Harbin Diary October 29, 2011

October 29, 2011       Friday

Yesterday, I tried to work in the morning but it was nigh impossible. Hammy kept talking to me and I just could not get any notes written down. He doesn’t realize how much he disturbs me. Even with my door shut tight he speaks through it or knocks, “Zen, can you come see something? Do you have a minute?” To be fair, yesterday I was feeling fairly zombie-fied from all of the run-around. I quit trying to write and grabbed some exercise outside. It was brief—thirty minutes—but very, very vigorous.

Now, I need to stop and slow down and re-assess. I need to make sure that I am not so social that I no longer have time to write. From today on, I will make calendar appointments with my writing. Obviously, the greatest success will be for me to get up at 4:30 and start writing for three hours. This means having all of my lessons prepared the night before early enough so that I can go to sleep at a reasonable hour in order to wake refreshed for my REAL JOB. For example, yesterday was a complete drain. As invigorating as it was to spend time with bright (and beautiful) pupils like Kat or intoxicating women like Sirena, it was equally enervating and mind-numbing to have to teach at the new 富华小学/富華小學.

I met Eve, Gabe, Tim (doffing an Indiana Jones-like leather hat for Halloween), and a pale-faced, tight-lipped Petra. She looked like hell, green with a hangover. We took a bus down Xida Zhijie and got off just past HIT, but not as far as the Museum roundabout. We eventually found the school, Eve as usual running like a chicken with its head cut off, asking passersby if they knew of the school’s location. Once I broke out my map and oriented us, we found it quickly.

The school was immaculate, imposing, and picture perfect (seemed like a state school—for the affluent or should I say the riff-raffluent). The floors were swept and the building material was superb, not that ubiquitous cheap scheisse one sees all over the city. There were some short, squat laborers (Chinese Oompa-Loompas) carrying these huge dark blue plastic crates loaded with unknown substances. I swear it seemed like stuff out of a spy novel or a sci-fi movie. It was so incongruous to see these workers in their fluorescent orange overalls hauling these weird crates better suited for a research lab than a primary school.

We passed a pair of older students and they arrogantly sneered at us, “look, foreign teachers”—not a good sign. I said hello to them in Chinese and they merely ignored me. Normally when I slap some Chinese on the kids, they either remark in respect or at least surprise; I got disdain. Not a good sign at all. We went to an office and after a passel of questions in Chinese, we were directed from the “English Language Office” to the classrooms: no lesson plans, nothing. Just walk in and teach something: “Do something on body parts.” I thought ironically that’s all that will be left of us at the end of two hours. And I was not far off in my prediction. Before we went in, a gaggle of Chinese English teachers from New Oriental arrived. My dread nemesis—the man with whom I argued and almost came to blows—was leading them inside. I avoided eye contact and quietly indicated to Gabe that this was the bastard that I wanted to kill at the Tongda branch. Gabe recognized this rat-fart; he was notorious for his irrational outbursts. The schmuck was actually in charge of this cluster-ruckus. He divided the teachers among the classrooms. When he came to me, he smiled mincingly; I only gave him a cold, contemptuous look. Yes, that’s correct: I am not above petty grudges.

Spring, a teacher for whom I taught before, was there. She escorted me to my classroom. This young pretty woman seems perpetually dosed with Xanax, a Barbie-like smile frozen on her lips, perfectly round skull tilted slightly on its axis, and worst of all speaking English phrases in a high-pitched voice as if she were coddling a baby or a small puppy. Her smart black attire clashed with the odd, puerile manner of her speech. I chatted her up, not with any ulterior motives, but she was quick to mention that she had a husband. I think from now on whenever a Chinese woman mentions her husband or boyfriend I am going to immediately remark surprise and lament out loud that I was hoping for a date.

