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The Waiguoren Cometh (2004)

The Waiguoren Cometh

 

A question of fog

September 8, 2003

It’s a foggy day in Beijing. The fog is so thick, that buildings sixty stories high can only be seen on the next block because of their blinking lights on the roof. I am in my hotel room, lavishly provided to me by the school. I feel bad because the teachers who came to pick me up at the airport, who are not much older than I am, had to take a bus farther to another school to sleep. Except that trip took over one hour, and they have to come back to pick me up. I am happy though, because this gives me some time to sort out my expectations of my time here.

Last night we ate at a small cafe or restaurant and ate pot stickers, pickled vegetables, and cold rice soup. If it were only the food, I would still love this place, but there is so much more than meets the eye here. When I came back to my room, a most unusual thing happened to me.

After the other teachers left, about one hour later I was watching television when I received a telephone call. Someone was speaking Chinese on the other end, and apparently DID call for me, and kept trying to talk to me even thought I said repeatedly that I did not speak Chinese. No matter, a few seconds later, I hung up, sorry I couldn’t help, ready for bed. Fifteen minutes later, I got a knock on my door.

I answered the door and this girl, a little younger than myself, walked into the room. She wore ordinary clothing, a t-shirt, jeans, just street clothes. She started talking to me, and finally I understood that she wanted to give me a massage. I tried to politely refuse her, and told her that I was very tired and needed to get some sleep, and showed her the door. She sounded a bit disappointed. I still don’t know what happened. Does she work for the hotel? Or did she see me on the street? I was warned by S. that girls would want to marry me here, and look what happened on the first night! Amazing. She was quite attractive too.

Another interesting thing was that as soon as you exit the airport, you are bombarded with business cards. By the time I had got onto the bus, I had at least fifteen different business cards, with numbers and words, of course, that I could not read yet. Then when I got off the bus, I garnered about ten more. And I didn’t ask for them, they were just shoved into my hands, my bags, and my pockets. I asked later – apparently they are business cards for travel agents.

 

***

 

Adaptation

September 15, 2003

 

Right now, I am sitting inside an internet cafe, in the city of Mudanjiang. Mudanjiang is a fairly large city in the province of Heilongjiang, about four hours east of Harbin, in China. It is a lively city, and even right now, cars are strolling down the street and honking their horns. It is the middle of the day here, so people are out of their apartments, hunting for food in the local markets.

 

I am here, for the time being, helping out at a kindergarten called Jia Mei Kindergarten. It is a beautiful school, and I am, very happy to be here. The people are wonderful, and the food is although not quite what you would call gourmet, kit is exquisite. Tonight, the President of the schools will come to Mudanjiang and tell me specifically what I will be doing, or I hope so at least. I am moving with the flow. In a place like this, time moves slower, and you have to adapt.

 

Today, I played a game with some of the teachers at the school called jianzi. It is reminiscent of hacky sack, a game I played for many years in my boy’s choir, except instead of a sack with seeds; you kick around a loop of discs, with three feathers attached to the top. At the beginning of each turn, the person with the disc has to sing a song, and then they can toss the discs and see how many times the discs can be kicked around the circle. The most we achieved was thirteen.

 

I’m staying in a doctor’s office at the moment. It’s probably the most spacious “apartment” I have ever had, room or otherwise, to myself. The room is great except for the giant dentist’s chair in the center of the room, but I tend to ignore it. I have to; otherwise it would probably give me nightmares.

 

Cultural Adaptation

When you go to a foreign country, you need to be very flexible and humble. If you can manage those two things, then you are bound for some degree of happiness. I have had to be very, very flexible in these past few days. I am in a city in northern China. There are probably only two foreigners here in the whole city (myself and my friend Ambaliu, who is from Ghana). This is truly a local city, and it is not easy to get to (a 21 hour train ride from Beijing). It is in the middle of a series of mountain ranges, hidden from the rest of the world. I don’t know what my job is going to be, and I don’t know where I will be teaching, either in Mudanjiang, Harbin, or heaven knows some other city. I don’t speak the language, and I don’t have any money (the banks don’t open for currency exchange until Monday). So I am in God’s hands. Entirely.

 

But I am happy, and I am in good hands. The only thing that worries me is that the cabbies in this city tie the seat belts, and drive on both sides of the road. But even that, you learn to flow. Everyone does.

 

***

 

Urbanity

September 18, 2003

 

I find myself sitting in an office on the second floor of the Jia Mei Kindergarten, listening to the sounds of cars and buses roaring down one of Harbin’s main thoroughfares. It is night now, only about nine o’clock, and the town is still alive as ever, although you can tell the day is drawing to a close, for lights turn on in apartments, families leave the restaurants and put away the dining rooms, and the sounds of vehicles on the road grow dimmer as seconds come and go.

 

It would be impossible to relate the happenings of this last week to you in full detail, but I will try to spare some details. If you did not receive this letter last week for some reason, for the past seven or eight days I have lived in a city called Mudanjiang, in northeastern China, about four hours from the Siberian border. It is a beautiful little mountain city, full of locality and flavor, and empty of foreigners. When my friend Ambaliu and I walked the streets, there was not one lazy eye, for all eyes were upon us. Albeit, we were a strange couple (Ambaliu is a West African, and very, very dark, and I am partly Swedish, partly Austrian, with a gaunt face, protruding chin, bony nose, gold blond hair and roaming blue eyes) and we quite stood out. Mudanjiang is also a city that is riddled with bicycles and all manner of bi-things, from strange wagons with uniwheels to half-cars, half-bicycles, to one very odd vehicle that is composed of a bicycle, a motorbike, and a car, with a wagon attached at the back. The vehicle has a name in Chinese, but it was so long and so hard to pronounce, I doubt very much that I could repeat it here.

 

Harbin, on the other hand, is a city that cries urbanity, urbanity, urbanity. When you first enter the city, you notice the sheet of pastels that roam the sky, blown casually by the thousands of factories that line the roads and railways. It is very likely that if you look on the back of something you own and it says “Made in China,” it was made here in Harbin. On the road to the kindergarten our bus passed a building that in America, very well could have been one of Silicon Valley’s hotspot companies, but here in Harbin the fabulous building was the Harbin Welder’s Training Institute. You have to hold your nose when walking on the streets here, because you can literally feel the pollution. But amid the smoke and the fumes of the modern world, there is a beauty here that does not sleep, for the buildings here are sculpted with a gentle touch, and the city is world-renown for having the most beautiful ice sculptures in the world, as well as some of the most beautiful women. So, give and take, I suppose.

 

A Fish to Speak Of

When our bus pulled off the main road from Mudanjiang to Harbin, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I asked what the name of the building was, and my friend Yang Ling said it was a restaurant, and we were to eat fish. So when I entered the restaurant and saw live fish swimming around in a red plastic container, I thought they were for show, until one of the cooks asked if I liked fish. I told him yes, and he grabbed one of the fish from the container, the fins flopping powerlessly, and then he walked into the kitchen and threw the fish onto the floor, and I should add, he did it very hard. I was a bit surprised, but then, China has never offered me less so far.

 

And in twenty minutes, we were eating that fish. And it tasted very, very good. I don’t think I’ll ever think of fish the same way.

 

***

 

Family

September 21, 2003

 

It takes more than the will to live in another country. It takes a humble patience and a mind that is eager to embrace flexibility, understanding, and the foreign. I am learning the price of humility, and the need for friends more than ever here in China. But I have made many friends, and in a country where you do not speak the language, nor understand the culture, you must have friends.

 

The Clifton family lives one floor above me. There are five of them, the husband George, the wife Estela, and their three children, Jeremy, Michelle, and Amy. Jeremy is 9 years old, and I have been told that he knows Chinese so well that he dreams in Chinese. Michelle is 13, and Amy is 14. For their spare time, they watch movies in Chinese, on their video disc player. When they are tired of their movies, they watch the Sunday talent shows on Chinese television.

 

The Clifton’s have three apartments. One apartment is here at Jia Mei, while they also have one across the street where they sometimes have English class, and they also have one a few blocks away that they will be moving into. It is a spacious place, and I think that part of the reason is that the apartment complex also houses the Little’s, a family of 14 children and innumerable students.

 

The Little’s, or also the Flores’s (I believe the husband takes the name of Little and the wife Flores) have been in China for four years. The husband, Joseph Little, left the United States when he was 16, and he has been traveling ever since. I believe his wife is from Chile, and together they have had 14 children so far, most of the children born in various and different countries around the world.

 

Yesterday, the Li’s (the owners of the school) took me to a shopping complex in the center of Harbin, across the street from the Sophia Church (which is now a museum, but used to be the major Russian Orthodox church in Harbin, when it was part of Russia and called Kharbin), to buy a set of speakers for my CD player and some notebooks for my writing purposes. It was there for the second time in my life I ate tea eggs (which are very good) and the first time in my life which I was given a counterfeit bill after I paid one of the merchants. After the shopping, the Li’s took me to a Russian restaurant near the complex, and I ordered Moscow Red Soup and Indonesian Spiced Rice. On the stage, a Russian lady performed old Russian to modern Russian tunes with both her voice and her saxophone.

 

Safety First

Here in Harbin, the streets are known as the most dangerous in all of China. I don’t know if I could properly describe how people here drive. If any of you have been to Europe, then multiply European road rules in those ancient cities which were not designed for cars by, oh, five. For American drivers, there really is no comparison. Whereas in America we are fined if we take a left turn at the wrong time, here in China the rules are different. If you do not turn at the right time, you might create a traffic situation that may take ten minutes to unravel, or even worse, become road kill. Bikes, cars, SUVs, taxis, buses, and horse drawn wagon share the road here. And when the winter comes, the roads become ice covered, and the cars become living missiles. But to the people who live here, this is common, just as common as an American taking out their garbage ever Tuesday. So the best advice I can give you if you travel to China is to stick to the sidewalks, and if you need to get somewhere, take a bus or taxi. And always, always, look on both sides of the road.

 

This is the best time of the year for Harbin. In these few weeks before the rise of November, the weather is cool and the sky is blue. People are out at the street markets, purchasing grapes and some of the specialty fruits that you can only find in China. Instead of cigarette butts, you find the remnants of sunflower seeds, the cases to the seeds splayed across the sidewalks and the roads like crushed flies. The internet cafes are full of people playing games, mostly. And the night is lively; the lights from the restaurants flashing like Vegas hotels, and the incessant honk of the cars grooming the streets.

 

***

 

Overview

September 29, 2003

 

On Wednesday, China celebrates its independence, and in commemoration, there is a three day weekend off for all of China. It’s one of three holidays, in which the economy is suspended and tourism is encouraged. But in exchange for the holiday, you must work three days you would not work before the holiday, so the economy does not suffer. Everyone does what they need to, to make ends meet.

 

I had a brilliant idea of describing to you a typical day of my work, traveling on the bus and observing life around me, because I’ve come up with a lot of observations. But this holiday, I’m being taken around the city, and I’m going to observe even MORE, so I’ll have tons more to talk about next week.

 

So this week, I’d rather focus on my life at the kindergarten. When I came to China, I had no idea what to expect, especially in regards to what my job would be. I was, well, surprised. I came to China thinking I’d be an English teacher of kindergarteners, but rather, I’ve discovered that I am in day care for preschoolers. Namely, children that are anywhere from 13 months old to 4 years old, and it’s my task to teach them English.

 

I teach three classes. One class of 1 year olds to 2 year olds, another class of 3 year olds, and another class of 4 year olds. When I first entered into my Small Small class (1-2), most of the children burst into tears at the sight of me. I suppose they saw my hair, my height, and my eyes, and suddenly thought they were being punished. In my Small class (3), the first class, most of the children just started in awe at the sight of me. And in my Middle class (4), they made a special effort not to be scared at all, and laughed.

 

The classes have warmed up to me. I’ve been here for about three weeks, and some of the children who would not even look at me, are now my best friends. It’s a nice feeling.

 

I take the bus to school in the morning, and then back from school in the afternoon, and then I hang around the bigger school (where I live) for the rest of the afternoon, until five when I am free. Things are still in transition around here, with the English teaching family in residence (the Clifton’s) moving out, and some new teachers eventually moving in, and teachers moving around, and holiday coming. So there’s not much for me to do when I get back, but just hang around.

 

I go to the internet cafes here a lot, write e-mails, read the news, and play the games on the computers. Other than that, I’ve been hanging with the Clifton’s a lot, and writing a lot. I’ve written about 19 stories since I’ve come to China. Not big stories, but they’re to my liking.

 

The new good news is I now have a phone, but the bad news is the phone is only in the Harbin area, and I can only receive phone calls on it. I don’t think anyone from outside Harbin can call me, so in the upcoming weekend, I’ll probably go looking for one. They have really nice cell phones here in China. You can customize them, colors, size, quantity, and even put little designs on them. Plus, most of the more expensive phones here use AA batteries, so you don’t need to charge them. I’m also going to be in the market for a DVD player here, because the players here are all region and about fifty to ninety US dollars. And the DVDs, well, in comparison to US dollars, they cost less than one dollar, probably about 50 to 75 cents a piece here.

 

***

 

Ordinary Days

October 12, 2003

 

As you know, China had its holiday of independence two weeks ago. What this does to the week is very badly disfigure it, and suddenly the work week is cut straight through the middle, and when the holiday is over work begins on Thursday, rather than Monday. So last week when I was supposed to be writing this note, I was happily indulging myself in buying a DVD player and a television set, total price in US dollars, about $120 for both together. But because I missed last week, I’m going to make this one extra long.

 

I will now describe an ordinary day for me.

 

WAKING UP

I wake up usually groggy. This isn’t because of bad dreams (no, my dreams are usually wonderful and surreal), but because during the night mosquitoes smell my man-flesh and come night hunting for me, getting into my room through the walls, it seems. Suddenly I wake up at 2am, scratching at the air because of some horrendous buzz. When I finally sit up with enough of my head on and turn on the light, the bugger ran and fled to some corner of the room. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion the mosquitoes in my building have it in for me, and are quick learners, because every night that goes by, they figure out more ways to survive. The first night it happened, they were stupid and hung out talking to themselves on my walls, black bodies against white, very bad, very bad. I took out my gallows and made swift work. But a few days later, they learned that sticking against the wood frame of my door kept them from being seen. And just last night, I found a white mosquito hiding on my white wall. I’m going to have to improve my tactics. I’m too stubborn to resort to Raid yet. Too much pride. Too much man-flesh.

 

For a few weeks, before and after the holiday, I woke up to the sound of roosters. In the middle of one of the largest cities in China, you should think that quite odd, for the streets aren’t really the kind of place roosters hang out. So for the first morning, I thought the awakening quite a novelty. After all, I’m a suburbanite, and we don’t get that sort of critter where I’m from. But the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth mornings, they began to crawl up my nerves. Finally, over one dinner, I asked the president of the schools why they were there, and he just laughed. So I asked him if tomorrow morning I could walk downstairs with a knife, strangle the little creature and then take it into the kitchen and eat it, and he told me it would be okay. A few days later, the roosters disappeared.

 

I still haven’t got a clear answer from the school about why the roosters. They were always parked out on the front lawn of the school in cages, with towels draped over them, except during the night when they were kept in the men’s bathroom (which I found out to my surprise, at around 1am, when I felt the need of nature’s call, and quietly tried to step around the roosters without waking them… oh, did you know that roosters snore?)

 

TO SCHOOL

I came to a realization a few days ago, while riding the school bus. I was very concerned about the status of the roads in China, because nobody seems to follow any kind of rules when they drive. In China, two lanes often become four lane streets, and the streetlights and street signs are really only guidelines for driving. Of course, a policeman can fine you if you are reckless and break these “rules” but usually they don’t, because they are breaking those “rules” themselves. But I realized that the driving in China is much like eating in China. You share the road, much like you share the dishes on the table. No one when they eat here has their own dish, and many times, they don’t even have personal plates. Just a pair of kwaidze (chop sticks) and a cup of tea, and then they eat out of the dishes. It’s the same with the driving, for everyone shares the road: cars, buses, trucks, bikes, motorcycles, wagons, horses, donkeys, and people. And being Chinese, they seem to have an intuition about when to go ahead and when to stop, when navigating the streets (which is why when I go out alone, I always shadow someone, and then leap for dear life to become another shadow).

 

Now on the bus to the school, there are many interesting things to watch. Rickshaws are still popular in China, although less so in the cities and more in the villages. Watching the street markets, the stalls of almost every color lining the sidewalks and the alleys, the people with portable BBQs roasting corn over hot coals, the fruit sellers with clumps of green and purple grapes, apples, bananas, and pears, and the people with hot grills on, roasting mutton and pork and selling the meat on wooden sticks. Watching the restaurant workers doing their morning exercises together as a single unit, dressed in their work clothes, running laps around the block, in step like a military march. Staring at the half-built husks of buildings being constructed by workers, hundreds and hundreds of buildings being built like hives. Looking at the street workers, who are dressed in dusty brown and black uniforms covered in dirt, putting in tile after tile and forming sidewalks where there was once only a dirt road. Watching the old men (adults retire at around fifty in China) sitting in groups on the sidewalks, on chairs, in a circle that surrounds a table where they play shung qi (Chinese chess), card games, and smoke cigarettes while the day wastes away. Some of these old men still wear the blue uniforms of the communist party, with the blue pants, blue shirt, and blue hat, as if they have nothing else to wear.

 

Something else that is very interesting to watch: women don’t drive. Most people in China know at least one person that is a woman who drives. But think of all of the other people they know that drive? Men. Now, there is a good reason for this. If I had to give a metaphor for the driving in China, I’d have to say that it’s akin to boys playing with toys, mixed in a giant soup bowl. If you have the chance to visit China, you’ll know what I mean.

 

AT SCHOOL

Two weeks ago, I explained what my work day was like. Before I get to the school, I’m usually nervous and wishing I never came to China, but after one step into the classroom, I’m suddenly glad I decided to come. The children are wonderful, and their excitement stirs me on. They laugh and jump up and down, crying “laoshi, laoshi!” which means teacher, teacher. When I began my work, they couldn’t stop crying at the sight of me, and now suddenly I’ve become this beacon of freedom. I still don’t really understand, but I’ll give it time.

 

Downstairs, the grandparents and the parents and sometimes, other members of the family come to watch their children on television screens. In every classroom is a camera, and the camera is wired down into the lobby so the parents can see. When I first saw this setup, I was skeptical, because I thought this was spying, but as I’ve come to know and love this culture, I’ve understood the need of this, to stay connected as a family. This, also of course, is to keep an eye on the teachers, and make sure they stick to the schedule. In China, family is still very important, elders are still held with much honor, parents are respected, and authority is not questioned. Being a westerner, I’ve had my share of questioning the authority here, and I cannot find many Chinese who are willing to go the distance when I start on my crusades. They are very nervous, and often refuse to translate my requests to the leaders. But all’s well that end’s well, they say, and I’ve no complaints.

 

AFTER SCHOOL

At 12pm, I receive a one hour lunch break. During this time, I usually take a walk downtown and visit the stores and observe the people. Downtown is daunting at lunch time, and people stalk the sidewalks and markets like a mass of pigeons, continually flocking out of nowhere, and disappearing into nowhere. Being a foreigner, I am often stared at. It is not rude to stare in this culture, so you can imagine what I receive, being what I am: a 6 foot, blond haired, blue eyed Swede. But I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s become second nature just to not let it bother me.

 

What you notice right away, is that everyone, whether they are poor or rich, short or tall, small or large, has a cell phone. There are three programs in China for people to get cell plans with: China Unicom, China Mobile, and UT Starcom. China Unicom and China Mobile offer plans throughout China, transprovincial and international plans, while UT Starcom is usually only city-wide. I have a UT Starcom phone. They are notorious for two things: being the cheapest phones on the market, and having the worst reception. Regardless, I’m happy with the purchase. It works when I need it to, and that matters.

 

During my break, I always try to make an excursion to the underground market. Most people know of Harbin for the beautiful ice sculptures often hundreds of feet high, sculpted with artistic fervor, and for Harbin’s cold winters (-40 F), but they do not realize one of Harbin’s greatest secrets: the underground. While many cities are famous for their underground subways (New York, Chicago, Paris, London) Harbin also has an underground, extensive and exquisite, but instead of running a subway system, Harbin runs a marketplace. Underground, often scaling down three or four stories into the earth with floors connected by escalators and stairs, the underground market teems with the smell of fresh clothes, for that is what is inside it. For miles, mannequins guard the exits, dressed in the latest fashions, and Christmas lights garner the ceiling, running down the walls and disappearing into tiny shops. If you’re not careful in some of these markets, you can get lost, because they are extensive as mazes, and the only guide is the little green sign that says exit. I love the underground markets. Maybe they tingle my imagination, or maybe I have a desire to get lost and never be found again. Who knows.

 

When I go home, I take the 89 bus. On nearly every bus in Harbin, there is a driver, and there is a conductor. The conductor is usually a woman, young at that, and she sits at the back of the bus near the back exit. There is a reason why she is there: in the mornings and in the evenings when people commute to work, they take the buses, and although there are over 200 bus lines in Harbin, some which come to each stop every two minutes, the buses still fill up like a bad case of a cold, the buses being stuffed to more than capacity as people nearly crawl on top of one another to fit into the bus. Just two days ago when I took the bus back to my school, I was almost crushed by an unnamed population of bus riders, none of which I could tell to stop pushing me to the floor, because it really was no one person’s fault. So the conductor is the person who tells people to get off one another and act rationally, and she is also the one who speaks out the next stop.

 

AT NIGHT

I visit the internet cafes at night. Most internet cafes are 1 or 2 Yuan per hour (roughly 20 to 50 cents per hour, depending on the size of the joint), and are filled with the young of China, mostly the young males. While the young women are out at the malls or at home taking care of their parents, the young men are at the internet cafes, playing computer games, looking at the web, or using QQ (an instant message program used here in China). They bring their attitudes, their cigarettes, and their time, and they kiss the night away to the denizens of the dark. This is where you can learn the Chinese curse words and the only place where you can make friends with somebody after you blow their brains out with a shotgun. Girls don’t usually frequent the internet bars, and if they do, they usually aren’t there for the games, if you catch my drift.

 

After I leave the internet bar, I go back to my room, where I either watch television (for learning purposes, since I don’t know Chinese yet) or I watch one of my DVDs. The television shows in China are something of a marvel… in America the soap operas are of the rich and well-off, often caught in a bad circle of affairs from one relationship to another. Well, in China, the soaps are the same, except they aren’t rich Bel Air types, but rather, the soaps in China revolve around imperialistic China, and princes and princesses and the illegitimate affairs they have with each other. But on the inside, they are really the same thing. A bunch of people who can’t keep their pants on, with too much free time.

 

I hate to end there, so I’ll digress on one more thing. The food.

 

THE FOOD

 

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you probably have your favorites. Maybe Kung Pao Chicken, or General So’s Chicken, or maybe broccoli beef. It’s said that in China there are over 50,000 dishes. Now when I came here, I was expecting to get some of that good, traditional food, you know? But since I’ve been in China, I’ve not eaten one dish that has been the same. Not One. And I’ve eaten, so far, over 135 meals. And every meal has been different. But then, if you come to China, you’ll realize soon that the Chinese food is pretty much like everything else here, the language, the driving, and the people…. so, so, many combinations, and so, so, much…

 

***

 

Leaving the Familiar

October 19, 2003

 

THE SADNESS

Perhaps foremost on my mind is that I will be leaving Harbin. I truly do love Harbin. It’s a city rife with mystery, enchantment, and best of all, people, people, people, from many corners of the world and many corners of culture. I still have not visited the famous Russian walking street, or visited the Sophia Church, or had a chance to glimpse at the Siberian Tiger Zoo. I still have not traveled to the top of the Dragon Needle and looked at Harbin hundreds of feet in the sky, nor have I traveled north of the river Songhua where fabulous and beautiful buildings and parks are supposed to be. And most sad on my mind is that I will be leaving all of my new friends I have made here in Harbin, the many, many Americans that have suddenly appeared in my life who have nothing but joy to share with me. I am very happy for their friendship, and I will miss them very much.

 

THE JOY

On the other hand, I have much to be thankful for. First of all, the many people who I’ve met and who have blessed my life with their kindness and their love. It is a daunting thing to be in another country by yourself, especially without knowing the language or knowing the culture. Communing with other people who are in the same straight as you, either through culture or age or temperament is a must in any situation.

 

And for the places and things I’ve seen, from walking the banks of the Songhua River and feeling the coming winter wind rip across my face, while one hundred feet above the roaring water, staring through the backbone of Harbin’s main street; conversing with my new friend, Mr. Chin, and hearing his broken English speak to me of his life during the civil war, and then hearing him relate to me his joy of Sarah Brightman, and then listening to Scarborough Fair over a meal of dumplings and spiced beef and liver while sitting in his bedroom; running through the streets of central Harbin because I was late for an appointment, trying to dodge the millions of people while suddenly hearing the rhythm of the city pound through my body, like a song; walking leisurely through the street markets of the development district, watching people haggle over the price of grapes or watching key makers grind away at metal, the sparks coming off in the daylight like strips of energy; or walking in the square of Songlei Department Store, staring at the artists who draw with nothing but colored pencils, and the stalls of meat and sweets which people are clustered around in packs and packs, and then eating the grilled mutton on wooden sticks, as the sun clambers down and falls Harbin into the light of night, the beat of the evening turning on as the discos become alive, and the streets are filled with the lights of taxis, youth, and the revelry of the dark.

 

THE SURPRISES

With challenges come answers. This, perhaps if anything, should be the motto of my life here. For challenges have come up, yes, but with patience, persistence, and a willingness to change, answers also come, almost riding on the backs of the challenges. For example, I have learned to take the city bus during my stay in Harbin, and I have been greatly blessed by that experience. I have learned more about Chinese culture that perhaps anywhere else, by riding the bus. Observing the mannerisms, observing the life in and outside of the bus, and then watching how the Chinese communicate with each other, most between themselves and outside themselves; this has taught me much.

 

I will be traveling back to Mudanjiang on Wednesday. Although this is not what I truly wish to do (I would stay in Harbin), it is what I must do, for there is a need in Mudanjiang, and the school feels that I can fill that need. This is both a blessing and a curse; a curse, because the people I’ve known in Harbin will become weekend ghosts for me, but a blessing because I will be able to observe the village life once again, and for myself, discern the content of the Chinese character. I will truly be at the center of the world. Four hours from Korea, four hours from Russia, and ten hours from Mongolia.

 

THIS IS NOT AN APOLOGY

I do not wish to make this letter sound like a farewell letter, and already I feel it has become so. It is not so. I am moving cities, and yes, to move often is difficult, but I am not abandoning Harbin, only moving locations. I will continue to write these letters, and I will continue to do what I do best: to observe, think, write, and communicate with you. Hopefully, this will be my last move, and when I get to Mudanjiang, I will have an address.

 

I will be in China for ten more months if everything goes as planned (ha ha). I am going to try and buy a China Mobile phone next month, and then I will even have a phone number (gasp!), something I’ve sorely lacked since my arrival.

 

It is getting colder up north. Yesterday, I bought a winter shirt, a winter jacket, and winter underwear. I wear my gloves whenever I go outside (even though the Chinese do not…??), and at night, I curl into a ball to try and keep the warmth in my blankets. You wouldn’t believe how much fun it is to be curled up in your blankets while watching a Rambo marathon. Well… just take my word for it.

 

***

 

Living in Quarters

October 26, 2003

 

I can hardly tell what time it is anymore.

 

I am a bit unused to the weather. The nights come early here in Mudanjiang; the sun reaches its peak at about 10 or 11am, and the darkness of night washes over the city at 4pm. Today I walked to this internet cafe in absolute darkness, for the city is free of lights, and only the headlights of street cars and the red glow of the night restaurants light the paths.

 

The internet cafe is full, though, and the rattle of keys and cell phones breaks up the silence.

 

“Surroundings”

I live in a small, rectangular room covered in light panels of beige wood. The walls are covered with heaters, for in the winter it gets very cold in China. My ceiling is a good twenty feet high, and my bed is lofted so that when I wake up, I have to watch my head or I might spend the rest of the day rubbing my head. So far, my ladder has fallen three times, and I’ve hung from my lofted bed with my bare hands, and then listened as the metal ladder crashed on the floor. I’m beginning to understand the importance of weight displacement.

 

There are two rooms in my living quarters. My television and DVD player are set up in the corner of my study, and I’ve also a black chair and a desk lamp. My electric pot and water machine are set up in my “living room,” which contains a couch with the plastic still on, a cabinet where I hang my two heavy coats, my eating utensils, and my plants which are set in the window.

 

“Undergrounds”

I spent Saturday wandering Mudanjiang, notably the center portion of the city. Beneath the city, like in Harbin, is a labyrinth of tunnels, winding up and down, left and right, weaving in and outside of markets, restaurants, department stores, and food courts. The tunnels do not delve as deep as Harbin, nor are there as many, but the one underground market Mudanjiang has, is quite, quite big. For dozen of city blocks it spans, and it is truly a place where if you blink long enough, you wouldn’t know what direction you came from.

 

“Orders and Order”

From my last letter, some of you may have received a feeling of sadness, or perhaps, regret. There was a little sadness, yes, but overall I am in a sense of searching, seeking, trying to discover the purpose of why I am in China, and what’s so important about a shy American teaching the colors of red and blue to children who can’t even speak yet. I am sure there is a reason.

 

I have had a little difficulty adjusting to the philosophy in China, and the sense of authority, but coming from an American, and coming from a child of two independent parents who both have operated independent the American enterprise since before I was born, China can provide difficulties.

 

The philosophy of worker to company is very important in China, as it is in many countries in the East. It is not surprising, once you realize this, to watch restaurant cooks and waiters in uniform step, running laps around city blocks in restaurant dress, and neither is it surprising to see school children doing exercises like a mass of soldiers outside on the playground, with children appointed as guards to make sure the children do not shrink on their duty of exercise. And hence, it is not surprising that when faced with a philosophy that works on the basis of conformity into stabilized order, that myself, coming from a background of American independent business spirit and the causality of, “get your hands off my time,” that at times, this may grate the teeth. Happily though, even if everyone on the earth may use a different philosophy, we all recognize the importance of negotiation. And thus, one of the most important lessons of cultural recognition.

 

“On the Pay”

Americans are usually not very excited to come to China. Most come for purposes other than finances, as the pay usually isn’t super, and is worth next to the cost of a good supply of nice napkins.

 

For example, English teachers in China are paid anywhere from 2000 Yuan to 8000 Yuan per month, depending on their experience in teaching, their credentials, and their company. Myself, I am paid 3000 Yuan per month, and this is because I have a BA and a teaching credential. At universities, teachers can earn up to 8000 Yuan per month, which is a very high sum when the average salary for a professional job for a Chinese citizen is 1000 Yuan per month (or so I’ve gathered from my observations). Now, roughly speaking, 3000 Yuan is about $300, give or take some, as the exchange rate is 8 Yuan to 1 dollar (I’m not big on math, so if you’re especially concerned, you can do the math yourself).

 

So, as you can see, people don’t immigrate to China to make big bucks. Now why am I here?

 

(Imagine me laughing right now.)

 

The money.

 

***

 

Ghosts of the Present

November 02, 2003

 

“Remembering the Old World”

Even in China, I can’t seem to escape my life in the states. I am applying for graduate school right now, and it makes my life both difficult and easy. It’s difficult, because I have to coordinate between the school, the Peace Corps, and my family (who to my supreme happiness are handling the transfer of papers from one place to another). I’m applying to the School for International Training, to get a Master’s International degree in Sustainable Development, with a two year stint with the Peace Corps as part of my graduate education.

 

For those of you who don’t know why Sustainable Development is, well, it’s really a fancy way of combining relief effort, NGO fundraising, cultural exchange, and initiating the creation of lasting community effort to bring about positive change. Or, in simpler terms, it’s a fancy way of training people to “save the world.” A super-hero training camp? Well, perhaps in my dreams. Ask anyone who works in it, and they would probably tell you they push more pencils than anything, but then, I’m probably deconstructing too much. At this point in my life, I figure it’s a worthwhile goal.

 

As for the Old World, I’ve been learning this past week what a rich history Mudanjiang is. Mudanjiang, you say? What’s that? Sounds like an exotic laundry detergent.

 

Apparently, about one hundred kilometers away is the ancient kingdom of Bohai, or the site of the ancient kingdom of Bohai, which during the Tang Dynasty was an independent kingdom, both rich in culture and history. I am going to make a special effort to learn more about this kingdom.

 

Also, I read on a webpage that the last emperor of China (watch the movie, The Last Emperor) was of the Qing Dynasty, and apparently, the Qing dynasty originated from up north near Mudanjiang. There is also a beautiful lake called Mirror Lake, and legends abound in stories and folktales of ghosts, mysterious fisherwomen, and mythical happenings. Such are the things that lead to obsession. I’m bound to become transfixed.

 

“The Flight of the Valkyries”

There are a lot of good things about my job. I’ll list them right here, if any of you had any doubts about the benefits of being a teacher at a Chinese kindergarten:

1. First of all, the kids love you (they are two and three years old, and your job is to spoil them, so go figure).

2. The hours are usually loose and work is flexible (nothing like what is normal in a Chinese school).

3. The staff is generally pleasant (hey, you’ve got to be to work around babies).

4. The kids hardly speak English, much less Chinese (so there really isn’t much of a problem of rebellion or temperamental communication).

5. And finally, the teachers are happy company. They are mostly girls, and mostly my age. But as with everything, there are some thorns.

 

“Men are from Mars, Women are from… Mudanjiang?”

There have been some moments when the teachers and the staff have become upset with me. Unfortunately, I don’t know the language, so when I try to figure out what happened, I’m usually unsuccessful. So today, I made a list for myself, to try and understand what was going on, but I don’t think it really made a difference. But it was humorous, for my sake.

1. Because they are girls (the teachers, that is), they usually can’t explain why they’re upset (at least to me, a boy).

2. Because they are Chinese, they usually won’t explain to me why they’re upset (I guess it’s a cultural thing).

3. And because they don’t speak English, they usually don’t know how to explain why they are upset.

 

This, in any case, leaves me with an even more solid impression that I need to learn the language.

 

I am planning on visiting some universities in the area, and maybe walking some parks or visiting a library or two, to try to meet some people outside the school who speak English.

 

***

 

Singing Dogs

November 09, 2003

 

“The Week, in Re(tro)spect”

The weeks for me are passing faster now. I find myself writing this letter, remembering the last time I was at this same computer, writing this same letter, and it seems only two days ago. It’s a good sign; I’m settling in, and my nerves are calming down.

 

Today I spent the day checking out shops here in Mudanjiang. I went as far as KFC, and then I walked back home (a good thirty minute walk), stopping along the way at book shops and media outlets (where to buy movies and music). There are quite a few that I’ve found that sell DVDs, although because this is Mudanjiang, the DVDs are higher priced. Most of the popular sales items in this city are higher priced than in Harbin, because they are made in Harbin and then shipped here. I’m not much a fan of the increased economics, but then, I am glad that the items are here.

 

Yesterday, I bought a China Mobile sim card. Watch out, boys and girls, ’cause the restraints are off! No more hiding in the darkness! No more squirming under the anvil of silence!… (ahem), or something like that. Anyways, it’s a good thing. My mother called me today using the new phone number, and that made me happy.

 

As for the rest of the previous week, the nights come in a lot faster now (about 3:30pm), and it’s getting a lot colder. I wear my jacket whenever I go outside now. For those of you from California, that may mean nothing, but to most non-Californians, it should mean something that a Californian is actually braving a jacket. When I went to school in Chicago, it was an urban legend that the only people to go out in the snow without a jacket were Californians. In fact, many times just to prove their betters, Californians would go out into the snow with sockless sandals, shorts, and a palm tree button-up short sleeve shirt. I guess we have something to prove?

 

“Babel”

This weekend, the only English & Chinese speaker left to see her father in Harbin, so I was left at the school with no one who spoke English, and a handful of chores that I had planned. But no worries! Because English is so elementary to survival here, even the Chinese version of Microsoft Word has Chinese-English and English-Chinese translation software. So in between chores, my friend Anna and I used Microsoft Word to get through what could have been a very painful process of misdirected hand signals and unfumigated anger.

 

“Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Cook John, the head cook here at the school, has three dogs. So far, I’ve discovered he has a love for many things, some of which include basketball, CCTV (Chinese television), cooking, and beer. In fact, he named his three dogs with much love: Harbin Beer, Huahe Beer, and Hapi Beer. Cracks me up, it really does. I love it.

 

“May Sure Gan”

In the past week, I believe my most used phrase at the school was “mei shi gan,” which means, “I have nothing to do.” For some reason, this always manages to make the cook laugh. He always replies, “Hit policeman.” And then he laughs.

 

To finish this letter up, you should be informed of karaoke stores. To my bemusement and astonishment, karaoke is quite a booming industry in China. In the center of Mudanjiang, in the central entertainment square, underneath a cement staircase is a little room with two giant speakers, a big-screen TV, a mixer, and a VCD player. People pay about 2 Yuan to sing to their favorite song using the microphone, and blast their voice across Mudanjiang. I later found out that there are karaoke bars that charge even more: up to 100 Yuan per song, if you want to blast your voice out to a bunch of drunk disco dancers. I guess you pick your cup of tea.

 

***

 

Friday, and counting

November 7, 2003

 

It’s Friday night, and I just bought a load of DVDs. I really want to meet some people in this town. It does get dreadfully lonely, with only me, myself, and my TV (and I don’t like TV much anyways). I did put together an outline for ten novels today, and organize my list of Once Upon A Time stories (eleven for the world, and three real world ones, making a total of fourteen, with twenty stories each).

I want to meet some foreigners in this city, as I don’t know Chinese well enough to ask any person here any questions that would do much good. I can say, “I’m doing well,” if they ask, but besides that, I’m clueless. I read on the net that there are some foreign language schools nearby. Maybe there are foreigners?

 

***

 

Appreciating the View

November 16, 2003

 

“Ten Weeks in Review”

Ten weeks isn’t anything special, except that it is a base number. Otherwise, it’s only 70 days, which isn’t really a long time. But I’ve learned quite a lot in those 70 days, so this letter will review those ten weeks. It began as a shopping list of what I’ve bought in China, but grew into much more. I’ll lay out comments in between.

 

So far in China, I’ve…

-bought 213 DVDs

I put this on first to mention how I spent most of my money. This is not something I am proud of, nor is it something I am ashamed of. I have spent a good amount of time watching movies here, as I’ve watched nearly all of these movies. It began as something fun to do, an excuse to get out of the school and look for DVD shops, and it grew into a ritual for me to learn about the culture. I use the DVD shops as links for scouting out the main shopping centers, and then map out the lay, as well as try to meet new people. Just today while doing this, I discovered the New Hope Foreign Language School. It wasn’t much of a school, but it was a small victory for me, in my quest for trying to discover the foreign element in this strange city which seems absent from any pure influence.

 

-spent 5700 Yuan

It’s easiest if you think of the exchange rate for dollars to Yuan as 10 to 1. In reality, it’s 8 to 1, but base numbers are so much easier to compute, plus it gives you the advantage of extra change. So in these ten weeks, I’ve spent about $570, which is about the same as my spending rate in college. I’m making about the same I made there, so I really can’t complain. Although my two degrees might say otherwise.

 

-made 5200 Yuan

This seems an odd number, because I’ve spent more than I made. I came to China with an extra 2200 Yuan in my pocket, so keep that in mind. I receive pay per day, so I work 22 days every month, and I receive about 136 Yuan per day. If I miss one day of work, then it’s minus 136. I began work on September 8.

 

-bought 1 Chinese toy

I have to laugh about this. The toy is a transformable cell phone. The phone itself plays 8 different Chinese songs, 3 strange voices, and the on/off switch. It transforms into four different forms: a man, a tank, a spaceship, and a bug. It is called the “Aether Champion,” which is written in English. I bought this because to me this little toy resembles my “New China,” or the China that is developing so quickly over here. To me, it symbolizes everything that China desires to become, and also what China is and was. It was satire in my heart that inspired me, but I’m sure some deeper meaning will come at a later time.

 

-bought 1 Chinese jacket

The jacket is called Bosideng, and according to the advertisement, it is the official and best jacket of China. It makes an excellent winter jacket, and you can take the lining out to make a spring jacket. Apparently, the advertisement claims climbers to Everest wore the coat. It’s sold everywhere, from little broken down clothing stalls to giant department stories. The price was reasonable: 326 Yuan. I remember I bought my London Fog coat at a discount outlet for a mere $110. What would that be here… 1100 Yuan?…

 

-bought 1 Chinese DVD player

Shinco, like Bosideng, claims to be the best brand of DVD player-makers in China. The tag said they were the second-best DVD player-maker in the world, and the way this player works, I wouldn’t doubt them. It plays worldwide regions, everything except Africa and some little corner of the world, and it also plays VCDs, CDs, MP3s, and JPEGs. It supports both Chinese and English, and even comes with 2 microphones for singing karaoke.

