant dish. Another was a long green bean dish and I think another was cabbage, but the forth was a chicken cut up and stewed in a spicy broth. I accidentally chewed on the head! I am getting too old for this stuff. The following was the best part of the day. Liu pulled out his iPad and showed me a collection of his artwork: soldiers, women, fancy designs of women, comic book characters, and, get this, zombies! I was in heaven. I told him about my novel and asked him to keep me in mind as I really was looking for an artist. This would be a dream come true if I could indeed find someone with whom I could co-create a comic book based on my ideas for the drug war-zombie novel. Moreover, I would like to find an artist that would be serious enough to tackle my movie script and give it graphic novel life.

They asked about my travels and I told them. I have lived too much. I have been around the world: in the Indian Himalayas, Macchu Picchu, Sri Lanka, Europe, and other places. I have done many different activities: rock climbing, martial arts, trekking, hockey, and more. I have loved not a few women.

But I am alone today.

Eh. What’re you going to do?

My point is that I spoke a lot and they didn’t, not having lived as long as I have I suppose. The trajectories of their lives are still too short. What am I to them? An inspiration? How could I be? I have nothing in my life. I just run around having little small adventures and I no longer cut the dashing young figure of a world traveler. I will have to recreate another paradigm for myself. Am I a window to the West for these Chinese students? A portal through which they can begin to explore the rich possibilities of Western culture and society?

I like Liu and I felt a definite possibility for a friendship, but I will have to overcome my natural reticence around people. Liu is a young handsome Chinese man with broad strong shoulders and slim hips. He cuts through the crowd and strides into the street with the confidence and boulder-sized arrogance of a man twice his size. He must come from good family. He told me that as a young man he had shot guns with his father at a shooting range. His father was pals with some military types and they often let him and his dad have run of the range. The discussion about guns came up because I told them how much I disliked guns. And with good reason. I had to carry a gun for almost two years when I lived in Houston.

I stopped at telling them that I once illegally carried a concealed handgun, which is a sick story to have to tell people. But it is the truth. I don’t know if there was a swagger in my speech and I hope not as this was not my intention whatsoever. I merely had a political or social commentary that I wished to make. I told them that I was once menaced by local gang members and essentially feared for my life. When I pressed the administration and municipal police to intervene, they collectively shrugged their shoulders: nothing could be done against minors until they actually committed a crime. Oh joy. An iteration of “no body, no crime.”

I remember I was not angry at the powers that be at the time; I was too busy feeling shocked: I had been raised to believe that the Law exists in America to circumvent the nefarious actions of ne’er-do-wells against law-abiding citizens. Surprise, surprise! Feeling pinched everyday as I went home to my ratty apartment above a crumbling two-story duplex in gangland, I decided I should arm myself. It’s in the Constitution somewhere I think, so I did. Went shopping at various gun stores. Took lessons. The whole shebang. I was packing heat motherfucker, look out! All of which was ludicrous in retrospect because shooting at paper targets is nothing like getting shot at in real life, even if the shooters were only teenaged meth-crazed cholos as accurate as blind men at a free throw contest. Liu asked me how many bullets came in the clip and I could not for the life of me remember. I told him there was less than I wanted, that much I remember. I kept thinking the pistol didn’t carry as many bullets as the then-popular Beretta and of course had much less fire power than a Colt .45 or the Glock. I couldn’t afford those however. I was amazed how easy it was to buy just about any kind of gun without having to show any ID or give any rationale. Then, I was surprised at how quickly one can learn to shoot accurately in literally thirty minutes. It got quite boring to put in time at the range, unlike shooting my compound bow, which required much greater concentration and focus. However, unlike Green Arrow in the comic books, I don’t think I would have intimidated the hooligans in the Second Ward if I had walked around with a bow and a quiver of arrows. Then again, who knows?

I found out that Liu likes ice-skating and it may pass that we get together to go skating together. On the way back to the first shop, we saw another little shop. It looked like a pro skiing shop. We stopped in and indeed they sold skiing gear and I ended up getting a jacket for 1,000 kuai. Liu and Steven told me that they could have bargained lower, but I had essentially opened my mouth and said I would stick at 1,000. To me, it’s all the same. I’m not like some of my friends who can haggle for the lowest price. I just can’t be bothered. I should have been born a rich nobleman with endless bags of gold because without dog-eat-dog business acumen I’m a little lost. And poor. After, we went back to the first shop with all of the primo trekking gear and I picked up the facemask for fifty kuai. There was no haggling there.

I will mention this: after all the purchases were done, it was if someone had punctured our party balloons and all of the air exploded out of our enthusiasm. I had trouble recognizing that it was time to call it a day and knock this one dead on the head. I wanted to pal around some more and they wanted to shuck off my company. We took the same bus back together, the No. 119. On the bus I showed Liu some examples of the comic book apps that I had on my iPhone. I wanted to show him a few different styles of comics that I thought were inappropriate for my graphic novel idea and a few that I thought were spot on. I almost missed my stop and I had to dive out of my seat and out the door. The bus driver was pissed off that he had to slow down to let me out. I waved to them as the bus pulled away.

Can one dance and write at the same time? Is there a language that feels like the writer is rolling on a river, swinging to the sultry rhythms of the Grand Ol’ Mississippi? Can the words tip, tap, jive, jumble, and sashay across the page? I feel words throbbing in me like music; I feel drums pounding; brass metal chiming; bass cords rippling up and down my spine with wet heavy reverberations. And a voice! The voice of a young maiden now decades old, now dead dry dust,  but alive then in the electronic paradise of forever young. I am not forty-five! I am not a forty-five! I am young and my blood is hot fluid sap. My muscles are limber and spry and they never never ever get tired. I can run all day long under the blazing sun, my bare feet black and hard as horn from pounding the soil all summer long. My eyes are bright. My hair is long and chestnut brown. My chest is thick like twin slabs of beef and my arms are corded with lean hard muscle. My waist is trim and slim like the blade of a knife. My lips are full and red; my cheeks are ruddy. I howl at the sky gods above me! I am life!

But then…underneath the youthful delusions of grandeur there is something festering. A darkness. A gray area that exhales a cold, drafty breath like the stale, fetid air from a crypt. Yes, I revel in my body. I revel under the sun. I revel in my sweat and the red-hot burn of my muscles snapping tautly as my bounding feet fly over the rich sod of the earth, but then… night falls and with it the angels of the earth recede and I am left alone to wrestle with demons.

A pain, an ache, a longing, a sense that something is missing, something is awry.

October 22, 2011       Saturday

Terrible morning class, but ok afternoon class.

October 23, 2011       Sunday

I saw Adam in the morning; taught two and a half hours of POP classes; then went to the Golden Arches.

And what did I see today? I saw a collection of dead frogs that had fallen out of a burst paper bag. Their shiny black bodies were strewn along the cracked, dirty concrete in numerous frozen positions as if they were multiple images of one single frog performing a dirty tumbling ballet. This is the poetry of Harbin city, this is the prose of its grey broken streets.


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