We rapped on the door to the classroom and then pulled the door open. Inside there were fifty or sixty (or perhaps more) students crammed into tall desks in a room that should have only held one third that number. The Chinese teacher was cutting into a little boy. Her voice blistered the fresh paint on the walls. Spring and I peeked in smiling sheepishly, and then withdrew in fear when the teacher turned her withering gaze upon us. She came to the door after she finished remonstrating with the boy, who must have committed an atrocity against humanity given the severity of his tongue-lashing. The Chinese teacher was tall and sere-looking, hair pulled back tightly in a bun; a few serpentine strands had pulled free from the black flower band and wafted rebelliously around her face and large basilisk eyeglasses. She assumed I spoke Chinese, in staccato fashion shot some directions at me, and stomped off as strange music began to pipe in over the loud speaker.

The children immediately began to perform this weird meditation. I imagined the entire campus, the whole student body sitting with forefingers pressed to their forehead just above the points of their eyebrows, eyes shut tightly, heads bowed, as the esoteric chanting music washed in mesmerizing waves over the entire building. Somewhere nearby a laborer was barking out laughter like a desert jackal. After this macabre interlude was over, I set about trying to teach the class the names of common fruits. I spent forty-five minutes trying to get the children to be quiet and repeat the words. It was like trying to put out a prairie wildfire on a windy day: as soon as I got one quadrant under control, another blaze of chattering would break out. I was fagged out after fifteen minutes of this absurdity. And I speak decent Chinese. I could imagine what the other foreign teachers were dealing with.

In fact, after this brutal lesson was over, Gabe and the other teachers were outside my door like co-conspirators in a prison break waiting for their ringleader so we could bolt for freedom. The Chinese teachers coolly declared that they had had no difficulties. Only Spring confided to me after the others had gone that she had trouble too. Gabe told me his experience was similar if not worse than mine. He had one child lob a pencil box at his friend’s head that drew blood. Gabe stood in the eye of the classroom trying to quell the howling first graders in utter futility. It goes without saying, Kafka’s prescience of the future of modern man is astounding.

The second class went better and I should take time to describe it, but I can’t. I will only say that this class of first graders was better behaved and thus the class went much better although after that first disaster it could hardly have gone worse. There was also a divine child named Cici dressed in a stylish coat and dress who was left alone in the class with another child and one boy who was audibly snoring in the front row. I tell you I fell in love with this little child! She and her companion were climbing on tall wooden chairs to wash the beautiful chalkboard. At first I was alarmed, then I realized that this was their daily responsibility. These Lilliputians were scaling Mount Everest as one of their daily chores. Amazing. Then, dear Cici kept speaking to me in two-word phrases. “Hello-Hi!” “How-you?” “Teacher-good?” “Teacher-sit.” “Rest-rest.” She was playing the generous hostess. The other students were at recess. I looked out the window and saw some girls sitting in the splits playing a form of Chinese patty cake. I remarked on this and Cici let me know that she could too as she trained in 舞蹈Wudao which I took to mean dance arts. She went to the front of the classroom dressed in her smart red coat and neat black woolen skirt and precisely checkered stockings and plopped right down into the splits. She flipped her silk scarf over her shoulder and raised her arms as if to say, “See?” I said I could do the splits, too. I try to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I went over and muscled my middle-aged hips nearly into a split, but I could not get down all the way; moreover, my jeans were too tight so it was an extremely painful endeavor and I had to fall backwards on my ass. Cici was politely unimpressed. We laughed as I struggled to get off the floor. She was teacher’s pet during the class.

After this ordeal was over, I caught the bus back to the apartment. I picked up some fruit and took a shower since I couldn’t this morning as Abraham occupied the bathroom washing clothes. My evening class had a small group of eight students who were all little characters. They were nine and ten year-old versions of characters from Dostoyevsky’s novels—every single one of them unique and each one an outlier on the spectrum of their personality type. There was Jack the slow dim-witted clod. Alfred, born in New York, and destined for a better world than the one offered in Harbin. James was a passionate little artist who filled every blank space of his textbook with impressive doodles of cars and robots. Then there was Frank, a pint-sized Napoleon who could not shut up and spent his time bullying Tony. Tony was a thin ghost-like boy; tall and spindly, he could wrap his leg around the other in the classic yoga eagle position. His will seemed equally as soft as a noodle and he could barely manage the few simple phrases I had to teach that night. I swear I had to bark at him several times that evening otherwise he would have faded away from view and disappeared into another realm altogether.