 

-bought 1 Chinese television

When I bought the television, I wanted the smallest and best I could find, so I found a trusted brand (with Chinese brands, you have to go with the biggest names, or else you never know what you might get), Konka, and then picked out a little 20-something incher that looked nice. I was really surprised when I got home and discovered I could play Tetris on my TV.

 

-bought 1 pair of Chinese long johns

I’ve never worn long johns. Not even while I was in Chicago. I rebelliously refused to wear them, partly because I thought they had an idiotic name, and partly because I’ve never fully understood the purpose behind underwear. Why can’t people just keep their pants on?… up here, though, you discover the purpose, and I shall never slander the name of long john again. The temperature up here is already down to below 20 degrees, but the chill hasn’t even begun to scratch me. It’s beautiful, really.

 

-bought 1 Eddie Bauer pullover

This was more of an impulse buy, as I’ve always wanted a real pullover, but growing up in California, there isn’t much of a market for them. Even in the outlet malls, the closest sweater you find is what’s called a “mock pullover,” which are fine until they get old and dirty, and then the “pullover” curls up and you end up with an oversized long-sleeved shirt with an ugly collar. But since I’ve been in China, I’ve worn this pullover more than anything else I have, excepting the long johns. And I’m bound to pick up another one.

 

-bought 1 English/Chinese dictionary

This little red book that I carry around with me is not as useful as a dictionary (as of yet) for me, but more recently, it’s been a device which I lure the attention of the children. After all, it’s a little red book and always stuck in my back pocket, and for some reason whenever I lean down to teach the children, they grab for it. So I grab the book out of my pocket, and teach “red” and “book,” and it seems to be more useful than my lesson plans.

 

-bought 1 Chinese language textbook

I met a man named Mr. Chin, while browsing in a Harbin DVD/VCD/CD shop. He spoke to me and asked me if I knew the words to Sarah Brightman’s Scarborough Fair. He told me he was disturbed because the words in his CD jacket were definitely not the words that Sarah Brightman sang (most media is pirated in China, and they do try, but even the pirates have trouble without formal English training), but he wasn’t sure because his English wasn’t that great. So two days later, he invited me to his house by the Songhua River, and fed me lunch, and then I gave him the correct words to the song (which I found on the internet). Afterwards, he took me out to the river and showed me where he walked in the morning, and then I asked him if he would teach me Chinese. So the next Saturday I came to his house for my first lesson, and he gave me the book which he had bought. I brought the bad news that in two days, I would be leaving for Mudanjiang, so I bought the book from him, and he fed me dumplings. He took me out on the bridge that goes to the Ice Wonderland Island, where the wind if it blew a little harder could rip your skin off, and I saw the entire city of Harbin. Then he brought me to the bus stop, and we said our goodbyes, for now.

 

-bought 3 Chinese & English novels

The novels I bought were an abridged “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Little Prince,” and “One Thousand and One Nights.” I bought GT because of my professor Daniel DeRoulet, and because of my friend Li Yin Jie (whom I was helping to study Jonathan Swift). I bought TLP because of my senior year in high school French class. We were to read that book and do a report on it, and I still hold to this day that if you can read TLP successfully in a foreign language, then you’ve pretty much mastered the basics. And I bought 1001 Nights because of my recent story making, in which the stories take place in a land similar to the Arabian Nights. All three books are in both Chinese and English, and when I’m not teaching, eating, learning, or watching movies, provide me some relaxation as well as a chance to learn Chinese.

 

-bought 3 Chinese notebooks

One of these notebooks I use to practice writing Chinese characters. One I use to write stories. And one I use to write poetry, although I haven’t written much. The notebooks are extremely inexpensive here, and when in China, you learn that to be wasteful is a sin. Paper is never rolled up to clean up messes, and paper is never thrown away unless it’s been burned. It’s a valuable lesson for me, coming from a society that Xerox machines which hide the paper under a locked cabinet. Here, the Xerox machine is hardware of the last resort. It’s hardly ever used, and usually it’s under a plastic cover.

 

-bought 1 years supply of water

The school kindly let me borrow a water filter and water heater while I stay here. It’s a wonderful machine, and I always have access to fresh, clean water. I have 17 more coupons for these giant jugs of water which connect to the filter. Each of the jugs of water cost me 5 Yuan. Really an amazing thing to me. When I need a new jug, I call the number on the coupon and this kid rides his bike to the school with the jug of water. Not even a tip.

 

-bought 2 Chinese cell phones

The first cell phone was a UT Starcom phone, which I used while in Harbin. It was a Harbin-only phone, so I had to ditch it when I came to Mudanjiang. The UT Starcom phone cost 400 Yuan, and I had unlimited access on it. The UT Starcom phones are very popular, especially in Chinese television. If you watch the crime dramas or the modern romance dramas, then you notice the attractive actors/actresses or the policemen always carry UT Starcom phones. In Mudanjiang I bought a Siemens Xelibri. Everyone I show it to tells me it’s beautiful, and I’ve already had one offer for a trade. The phone cost me 1050 Yuan, and my Chine Mobile service cost about 125 Yuan.

 

-bought 1 score of Bach music

I wouldn’t worry about my DVDs, because although I do own quite a few, I still have a clock inside me that tells me when I should stop staring at the TV and watching movies (just ask any of my old roommates from college about how I could never stay awake watching movies). So instead, I’ve found the piano. Actually, in every classroom is a piano, plus the top floor of the school has a nice grand. While in the bookstore yesterday, I found some nice Bach music, and I intend to start learning again. It’s been a long time, but I’m sure it’ll come back. I just have to remember to keep my fingers arched like my good teacher taught (yes Pamela, that’s you).

 

-received donation of 1 hot stove pot, silverware, chopsticks, and a 1 cup

This was a surprise. I met a lady named Mei Qing, who is a teacher in Harbin, and also is from Singapore. To be honest, I’ve used the silverware and chopsticks and cup much, much more than the pot (it took me a few months in my dormitory to convince myself I could cook for myself). She also leant me a book, “African Mysteries,” which is probably the one book I have that I’ve read the most of.

 

-taught 150 classes, or 50 hours of teaching experience

I took an online course before I came to China, so that I could get a certificate. It’s a 40 hour course in teaching TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), and I will say honestly that an online course truly does not prepare you for the classroom. You need some practice. I think I’ve had the practice to support those 40 hours I paid for. If you do plan on teaching overseas, then I recommend you either do some teaching before you come (informally or formally, really it’s your choice) or at least ask a teacher what their experience was like. It makes the getting used to much easier on the brain.

 

-met 143 people, with whom I have vivid memories

And yes, I actually wrote down nearly everyone of their names. I don’t know how I remembered every single one of them, but for some reason, they all struck me, and so I decided to end this last little tidbit.

 

I’ve had an amazing time in China. This has been a long letter, and I think it’s been well worth your while if you read through it. I have about 40 weeks left now, and I’m looking forward to every second of it. I can only hope that those 40 weeks will be as fruitful and more, as these last 10 weeks were. I do have one closing remark, though, that I wanted to mention last week, but forgot to.

 

You couldn’t imagine how much easier life is when you cut off the extremities of speech. Here in China, I’ve only learned about 40 Chinese words. But most of my time when speaking with my Chinese friends and colleagues, I only use about 10. They are yes, no, good, bad, like, don’t like, go, don’t go, (numbers), and (day words, like today and tomorrow). I feel as if my life has been more productive these last couple months than it has ever before undergone, and I contribute that primarily to my speech, and secondarily to my self-esteem. When you are forced to tell someone that you either think it’s good, or you think it’s bad, a lot is cleared up in a very short time. There is no room for, oh, maybe it’s good, maybe it could use some cleaning up, maybe, oh, I don’t know, why don’t you get back to me on (because I don’t want to offend you). One of my biggest hopes is that China will train me so that when I go back to the states, I won’t be caught in the net of trying to dignify my speech with my insecurities. It’s been the biggest blessing I’ve received while I’m here so far, and it’s purely from my heart when I try to preach it.

 

***

 

Being Uncooked

November 22, 2003

 

WINTER’S bread and butter

 

Well, for those of you who think I’m in paradise, drinking tea, eating pot stickers, and being surrounded by lofty clouds, green hills, mountain fog, and cool air, a subtle reminder should be passed on. For the past two days Mudanjiang has been in a snowstorm, albeit a calm, polite storm. This morning on the way to breakfast, I noticed the water from the drainpipes froze so that cylinders of ice, fresh and pure, hung from the spouts of the pipes and looked like they had no intention of giving up their place. That and I almost fell on my butt just walking to the bathroom. To the person walking beside me, I joked that perhaps I needed a new pair of shoes.

 

In Chicago, I remember the winters as slow, comely creatures, which snuck up in the middle of autumn and gradually grew. In China, the winter came swiftly, from one autumn day when there were still leaves on the ground, to the next morning when the ice froze and snow fell from the sky as if a bucket had been dropped.

 

Mr. Tau, a friend of the school, was to leave this morning for Harbin by bus, but when he left for the bus station he was informed the roads had iced so badly that he would have to wait and take a train tomorrow morning.

 

So far in these two days, I have seen three people “try” and ride their bicycles over the snow and ice. Of course, they fell. Those were the first three people I’ve ever seen in China fall from their bikes.

 

MOVIES for you, movies for me…

http://movie.mdj.cn/

Stunned would be a bad word to use. Aghast, flabbergasted, ridden with disbelief, struck by light, hit by a train, grafted with iron… perhaps those would be better words to use, when describing this website. For me, an American, at least, because in America we take our copyrights pretty seriously. After all, if we come up with an idea and we patent it, it’s ours. Might as well get our name branded into the book of amazing imagineers. But a whole site, dedicated to streaming whole movies on the internet, free of charge? It’s also Mudanjiang’s official movie website. Harbin has one as well, but the Harbin website charges a fee. This one is free. That’s something else….

 

BABY pictures

On Friday, I was leaping up and down the stairs of the building (it’s a daily tactic I use to relieve energy and relieve boredom) when I had the opportunity to carry a two year old down the stairs. I was amazed, because she jumped into my arms without a hesitating cry or a fearful gaze. That and she nearly fell asleep. I felt very special.

 

Later that day, I noticed a calendar on the wall, and her picture was the central picture of the yearly calendar. I felt like the king of the world.

 

Her picture is no longer there, but there are tons of really great Chinese baby pictures on this website. If you’re a fan, I suggest you take a look. http://www.mdjlife.com/id/smile/index.htm

 

COMMUNITY and need

Over the past eleven weeks, my biggest need has been connecting with foreigners. Although being surrounded by people most of the day, the lack of similar culture is often lonely. Not being able to speak with someone who understands the concept of going out on a walk by yourself just for the heck of it, often has lead me to wondering why I was really here. It’s immature, but also shows me how tied to my culture I really am.

 

When I do have the chance to speak with someone who understands my “being,” then I am instantly revitalized. “Being,” as in someone who understands where I came from, my American-ness, and my philosophy of humanism. It’s all very subtle, but somehow, it’s been my biggest need.

 

JOKES on you, my friend

Cook John teased me today. He told me, over lunch, that today he was leaving for America. Susan delightfully partook in this tease, and told me he was going to Tennessee to be a cook at a Chinese restaurant. Because so much has happened to me in the small time I’ve been in China, I had no problem believing it.

 

This evening, I saw John in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I asked him why he hadn’t left yet. I thought perhaps he was going to take a bus to Harbin to catch a plane, and he was still here because of the icy roads. But he told me he wasn’t leaving, and then laughed. I still wasn’t convinced, so I asked him when he was going to America. He told me maybe three, four years. To me, however, it’s still perfectly reasonable that he could leave for America tomorrow morning, and I wouldn’t be the least surprised. It seems to be the way of things around here.

 

PONDERING on things

I’m still in a pretty dour mood today. I watched this movie, Asoka, today. It’s about an Indian Emperor who united India in what was one of the bloodiest wars in history. So I’ve been reeling in the question of why people even bother raising their fists against one another, when it’s so much easier to kiss and forgive. That doesn’t have anything to do with China, per say, but as it’s a significant part of this letter’s tone, so I felt like I should include it. But I don’t want to end there.

 

FOOD for thought

For the past few days, I’ve found myself in a restaurant near the school, closing my eyes and pointing blindly to anything on the menu. I usually order a few sticks of mutton (which has become my favorite food, moving over the rank of Kansas steak), and then something random which I don’t know the meaning.

 

The Chinese will cook anything that can be put onto a stick. And most things, they’ve shown to me in the past few days, can be put onto a stick. One evening, I ate sticks of pepperoni that had been cooked over an open fire, and then stuck horizontal onto two metal sticks with wooden handles.

 

The previous evening, I ordered what is called anchoun. When the waitress first brought out a tiny chicken stuck onto three metal sticks, with the head and feet and claws still attached, I was a bit confused. I continued to stare at the chicken for about three minutes before I finally gave up trying to maw through the skin with my teeth while the chicken was still stuck with metal, and pulled the creature off, and then used my hands, all barbarian like, until I had made a complete mess of a perfectly fine animal.

 

I never did eat the head.

 

***

 

Lightning Bugs and Bolted Doors

November 30, 2003

 

This has been a week of perspectives, some renewed, some remembered, and some discovered.

 

As winter extends, the people here sleep earlier and earlier. Tonight I was told by the girl at the school that the room I was using was to be locked, and it is only 9:30pm here. Most of the people are asleep and outside, the gates are locked, shops are closed, and cars, so few, wander the street. Dotted bikes glitter over the snow, and people in heavy jackets and scarves over their mouths scurry like lightning bugs through the sidewalks.

 

Just now the girl came to check up on me. She wants to close up the door. I told her it was too early, and she walked back into the hallway of the school without saying a word, only a silent expression on her face.

 

LOCK, stock, and two bolted doors

When I first came to this school, there were two doors, and three locks. The front door, which had one lock, and the backdoor, which had two locks, but only one of them was used. Today, they have added two more doors, and six more locks. Three of the locks are on the door I use to get into the school, and most hours of the day, that door is inaccessible for me. Two more of the locks are on a new door that has been added, a side entrance for the teachers in the morning, and one of those locks has been added to the front interior door (not exterior). I’m not sure what they are afraid of, so I’m still a little confused about all the locks, especially since they weren’t here when I arrived. I still have a lot to learn about this culture.

 

OBSERVATIONS on the center of the world

On Saturday, I took an excursion to the center of the city with some new friends. I noticed a number of things that I had never noticed before. Upon entering the supermarket, I noticed that in the butchery area there were whole skinned pigs strung up on wires and posts, and behind the shanks were two giant posters of a cow and pig. The posters were divided up into sections of the animals, and numbers were placed on different part of the bodies. For ease of reading, so that you don’t get confused when you buy the head or buy the rump?… And in the pharmacy (on the second floor of the supermarket) there was a nature scene with two stuffed deer on a fake landscape, and on the wall behind them was a giant photo of the Great Wall of China. A pharmacy?…

 

Outside of the supermarket, I saw the KFC, and a thought struck me. Most places in the world have a McDonalds, not a KFC. Even in places like India, McDonalds is pretty high on the list, but in China, KFC dominates. In Harbin, there were dozens and dozens of KFCs, but only one McDonalds and one Pizza Hut. And all the way out in Mudanjiang, a city many people in China have not even heard of, there are two KFCs. Why? And then I noticed the stark red sign, and put the pieces together. Most of the KFCs are near important government centers. And on Saturday, I saw a city-sponsored dance in front of the KFC. Connection? Perhaps.

 

Finally, upon entering the square my friend ordered an octopus-on-a-stick. So far in China, I’ve eaten everything from silkworms to pepperoni, hot dogs to mutton, beef to chicken, on a stick. And every week I discover something new.

 

ON restaurants

On Friday, I visited a patriotic restaurant. On the walls were pictures of important government officials at meetings. On the booths where people eat hung old relics of the military, with the star hanging in the center. On the upper floor of the restaurant was a picture of an old chairman of China. The entire front of the restaurant was covered in red hangings, the waitresses wore red tops, and I believe the people sitting in the booth next to me were of some importance to the city. They had on government uniforms and spoke far too loud to be ordinary citizens. The food was good, though, and the experience was interesting.

 

The restaurant also had a unique feature that in my experience, I have not found in any other restaurant in the United States except for that illustrious jungle restaurant, the Rainforest Cafe. The pipes in the restaurant were covered in green plastic, to make the pipes look like bamboo. Some of the eating stalls were made of bark, and under a glass counter by the front of the restaurant was a covering of artificial grass, with little plastic flowers popping out of the green. Flowers in different colors hung from the ceiling in crescents. And actually, this is quite typical for China. Even in the school where I teach, the pipes are made to look like bamboo trees, and the walls are covered in pictures of the outside. The same was for both schools in Harbin, the one where I lived AND the one where I taught. There is something integral in the culture here about mixing the natural with common life. It is a wonderful feeling, to know that although we may surround ourselves with the machina of the future, we do not forget the past.

 

NEW generation

On Thursday, I noticed one of the teachers showing her children some dance steps. And then I looked on the television screen, and they were dancing to Chinese pop. At first I laughed, because it really is funny to see preschoolers dancing to a guy who wears skinny tights and colored hair, but suddenly things came into perspective. The teacher was young, only about 20 years old, and I remembered the other day when I asked her to help me sing some nursery rhymes to the children, and she looked at me, then at the music, then back at me, and looked very embarrassed to be singing some music. And then on Thursday, I saw her dancing pop tunes with the kids.

 

This is a new generation, most definitely, because she is not the only one. Many times after school has ended, I wander into the different classrooms and often find them learning dance steps to pop songs, not nursery dances. This generation is fed on popular culture, through television, music, and the computer. I suppose some things even bind cultures on the opposite ends of the earth.

 

Nevertheless, there are still differences. The students are learning a dance for the Christmas concert, in which one of the children has the lucky chance to dance solo, and part of the dance step is to lose his or her pants so only the underwear is showing. Then this student dances as if they are trying not to fall, and all of the other children dance around him or her, pointing and laughing. When I first saw this, I was aghast that a dance would be so bold as to ridicule a little child with such a terrible prank. But no one else felt this way. Actually, they thought it was funny. And fun.

 

***

 

An Afternoon Glance

December 6, 2003

 

He sat on the sidewalk, his shirt off, bowing like a monk, his hands open, as if he was waiting for God to send him rain. He had no shoes, and his pants were threadbare. He was only a child, maybe twelve, thirteen years old.

 

I shivered. I wore a long heavy winter coat, my hood draped over my head so my ears wouldn’t freeze. When I breathed, I felt the ice freeze the mucus in my head. My hands were like ice inside my gloves. As I looked down at the boy, I nearly slipped on a pool of frozen cement ice.

 

The multitudes passed by us. Thousands of people, a rainbow of passing colors. The towering hotels cast gray shadows onto the street. The smell of roast mutton and black exhaust filled the air. Small snowflakes drifted from the white sky.

 

I kept my hands in my pocket as I walked by, fondling my bills.

 

It still disturbs me, only five hours later.

 

***

 

Preparing for Christmas

December 7, 2003

 

Today marks one week until my birthday, in which I will be a proper Chinese citizen, able to maintain responsibility and deserve much respect from the people I work with. There is a difference between the ages of 22, 23, and 24. 22 is still young, and the person is fresh, excited, but lacking in wisdom. 23 is a crossing, in which the 22 year-old begins to learn some of the basics of how to act like an adult. And at 24, you are ready to enter the world, many times given the responsibilities of telling others older than yourself what to do. Or so I have felt and observed. And on December 14, I will be 24 (in China, 23 in the United States).

 

The Winter Palace

Winter is more than a season here to the Chinese. It is more than a change of scenery. It is a change of philosophy, and a change of, most importantly, food.

 

On Saturday, I ate frozen fruit, sold off a sidewalk stand. The fruit was much like the little pieces of fruit you find in Asian cracker snacks, but larger and put out into the air, so that it would freeze. Everywhere in this city, are stands with the same types of foods, frozen and icy.

 

Also, many of the shopkeepers put out their ice cream snacks to the sidewalk. This isn’t difficult to imagine, as it would save on the electricity, but seemingly as a result, ice cream is a hugely popular snack here, and I know I’m not the only one who pays a little extra after a cold walk to eat some frozen vanilla ice cream buttered with chocolate and sunflower seeds. Another popular food here are tiny, candied apples, and tiny candied bread. Both are put onto a stick, and then dipped into honey, which hardens into a sugary coating.

 

Christmas Tidings

The school is preparing to celebrate Christmas. To ready themselves, they bought three Christmas trees, strips and ribbons for dressing, paper hangings for the walls, and ornaments for the plants in the school. Outside in the playground, a giant snowman with an oversized stomach and a round, Chinese hat watches over the school, and in the morning when the children play, they throw snowballs at it.

 

The children are being trained in two dances. They will dance at the Christmas celebration, which I suppose happens at the same time as Chinese New Years. I am preparing the students to sing several medley’s of songs for this celebration, to show off the English they have learned.

 

The Authority

I witnessed a special event at the beginning of last week. One afternoon, after I had rested for about an hour, I walked back into the school, only to find that the teachers had all changed their clothing, and wore matching uniforms, of pleated skirts and sharp, folded jackets, with mock ties and mock scarves. That and they were all standing in two lines, from the entrance of the building, to the hallway of the school.

 

This would not have looked so strange, had I not remembered that these girls usually wear jeans and bland sweaters to their classrooms, and are usually busy within their own classrooms at this time, trying to calm their children down.

 

About twenty minutes later, a van arrived carrying some officials from Mudanjiang. The girls were still standing in position when the van came. The authorities smiled at the gesture, and then briskly walked through the line into the hallway, without giving even one of the girls any kind of look. And then in two single lines, the girls followed the authorities into the hallway, and I remained in the lobby, my mouth symbolically held agape.

 

Packages

I received a package from my mother today. In the package were a CD, a disk, and a letter. The package took about 9 days to arrive in Mudanjiang, with all the proper papers.

 

There is something interesting that I have experienced in China, with anything official. Twice now I have shown my passport on articles which belong to me that I was claiming from an office (buying a cell phone and picking up a package at the post office), and both times my passport has been declined and the official asked for the identification card of someone traveling with me. After looking at the identification card, they copied down the numbers and name of that card, and gave me my package. And with that, they smiled at me, and I was on my way.

 

Oh well.

 

***

 

Wooden Dolls and the Disco

December 7, 2003

 

The room is dark, save for the red light in the corner. The red haze is painted across the walls of the little room.

 

I relax on the couch, folding one leg under my other, pulling my hood over my head, trying to visualize what happens in here at night.

 

The girl who brought me is speaking with her friend, who owns the disco. I can’t help but wonder if they are going together, even though as soon as I think it I chide myself as being over anxious and slightly silly. I tell myself it’s a thought, anyways, and it’s already happened, so there’s no need for further negotiation with the forge of my mind.

 

On the table, between the couches, is my gift from a friend in Beijing. It’s a little wooden doll: two coconuts, with one coconut cut in half so that it looks like a person. The inside is hollowed out, and a sprig of what appears to be broom material is tied at the top to look like hair. I’m told it is called a wei wei. I’m slightly amused.

 

***

 

Number Seven Bus

December 8, 2003

 

My hood is drawn up again. It seems everywhere I go, this hood covers me, hiding me. People are never surprised to see me anymore, for even when they look into my face, they probably only see the cold wind. The surprise of a blond-haired, blue eyed young man has worn off, and been replaced by the reality of winter.

 

Chunks of blackened snow are thrown in a pile on the sidewalk. The winter wind burns. Behind me (I cannot see because of the hood) is a potato steamer, with her bicycle cart, her steam barrel, and seven steamed potatoes arranged on the edge of the barrel to show her expertise. A few people are crowded around the barrel, money withdrawn.

 

Two women stand next to me, waiting for the number seven bus. They look at my face, and then begin to talk. I do not understand what they are saying, but I know it is something about foreigners.

 

The purple bus arrives, and droves of people who one moment ago did not exist, shuffle from behind me, pushing past my big coat and onto the bus. I realize what is happening, and hurry, stepping in front of a young woman, my money withdrawn.

 

***

 

The Child Within

December 9, 2003

 

They stand around me. They pull my untucked shirt, and then tug on my pants. They cling to my legs. They are laughing, and crying out “yingwen laoshi, yingwen laoshi!” I can hear the joy in the voices, and I wonder what it is that brings it out – is it me, some strange facet of my smile that makes them so happy, or it is the knowledge that I allow them to tug on my shirt? Or it is something more mysterious, something deeper that I could never understand?

 

I look around for their Chinese teacher, but she has disappeared. I break away from the children, and find her sitting in a dark corner, trimming her nails. She looks up at me, palely smiling, and then turns back to her nails. I shrug, run back to my seat, sit down, and say in a loud voice, “Good morning!” And the children echo in response. I am delighted.

 

***

Feasting the Mind

December 10, 2003

 

I listen to him speak.

 

He says that cartilage should be exercised, and he tells me that the best way to exercise cartilage is to do stretches in the morning and at night, for about ten to fifteen minutes. There is a Greek named Pilatus who makes exercise videos which are excellent, he says. And you can buy these videos at most American video stores.

 

I pick up a clump of mi fan with my kwaidze, and then use my spoon to dish up some of the peppered dofu. I worry about the sweetbread on my plate, because I forgot to dry the bottom of the dish before I put the bread on, and I worry that the sweetbread is going to be soggy on the bottom.

 

I ask him if cracking your knuckles is bad for your cartilage, and he tells me it is not. He explains that when you crack your knuckles you are releasing gas pockets in your body, much like popping bubble paper. He laughs when I suggest that it is bad for the body, and he reaffirms that to exercise the cartilage is the best thing you can do for your bones, in order to prevent the onset of arthritis in old age.

 

Some of the teachers walk in the kitchen. They look at us sitting at the table, and I know they are thinking that we are slow eaters, because we are sitting at THEIR table, the one they usually sit at. But they smile, gather their bowls, and begin lunch.

 

***

Generally Speaking

December 11, 2003

 

She speaks to me and says, “Good evening.”

I turn my head, a bit surprised, and wander into the store. She’s never spoken to me before in English. Curious. I look at her, dressed in her all red supermarket uniform, and she smiles at me, and then looks away, back to what she was reading, one of the Chinese newspapers.

As I browse, a new supermarket worker follows me, eyeing me. He is a boy, which surprises me, because all of the other workers were female, at least, for the past two months. He seems to take his job very seriously, and his eyes are like two hawks circling a roving herd. I suppose then, that that makes me the herd.

I change aisles, and he steps away like a cat, avoiding bumping into me.

I try and move to the other side of the little store, but he follows me. I walk faster, but he follows. I finally resort myself to the ice cream freezers, purchase my food, and step back into the freezing air.

Oh well.

 

***

 

Hanging with the Boys

December 12, 2003

 

My hands are freezing. I know I should run back to my room and get my gloves, but I am much too caught up with what I am doing. I can see the red on the tip of my skin, but my bones feel anything but cold.

I hold a sign in my hands. At least, it used to be a sign. The letters have been taken off, and the backside of the sign is filled with snow. I am running forward, one of my new friends at the school having hooked a shovel onto the sign. He is also running forward, dragging the sign, along with me.

We pile the snow we just shoveled into a gigantic mountain of dirt and ice. I shake my hands and try to get the warmth back in them, and then grip the wooden stick again for another round.

The men are speaking to each other, complaining that the work is so hard. I concur with them. This is hard work. I can hear them talking about me, saying “meguoaren,” but I say nothing. I have learned that although it’s not a complement when they speak behind my back, neither it is an insult, even if it is an insult. It would only be an insult if I recognized it as such.

And since I can’t understand what they are saying, I really have no idea if they are saying anything demeaning. So I assume the best, and go for another round. The ice proves to be somewhat of a deterrent, but one of the men takes his shovel and cracks the ice, and then pushes it away with his foot.

 

***

 

The Chicken Who Crossed the Road

December 13, 2003

 

The little boy stares at me. I look forward, out of the window, watching the people stroll by the street, trying my best to look mysterious and wise.

I take a bite of my chicken sandwich.

The mother and her boy next to me stand up, and walk out of KFC. One of the workers comes by immediately and picks up the tray, and then disappears.

I recall that while in line two people cut in front of me, to get free food from their prize coupons. I, of course, did nothing. After the first lady stepped in front of me, I was a bit surprised, but I did not say anything. After the little boy cut in front of me, I decided that I would make this into a cultural experience, and experiment how many more people would cut in front of me while I was standing next to the register. No one did, but I think my experiment worked out just fine.

I move seats to get the glare of the sun out of my eyes. I look over to the boy, and his mother smiles at me. I smile back, and the two whisper something to each other.

I take another bite from my sandwich. It is good, but the mayonnaise is different, sweeter, and thicker than what I’ve known.

 

***

 

Cleaning

December 14, 2003

 

The machine rumbles like a rock tumbler. I know it’s the American jeans inside. The plastic tub jumps and shakes, and then begins to whirr.

I hang some socks on a heater, next to a white button-up shirt and a grey sweatshirt. I look at my watch.

3:15pm. I remember starting this ordeal at 12:20pm. At home, it’s so much simpler. Just toss your clothes into the big scary box, turn it on, and go out and rent a movie. After the car pulls into the driveway, you walk back into the house, pop the movie into the player, and start folding.

My hands have shriveled up from the cold water inside the washer. I breathe on the tips of my fingers, suddenly imagining I am braving the cold at ten thousand feet, clinging to a pole that is pitched into the side of an ice cliff.

And then I realize I’m just washing my clothes.

 

***

 

Cultural Polarization

December 15, 2003

 

I sit on my “quilted” couch, trying to adjust my head so that after I read the required 45 pages of material I’ve set for myself, my neck won’t freeze up and turn into a log. It is a book called Bridging the Pacific, written by one Shouhua Qi, some Chinese English teacher at a community college, which is probably located somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania. As I read his passages, I realize that what I will be doing in about one hour will be nothing original, and I relent to the old axiom, “there is nothing new under the sun,” (quote anon) “but at least I can give a different perspective.” (quote me)

I look down, and see the pictures on the couch. An elephant with a flower entwined in its nostrils, standing on a patch of light grass. And the alternating picture, of two leaves drawn together as a pair.

As I read the passages once more, I am reminded of how distant I have become to western culture, that now when I read the passages of this unknown professor of English, how I identify more with his idylls of Chinese life than I do when he describes the burly quality of American culture, although his American descriptions do force me to laugh.

 

***

 

Tokens of Shogun

December 16, 2003

 

I am watching the movie Shogun in my little closet of a room. I am relaxed on my couch, with my head resting on my pillow and my feet dangling from the edge of the couch. I am chewing some Chinese swirl candy, and cleaning my teeth with my tongue.

On the screen, the brash hero, with his wild sea hair and his thick English tongue, is thrown down onto the ground and pissed on by a samurai, who tells him this is for his own good, and so that our hero can learn good discipline.

About one hour later, the hero is speaking with the heroine of the story, a royal Japanese translator, who is telling him that he should never wish for her love, because she could never give it to him, even if she did love him. She tells him that there is no concept of tomorrow in her culture, and the thought of twenty tomorrows would be foolish, indeed.

I recall being in the office of the President of my school, being told that I was going to move back to Mudanjiang, after I had finally settled into my school situation in Harbin for over one month. When he told me I was going to Mudanjiang (through his translator), I replied with a “why?” He told me “no why,” and then he continued to tell me I was to leave tomorrow afternoon. I then told him “no.” He said something very quickly to his translator, his brow darkened, his eyes serious. The translator told me, “You must obey.”

I was taken aback. I must obey? I stood up from my seat, waved my arms, and said, “No, I don’t have to obey. You have to be reasonable.” Then the translator said a second time, “no, you really have to obey.” I was upset for the next six hours, although I did bargain for them to hold back my departure date three days for me to think about it.

So now I sit in an almost stunned reverie, and I begin to understand. I thank James Clavell silently, and in my mind, plan when I am going to buy the rest of his movies.

 

***

 

Renting out a Thought

December 17, 2003

 

He points at me. He points at himself. He draws his hands in an arc, and then with all of his fingers, shows me ten fingers. Then he points down at his little notebook, which reads 10, next to a character I do not know. It is not the Yuan character, so I’m not sure what he is trying to say.

I am in the local movie rental store. In my hands is the case of Roughnecks, an adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s classic novel of a futuristic fascist society embroiled in a war with bugs the size houses. I picked it out because last year during college I downloaded half of the episodes to my computer and could never figure out their particular order, and also because I am curious to see if the VCD authorities in China have managed to find dub actors for this rare series of films.

From my pocket, I remove one Yuan, a shiny silver coin, and I put it into his hand. He smiles, looks for the VCD behind him on his rental shelf, and then places the green VCD on the table. He then begins to speak with me. I do not understand.

Ten minutes later, I understand. I asked the question, “Do you want my name?” to him, and he told me he did not want it. (Ni yao woh di mingze?… bu, bu, bu yao ni de mingze.) Instead, he wanted 10 Yuan from me, which he would hold for me until I returned tomorrow with the VCD. Then he would give me back the 10 Yuan. And everyday, I would pay 1 Yuan for the privilege of viewing it.

As I walk out of his store, back into the cold, I realize what an ingenious system that is. I recall the annoyance of having to fill out a form anytime I went into a video rental store, which would ask me questions from the name of my second cousin to the last time I had a medical checkup (no joke…), and even after the form was filled out, if a I lost the video or decided to keep it, the company would only send a bill, which was usually forgotten after months of dust had collected.

This way is so much simpler. The old man keeps the money, and either way he wins, and either way, I win. He gets his profit, and I get my movie.

I realize the cold is chilling my hands, so I put them into my pockets, and run back to my room, to find the 10 Yuan the old man wanted.

 

***

Pigeons in Winter

December 18, 2003

 

The birds are flying in a circle, racing. I keep my eyes on one of the birds, but I always lose track as the flock disappears behind the apartment building, or flies behind my building. I am intrigued.

Walking down the streets, it is apparent the birds have gone. Flown south, as my education has taught me. But these pigeons, and apparently a whole family plus the in-laws, have not left.

Now they are roosting on the snowy roof of the adjacent apartment building, fluffing out their wings, talking to one another. Suddenly they jump across buildings, as the window on the top floor of one of the apartments opens. A hand extends, filled with bird feed. Then a stream of food pours into a sunken feed bowl, and lunch is served. The birds crowd one another, patience definitely not being a virtue when it is time to eat, and I am reminded that even in China, cultural values transcend humanity.

Five minutes later, the birds take off, and happily eaten, work off the extra energy by flying laps around the apartment building. One bird remains, perched on the feeder. Every minute or so as the flock returns, the lone bird prepares itself for flight, but as they swerve by, the bird sits down again and retracts its wings. Then, almost like clockwork, it gets up again, eager to set off for flight, but seeing the birds fly by so quickly, it loses interest and sits down.

The window opens and the mysterious feeding hand pours out some more food. The fat little bird eagerly divulges into the meal, glad its one talent has finally proven worth. The birds flying, oblivious in their ecstasy, miss the opportunity.

 

***

 

The Spice of Change

December 19, 2003

 

I can smell the peppers from the bowl. The surface is boiling. The steam rises into my nostrils, and I feel the spice of the soup.

I have never had boiling soup before. Hot, yes, but never boiling.

I take a bite of my rice, picking up a clump of white rice with my kwaidze. Holding the spoon, I dip down into the soup and try to taste it, but it is too hot. I blow on it for a few seconds, and try again.

The spice is amazing.

When I entered this restaurant, I told them I could not read the menu, but that I wanted beef. They also asked me if I wanted rice, and I told them I did. I was expecting a bowl of beef, curled and cooked in a wok, and then put onto one of the white ceramic plates they use here.

But when they brought out the soup, I was surprised. For three months I have had processed noodle soup, and perhaps three times, real soup from the cooks at the school.

This restaurant is new. Just one week ago it was a mutton house, where they served meat on a stick. In a few days, the management changed entirely. I do not know where the old people are. I do know that the old management had been there for a few years, but suddenly they moved without warning. This new restaurant has the same look at the old restaurant. Even the decorations, the ribbons and pictures on the walls are the same.

Perhaps the one difference is the price. The food here is more expensive. Before, I could get a nice, filling meal for five Yuan. Now, I have to pay at least eight Yuan to get a filling meal. But perhaps that is why the old restaurant left. Or perhaps not. I’m not sure I will ever know.

 

***

 

Grocer Eyes

December 20, 2003

 

The bags are carried with ease outside the store. As the shoppers exit the supermarket, the stamper glances into the bags, and then stamps the receipts with a large, purple character stamp. Most people carry one bag at most, maybe two light bags. They buy everything from nuts to bread, from fruits and vegetables to noodles and juices.

I look down at my own bag, and then at the bag of my American friend. His bag bulges through the plastic, three jars of honey, two strip loads of seaweed, two large apple juice bottles, and a plethora of other smaller items that poke holes through the bag and extrude from the sides like an uneasy membrane.

A woman walks past me, carrying a light bag filled with some of what she will cook tonight. I gather the rest is home, drying out in the windowsill, and catching sun in the garden room. All apartments here in China have these garden rooms, where for the most part, they all put their vegetables to dry. I have not seen one garden room yet with a lawn chair or a couch.

In my own bag is a package of instant potato noodles. I picked them out because I’ve never tasted instant potato noodles. We eat cooked potato noodles at the school lunch almost everyday, combined with the sauce from pork and beef, with various types of green, but instant will be a new experience for me.

As I pass through the security gate, the girl stamps my receipt, and then once I see my friends have passed, I step onto the moving platform. I jerk as the platform dives downward, but regain my balance by holding onto the rails.

On the first floor, I see the beginnings signs of the makeup counters and the dozens of mirrors. The floor shines with new wash, and the cleaning staff disappears past the corner.

 

***

 

Until a New Year

December 21, 2003

 

(the holly and red)

The school is celebrating two holidays this winter season. The first is on December 25, and the second is on December 31. The school management has asked the teachers to prepare a presentation of what the students have learned so far, which they are to perform on December 25.

 

All of my class time in the past two weeks has been devoted to this; not only preparing the layout and polish of the presentation, but making sure the children understand what they are supposed to do. I had to prepare three different presentations for three different classes. Within those presentations are three different sections: a medley of songs, a speaking dialogue, and an activity or game that the children will play in front of their parents. Last week, the school informed me that they wanted two of my classes to perform together, so I had to redo my presentation for two classes as one presentation, instead of two classes as two presentations.

 

On December 31, the school is celebrating New Years with a giant concert, involving the whole school. There will be dancing (three dances, in fact, one a pop song dance, one a traditional dance, and one a folk comic dance), songs, plays (the three little bears, and brown bear brown bear), and special performances by teachers (including me). I have not even BEGUN to think about this event yet. Although beginning tomorrow, I am going to START thinking about it. Heh… or else…

 

(the central square)

It appears that ice sculptures are a pride of not only Harbin, but of the whole Heilongjiang province. Today I saw men placing ice blocks on street corners, forming the beginning of future sculptures, perhaps a castle here or an archway there. One man stood on a mound of frozen snow twenty feet high with a snow chisel, carving out a throne or a chair or something to that nature, facing the main street in Mudanjiang.

 

In the central square, snow had been dumped onto the stairs, and children and their parents were sledding down the stairs to the bottom. Adjacent to the snow slide was an area roped off with red plastic tape, and inside the tape were pigeons. A few ladies walked inside the interior of the tape, selling birdfeed.

 

(teaching at the grassroots)

For the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to make male friends my age. Female friends are wonderful, although being the lone male in a literal sea of female preschool staff, I have had some challenges, especially as we are of different cultures.

 

But in the past few weeks I have been blessed, for not only are my new friends my age, but they also have a good grasp of English. There are other men at this school, but they are either married and return to their wives after school is finished, or they are single and don’t speak any English, except for “hello,” and “buhbye.” And then when they do have free time, they watch television (CCTV), drink beer, and play Chinese chess.

 

My new friends actually ask me if they can watch my movies (which has happened only a handful of times in my previous life), and want to go out with me to the center of the city, often just to walk around and browse the shops, take pictures, or get a bite to eat. I have had many memorable moments with them, and I have no doubt there will be more.

