Harbin Diary November 8-21, 2011

November 8, 2011                 Tuesday 

This day would begin a horror of a week. Eve had sent me a document that she had translated and asked me to correct her Chinglish. Ok, no problem. She gave it to me last week, but I told her I was too busy to look at it. I began working on it today. Then she calls frantic and out of her mind and asks for it and for the lesson plans. Lesson plans? What lesson plans? I need to make lesson plans for the class as well. What! She did not tell me this. And this is typical Eve—scatterbrained and overextended. I could not believe this. She did not say that I was going to teach the class! This happened to be that group of forestry research scientists that I once taught until Hammy took over and then I re-took the class when his majesty fell ill after drinking water out of the toilet. 

I was livid. I decided not to kill myself trying to prepare for this class and just sent Ms. Zhao Yang (English name: Rain) a PowerPoint of my writing workshop, which is more than they needed. I knew their level and their requirements: the two did not match up well. Their English was not that good and they wanted to be able to publish scientific articles in English. Snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. Well, Ms. Zhao was thoroughly unsatisfied and ripped Eve a new arse-hole. Eve called me bawling her eyes out, saying she knows that I am busy, but Ms. Zhao wants something better. I really don’t blame Rain. I gave her something that was razor-thin. 

Eve was crying because this Rain woman has been the bane of her existence. Rain basically called Eve on the carpet about this whole situation and named her specifically as the responsible agent and referred to Jian Qiao as a teacher agency—the truth actually—but as Eve said (even if it is the truth) she was not supposed to say this because they were a college (a C level, third tier college, but a college none the less) and not an agency functioning solely in pursuit of profit. Eve is Chinese after all, and saving face is paramount and all that rot.

But it occurred to me that people who want to save face could do so a lot easier if they just adopted some productive work habits and weren’t so damn incompetent. I had warned Eve not to lie and to tell this Rain woman that I was too damn busy to properly take care of this class. But instead Eve told the woman that my Internet was down and I would be sending the lessons over momentarily. The fact was Jian Qiao had no suitable teacher to teach writing; they did have me, however; but then why not give me a lighter schedule so I could properly take care of the class? Oh hell no. Grace would not have any of that. She needs as much cheddar as effing possible. And no one really cares about this class because as I found out from speaking with this other teacher—David, a Falstaffian-sized Canadian of Chinese descent—they weren’t concerned with giving these students proper instruction—they had not paid very much for the classes after all—“so just slap some things together.”

Well, I don’t operate like that. I burned the midnight oil and came up with some materials that I thought would be useful. Part of the problem was that they had written up a wish list of things and some of them were not realistic: learn how to write a scientific thesis and create a list of forestry vocabulary in Chinese and English, for example. I told them that learning to write in English would take a lot of time, not four lessons. And how could I compile a Chinese-English dictionary of Forestry terms overnight? 

I downloaded several business English letter models, some emergency English, and I even found some information on tourism in the province. It was going to be a difficult few days. I told Eve that I would take care of it and I did. I wrote a very apologetic letter to Rain, assuming full blame for the lack of professionalism, etc. Eve was mad that I had done that as she hated Rain and would never want to apologize to her, but I asked her to trust me, as I knew how to handle BOIMs: bee-otches of inordinate magnitude. Rain did not return my email nor did she make any comment about the new expanded and detailed lessons for Wednesday. That’s okay. I was going to win over this monstrous bitch if it was the last thing I did on this planet. I would use a lot of honey to catch this damn sexy, irascible fly; catch her and then crush her! Ah ha ha ha! 

November 9, 2011                 Wednesday 

I went to Jian Qiao and had such a lovely day with my two classes. I really love those two classes. The young ladies are so hard working and eager, despite their heavy schedule. I do feel blessed being their teacher. Catrina slipped a small gift into my hand before class: a tiny little softcover notebook in which I could write notes and such. Inside she wrote: 

Eric, Thanks for your coming! I love your class very much!

I have learned much from you! Thank you!

I want to be your student For Ever!!! 

I am always touched when I get these little gifts and I am always embarrassed that I have not instilled better grammar skills. Still, it brought a few tears to this old dog’s eyes. The class was great, but I had to hustle and prepare to teach the first brutal session for the Forestry Research staff. 