To his left was a very odd girl, Bonnie, who had wide staring eyes glinting with madness. She was not the typical little Chinese doll that one usually meets. She was rough around the edges and would be more in her element on a soccer pitch than in an elegant fashion show. Then there was Nancy, an ethereal fey creature. If Tony was a ghost only dimly visible, then Nancy was a female vampire with small but penetrating eyes and a quiet controlled voice. Her presence was unmistakable in the room despite her diminutive size and quiet tone. Where Frank was cut from military cloth, Nancy was cut from the cloth of a vixen. Each moment I had my back turned she huddled with her confreres. Finally, Martin. The leader of this small troop of oddballs. He was outspoken, cut from larger-than-life cloth, and boomed his voice over everyone including me. I spent a large amount of time trying to keep him and Nancy under control. Nancy spoke in barely audible whispers, but Martin was unaware of the reach of his voice. I loved them all, but teaching them English was hell. I had no pedagogic magic that night. I should have chucked the whole thing and just chatted with them in Chinese and English. They were not interested in singing “Happy Birthday to you” and I could not blame them.

I flew out of there when my time was up. Sirena called me and she seemed impatient that I had not arrived yet for her little dinner party. That was annoying, as I had told her that there was no way I could make it before eight o’clock. When I got there I met two gorgeous Korean girls. Amy was there, too. No other males in sight. Lucky me! I chatted with the two Korean girls whose Chinese was barely passable although they had been studying for about a year. It was slim pickings. David from New York showed up later and livened things up. He also ate some of the food that Sirena had cooked. The purple-colored porridge was a crime against humanity, but the chicken-slash-tuna salad was okay. The chicken thighs she fried up were crispy crispy like charred bacon and I could not swallow more than one. The sole shining moment of the evening was Bella’s last guest to arrive, a dashing Chinese man: Dong Ye—Winter Wild.

Dong Ye had it all: intelligence (a graduate from HIT); a rich family with political connections that allowed him to travel the world; and devastating good looks. His arrogance was almost understandable—almost. Yet, he was wise enough to know that success required more than quantifiable attributes like grade point average and a diverse financial portfolio. He was an avid student of humanity, reading books on history, art, and culture in his spare time. He had a foreign girlfriend—an Ozzie. He showed me pictures of her and as to be expected she was beautiful: not the model kind of beautiful, but the fresh-wholesome-smart-enough-to-be-a-corporate-lawyer-yet-pretty-enough-to-turn-heads kind of beautiful.

Strange to say, I was not green with envy. Except for one particular aspect: this lucky bastard got to travel in North Korea! He made an interesting comment that has lingered in my mind. He felt that as he traveled among the North Koreans he noticed that the majority of them seemed to share one queer attribute: their eyes. Their eyes all seemed like dead black vacuous pearls, lifeless and utterly devoid of inspiration. I think he might have been reading into it a little bit, but it seems logical enough that a people starved literally of sustenance both physical and intellectual would not possess the spark of creativity and innovation one can see in a healthier, better fed society.

Once Dong Ye lowered his shield of arrogance we shared a delightful conversation about traveling, politics, China and the USA, and of course Harbin. It would be an absolute delight to cultivate a friendship with such a young man. Sadly, the age difference is a factor. If I were younger we could cavort together and go on wild and woolly adventures, but I think my cavorting days are over in all honesty. I am more woolly than wild. I am afraid I shall turn into a Nestor-like character from The Iliad.


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