 

(recommendations for the future)

This as been a very busy week for me. I have been working almost everyday on writing stories, trying to put together a program for the 25th in little time, writing my travelogue, trying to get outside of the school to visit the city, finding the time to eat at the school and outside of the school, coordinating the last stretch of my graduate application materials, and coming up with a plan for teaching English to older students.

 

All in all, I am glad the week is over, and I think it’s a beautiful week to celebrate my recent birthday, although I am a bit tired, and I could use about two more days to recuperate, relax on my couch, and drown out the thoughts in my head with music and movies. But that will have to wait. Tomorrow is the new week.

 

***

 

Rub and Scrub

December 21, 2003

 

Folding a shirt, I sneak a glance over at my friend. He is mopping the floor, working every inch until it glosses over with reflection.

One of my windows is open. I shiver from the chill.

He tells me I should not put the clothes on the windowsill, but I should open the curtain and leave the windowsill empty. I should put the clothes in one of the cabinets, he says. I tell him the cabinets are dirty, and I prove it to him by drawing my finger along the bottom, catching a coat of white dust. Then I say that the cabinet is too high anyways, and I’d hurt myself if I had to climb up there every morning.

This began as a simple sweep and fold operation, I remind myself. But he is so thorough! So far, he has cleaned everything from the dust of my electronic cords to giving my water cooler a new shine and ordering me to wash my bed sheets, all three which were not on my agenda, much less on my mind.

I stand next to my bed, and shake out one of the bed sheets. My friend cries out, and then points to the mess of dust I made on his newly refracting floorboards. I tell him I’m sorry, and yes, I should wash the sheet.

Ten minutes later, I am in the laundry room. I feel humility cloak me like the night.

 

***

Being Tired

December 22, 2003

 

I stare in disbelief. I see my work unraveling before my eyes, and suddenly I feel very tired.

The teacher stands over me, telling me I should involve both classes in this activity. So I try, and as the students come up to me, they stare at me in fear and anxiety. I tell them to say, “I want to buy a book,” but the only words they can say with any success are “want” and “a.” After ten minutes of this, I look up to the teacher with a hard stare and say, “This isn’t going to work. They don’t know this.” She relents, and then tells me to do what I was doing before.

Thirty minutes later, I feel like I am in that same place. She is throwing colored discs onto the floor, and speaking to the children in Chinese. One by one, they get up and run to the discs, and then run back with the disc in their hands. Then the teacher gives them a little piece of candy. Finally, she hands me the disc and whispers, “Red.” So, with a loud voice, I say “Red!” Then she tells me, “See? This is good! Do this from now on.” I am about to tell her it is impossible, because she was speaking in Chinese the whole time, but I hold myself back.

Suddenly the phrase, “There is no tomorrow” rams itself into my brain. As soon as I recognize this, other options come to me, and I see the possibilities. I tell her the idea is a good idea, and I thank her for her help. She is overjoyed, and tells me she will help me tomorrow in my classes also.

 

***

 

Pride and Prejudice

December 23, 2003

 

The children are singing the medley I taught them. At first, I was surprised when they began to sing, because they didn’t need me to tell them to start. The teacher began to play the piano, and they began the songs. But now I sit in my chair and I digest my happiness slowly, listening to my children sing.

Two songs into the medley, the teacher fumbles over the piano, but the children keep singing. In fact, they are doing exactly as I taught them, to sing each song three times, the first time at regular volume, the second time at soft volume, and the third time at loud volume. The teacher makes another mistake, and they continue through, ignoring her blunder.

Pride swells inside me.

 

***

 

On the Eve

December 24, 2003

 

I act as un-American as I possibly can.

The teachers move into the room, walking in pairs or threes, arms linked, some of them skipping. School has just ended, and now they are giving themselves the pleasure of looking at the other classrooms, all of which are embroidered like Christmas palaces, foil dripping from the ceiling, cans of soda split down into fifty slips, old man winter smiling his wintry grin from the wall.

I move behind them, trying not to make a sound. I do not make heavy footsteps, nor do swing my arms, and neither do I make any sort of reaction once I enter. I observe, and try to learn something from the symbolism, while trying not to intrude upon this trip through the school. I am not sure if this is a required activity, but all of the Chinese teachers are here. I was not specifically invited, so I keep my trap shut and listen as they comment on the artistry.

From my own observations, the school has combined both the western and eastern holidays into one. On the same walls are hanging pictures that read “Happy New Year” and “Merry Christmas.” There are the little red cylinders (which I suppose have something to do with the New Year, although they look more like shotgun shells to me), and the red cut-outs of animals dancing and dragons trying to look like sages. But there are also paintings of Santa and his sleigh of bambi-fied reindeer (even with the all-too-cute, huge glowing eyes), with little Swedish girls smiling and hugging Santa’s feet, their hair braided into thick blond ribbons.

In one room, about three hundred empty packs of cigarettes are hanging like lanterns, suspended by a little wire that runs in four directions from an empty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken family style. And in one room, the ceiling has been redone to look like you were swimming underwater, with the waves (blue paper ribbons) stretched from one wall to the opposite wall. Except the other two walls have large, cut-out pictures of boys and girls sledding through the snow, even including both evergreen and leafless shrubs.

Following the crowd of girls, I am still perplexed with the conjunction of these symbols. It seems all human beings share this one trait in common – that we hearken back to our traditions, regardless of where we are in the world. But it perplexes me why these Nordic and Romanic traditions have appeared in this place, when for thousands of years the worship of the spirits in the trees or the fear of Odin flying over in his goat-led chariot, would have otherwise been classified as barbaric.

 

***

 

Not Entirely Forgotten

December 25, 2003

 

I laugh, but no one hears me. The parents crowd the room. They speak so loudly, that the teacher has to use a microphone to explain what is happening. The reverb of the microphone is turned on, and whenever the teacher says something, her voice echoes back three times. I’m guessing the karaoke effect is still turned on.

The children sing my songs, and except for a few pictures with some of the children and one of the boys handing me a gift from his mother, I am ignored. The projects I worked so hard on the last two weeks are forgotten, and when I ask the teacher if I am going to do them later in the day, she tells me, “sorry.” I am not surprised, and to my own surprise, I am not angry. I am growing.

I kneel down and put my arm around one of the children. His parent aims the camera, and snaps a flash. I smile at the boy, and he tells me “bye bye.” I wave at the father, and he waves back.

 

***

 

Walking to the Cafe

December 26, 2003

 

The ground is solid, packed, dirty.

On the other side of the wall to the collection for the iron works recyclery, a dog barks.

I take care not to step on the dark patches of ice. I try to step on the fresh ice.

Two boys follow me, staring and laughing. I look over to them; give them a wry smile, and then wave. I turn away as they start talking, and I overhear words like “meiguaren” and “hello.”

The sun is already passing in a drop behind the buildings. As I step into a field of sunlight, I shut my eyes, and then open them, feeling the warmth.

 

***

 

Dress for Success

December 27, 2003

 

“Not good enough.”

“No.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Try this one.”

“You can use my sweater.”

“Do they have stripes and colored lines?”

“That’s all you’ve got?”

“I guess, if that’s all you’ve got.”

A tall American man is speaking to a young Chinese man. This is a lesson in dress. The young man complains that the high dress proposed – button up shirt, slacks, black socks, a sweater or jacket, will look stupid on him. He says all he owns are sport clothes – Nike, Adidas, Reebok. He doesn’t own any button up shirts, he only has one pair of Adidas black socks, and he doesn’t have any slacks. He doesn’t understand the importance these clothes have. For his whole life, he has never worn these.

I am reminded of the old Chinese proverb, “A cold man cannot be choosy about clothes.”

I remember back when I was sixteen, my first official “business meeting.” For me, it wasn’t business, but rather an excuse to wear clothes we wouldn’t wear in school (or else). I remember trying on different shirts, different jackets, trying to get the “coolest” look, the hippest eye. But my mother told me that I was too casual, and made me try on “old” clothes, stuff I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I felt stupid, but when I came to the meeting, everyone was dressed like that, and I was complemented on my suit.

The young man says, “It must be a cultural thing.” He laughs. “No one cares what you wear in China.”

 

***

 

On Eating Mutton in the Snow

December 28, 2003

 

WALKING among ice

As I walk among the giant ice sculptures near the Mudan River and the statue of the eight maidens who drowned themselves in the waters, I am reminded of the stature of this country that I am in, and how little I understand. A country that has existed for over 5,000 years without major influence from the rest of the world; a country with a history of war that could put Europe to shame; a country with a culture so deep and vast, and different from my own, that it would take two lifetimes to understand; and a people who believe beauty lies in the moment, not in the years to come; these things I think of, walking beneath the ice palaces, which are glowing with red and green lights.

 

My friends leap onto a sculpture of a windmill. I am surprised. If would never cross my mind to leap onto a sculpture like this. A statue yes, because it would be made of stone, but an ice sculpture – something like this must be kept safe from harm, and if people leapt atop the sculpture, then cracks might form, and eventually the sculpture would rupture and break, and who wants the anger from the artist?

 

The park is full of ice sculptures: this windmill, a tower, a shrine, a castle, arcades, animals, and even a sculpture of a naked woman being eaten alive by a tiger. One of the sculptures is of a peacock, and the adjacent sculpture is of a hen, although the head is lopped off and lying on the ground. I feel sorry and ask one of my friends to put the head back, because I forgot to bring my gloves.

 

Facing the river, I notice that another ice sculpture park is down the bank about a quarter of a mile. The bright lights color the night sky, and the little ripples in the river glow. I am standing on the largest sculpture, and as I walk on the ice, I grip onto my friend. I have almost fallen several times now.

 

We find a rat that has been frozen in one of the ice blocks. The rat looks like it was trying to escape its dilemma, as the paws are extended, and the tail is curled slightly. The mouth of the creature is still open.

 

Later, I take a bite from my friend’s cotton sugar. It is white, unlike the pink American cotton candy.

 

EATING mutton

I stand beside the grillery, or so I call it. I tell the lady I want “yangrou, yi ge,” which means “one piece of mutton.” She takes the frozen stick of meat and tosses it into the hot oil, and then one minute later, draws it out, puts it into the spice tray, brushes it with red spice, and then sprinkles sesame seeds onto the meat. I hand her one Yuan, and she hands me my snack.

 

The afternoon is busy today. Even though the weather is well below freezing, people act like it isn’t there. They walk with the same briskness as when I arrived four months ago. There are little children bundled up in heavy scarves and bright jackets, and old ladies walking around with more sprite than the young men. Young girls walk in pairs and in threesomes, arms linked, laughing. The taxis crowd the streets and the honk of multicolored buses come and go.

 

I stand by the entrance to the underground market, setting myself between a bulletin board and two bikes. There are no chains on the bikes, as they lean against the wall. I finish up my snack, and then briskly walk across the street, dodging two bikes, one bus, and one car. Finding a pile of swept garbage, I dump my empty sticks and napkin into the mess, and then continue to the bus stop.

 

ON girls

I hurry upstairs, but before ascending to the fourth floor, I stop in the boys’ dormitory. No one is home. They must have already gone out to the markets.

 

Upstairs, I see her, and I tell her its time to go, so we should be heading out. She asks me, “Alone?”

 

I see her discomfort, and tell her to wait a minute. I go to another room to see if the American is present. He sees me at his door and asks me how my day has been so far. I tell him it was good, and then I ask if he would be interested in going downtown for a few hours. He tells me he has plenty of reading to do. I understand, so I leave him with a kind farewell.

 

I shake my head on my return to the girl, and she says, “Then you go by yourself to the market. I go alone.” She is very direct and I admire that. Most people here aren’t so direct, from my observations.

 

I tell her I understand, and I head downstairs. I wonder if this is a culture link, or if this is something that occupies the whole of the human race. This stays on my mind even as I pay the fare to the bus, and sit down in one of the empty seats.

 

CURRENT events

The upcoming wide-school performance is coming up, and I’m a bit nervous. Happily for me, the first winter performance is already over, and it went quite well, if not better than I’d hoped. The parents came and went, and the children performed, and nothing went awry. I understand there really is not reason to be nervous, because things will unfold as they do, and they should for the best.

 

On matters on urgency, the school has installed yet another lock and another door (to my surprise, as they put it over another door). The phone company is giving the school some problems, as they want to charge a bucket load of 3000 Yuan for using the internet, when the school rarely uses the internet. So, connection has been like spontaneous bursts, and nothing is for sure.

 

I still haven’t meant any foreigners in this city, but then I really haven’t had much time to go around snooping. In the evenings I am teaching an English class to some older students, and in the afternoon I usually go to the internet cafe to check e-mail and catch up the news on CNN’s webpage. Of course, in the mornings I have class.

 

I received a number of gifts from my family and friends for Christmas, including nearly ten books, a porcelain monkey, a wooden head, a tiny shrine within a glass case, and a pottered teapot with a pottered strainer. I have no idea how I’m going to get all this home. Especially considering that whenever I go downtown, I usually find the excuse to pick up another DVD or another book, and I still haven’t bought an extra suitcase. I’m afraid I’m going to need a really big one when I go home.

 

***

 

At the bookstore

December 28, 2003

 

I approach the three ladies at the counter. They wear green uniforms, and are standing near the entrance to the English section of the bookstore. I hold up my copy of The Trojan War, and ask them if I need to go through them first.

One week ago, these same ladies had cordoned off the English section, and were sitting at one of the center tables, marking notes on the books. But a week before that they did not exist.

They tell me to go to the main register. I wonder to myself what their purpose is. Information? Security? I hand my book to the cashier, and then she takes my money and gives me back 30 Yuan. I go to the receipt counter, they pin my receipts, desensitize the book, and I take my bag and walk through the security gates, gripping the rails to the stairs that lead to the first floor.

 

***

 

DVDing

December 29, 2003

 

I show her the Thai film, and tell her that the DVD is “bu hao,” or not good. She seems to understand right away, takes the disc and tells the men by the big television that this disc is bad, and she wants to try it out and make sure.

As the man loads the movie into the player, the film comes up right away. To my own surprise, I am not embarrassed. I point to the player and say, “wo de bu hao,” which effectively means “my player is bad,” and she understands. She disappears behind the counter for a moment, and then comes back with a new disc, a different copy. I smile and thank her.

At home, I insert the DVD into my player. Again, it does not work. I sigh and realize the futility of what I am trying to do, and resign to take the bus downtown tomorrow to tell her this one is bad too. I think perhaps I will choose a different movie.

I accept my fate and watch the other nine movies I bought today. Well, not all of them. After a lackluster “Dreamcatcher,” and I put in “Cuckoo,” and enjoy it immensely.

 

***

 

Preparations

December 30, 2003

 

This is my mountaintop, I tell myself. I look at the principal directly, putting my eyes into hers, and I tell her that the two days with only fifteen minutes per day was not enough time to put together a play. After five minutes of talking history, we settle on an agreement and decide that my children will do something else. I began this conversation by apologizing to her for being angry earlier in the morning, and now I am feeling quite happy with the situation.

I remember one hour ago. I stand in front of the children and tell them to move into place, and they go. I continue and keep placing children in their positions for the play. Two minutes later, I return to the earlier children and find they have been moved and have switched play roles, and it is the teachers who are re-arranging them. I push that out of my head, and decide to not be frustrated.

I am speaking to the children now, and telling them what to say. They repeat after me, and the first few groups respond with zest. But on the fourth group of children, one of the teachers step forward, takes the script from me, and changes the words. I ask her what she is doing, and she says the other way is bad. I am angry and I stomp off in my disgust.

One minute later, I see her sense, and I recollect myself. I say she is right, and I will do it her way. I start speaking to the children, but suddenly the teachers disappear and the children start running around, jumping on each other, falling on the floor, laughing, pulling masks off, and generally ignoring me. At this point, I wish I weighed three hundred pounds, owned a ferret, and had the full-time job as an undercover police officer. I sigh and wait for the teachers to come back.

They do, and tell me I am not going to do the play. I shrug my shoulders. Who needs a ferret?

Five hours later I am standing in front of the children, directing their song. They sing out with energy, their eyes glued on me, their mouths open wide. They smile. I sing back at them. After they finish their final note, I tell them to take a bow.

 

***

 

The Cafe

December 31, 2003

 

I am listening to Chinese pop, reading about the history of playing card suits in England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, reading the updates to one of the weblogs of a good friend, and speaking on QQ to the girl who is in charge of collecting money from the internet cafe.

She is asking me what I am doing on the New Year holiday. She says she is going to rest, but I tell her I want to take a walk by the river and see the ice sculptures during the day.

I am trying to understand why the specific suits to playing cards were derived, because one hour ago after I opened my free pack of cards (I received with my drink) I had the brilliant idea of conceiving a new game based on the elements of the original meaning to the suits.

My friend has written about Star Trek, and is explaining in his weblog how the matter converters in the series work, and their evolution and use during the many different shows. He questions that the series has not really answered the question of how dangerous these machines truly are. Much of what he says passes over me, in between his explanations of holodecks and replicators as digital machines, but transporters as analog.

I think perhaps the reason is the Chinese rap and vocals of “ai ni” infusing into my brain. I switch songs, and then look down at the time on the screen, and realize the end of the year party the school is having for its teachers is in ten minutes, so I close out Windows Explorer, say goodbye to the girl at the desk, and walk back to the school, putting my gloves on, trying not to slip on the ice.

 

***

 

On Being a Virgin

January 1, 2004

 

1

I listen to the stillness. The road beside the river is empty, frozen, chill. The iced river is to my left, and the wall of Mudanjiang is to my right. The wall is an imposing thing, riveted, gray, thick. The river is wide, and a light fog covers the ice. The mountains in the distance are covered in the trees of winter, and the sky above is white, as if the earth was encased in a pearl.

I catch a song carried by the wind. Then I catch voices. The silent air surrounds me, but the wind takes these little sounds to my ears, and I am surprised. Surprised, because I have never heard the wind carry voices to me. I was a virgin in this. The voices flicker, like a lamp sputtering from a gust. I hear some folk songs, some pop songs, and a throng of voices, as if a hundred people decided to shout at once. And then the snow becomes silent once again, and time slows to a stop. I continue walking by the bank of the river.

 

2

She plunges the knife into the rooster. The red mark freezes, the blood clots, and she drops the bird onto the frozen ground. He squirms, trying to breathe, think, and move at the same time. He shakes as if in pleasure, and cries out, although each succeeding cry is like an echo.

My eyes are wide open, and my mouth is silent. The rooster merchant goes into her shed and puts the bloody knife on a cabinet, returns to the rooster, grabs his legs, swings him about, and then takes him inside the shed. The buyer is standing nearby. I tell him, “wasai…” and then carry myself down the path to the school, carrying in my hands my two bags: one with two new VCDs (The Return of the King and The Last Samurai) and the other filled with food items (a large bag of flavored sunflower seeds and a bag of seasoned noodles).

I tell myself I should feel different about this, being the first time. But the woman’s face had no hatred, nor was she smiling like a mischievous child. She took the knife in her hand and before she thought twice, she ran the blade into the heart of the creature, and there was nothing more. He sputtered a little, like a dry car, and then died.

 

***

 

Innocent Until Proven…

January 2, 2004

 

He hugs my legs. I wrestle myself away, trying with no success at dislodging his strong little arms. He is only three years old, perhaps four. He wears a hat, and cries out for me not to leave. I smile at this imposition, if it may be called that. I am heartened by his bluntness, his scarcity of image. He does only what he feels he must do, and there is a part of me that is swimming through this vast field of humanness to find that one inner quality. Some people call it innocence.

The other boy stands aloof. He is older than this little boy, by perhaps a few months, maybe even a year. He has gotten what he needed from me, and he smiles at me, as if I were a piece of forbidden gold, which for a moment, he was able to touch.

I look down at the children, kneel, and say, “Hey,” and I know they don’t understand. The older child repeats it, and as I try to dislodge the arms of the younger boy, I walk away, almost with a certain gait to my step.

1. As I exit the classroom, push the door closed with a soft push (so that I don’t crush any of the children’s’ fingers), I hear the fading cries of “bye bye! bye bye! bye bye!” An unknown child puts a hand onto the milky window of the door, and I put my hand up to the window. Then I tap twice on the door, and skip away. My classes are over for the day, and I plan to go to my room and try out my new CD-ROM game, “Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza” I bought yesterday at the market.

2. As I walk away, the image of his dirt face enters me, and I can’t help but wonder why he has been away from a bath or a shower for so long. Thoughts flicker in and out, of what his parents are doing and why he is forced to be on the street to beg, along with his brother. I told myself, today I would not encounter any of these children – in fact, I planned it carefully, keeping a hawk’s eye and watching the streets so that I might dodge them. But these two found me, as if they were my own shadow. And for the first time in my life, I looked them straight in the face, saw their eyes, and their innocence blinded my heart. I even sat them down on a bench and spoke to them. And now, I can’t get their images out of my head.

 

***

 

Underground English

January 3, 2004

 

He is speaking to me in English. I browse through the PC-ROMs, flipping through disc after disc, adding to my neat pile.

The merchant, an older man with balding hair and a big smile, perhaps in his forties, shows me an expansion for Counterstrike. I point to the disc and ask the man who speaks English if he has the Counterstrike for one player. The man translates, and then the merchant says, “meiyoh.” I tell him it’s ok, and I continue browsing through the games.

The man who speaks English asks me where I’m from. He asks me if I know Russian. I tell him I know nothing of Russia nor the Russian language, and then I tell him I’m from California (Jalifornia). He laughs and tells me he doesn’t know Russian either, but he knows Chinese and English very well.

After I purchase the discs, the merchant says something to me in Chinese. The man who speaks English tells me, “He said you are welcome to come anytime.” I tell him I will most definitely take him up on his offer, and then I say goodbye.

 

***

 

Ruling in Confucius

January 04, 2004

 

1. The Master said, “I will not be afflicted at men’s not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.”

 

She shows me the bowl. Inside is dried, shredded baby shrimp, and she asks me if I want some. I tell her I would love to try some, and hold out my bowl. I taste the fish, and it melts in the warmth of my mouth. I tell her it is good, and she suddenly has a bright expression. Her friend isn’t so sure. She tells me she doesn’t think the shrimp is good. I tell her to ask the boy sitting on the table behind us, because he is an expert in shrimp. She does, and they exchange words. I ask him what he said, what he told her. He tells me he told her it was “ok.” I look at him, and try to deconstruct his statement. He then whispers to me, “If I said it was bad, she would be offended, and if I said it was good, she would know I was lying.”

 

Later inside my room, I sit on my newly discovered sofa bed (previously, I thought it was only a couch, but last night I discovered it folds down into a bed) and watch “Finding Nemo.” I eat my noodles that I bought at the local market, and drink the 8 mau orange drink I bought/rented from the general store across the street. It is quiet in my room. I laugh at the jokes from the movie, and realize why this movie was such a hit in China. Outside, someone knocks on my window and I am startled. It is the voice of a girl… she comes to my front door and then lets out a joyful scream when she looks at my cut hair. She is happy. She tells me my hair looks good.

 

2. Mang I asked what filial piety was. The Master said, “It is not being disobedient.”

 

He tells me he is not allowed to leave the building. But he asks me if I want to watch a movie in my room with him. I tell him “no, I’d rather you stayed here. They specifically told you that you needed to stay in the building, and I’m not going to muck that up. The girl is on duty tonight, and she is strict anyways.” This statement makes no mark on his agenda, and again he says that we should go watch a movie in my room. He says no one will know, and it won’t matter in the end anyways. I tell him he should stay, and we won’t be watching that movie in my room. I tell him I don’t want to disturb the waters by him being in my room. He shrugs and says ok, and then I say goodnight to him, and he goes upstairs to the computer lab.

 

I remember one night while in Harbin. I was at a friend’s house, and he told me that when he used to live at the school in Harbin and it was late, he would hop the gate instead of ringing for the guard. Then once he was inside, he would pound on the door until someone woke up (not the guard) to let him inside.

 

A couple months ago I walked up to the gate in Mudanjiang. The time was 9:45pm, and all the lights in the guardhouse were off, the gate was shut, and the lights in the school were out. I knocked on the window to the guardhouse, but nothing. I waited for a minute, and then tried again. Every minute or so I thought of leaping the gate, like my friend had done. But something kept creeping back to me. Ten minutes later, the guard woke up from my knocking, and he was in a very sour mood, as expressed on his face and his comments to the school staff the next morning. I got nothing but dirty looks the whole morning. I think I should have jumped the gate. No one would have known. And no one would accuse me of breaking the rules, since no one would have known.

 

3. The Master said, “The faults of men are characteristic of the class to which they belong. By observing a man’s faults, it may be known that he is virtuous.”

 

She tells me my room smells. I’m not sure whether to take offense or not, so I don’t say anything and let her continue. She says that the air is dirty, and that I should clean the air. She continues and says that I smell and I should take a shower and clean my hair. I tell her that my nose isn’t quite working due to the stuffiness in my head.

 

I am inside my room, and she is standing outside. She won’t enter because she says the room stinks, and she hates the smell. I tell her again to come inside, but she refuses. I don’t like that room, she says. I shrug. She takes one look inside the room, and the woman with her does the same. She says it’s fine.

 

I spent the entire morning cleaning the room, sweeping the dirt that flocks to the floor from invisible dust locales, washing the windowsills, washing the floor until the mop was a rag of black. I made my bed (for once), put my clothes away, and even washed my water boiler. I am a little shaken up, because I thought there would be a thorough inspection, but nothing of the sort. Before I can ask if they want to inspect it further, the two disappear behind my room, and I’m left alone.

 

The next morning, she tells me the walls and floors of my room are bad, and the wood is no good. There is a sense of relief that I feel from that, and suddenly I’m not so worried about my hair or my smell. Although I do wonder what sort of wood could make a person refuse to enter a building.

 

4. The Analects of Confucius

This is a culture that is almost opposite from western culture in nearly every fashion. Individual questing is thought of in terms of greed. Respect is something that is shown by your manner and not your mind. Love is not an emotion, but a willingness to abide. Temperance is the ability to stay your hand, but never your will. Philosophy is the desire to combine both the natural and the human, rather than the desire to overcome the natural. The strong is one who does not fight, and the weak is the one who raises his fists. One does not solve problems here, but rather one does not have problems. Organization is disorganization, and the importance of human contact is not physical contact but the connection of minds and the aptitude for relational stewardship.

 

***

 

Hair Today, Gone QQing

January 4, 2004

 

I am speaking to five people at once. This is QQ, the Chinese instant messaging service. Every internet cafe I’ve visited has it installed, and often a cafe will have the QQ picture up in the window to advertise they have it installed on their computers. The picture is a little penguin with a red scarf and two big eyes. I don’t yet understand the significance of the penguin, but I’m always trying to figure it out.

I am reading an e-mail from my father, and an e-mail from my mother, and an e-mail from a man I met on the plane when I came from the states to Beijing. Somehow he found my e-mail in his addresses, and decided to write me. He is a student in Beijing, and he is telling me that Beijing is a city of survival, and if you are Chinese and you want to live there, you must be special, either in your hard work, your good looks, or your connections. I reply to this and say I felt the same when I was there, for the one day I spent in the hotel.

One of the QQers tells me that my new hairstyle is good. She is glad I cut my hair, and I look better for it. Today, I have already had more than ten comments on my new hair. I believe long hair on men is not held in high esteem in China.

Yesterday, my hair was down to my shoulders. Today, I can feel people breathing on me.

 

***

 

Troubleshooting

January 5, 2004

 

E-mail, e-mail, e-mail, another e-mail. Baby-names.com. Microsoft Word.

I am typing a list of names for my little students. I type out the name, the meaning, and the origin from which the name came from. I flip over to my e-mails while the baby-names.com is loading. I flip over to Word and type “Will.”

A girl walks into the computer lab. Since the President and the Principal (they are married) are both in Harbin, she is in charge of the lab. She comes up behind me, takes the mouse from my hand, and browses through all of my windows. She brings each one up individually, taking note of what is on each page. I sit back, waiting to see what she plans to do.

She gives me back the mouse, picks up a piece of paper, and tells me to write my name on it and give her the money for my internet time. Normally, it costs one Yuan per hour to use the school computers, or fifty Yuan per month for the two foreign teachers here (the school staff pays 30 Yuan per month). But I’m a little confused, because I’m working on a school project during school hours, and I should have unlimited usage.

I shake my head and tell her the name John, but as soon as I say it I know she will not know who I am talking about. Last night I spoke with a friend of the President, the man who arranged me coming to China. I told him I wasn’t going to pay for the school’s internet, because I didn’t want to pay the 50 Yuan, when it only costs 30 to use the internet cafes, plus I felt that the school was taking advantage of me. He told me not to worry about it, and use the internet. He would speak with the school.

As of this moment, it hits me that he probably didn’t call the school yesterday evening. I don’t know what else to say, so I tell the girl about John, but she looks at me quizzically, although she does notice there is a slight expression of annoyance on my face. I tell her we should speak with Susan, the girl downstairs who speaks English and she shakes her head and says, “ok ok.” She tells me not to worry about it, and leaves the computer room.

I stare at my screen. Ten minutes later, the girl comes back, tells me lunch is ready, and closes the door. I finish my work and head down to lunch.

 

***

 

Dirts

January 6, 2004

 

I cough. I tell her the city is dirty, and that for the past few weeks I have been coughing. I do not tell her that I have also been spitting out massive piles of mucus, but I assume that the lunch table is not a place to discuss that. She asks me why I am going out all of the time. I tell her because I am in China! Why should I travel across the seven seas, to not walk around where the people are?

She tells me the city is dirty because it is surrounded by mountains, and with the fog and the smog so prevalent here, the dirt tends to hang around longer than other cities. Plus, she says, because of the mountains, there is not a lot of wind to blow the dirt away. She does not mention the giant smokestack which pumps out coal fumes 24-7, which is a few hundred feet away from the school.

Back in my room, I sweep my floor for the second time today. Later at night, I take off my socks, and gaze in admiration at the black coat of dust on the bottom of my socks. The only time I take off my shoes is when I am in my room. I remember the girl, and decide to sweep more often.

 

***

 

Kindergarten Cop

January 7, 2004

 

Ronald Weasley is screaming, his adolescent voice cracked like a crude bird cry. His friend Harry Potter tells the two of them to get into the car, right now. About two thousand hairy spiders with eyes the size of light bulbs surround them, leering down at their next meal.

I sit on my bed, staring not at the television screen, but at my computer screen. A party of seven adventurers is standing around, idly, nothing to do. They are standing in glade of computerized grass, swaying from side to side, while a meandering troll peeks his head out of the tower door every ten seconds to see if they will approach him, and perhaps he’ll have to take out his rusty knife and worry about how much longer he’ll live.

I think back on the day, and I am tired. Vague memories flush back, of losing control not only in my Big class, with the students running around me, touching my legs, while I stand in the middle, wondering what I did wrong, to trying to pry babies off a piano bench, struggling to understand how I let this happen. The teacher did leave the room, and I remember that certain wisdom from the movie “Kindergarten Cop,” when Arnold is told “never leave a kindergarten class alone.”

I resolve to go to bed earlier than normal, turn off my computer and my television, and sleep on it.

 

***

 

8:1

January 8, 2004

 

I am trying to tell this girl that China and America are not so different. She is insistent. She tells me that America has much, much money (hen duo, chian). This is the second time I have told her that America and China are the same. I tell her the only difference is the exchange rate, from 8 Yuan to 1 dollar. She does not believe me, as I can see in her eyes.

Through her, I see a young American male who stands outside of the norm, his blue eyes and blond hair different in appearance from the black eyes, black hair and quiet nature of most people, his insistence and propensity to wide movement, including fast walking, swinging arms as if all of the space of China was his, and his look when he stares her in the eyes, of being foreign. I also see a boy who has too much money for his own good, and someone who struggles through the simplest of conversations.

Finally, I write on the piece of receipt paper we are using to communicate: “8:1″ and 1:1.” I point to the 8:1 and say “bu hao,” or not good. Then I point to the 1:1 and say “hao,” or good. Recognition lights up her eyes. She tells me, “ok ok,” and then smiles at me. We say our goodbyes, and I begin my walk to the bus stop.

 

***

 

Being Wet

January 9, 2004

 

I walk into the lobby of the school, and see the girl at the front desk. She stares at my head, and suddenly a laugh comes to her face. Then she cannot stop herself, and she bursts out.

I walk up to her and with a questioning glance point at my hair. She doesn’t say anything but continues to laugh. I tell her it’s “wet.” She nods her head and continues laughing. I shrug my shoulders and go to class.

As I enter the class, a look of amusement wanders onto the teacher’s face. The kids point at my head and start giggling.

This morning I thought I looked perfectly normal. I guess wet hair isn’t the thing here.

 

***

 

Popular Populous

January 10, 2004

 

I take a bite of my vegetarian “chicken” sandwich.

I’m not sure why I haven’t seen many foreigners in this city. From my research, I know there are at least 15 foreigners teaching in Mudanjiang, but I have only seen one in passing a few weeks ago.

I take another bite of the KFC-wich. The two boys are playing on the plastic playground set up inside the restaurant, chasing each other, and I am reminded of the cartoon Dragonball, as they put their hands together and throw imaginary fireballs at each other. Dragonball is a very popular show here in China, because much of the young Japanese television show takes place in China.

Every minute, hundreds of people pass by, on their way to shop at Fu-Mart, the three-story westernized department/grocery store here. A modernized rendition of Jingle Bells plays on a metallic synthesized melody throughout the store.

Suddenly something dawns on me. Mudanjiang is one of the smallest cities in China, having only 700,000 people. Many people in China do not know it exists. A comparison could be drawn of Mudanjiang in China, to San Mateo in the United States. However, the main difference in this is San Mateo has only 92,000 people. San Francisco has a population of 776,000 people, which in terms of city populations, is slightly over Mudanjiang.

I stop worrying about not meeting foreigners here, although I do hope that one passes by this KFC, looks into the window, and sees me, and then has the bravery of looking me in the face for more than two seconds, which none has had so far. I take another bite of my sandwich, and realize that I do not like it at all. I resolve to go home and eat rice and dumplings.

 

***

 

Poetry and CDs

January 11, 2004

 

GAMING in Chinese

This last week has found me in good spirits, mostly because I found an old passion rekindled through the Mudanjiang markets, in the name of computer games. It should be common knowledge by now that China makes an extraordinary profit off western movies, and the mass copying prowess of the China are to be commended, if you commend that sort of thing. But aside from movies, there is another major market, although suitably less profitable.

 

CDs, both music and software, are mercilessly copied in China. In the basement of the Computer World here in Mudanjiang (Computer World is the name for the big and tall building near the square which carries everything from premium laptops to underworld puzzle games) is a software bazaar, with about twenty lucky merchants who display their CD-wares on tables and hawk to buyers. Before coming to China, I’ve never truly respected the word hawk, because all retail stores in America are corporate driven, and the concept of making money off what you sell is not a priority, especially when you are dealing with teenage boys or girls who have this job so they can buy that new brand jacket, or go out to the movies on Saturday night with their friends. But in China, I’ve learned to respect the merchants for their ability to hawk, a glorified version of begging, or a primitive form of marketing.

 

However, with the black-market CDs, one third doesn’t work, one third has different programs on the discs, and the other third are slightly better than what you asked for. I traveled downtown perhaps five times this week to browse through the extensive copied CDs of popular American and Chinese computer games, and the biggest reason why I traveled down there so many times was because every time I went, 9/10ths of the games I picked up, the install did not work. Luckily, there is a policy of return and trade, so I always got a new game. And every time I picked up a batch of new games, one always worked like a charm. Even today, I have plans of traveling back there tomorrow, as I have two defunct CDs. But I suppose that’s ok, since I only pay 4 Yuan for each.

 

in recognition of the inscrutable Ezra Pound and candor of Du Fu

(cantos point one)

 

The mountains are covered in that invisible fog,

the birds have died.

The baby wings lie lifeless on the dirt.

My friend, his inglorious gaze looks down,

and then looks away, pulling his hood over his eyes.

He tells me it’s dead. I, blink.

 

COMPUTING China

They usher me to a computer. The older lady asks me if I know a certain woman behind the front counter of the internet cafe. I look at her, and yes, I see some resemblance, but as for knowing who she is, I don’t have a clue. She tells me the woman is the mother of Yao Yao, the little girl in the smallest class at the kindergarten. Yao Yao also happens to be a poster baby, and her unforgettable smile is hung at the entrance of the kindergarten, on a year 2000 calendar. She also happens to be the only child in the smallest class who wasn’t afraid of me, both when I first came to the school four months ago, and when I last saw her two weeks ago.

 

I smile at this coincidence, and realize that the woman behind the counter with the richly done hair and the noble clothes must be the owner of the internet cafe, and thus, she must be my benefactor, for this internet cafe has never charged me one cent for using the computers. I walk in and without even a questioning glance, all of the staff seems to understand and I am put onto the nearest computer. Even people who have paid are told to get off.

 

I’m still a bit struck by this encounter. I wave to the woman and smile at her. I am very happy for her kindness in this, and I’m still a bit confused about why they don’t charge me, when the school saps me. Gratitude must encompass all cultures.

 

(cantos point two)

Down on the earth, two people walk among giant metal husks.

An iced crane sits among the shadows,

stacks of pitted wood sleep among mounds of dirty snow.

Above in heaven I am surrounded by the arms of laughter.

I open the window to the air,

the sounds of children behind, above, below.

Paradise in the watershed, some might say.

Others might say it’s only the sound of the roosters below,

the water is frozen and stiff on the roads of ancient carts,

the people are garrisoned within their walls of flesh and bone.

I believe the wind carries more than the seeds of water,

but the sounds of the water, the taste of the water, and the waves.

 

***

 

Counting Sheep

January 11, 2004

 

I put the pot next to my open window. Freezing air flows into my room, covering the pot and the mutton stew inside. There are also spriggans of shrimp, baby octopus, and tiny squid in the stew.

I go to sleep, after cleaning up my bed, putting away my clothes, sweeping the dirt from my floor, and reading a chapter from my book, “Confucius Lives Next Door.”

In the morning, I wake up to the sound of the phone. It is my friend, and he asks if we want to eat mutton. I look at my clock and see that it is almost 12pm. I tell him to come on over, and he does, at my door in less than three minutes.

Later while we eat the mutton noodle stew (we put in instant noodles to add to the elegance of our little meal) and drink our soda juice from the rented general store bottles, we watch episodes of Gundam Seed. I read from my book while he watches, because I did not realize the DVDs only had Chinese subtitles, and I cannot read Chinese well enough to understand what is going on. The Japanese is interesting to listen to enough, as I read a chapter on school children in Japan from an American journalist who has sent both his children into a Japanese elementary school. He deals with the topics of taibatsu and iwjimi: taibatsu, as the ceremonial beating of students by teachers who deviate from the wa, and iwjimi as the ceremonial bullying of students by students who deviate from the wa.

I tell him that the stew is really very good; it is. After putting in instant noodle seasoning, the meal has the taste of a seasoned and heated stew of tender meat in crocked soup. All composed in a single day, which is amazing to me. I tell myself that I need to stop buying and eating instant noodles, but that I need to get out into the community more.

 

***

 

Debating Debate

January 12, 2004

 

The classroom is quiet. I have just told them to form partners, but they look up to me in puzzlement, as if they don’t know where to begin. Some of the stronger students timidly point to another student, and one of the students says that he will partner with me. I sigh.

I tell them I will choose partners for them, and in an almost piercing reply, they tell me “no!” They ask me to put their names in a cup, and so I oblige them.

Afterwards, looking over the pairs of names, I am very pleased; in fact more pleased than if I had chosen the names. Students with strength and weakness are together, and there is certain wisdom in the randomness.

I tell the students we are going to have debates everyday of the week, and so almost on command, they type the word into their electronic dictionaries (all of them have at least one, sometimes two) and scribble on their cheap recycled paper pads.

I tell them them to come up with team names, to be prepared by tomorrow, and then which two teams will be competing. I tell them they should prepare an introduction, an argument, be prepared for audience questions, and a conclusion. I tell them the first topic will be “books are expensive.”

They tell me this is a good idea. I hope so, I hope so.

 

***

 

Laughing Matters

January 13, 2004

 

The table is in an uproar. The ladies are laughing, while the one lady continues with her imitation of the principal of the school, echoing her melodramatic high pitched speech voice, accentuating the words and the phrases which she used during the Christmas celebration here on the fifth floor of the school on December 25.