Rain was there, but of course she did not deign to introduce herself to me. She was a Chinese version of my Daphne, a monumental colossal bitch with a great body, good looks, excellent professional skills, exuding arrogance like a vitriolic pheromone, and possessing a sharp tongue that she wielded the way a Viking would wield an ax. She was deadly. I left her to manage the laptop business while I got on with introductions. She interrupted shortly after to remind me to get on with the class. She spoke to me the way a mother or teacher would speak to a young child. I smiled. What a cunt.

The tech was set up, but it was not of much help in the beginning. The class was as horrible as my other classes were wonderful. I was drowning in a vortex of dull warm liquid manure. I had to stop the class. It was just worthless. They were overwhelmed and could not perform any of the tasks I had planned. I would have to downshift, slow down, and provide something within their capabilities. I began to teach them some simple practical writing skills. Then the class took off. They were engaged, alert, and had the shine of interest in their eyes, not the glazed over zombie look of the drowned and bored. It was useful, something they could sink their teeth into, not all of this other abstract stuff that was way over their genius heads. 

At least I acquitted myself with some sense of dignity. I went home fried however. I woke early in the morning to finish preparing lessons for my Thursday college lessons. 

November 10, 2011               Thursday 

Amazingly, the big auditorium class went pretty well, better than the last time when it seemed to drag on a bit too much. Then, the first lesson, a class that I usually do not like since they are not very motivated, also went fairly well as I let them watch an episode of Friends, the very first episode in fact. I have never seen that show and I had been very proud of that fact, but now it was a necessity. The show was as I imagined it would be: shallow, over-sexed, and silly. I used it as an opportunity to bond with my students however, many of whom liked the show unabashedly and as a chance to practice my narratology skills. I looked at the show as a writer would: how were characters introduced? What were the various subplots? How did they differentiate the characters? From whose perspective were we viewing the scene? And so forth. I cannot remember the character names now: the men were Joey, Chandler (whom my students thought I looked like, which irritated me beyond belief), and then Ross. The women were Phoebe and two others: one was the Aniston character who entered the scene in a dripping-wet wedding dress. That was a pretty novel way of introducing a character I thought. She was given a class A place of prominence. We had fun talking about the characters, describing them, and discussing the subplots. It generated decent English discussion for a change. As a reward, Nancy sent me a text a day later saying how much she liked me, and my class, and that she appreciated my positive attitude. That was an attitude I did not have earlier about the class I must admit. 

The next class went well too. This class was easier than the previous one as I let them practice their self-introductions for their BEC exam, something many are keen to do. All I had to do was sit back and act as proctor/interviewer. These BEC exams are probably unknown to most Americans; they were to me at any rate. They are Business English Certificate exams that certify that the holder possesses the necessary English language skills to work in a company. The Business English students aim to do well on the exams and thus improve their chances at landing a job. I am not too sure about the validity or efficacy of this test. 

I went directly to Café Kona to write my lessons for Friday. I had a lot of work cut out for me. God punished me by tossing a Libyan named Hassan at me. He went off like an IED and kept me chatting for nearly an hour. I tried to extricate myself from the conversation; it was not easy; he held on like a snapper turtle on a tree branch. He was actually a quite likeable fellow and now that I was up close to him I saw how young he really was. I had seen him often enough in Kona. He was humorous. When he ascertained that I was American he said jokingly that we were friends now! (Referring to the rebellion in Libya that the UN army helped support.) He must be somewhat intelligent as he was given a scholarship to attend HIT, one of the most prestigious universities in China. We exchanged numbers, but I haven’t had time to call him yet. We did have a pleasant chat about the implications of Kaddafi’s death and the future of US-Libyan relations. 

When he finally left me alone, I got to work and wrote up a very detailed lesson for Friday and sent it off to Rain along with another warm and well-written email. This time she wrote back with a respectful tone and even said that she would love for me to teach more often at New Oriental, saying that it was a pleasure to work with such a professional and hard working teacher. I forwarded this to Eve. 

The whole situation reminded me of Master Yi: he told us a story about this great animosity he had with one of his Tukong brothers in the temple. Master Yi could not fathom why they were such dire rivals. He kept trying and kept trying to win his Tukong brother over, but they remained bitter enemies. Several times Master Yi was tempted to have a duel with him. He persevered on the path of compassion and finally Master Yi’s unrelenting and bountiful love won his brother over. They became everlasting friends. Master Yi said to us that if a cup of water could not put out someone’s ire, use a bucket. And if that didn’t work, use two, or three, or four. Until the person’s flames of anger were quenched. 