I ask the girl next to me (she speaks English very well – the only person on staff who is actually secure enough with her English to speak it) why the caretakers (the ladies at the table) are so much older than the teachers. She says all of the caretakers are married and have children, while the all of the teachers (except for two) are not married and have no children. She tells me that when the caretakers are considered for the job, the school even goes so far as to interview the children of the caretakers to see if the lady will be a good member of the Jia Mei team, because the caretakers are the primary staff members who make sure the children have what they need and are safe.

She continues with her impression. It is really quite funny, although I hate to laugh. But everyone at the table is laughing without remorse. I wonder what would happen if the principal walked into the room just then. It’s a good thing she is five hours away by bus.

 

***

 

Reading Me

January 14, 2004

 

My mouth hangs open. Disbelief? No, such a thing as disbelief is impossible, a fallacy in reality, but perhaps a better word would be misunderstanding, or surprise.

Yesterday I made cards for all of my children. On the card is the child’s English name, along with the meaning and origin of the name. On the back of the card is the child’s Chinese name. I helped to cut out the cards, gave them to the girl at the desk, and she told she would call me when she needed my help to laminate them onto soft plastic. One hour later I walked into the front desk and asked when we were going to do it, and she apologized and told me “later.” Three hours later, she called me and told me to pick up my cards.

The teacher holds up the cards, showing the students. The students read out the names on the card: Mark, Paul, Mike, Tracy, Amy, etc. I look at their tiny little five-year-old mouths, and then stare at the numbers on the board. Yes, in America they would be in kindergarten or first grade, and they already know how to read and how to add and subtract simple numbers (the addition and subtraction game is a favorite for English class). I wonder what my life would be like if I knew how to read when I was five. Then I realize I am twenty-four and already in China, so I stop worrying.

 

***

 

Ali Ben and the Forty Pigs

January 15, 2004

 

I ask the cook how many are in the sink. He tells me there are forty pigs in the sink. Something curdles inside me. I can’t tell if it’s my heart, or my stomach.

I look at the buckets on the floor. There are three buckets: a giant bucket and two smaller metal bins. Hundreds of pigs’ feet float around the buckets, the ripples on the bloody water mocking me, making fun of me, teasing my ignorance.

I stare again at the heads in the sink. They are piled on top of one another, immersed in red tap water. They are piled like Tetris blocks, efficiently stacked. The ear of one of the heads pig-curls out of the water, and below the ear, the glazed eye stares into the murky depths.

On the cabinet behind me, the guts of the pigs are made into little balls, and then put inside net bags, and now they are drying on the cabinet.

The cooks, all four of them, are sitting at a table between the sinks and the cabinets. They are eating dumplings and pork stomach, and drinking the golden rice porridge.

I point to the ear of the pig, and squirm at one of the cooks. He laughs.

 

***

 

Wise Man Say Blowtorch Good

January 16, 2004

 

On the further adventures of Ali Ben, in the notorious den of the forty infidel pigs, he comes across a wise man (who looks vaguely like the cook) who tells him the second step of the process is to obtain a blowtorch.

And so I stare at him, the blowtorch in one hand, a metal tray on the floor, and ten pigs’ feet lined up as if they were awaiting a firing squad. He adjusts his glasses, lights the hose with a flaming match, and then slowly throws the blue fire across the hard skin of the adult pig legs. The undersides turn a shade of black, as if he were a painter carefully applying charcoal.

Suddenly the torch goes out. He shakes the hose, mutters to himself, takes out another thin match and lights up the beast again. It roars to life, and then swallows the feet, once again.

I shake my head in disbelief. In the dining segment of the kitchen (the two are separated by only a glass wall) I tell one of the Chinese girls about the blowtorch and the pork toes. She looks at me funny, as if she didn’t understand what I found so fascinating. I tell her in America we use blowtorches for building cars and raising skyscrapers. Her eyes go up at this, but nothing more.

I resign myself to eating my cold fish.

 

***

 

Dwarvish Medicine

January 17, 2004

 

I am sick. The skin under my nose burns.

I drink my cup of green loose-leaf tea. I feel the effects almost right away, a soothing concoction of herbs and health.

My classes this morning went well, although I was blowing my nose throughout all three classes, and speaking softly. I wanted to rest today, as it is Saturday, but this is part of the holiday work days, as next week is China’s Spring Festival, so work is required on Saturday and Sunday.

I am watching The Rock with Chinese subtitles, and playing Icewind Dale II on my computer. In the back of my head, I hear Sean Connery speaking with Nicholas Cage, while I am watching two Nordic dwarves armed with axes and swords cut apart orcs.

I blow my nose again, and breathe in. The air in my room is foul, the smell of my wall, that strange wood, moving throughout the room. I lean back, look at the clock (which reads 11:34am) and realize I am four minutes late to lunch.

 

***

 

A Legal Spring

January 18, 2004

 

Democratizing Democracy

For the past two months, I have taught an English class to older students, aged seventeen to twenty-two years old. This has been a struggle for me, in some ways more than others, as I’ve had to develop my own curriculum and my own syllabus for a class whose chief virtue is that I do it free of charge and the students are not required to come. Add to that a group of students who everyday tell you ways to make the class more rigorous, and you should get an idea of the class.

 

This last week we held debates. The experience was enlightening for both myself and my students, as I taught them how an “Americanized” debate is structured, and I learned that cultural differences are not always as far away as they seem. We had a total of three debates last week. The topics ranged from “Books are expensive,” to “Dogs are better than cats,” to “Love is universal.”

 

I received plenty of advice from the students, perhaps more than I wanted. But there is an old Chinese axiom that says, “If you don’t like your government, remove it,” and so although I was a bit uncomfortable with my methods being questioned every class by a different person, I also learned to work with it, and today I am quite comfortable changing my methods to fit in with the feeling of the class. A healthy learning environment is always best.

 

(cantos point three)

By the road, he hammers.

The sound splinters across the air,

the machine is dismembered, guts on the ice.

On the other side, a man lights a fire,

the smoke trails into the heavy air,

heavy with dust, the red mountain clouds.

A dog barks from behind the wall.

I walk beside the recyclery,

my hands in my pockets,

my mouth closed to the air,

my mind numbed from the cold.

 

Spring Tidings

It is hardly spring. The ice fills the air, and when you walk, it is as if the cold air has frozen the dust in place. You can’t breathe, or else you spend the rest of the afternoon in coughing fits. A few weeks ago, people faced their faced directly into the wind, but today, you can’t afford such luxuries, and most people wear hoods or just don’t go out. During the winter, the city is a dirty, dirty, cold place, and perhaps the most pleasant journey outside is a trip to the underground market, which is overcrowded, stuffy, and expensive.

 

However, this week China is celebrating her Spring Festival, the biggest festival of the year. For the past week, even as I stayed in the school most of the time, I still heard fireworks going off six, seven times per day, just outside in the apartments that surround the school. Earlier this week, I took a walk downtown, and although the authorities “discourage” fireworks (there have been some terrible deaths in China this year, due to the misuse and faults of fireworks), and I nearly leaped out of my shoes three times as these little children darted out from a side street throwing firecrackers. It’s not that I’ve never been around fireworks, but rather in the states, fireworks are used more ceremonially, either as a childhood initiation into being mischievous or the grand-old romp on the Fourth of July.

 

And of course, the working days change as well, for the holiday. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” you might say, as when a holiday does occur in this country, you make up the extra time by working your off-days or your off-hours. The perception of the holiday here revolves on extending the period of time off, instead of granting freedom from work days. Thus, I work from Monday to the following Tuesday, working both the Saturday and Sunday, and then I receive Wednesday to the following Tuesday as vacation. It took me a little while to get used to this system, as I am used to using my free time to myself, rather than devoting myself to a system that dictates my free time.

 

(cantos point four)

Bags of meat and seafood hang on the walls,

they are dried and pressed into strips,

enclosed in soft plastic bags.

Under the counter, I see the rice crackers.

I point to the chocolate malts.

The lady behind the counter,

she wears that rare smile,

the smile only found in between greetings,

the light on her face,

the curve of her eyes,

the lifting of her brows,

as she puts her hands on the counter and laughs.

I hand her two bills.

She furrows her face,

melodiously and fastidiously counts,

and gives me my change,

a few rattling coins,

chipped, bent, old,

as for a moment I see an ancient face,

the face of a tree long alive,

the branches knotted and dark,

the leaves lustrous and green,

and beside the tree are voices.

The guard (my friend) waves to me,

he looks at me from his television show,

and nods, smiles, and nods to me.

I tell him goodbye, and flee into the cold.

 

D(isappointing)V(ain)D(aunting) Anxieties

About four months ago, I bought my first DVD player. I was ecstatic for a number of reasons: 1. It was the first officiated DVD player that Mr. Seeberger bought, and thus I was very happy because I had taken a new step into the wide world of commercial electronic consumers, 2. The DVD player I bought (Shinco) was reputed to be the second best in the world (it was on the brochure, as the saleswoman energetically told me), and 3. The DVD market in China was hot, hot, hot, and I was itching to start a library of movies.

 

I sit in my room, pressing the on/off/on/off button to the DVD player. I press the Eject/Load/Eject/Load, but nothing happens. On the LCD, beautiful English letters read back to me “nO dIsC.” I wonder what went wrong, when only one month ago, I tried this exact DVD in the player and nothing went wrong. I eject the disc and put it back in my library of DVDs, slipping it back into its correct place among my documentaries.

 

I remember being told by a friend I made who worked at a DVD store, and this comes back to my vividly now. “Shinco is the worst brand in all China. I had more problems with customers who had Shinco than any other player.” I wonder to myself… am I just gullible? Do I have the look of a gentle, loving lamb written across my cheekbones? I suppose then, a lot of people must be gullible… in any case, I leave the issue as unresolved, make plans to buy a newer, better one (eventually), and put in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which works perfectly. By the end of the film, I am inspired, and forget about the whole previous incident.

 

***

 

Beetle-mania

January 18, 2004

 

I stare vehemently at the two insects. I hope the look of acid that is painted across my face is also painted across the tip of my battle-axe, a gigantic two handed shaft of wood with a cruel, sharp blade fitted onto the top. Perhaps the smear is blood which is coated across the edge of the blade will deter the black-eyed beetles. Or perhaps they believe that because they are as big as a grown man with armor as thick as glass, they might have an extra tasty lunch today.

In any case, I will never stand for it, so I step forward, growl, and tell them as if it were an off-hand comment to my mother, how my beard would soon be bathed in their blood. I chuckle inwardly at this, as my beard falls from my face, the straggled blond hairs a distinct contrast to my green battle armor. I further wonder what the stupid insectoid is thinking, as he watches this warrior advance toward him, wearing the fleece of his own green beetle brother.

I blow my nose, and cough. I drink the tea. It is cold. The water is bitter, and I manage to suck one of the tea leaves up through the straw. I pucker up and spit out the leaf.

The phone rings. The girl on the other end of the line tells me in broken English that my mother has called me. I nearly complain to her about my sickness, but realize it won’t do any good, so I tell her I will be out there in fifteen minutes, as I’m not dressed. I tell her to tell my mother this. She says ok and hangs up.

I go back to my computer, save my game, and exit the program. I look for my clothes.

 

***

 

A Chinese Fairy Tale: Part One

January 19, 2004

 

I relate to you a story told by my Chinese students, in our “Clap” story time. The game consists of going around the class to tell a story. The storyline is directed by myself, and when I clap my hands the story falls onto the next person.

A Chinese Fairy Tale: The Ugly Son
Part 1/2

Once upon a time, there were two young teachers who wanted to board a train for Beijing, as they were searching for work. One was a young woman, and she was very, very ugly, and the other was a young man, who was exceedingly handsome. But the train station had no tickets left, so they resolved to go back home to find work.

At home in the countryside, these two friends married and began a school. Now, the handsome man married this woman because he loved the ugly woman’s heart, as she had a kind and loving heart. But the husband told his wife that if they were seen together to say that she was simply his sister, for he was ashamed of her ugliness.

The woman was not very happy about this, and she prayed to God, to change her husband’s heart. And change it he did, for God made the woman exceedingly beautiful and the man raggedly ugly. News of this reached the king of the land, and he was very amazed. He sent for the two of them to come to his palace, for a grand party, but the husband refused to go, and so the two remained at home.

But the woman did not stop there. She told her husband that if he really loved her, he would go into the forest and kill the bear that haunted those woods. This bear had fur that was beautiful, and she told him she wanted that fur. The husband was not so easily swayed, and he told the woman that he would do this, if she would come with him. And so they slew the bear together, and lived with each other ever since.

Ten years later, they had a son, who was much like his father, in that he was very, very ugly. When he came of age, he left his parents in their country home, and traveled to Beijing to find work. However, he was very poor and had no money, and no one would take him into work for he was very ugly, so he was left on the street to beg.

However, one woman took pity on him and tried to help him. She was a beautiful woman, and the ugly man fell in love with her at once. She helped him and he stood rightfully on his feet, but as time went by, his love grew, and soon he could not contain himself. He would have to tell her of his love, but he could not, for his shame of his ugliness was too great, and so he left China, and traveled to America to find work.

In America he cared for an elderly gentleman of great wealth. Although he was very ugly, the old man loved him very much, and when he died, he left his great wealth to this ugly man. The ugly man did not spend the money wisely, however, and did many bad things with his newfound wealth. He became sad and black inside, and did not know why.

One day while in the park, he heard a man preaching. He did not understand this man, for he still did not know English, but he saw a peculiar love in his eyes and heard a hope in his voice. He asked the man what the book was he preached from, but the preacher did not understand Chinese. However, the man was struck with something that day, and it bothered him.

One day he had a revelation, and he believed he had to go back to China, to his birthplace. So he left for China, taking his wealth with him. When he arrived at his home, he had a troubling dream, but the next day forgot it. Nevertheless, it still bothered him, and he often spent his time at home sleeping, trying to understand. Then one day while wandering in the forest, he fell down a hill and bumped his head on a rock, and his dream came back to him. It was of the woman, and it was of him meeting her, this time with wealth instead of poverty. This convinced him, and at once he left for Beijing, leaving his home in the country.

To be continued…

 

***

 

A Chinese Fairy Tale: Part Two

January 20, 2004

 

I tell them we are to begin the final segment of the story, to write the finished chapter with our speech. And so we begin, with the ugly, rich man, on a train to Beijing, to find his beloved…

Part Two: The Dreamer’s Mask

And so, the rich man had two dreams on the train, while sitting in his seat, awaiting his nervous arrival in Beijing.

In the first dream, he received two red envelopes in the mail, one addressed to him, and the other to the woman. So he took the envelope to her, and they opened it together, and both envelopes were filled with money, so much money that they were both rich beyond their farthest dreams. They decided to marry each other, and they had a child, moved to America, and then sent their child to a wealthy school. And it was wonderful.

In the second dream, he was a poor man, with no money except ten Yuan. He came to the woman with the ten Yuan in a red envelope and gave her the gift. When she opened it and saw how little it was, and then she saw his ugly face, she demanded he give her more money, and more money. And so he left, for he could not afford her greedy demands.

And he woke up, and arrived at Beijing. He left the train station, suddenly very unsure of himself. At first he traveled to her house, where he remembered she had lived, but it had been such a long time that he could not find the way. He was lost, and he became very discouraged. He gave up, and decided to leave Beijing, for he knew it was hopeless.

On his way to the train station via the subway, as he got off the subway, he saw a woman drop a necklace onto the ground. He was so surprised, for the woman who dropped the necklace was the woman he had been looking for! He took the necklace and tried to give it back to her, but the doors to the subway closed. He chased after her, but the subway was too fast, and he lost her.

Such joy was in his heart that he went to a store, and bought another necklace for the girl, as she must like necklaces! And so he stayed in Beijing, and continued to look for her.

Then one night, he went to have dinner, and he saw her in the window. He went into the restaurant to find her, but she had just left, walking out of the door. She got onto a bus, and he chased after her. He nearly caught the bus, but it was too fast, and he lost her, yet again.

Then one day he received a wedding invitation from a friend of his. This was a mutual friend of both his and his lady friend, and he knew she would be there for sure. He was very nervous, and so he bought a very expensive mask, one that would hide who he was. The mask was that of a very handsome man, and he hid his ugliness under the face of another man.

At the wedding banquet, he saw her, and he went up to her and asked her how she was doing. But she did not recognize him, and she told him she did not know who he was. The man was very sad, and so he left the wedding in a hurry, and ran into park full of trees in the middle of the city. He found himself alone, ashamed for what he had done.

But in the park, he saw an amazing thing. A woman was there, a most beautiful woman, almost too perfect. He was so enraptured with her beauty, that he fell to his knees before her and proclaimed her beauty and her love, for he could not contain himself.

She said, “I am a spirit of heaven, of the mortals. But you look to have trouble in your heart, so tell me of it, and I shall try to help.”

And so he told her of his love for the woman, and how she could not recognize him. He told the spirit that the woman would never love him because of his ugliness.

The spirit said, “I cannot help you. You must ask Cupid, the spirit of love.”

The ugly man asked, “Where can I find this Cupid?”

So the spirit of beauty replied, “I can help you, for I will call him,” and she did, and Cupid came, a beautiful man.

The ugly man explained his problems to Cupid, the spirit of love, and Cupid said, “I cannot help you in this, for the woman you seek is devoted to God, and she belongs to God. You must ask God this question. I cannot interfere in the affairs of God. I am sorry.”

So the man prayed to God, and asked God to help him. And so he waited, and he waited.

And then one day during the New Year, he attended the festival of the fireworks. And the woman he loved saw him there, and she was very surprised and happy. But as she saw him, and he saw her, the sky bloomed in white light, the stars disappeared, the clouds parted, and he heard a horrible piercing scream…

And then he woke up. He opened to his eyes, to find himself on the train, at the Beijing train station. The signal for the arrival at the Beijing station had rung, and he had finally arrived.

To be continued…? (It wasn’t my plan to have a third part! Blame the last student, who thought it would be funny…)

 

***

 

Virtual Kuan-Ti

January 21, 2004

 

He is calling to me from the hallway. “Ying-yu, lao lao, shi shi!” I look over to him. His name is Will, and he is six years old. His father works at the school as one of the bus drivers. Will is in my Big class. He is a little child who always has a smile on his face, and I am positive when he gets a little older he will be a magnet for the ladies.

He throws a purple ball at me and laughs, and then he disappears into the hallway.

On the television, three warriors beat up a horde of bad guys. One of them is a giant, hulk of a man, whose red shirt is ripped open at the chest, and whose hands are as big as his bald, heavy head. Another is an archer, who is wearing plates of orange and black armor, and he is currently firing his arrows at a man who holds a thick short sword, wears blue plate armor, and whose gleaming black hair flies behind him every time he swings his cleaver at one of the enemy spearmen.

I am riveted by this, because this is a video game called “Warriors of Fate,” a small-time video game created by Capcom that didn’t do terribly well in the states, based on the legend of a Chinese hero named Kuan-Ti, otherwise known as the God of Martial Arts, one of the heroes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the “founder” of tai kuon-do – basically, the Chinese equivalent of King Arthur or Sir Lancelot, except he was a Confucian mastermind, whose ethics still shines today as a model for any right citizen. What is most interesting about this is the fact that there is a show on national television devoted to showing three really bad video game players go through the story of Kuan-Ti. In fact, many times, one of the players stop fighting, and their two other partners have to use their own weapons and kill them, to move on with the game. All of national television.

I am reminded of the board game shows shown on CCTV, when younger Shung-Qi (Chinese chess) players play against older players, and every other move the game stops as the elder player explains why his move was good and the younger player’s move was bad.

I pick up the ball and throw it into the hallway. I hear a happy shriek, and then a bout of laughter as two feet echo into stillness, bounding into the shadows.

 

***

 

And the rockets’ red glare…

January 22, 2004

 

I dream a thousand and one dreams.

The phone rings three times. I stretch my arms out in front of me, and realize I am not dreaming. I get out of bed, my head swimming, explosions still echoing in my head.

“Hello?” I try to sound as annoyed as possible, although this is my reaction, and as soon as I do it, I regret it. I’d much rather be convivial.

“Hello Ben! Come eat, dumplings for breakfast.” I know her methods are good, but I’m very tired, so I tell her I am not going to eat, but thank you for asking.

I go back to sleep, but this time close my window and my door (which were previously open). The sounds of the fireworks are dimmed slightly, as the cracks and bangs sound like muffled explosions instead of skull-blistering cracks to your head.

Now, as I walk to the school in my shirt, heavy black turtleneck, and green wool sweater, my hands in my pockets (for it is very cold), I glance on the ground around my room. There are burned out firecracker sticks still simmering on the frozen ground, and they are scattered around my door and my window like sprigs of mistletoe sent by an angry lover.

I remember what my American friend said last night. “The Chinese invented the firecracker, and they sure don’t want you to forget it.” I remember we laughed. Yes, we laughed.

(Of course in retrospect, I tell myself, this was a valuable cultural experience.)

 

***

 

Whispers from the Night

January 23, 2004

 

The world is on fire.

The breath is acrid, the pungent smoke hung over the ice. The leftovers of scarred spirits drift like clouds from the burnt powder smocks, littered across the earth like stick men after a war.

The sky itself is soaped with that dirt milk of the underworld, as the moon is asleep above the clouds, and the only light is of the television fires, the streetlamp fairies, and the instantaneous rapture sprites, which ignite in one clear moment and descend to the treeline in a scream of ecstasy, forgetting everything in one fell dream.

A little film of snow is scattered across the street, and with every footstep of mine, I hear the crunch and crush of ice. At one moment, the sidewalk beneath my boot creaks, as the fleet of frozen crystal strains like old bones.

 

***

 

Education on a Rickshaw

January 24, 2004

 

“If you are a man, then they are afraid of you, but if you are a man and with a girl, they know you must give them money.”

He is telling me the tactics that he has been brought up with, on how to evade the beggar children on the street. I didn’t realize the people here had constructed such as advanced system.

“If you are me, then they are afraid of me because I am taller than them, you know, and I can hurt them, so they do not ask me, but if I am with a girl, then they know I will not hurt them because the girl is there and she would think me very bad, so I must give them money.”

We are sitting inside the cabin of a bicycle rickshaw. The world passes by us through the frosted plastic windows of the thin, little cabin. My gloves are off, and I am nurturing my red hands, trying to revive some warmth in them.

The driver of the bicycle holds out his hand, and then turns right. A taxi nearly turns us over, but neither does my friend, nor the driver, nor myself blink.

I ask him why children beg on the streets. I tell him in America we have twice as many beggars, but there are no children with cups tugging on coat tails.

“In America, your school does not cost money. But in China, our school is expensive. It costs 1000 Yuan per year, but you receive good food, good education, a building.”

The idea intrigues me, but further questions come into my mind. I remember one saying of Confucius that stated all people should receive education, regardless of their state in life, rich or poor. In fact, he said that there should be no noticeable difference in the classroom, between the rich or poor, for the best kind of education to happen. So then why do so many children go to school in China, if they have to pay money, when there are people in America who do not need to pay for school, but do not go? The thought stays with me.

 

***

 

Televisionary

January 25, 2004

 

He holds up a power strip. I am delighted.

We are setting up my television in my new, second room, which has a bathroom. I am going to use this room as my entertainment function, which will be beneficial to me in several ways. First of all, I will read before going to sleep, when before I watched a movie. Secondly, I will have access to CCTV, and so I will hear more Chinese speakers (as most of the people at this school speak to me in English, and when I go outside, people speak to me in marginal Chinese, because I am a foreigner). Thirdly, the space is larger, and I will be able to have bigger audiences when and if I find a decent film to show. Fourthly, it will put me in good contact with the cook, as I will invariably find many excuses to invite him over (as he lives in the same building, just across the window divider).

My two friends lower the window shades. I walk outside, and see the pale blue of the auto search function blinking through the windows.

 

***

 

A Trip, like any other

January 26, 2004

 

The dragon towers over my head, her steel beams stretching into a lace of extravagant fireworks, her crowned head of jade calling out silently to the red and blue clouds. I stand below with five of my friends, in a parking lot lined with snow sculptures of ancient China, and girded by a street lined with carved iced paintings.

We walk into the building and inquire how much it would cost to ride the elevator to the top, but it is too expensive, and so we decide to visit the gift shop, but even her embroidered paintings and cheap wooden pencils shaped like tree branches are too expensive. We leave.

Outside I hail for a taxi. A golden taxi swerves by and informs us because it is Spring Festival he is charging twice the amount. The four boys shove off in disgust, but the two girls, whose feet are hurting, decide to take the ride.

When we arrive at the school twenty-five minutes later (after a very cold, very brisk walk down the main street of the development district) we see the two girls at the gate. We are surprised and ask why they are so late, when we walked the distance. They say they were confused.

Together we yell for the gate guard. He groggily comes to the gate (trying to eke out as much of an expression of annoyance as possible) and we cheerfully bound into the school, dusting off the ice from our boots and apologizing to the woman in charge.

 

***

 

Winter Weatherings

January 27, 2004

 

I tell them it’s only a little farther. When we see the church, I tell them, there is a bus stop nearby. They believe me. I believe me.

Twenty minutes later, I count the number of “churches” we passed, and then lose count. Nearly every building has a dome with a cross or rod coming out of the apex. My hands are iced. I bunch up my fist in my gloves, and breathe through the zipper of my jacket. It is cold. The ice does not crunch; it stands proud, aware of its Russian heritage.

…..

The mountain air is fresh, moving through the valley of ice like a spirit. In the distance a cold fog stays on the hills. Plains of untouched snow sweep past the highway, into the shadow of the giants, those towering daggers of stone that chip into the sky.

It is time to go. My friend finds in surprise, an unused firework. He takes the red canister over to one of the drivers (they are all outside the bus, smoking and laughing), and one of the drivers sticks the burning cinders of his cigarette into the fuse, and then my friend puts the firework on the snow.

The sound explodes across the valley like a gunshot. We all howl in happiness, and with an eager air my friend picks up another unused firework from the ground (we are at a pit stop, with two wooden shacks and two holes in the ground), but as he turns the other driver rams the firework into the ground with his boot, and we board the bus. I laugh a little at this.

 

***

 

The Golden Arches

January 28, 2004

 

The crowd is like a quilt, woven over the gray and white of the street. Faces pass like clouds, and voices carry on the city drafts. I walk between ice giants, cover my nose with one glove, while my other hand covers my mouth from the sting of the air.

Downstairs, I purchase five discs, thank the vender, and depart Computer World for the central city square above. The doors to the markets, both underground and sky, are closing, and people strain out of the doors, flooding the byways and avenues, a herd of black hair, scarves, and heavy puff jackets. Taxis honk and disappear like leopards, their yellow tails swerving past the streetlights, past the police officers standing in the middle of the street, past the corner open-air mutton grills.

The new market, like a statue of pearl polished by the sea, stands among the crowds. The doors are dark, shut, locked. On the side of the wall a plastic tapestry showcases the location for the new McDonalds. The advertisement shakes a bit in the city draft, the sound of lapping paper among the foiling of automobiles and buses. I idly wonder to myself if this is an important moment.

 

***

 

Morning Moments

January 29, 2004

 

I brush my teeth. The exterior of the sink is encrusted with dirt (I’ve yet to clean it), and there are brown circles of dried brackish water on the tiled floor (I did *try* and clean that, but the mop only soaked up the dirt and spread it even further).

The curtain is down, the morning light blue and darkened. Snoopy is relaxing on a beach chair, sipping a [non-alcoholic] martini. His two bird friends relax on a beach mat, engrossed in a furious game of Go. Palm tree fronds are frozen in the movement of the wind, and miniscule ripples within the water, really just slash curls of white cloth, showcase the calm waters of this ocean.

I turn on my television. It is the English channel, but for whatever reason I can’t tell, the language is “Eastern European.” It’s not Russian, but neither is it French, but something between. Maybe Latvian? I’m not even sure that is a language. Romanian enters my mind, but it is not beautiful enough. Maybe Czech. I turn the television off, but I still wonder why.

 

***

 

Children of the Revolution

January 30, 2004

 

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore. It happens all the time, but for whatever human reason, her smile delights me.

She looks up from the counter and opens her eyes wide, like a child who found her lost doll under a pillow in a stuffy closest. She says “meiguoren” with an ethereal sparkle. I tell her “hello” and then turn the corner, to browse through the food. I am looking for rice crackers. Specifically, flavored ones.

She follows me, her head bouncing, her spirit lolling. I am amused at this, as she appears to contain something of that mysterious essence we all seek for in life.

I turn another corner, and she calls out for her mother, and then tells her there is an American in her store. The mother smiles like a mother, the sweet supportive emotive that says to a child, “what a spectacle you’ve found my dear!” and then turns back into a nurturing gaze. The little girl continues on my heels, and as I turn to look into her eyes, she smiles and nearly blushes, as if she were embarrassed and hadn’t prepared anything to say if this did happen to occur.

I find my rice crackers, and hand the mother my money. I say “xie xie” as the little child hands me my bills. Then, the merchant realizes she forgot my coin change, so she hands the little girl two mau (equivalence of a penny), and I say “thank you.” The little girl giggles at this and says “goodbye!” I tell her goodbye, and depart from the store with a happier air.

 

***

 

The Lake of Illusions

January 31, 2004

 

There are waves on the lake, frozen, crusted with the color of shadows. The sky is a gloomy gray, gruesome with the pit of smokestacks and the coming starlight. Beneath my feet, I see the flash of a silver fish, yet it does not run away. It has stopped, mouth agape, as if time itself died. Below the fish I see a blue nothingness, a trapping of darkness, while above the fish, pockets of air are frozen in globules of ivory ice. The lane which I walk has been cleaned, the dirt swept away, the snow pushed aside, and the confrontation between air and water is now only separated by the Winter fear, the ice which claims all life, for whatever time God has allotted to Winter’s reign.

…….

He tells us he is a very good photographer. I hold his hand and pull him up the incline, onto the brick mountain which the carousel is built. Behind me, white bars shaped like half moons fence in the surreal, frozen circus of wild horses and silver steel jet planes, all poled into the central axis of thin dirt-dulled mirrors. I glance over at the tree and notice our photographer’s sword which is leaning against the tree, the sword a lithe red scabbard, with ornate and elegant cloth designs. He tells us he comes to the park everyday to practice with the sword. Admiration lines my face and I tell him this is very good, and that I’ve always wanted to learn what he does. He tells me I can come to the park tomorrow to meet with him, as his son is an English teacher at a local elementary school. I am delighted beyond words, as this is the first local I’ve had the opportunity to meet outside the school.

…….

We walk among the dilapidated ruins of a warmer time. The skeleton of a roller coaster is intertwined with the clouds, shards of snow embedded into the track and wheels of the dragon cars. The paint is old, ancient, worn, wrinkling and flaking like tired skin. Two playgrounds are darkened by the shade of dust, locked behind bars of steel and wire. The swings hang with a lacking air, as if they lost the ability to breathe.

And yet the people move about, without worry. As we walk towards the pier (and pass by the dozens of winter strollers), a dog comes out of the shadows and bites the sound with his bark. The two girls with me shrivel back, clutching each others’ arms. (Most dogs in China are smaller than cats, mutts of an Imperial breeding cycle meant to stifle their wolfish tendencies, both in size and personality.) The chain on the dog’s neck rattles, and I am reminded of Cerberus, with the image of the lake frozen in time behind him, and the boat flipped on its side, frozen into the ground. Perhaps Charon is dead. I laugh at this.

 

***

 

The Monster of Spring

February 01, 2004

 

For those of you who are not in the know-how of Chinese holidays, last week was China’s Spring Festival, otherwise known as the Chinese New Year. The Chinese calendar uses a lunar cycle (a thirteen month calendar), and so the New Year is appropriately in February, and not in January. However, as the Chinese do enjoy their holidays, not only do they celebrate the Spring Festival in regal accord, they also celebrate Christmas and the Gregorian New Year with near-equal splendor.

 

I was intrigued during the holiday to discover a wonderful legend the Chinese have, with regards to the red cylinders they hang from their doors and the multitude of fireworks they display. Legend has it in the early times before the Kings, a monster roamed the hills, passing village after village, devouring men during the New Year. The people learned however, that by making loud noises, they could scare away the beast. As for the red cylinders, they represent piles of gold coins, as one of the favorite customs in China is to give money to your family, specifically large amounts of money to unmarried family members. The Chinese also have a peculiar custom (which was explained me to as “only the older generation do this”), in that on street corners, they burn paper during the Spring Festival. The paper is meant to symbolize money, and the money is intended to go to their ancestors. Most people, I was told, do not know what this means, as it has become so regular that it is dismissed, much like Sunday barbecues are dismissed in American culture.

 

(cantos point five)

There is a strange beauty

in street gutters,

when the pearls of falling snow

gather around her deep pockets

and fill her mouth with light.

Bicycles cycle by,

hoods drawn up against the sky,

faces red with the wrecking heat

staring into the frozen tomorrow.

I stand among the ghosts

and they seem to tell me

in their invisible and unheard laughter

of the mirth of heaven.

I imagine the snow,

the ruins of the firecrackers

they play above.

 

(Palisades of the White Fox)

A. I remove my shoes and rub my toes. The window shares my grief more than any other being could. Her glass is frozen into a maze of heat and ice, like she had grown skin and suddenly all of her blood had frozen, leaving only the veins and arteries in some fantastic, silver quilt. Outside the window, the fragility of warmth is all too evident, the snow blanketed across the hills like a second coat, but even the stillness of the outside could never claim her lack of patience with my foot. I rub my sore foot and look pleadingly to my friend who is sitting next to me. He looks at me, and then at my foot, and says, “Cold! My feet are cold too!”

 

B. Our group walks among sleek red cars and aisles of fresh detergent, recycled paper notebooks, and a never-ending line of dry potato chip bags and fish stalls. The architecture of Price Mart is literally the same as Costco I remark to myself. Near the exit of the store is a food merchant selling pizza, hot dogs, and some Chinese specialty of rice, noodles, and meat, and there is the umbrella benches and tables next to it. There is a young woman at a Nescafe stall handing out free trial drinks of coffee, and there is a membership booth with matching prices as Costco, except in Yuan. I even spot the vacant forklift abandoned in one of the aisles, near an ensnarement of overpriced mops and under priced glassware.

 

C. Upon the lake people dance with sleds and slides. Siberian huskies pull sleds over special swept ice spots, children skate on the ice with their shoes, and above, a moving car suspended on a long cable, moves across the frozen river towards Sun Island, the famous Harbin vacation spot. My friend tells me if I want to walk on the river and play on the ice, I should pay the man at the yellow booth 50 Yuan. I look at him as if he was crazy, and then stare on the ice and wonder. A merchant comes up to me and asks me if I want to buy a wool hat shaped like a mink. I ask her how much it would cost, and she tells me 200 Yuan. I tell her I will buy it for 20 Yuan. She twists her face, and I laugh.

 

D. Below the half-circle of Russian columns, a man stands with a blue money bag around with waist and a white creature with a long, fluffy tail twined around his neck. He approaches us and the American with me lets out a surprised gasp of astonishment. He tells me that is a white fox, a very beautiful creature. He walks up to pet the creature. I notice three other people, two men and one woman, who also have these white foxes around their necks, standing below the statuesque columns. My Chinese friend tells me we must pay 80 Yuan to take a picture with the man and his animal. I laugh and ask him if he thinks that is too much. He nods with much vigor and says, “Much too much.”

 

E. The taxi driver does not look at us. His face tells me he disapproves of the situation, but refuses to say anything, as he is getting paid for this ridiculous voyage. The voice of my friend laughs in my ear, and then he says something in Chinese. I turn my head to the backseat of the taxi, and see that he is sitting on the laps of the three also in the back, and his head is sticking out into my front seat, as he has no room. Briefly, I chastise myself, as this is my fault for believing I knew where the bus stop was, but the moment is too humorous, and as the good humor is in, I decide to laugh. I look over at the driver. He is still unpleased. He stares ahead, focusing on the road.

 

(cantos point six)

They do not speak,

they do not laugh,

they do not see,

but they only feel.

Their movements are fluid,

like the mountain snow

falling from heaven’s mouth.

They dance as one

as if they swam

the current of the sea

while standing on the

bottom of the world.

As we pass, Lao Jing and I,

one of the ladies laughs

and the silence is broken,

but the snow still falls,

the shadows still move.

She waves to Lao Jing,

and we move on.

 

(Snowswords, Bearded Camels, and Young Love)

F. I slip on the ice of the lake. Two boys approach me and run past me, while their mother is behind yelling for them to stop. A man to my right rams his ice axe into a fishing hole dug into the surface of the frozen water. I dodge an old man riding his bicycle, and remember yesterday when I walked on this same lake how my friend told me bicycles were not allowed on the ice. The snow continues to fall. It covers the dark patches of dirt the winter wind blew in from the mountains, and gives the snow-waves of the frozen lake a clean, fresh beauty.

 

G. I see him, the man from yesterday, but he is alone. He told me yesterday he would be bringing his son, who is an English teacher at an elementary school here in Mudanjiang. Or rather, he told my Chinese friend who was with me, as he doesn’t speak English. But today I came alone. He smiles and waves to me, and I walk down the brick decline. He speaks to me in Chinese, but I shake my head. I do not understand, but he is not fazed and continues to speak to me. He takes my arm and leads me down the path to a square covered in a light film of snow, where a short stout woman is doing tai chi exercises with a sword. He tells me he is my teacher.

 

H. I try to keep up with his movements, but I am poor. I feel like an animated machination, a golem. I swing the scabbard in my left hand down to the ground, slowly, just as he does. For a moment, I feel the stillness that comes with this, but I lose my balance and fall on my foot. I laugh and look up at him, but he does not see. He is immersed in his movement, like a slow storm, he twists and turns. I hear the snow crunching, being pushed aside, almost as if the snow were a giant moving his arms very slowly. And then there is only the sound of the snow moving, and I feel certain transcendence in that. But beyond that, I cannot explain.

 

I. He is huge. Brown, hulking, his eyes like two magnets, blackened with the color of space. I am surprised, as I did not figure I would be seeing a camel this far north, especially a camel in the center of a city park, in the middle of the Manchurian mountains during a winter snowstorm, all the while eating branches he found on the ground of his little steel home. He has two humps, and he is covered in brown, heavy fur. He wears a beard, which is an odd thing, and this beard falls from his mouth straight down to the ground, catching filaments of dirt and snow-flecks. Two people, a girl and a boy, feed the camel a dry branch, and then talk in excited tones as the giant mouth opens like a dark tunnel, and chews the wood.

 

J. They are everywhere. Holding hands, walking in pairs, huddled shoulder to shoulder. Boys and girls dressed in heavy winter gloves, pink and black jackets; they walk down the white paths of the park, as if the only creatures that existed were them, the lake, and the trees. This is not a special day, only a Sunday. I am reminded that only the zealous come out to the park on a frozen day like today: old men and women practicing tai chi, people lost in the abandon of love, and foreigners trying desperately to understand the language and culture. My tai chi teacher speaks to me again, but I do not understand. He looks at me, but I shake my head and tell him I hear him, but do not understand his words. I ask him his name, and he tells me he is called Lao Jing.

 

(And now, for some information)

Not much has changed here. Perhaps the weather (as that is what people usually say does change), but really the weather has been the same all winter. The daughter of the store across the street has arrived in Mudanjiang, to help her parents. She speaks some English, and it is always enjoyable to walk into the store and see the family sitting down for a good game of Chinese Checkers. I still teach the same amount of classes. My teaching repertoire remains the same.

 

I start off with going over their English names, go into a lesson, and then end the class with songs. With the middle class, I focus primarily on teaching more advanced topics, as the teacher is very supportive of my class and as such, they have an extraordinary ability to learn. With the big class, I focus on contests, as they seem to respond to competition with a zest I have never seen before in my life. And in my smallest class, I focus on songs, rewards, and acting silly, as the teachers many times ignore me unless I specifically ask them to help me on a certain project, and I tend to lose the attention of the class unless I can find creative ways of engineering joy.

 

I have stopped buying DVDs and computer games (too many of them do not work), as my DVD player is not treating me very well and I’ve generally become tired of Hollywood. I have started reading my books I received for Christmas, which encompasses a plethora of economics books that won the Nobel Prize. One of them is very good, one is ok, and the third is horrible. I am learning to pride myself in my non-academic ability to understand economics. It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I’ve stopped buying so much instant noodles, and now focus on dried beef, restaurant soup, and today I even bought a bag of soy milk packets. These are all good things, I hope.

 

***

 

Restaurant Dis-cussion

February 1, 2004

 

I take a bite of the spicy mutton. It is not quite “spicy,” although the texture of the peppers is quite evident.

He tells me one Chinese person is equal to ten Americans.

I give him a quizzical expression. I’m not sure whether to be offended, surprised, or delighted at this newfound knowledge.

He then tells me it is because this one Chinese person has such good intellect, and he further explains this by pointing out the head of a Chinese person is so much smarter.

Now I’m feeling skeptical about even starting this conversation. My mother has often told me Chinese people are smarter than most other people, and I’ve even come to believe part of that statement, as in the United States they do tend to make more money than anyone else. In fact, a book I’m reading (on economics) states that on average in comparison racially, Chinese people make more money than Caucasian by a whopping 16%. Beside the point, I have been told numerous times that Chinese people are actually Jewish in ancestry, which accounts for their fantastic ability to make money in a capitalistic environment. Nevertheless, I am skeptical, as he is Chinese, and he is telling me that a crucial part of wisdom is that he is smarter than Americans.

I ask him to explain.

He tells me to wait, wait. Then he tells me, “but as one Chinese equals ten Americans, also one American equals ten Chinese.” I am a bit relieved, but I am still in wonderment.

He says that although the Chinese man is smarter than the American man in terms of intellect, he cannot “do anything,” as when he wants to do something he delegates all of the work to ten different people, whereas the American will do everything by himself, and thus save the work and increase productivity, even though the American may not have the head of a Chinese man.

I think on this during the rest of our meal. The waitress brings out my boiling dofu dish. The steam rises from the bubbles like the top of an active volcano.

 

***

 

Disturbing the Wa

February 2, 2004

 

I tell her, “I have two questions.”

She looks up at me from her newspaper. I can’t tell if she is perplexed that I haven’t already spoken, if she is annoyed because I disturbed her, or if that vacant expression is common to her after she is interrupted from reading about police inspections of chicken merchants.

“First, are the teachers here going to continue to teach at Jia Mei, after this year?” I have been wondering this, as many young people in China change jobs often, but at the school in Harbin, the teachers had already been settled in for a couple years, married, had children, and had the look of “this kid thing is getting tiresome, but it earns a wage” look.

She tells me, “Of course!” as if it was a silly question. I expand further and ask, “Will they marry soon?”

Now she looks at me and tries to figure out my meaning, her mouth and eyes concentrating on probing my every movement. “I don’t know!” she exclaims. “Why you ask? You want a girlfriend?”

I laugh, and then throw out a hearty chuckle for reinforcement. “No,” I reply. “But the teachers in Harbin are all married, and I figure this school is coming up to that point in time as well.” She shrugs her shoulders and goes back to her reading.

“My second question is,” I start, grabbing her attention once again from the oh-so-interesting front page story of the chicken inspection, “that woman who handles the money for the school… do you know who I am talking about? I forgot her name.” In reality, I’ve never known her name, and usually people don’t tell me her name, but rather, “the money woman.”

She thinks for a moment, trying to discern my language, and then nods. I ask, “Is she married?”

She laughs and says, “She has a little child, three years old.”

I then ask, “Is she married?”

She gives me a funny look, as if I had suddenly asked her if she was sitting at the front desk or not. She tells me, “Of course! She has a three year old child!”

I shrug my shoulder and reply, “Well, in America it’s not so straight forward, you know.”

She tells me, “Yes, she has a husband at home.”

I think on this for a moment. In an earlier conversation when I asked her if a specific teacher (who was quite good looking) had a boyfriend, she told me out of the twelve teachers, only two did not have boyfriends, and that was because they were so young. In fact, two of the teachers were married, and one already had a child. This surprised me because I had never seen any boyfriends or husbands around the school.

In a later conversation, she told me all of the caretakers (the women who take care of the children) were married, as they had to be in order to get the job of caretaker, and they also had children of their own. But I had never seen their children or their husbands at the school. Not once.

I ask her, “Why it is I never see boyfriends at the school?”

She continues reading and says into the newspaper, “They are not allowed.”

“Not allowed?”

She tells me, “They cannot go past the front gate.”

“What about husbands?”

“Also,” she tells me.

Talk about disturbing the group ethic. Wow. I wonder to myself if this is a policy practiced in places besides China. I doubt it, but who knows? It disturbs me.

 

***

 

Once Upon a Man in China

February 3, 2004

 

She is at the board, making marks with the chalk. A head appears, and then a body, and then a skirt, and then two legs.

“This is her!” she says with some delight, and then begins to talk about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, as from the perspective of the book she is reading.

I am astounded. Although I realized that “Mary, the Queen of Scots” was one of the wild women of Merry Old England, I never realized how far she was from the norm. A woman of royal lineage, married to three different men and bearing three children, all before the age of twenty-five, serving twenty years in an English prison for being a Catholic, and finally being executed by the Queen that Mary wanted help from in the first place in taking back the Scottish crown. Rough life.

One of the boys in the class raises his hand to ask a question. “Why did she have three husbands?”

“Like I said, her first husband died, and she married this other man who was killed, and then she married this other man she was in love with.”

The boy continues. He doesn’t like that Mary had three husbands. I know this, as in previous conversations he has told me he believes it is still correct for men to have many wives, but women should only have one husband. In our discussions, he has supported this by saying it is the traditional, good way of doing things. In reality, he would never support this, as he is a Christian, but philosophically and theoretically speaking, it should be allowed. But a woman? Preposterous!

Eventually, the girl sitting next to me tells me I should stop this question, because there is no answer. I understand her as saying China still has not decided on this problem. Although it amuses me (most things do), I stop the question, saying the time for the presentation has concluded, and now the next presenter must speak. I tell the boy he is next.

 

***

 

I am sixteen, going on seventeen…

February 4, 2004

 

He is younger than I thought, fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. His grandmother stands beside him, giving me that “well, he’s all yours now” look. She trots off to the television screens as they flicker on, and he stares at me. I smile and ask his name, and I have to repeat my question. He understands and manages to mumble out something that vaguely rhymes with “ryachen.”

I ask him how old he is, and he tells me with some pomp “fifteen,” and then I tell him I am twenty-four, at which he shrinks about an inch, but recollects himself. I guess his grandmother didn’t tell him everything. But it’s ok!, I tell myself, because we’re still going to have a good time.

I ask him if he likes basketball. When I first arrived in China, my friend “Song” told me I would really be popular if I played basketball, and although the weather here isn’t quite suited to basketball right now (snow on the ground and below freezing) it is a conversation starter. He tells me he does not like sports, but rather, he likes computers. This is good! I tell him, because I’ve got many, many computer games. Finally they can be used to some good.

I take him to my room, after telling him repeatedly that my room is “quite dirty,” but after realizing from his vacant eyes and wrinkled forehead he doesn’t understand what “dirty” means, I drop it.

In my room I turn on my computer and tell him to sit down in my chair, so I can bring up a game, but he refuses politely. I shrug and start playing.

Ten minutes later, he is still refusing politely. Perhaps this is a game?

Thirty minutes later, he is still sitting on my bed, watching me play. He looks at his watch, and realizes he should go. I tell him ok, and I take him to the front room, to discover ten minutes ago his grandmother left. So he gathers up his coat, and before I can say goodbye, he is gone.

I tell the girl at the front desk he must be shy. But inside, my Austrian complex haunts me (a rather nasty scenario, involving two very bored Austrian exchange students, one big empty house, and me, obviously not the hip American they were looking for, and a lot of teenage angst, complaints, and eventual relocation) and I wonder if I should have taken a walk instead.

 

***

 

Grandmother runnings…

February 5, 2004

 

I board the bus, rushing up to the front of the line of people, and throwing my coin into the money box. In America, I never would have cut in front of anyone, especially so many women, but in China if you do not rush in first, then you end up not getting anything. Besides that, there is no chivalry here, except to old men and women.

As I sit down, I relax and lie back into my seat. It feels like a victory. I look at the windows, frosted with tiny rings of ice, the people walking on the sidewalk blurred like mirages. Suddenly a boy plops down next to me, and I look up from my dream and an old lady is smiling and chastising me with her index finger. She breathes heavily, and meandering to the back of the bus she huffs down into a seat, appearing to have the look of a person who just finished a marathon. I smile.

She is the grandmother of the boy sitting next to me. Earlier today, she was at the school, telling me I should take her grandson downtown with me on the bus. I told her I thought it was a wonderful idea, but we’d have to leave by twelve. Well, when twelve came I walked to the agreed upon destination mark, but the girl at the front desk told me the grandmother changed the time to 12:30. I muttered about this for a little while, but decided I couldn’t wait, and told the girl at the front desk to parlay the unfortunate news.

I look back at her and point to myself, saying “bu hao ren” (bad man!). She looks at me, shakes her head vigorously, says something in Chinese that sounds like a joking insult, and then laughs.

 

***

 

This Title is Ironic

February 6, 2004

 

Nothing to say, nothing new.

Earlier today, I stand in the classroom of my night students and speak to one of the students, a girl whose English far outshines her personal perceptions of her talent.

I mention that next week I am going to begin and give grades, an incentive I hope will spark a new fervor into what seems to be a reproducing breed of “I’m not learning anything, darn it!” syndromes. I will be requiring all of the students keep journals everyday, from three sentences to one paragraph per day, of their oh-so-exciting life.

With an expression of utter dour eyes, she tells me that is very difficult, as in China they do everything the same, everyday, nothing new. Then she tells me in America we must have very exciting lives. After all, she knows America. She has seen the movies.

I can’t help but wonder at this, to the painstakingly boring days when I found myself delegating certain parts of me to the television, and the rest to my fried pizza box, and then the spiritual side concerned in that hazy cave of dreams. I tell her, with finality, it’s the same with everyone. Everyone is bored most of the day, but manages to fill their time with a quota of boring adventures.

She looks up at me and says, “Really? You are bored in America?”

I put on my sage face and say, “yes,” with an unspoken “dear” at the end, “we do get bored in America.”

 

***

 

Bones of the North

February 7, 2004

 

I am amazed. Yesterday, one of my students asked me what I wanted, as she was leaving in a couple days. This began as an endeavor to buy me slippers in appreciation for teaching her English, but it has turned into a hefty process of buying slippers and then taking them back to the shoe store, as they did not fit me. You see, my feet are just too big. Even in comparing my foot with the biggest Chinese male foot, my toes still extend beyond by at least an inch. In America, I’m nothing special. One of my best friends has fifteen size feet, but he’s Russian.

Exactly… Russian.

I stare at them. They open the glass doors to the bookstore, and look down at me. One of them has wavy blond hair like spun gold, and the other a dark, muddy brown, almost black of night. They stand at least as tall as me, but they are notably female. Although I have seen Russians in Mudanjiang before (once), she was so far away and covered in so much fur, I couldn’t make nothing of nil. They give me an amused look, while trying to abstain from surprise. But they are big. Not big as in elephantine, but big as in most definitely not Chinese, and most definitely bigger than me.

Later, I see two more Russians (both females as well, but different than the previous two) standing by a grillery on the corner of Culture Square. They stand a head taller than the other people walking by. Their arms and legs are at least twice the size, and they stand with an imposing grace, leaning and acting more like serpentine rulers than travelers or business-goers.

A side comment: My guidebook to Harbin says the city is famous for its beautiful women, however, when I mentioned this fact to one of my students from Beijing, he said he didn’t think so, but rather it was the women from Huangzho who were the most beautiful. The people in Harbin are imagistically not the cliché Chinese, from their broad bones and heavy faces, to their high height and Mongolian attitude, whereas the cliché Chinese is subtly boned, short, and small, with a look that is almost defined as watercolored. I note to myself that my guidebook was written by Europeans.

 

***

 

Not China

February 08, 2004

 

And now, for something completely different.

 

So what HAVE I been doing? I have been writing a lot and divulging my mind into less formed universes than the one I am breathing from at this moment, and I’ve also been doing a lot of study on earth religions for the purpose of writing.

 

In short, I’ve developed ideas for 45 novels in the past couple months, while in the three months before that I wrote 33 short stories and 5 chapters to one of my proposed novels, Soldier of Peace. I’ve written a genealogy of the Hindu Triune (Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva), I’ve been working on a study on online role-playing games including race, class, trade, religion, and clan, and I’ve been studying Old Testament and New Testament texts for information regarding the pre-Flood era and Revelation prophecies. I’ve also come up with one particular way to save books from extinction using the archetypal hypernovel. All in all, I’m proud of what I’m accomplished, which is a good thing, because if you aren’t proud of what you’re doing, what are you doing?

 

(Novels)

The novels are based primarily on a combination of ancient prophecies and Biblical prophecy, specifically what would happen to the world realistically if the prophecies of Revelation were to come true. A lot of my study revolves around the writings of Paul Phelps (http://eifiles.com), a New Earth Inheritance scholar, while the other fragments of my study come from differing world religions and overall logical ideas of where politics, economics, and social values are heading. Ten novels are set in the pre-Flood era, ten novels set in the post-now era, ten novels set in post Shinar-era, and ten novels set in the Wandering era. The other novels in development are more miscellaneous in nature, including two happy-go-lucky fantasy epics, one compilation of stories, and one post-modernist piece about looking at the world through different perspectives. I am planning another ten novels in what I call the Dreamtime, a mythical and imaginary place where myths and legends are reputedly born, and then brought into our world. All the characters in the Dreamtime novels will be from the now, the present.

 

(Stories)

A few months ago, I went on a writing spree. Sitting in my first room in Mudanjiang, watching the sun slowly amble its way down my desk, listening to the same music over and over again, I finally decided to give the whole boredom gig quits and do something proactive with my time. I pulled out of deck of Once Upon A Time playing cards (a storytelling game I bought from a gaming store in London) and starting dealing out hands of ten to twenty cards. I put these cards in a random order and then began to frantically describe the events going on within the cards. What turned out was three months of constant storytelling, stories that ranged from beggars turning into kings, to a love story in a palace that floated on a cloud above a desert. Eventually, I became tired of dealing cards to myself, and decided to try my hand without the element of randomness. What happened was I stopped writing these stories, and I started planning novels. To this day, I still don’t know if that was the brightest thing to do. We’ll see. As for the novel, I quickly became tired of it as it was not as epic as I wanted, and after giving it a few good reads, I realized that I really wanted this particular novel to be well thought out.

 

(Genealogies)

Today I finally finished my Hindu genealogy. The whole process was a daunting one, and also particularly depressing, as the Hindu gods and goddess have a nasty habit of incest, rape, and most things you would never mention to your children, much less your spouse. What my studies prove all the more, is that at some point in this, these people did exist, and in fact, many of these kinds of families did exist, which spurs me on to further study. What amazes me is people still regale these deities as examples of proper behavior. It perplexes me, and further spurs me on to study.

 

(Role-playing)

One particular fascinating thing about contemporary culture is the study of what young people do with their time. In particular in recent years (since the 1980s) the growth of community games has developed, and with the unleashing of the internet, hundreds of thousands have leapt online. In recent years also, the growth of computer and console gaming has become a market in itself, whole careers resting on the ability to make a game that might only be in rotation for a few months, and then die out without a second glance. If you go back far enough, you will discover that computer games gained popularity first with computer nerds at universities who enjoyed the Lord of the Rings and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons, as the first computer games to be developed were text-based community environs, in which you as the computer user, led an imaginary dot around a room, trying to get past the maze (dungeon), and beating up helpless goblins. Zoom to today, when there are perhaps more than 2000 different MUDs (multi user dimensions/dungeons) in existence, comprising detailed and complex player societies, ideologies, and culture. Because of this strange phenomenon, a new branch of science opened up called ludology (the study of games). But this fascination has moved beyond MUDs, and now games like Lineage (with 2,000,000 subscribed members) and Everquest (with 500,000 subscribed members) have developed (many other smaller games as well), basically upgrades on the initial text-based community world. Based on this overwhelming amount of evidence, although I have stopped playing these kinds of games, I have been convinced this is not something to sit down and ignore, but rather study and try to interpret the direction.

 

(Old and New Testament Texts)

One mistake I made when I graduated from Sunday School was that there was nothing else to be learned. But this was perhaps the biggest mistake of my ecclesiastical life, and now I am working to amend it. Besides being one of the oldest books in the world, the Bible is also one of the deepest and most fascinating (but I would not have told you that before I started rethinking the stories of the book). I never thought that when David killed Goliath, he did so not because God put his life-force into the stone, but rather because David had just hurled a sharp rock in a leather sling at the literal speed of sixty to seventy miles per hour at some guy’s head. I also never thought that when Moses stood before the Pharoah and his rod became a serpent, that an actual dragon appeared in the court, breathing fire from his eyes, looking every bit as fearful as the book of Job says the dragon was. I never realized the huge significance in the Bible between the earthly and the heavenly realms, or the absolute power the passages of Revelation have on our world (forget Left Behind… this is much bigger). If you’re interested, I urge you to read http://eifiles.com and let me know what you think. It’s certainly changed my perspective.

 

(E-Paper)

Finally, a conclusion to this much needed letter, over the past few months I’ve been in contention over the future of books. Although e-books are quite fascinating creatures, they are much too easily copied, and thus they really will not last as vehicles for writers for much longer. Plus, reading books from your computer screen isn’t the best way to improve your eye doctor bill. But a recent advancement in science has created what is called e-polymer, or e-paper. This is a slip of plastic that can be rolled up, spilled on, put into your pocket, which displays text and graphics. The article I read in http://www.newscientist.com even said in the future this e-polymer will be able to play movies and support color. This got me thinking about a new type of book that will transform the way novelists and writers write.

 

Currently, the hypernovel is avant-garde. The hypernovel (a story working through clickable hypertext) exists in the minds of a few figuratively very scantily dressed writers, who main purpose in writing the hypernovel seems to be to confuse, perplex, and disorient anyone who passes through their websites. It’s an honest attempt at art, but when I read through a recent award winning hypernovel, I couldn’t get past the first couple pages without wondering if I had just wandered into a James Joyce fan club. So I decided to come up with a new version of this so-called hypernovel, which I have called the hyper-net-novel.

 

A hyper-net-novel (HNN), which is written as one short story written, and then branches off to other stories as the novel continues, eventually branching off to many, many stories, which branch off to many, many more stories ¨C some of these wind back to the original story, and some do not, but it is the reader’s task to discover these stories. The idea is to present reality in its most tense form, to fully flesh out a story, setting, and characters, until it comes alive.

 

Of course, the principal behind this is you should be able to read the first story with ease, be entertained, and get a sense of the author, but with additional readings, you gain all that much more into the story. This is reread value at its best. The trend of this should not be to enhance the novel, but to give the reader a new sense of the novel. If a novel is not already good enough, then the writer should make it good enough. This is not about perfecting a story, but rather creating a new reality to see the same story in.

 

Another form of this is a net novel with branches to more descriptions of a certain idea or place or person. For example, in the sentence “He drank from the bottle, although with little ease,” the words “he” and “bottle” would be accessible, leading to another description, which in that description, might lead to alternating stories, or might not.

 

Another form is a novel that changes when read at certain times, for example, a different version of the story is read during the night than day, or in winter or spring, or fall or summer, or on holidays a different version of the story is read. This is akin to the idea of parallel worlds, as in parallel stories. With the Internet, this becomes all that much easier.

 

Another form of this story is that only when you have read certain parts can you unlock other parts. For example, if you use the expansive story model, then if you read about a certain aspect of the story that you would not normally read, another chapter is opened that explains certain unexplained things, resulting in a new read.

 

(And now, for the end)

 

I hope this recent dialogue has given some clue into what I’ve been thinking about over here. Although most of my efforts are going into trying to figure out the culture, customs, language, that is not my only focus.

 

***

 

On the Eve of Farewells

February 8, 2004

 

In the lobby, they gather. Two of the girls are embracing, while the others meander, idly waiting for the bus to appear. The boys, that is, myself, and three others, kick a yellow feather with discs, and then as we realize we really badly suck, we punch each other in the gut, throw each other to the ground, and tickle each other mercilessly.

Three of the students are going home, as they have finished their term here in the program, and now we are waiting for the bus that will take them to the train station. There is some sadness in the room, and a lot of anticipation. However for me, I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary.

I remember back in college when my friends were embracing and reminiscing and weeping over each others’ shoulders at graduation, I merely stood by with an amused look. I remember telling people, “I’ll see you again!” and they would look at me as if I had drunk something really spectacular, but they played along. I have that same look now, my brows arched up, a slight smile on my face, and again I say, “I’ll see you later, then,” to which they enthusiastically reply, “Ok! Ok.”

Walking back through the halls of the school, one of the girls is silent, her face drawn down, her eyes silent. I think about asking her if she is sad, but I do not. I walk by, with a pronounced jaunt in my step.

 

***

 

Speechedized

February 9, 2004

 

Her southern accent is thick, almost Louisiana-like, if comparisons could be made. When she means to say “brought,” she says “blotuh,” and when she means to say “glorious,” instead she says, “geluhlialisuh.” I ask her to write the word down on the board as she continues her speech, and then I say the word as it is supposed to be said, and she laughs, although I’m not sure whether it’s because she knows her English pronunciation could use some work, or if she is embarrassed. She spends three to four hours a day, listening to tapes, and watching English lectures on the internet, repeating every word she can make out, and she asks me to read numerous English passages after every class, which she records on digital and strip recorders. Since she has come to my class, I have taught her a minimal “R” sound, an accomplishment I can’t help but be proud of.

She is talking about a book called “The Coldest Place On Earth,” although out of her speech I only know there is a house, within a very cold place, inhabited by some guys who like to fish. I breathe a sigh of relief as my watch hits 8 o’clock, and I hold my hands up to show the time is up. Everyone claps, and she comes to her seat with a smiling flourish.

 

***

 

Naming Nothings

February 10, 2004

 

The piece of paper lies before me. She hands me a pen, and asks me to write out her English name, which I gave to her earlier this afternoon.

I write down the name “Hannah,” and then push the paper over to her, wide eyes glowing on her face, although as she looks at it, she shakes her head. I say “Hannah,” and she nods in recognition and thanks me. She asks me what the name means, and I tell her I’ve forgotten. She doesn’t understand.

I write down on the piece of paper Xue = Snow, and Hannah = ?, to which she nods. Earlier today, she spoke to me on QQ, after I had asked her what English name she wanted. She told me she liked the name Snow, but I regretfully told her that was not a name. See, her Chinese name is Xue, so it’s only so obvious why she liked that name. I recall back a few months when I was teaching in Harbin, and I was told very matter of factly that one of my boys in my class was to be called Rain. At the time, I protested, as this was not a proper name I contested. But eventually, my battle was lost, and although I continued to think of him as Mike in my mind, I always addressed him as Rain.

Similarly, one of the students in my class, when asked what her English name was, replied as Dew. Again I contested, but there was nothing I could do, as this apparently was already agreed upon by a majority of her Chinese friends.

I tell my friend who works at the internet cafe that Hannah means “Grace of God,” to which she replies, “oh hehe,” and then about twenty seconds later “Thank you very much!”

I wonder what would happen if I changed my name to Ocean?

 

***

In a Palace of Princesses

February 11, 2004

 

In the hallway, our voices echo.

I ask Yang Wei (the girl at the front desk who is leaving Mudanjiang for Harbin, as her fiancé is coming to Harbin from America in a few days) if the new girl is married. She tells me she is not, and at the school in Harbin where the girl used to work, she was the only teacher out of the sixteen teachers, who was not married. I catalogue this in my head.

Ten minutes later, I come back to Yang Wei and tell her I have one more question. She looks at me for a moment, as if saying, “Haven’t you asked enough questions already?” but I continue and ask if the new girl in the purple sweater used to be a teacher in Harbin as well (today, there were three new staff additions, the front desk girl, the purple sweater girl, and an orange sweater girl), and she says, “No, she is from Mudanjiang.” I then ask her if the girl is married, and she snaps back at me something in Chinese (she has a habit of doing this). After she repeats herself two times, I adamantly tell her I do not understand (bu dong), and she says in plain English (while laughing), “Mudanjiang, first question, married, second question.” I apologize and ask her the question again, correcting my number of questions to two.

She looks at me with that funny look in her eye and asks me, “Why? You want girlfriend?” I sigh and tell her, “No, but I am not married and I work in a school full of women, and it is useful to know these things, or else bad things may happen.” She looks to me and nods her head, as if she understands, but as I turn to head down the stairs, I hear a chuckle from her. I shake my head.

 

***

 

A Teacher Student Relationship

February 12, 2004

 

At the front of the room, my mother speaks, teaching the students the word FORM, which means Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Message. I have handed her the class, and she stands at the front of the room, secure in her abilities, leading the students with an able hand towards the understanding of her acronym. The first half of the class the students taught each other vocabulary words they have learned this day, and now they sit in rapt attention.

As she goes around the room, asking the students questions like, “What do you feel like?” and “What do you look like?” I interject and say I want to answer. I tell the classroom I am big, strong, and very tall, with brown fur and a great hunger. I then tell them in my free time I enjoy to eat fish and to eat people. I ask them what I am, and one student replies, “Bear!” I growl with agreement.

 

***

 

Trainspotting

February 13, 2004

 

The room is full of sounds. A security guard in a tight uniform with a sharp angular face and an imposing glance speaks through a megaphone. The train schedules glow a pixilated red. On the main viewscreen, a Windows(c) error occurs, and for an instant, a gigantic “!” message appears to the station in plain, programmed English, and then an overblown Microsoft logo is thrown across the viewboard. About one minute later, the computer has finally rebooted, and whoever the mysterious mouse-clicker is navigates through the Chinese-charactered desktop, and reloads the train schedule program.

The three boys in front of us, with their 80-styled haircuts, hanging locks of black hair, and fancy avant-dress, finish buying their tickets, and my mother goes to the booth and begins to speak her Americanized Chinese with the ticket agent. She wants to buy four tickets, a roundtrip ticket from Mudanjiang to Harbin, and from Harbin to Mudanjiang, and she wants to leave Harbin later than 2o’clock pm. The ticket agent doesn’t understand this. Most people come up to her window, order a ticket, and walk away, not asking for customization.

The people behind us start to mutter. The man directly behind us paces, fingering his money in plain sight, saying things under his breath. Behind him, from an unknown number of people behind him in line, someone says something harsh in Chinese. At this point, I’m glad I don’t speak the language.

As more people finish buying their tickets in the adjacent lines and the agent continues to be confused, she finally calls over a security guard to see if he can help, but he is just as unable to understand why as the ticket agent. I am reminded of the saying, “There is no tomorrow,” and see the man behind us staring at his watch.

Finally, she opts to buy two tickets to Harbin, and the rest we’ll figure out tomorrow. So much for planning ahead.

 

***

 

An Ice Palace

February 14, 2004

 

The walls ripple with gold, as the wind from the outside tears the tent. Inside the walls, sitting on the red carpet, are six heaters. I count them, ee, ar, san, suh, oo, liuh… one of the men who works at the ‘restaurant’ looks at me, trying to discern why I am counting to six. I point to the heaters, but he doesn’t get it.

A woman asks us what we want to eat. I tell them shuh yangrou (ten mutton sticks), ee guh cha (one tea), ee guh cafe (one coffee).

We are at the Harbin Winter Snow and Ice World. It is a world famous showcase of ice sculptures, and the easiest pronunciation of ‘tourist trap.’ The price was 80 Yuan, just to walk around and look at the sculptures (although 80 Yuan is only ten dollars, many Chinese only make 100 Yuan per month, and teachers such as myself who live here understand the gravity of the overpricing as we often shop and eat in the same places as these people). To go on the slides, it costs 30 Yuan (in China, it’s best to think about Yuan as equal per dollar ratio, i.e.: 1 Yuan = Dollar, for buying power here, and that way you won’t become prejudiced, but you will understand why most Chinese people don’t like the foreigners, as they make anywhere from 2500 to 15,000 Yuan per month).

After we finish our meal, the man who was sitting next to us, watching us, finally comes to us and tells us the ‘meal’ costs 60 Yuan. I blink, asking him to say the price again. He says liuh shuh Yuan (most of the time, in smaller amounts the people use the slang kwaih, unless it is a big amount of money…), and I shake my head and say bu (no), and then go to count the number of mutton sticks, just to make sure they had really brought out only ten. Sure enough, there were ten sticks, and our two drinks (Dixie cups). I ask him much the mutton was, and he replies lian gu per stick (2 Yuan per stick, reasonable enough for a ‘tourist trap’), and then I fearfully ask how much my water was, and he tells me 20 Yuan.

A moment later, I am on my feet, asking him in kinder terms, what in god’s name did he mean? Most restaurants give my drink for free, which is why I ordered it. He tells me adamantly it’s 20 Yuan, and the coffee is as well, and then points to the wall. I see the characters for 20 Yuan, but I can’t read past the first radical on any specific Chinese character. I stomp my hand on the table and tell him that’s too much money. The other two people at the restaurant come over to the table, with worried looks on their faces. I am fuming, telling all of them in my own special, non-Chinese way, they are cutthroats (but I don’t say as much, and I don’t really believe THEY are cutthroats, but I’m angry so it’s difficult to discern), and I say again it’s too much money.

Finally, my mother pulls out some money and hands it to them, and we depart the restaurant, and walk up some iced, rickety stairs, and enter the Mongolian Ughar ice palace. I allow my anger to reside into the creaking planks of wood, and try to think of better things, although I continue speaking about this for the remainder of the trip.

 

***

 

Wandering in Harbin

February 15, 2004

 

(cantos point seven)

Between the bricks of men you stand,

facing the apple carts and the smiles of old men.

The vehicles of a dozen years rush in a wind

expressed in one moment, disappearing

into a future that exists only in the mopped granite of hotels.

Above in the sky a cloud of birds dives like angels,

white wings glisten against a white sky,

the sun sleeping, nursing the mists of mountains in dreams.

While you stand in the frigid spring and

the trees speak only in falling leaves,

the bicycles in the flash of winter coats and

the widows of shadows in a barrage of car horns,

the heavens open up and a bird of metal folds the clouds,

blinking from the end of the earth to the falling waters of space.

Your head turns upward,

just in time to see the fading of a scream,

and the jet, like a spindle of metal silk,

fades into the quilt of God.

 

24.1 – An Unseen Family

I am waiting by the Mudanjiang train station. My mother is arriving today, supposedly at 12:00pm. I am standing by the glass doors of the station exit, my hands pitched into fists, my hood down, my ears open to the strange conversations that surround me. A boy behind me paces in anticipation, while an old man and lady stand in silence, their faces drawn up in the polite Chinese drawl of contemplation. The head guard (an older man that the other young officers of the train station, who stand almost in military fashion, drawn up like political paintings of future hopefuls) pushes the crowd away from the glass doors, herding us so the passengers have room to exit.

 

I have been waiting since 11:30am, and now it is 1:30pm. I have a book in my hand, and I am finishing the last chapter of the story of the Grameen Bank, a micro credit poverty bank system established in Bangladesh about thirty years ago. It is an excellent book, and I am immersed in the story, and although I am quite used to waiting for my mother (when I was in junior high school, I had to wait two hours sometimes to be picked up from school) and I am a little worried, because this is China and the territory is not only new, but unusual.

 

I feel a tap on my shoulder. I do not know her, but she motions for me to follow her. I turn my head as an expression of curious wonderment, and she smiles and tells me my mother is at Jia Mei. I scratch my head, and then ask her again if she said my mother was at Jia Mei. She nods in agreement, and tells me to follow her, pointing to her taxi. As I step into her car, the saying “Never speak to strangers” leaps into my mind and I can’t help but laugh. Not only is this my first female taxi driver I’ve ever been with, but she knows who I am, where I need to go, and where I was.

 

24.2 – Into the Woods

The landscape passes by, as if we were flying on clouds. Trees dot the hills, some like twisted shadows; others flush with greenery, grown with the smell and gaze of pine. We pass by a shanty town, the homes built into the rock of the mountain, seared with soot and frozen winter dirt. A woman walks outside of her home, dressed in a thick puff winter jacket, white dirtied gloves, and ears open to the wind. She huffs down the hillside, trudging over to some buckets filled with frozen vegetables, but the train turns down a decline, and her face becomes smeared with the glitter of the snow of natural stone turrets built into the facade of the mountain. The rocks jut into the sky almost unnaturally, as if some deity brought his fist down in anger, sending the mountain into a thousand directions.

 

Across from me, a little fat boy gorges himself on sweet beans, dipping his spoon into the bean can, and then clumsily throwing the beans against his upper lip. His mother holds his hand while he eats. The fat on his bones jiggle, and I have to look away, staring across the aisle to the two people sleeping in each others arms, a boy and girl.

 

The mother and her boy stand and go down to the bathroom, and suddenly man sitting across the aisle charges into their seat, speaking to my mother and me, asking us questions like where we are from, what we are doing in China, until he has fully understood the event of these two foreigners in such a close proximity to him. He stands up and pulls a blue bag from the storage space above, and hands us two bags of pressed corn meal. He says he sells this, but he is giving it to us. He keeps telling us hao chur, hao chur, and we reply, saying we’ve never seen pressed corn meal, and it looks like very good food. He grins, and hops back into his seat and the boy and his mother trudge back and plop down. The boy takes out a bag of chocolate wafers, and this time I decide to take out a book on cultural relations by a woman who grew up in the Middle East, but soon I fall asleep, my dreams humming to the sound of passing train horns.

 

24.3 – The Iced Canals of Harbin

He stares angrily at me, and as my mother and I close the doors to the taxi, he refuses to look at us and instead, grips the clutch with his fist, jerks it into position, and the taxi jolts forward.

 

About one minute later on the road, he pulls to a slow, takes out a wad of bills, and says something very fast, very sharp in Chinese. I squint my eyes in miscomprehension, and he says it again, angrily, this time pulling out four bills and waving them in my face. I take the bills from his hand and count them, being 35 Yuan. I remember Susan giving him 35 Yuan before we got out of the taxi to put out bags into the school (where we are sleeping tonight), and then she told us the taxi driver would be waiting for us to return. He repeats what he said, and I look back to my mother, hoping she caught something he said, but the blank look on her face clearly tells me she does not. Finally, she says dwei (correct), and that silences the matter.

 

We are silent for ten minutes, but then I begin to speak with my mother, asking her what she thought the problem was. She doesn’t know, she says, but as I try to speak back to her, the driver turns on the radio, and twists the volume up to nearly full, loud enough so that if we were to speak, we would have to shout. A few minutes later, out of hospitality the driver offers me a cigarette, and then as I decline (I don’t smoke) he makes an effort to blow the smoke in my face. Finally, when we arrive at the Harbin Snow and Ice World, he barks out he wants 35 Yuan from us. My mother hands him a ten, hoping that would compensate his anger, but he holds out his hand and demands more. We start to protest, but realize it’s not worth the battle, and give him the money. Stupid rich foreigners, bleh.

 

24.4 – Amazed of Ice

We walk through the throng of ice blocks, making our way around the hexagon maze. I hold my mother’s arm as she is wearing leather shoes and tends to slip on the ice almost with a magical occurrence. We turn a corner, and see a tree planted into one of the ice blocks, spreading its thin, empty fingers into the air.

 

Two boys rush past us, sliding across the ice, running through the maze, yelling at each other, racing to the center. This is the Harbin Snow and Ice World, a planet side-famous event for the colossal imprints of snow and ice sculptures. Behind us, I see the shrunken Forbidden City built out of solid blocks of ice and snow. Ordinarily visitors to the festival are allowed to ascend to the top of the ice complex, but the coming spring and the recent snowstorm has melted the ice and coated the slippery steps with a frail coat of snowflakes, and the festival has roped off the two entrances. Nevertheless, the vision of the bright multicolored structure of ice is impressive, glowing so bright that my hands reflect the light.

 

As one of the boys rushes into the center of the maze, he cries out jao dao la (I found it!). I am impressed by the simplicity of such a statement, and as I myself enter the dirty center, filled with ice sprints and muddy streaks of boot marks, I marvel at such a language which offers only the simplest possible explanation for speech. Turning around, a large family enters the maze, and two boys and one girl of that family begin the race to the center. One of the boys already in the center with me leaps onto the ice wall, and holds his arms up in triumph.

 

(cantos point eight)

We sit among each other silent as a lake,

our faces like stone birds lost in dreams of bells.

Around us the world passes by in shimmers and lines,

the woman in front of me looks at her watch and

she watches a lady on a bike turn a corner, disappearing

into the markets and stalls of the horizon.

Our bus continues, and the 89 stops and goes,

the throngs pushed together like fish in a pond.

I tell my mother our stop is next, and as we stand

the people move aside, silk on silk.

 

24.5 – In Light of Dishes

We are ushered upstairs, walking up the creaking wooden stairs, and showed into a private room with a large round table, and a heavy lazy suzan. A pot of fake flowers is sitting on the Suzan, along with a pale pink container of wooden toothpicks. Behind the table is an extravagant sketch of a man and woman in the ecstasy of love, while on the other wall, a verdure of mountain green stretches onto a hillock, filled with lush trees and colorful flowers.

 

We tell our hosts we really are not that hungry and they nod in understanding and ask us what we want to eat. In typical California fashion, we tell them we don’t really care, but it is their hospitality that makes us the happiest. They ask if we like noodles, and my mother tells them yes, while I tell them the meat buns look good.

 

Twenty minutes later, the table is full of dishes, fried chicken, crushed fruit carved into a complexion of honey and sugar, clear noodles, pork and vegetable flake buns, chopped oranges and baby tomatoes, Sichuan beef noodle soup and cooked cabbage, tiny boiled golden shrimp, and an assortment of meats and fruits put onto a few extraneous plates. Our hosts have eaten a little, nibbling on the plates, but I think they are disappointed we have not eaten more. We thank them very much for the food, and as we gather our coats, the waitresses come into the private room once more, this time carrying little bowls of noodles. We are ushered back to our seats, and quietly finish the little bowls, again thanking our hosts.

 

***

 

Sleeping Around

February 15, 2004

 

The sound of the rumbling train echoes through my head. My head bounces against the wall, and for a single instant I feel the cold ice on the window, and then I reflexively snap my neck back to being awake.

My mother is asleep, her head nodding down and up like a rubber band. Whenever she tilts her head, some of her white hair falls across her face, and then falls back to her neck as she rights her neck. I wonder what kind of dream she is having.

I untangle my legs from the man sitting across from me. He stares forward, unhappily awake. His girlfriend/wife lays her head on his shoulder and closes her eyes, and then readjusts her sitting position so she can stretch her legs into the aisle of the train.

No one is talking. Outside, a blank night sky whirls by, and the stars are blocked by both the ice on the glass, and the breath marks of men that bunches up around the middle and corners of the window. People stroll by the seats, appearing from one corner of the train, and disappearing into the next car without a sound.

A woman across the aisle is sleeping upright, her eyes closed, her breathing slowed. I wonder if she is sleeping, and try to model what she does, closing my eyes almost in a meditative trance, trying to sleep. Sleep does not come, however, but when I open my eyes I am slightly more refreshed, and the pain in my neck has subsided somewhat.

 

 

***

 

The Beauty of Bombs

February 16, 2004

 

Mounds of sliced and curled mutton are stacked on plates, next to peppered and soy dofu. From around the table, people dive into the food on the table, picking up pieces of raw meat, cold mutton, leaves of cabbage and lettuce, balls of pink rolled fish, and pale strips of mushroom, and throwing the pieces into the spiced boiling water in the center of the table. A blue fire hums from beneath, and the smell of hot pepper, ginger, ginseng, and garlic rise into the air between us and expand.

Sitting beside me is the man who brought me to China. About one hour ago, I discovered my co-teacher of English at my school will be leaving tomorrow for America. I realize this means I will suddenly be required to teach more than twice my classload, so I bring up the subject to him, mentioning that I think if I am going to be taking twice the classload, some reparation should be made to me, i.e.: some higher pay. He replies and tells me that will probably not happen, because I agreed to a contract where the school can put me to work for eight hours straight. I tell him it’s only logical that if I’m going to be doing the work of two teachers, I should be paid more money, or given certain considerations because of the increase in my workload. He states plainly again that my contract stipulates, in other words, that I am owned by this contract.

After our discussion, there is a very uncomfortable silence. After he stands up and walks over to speak with the other table of students, my mother sidles over to me and whispers, “Well, the bomb has been dropped.”

I muse on this in silence.

 

***

 

Between Faces

February 17, 2004

 

I sneak a glance at my mother, arching my eyebrow in humor. “And they said they were in a hurry?”

Ten minutes ago, I remember sitting in the kitchen eating potato soup and white rice, when the man sitting next to us grabbed my mother’s arm, and told her she had to leave right away. At that moment, we both were a bit confused, as one of the girls who works at the school took her train ticket, to get the money back and buy a new train ticket for a later arrival, as a few minutes before eating lunch, the Principal of my school called for my mother, saying she wanted her to make a visit in Harbin for a meeting, and my mother agreed, thus putting off her trip to Beijing, which was to be in about one hour. We were rushed, literally by the arm, to run to her room, grab her suitcase, and jump into the bus.