I had not been thinking along those lines: I was thinking that I hated this bitch and boy would I like to fuck her (being the dog that I am). But when she wrote such a nice email after I wrote her…I felt a little awful for hoodwinking her and pretending that I liked her. Maybe she was playing along, maybe not, but I realized that it was folly to be evil and indulge in such machinations. The way of the Buddha is the way of awesome compassion. That is eternal and everlasting. This gave me more fuel to continue working deep into the night, and then wake even earlier to craft very well researched and detailed lesson plans.

November 11, 2011               Friday

I woke early to continue working on the lessons for the students from the Forestry Institute. I worked pretty hard most of the night but woke early to try to find some materials that would help them with their science paper writing and journal publications. In addition, I found some websites that had forestry glossaries. 

When I arrived at the Green School, Rain was not there despite the warm fuzzy emails we had exchanged. The lesson went fairly well, but there were a few slow bits. We did practice several useful dialogues regarding travel, airport, customs, appointments, and emergencies. 

At the break, we took pictures out in front of the school and this time Rain could not escape. She looked slightly uncomfortable as we stood next to one another in the center place of honor. After the mini photo shoot, she hustled us back inside to class. After the lesson, they invited me to go along with them to dinner. I guess I must have wanted to go because I said yes almost immediately. And I drank several glasses of beer as well! I sat next to Tank, although he didn’t drink any beer as he was purifying his body to prepare for his first child. Susan sat next to me on my left. It was a lovely time and I felt very beholden to them because they seemed like such nice people and damn I wanted to do more for them, teach them better English, help them with their writing. Everyone took turns giving toasts and all of them thanked me for my hard work (even though my lessons were a trifle—ok, more than a trifle—boring). All of them made sure to thank this real livewire cutie pie named Judy. She was their so-called monitor who helped put these classes altogether. Odd that a group of professionals needed a “monitor,” but this is China, home of Big Brother. 

As far as women went, there was Kate who worked with tigers and other animals and who loved her job. She looked like a forty-something school marm but the truth was she was not that old. She was made of square clay, her skin dun-colored and sallow, yet when she spoke about her job—handling these near-extinct felines—she positively glowed with power and crackled with energy.

Then Cindy sat next to her. Cindy (I was told) was pregnant; she looked like the prototypical science nerd with coke-bottle glasses and demure clothing. She was a thin, pale waif, but not un-pretty. She had a small round skull that despite its size must have housed a powerful brain. She was quiet, but when she let out a phrase or two it was with an imperious and decisive tone. I liked her very much. 

Jane was a thirty-something who dressed in such plain clothes you might confuse her for a woman double her age. She was short whereas Cindy and Kate were tall. I thought she was much older until I took a closer look at her. This was strange as most Chinese women always look younger, not older. They weren’t a homely bunch, but they seemed like stereotypical research scientist types: eschewing all material comforts and disdaining any items that were not utilitarian. 

Susan was roughly my age, but still looked very pretty. I mean, she wasn’t wrinkled and washed-out looking like most white American women. She unfortunately had to leave to pick up her child form somewhere.

Then, there was Daisy. Cute, sad, and lonely Daisy (although I heard tell that she had a boyfriend) looked very nice in her black evening gown. She was thicker than I had thought, but still very good looking. She was the Institute editor. I really wanted to get to know her, hoping she could provide an inroad to the others. I wanted to interview all of them and learn about what they did at the research institute in detail. I tried to cozy up to her at the end of the evening, but I swear I think the rest of them thought I was trying to hit on her and cut me off. They literally surrounded the two of us, then inserted themselves between us and said, “Good night teacher!” It was abrupt and a bit odd. I was not inebriated and I had no untoward intentions. I don’t think.                       

November 14, 2011   Monday

The horror! Almost ten days without writing! I have been very exhausted trying to keep up with my English lessons. I will try to briefly recap what has happened since the fifth of November.

November 15, 2011   Tuesday

I had texted Sirena yesterday and invited her to join me at Café Kona. She texted back and said that she would meet me Tuesday at four o’clock. I woke and began to busy myself with writing or preparing lessons or something, I can’t even remember now, but I got a phone call around eleven or shortly after. 

Sirena was in a state. She was bawling and sobbing. She asked if we could see each other sooner. What could I say? She said she wanted to come over. Something bad had happened. Now I have already narrated what Sirena looks like so I won’t go into that again. I was disconcerted to say the least. Did she break up with her boyfriend or vice versa? 