Now in the bus, the driver slows to a crawl. Ten, twenty, thirty cars pass by him, zooming into alternate lanes, honking their horns, diving past the nose of the bus. My mother and I are still trying to breathe from the kitchen rush.

…….

After dropping my mother off at the bus (which will take her to Harbin) instead of the train, I step back up the steps into the little school bus and take a seat. One minute later we are zooming through the streets of Mudanjiang, flushing past the other cars on the road like leaves on a river. The driver madly honks his horn, swerving past a taxi, and then he sprints through a quickly closing hole between a bus and a truck. At one point, I grip on the seat in front of me, as he slams on his break, which with a little more impact, would have sent me careening (without a seat belt) through the front window of the bus.

The school is in sight now, and he honks his horn five times, and the gates open. He quickly turns into the driveway, and then backs into the garage. The doors open, and I thank the driver (xie xie ni), but continue to wonder why.

 

***

 

The Crying Game

February 18, 2004

 

Before I open the door, I hear the crying begin. I open the door, and a little boy with a “mohawk” haircut (the head is clean of hair except for a strip of black hair going from the neck to the forehead) bursts out in tears, his eyes bulging open at the sight of me, the tears falling from the corners of his wet eyes. He shakes his arms in powerlessness, flapping them like a bird and one of the women in orange (a caretaker) picks him up, holds him up to her shoulder, and tells him to stop crying.

I step into the center of the circle of chairs the teacher has arranged for me. Some of the children break open in smiles, some showing sparkling healthy teeth, while others pitted, blackened “seed-teeth” (fragmented teeth due to the initial training of eating Chinese sunflower seeds). A girl sitting next to the boy who started crying, she also begins to cry, her face bunching up, and then her mouth quivering, and finally ending in a triumphal chord of distress.

I begin my lesson, learning to be unhindered by these tragic scenes, and role-play a scene between my four plastic squeaky animals.

 

***

 

Keying the Kingdom

February 19, 2004

 

Exhausted, I collapse on my bed. Blurred visions of the past two hours flash before my mind, from the two teachers staring blankly at me to teach anything while a hoard of 1.5 year olds look around in lazy boredom, to my class of 24 children repeatedly mimicking me, and yet me, sitting in my chair saying the same words over and over again, and with each repetition feeling the drill of time, as my mouth becomes slower and slower, my eyes dimmed, my heart slower, to a beat of time in only a moment of salience, followed by a stretch of intermittent gasps for air.

Outside, the cook scraps the cement with his metal shovel, picking up the melting spring ice and throwing it to the wall. It is cool, finally not a cold day, and the blue sky although halted by a smear of ugly gray, stretches across the tips of the cityscape.

I recollect how I am going to do my six classes tomorrow morning. I have run out of ideas, and I feel like the cook scraping on the cement, trying to find some golden key within the melting ice of my teaching knowledge.

 

***

 

Freelancing

February 20, 2004

 

Hovering like pocket of air, my fingers gripped with anticipation, the lights on the screen flickering out control signals, I wait in the frenetic gap of time, waiting until the ship has realigned itself in my sights.

I let go, flames and lights blowing forth from my guns like apocryphal angels, tearing through the magnetic line of space into the nethers of the enemy ship. The energy pulses through the ship, rippling like a hand of thunderbolts, and the next moment pieces of neutroned metal are skittering past my viewscreen, careening into the vastness and forgotten arcs of the great beyond.

Below me, the giant world stretches like a horizon on LSD. My contacts tell me the inhabitants of this star system stuck plates of mysteriously enhanced energy and metal across the sun, then casing the entire system in a box of massive proportion, encasing planet and asteroid alike. It is an amazing thing to see, the faceless planets sitting in a space that reminds me all too much of clouds in the sky, while I raced my childhood mobile skater across the hoverplains of Leeds.

The phone rings. I break myself from the monotony of the computer game, and answer the phone. It is one of my students, wondering if we are to have class tonight. I assure him it will be at seven o’clock, as always.

I look at my watch. It reads 5:50. I have ten minutes until dinner. I save my game, turn off my computer, and head to dinner.

 

***

 

Mouth to Mouth

February 21, 2004

 

My soup boils before me. The sides of the bowl are burnt from the fire of the oven. Tiny green stalks and chunks of grilled potato and browned beef float on the top of the soup, rolling over on the tiny bubbles like pebbles on the shore of a warm beach. I pick up one of the pieces of meat in my chopsticks, and see that it is flush white, like strips of fat crushed together in a pile of meat.

The flesh is gummy, and hoping no one will see me, I spit it out of my mouth into my hand, put the beef on my little plate, and continue to eat my hot stew.

One of my students is eating with me. He looks at the beef on the plate, and asks, “Why?”

“It is fat!” I exclaim defensively, now ashamed someone saw me take the meat out of my mouth, but also energized because I know I have done nothing wrong.

He says, “No fat! This delicious!”

“Delicious?” I ask, lowering my eyebrows in skepticism. “I cannot chew.”

He makes a “pstah” sound with his mouth, takes the wet piece of meat from my plate, dips it into the mafa dofu (dofu in spicy sauce, a popular dish), and then continues to eat it. I don’t have time to gape, but I merely stare. I recollect that approximately 15 seconds earlier, that very piece of beef had been in my mouth, and I had been trying to chew it, and now… well, now it is in his mouth.

He looks up to me, a big smile on his face. “Delicious!” he says. The other student with us doesn’t look up with surprise. I am alone in my awakening.

And I thought I just got used to this sharing food thing. I did do a little in college, because it was in vogue to be communal, but in China it’s an absolute.

I’m always learning.

 

***

 

Jesus in Mudanjiang

February 22, 2004

 

(cantos point nine)

The computerized digitized electrified,

birds above the blue sphere, strokes, dashes,

dots swim through an ether of tangs and bangs,

blind men and mute children totter on three legs.

An epiphany, no – chorus, no – cacophony of razors,

the sharp paintings and glimmers of memory waves

flood a vision created by midnight coffee drills

and dreamless cloudy havens, and between the lines

man poeticizes his glamour in the space between

(that strange ephemeral place

where beasts and lambs both dwell).

 

25.1 – Western Terraforming

Recently, I just bought “Magic English,” a compilation of Disney movies and cartoons aimed at teaching English to little children. I haven’t been able to find it on any of the major online DVD stores (Amazon, Best Buy, Blackstar, etc.) so I assume it is yet again another deliberate steal from an American company. But the material on the thirteen discs is excellent for my teaching, taking students through general communication to even some difficult vocabulary, while being highly entertaining (my friends watching it with me were having a great time watching the cartoons). What’s better is that it only cost me about 10 Yuan per disc, coming to a total of 128 Yuan for everything (in China, even though VCDs are lower quality than DVDs, and they offer less options, they cost more because they are more popular, as VCD players are less expensive).

 

25.2 – Jesus in Beijing

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the book Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief of Time magazine. The book’s main focus is on the personal lives of many of the Family church leaders in China, and really tries through the stories of each individual, to discover what is happening to the house church movement here, including what is happening to the people, how the theology is changing, and a history of the Chinese church that you probably won’t find anywhere else. If you are at all interested in understanding this giant movement in China, you should pick this up. For the past week, I’ve spent most of my free time diving into this book.

 

25.3 – A New Class

Due to increasing concerns over my evening English class, I recently have restructured it, providing more emphasis on grade points and less emphasis on our initial energy (the students were zealous when we first began) as that energy as dimmed as the weeks have gone by. Now my students, everyday must write a journal entry, using five new vocabulary words and talking about a certain aspect of their time. They also must read an English book every month, preparing a book report at the end of the month to present to the rest of the class, and they must memorize an English passage as a speech to present to the rest of the class. For my advanced students, they must write an essay of no longer than five pages on any subject they wish, and they must also prepare a memorized speech on either their essay topic or another topic. I feel confident now that I have finally established a good curriculum for the next six months that I am here.

 

(cantos point ten)

Spring is sleeping, dreaming of birdsongs.

 

Winter, in her torn garb, flutters at the wind,

her face like fire, her mouth full of teeth,

yet she is fading, disappearing into the streets,

falling from the sky like forgotten fairy dust,

being swept from the trees like a torn bag.

 

Spring is awake, lingering on the mouth of a nearby cloud.

 

Winter cries out, her brazen voice like a dying hawk.

She coalesces and forms, reforms and turns,

a wave of anguish tearing at the seams of the mountains.

Her dying gaze looks hopelessly as she comes on the wind,

her bright face filled with flowers and fragrance,

her light breaking through the clouds.

 

***

 

Under the Cover of Darkness

February 22, 2004

 

I stalk through the night like a cat. I go over, gripping the sides of the fence with both hands, and springing to the other side, carefully manipulating my legs from the pointed metal spikes so that I do not fall in an unseemly manner. I grip part of the brick wall and it shifts, causing me a momentary release of anxiety. Finally having stepped to the other side, I lower myself down the fence, using the tiny holes as footholds, and leap to the ground with as little noise as I can muster.

The guard is asleep, although his light is on and the television is flickering through the window. I have chosen this strange time to do the fence maneuver (as I was told to do by someone who used to live at the school) so that I do not wake the guard. The last two times I woke the guard when coming back to the school at 9pm, he was grumpy the whole next day and gave me a continuous scowl whenever he saw me. When my mother was here, we came to the gate last one night, and trying not to wake the guard I opened the gate manually, the screech of metal on cement grating into the night. He came out of his door with only his long johns on, and stared at me menacingly.

The next day he beamed at me whenever he could, gracing me with smiles. I suppose he complained to someone and when he found out that mysterious woman was my mother and also a distinguished guest of the school; he must have flipped his perspective a little.

 

***

 

Strength in Time

February 23, 2004

 

I am sitting in the head teacher’s office. She is asking me why I do not come out to greet the students in the morning, and why I do not say goodbye when school ends. I tell her that for six months I have not done this, which she looks a little surprised. She tells me I should do this, but I defensively say I have never done this, so why should I start now? (You see, I am usually asleep or working in my room at this time, preparing for classes or getting dressed or just waking up…)

A few minutes later, she tells me some of the parents mentioned this to her, and said they wanted me at the front of the school to say hello to their children. Under the guise, most of these parents do not show their faces at the school, and probably mentioned this to the last head teacher who probably gave them a dour look of “these foreigners just don’t get it, so don’t push your requests,” however with the new head teacher they most assuredly proposed their requests. Really, they just want to know who is teaching their child English, I think. I tell her I will do it, but it might be “a little difficult in the beginning,” as it is not habitual. I remind myself that normally I should respond with energetic fervor, but here in China energetic fervor has not been the best tactic for me as a foreigner to come through with.

Our conversation shifts into discussing the syllabus. I tell her the syllabus is bad, and to start the syllabus in mid-stream for the students would be very bad. I pull out my own syllabus, show her, and she seems to be greatly relieved, as it is apparent she didn’t like the previous one. She tells me I am “strong.” I believe that is the greatest comment I have yet received in China.

 

***

 

Snow Falling

February 25, 2004

 

I’ve never seen snow like this.

Even in Chicago, where snow fell most of the winter, I’ve never seen snow like this.

It falls from the sky, like threads of light from a frozen sun. It is fine, like all things in this country, almost translucent, tiny white jewels floating on the wind. As the wind changes direction, the snow follows enigmatically, not fighting but in perfect submission.

I scoop my fingers down into the fallen snow, and I can hardly feel the cold. It’s as if spun silk had clothed the dirty street, covering the potholes with pearls, hiding the frozen smoke with clouds.

The wind picks up and the snow rages. although the storm can be likened to a flurry of windswept paper; much different than the temper tantrums of the Northern Midwest.

 

***

 

A Procession of Tears

February 26, 2004

 

The strength in my bones is gone, but my day is not even half over.

For my first class, I stood up for thirty minutes, walking in circles, speaking to the students who surrounded me like parrots, repeating my words from behind, in front of, below, and above me. When I finished, I felt so dizzy that I had to lie against the wall outside the classroom for a minute to recuperate.

In my second class, I was given a breather with the option to sit down to teach. The class went by in a flash, almost too quick.

In my third class, the weight of a thousand tears fell upon me, for as I entered the classroom the wailing began. One of the students, a new child, automatically began to cry, but another one of the students, an older girl also began to cry, because she wanted to be held. This led to the procession of three other students to cry, wanting to be held, or just wanting to join in the mournful chorus. Ten minutes later, the children who had started to cry were screaming their tears. I sat at the front of the class, teaching the diligent students who decided to behave, but by the end of the class my voice had gone. It is amazing how loud these baby tears can get.

In my fourth class, I was given a wonderful reprieve, although I could not see straight the entire class. With the grace of God (I’m sure of) the babies were quiet, diligent students to the end. I marvel that these quiet souls are actually younger than the previous class.

So now I sit in the head teacher’s office, exhausted. I tell her she needs to speak with the Small Small Two class and tell them to stop crying. She tells me she knows this is a problem, and she will see what she can do.

 

***

 

It’s all Perspective

February 27, 2004

 

Kathleen (the head teacher) tells me we need to change the Small Small Three syllabus. She is sitting in her chair with that blankly cheerful gaze, with a perfectly composed smile, two bright eyes, and a voice that you can’t quite tell if she is angry or ecstatic.

I ask her what is wrong with my syllabus, and for a moment she doesn’t respond, not sure of how to phrase this. She then tells me the parents don’t like the syllabus. This confuses me, because the parents don’t speak any English, so I wonder how they know what is good and what is not.

I try to imagine the situation, and still my mind is boggled. The syllabus I chose is from a professional language institution… I tell her this, and she shrugs with helpless candor. I smile and mimic the nagging that I imagine from the parents, and she laughs and points to her head and says it hurts very much. Very difficult job, she says.

 

***

 

The Eyes Have It

February 28, 2004

 

We are sitting in a KFC. I ordered a bucket of chicken (a reflex from the US), and understandably, more food than we three could eat. One of my friends looks at the chicken, but he doesn’t say anything (which amounts to “I don’t like this”) and then heavily insinuates that he thinks we should buy some “hamburgers” too, and points to some of the chicken sandwiches and says “MM, delicious!”

Two minutes later, he and the other boy sit in front of five more torn out coupons. One of the boys stands up, and two minutes later returns with another tray full of food, including two bags of French fries, three sandwiches, and a drink of hot chocolate. Meanwhile, the bucket of fried chicken sits amiss of attention, begging me to help finish it, yet my stomach cannot comply.

As we leave the restaurant, my friend is carrying in a KFC bag the bucket of chicken, which has not only the unfinished chicken breasts, but also an additional sandwich they could not finish. I am marveled at this, for every time I eaten at a restaurant here with someone else, we have walked away with bags of food. It seems to be in the blood to order more than a stomach full. Usually the food ends up in some cabinet, and is used for the next meal, or it is given to someone.

One of our trio decides he must go visit his fiancé and a group of her friends, and bids us goodbye. The other boy tells me we are not going, because to bring this bucket of food into the apartment would be rude, as there would not be enough food for all of the people there.

 

***

 

A Chinese Sociology

February 29, 2004

 

A Sociological Glance at the Chinese Media: Part One

Observations of Visual Thematic in The Music Video and Video Games

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any sort of essay. Although when I finished college, I did not swear off essays (as many writers I’ve admired have used this method of writing to help their societies) I did promise myself that I would not subject myself to the tirade of meaningless filler that seems to be the dedicate of so many university students. But this week, one of my friends gave me called “Dictionary Lexia.” I still do not know what it means, but inside were two VCDs of Chinese music videos, and the material was so enlightening of the modern culture here. I’ve also spent a good deal of time this last week playing a game called “Ancient Chinese Heroes,” or Daojian Chuangchi. I will finish this essay with a brief glance at some of the sociological imports that this game brings to the history and culture of China, as it is important to discuss history when discussing modernity.

 

First, a description:

A man and woman are walking beside a skyscraper. The woman wears a corporate dress, with the ironed skirt, button-up shirt, and neatly pressed hair. The man wears a button-up shirt, although the top few buttons are undone so that his hairless chest is showing, and the shirt is blowing in the wind (even though he is inside the lobby of a skyscraper). The next scene, cut to the man relaxing on a couch in the lobby, his body stretched across the arms of the seat as if he had decided to fall asleep at just the opportune moment to look stylish as the woman walks by. She throws him a glance, one all too intriguing, and although her eyes betray her emotion, she walks by without giving him a scent of approval. Immediately, like a hound, the man gets up from the couch and follows the woman, although as she steps outside into the mass of people, she is lost. Now cut to a scene of the woman, as she looks back for the mysterious relaxed man, but he cannot be found, and a dismayed look paints her face. Cut to the man, who is tearing through the crowd, but the mass is too big. He has lost her, his true love.

 

What is important to recognize in this scene is the modern atmosphere. I chose this because it was the most striking to me, both artistically and thematically, and it works well in this presentation.

 

The Chinese music videos I viewed generally take place in a series of archetypal locations: in a skyscraper or corporate office, in a public park, in a disco, in a restaurant, or in an underdeveloped location of China, notably a dry village. They are love ballads, and include themes of lost love, gender confusion, and the degradation of daily life as modernity swallows the old world. They pertain often to the rich and glitzy lives of the singers, as they struggle to understand what to do with their new fame. In almost every video, the theme of eastern versus western is prevalent, with confusion over how to proceed: to use eastern values, or western values? Many of the videos contain visual themes of natural intent, including the waxing bamboo trees that fold like feathers, the numerous lakes and mountains of China, and the rivers which China holds so dear.

 

The music video culture is more than television. When I first came to this city, I was surprised to find a karaoke bar on the adjacent street to the kindergarten. I was told by a girl living in this city whose boyfriend owns the nearby disco that you must pay 100 Yuan to sing at the local karaoke bar. I was surprised, as well, to find that on Chinese television are karaoke shows much like America’s Star Search program, which focuses on giving the microphone to ordinary audience members who want to sing their favorite pop star’s song, just for a chance to be on television. Some of these singers are horrendous, and it hurts just to listen to them, although I think in China, I’m the minority. Sometimes at night, I can hear some of the school staff singing from the top floor of the building (I live outside of the school). Although I love them dearly, they truly need some lessons in singing. But the other people who surround me daily do not mind, but rather hurry up to wherever the open mic is for their chance to sing.

 

All of the music videos have sing-a-long subtitles. When I bought my DVD player, even though my player had only one microphone input, I was given two microphones. When I walk to the bus, the old men in the neighborhood are often standing outside the local VCD shop, listening to the songs played by a television inside the shop. Of course, the speaker is outside the shop, blasting the songs into the street so no one is left out.

 

(Chuangchi)

In the internet cafes, the youth play two different games. One of Counterstrike, and the other is Chuangchi. Chuangchi is a misnomer, however, as all of the Chinese RPGs that people play in the internet cafes are called Chuangchi, all five of them. Chuangchi is a Chinese word that means “legend” or “hero,” and is universally applied to not only video games, but movies, books, and television shows. No one seems to mind that the games they play all have the same name.

 

In my particular version of Chuangchi, the player can leap hundreds of feet into the air, perform kung-fu moves on the ground and in the air, perform super moves, and can wield a variety of different weapons, including an elegant and thin long sword, two knives, a wooden staff, and a “human-cleaver” (that’s really the best word, in this case), consisting of a long sharp piece of metal that looks more like a chipped tooth of a mutated tiger. the player can choose to be a handsome swordsman, a beautiful and noble knife fighter (a girl), a wise old sage, or a barrel-chested Mongolian.

 

The game system is remarkably similar to Diablo, in fact, too similar. During the course of the game, the player not only moves through a world that looks like it could have been copied from the original Diablo world, but also must complete many similar quests, and obtain some identical items during the quest. The skill screen and the item screen are identical to the Diablo engine, and the original village, although with a few variations, is a mirror image of the Diablo 2 original village, with similar characters and similar dialogue.

 

The game play, however, is vastly improved. It’s obvious the designers of this game used a popular and already well-thought idea and improved on the weakness. Players can leap through the air, perform combos of previously learned skills, deflect attacks by crouching, and using the right moves, perform super moves. The enemy AI is vastly improved, not only interested in chasing you around the screen, but also in calling for help, strategically lining themselves around you so that you cannot escape and then performing moves of their own, stealing your items, and running away when hurt, so as to get more enemies on their side. In addition, the graphics have been refined, as enemies now can have ligaments chopped off, move with sublime grace, and visually are a delight to see.

 

As for the game material, you travel through a world populated mostly by zombies (a very popular theme in China) and anthropomorphic creatures, such as fox and monkey warriors, and half-demon half-animal creatures, such as the first boss battle, a hulking boar with a gigantic hammer, and the second boss battle consisting of an orc-bat creature that wields two ice blades. There is a plethora of tolkienesque creatures as well, with decked out orcs wearing Chinese battle armor and battle banners, and little goblins with tiny Chinese dunce caps.

 

(To End)

For me, understanding these concepts is key to understanding the culture. Chinese history and Chinese archetypes are so radically different from western concepts, that it is imperative in this next century to recognize the value of these strange eastern ideas. Such ideas as continual rebirth, the vastness and infinite plain of life, even among death, although they can be put to good use in a video game, are even more important to understand when doing something as powerful as political business transactions, to something as menial as washing your clothes. I was amazed today, because the little washing machine and dryer at the school broke during my drying cycle, and the boy who helped me thought nothing of it. Just down the street is a recylcery, where everyday these exact washing machines are taken, broken up into little pieces of plastic, and then shipped across the street to a place that melts all the pieces for further use.

 

The music videos, on the other hand, are the key ingredient in understanding the politicians and businessmen of tomorrow. These same children who watch the dance videos will be the future computer developers and strongmen of the new world. To understand that they have serious doubts about abandoning their culture and also how to implement the often vexing and controversial aspects of western culture into their own lives is an imperative we should not look down upon.

 

***

 

Overmind

February 29, 2004

 

I look at the list in front of me. My mouth hangs open. In disbelief.

Everywhere I go, it seems I do this. I think it’s a self-destructive tendency that I acquired in my teens because I felt I needed to be self-destructive to grow. But right now, it’s plainly annoying.

The blue letters in my journal stare back at me, menaces in their own right. Seven classes, three in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one at night. Two tutoring sessions on Saturday and then Sunday. Two online journals, and one weekly newsletter to the family at home. Buying a dictionary and two books to translate into English (my new tactic of learning how to study Chinese). Writing a novel, as well as a book of short stories. Clean my room. Learn the piano. Wash my clothes. Food, buy.

My computer monitor glares at me. The blue hue of the Windows XP screen is so ugly at this moment, in desperation I shut off the computer, and sit in the stillness of an unmechanized room, with only the sounds of the hawkers and wagon bikes outside.

 

***

 

Wasai!

March 1, 2004

 

The words crawl out of my mouth. I imagine a worm, slithering through the dirt. The rocks are my consonants. The slime are my vowels.

My eyes flash to the back of the classroom, where one of the head teacher’s sits and dutifully jots down notes. She is not smiling.

I ignore her, and focus on the students in front of me. They dance back and forth, like a symphony of water. I go through the vocabulary: cat, dog, sheep, and the whole farm.

As the class ends, I fall back on the wall, and breathe in heavily. I knuckle my head, and tell myself to get it together.

Three minutes later, in my next class, I am amazed. The class is not wailing in tears, except for one student who refuses to look at me (and because of this she gets to throw her arms around one of the teachers) and one student who constantly looks at me as if I’m a giant bear about to devour her little fingers. She delegates her time from looking at me with those big wide eyes, and then glancing at the teacher, hoping the teacher will protect her hands.

The class bursts out in laughter at one of my faces. The teacher tells the class to repeat “Wasai!” and they dutifully do. I wonder at this.

 

***

 

Restaurateurs

March 2, 2004

 

The restaurant smells of grilled meat and cigarette smoke.

The two men in front of me speak to me in fast, slurred Chinese, and their tongues glitter with the slickness of the three empty cans of beer on their table. One of them offers me a cigarette for the second time, and again I refuse his offer, forcibly saying I don’t like cigarettes because they make me cough. Although I have drunk a little of his beer (I don’t like beer, so it took him a little while to convince me).

I ask him what his job is, and he tells me he works at computers, while his friend works as a construction builder, one of those seemingly numerous and invisible army uniform workers that stacks bricks, tiles, and grinds away at metal on the street with blowtorches.

I look at my watch, and realize I must return to the school soon or else the guard will fall asleep, and I’ll have to either wake him into a grumpy mood, or leap the iron arrowed fence. They honorably let me go. The computer man in his big glasses gives me a wearily beer induced smile, and then clasps his hands together as a sign of thanks and farewell. I do the same, and thank them very much for the company.

 

***

 

Letters of the Heart

March 3, 2004

 

The letter is from Africa, from a college friend who entered the Peace Corps and is now serving in Chad. He talks of his work, and of how his perspective has changed while being in this foreign country. Even though he has lived in strange and stranger countries his entire life, he tells me that life is still challenging to adapt.

I make a commitment to send out paper letters to my family and friends. It is a wonderful feeling to open a letter from another country, I note to myself, much more than an e-mail. Somehow, the virtues of the paper letter still shine through over and above any form of electronic communication.

I finish the letter, and make a note to begin asking my friends what their postal addresses are. I hope that my inspiration lasts.

 

***

 

Newsworthy

March 4, 2004

 

The principal of the school is staring at me. Her look is placid, yet tinged with worry lines. She tells me I should use the syllabus the school has prescribed, and I tell her I don’t have the syllabus, and haven’t had the syllabus for six months. Something dawns in her eyes, I think.

She launches into the main point of bringing me into the office. Apparently, a newspaper man is coming today to take my picture and interview me. I remember the teachers in Harbin were on Heilongjiang television, and told me the same would happen to me eventually. She tells me the newspaper man will go to my next class (in two minutes) and that I should be ready to put on a show. I tell her ok, but inside my American mind grates like crushed cement.

However, in my next class the newspaper man does not come, and neither in the next class, or the next, or the next, or the next. I ask her again, and she says tomorrow at 9am. This relaxes me a bit, because now I will be able to shower and put on some better clothes.

 

***

Chen the Reporter

March 5, 2004

 

The translator tells me to stop singing. She waves her hands wildly, while the newspaper man behind her shows his concern by frowning.

“He says you must sing with the children.” I reply by flustering my eyebrows, and standing up a moment later.

“I must have class,” I tell him. “You take pictures, but I still teach.”

I am annoyed because for the past twenty minutes he has told me how to choreograph my class for his pictures. Being in the newspaper business, I understand his concern over getting the right picture, as sometimes it takes an eon just to get the right light, much less the right configuration of people standing artistically (usually, a literal impossibility). Although being a teacher, I must respect the children, and not view them as chess pieces. He says he understands, and that I should continue.

Two hours later, we are sitting in a taxi, and I ask him his age. By this time, he has interviewed me, had lunch with me, and taken pictures of me with some of the teachers. For a finalement, I am taking him to the underground market, to showcase me buying some schoolbooks for my English class. It’s really great fun, because this whole time I’ve imagined writing his article on me, and thus the morning has been a lot easier than I anticipated.

After he takes his final shots below the Culture Square, he says goodbye, and that he must go to his office to work. We shake hands, and depart, the only immediate memories being my e-mail address and a reporting name of Chen.

 

***

 

Walking by the Rocks

March 6, 2004

 

Roughly the size of a football and colored like a stormy sky, the rocks sit silently on the melting snow, little spring sprigs of grass growing up around their feet.

Across the grass area nearer to the school, a huge clump of snow lies melting. It is icily arranged in much the same fashion, to mirror the jagged and sharp football sized rocks. There are even some sticks poking out of the snow, as an impression of trees.

I remark to myself that only in Mudanjiang would people find randomly pieced, sharp, gray, and an overall ugly rock piles, beautiful. All across the city, from the poor industrial neighborhoods near the river, to the towering glass towers of the Culture Square, there are rock piles and there is a certain unsaid magnificence about them. Even in the school, as I stare at the rock pile, I can hear the cry of birds and the brush of wind, and perhaps a lone climber braving the heights, trying to discover the heavens.

 

***

 

Counting Bags

March 7, 2004

 

A note to the wary: uncommercialized carbonated red tea is not recommended. First of all, it doesn’t digest. That should be reason enough, but if we needed a second reason, it gives your body chills, and prevents sleep.

I sit on my bed, clutching my stomach. The time is 8am, and I have been up since 2am. I am on my third bag, and my sixth throw-up. I think I’ve about excised all of the red tea, as the bags feel heavy enough. One amazing tidbit of wisdom I’ve learned is that there is a pretty common way to tell if you’re about to throw up. If you’ve got a bloated stomach, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller, you can expect a rough next few hours.

I lie back on my bed, exhausted, unable to sleep. My body uncontrollably shivers, and there are blotches of red on my face. I remark to myself that this is probably what hell is like, throwing up constantly and not being able to breathe, and then not being able to sleep. The first time I threw up was when I was ten years old and ate too many oranges. This is a landmark occasion.

 

***

 

The Price is Right

March 9, 2004

 

“Uh!”

He is a stocky man, with a little black mustache, a black leather coat, and an inscrutable grin on his face. I recognize him from the school. He is a grandfather of one of the students. He also is the man who promised to find me a girlfriend, and told me this specific girl was the daughter of a policeman, but I have not seen her yet. I remember him telling me at the time he had a shoe business below the street in the center of Mudanjiang and that the lowest price of his shoes was 800 Yuan (quite a hefty price for shoes).

I sit down in his shop, and he offers me a cup of water. I am most grateful, and tell him so. I look around at the prices in his shop, and notice the prices go from 128 to 1600 Yuan for a pair of leather shoes.

 

***

 

In Living Color

March 11, 2004

 

I stand in the middle of the children, my arms stretched out. The children circle me, and one boy jumps into the air, the blur of his hands caught in a frozen frame, his beaming smile, his gaping mouth, his tiny teeth, and his head thrown back in dance.

In another picture, I studiously garner the pages of a Chinese book with my eyes, and the dark haired woman next to me holds her hand up, her mouth open in mid-explanation, while three people stroll behind me, and one is focused on the camera, while the two others talk, absently ignoring the mysterious man behind the pile of books. The lights of the underground market light up shadows on the walls, and one bookseller behind me handles some money.

I am amazed as I stand in the lobby of the school. Seven full blown pictures of me, in color no less, on the back page of one of Mudanjiang’s newspapers. I laugh because in the morning they gave me the newspaper, and I happily put it upstairs on my desk. After lunch, I returned to my desk with the intent of finding some way to laminate the newspaper article, but it was gone. One of the mysterious figures at the school snatched the article from my desk, and plastered it onto a poster board in the front lobby of the school. I guess they hadn’t asked for seconds.

 

***

 

Reporting Surprises

March 12, 2004

 

The phone rings.

“Hello?” I say. I am dressed in my long johns. I brush my hand through my hair. It is morning hair, sticky and everywhere at once.

“You come, Teacher Jong,” the girl on the other side says.

“Pardon me?” I ask.

“You come, Teacher Jong.”

I laugh. I suppose for some, repeating a second time would help.

“You hurry! Hurry, now.”

“I come where?” I ask.

The girl replies without patience, “You now, hurry come, Teacher Jong!”

Thus my morning begins.

I explain to the girl that I cannot come this moment, as I’ve got no clothes on. Finally, after the phone has circled through three different girls, they put on a translator, who again repeats what the girls have each said. She tells me there is a reporter here who wants to see me.

Ten minutes later, after I have put on some clothes, I walk into the teacher’s office. She tells me to sit down and wait. Ten minutes later, two men walk into the room, one carrying a television camera, and the other a microphone. I look down at my disheveled clothes and ask the head teacher if they can wait ten minutes for me to change clothes and brush my teeth.

 

***

 

Lake Philosophy

March 13, 2004

 

The wind blows, a not-so-gentle wind. It tears at the grass. It slides across the iced lake, and runs over the islands surrounded by the rock-hard water. Wind-blown long grass stretches out of the ice, caught in the grip of a fading spring. Garbage lies frozen, floating both in and out of the ice.

A woman walks beside me, walking backwards. She wears a hood.

Ahead of me, five university students are jogging in warm, multi-colored running pants and sweatshirts.

I walk along the side of the lake, off the cement path and on the hardness of the plain earth.

 

***

 

A Second Sociology

March 14, 2004

 

A Sociological Glance at the Chinese Media: Part Two

Daily Newspapers and Television Culture

 

The past couple of weeks have been very strange for me. First of all, a lot of change has been going on at the school.

 

The school has a new head teacher, who is changing the look of both the staff and the policies at the school. She has put up a time clock for the teachers, and I’ve noticed that whenever I walk outside the lobby to my room, I always find at least one staff member standing in front of the time clock, as if it was a disease or a strange artifact. On the walls of the teachers lounge and workroom is now a smattering of Chinese characters, and when I finally asked what the words meant, it turned out to me a mini version of a teachers handbook splattered across the wall in giant characters. The teachers have begun to have regular meetings during the afternoon, thus negating their original break time. The new head teacher has also been meeting with the parents to gauge where the school is at, and there is a notable strength of complaints on the English taught by a previous teacher who left recently, and thus these complaints have been blamed on me, since there’s really no other English teacher in ten miles who was here during the last seven months.

 

But other changes, such as waking up in the morning to the sound of my telephone, and the voice on the other end proclaiming to me in broken English that the television station is here, and I must come to the office of the head teacher right away, all while I am standing there with the intercom phone still dressed in my pajamas, scratching my morning hair… to being interviewed by the local paper, and having seven huge pictures of my big-toothed smile plastered in full color on the back page…

 

I suppose you could call that unexpected.

 

(Newspapers)

I’ll start at the beginning. A couple of weeks ago, the head teacher dragged me into her office before I was to have my first class and told me a newspaper man was coming to interview me. I was on hot irons the whole day, but as he didn’t come, I was a little relieved by the end of the school day. The next day he did come, and I was prepared. I even got up and ate breakfast, took a shower (which is a chore in itself at my school), and put on a presentable and newly washed shirt.

 

So we are in the classroom, and I begin class. The typical move that would repeat itself during the morning was an interruption from the newspaper man, telling me I should move into the light, or out of the light, or not begin class that way but begin class raising my hands in the air, or standing up with a child, or not turning my head so much… by the end of the class, I was aggravated. I appreciated the newspaper’s affection in entertaining pictures of my class, but I was disappointed because the children were confused, and I still felt the need to teach them, which seemed to be more and more dominated by the reporter’s desire for a frame.

 

We then moved into the teacher room and the cafeteria, where he took pictures of me conversing with some of the Chinese teachers, and then eating dumplings while using chopsticks. By the end of lunch, I felt less stupid for doing some of these menial things, although being a reporter myself, I continually winced at the obvious fakery of the whole experience.

 

After lunch, he wanted a picture of me singing a baby to sleep. This was a little difficult, as I was still working on getting some of the babies to not cry at the very sight of me, and I didn’t want to damage any of the fragile relationships I had worked so hard to establish, just for a shot. I made my complaints, but they were not heard. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and the reporter did get his shot.

 

I then took the reporter downtown, to show him what I did in my spare time. He took a very nice picture of me bargaining with one of the underground Chinese merchants on the price of an English study book for three short stories of Sherlock Holmes. The merchant wanted to sell it to me for 45 Yuan (it had a CD in it) but when she realized the man with me was my friend, she took the price down to 15 Yuan. She was even so bold as to say, “because he is your friend, you will get this low price.”

 

When the article finally came out, I was astonished to find an entire back page of one of the major color newspapers of Mudanjiang, devoted to me. There were seven huge pictures of me in full color, with the article and interview. One of my friends told me later that the article said my favorite food was dumplings, but I think I can forgive that. Perhaps the funniest part of the whole ordeal was on the opposite page in the newspaper (the other full color page) was a showcase of women undergarments.

 

(Television)

The television reporters, on the other hand, were totally unexpected. They arrived one Friday, and no one at the school knew they were coming. They brought a giant television broadcast camera, and a long microphone.

 

Much like the reporter, the television men asked me to perform a class. This time, however, I decided to outdistance myself to them, and I orchestrated the classes by myself, without their input, trying to save myself from the ordeal of the previous time. But the television reporters were much faster than the newspaper reporter, and we jumped from class to class in about half the time. They took a few minutes of pictures in one class, and then we would leap to the next class, and to the next class.

 

Interestingly enough, they also wanted a picture of me singing some of the children to sleep. This one ended a little harsher, as the teacher chose the absolutely wrong student for me to sing to sleep, and when she told the camera man to come close to this child, she broke out in fear, and tears started flowing out of her eyes. I’m still a little worried, because I’ve been working on this one student for near to a month, and I hope all of my work has not gone to waste. In time, with patience.

 

After we finished with the classes, we went upstairs, and they filmed me singing a song, specifically a song from The Sound of Music. I don’t really know any American songs that I can play the piano and sing, that would make any sense and that aren’t Christian in nature, so I sang the Solfegge song.

 

I still haven’t found the Mudanjiang channel on my television. I don’t know when it will play, or if the show already has, or if it even exists…

 

There is a new teacher at the school, an American from Seattle. Much of my week has been initiating her into the school and the city, and also trying to rearrange the teacher schedule that seems to be constantly changing.

 

This letter is less literary in nature, but really, this week my mind has been less literary. I have been reading a lot, having finished two books in about four days, but my mind has mostly been taken up with trying to juggle the changing elements at the school while maintaining my own sanity and need for contemplation away from the buzz at the school.

 

***

 

Changing the Season

March 15, 2004

 

We speak of many things, most of which blur into the mud. The wind plays at the barren sticks.

I stand on the trunk of a tree frozen sideways into the surface of the lake. The American girl gently moves forward on the ice, and then jumps up onto the platform in the middle of the lake, leaping over the wall, and then dusting her hands off. I follow, as she told me she was a little nervous being on frozen water, especially if two people were on the same time.

She peers into one of the open air windows, into the building. It has been abandoned, except for a dog and a couple of bikes up the hill, and I remark that these must be the people who take care of the building during the winter. Inside the structure is a brushed floor, with streaks of dust swirling in frozen circles around several pedestals that reach up to the ceiling. On the exterior of the building are chairs and tables stacked up, and hanging from the ceiling are several large speakers, as if during the summer this place is used for dancing.

She tells me this would be a great place for a sleepover. I reply and tell her she is too American for China, noting the locked doors and the grates over the windows.

Or have I become too Chinese?

 

***

 

Collecting Ribbons

March 16, 2004

 

London stares at me, garbed in the orient.

Hundreds of brick houses line the earth in perfect formation. Burnt smokestacks puff gallons of thick soot into the industrial sky. From behind the barbed fence, two mangy dogs bark, and then follow my walk dodging an ancient, iron husk of some lost in translation machine.

On the other side of the river walk, a giant oak spreads its arms into the sky. Around the trunk a red ribbon is wrapped, and hundreds of hanging red glitters from the empty branches. An old lady walks by, and tilts her screwed face at me.

A mother and her little girl ride below us, close to a nearby crop of houses sitting on the bank of the river. She wears a beautiful bright pink shirt, with golden lacing and loop buttons. Her hair is done up in two buns. Her face stares at me as the bike disappears down the crosspath.

 

***

 

Discovering the Dark Country

April 04, 2004

 

Two nights ago I had an unforgettable experience. There’s nothing quite like riding your new Chinese bike through the dark alleys of an unlit city at night, while carrying a man on the back of your bike while trying to drive across busy streets and trying to balance yourself between the ruts of the dirt road and the sometimes paved roads. I wasn’t at all scared, but a little nervous might be two good words.

 

Afterwards, the four of us ate grilled mutton, flour soup, and grilled “tendons.” I don’t know how else to describe it, as when I asked what it was, the boys with me pointed down at the two little bones underneath the palm of the hand. Those “tendons,” however, tasted very good.

 

When we finished, we biked to a billiards hall, and played two games in the smoke and dim lamps. I didn’t win either of the games. I blamed it on the really, really tiny cue sticks. Every time I hit the ball, I felt like I was going to snap the cue stick in half.

 

This last week I spent a lot of time going to new places. I learned about a new internet cafe, a new restaurant, the billiards hall, and a new food court in the central downtown. I also bought new shoes, something that I was desperately lacking, all too apparent if you ever took a glance at my muddied, ripped, leather-stripped old winter Chinese boots. I’m a little worried about my new shoes, as northern China is cruel to shoes. It could be said that the people up here breathe more dust than air. My friend described it as “Hei-longjiang,” or the “Dark country.”