There was a part of me that still did not believe her. I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t all an act. My mind ran through various scenarios: she was acting a part in order to improve her English; she worked for the government and her job was to surreptitiously keep an eye on foreigners; she was in cahoots with a gang of thieves or murderers or murderous thieves and she was coming over to case the joint; she was insane and was coming over to kill me; she was a nymphomaniac and was coming over to seduce me (I should be so lucky). 

I put all of that crap out of my mind. Sure, I would love to have sex with her. She was goddamn gorgeous, but what if it was true, that she was a young woman in distress. Then, I should behave accordingly: like a gentleman, a knight in slightly rusty armor. If she wanted to kill me or case me or fuck my brains out, then I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I tried to clean up the apartment, but it was impossible. It looked like an abandoned flat and there was no changing that. I was glad my room was already clean, but where could she sit? Our sitting room was bare and the couch was in pieces (Hammy’s fat ass had broken it). I still had not found the brackets I needed to repair it. This was a girl who came from a good family and of some means; I ought to receive her properly, unless she was insane and was coming to hack me into little pieces, in which case the lack of furniture was of little consequence. But, there was nothing to be done about it other than act natural. 

She rang and I ran outside to find her and bring her inside. She was wearing thick black glasses, which I had never seen before and looked how you would expect a girl to look who had been crying her eyes out. She had on one of those short down winter vests, skintight jeans, and short boots. Her eyes were red and puffy. It could not have been easy for a pretty girl to allow herself to go outside like that. When she saw me I could see that she was discomfited, perhaps embarrassed to be seen with me. I gave her a short sidearm hug and brought her inside.

I gave her my slippers and took the rubber ones for the shower. We didn’t even have the proper footwear to greet guests. Once inside, I realized I didn’t have a drink to offer her. Holy crap. All I had was bottled water, no glasses in which to pour the water, and a few cans of that cheap crap coffee I buy at the 百型. She asked for some hot water. I was able to fake this. I grabbed a bottle of water and poured some into my coffee cup and then warmed it in the microwave. While it was heating up, I went back and asked her again (a third time) if she was okay, if she was physically unhurt—I feared that, well, she was very pretty and perhaps someone abused her physically, raped her in other words. She shook her head and said she was okay.

Okay. What happened then? She said that it was about her boyfriend, but she didn’t come out and tell me right away. She proceeded to recount this long history of the relationship between her and her boyfriend. It took a while and she never mentioned the fellow’s name. Eventually I got it out of her. Bae, his name is Bae. Our conversation took place mostly in English, but with Chinese scattered here and there when her English broke down. If she was acting, then she was one helluva actress. The tears were streaming down her face and I could see her face was pinched with worry. I will summarize what she told me.

She had lived with Bae for two years and they loved each other very much. Bae had left China after graduating from HIT to begin work in his father’s company and Sirena was working hard to finish her masters degree in interior design and to master Korean and English in order to eventually find work in South Korea. Her family was against their union because he was Korean. Bae’s family felt double the antagonism. At first, Sirena’s family completely ignored Bae when he came to Nanjing to visit them. But Bae was able to charm her family and they have finally accepted him as a possible or the most likely husband for Sirena since she really is deeply in love with him. Bae’s family initially received her cordially enough, but that visit was more like an interview. The subsequent visits grew colder and colder until both Bae and Sirena realized further visits were fruitless. Now Bae is desperate to leave South Korea as he misses her very much and feels like he is stuck in a rut. He will inherit his father’s business, so his future is more or less set, but his family feels an increasing resentment against Sirena. 

Bae called Sirena last night in an agitated state, saying he felt so much pressure from every side and just wanted to take off. He had several arguments with his mother and father about Sirena. She was obviously affected by his phone call and did not know what to do. It was torture to hear him in such pain and she blamed herself for his condition and the rupture between him and his parents. She hadn’t slept, couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork, and was beside herself. She felt that there was no one to whom she could turn. So she called me. 