 

***

 

Holy Butterflies

April 11, 2004

 

May your weather be fair, pleasant, and without heavy clouds of coal. Up here, we’ve had the first two, but I am afraid we shall never escape the third.

 

This week I’ve had the wonderful experience of taking my first long ride through the city by myself (six hours of pedaling against the wind). Most of the ride was me searching for the Mudanjiang Normal Rolling University, which I was told sat on the east hills, and so accordingly I rode out eastward along the river. At one point, I saw the school, all hazy in the distance, springing from the hillside like one of education’s vast bulwarks. On my return trip to the kindergarten, I sorely wondered what could be wrong with me, as when I did arrive at this bastion of learning, it was a broken down oil factory and machine works, in the middle of Mudanjiang’s biggest slum district.

 

I visited the local “holy” mountain, which is in reality a really large hillock with a newly planted man-made forest sprouting from its scalp. There are also numerous little shrines dotting the thin treescape, and a notable lack of anything living, including ants, squirrels, or birds. There are butterflies, however, so that is a plus. At the top of the mountain is a giant trunk of a tree that could have been pulled from the rainforests of Japan, except that it was made out of cement.

 

For the first time in ten years, I roller-skated. My mistake was choosing China to do that, for even as I write this, my toes ache in crushed pain. For those of you who have feet size twelve or over, bring your own roller-skates (and your own shoes, for that matter). That is just a safety precaution, both for your two big toes and to avoid falling flat on your face because the shoes turn your feet into tiny hopping toadstools.

 

Perhaps my most significant moment this week was following an old man on his bike, while he rode his bike through a road of treacherous spiked rocks and uncanny dips into the nothingness of a pebbled sea. In about a week, I will wake up and realize a brilliant insight into the Chinese nature because of my steadfast tracing of his path through that harrowed valley.

 

If this letter is strangely punic, then do forgive me. I’m afraid I’ve had a bite of sarcasm today, and I’ll have to pass the time until the pain recedes.

 

May your mothers be beautiful and your fingers sing magic.

 

***

 

A Picture of a Few Words

April 12, 2004

 

The apartment building, made of white brick and black paste, stretches past the door, disappearing flatly into the abominable heavens. A soft breeze blows through the door, lacking that winter edge it used to crave. The scent of spring is soft, still unaware of its own existence, even though it is alive.

Beyond the under-driveway through the apartment building, a little ramshackle shrine contemplates in a patch of lonely sun. The sloping roof of the shrine, painted in a faded blue-green and yellow, dips into the light. Beyond even the shrine, the red brick facade of the ironworks sits like a sleeping monster, the windows black as night.

 

***

In the Center of War

April 13, 2004

 

The courtyard is hazy, flanked by shadows and beige apartment walls. Bikes line the four sidewalks, piled like stacks of black paperclips holding together the earth and the brick.

A crowd of men stand huddled inside the open walls of a red shrine, their faces downcast, their hands in their thin pockets. Three of the men wear hats. They all study the ground.

In the center of the crowd is a little wooden square, with several circles of painted wood. Two men sit on portable fold-up seats, and stare like generals pronouncing victories on a silent prayer. There is no sound save the cry of children on a nearby playground, and the melodious ring of a silver bike bell.

Behind the men, an apartment rises out of the earth. The wall is covered in a bright and colorful mural, with vines and flowers winding up past the windows, into the eternal tapestry of the invisible mind, even as the paint of the garden is halted by the flat crown of the roof. Below the vines is a cobbled wall, which stretches along the bottom of the apartment brick, winding past a pastel and perfect river, which on its upward ascent, majestically grows into a beautiful pair of blue jungle birds.

 

***

 

Morning Words

April 14, 2004

 

She sleeps over the newspaper. In her hand, she is holding two bright baby markers, while she sleeps over her other arm.

The teacher’s room is quiet. The rustle of pen and paper echoes into the wood paneling, the sound like a faded dress falling from a hook. In the hallway, a piano sings, accompanied by the distempered voices of children screaming a nursery rhyme. They sing epic-like, as if they were dancing before marching to war.

Two girls across from my desk work intently at cutting up pieces of black paper into numbers and letters. On the desk are various scatterings of accent marks, and bundles of pinyin words.

I throw two pieces of candy onto the artist’s desk. She groans and looks up, her eyes darkening, but she sets her head back onto the desk, letting the exhaustion take her once more.

 

***

 

Diamonds and Rocks

April 15, 2004

 

A diamond in the rough. Tossings of wind scatter ripped shreds of plastic processed egg wrappers, the red dust of bricks, and the invisible whistlings of air through crushed glass. The playing card rests on a laurel of loose string, broken toilet shards, and a sprig of old lettuce.

Below the skeleton of the apartment building is a pile of refuse, multi-colored and chaotic. Leftover bricks, both red and white, muse in mountains of wasted elegance. Plastic bags float on the air, tousled and prodded by fingers of air.

A man with a face dirtied stares hard at me. His face is pressed, his eyes black yet bright, and his straight dark hair curled at the tips, wind-blown and dust-starched. His blue hat is hazy, streaks of black struck across the sides. He sits on a broken wood box, and taps his foot. He doesn’t remove his stare.

I smile at him and wave. His face opens, showing a happy grin of molded yellow teeth. The corners of his eyes widen, and he waves back, suddenly brightness scalding through the center of his being.

 

***

 

In the Clouds

April 17, 2004

 

In one window, a boy sits on a couch. The cover of his face blankly shines blue, while across the room a sliver of opaque light dances across the vein of a television screen. In the kitchen of the apartment, a girl with her hair tied back into a long, dark ponytail puts her hands into the sink, washing her palms and her fingers through the falling of faucet water. The fluorescence of the kitchen light bleeds onto the balcony, lighting up the dusk like a pale, white pearl.

Below the apartment building, in the shadow of Children’s Park, a troupe of dancers flash across the white tiled sidewalk. They look like shadows, pressed against a wall. Opening the window, I hear the garble of a high tenor voice springing into the clouds, the hash of speakers accompanying his voice like a choir.

A bike pedals past the heavy iron gate of the apartment complex. From above, it is like watching a bird fly through a cloud.

My friend and his Chinese cook are talking in our kitchen. He speaks fluent Chinese. She laughs, straightens her face, and says something serious to him. He retorts a laugh. She is washing a fork with a wet napkin.

 

***

 

A Dusk Storm

April 18, 2004

 

The length of a week sometimes can be small, and sometimes unimaginably big. From dining in the upstairs of a smoky, Muslim restaurant on Easter while eating lamb soup and grilled lamb with cilantro, to reading about Lewis and Clark’s expedition while taking the packed and hot midnight train from Harbin to Mudanjiang – trying to remember specific details is like a blur. Sometimes I am amazed that we can remember our lives, when so much happens in such little time. Every moment of our lives seems to be packed with meaning, from the mundane seconds we sit on our beds and think about the coming spring, to the mighty and grand heralds of our life, standing on the roof of a skyscraper, overlooking the whole of the horizon, wondering if we were ever as small as the shadows below us.

 

There is a beautiful moment, of walking down the steamy street of Fuminjie, the dusk crawling onwards, while a whisper of a storm spoke through a tightening wind. The lights of the street, hung over the food carts, sparkled like jewel stones. The smell of freshly baked sweetbread and boiling pots of vegetables, along with the hawking cries for mutton shanks, grass rice bowls, and the occasional spin of a bicycle bell as the heavy crowd parted like a birthday cake, the lonely rider zipping like a knife. And then sitting inside a cool restaurant eating boiled beans, parsley, and spinach, while the sounds from the busy street was like a muffled chorus of voices.

 

I had the opportunity this week to write a six-page Sino-American play, featuring the talents of Rip Van Winkle, Johnny Appleseed, and Buffalo Bill, along with appearances from the notorious Captain Ahab, an archetypal President of the United States, and a cast of Chinese characters which included the oh-most-famous Sun Wu Kong, monkey-king extraordinaire, Zhu Ba Jie, the heaven pig general, and three archetypal Chinese characters: one wise sage (whose name keeps changing, because I forget it and then ask different people for the name of a wise man), the evil witch of the north, and the White Flower, a beautiful princess who is in danger of being eaten by the evil witch. Although in the sad occupation of a writer, they have asked me to rewrite it into one page instead of my proud six.

 

An almost beautiful experience was traveling to the Harbin train station, and having no clue about how to buy a ticket or how to even get to Mudanjiang, when a soldier came up to me and helped me buy my ticket, and then furthermore took me with his two soldier friends up to the special soldier lounge of the train station, with ultra-plush seats and a sparkling bar, and then having a very enlightening discussion with the young lieutenant on Taiwan politics, and the difference between Democrats and Republicans. To my surprise, this lieutenant very much adored democracy, and told me he did not want war in Taiwan, but if war came, he would not hesitate to uphold his duty.

 

***

 

A Street in Spring

April 22, 2004

 

A frozen splice of time. The wind at your throat. The flash of a red taxi door, and inside the window, the gaping mouth of a beautiful woman with black, sweeping hair and model-perfect teeth. Her eyes, of the darkest coal black, hover over her tiny nose, and on her lips, the word ‘foreigner’ is heard through the silence of the tinted glass.

The towers of steel and glass cover you with shadows, while on the sidewalks, propped bike-wagons and portable stalls color the shade with fruit: tiny oranges in thin, plastic coverings, palely red apples, swirl-cut pineapple, and loads of sunflower seeds, drying in the darkness.

For as tiny as this city occurs to be, the length of space within it is overwhelming. The main street continues down in a straight line, advertisements lifted over the intersections of cross streets, multiplying into eternity – a running of perfect Chinese models, holding fruit drinks, toothbrushes, and bright, shiny leather shoes.

 

***

 

Highlights to Chaos

April 25, 2004

 

This past week, I find myself with my bed covers held over my shoulders, reading light blaring into my face, and my eyes waxing rhymes, in the pale effort to stem off sleep. A new book came into my hands, Going Home Crazy, by Bill Holmes, a self-proclaimed American Icelander, about his adventures and lessons in China as an English teacher. His words invigorate me, yet also there is fear there, because I see myself in his shoes, saying the same things, spouting the same didactic triumphs of cultural standards, and suddenly I’m not so alone in this vast kingdom. The book manages to thrust my insecurities about my own perceptions into the light, and I have begun to rethink how I think about the people I’ve come to love so much. So in one sense, there is a bit of jealousy, and on the other side of sense, embarrassment. But overall, it has been a wonderful experience, for his perceptions and his dreamy knowledge of literature and music so overpowers my menial undergraduate education that I stand, or rather, sit, in awe of his word power.

 

I’ve been biking more and more, testing my limits and expanding my borders. This last week, I found myself staring at the highway sign to Russia, 123 km, surely the closest I’ve ever been to the country-continent ever. That brought upon me a sense of urgency, as if somehow I’ve believed in the past eight months that the world has shrunken only to include my e-mails, and a never-ending rice bowl of Chinese characters. My biking has also revealed to me an enigma – that because everyone, including that toddler I saw by the lake practicing with training wheels, rides a bike, the whole world must. And so when a blond-haired, blue-eyed waiguoren rides by on a typical “cool” red-black Chinese bicycle, there are no gasps, and no one cries out with “look! a foreigner on a bike! gasp!” Rather, I am mostly ignored, with little boys riding BMX bikes zooming past me, and old men carrying water in plastic tubs slowing down to a near stop, yet somehow they continue. Although if a person does catch my hair, the wind always carries to me the residual “meiguoren…”, but I lose the voice as I turn my attention to the whizzing taxicabs and the roaring buses.

 

Some highlights of my week include saying hello to some Japanese students on the local Bei Shan (white mountain), north of the city. I was a little surprised to see them, as there is a giant memorial sticking up out of the ground like a stone toothpick, recounting how the Japanese had slaughtered thousands of Chinese on this very mountain during World War II, and old men in their blue caps would often sit in fold up chairs, their hands folded, and somehow, even their faces folded. I also found myself biking the Mudanjiang Roman Baths, and remembered fondly about one month back when a friend of mine took me to the baths. Of course, being a proper Evangelical American, I had never considered baths. The communal showers in my university were something to gasp at, but to take a dip in a pool with hundreds of birthday-suit men? That’s Romanic! Might as well strap on the gladius, face the lions, and burn a couple candles to Vesta. But it was a very good experience, as the showers not only had toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razors to shave your face, but three pools of different heat, two sauna rooms (of different temperature), massage tables, shampoo, free white towels, and even a relax room upstairs, where you could pay extraordinarily high amounts of Yuan to get padded down by these really skimpy girls in black clothes. (Of course, I didn’t…) Best of all, it was the cleanest experience I’ve had in China, and would gladly go again.

 

I also had the chance to play night basketball without any light, nor even a friendly moon) with a friend of the school. I also found my courage and bought my first oranges (by myself!), and I learned the oh-so-important art of buying food off the street as a foreigner (don’t say ANYTHING! Just point!). I learned that you can argue with the school all you want about important issues, and nothing will be thought of, but if you refuse to tell them where you are going, they will fire you. And for the past week, I’ve had the pleasant occurrence to wake up at 5am, not because of my own great powers of strength, but because of my new blue-feathered friend, my parakeet whom I’ve aptly named Chaos.

 

***

 

Back from the Dead

May 15, 2004

 

My school is in heavy transition now. For the past few weeks, Jia Mei has been moving teachers and staff members from school to school, as more students arrive at the Mudanjiang school. When I arrived 9 months ago, there were only 70 students, and now we have 150 students. There were four classes at that time, and now there are eight classes. The school is under different management now, and the new leader has not only had the newspaper here twice and the television here twice, but also has signed a contract with Kentucky Fried Chicken, replaced half of the staff, added new classrooms, created a new playground, and initiated a different schedule both for the teachers and the children for daily activities.

 

As for myself, I took the May holiday for an excursion down the Xi’an, one of the four ancient capitals of the world. I visited the eighth wonder of the world, the army of 6000 terracotta warriors, and I walked the oldest wall in China, and listened to old men and women sing and play the legendary Shaanxi opera outside in the walking gardens, in between Xi’an’s walls and very long moat. I visited with many friends, and on my last day in Xi’an, I had an interview for short-term missionary work in Thailand with the Covenant Church. That was my true purpose to travel to Xi’an, and thinking back on the many things I experienced, the 12-hour standing train ride from Beijing to Xian and curled up on the husky floor of the smoking cabin while using my backpack as a pillow, wandering around in the soaking, cold rain while being denied to most of the hotels as to my white skin, being lost in Xi’an’s red light district (where I stayed for the first two days – and although the food was good, sometimes the sidewalk company were a little too endearing, forcing my patience more than I liked), and continually being cheated by the amorphous green taxi, dropped in vague parts of the city, and then running through the alleyways as if crazed, knowing I only had twenty minutes before my tour bus left… all in all, it was an experience I wouldn’t give it up for anything. The good points definitely outweigh the bad.

 

A few days ago, the school decided to move me with a few hours notice back to Harbin. Upon arriving there I learned I was to teach at the smaller kindergarten (the school has two in Harbin), and also to teach a night class from 5pm-7pm, which I promptly refused (the class is not in the contract). So the possibility has arisen that I will be moved back to Mudanjiang, and the teacher in Mudanjiang will be moved to Harbin (as she is willing to teach the class, because she wants to be in Harbin much more than this far-away, lonely, and out-of-reach city). There’s a lot of politics going on as well, with the leaders communicating through a string of people rather than having direct meetings. I tried to have a meeting with one of the leaders, but she disappeared a few hours before the meeting, and then was touted as being in Mudanjiang. So I traveled to Mudanjiang (where I am now), and she traveled back to Harbin, so again I couldn’t see her. It’s an interesting experience.

 

If anything, in these past three weeks of mysterious silence from me, I’ve experienced a lot of growing, especially in regards to learning the difference between Chinese methods of management and Western management. Although there is a huge, almost pop phenomenon with Western management techniques (just go into any bookstore), of course being China, old methods die hard, and sometimes don’t, but continue in subtle, invisible ways.

 

China is a land of walls. As most people know about the Great Wall, this statement almost sounds like a cliché. But going to Xi’an, and traveling through China, and through the school, I’ve learned an immortal lesson. Many of you know about the Great Wall, and some of you know about the wall’s creator, the legendary Emperor Chin, upon whom China is named. Reigning only for twenty years, he managed to do what was impossible – he united the seven great kingdoms of China into one massive entity. He built the Great Wall of China, and he built the army of 6000 terracotta warriors to protect him in his death. He also built a massive, underground palace where he is enshrined, which to this day is still unexplored because it is so dangerous to enter, but it is the size of a mountain, covered with trees and green grass fields. But the walls of China have never been built to keep the outsiders outside (indeed, the Mongolians when they invaded China, merely bribed the gate officials into opening the gates), but rather, to keep the people in. In dealing with China, this is keenly important to realize. I will leave you with that to think upon.

 

***

 

Above

May 17, 2004

 

The hive extends.

Into a horizon of white, the white clouds squatting on the city streets.

Dots crawl on the cement of the earth; they are periods, but there are no discernable words. The cars and bikes and buses and fruit wagons zag across the long, gray lines, blurs and dreams.

Above in the tower, the wind is sharp. It fights and screams, howling across the sky. It grabs at my hair, slaps my face, but then the warmth of the Harbin spring caresses, and the mood shifts.

A guard stands by the gate of the tower. He struggles to hold the doors open or closed. A troupe of pale foreigners march out into the gales of Harbin’s heaven, but tasting the wind on their tongues, they file back into the safety of the glass net.

 

***

 

A World Outside

May 23, 2004

 

Harbin City: Two security guards wearing soldier uniforms stand by the door. The green dress and black shoulder straps and peaked hats are imposing to say the least; they neither frown nor smile, but have faces like the stonework of the city street. They are both tall, and yet when they walk, you can see them slouch, tripping forward as if their legs were tired. This particular internet cafe is shining. No smoke floats into the ether, the keyboards are clean, and the monitors are without the rainbow ripple of old LCD and read “Dell.” Thin tubes of fluorescent light line the ceiling. The chairs are of relaxed design, curved steel encapsulating a plush, soft cushion.

 

Outside, Harbin’s third busiest commercial street flashes by. Black cars and red taxis stroll by the windows of the internet cafe, split into horizontal colors by the fold-up plastic curtains. Couples walk by the windows, mostly young girls holding arms, and some boys speaking in low tones, and the occasional business man or business woman dancing by with the wind in his or her gait.

 

This is a different world, and yet, in the corners of the city where the shadows sit on the sidewalk and the glass towers above in stories of cement, the people are the same as ever, selling their seeded fruits, dry sunflower seeds, and playing Xiangchu while smoking a long cigarette.

 

I am now in Harbin, the city that is not quite Chinese, not quite Russian, and definitely not Japanese, although history begs to differ. I am teaching at the smaller school near the city center. I should say this is the mantelpiece of the school, the prize trophy, which proves that Jia Mei is a kindergarten of refinement, as although the school only has 70 students (whereas the other schools have upwards to 400), it remains in place proving that Jia Mei has a school in the “downtown,” even though the ceilings are molding and showing gaping holes of pipes and electrical cords, and the walls of the school are stained with streaks of exhaust smoke and the dirt of the winter wind.

 

Ah well.

 

I shall be in China for three more months, which seems hardly any time at all. Admitting that this is only 90 days, that seems even shorter, and before I know it I will be back walking among the specter-lined streets of Redwood City at night, and driving the silver Mercedes at 100 miles per hour past the green and gold bulwarks of the Santa Cruz mountains.

 

***

 

Good Soup

June 7, 2004

 

FATE

 

I was sick today, nailed to my bed with a nasty cold. Although I don’t like to take off work days as my pay gets docked each day for about 138 Yuan, I didn’t want to be held down for the rest of the week with a box of tissues and a red nose, so I decided to take the day off. I slept for a few hours in the morning, and then woke up to the pleasant sound of screaming babies. I’m not sure if I could describe it very well – but it would be like if you ripped the ear off a baby child and then put the kid on the ground and watched as he started to make really loud noises. Anyhow, it wasn’t pleasant, so I decided to get out of bed and open my door. To my surprise, I saw one of my downtown Harbin classes marching outside my bedroom door in a line (I live in one of the schools). The teacher waved enthusiastically to me, and then told the children to make with her voice – one, two, one, two…

 

Upon further inquiry, I learned that my school children had been relocated to the school where I sleep, rather than where I work (about a thirty minute bus ride difference). Upon even further inquiry, I was informed that it wasn’t positive if I would be teaching them anymore, and my current job description was in question.

 

I waited out the day and taught my night classes. Although it was a little tiring, after fasting the whole morning and afternoon (I use medicinal fasting – usually I get well in one day).

 

FAVOR

 

The local internet cafe sees me a lot. It’s a fairly large cafe, more attuned to students who like to skip classes and play Legend of Mir or Counterstrike, or play the trendy Ourgame board games (like Mahjong and a plethora of card games). There are cigarette trays at every cubicle, and shiny golden letters signifying the number of the cubicle. There are headphones, and a comfortable chair with polished wooden armrests that are often emblazoned with Chinese characters cut by a knife.

 

The girl at the front desk is a cheerful girl, with a plump face (for a Chinese girl) and big eyes. She always says “Hello” to me when I come into the shop, and she always has a huge smile on her face when I walk into the door. However, last week I noticed that there was a big crowd around her, a multitude of hands thrusting forward money, and a cacophony of voices crying out for their change. Her face had twisted into frustration lines, and her mouth sported obscenities. However, when she saw me she immediately broke into a smile, and the lines across her face disappeared. She pushed aside the many hands and took my money first.

 

What most surprised me was that no one seemed to notice or care. As soon as she gave me back my change, she switched back to normal. The lines came back, and her voice became tinged with iron.

 

FACE

 

This last weekend I visited Mudanjiang. It was night when I arrived at the school, and the guard light was not on, so I assumed the guard was asleep, as is often the case. Upon approaching the gate, it automatically opened, as if it had a sensor. Knowing this not to be the case, I noticed the guard behind the gate. He waved to me, although he was not smiling. He was sitting on a blue plastic stool, and had a blanket draped over his shoulder. In one hand he held a big flashlight, and in the other hand he held the gate opener.

 

When the guard first came to the school, I was very happy. He could always be counted on to welcome you with a smile, and he has a wonderful smile. He literally would stretch out his heart to greet you, and although he cannot speak English, he speaks well enough. Sometimes he would be in the guard room with a book and a little book light, and when he saw you he would immediately put down his book and motion to you, smile, and say “Ni hao!”

 

Recently, the school in Mudanjiang was told that both myself and another former teacher were jumping the fence late at night. In reality, during my seven months at the school, I jumped twice, and both were with a previous guard who if woken up, made you regret waking him up the next morning, and you felt awful the rest of the day. The former teacher only climbed the fence once, but as the school found out about it, they decided to fix the problem. In the mornings and late at night, the current guard is required to sit outside the gate on his little stool, even though both myself and the other teacher do not live in Mudanjiang anymore, but rather in Harbin.

 

FATE, FAVOR, and FACE

 

Recently I read a book by a famous Chinese scholar who mentioned that in Chinese society, fate, favor, and face are the boundary constructions of all social life. Fate, he says, is the consequence of life to trade the high and low, for the poor to replace the rich and the rich to become poor, and the need for revolution and change even in a situation that seems perfect. Favor, he says, is the natural bestowment of gratitude and friendship upon someone you consider family, in the giving of gifts, rewards, and hospitality that you would normally never show to anyone. And face, he says, which is the most important in Chinese society, is the exterior visual and emotional picture that is painted by interpersonal and interfamilial social life.

 

In Chinese culture, it is very important to remember these three principles. Most of the problems between Western culture and Eastern culture are because of a violation of respect in these principles. Chinese culture has had a long time to develop, much longer than Western culture, much less American culture. The standards of following these three principles are highly engrained in the Chinese mind, and cannot just be ignored, whereas it must also be understood that these three principles are not present in minds of other cultures. There are variations, such as honor, loyalty, and the desire to be good under any circumstance which are also reminiscent of a Western mind, but the two cultures cannot be compared as if they were different cousins, as the tree of the fruit is a different species, grown in different soil, and expecting different animals to feed from its branches, and a different color of wind to blow against its leaves.

 

To be positive, it is not an insurmountable task to overcome these issues. In the Chinese mind, two fruits from different trees can still be enjoyed with equal delight. Sitting at dinner tonight, I found it strange that a man decided to sit across from me at my table, and then order a bowl of noodles without even saying hello to me. He put his hands over his face, and wiped the sweat from his skin. However, from the man’s perspective, there was absolutely nothing wrong with sitting next to another person in a restaurant, as it is done all the time and isn’t usually a sign of anything important, other than they trust you won’t spit into their food. On the plus side, I was a foreigner, and he was showing off his ability to sit next to a foreigner and not be nervous, whereas many Chinese people are so enthralled and mystified by the presence of a foreigner, they will go to another table if you sat next to them, because they aren’t sure of the expectations. I continued to eat my soup, and when I finished, I paid and left the restaurant. It was good soup.

 

***

 

North and South

June 17, 2004

 

“For on the one hand we have the northern Chinese, stalwart, hale, hearty and humorous, onion-eating and fun-loving, children of nature, who are in every way more Mongolic and more conservative than the conglomeration of peoples near Shanghai and who suggest nothing of their loss of racial vigor. They are the Honan boxers, the Shantung bandits and the imperial brigands who have furnished China with all the native imperial dynasties, the raw material from which the characters of Chinese novels of wars and adventures are drawn.” (pp. 18)

The window of the kitchen, adjacent to the open door of the restaurant, showcases a spectacle of cuisine. The cook twines the paste between two sticks, stretching the white mass into thin noodles. Sweat beads from his forehead. A soft and milky smoke drifts from the kitchen onto the sidewalk. A hanging bulb, smeared by steam, casts a light glow onto the walls, coloring the stove with a yellow, aged look.

Within the restaurant, through the open door two men sit facing each other. Their faces are dipped into their soup, while mugs of cold beer have already been drained halfway, the beer foam clinging to the plastic of the cup. They wear no shirts, with only a pair of sandals and a beige pair of shorts. Their bellies hang out over their shorts. They have short-cut hair, dew-dripping and hard like dry grass.

Outside the restaurant, the matron sits on a blue stool and yells at a worker. They exchange heated words, their voices building like a bludgeoned cock fight, and then they break into laughter, harsh and defined. The matron stands up – she is tall, with large fingers yet a beautiful face – and she slaps the male worker on his shoulder, and then trudges upstairs into the restaurant, yelling out some orders, lost in the din of noodle slurping and the sizzle of boiling sauce.

On the sidewalk benches and in the street shade men sleep, their shirts off, holding ice cream popsicles and eating chunks of red watermelon. They spit the seeds onto the ground. Farther away, two old men sit on a bench beneath the shade of a willow tree, canes in one hand, and cigarettes in the other. They speak quietly, yet with energy.

 

***

 

Degeneration

June 18, 2004

 

“Man in China has adapted himself to a social and cultural environment that demands stamina, resistance power and negative strength, and he has lost a great part of mental and physical powers of conquest and adventure which characterized his forebears in the primeval forests. The humor of the Chinese people in inventing gunpowder and finding its best use in making firecrackers for their grandfathers’ birthdays is merely symbolical of their inventiveness along merely pacific lines.” (pp. 24)

In the morning, a rooster crows from a nearby street market. The people gather on the sidewalks, a mirage of umbrellas, shadows, and skin.

Music flays the air – the sound of a minstrel shoveling his voice into the sky, raw, unrefined, and dizzy with the grit of loose-wired stereo speakers. The clip-clop of hand drums clatters past the walls of the kindergarten, into the littered street, and eager parents and grandparents crowd by the spear-lined walls of the school, carefully stepping over the leftover popsicle sticks and baby pee-puddles. They laugh and point to their children, who awkwardly fumble over the dance steps, and one child trips to the ground, scraping his knee. He takes the pain, and struggles up, clip-clopping his way back into the dance while his father outside the school gates shrugs his shoulders, and makes up an excuse why his son tripped.

A few feet away at the neighborhood park, old ladies ride alien exercise machines, swinging their feet forward and backward on metal foot swings, while gripping onto the iron bars for support. A group of boys stand in a circle, while one tall boy flings down his paper pog, causing a flurry of colors to leap into the air, while all the children grace their faces with amusement. Two old men who finger their beardless chins sit on a cement tree trunk, having a heated discussion over two cigarettes. While a little further away, near the green canopy of a scaffold cover, a group of construction workers play a rigorous game of Xiangci, and every move they make sounds like a thunderclap. Two of the men showcase their bare chests, the bright sunlight bouncing off their dark skin. They chew dark seeds and spit out the shells onto the ground.

Part of the sidewalk is uncompleted, the tiles chaotically splayed across the street, streaks of dirt painted onto the cement. A late kindergarten bus zooms past, screeching to a stop, nearly hitting a turning biker. The doors of the bus open, and the four-year olds flood out of the bus, saying in perfect English to the Chinese teacher standing to greet them, “Hello teacher! Good morning!” then bursting into giggles. The teacher calls out to the students in a shrill, piercing voice, devoid of shade and space.

The sound of honking seeps in from the main street, without rhythm, a cadence of chaos, while an old grandmother sits calmly on a bench, watching the kindergarten, unawares. She smiles, her eyes glittering with the warmth of old age, and her mouth purses tight, yet glows.

 

***

 

Monkey Kings and Noodle Bowls

June 20, 2004

 

Paradise Lost: I am sitting on my bed, my book opened to the second chapter of Paradise Lost. Satan is discussing with his fallen angels the pros and cons of waging another war against heaven. They are hunkered down in the heat of hell, circled by the marbled palisades of Pandemonium. Both of my windows are open; the sound of passerbyers sneak by. Sweat lines my forehead, and I wipe it off with the palm of my hand. The thick smell of burnt mosquito repellent coats the walls of my little room – a burnt, sickly smell, as if oil and pickled juice were boiled and then burnt on a stove. From the hallway the sound of little boys banging on drums shakes the frame of the bed. I look at my calendar on the wall, breaking from Satan’s speech, and realize I only have two months left until I return to America. I think about standing up and getting a drink of water from my thermos, but then realize it would only make me sweat more, as I just recently refilled it with boiling water.

 

Xi You Ji: The bus rattles. The seats of the chairs slip forward, as the bus lurches to a stop. A slow, warm breeze glides through the coach, settling on the tips of sweat, and cooling the skin. In the story, the glorious golden-haired monkey king Sun Wu Kong, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, swings his As-You-Will-Cudgel at his enemy, the Golden Horn King, and a heated battle ensues. They duel for thirty rounds, and the Golden Horn King turns and retreats back into his cave, riding his cloud and disappearing in the next instant, followed intensely by the annoyed and burning eyes of the stone monkey. He chases, and they fight again. The bus goes over a bump, and I smash my head against the ceiling.

 

My Country and My People: The noodle restaurant is quiet tonight. A group of girls quietly eat their three plates of noodles, with their backs to me. The cook, a young boy with not even a scrap of facial hair, sits down with a smile and asks me if the food is good. I return to him that it is very good, and continue slurping. Lin Yutang tells me that in the north of China, the people are primarily noodle eaters, while in the south of China, they primarily don’t eat noodles, but enjoy a bowl of rice at every meal. He tells me that northerners have poems about the joys of polishing broadswords, whereas the southerners have poems about getting to sleep in. He tells me that the northerners have a nasty habit of periodically and pretty much habitually conquering their southern neighbors every few hundred years, and then moving south to enjoy the respite of hot rice, green mountains, and cold rivers. I finish up my noodles, and realize the bottom of my bowl is covered in strips of meat. Happily, I take the challenge.

 

The Inferno: I finger the pages of the book, worrying that I shouldn’t have brought Dante’s epic to the local internet cafe. I open up my e-mail, browsing through my messages, and then see to my amazement that I now have 2 gigabytes of space, whereas just one day ago, I was freaking out over which messages I would soon have to delete as my space had just passed into the red. On the news, Madonna gets angry at brits for traipsing on her lawn, claiming that her human rights are being violated. The first privately owned manned spacecraft is said to be going into the air soon, another article claims. More deaths in Iraq; more deaths in Afghanistan; more deaths in Saudi Arabia; all Americans. This other article claims that a new fish species was found in South America, a deep sea fish called the Chimaera. I decide to put my book back into my backpack, as now I’m really worried about screwing up the pages and the binding. I chastise myself for bringing a book to a place where I was planning on reading other things anyways.

 

Basic Theology: Back in my room, I scan the last few lines of Charles Ryrie’s VIIth section, although my mind can’t stay focused. I close the book, putting in my homemade bookmark where I left off, and collapse on my bed. The heat is horrible. I feel like a pillowcase closed itself around my head. But as I’m in China, I’m learning to cope. After all, it’s said that the Chinese have an extreme ability to cope with suffering, and that they have nerves of steel. So as I’m in China, do as they do. It must be 96 degrees outside, and I can’t tell if it’s slowing down, as it’s already 11pm. I worry myself into the future, contemplating graduate school, Thailand, getting out of the country without any problems, what I will eat tomorrow, and then realize that everything will take care of itself. God is with me, and he has my back. I only need to trust, follow, and trust.

 

Overview: It’s been an amazing two weeks. It’s the first time, since arriving in China, that I’ve had to deal with figuring out what to do with my time, when I have absolutely no commitments (besides the school) and no one to take care of (I’ve always had a foreign teacher that I’ve helped through the China-acclimating process). I’m alone, in a school where only three other people live (who don’t speak a shred of English), in a city of 10 million people which seems to be constantly changing, never sticking to any routine, at a time when I’m very unsure of my purpose here (being here for only two more months) and still trying to figure out what has happened to me in this country. Questions like, “How have I changed?” and “What am I going to do now?” continually crawl into my mind. It’s like the last drag of high school, or that final semester in college, when you’re stuck in the proverbial waiting list for standing in line at graduation. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.

 

***

 

Infusion of New Blood

June 21, 2004

 

“For the striking fact is that Chinese history can be conveniently divided into cycles of eight hundred years. Each cycle begins with a short-lived and militarily strong dynasty, which unified China after centuries of internal strife. Then follow four or five hundred years of peace, with one change of dynasty, succeeded by successive waves of wars, resulting soon in the removal of the capital from the North to the South. Then came secession and rivalry between the North and South with increasing intensity, followed by subjugation under a foreign rule, which ended the cycle. History then repeats itself and with the unification of China again under Chinese rule, there is a new bloom of culture.” (pp. 28)

A mule brays, cracking the sound of automobiles and bus horns onto the hot cement, breaking through the monotony for an operetta of exquisite charge. An old man rides his bike down the street, dodging zooming trucks and heavy hummers. He wears the face of the eye of a storm, and as he turns the corner, a young woman, with long, white legs, wind-blown hair, and a dark, black visor on her head, swings around him, riding in the opposite direction. Her face is hidden behind the thick plastic. She wears a flowing white gown that flutters in her wake.

In the internet news, “Taiwan, China gear up for arms race,” with a picture of a tired soldier with a confused look on his face, holding the barrel of a tank gun, while a few feet down on the same page is a picture of a naval boat being hit by a missile, with water spray shooting into the air, and pieces of metal and hull leaping in the impact. In the streets, the hum of a Taiwanese ballad blasts into the street, deafening the cries of the stopping buses and the repeating honks of red taxis. A flurry of Chinese words flood the passing of music, and then the singer shouts out “Superstar!”

A troupe of soldiers parade down the street, wearing green short-sleeve shirts, darker green pants, and army boots. They move in precision, huffing up and down in uniform, shouting back orders, and continuing down the street. The people on the sidewalk move aside, sucking on their popsicle sticks and putting intelligent looks onto their faces. The light turns green, the traffic zooms past the soldiers, and their voices are lost in the horns.

Inside the internet cafes, boys play Counterstrike. Their fingers dance over the keyboards as if they were painting art. One girlfriend stands behind her boyfriend, her hands relaxed on his shoulders. The soft voice of a singer fills the room with the alluring decadence of stardom. “Hey, Mr. Wonderful, Oh, you’re so incredible…”

 

***

 

Cultural Stability

June 22, 2004

 

“Was it their sound instinct which guided them to choose the agricultural civilization, to hate mechanical ingenuity and love the simple ways of life, to invent the comforts of life without being enslaved by them, and to preach from generation to generation in their poetry, painting and literature the ‘return to the farm?'” (pp. 34)

Dusk comes, bringing with it the scent of burnt paper and smoking incense. In a dumpling restaurant, the matron blows out of the candles on the Buddha altar, and she takes away the warm apples. Across the street, a man kneels on the ground, blowing over a pile of burning paper. The smoke carries into the sky, a long line of memories, flavored with burning newspaper and ancient hopes.

A truck filled with watermelons spills out onto the sidewalk. The blue sides of the vehicle are smeared with dust, the tires dug into the mud beyond the walkway, and the driver sits on the edge of the truck. He holds a big, rusty knife and is chopping through a large watermelon. He takes a scroll of plastic, and wraps the half-watermelon, weighs it on his aged, silver scale, and hands it to his customer, a young woman with a bag of groceries in her other hand. She smiles, hands him a wad of bills, and then walks past the truck into the apartments that loom behind.

Some hand-woven baskets are shoved under a stone staircase to a shop. A pile of red, chipped bricks are stacked beside, and an old shovel with a pitted wood handle leans against them.

On the street corner, older men sit on stools, with a box placed between them. They play a card game, slapping down the cards in childish glee, flinging their fingers towards their friends in mock insults. Their faces are poorly shaven, dotted with black points, and their hair is matted with sweat. They wear jungle camouflage uniforms. A few feet back from the street corner is a dirty tent with a large monstrous machine sticking its cruel nose out of the flap. A thin power cord meanders amongst the tilework, disappearing around a shadowy corner.

A shiny black car zooms by, the windows tinted and unseen, the edges glimmering with a new wax and wash. Behind, the old blue truck of watermelons bumps past; the driver wipes his eyes, puts his foot to the pedal, and his carriage of fruit ripples like an ocean wave.

 

***

 

Racial Youth

June 23, 2004

 

“Had China’s cultural life flowered and then ended a few centuries after Confucius as the Greek genius did, there would have been only some fine moral maxims and folk lyrics, and certainly none of China’s great paintings, novels, and architecture to offer to the world. This sounds as if we are not watching the arrested development of a nation that reached its full bloom in the Golden Age like Greece or Rome, but that we are watching the prolonged childhood of a race that took millenniums to reach full development, then is perhaps still courageous enough for further spiritual adventure.” (pp.40-41)

The underground market smells of popping oil, rich chocolate, and freshly picked fish. The light bulbs hang from the ceiling, and stay constant unmoving, suffering a yellow glow onto the faces of the merchants, lighting their cheeks with the temperature of an old photograph.

Beyond the glass of the stalls, full-bodied roasts sit, carcasses of bronzed baby chickens, chickens in their youth, and chickens too old to move. Hunks of pig lie bleeding over the wooden cutting boards, legs, snout, stomach, liver, and half-sliced bodies separated into little piles. A bowl of squirming silkworms lies to the side, the darkened bodies moving under the pale fluorescence of the light above. Other oddities of meat sizzle under heat lamps, disfigured and twisted beyond recognition, save the ability of the customer to breathe in the vitality of the air and thus distinguish species.

In the back, a pool of fish cools, the fins and gills pumping, the dark tiny bodies flitting from one side to the other. A large, beautiful scaled fish lies at the bottom, contemplating his fate, moving his head time to time, but too big to join in the recess of his family’s activity.

Further along the underground market, a man sells music compact discs, video compact discs, and digital video discs. One of the shelves of his collection is of Chinese television shows, and the other ten shelves are American and Japanese television and film. A new Britney Spears album shines back the light from the street, glimmering through the opening above the stairs.

Across the aisle, a man sells books all in Chinese, yet the covers of the books betray their purpose, with titles like, “How to be a Better Businessman” in perfectly typed English, and “A Compact Guide to C++.” The covers are professionally designed silhouettes of various Western pictures, with a man holding a briefcase, and a woman dressed in a professional shirt and a neat, green skirt, with a superimposed keyboard photograph and the digitized image of a computer monitor.

The marketplace is crowded with people. Their smooth faces, shining under the bright light, are without crease. They walk not briskly, but with contentment, some leaning over counters and speaking to the merchants with one ear tipped in conversation, while others haggle over the price of a hastily built sandal. The buzz of voices is high, but the echo is lost is the amalgamation of metal pots, plastic brooms, and the din of the outside street. What is left over is an unrefined blur of humanity.