More than likely all her other friends were otherwise engaged or they had already heard this drama before and were tired of it. I barely knew this woman. I was blown away by her agitated state, the constant stream of tears affecting me as all female tears do and have since I was brought into this cruel, cruel world. I did my best to calm her, cooing soothing words, and talking her off the ledge. I told her that there was no point in getting hysterical as this would benefit no one and would in fact only hamper the situation. I took the pieces of the problem one by one. First, her situation: this terrible phone call aside, her situation in Harbin has not changed nor should it change. She should continue studying, as this plan was still necessary regardless of all outcomes. It was true they could elope to Canada or England, but this was farfetched and could in fact imperil their future. Better to be calm and reason things out. So, she was to remain in Harbin studying. Being upset was not going to help her studies so she needed to calm down. 

Then, being calm would help Bae. Bae was already upset; if she allowed herself to become equally upset, then two people in a wild state would only lead to bad decisions. She needed to find the strength to remain calm and help Bae through this time. Men tend to fly off the handle over women, I told her, and women were usually the more practical members of the sexes. They have to be after all: someone must care for the children while the men are off drinking and whoring and idling away their time. 

“Now, Sirena,” I said, “you are obviously a very sentimental young lady and this is both a blessing and a curse. Right now it is a curse since you cannot think straight. You will need to buck up, set your emotions aside and use your mind.” 

I told her that she should take solace from and find strength in this incredible love. The love will not disappear. Right? No. It will endure this trial. Long distance relationships are always a challenge. Great loves demand great sacrifices. Hers would be no different. A few years from now, they will look back at this time and laugh at how hard it seemed at the time, but now they are married and happy and blessed with children. I reassured her that their love was eternal and prompted her to glimpse into the future. If this was her future, then the pain they were feeling now was only a phantom pain. I reminded her to try to not grip too tightly. It was necessary to be relaxed and loose and at ease. This would help resolve the situation. Bae needed to feel strength exuding from her, not despair or anguish. This would comfort him to know that this part of his life was secure and solid as a rock. 

Seeing this future, it was inevitable that she would one day win over Bae’s parents. They cannot hold out against her forever because she will not alter her plans nor will Bae. If she masters Korean language and culture, they will have to recognize they have a prize-winning daughter-in-law, worthy of their son. Then, I told her she should tell Bae to go to his parents on repentant knees and reassure them of their familial love, say that he had a change of heart, that he realizes the wisdom of their words. They don’t want to lose their son to some Chinese girl, so she and Bae must take pains, extra pains, to reassure them of this fact. The father and mother need to see that Bae is not in fact being driven to madness and that this sensible mature course of action was indeed prompted by Sirena. She is not a divisive element; on the contrary, she is affirming their traditions and values. So, the two star-crossed lovers ought to stay the course and wait for a more appropriate time to have a vacation. Some subterfuge was necessary, but it was all in the service of Aphrodite and Cupid, therefore legitimate. 

This conversation did not happen quickly. There were many tears shed and it took almost three hours for us to hammer out all of these details and for me to convince her that taking the stoic Buddhist road was really in their best interests. But she finally stopped sobbing, as I had predicted. I had in fact told her that eventually all of these overwhelming emotions would diminish in intensity and they would be calm again. It’s very true. Even the pain of the loss of a beloved family member loses its dreadful edge over time. It can return, but then it too will recede yet once again. Knowing this beforehand mitigates the sharp heartache somewhat. Finally her anxious state subsided and we hugged. I patted her head and when we parted she said to me that when I touched her head she felt comforted as if by a dear uncle. I said yes, that was what I was. Someone trustworthy and caring and this is truth. Was I stirred by her beauty? Indubitably. Did I also feel a deep abiding compassion for a suffering human being? Definitely. This, the compassion, is more important. 

I walked her back to her apartment. We hugged again in front of God and everyone. She went upstairs to shower and put a new face on; I told her I would go on ahead to Kona’s and wait for her there so we could study. We met and studied. The crisis had passed. The storm had rolled on elsewhere.

November 21, 2011   Monday

Ha! Another goddamn week passed without me touching my diary. I suppose I can take some comfort in the fact that I did start my blog. We’ll see how much work I get done in Shanghai. I’m on the plane now, hoping to use the next 90 minutes to catch up a little bit. Perseus organized the ticket for me, Juneyao Air, or 吉祥航空公司, a very small local airline. Before I left, I exercised outside for about 40 minutes. There is an old man who gets around by bicycle. He always speaks Russian to me even though I have told him (in my few words of Russian) that I am American, that I speak English, Chinese, Spanish, but no Russian. Still, we communicate in Russian. I point at him and say “хорошо” and he does the same. He does some pretty tough exercises on the parallel bars. I wave goodbye to him as I leave.

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