A woman buys cold, iced water from a Styrofoam container. An older girl with a clear face sits on a stool, speaking to any passerby who she thinks might be interested in her jewelry. An older woman with scraggly hair and a green hairpin relaxes in a chair, reading through a magazine. She sits behind a counter of razors, electronic shavers, and ticking watches.

 

***

 

Mellowness

June 24, 2004

 

“The supremacy of the Chinese mind flays its own hopes and desires, and by making the supreme realization that happiness is an unattainable bluebird and giving up the quest for it — ‘taking a step backwards’ as the Chinese expression goes — it finds happiness nestling in its own hand, almost strangled to death during the hot pursuit of an imagined shadow. As a Ming scholar puts it, ‘by losing that pawn, one wins the whole game.'” (pp. 44)

Five men sit on the sidewalk. Their hands are crusted with dirt, faces darkened by the sun. They wear work clothes smeared with sweat. Their heavy boots are cracked, the sides plastered with dry dust. A blistering sun rains down upon the street, and they turn their faces towards the earth, waiting for something. A few cars pass by, and a school girl brushes past them, dressed in her blue and white uniform. She holds her hands up to her eyes as she walks by, blocking out the light of the sky. Some of the willow trees reflect in the wind, swaying like old ladies in a slow dance.

The showcase of birds is alive and gay. The little birds flit around their wooden cages, petted vocally by their old masters who sit on green benches. The cages are intricately carved, with stylized dragons and clouds twining together into tiny, thin bars of shining wood. A large hook lies above each cage, arching into a thick, polished crescent. Tufts of heavy grass sprout around the base of each cage, and mosquitoes and dark flies shimmer about, casting quick shadows onto the timbers of greenery.

A woman rests in a chair, outside her apartment market. She hums a song. Layers of potato and pink shrimp chip bags are stacked onto her shelves. In a corner, a concoction of plastic beverages sparkles in the afternoon sun, which moves across the colorful and haphazard walls of the little store. Other items lay scattered around on tables and shelves, while a cash register is hidden behind a basket of fruit candy.

Another woman who sits with the owner of the market cuts a pear with a silver butterfly knife. She is watching a television comedy show in the window of an adjacent shop, while a group of old men dressed in dark blue clothing and wearing blue hats stand by, their hands folded behind their backs. Some of the men have polished wooden canes, with carved images of Chinese characters and fox-spirits. They laugh at the jokes of the fat man and the little boy on the television screen.

The young lovers reclined on a nearby bench take no notice. They relax in each others arms, and the girl whispers invisible sonnets to her partner. Their faces are lit with contentment.

The boy’s cell phone rings, an operatic jingle coming through the pockets of his pants. He thrusts his hand through his pocket, holds the phone delicately to his ear, and speaks slowly, his voice smoothed by the slow breeze.

 

***

 

Journaling

June 27, 2004

 

Preface

It’s getting a lot hotter now. The sun has weight when you step out from the shade. There are many, many men on the streets that strut around without shirts, both old and young. The merchants who sell ice water and popsicles have raised their prices. For me, this past week has been nothing out of the ordinary, save the wedding I attended on Saturday between an American man and a Chinese woman (which was fun). I finally finished my list of novels to write, and for now I’ve put aside my journal, “to wait for better times.” I’ve topped the list at exactly 100 stories, which causes me a little pride as John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, only had a list of 99. I’m sure to add to it later, although I’m hoping I won’t, because 100 is actually, quite – a – lot.

 

Monday, 8:55am

I close my journal and grab my backpack, filled with little books of English rhymes, songs, and pictures of cartoon apples and wide-eyed birds. Classes begin in five minutes. Children dash down the hallway to the bathroom, and their voices carry through the thin walls. A baby cries as he is taken down the stairs. I grab some cookies and quickly eat them; as I finish breakfast, figures by my door. It’s the same thing today, like the other days. I mentally prepare myself for the 1.5 hours of teaching, and then rush out the door, going over the notes on my little paper pad, in which I have written today’s lessons. Inside the classroom, the students wait for me, and the teacher stands from her chair and waves for me to come inside.

 

Tuesday, 10:33am

I crawl out of the classroom on my butt. I slide along the floor, open the door with my back, and vanish into the hallway. The laughter of both the teachers and the horizon-open eyes of the children follow me past the door. I throw the little blue ball into the air, and make as if to stumble while catching it, and then shut the door with my foot. After the theatrical procession has finished, I throw one hand against the class, press it hard, and then go up the stairs to my room. The sweat on my hand sticks to the glass. I can hear the future muttering of one of the cleaners as she endeavors to wipe the class with a wet cloth in my head. The residual “goodbye teacher” comes through the door, into the passes of the corridor, as the teachers continue to drill the one-year olds. As I go back to my room, I think about tonight’s class, and remind myself to cut papers for the drawing segment in the second half.

 

Wednesday, 1:00pm

Collapsed on the bed; exhausted in the heat. I can feel the steam rising off my body. The sweat clings to my clothes. Relaxed on my back, I fall into a light sleep, and when I wake the large, silver clock reads 3:44pm. I rise from the bed, put on my shoes (not old, but they wear the look of a tired, old man), and walk out of the school. I have a few e-mails to write, some research to do on Thai culture, and I have the urge to watch a movie. A few minutes later at the cafe, I do exactly that, loading up Starboy, trying to wade through the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, and check my e-mail.

 

Thursday, 6:57pm

Sitting by the window is a mother. I motion to her that class is out, and she stands up, broken from her trance, and gives me a pleasant smile. I go to my room, unload my bag onto the floor, and sit at my desk, going over in my head what to do now. Entertaining the idea of going to the internet cafe, I throw it aside as I’ve already been there twice today (once in the morning, and once in the afternoon). I go downstairs, make a call, and find out the information for a wedding planned on Saturday. Then I make another call, and as I hang up, the guard asks me where I’m going. I tell him I’m going to a friend down the road. I step out into the evening air, feel the wash of warmth, and then jump onto the 91 bus.

 

Friday, 11:10pm

The night market is bright, lighting up the alleyways between the apartments. People sell ice cream in large, white containers, with light bulbs hanging on poles as illumination. Thinly clad women rush by on the sidewalk, and disappear into red-lit windows. A merchant woman sells books by the moonlight. Some restaurants blur the air with a red and green glow. Some older men are sitting on some stairs, their bare chests facing the cloudy moon. They are eating plates of vegetables and eggs, in white carry-out boxes. I finger the money in my pocket, check to make sure it’s all there, and depart the internet cafe for home. Across the street, I purchase an orange tea popsicle from a young man. He knows me by now, and as I leave, he shouts out in English, “See you tomorrow!”

 

***

 

Patience

June 28, 2004

 

“We submit to tyranny and extortion as small fish swim into the mouth of a big fish. Perhaps had our capacity for suffering been smaller, our sufferings would also be less. As it is, this capacity for putting up with insults has been ennobled by the name of patience, and deliberately inculcated as a cardinal virtue by Confucian ethics.” (pp. 46-47)

Crowded colors; snapping wind. An infant sleeping, dreaming of a mother’s lap. The twisted air, turning and turning, moving like a clasp of cloth around the throat. Leaning in on high speed, rounding about the bodies; arms curled around arms. Visible faces of wrinkles, oil-smooth, burnt, lavender and pink. Breathing mouths, colored lips, sweat on the chin.

A hundred people stand, sway as the world tilts. The bus is alive, the windows, brushed with the tar of car smoke, coalesce and reform, a piece of paper floating down a river filled with folded birds. They flap their wings, moving the air in foamy waves, chaotically inspired to madness, yet there is rhythm there, subtlety, an action of planned imperative.

The woman with the red water bucket loses her balance. She shifts into a person, hard, smashing, and her feet leave the ground for a brief second. There is no need to apologize. She resumes her space, and stares blankly outside the window.

An old man with sunken and fattened cheeks pushes her, and she loses her balance yet again. He stands next to her, his face tightened with years, as if he breathed this air his entire life, the smoke of the bus coating his face with a unique diaspora of thought, gathered from the five corners of the land, and soldered into his bone with the boil of summer and the snap of winter.

Another man stands nearby, holding a green, grass rug under his arm. His hair is neat, relaxed, a few gray hairs. The beast roars to a halt, and the doors flash apart. He tumbles down the stairs, amidst a herd of flesh. His rug turns the corner, and then there is a space of wind, but the doors as fast as they opened to swallow the street, clamp again, and the teeth below begin to grate, and the wheels turn, and the people sleep in the dream that never ends.

 

***

 

Indifference

June 29, 2004

 

“The Chinese people take to indifference as Englishmen take to umbrellas, because the political weather always looks a little ominous for the individual who ventures a little too far out alone, in other words, indifference has a distinct ‘survival-value’ in China.” (pp. 48)

Exhaust smoke, the color of burnt fields, halos out of the pipe. The bus driver leans back in his seat, a thin white cigarette cradled between his teeth. He blows dragons, his feet propped up against the coin machine. His eyes are closed, but he talks through his cigarette to the man standing in the doorway, who holds a pad of paper and has three pens in his shirt pocket.

Seated in the coach, a policeman gazes out the window. His uniform blue and black shirt is pressed, and his pants creased, his hair cut short, but his eyes do not bear the brunt of a blade. A woman wearing a multi-colored tight shirt and a short midnight black miniskirt puts money into the machine, and as the money clinks down into the pit of the bus, the policeman drags his eyes over the woman. She ignores him, and brushes by, sitting somewhere in the back of the bus, out of sight.

On a remote alleyway near the bus stop, some rotten oranges and clumps of lettuce lie unashamed on the street. The summer flies scoot around them, while a meandering scruffy lion dog noses through the rubbish. He is called back by the sharp cry of his master, a stout woman selling ice water on the main street.

As the sun falls below the cityscape, the shadows extend their long fingers, and the girls come out to play. They stand by the street, sit on stools with their long legs crossed, hold mirrors up to their faces. One girl jumps up and down, screaming and laughing, while the other girls put on embarrassed faces. A man walks by, and the girl in white calls after him, holding her hand up to her mouth, and then as he turns his gaze back to her, she blushes and turns away, speaking in rushed words to her friends. She makes one last call to him, but he holds up his hand as he continues to walk.

A soldier walks into an internet cafe. He hands the girl at the counter a couple of bills. He is a tall man, with a handsome face and strong arms. He quietly disappears into the throng of computers, and fades from view.

Outside, people step over the piles of broken sidewalk, cross the busy street, open their umbrellas, and walk home in a piling rain. A police van rolls by, with a plain clothes police officer at the wheel, and a couple of his friends in the passenger seats. They slow at the red light, and then inch forward, pacing past the glow of the traffic light and the pedestrians, and vanish into the glow of night.

 

***

 

Old Roguery

July 1, 2004

 

“‘Great things can be reduced into small things, and small things can be reduced into nothing.’ On this general principle, all Chinese disputes are patched up, all Chinese schemes are readjusted, and all reform programs are discounted until there are peace and rice for everybody. ‘One bid is not so great as one pass,’ so runs another of our proverbs, which means the same thing as ‘Let well enough alone,’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.'” (pp. 56)

Under a windy shade, seated on fold-up stools and tiny wooden footstools, old men sit. They have let their hair grow out. Some of the men have long, wispy beards, with tangled grey and white hairs hanging from their chin, while others have permitted what hair they have left to dot their cheeks like daylight stars. They are seated around a custom built wooden board, with knife marks slashed across the surface to resemble a field of warriors. They all stare intently, as if their lives depended on the next move. Suddenly, like a thunderclap, one of the old men who wears a blue hat grabs one of the pieces and slams it onto the wooden board, crying out, “Ji Jun!”

His opponent, a younger man, although still in the league of cane-men, stares at the board is disbelief, and then shakes his head as if he knew all along he was going to lose. He grabs the pieces on the board, and hurriedly puts them back in place, and the winner does the same. The winner, however, bears a wide smile on his face.

Near the next bench, under another tree, some younger men play cards. About six other men not in the game watch every slab of paper as it is dropped into the box. Their eyes follow the movements of the players as if they were trying to catch fireflies. A little boy stands with his father, and tugs on his pants wanting to leave, but the father ignores the little child, waving his desire to silence.

On every bench, in every park, and in every city, the process is repeated unto infinity. The cards are shuffled, the warriors are assembled, the mahjong blocks are stacked, the bets are placed, and inside the internet cafes, the guns are reloaded and the swords are unsheathed. The street remains silent, save for the horns of the taxicabs and the ring of bicycle bells. On some corners, the sound of a jackhammer shakes the earth, but then the cards begin to slide again, dusty workers taking a break from their tedious job.

In their high towers, the rulers watch Friends, laughing at Jennifer Aniston. The rhyme of Beethoven moves across the clouds. For Elise, my little love…

 

***

 

A Critique

July 04, 2004

 

These are headlines from a recent Shanghai Daily, which I found at the Harbin post office a few days ago. The following, however, is not part of the newspaper article.

 

“Shadow children, lost lives”

Into the taxi, past the window, seated against the menagerie of street life, he watches, unsure of his gaze, unsure of the timelessness of the moment, if it even is timeless or is just another moment lost among the droll of slow existence, the evolution of the human spirit. Outside the taxi, she paws on the window, and her little child, dressed in bright Mongolian rags, already with a burnt northern face and the skin sketched with earth-lines, heavy with dust and smoke. She is begging for money, but he does not budge. He stares outside the window, his hands in his lap, and a moment of gladness comes that he can witness this from the inside of the cab, rather than being thrust into the madness of the air outside. He is safe, and he can ponder over this. Thoughts rush through his mind – she’s a horrible mother, doing this to her child; this is some big conspiracy, a grouping of people who resolve to work though begging; she is an unfortunate, and her son a doubly unfortunate, but it is the government that should solve this problem; there is nothing he can do, for the little change in his pocket compares to nothing; he shouldn’t do anything, as he is a foreigner to this strange land, and doesn’t want to build on projected stereotypes; and yet, already he is, and he remarks how strange it is that stereotypes evolve without needing to be told. He comes to no conclusions. The light turns green, and the taxi rolls past the mother and child, and they resolve to continue down the line, for their next customer. Their faces remain with him for the rest of the trip, as echoes, the whispers of a ghost.

 

“Junk food one-third of US diet”

Walking into the market store, Benjamin browses among the cloisters of chip bags, bagged peanuts, bottled drinks, and preserved meat in plastic wrappings. He grabs two bags of Skittles and one tiny bag of Chinese Cheese puffs. The smell from the adjacent galley is ever-present, the cooked oil, dead fish, roasted chicken, and party of voices and footsteps. Inside the little store where he is, two or three people wander the aisles. One older man fondles a whiskey bottle, while a young girl picks up two preserved sausages and some frozen dumplings. After he hands the money to the cashier, he walks into the fresh food galley, but the scene confuses him, and he wanders around with a simple amusement and a gentle question painted on his face. He isn’t sure what to do with all of this. The strips of vegetables, of green onion and clumps of tomatoes, of baskets of strange nuts and mounds of freshly chopped pork. He enjoys walking through here though, partly for the alien feeling he gets, and partly because of the wish in his heart that he could understand this. Merchants point to their foods as he stares at their faces, trying to discern something about the nature of the act. He shakes his head, and continues walking, with his bag of skittles and cheese puffs.

 

“Death of a political giant” (regarding Reagan)

The Chinese boy asks: “Do you like Bush?”

The American responds: “I don’t know. I’m not in America.”

The Chinese boy then retorts: “I don’t like Bush.”

On the computer screen is a CNN article, with President George W. Bush waving. The article is about the Iraq War, like most of the articles on CNN. The American wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t know. He doesn’t. Aside from a few articles which he is now convinced is run entirely by the highest bidder (after reading through an article on America’s pull out of Bahrain, and then the next minute the permanent pull of the article from the website), he is naturally confused about the state of American politics. He is more concerned about the politics of China, really, and the cultural clashes between America and China regarding “the Taiwan question,” as well as “the Hong Kong question.” If he is pushed, he responds with: “I don’t like war,” which is a fairly dumb way of skirting past controversial topics, but it seems to work.

 

“Devoted to teaching” (regarding a Shanghai England-China joint-venture kindergarten)

The President of the school is in his room. The big man kneels down on the dirty floor and rips a wire out of the wall, plaster flying everywhere. He sticks the wire into his mouth, and with a silent roar, tears the plastic away from the phone line until only the copper line is bare. He does this sequentially for all six phone lines that weave themselves into the foreigner’s room, and ties each copper wire into the phone, which repeatedly fails to work. Finally, he shrugs his shoulders, and gives the foreigner a big smile, and then goes back to his office. A few hours later, the President of the school comes back to the foreigner’s room, personally handing him a bag of steamed and packed rice.

 

On the wall, the foreigner notes he only has fifty more days in China. He is embarrassed, because his complaints about not having a phone grew to such an enormous capacity, that he finally asked the President to do something about it, because everyone claimed not to have authority. Eventually, even the President claimed not to have authority over the telephones. Since coming to Harbin, he has made it a point to challenge the school on most things that he has deemed unreasonable, and thus for the most part they leave him alone. He is a little confused about this: firstly, because he knows he is showing his foreign spirit, but secondly, because he knows he has to set the stage for whoever comes after him. It’s a conflict in his heart. He sits on his bed, clears his throat, and grabs a cookie from his box of tea crackers. Classes are tomorrow. He scoots over to his desk, and begins to plan his lessons.

 

***

 

Photographs

July 11, 2004

 

I’m doing “spring” cleaning right now, preparing to pack. I’m learning a lot about traveling right now, and most of my learning is about how I shouldn’t buy so much ‘stuff.’ This ‘stuff’ includes books, extra clothes, magazines, bags, toys, and electronics, eating tools like cups and bowls, and teaching materials. My room is covered in ‘stuff,’ piled onto desks, my bed, inside my cabinet, and on the windowsill. The piles are categorized, for purposes of packing into my three bags. Although I’m still a good month+ from leaving China, I do have about 1 year of accumulated things that I didn’t arrive with, with the task of un-accumulating them. Recently I heard a friend say, “Whenever a person leaves China, we get to celebrate Christmas all over again.” So true.

 

On my desk are a few notebooks, some spare coins in a silver bowl, five photographs, my teaching books, and a hot water thermos with the cap off (I just fill the thermos up and hope the water cools, as all water here is piping hot to begin with). I pick up the photographs, and memories come back. The cords of growth have been stretched long. I take a bow and pluck them, listening to the music.

 

Three friends are standing ankle-deep in a coat of brilliant white snow. The backdrop of skyscrapers rises past the sky behind them, while the walking and mingling heavy coats of various people too numerous to remember, stream by the walkway through the park. The three friends are wearing heavy clothing, a white snow-jacket, black and white stripped mittens, a multi-colored orange, red, blue, and yellow scarf, and a pair of air-force fatigues. I wear the fatigues, and my friends stand next to me, smiling at the camera man. My hands are freezing, red from the cold, so they are handsomely stuffed into my pockets. My hair is long, falling over my eyes, floppy and wind-blown. I squint through the glasses, the sun casting shadows behind us and hitting my eyes through my thin frames. The wind is blowing a little, the only sign a drift of hair across my wide forehead.

 

In another photograph, a little child is cradled by a teacher, posing for a picture. The little child holds up two fingers (peace?), and her other arm is wrapped around the teacher’s arm. She does not smile, as if she didn’t know how, and she falls back into the teacher’s lap awkwardly, her legs stretched out, like limber and flexible tree branches. The teacher stares forward at the camera, but his smile is hid by the shining black hair of the child against his face. He still has long hair, but it is bright with oil, flaxen against his skull, drooping down the sides of his face. A little girl wearing a purple top and a plaid skirt crawls on the floor, not aware she is in the picture, while an adult, the grandmother of the crawling girl, stands in the background of the picture, her head cut off by the top of the frame. I am the teacher, and the picture was taken during the Christmas celebration.

 

The next picture is a school staff shot of the New Year celebrations. The whole staff stands together. The teachers wear short, red sing-song suits, the red glimmering under the light of the school lobby. Their hair is elaborately done, and most of them do not smile, although some do. They are standing tall, with their hands at their sides or clasped in front of them, their legs together, standing in perfect rows. I am there as well, although I am leaning, for my legs are tired after standing for most of the performance. Ribbons hang from the ceiling of the lobby and a barrage of baby Christmas trees glitter in the back, their glowing lights frozen into the picture.

 

In the carousel park, three people pose for a picture. On the ground, it is apparently Spring has come, the ice melting, yet the snow still cupping the river bridge in the background. The three people wear heavy clothes, blue and white and black jackets, white and orange scarves, red and black gloves. My hair has been cut and washed, and it stands combed back on my head. There is a slight smile on my face, as if an artist drew in a line in my face, and curved the end of the line up a little. I am more used to the cold now, my face more relaxed, my hands by my side. On the corner of my black jacket is a little golden pin, a gift from a shop merchant who attending a university in Beijing and wanted me to know. The trees of the park are twisted and skeletal, the river is frozen, and the sky is a clear sheet of white plastic.

 

In the last picture, I stand with a couple, an American man and a Chinese woman. The American man wears a tuxedo, with a mahogany red tie and a red rose with little white flowers. The Chinese woman wears a bright red dress, and her head is crowned with a diamond headdress. They have just been married, and they invited me to their wedding. I wear a plain black shirt, a black belt with a silver buckle, and a reflecting watch band. My hair is in waves. The ceremony was normal than I had expected, the vows being repeated both in English and Chinese. All of the wedding took place without chairs, and in the wedding procession, several Chinese men shot colored paper into the procession through compressed air cans. I remember distinctly the various colored papers still hanging onto the glass chandelier in the ceiling, and wondering who was going up there to get the paper out. There were no dances at the wedding, and only a troupe of classical musicians playing water music.

 

I put away the pictures, and then close the folder. I slide the folder into a pile. I review my list, identify the things I still need to buy, put one of the piles into my bag, and head out of the school to finish my errands.

 

***

 

Pacifism

July 14, 2004

 

“If man could learn to be a little more cynical, he would also be less inclined toward warfare. That is perhaps why all intelligent men are cowards. The Chinese are the world’s worst fighters because they are an intelligent race, backed and nurtured by Taoistic cynicism and the Confucian emphasis on harmony as the ideal of life. They do not fight because they are the most calculating and self-interested of peoples. An average Chinese child knows what the European gray-haired statesmen do not know, that by fighting one gets killed or maimed, whether it be an individual or nation.” (pp. 58-59)

The rain falls in torrents. The street is like a river. The waves lap against the sidewalk, and curl in frothy white circlets around street signs. The blinking of orange emergency lights is echoed through the reflection against the cement sea. Cars move forward like slugs, driving as if they were moving through mud, slow enough to be driving over a circus rope. At the bus station, twelve people stand in ankle-deep waters. The rainwater swirls around their feet. They hold umbrellas, their fades hidden. The waves crash against their legs.

In another part of town, high in the towers above the city a group of men have a debate over a bottle of beer. The one man, he is young, and his face is strong. He argues against the government, stating they should not enforce the one child policy, and that it should be abolished. The other men in the group groan, but do not say anything. They even suppress their groans in the form of silence. One man speaks up, and replies with wisdom painted onto his voice, that one should not fight against the government. One should support them. The debate continues in the high office.

Below the tower, after the debate has finished and the rain fled away, an old man scrounges in a garbage bin. He has a hanging light which he has attached to the lid of the bin, and stands on a ladder. He is wearing gloves and a long, dirty jacket. He throws a white, plastic can out of the bin, and then tosses some clear empty water bottles. Clambering down from the ladder, he arranges them in his bike-wagon, retrieves his light, and moves on to the next bin.

The morning passes.

As the sun rises into the sky, the rush of morning traffic begins. The streets are still a little wet, the dampness deciding not to depart quite yet. Yelling can be heard, and excitement flourishes in the air. A crowd of people has gathered, surrounding two men. The two men take swings at each other, and then resort to a primal pushing, interspersed with bouts of yelling. One of the men is standing next to a shiny black car, while the other man stands near a fallen bicycle rickshaw, plastic flaps blowing in a light breeze. The crowd does not say a word, but only watches. Eventually, a policeman comes and forcibly separates the two warriors, and the crowd unravels into the street.

 

***

 

Contentment

July 15, 2004

 

“It may be seen in the gay, babbling rickshaw boy of Peking, forever laughing and joking all the way and ready to laugh at a fellowman’s discomforts, or it may be seen in the panting and perspiring sedan-chair coolies who carry you up to the top of Kuling, or it may be seen in the boattrackers who pull your boat up the Szechwan rapids and who earn for their living a bare pittance beyond two simple but hearty meals a day.” (pp.61)

The sun casts her fingers through the trees. The sidewalk in lined with characters of shadow, long, elaborate and mysterious words etched into each framework. As the trees sway in the breeze, the language shifts, the shadows move. Near the wall of a garden, on the corner of the sidewalk is a blue blanket and a purple pillow. A man perhaps no older than twenty-six is sleeping on the ground, his eyes closed in rest, his arms folded, and his knees bent. A girl wearing a sun-cap (with a long, black plastic piece) sits on the side of the truck. She holds a watermelon, and stares at the crowds walking by. Her gaze holds no answers as to what is in her mind.

A bus pulls up to the sidewalk, its brakes screeching as it slows for the crowd of people to board. As the door flushes open, the people gather up the high stairs, and squeeze into the pockets of free space. Arms and hands dangle outside of the window. There is not a place left uncalled. People stand in the bus like a school of caught fish. The bus opens its back door, and people stream out, a living unit of flesh flowing out a pipe. The bus heaves, as if breathing in, and then both doors slam shut, and with a gentle nudge from the engine, the bus roars off past the shadows of the trees.

On the other side of town, the bus comes to a stop, the brakes cracking open the sky. The remnants of the fish swim out, evaporating into the street. A dusk sky sprays orange across the clouds. One woman gets out of the bus last. She holds a purse, and her hair is done in a bun. She has an older face, although she has sunglasses on, large, bulbous things that reflect the sun between clouds. She walks across the street and into her residence. Children are playing on a high, cement slide. The heavy tower rolls down with three slides. At the bottom of each slide is a mass of dirt, sticks, and pieces of empty red potato chip bags. Some boys play near the slides, throwing pogs onto the ground, while three girls play on the exercise machines.

The woman continues walking home. She passes through an alleyway, and then comes out on a smaller street. Near the wall is an ice cream stand, with a pole and a light bulb. The sunlight has descended behind the buildings of the city now. She orders a box of ice cream from the man sitting on a dirty couch. He gets up, and the couch creaks, the rusty springs being released. He serves her order, and she disappears into the shade of night. The man walks back to his ripped couch, and leans back. He stretches his arms, asks some men nearby who are playing cards about his wife who hasn’t come back from the house yet, and smiles.

 

***

 

Humor

July 16, 2004

 

“The man who takes life too seriously, who obeys library reading-room rules too honestly, who actually keeps off the lawn because merely a signboard says so, always makes a fool of himself and is usually subjected to laughter from his older colleagues, and since laughter is contagious, very soon he becomes a humourist, too.” (pp.68)

Ronald McDonald sits on a bench. He has a wry grin on his face, which is hardly discernable under the multiple coats of painting oil spread across his lips, his white-parched face, and his lumpy red hair. He stretches out on the bench, his legs propped into the air. He is frozen, immovable. Inside his restaurant, the tables are crowded. Bags of food are stacked on the counter, while the prices above glare, their gourmet prices set at twenty to thirty Yuan for a hamburger and French fries. In the eating area, people hover over their French fries, peering into the box. They hold chop sticks, carefully take out a French fry and then take the bag of ketchup, spreading a little red sauce over the potato. Then the ketchup bag is slowly put back onto the tray, to await its next victim.

Outside the windows, across the heavy street filled with honking horns and blazing jaywalkers, a little staircase goes underground, and within the door at the end of the staircase is a long room, not much taller than the height of a man, with glowing fluorescent lights and long cafeteria tables. People eat noodles, slurping up soup and taking big clumps of sticky rice, mixing it with stir-fried pork. People hand over small bills to the cashier at the back of the restaurant, one Yuan for a plate of rice, two Yuan for a bowl of noodles. The din of the voices is huge, as the walls seem to echo the sounds back and forth like a valley of stone.

A few blocks away, in the upper-floors of a hotel, a group of fancily-dressed diners partakes three-hundred plates of food, spread over thirty tables. Some of the men are wearing suits, although most have just put on a clean shirt and folded slacks. Some ladies are wearing dresses, although most of them wear colorful blouses and like the men, folded slacks. There is an aura of celebration at this party, as each dish comes to the table, a menagerie of animals and vegetables, cooked and seasoned with the look of a fresh rainbow and the taste of an island of spice. There are some who are downcast, whose faces look down, although their sadness is taken away by the laughter and jokes of their friendly funeral attendees. His father has just died – a great man, a master of ritual and a gentleman who would give his heart to any who asked. His ceremony was performed today, and the young man feels a pang of sadness, but the people at his table ease his soul.

Near the lobby of the hotel, the light turns red. A horde of people walk across the street, as cars slam on their brakes and buses screech to a halt, thundering their horns into the hot stonework of the roadway. The people continue en masse, jumping between cars, making their way across the street. As they reach about halfway, the green walking light blinks on.

Inside a store, its front open to the hardy street, a television glares from behind a glass window. Speakers are propped near the open door to the store, as two people, an older man with a sinking belly and a sprightly young boy (not much older than eleven) crack jokes, the audience behind the television camera bursting into laughter. A group of men and women are gathered to watch the show from behind the glass window, and they laugh at the jokes. Although the jokes really aren’t that funny. The older man makes a jibe at a character in Chinese literature, one Xuanzang, and then the boy replies about how his mother said the same thing after she came home from shopping. Both audiences roar. The horns continue. The diners exit the hotel, calling taxis and rushing to buses. Ronald McDonald continues to sit on his bench, amused but covered in too much glaze to mention his happiness.

 

***

 

Conservatism

July 17, 2004

 

“Behind all the outward changes of custom and woman’s dress and habits of locomotion, the Chinese retains a sneering smile for the hot-headed young man who wears a foreign coat or who speaks English too well. That young man always looks immature and is often shamed out of his progressiveness.” (pp.74)

In the development district, steel buildings stand like monuments, their glass eyes peering into the steaming alleyways and the brightly lit barber salons. Cars rumble past the stop lights. Roller-bladers sweep over the flat square near the newly constructed mall, skating in unison, right foot, left foot, right foot, as if they were balancing on ice. A block away, the whitewash of foreigners dances in the park of a regal apartment complex. White-faced children zoom around on bikes and razor scooters, while a brown dog chases flies through the emerald green grass. A husband and wife sit on an ornate chair, beneath a beautiful arch carved into vines and leaves. The noise of the outside world has faded to a whisper, save for the huge metal tower rising above the tops of the apartment courtyard.

On the street outside the apartments, a young hooligan waits for his bus. He has long, black hair, flowing past his shoulders like a heavy rug. It is colored different shades of red and yellow, giving his head the feel of a sunset. He receives strange looks from those around him – the little woman who wears sunlight across her face, the young girl in the long, white dress who holds a scruffy white puppy in her arms, and the older man who holds a mysterious, bulky bag under his arm, and carries the earth in his gaze, his cheeks smeared in tan. One older girl, perhaps twenty-three, gazes every now and then at the hooligan, but as he turns to return the favor, she blushes and looks away. She is saved by the stopping of the bus.

As the bus comes to a stop again, the hooligan gets off and walks into a bookstore. He finds the books on Confucius, a mammoth volume of books spanning an entire section of the bookstore, and is left in the mist of the great sage. He is taken into the analects, into the studies by Mencius and the scholars of Confucius, into the impact of Confucius on the Chinese old world, on the esteem of gentlemen, on the attire of respect, on the need for filial piety and respect for one’s ancestors. All these things he reads, and as he does, the color on his head darkens a little more. He reads of the importance of education, and the individual responsibility a man must take to continue the goodness of a community spirit.

In a kindergarten, across the straits of the city, a little boy repeats those same words of Confucius, about education and the goodness of the community spirit. He has memorized them, spent long hours both at home and at school during his morning classes, memorizing the book. This is his test now, and the teacher listens carefully, marking on a sheet any mistakes he makes. Now he has finished, and the girl moves onto a different topic, asking him who invented the light bulb and the date of the founding of the PRC. Beyond the window, his words escape into the clouds, and they garner the sky with spirit.

 

***

 

A Certain Cycle of Growth

July 18, 2004

 

I’ve been in the process of reading through Journey to the West, the giant folk epic of China. In the story, each of the characters represents one of the five Taoist elements (the same things that Chinese medicine is based from). According to Taoism, the elements work in conjunction with each other in a cycle. But according to Wu Cheng En, the elements go further and actually represent different aspects of human nature. He uses them in the story not only to contrast personality types, but to regulate the cycle of growth.

 

Wood: I get off the couch, and walk to the bedroom. Lying down, I try to unravel what just happened. Six hours on a couch, watching seasons of old television shows. Outside, the construction workers zap a leg of metal with a string of super-hot fire. They cut into the metal with a twirling razor blade, and the sound bounces off the buildings, along with the voice of children playing in the park below. The lights of night are in the room, humming on the walls, dancing off skin. I remember sitting on the couch six hours ago, and then everything blurred into a long, lake of illusion. I recall spending the morning at the internet cafe, writing, and reading. It was Saturday. I had planned to go to the park in the morning and capture the morning exercises on my video camera, but I woke up late and realized they were probably all preparing lunch or sitting on the benches now. So now I think about this, and other things. Perhaps tomorrow I can capture the morning exercises. Yes, I will.

 

Fire: She’s cheating me! It goes through my head the whole meal after I notice the woman sitting on the table next to me also asked for rice, but I do nothing. I silently eat the bowl of rice she has given me, and when the pork comes, I say nothing. I know instinctively that I will be charged more, yet I am curious to find out if I might be wrong. Of course, I should have said the bowl was too big (it was, actually), but perhaps I thought she was being nice. As I finish the meal, I ask the price and my perceptions were correct. My bowl of rice did cost more than the other woman, and yet, I said nothing. I glibly hand her the money and accidentally give her a dirty look, and then skip down the stairs to the sidewalk. I chastise myself, and mentally make a note to always ask the price of a meal before I start to eat it.

 

Earth: I am proud of myself. Holding the menu in front of me, and also a translated menu in English, I decode the restaurant menu, breaking up the characters into separate food items, and then combining them into proper meals. Looking onto the translated English food items, I convert the Chinese into English, and as the waitress comes I speak loudly, and ask for my meal. She understands perfectly, and yells to the cook to start preparing it. She has a surprised look on her face, and smiles at me. I wonder with amazement at the event, how it being eleven months of my stay in China, and only now have I been able to order food without stumbling over the lines. Most of the time, the waitress stares at me as if she didn’t understand what I was ordering, and then when she finally understands what I want, she repeats what I just said to her in exactly the same way, the same tones even. Maybe it’s just the nature that a foreigner is speaking Chinese, and such a thing is unheard of.

 

Metal: The trees slowly crawl by. My feet pedal the bicycle over the track. About twelve feet below, five girls walk by, staring up at me and then losing interest as I pedal past them. A carousel is circling ahead of me, little children riding on frozen horses. The mirrors of the carousel are smudged, and the music is off. Only the carousel circles, and the parents watch from the outside. Next, a circular wheel turns, with a long bench on the inside filled with teenagers who grip metal bars. The wheel jumps up and down and turns wildly. The teenagers hold onto the bars and yell in delight. They are not wearing belts, and one girl loses her grip on the metal bar and she falls into the lap of her boyfriend, but then she grabs the bar again. In the billboard above the wheel is a picture of two people disco dancing. A crowd of about sixty teenagers watch the show, stand in line, and wait for their turn.

 

Water: The mall continues on, an everlasting line of clothing shops, gardens, and waxed floors. Earlier I had the urge to slide over the floors, but my Chinese shoes have worn out so much that they do not slide anymore. Curiosity grabs me and drags me to the end of the long hallway of lights. Children play in giant play sets, as if they were suspended in air. The play sets are walled in black netting. Some of the play sets are five stories tall, reaching up to the roof of the mall. Hard plastic slides, rope ladders, and colorful tubes connect the different levels. I turn left and find myself walking into an artificial garden, complete with a flowing creek, a fake stone bridge, and an arbor with vines curling around the wood. Beyond the arbor are arcade machines, buzzing with light and glaring dance and rock music. Teenagers and young men and women sit in car seats and drive fast cars through picturesque countrysides, two boys compete in a dance competition, stomping on touch sensitive circles, following the beat of a tune along with dance moves represented on the game screen, and an older woman busily inserts coins into gambling machine. Two older men play ping pong. The ball bounces off the table and rolls to my feet. I pick up the ball, throw it to the man (who catches it with one quick hand) and then walk outside the mall into the cool air. The courtyard is clear, save for a party of roller-bladers cutting lines into the sky.

 

***

 

Intelligence

July 18, 2004

 

“There can be nothing more silly, if we keep our minds clear enough to see it, than a man popping his head “over the top,” with gin-manufactured courage, in order to meet a lead bullet and die for a newspaper-manufactured “cause.” If he can use his head in reading newspapers, he will not be at the front, and if he can abstain from gin and keep a cool head, he should logically and humanly be in a blue funk.” (pp.77)

Two students amble among the long aisles of magazines at the post office. Every kind of individual can be seen here, from the beautiful girl staring at the poses in Vogue, to the construction worker at the back of the room, with a military weapons magazine cradled between his fingers. At the front of the room, about forty dailies are stacked onto a counter. People are crowded near the counter, staring at the various papers. Rarely is one bought – most people pick up a newspaper, read an article, and then walk out of the post office. The girl who holds the money pouch is sitting at a chair, reading a book.

The two students walk out of the post office, and board a bus. They both have bought English-learning magazines, although the periodicals are stuffed into their purses. After finding a seat at the back of the bus and waiting for the engine to start, they begin to practice their English. Interspersed with Chinese correction, they go through a course of business English, speaking Chinese in a long fluid sentence, and then inserting the word, “communication,” and “permit,” and “contract.”

The bus passes through the myriad of city districts, from the hive-apartments, past the fruit and misty meat markets, and onto the street of universities. This road continues on for miles, into the horizon beyond the city. Nine of the city’s twenty-one universities have window seats facing the street, their heavy steel gates and long avenues of tree paths bordering the busy road. The Institute of Technology, the First and Second Medical Universities, and the College are some of the names imprinted upon the golden signs seen from the bus. Bookstores and little restaurants, government buildings with statues of Mao and other famous party members, and people standing on the sidewalks, holding white Styrofoam boxes filled with chilled fruit popsicles: these are the attractions. Yet from beyond the holy gates, the masse of students throng, backpacks and dictionaries and ink-bag pens.

As the bus slows to a stop near the provincial university, the two girls amble off and cross the busy street. They avoid zooming buses and zagging taxis, and enter the university bookstore. Up the escalators they go, first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor, and finally they arrive on the sixth floor. The floor, like the other floors, is filled with little pathways and hidden rooms, opening into a vast lobby of shelves and shelves of printed paper, colorful covers, and simple piles of binding on flat tables. They find the English section, a little scrap of a corner in the store, filled with aisles of English classics, from The Call of the Wild, to Various Essays in English for the Good Student. Around and below them, the six floors of books weighs heavily on the earth, tilting a little closer to the earth as a book is removed from the shelf. And as each book is removed, the bookstore becomes a little higher, the steel beams of the foundation stretching, the seventh floor taking the form of a vague and faded outline, the blueprints shuffling through the air like birds.

 

***

 

The Inksplash Rain

July 25, 2004

 

Sailing in the Rain

 

in the thick rain, the inkplash rain,

in the solitary raising of hands,

the expectant eyes,

let me take you sailing

down a dream and dreamlike rivers,

gently, gentle we glide

into the winds and tides of five thousand years,

to the rocky shore where

dignity has confronted willful pride these five thousand years,

towards the somber firmament of rain,

towards the vast universe of sea,

towards the years of begonia blood, the grid of scorching veins.

 

The night bristles with light. In the far corners of the canal, people drink glasses of chilled beer, listening to a singer on a red stage, the green haze of the canal behind her. She wears a flowing beige dress, and sways with the music. Behind the audience, the glow of the St. Petersburg cafe, the neon tube lights, wash onto a white arbor and a wooden chapel. On the river, people pedal paddle-boats under the bridge, while above buses thunder and taxis flash like wind. The glass windows of high rise buildings are reflected in the water of the canal, moving to a certain, unfathomable rhythm. I stand on the corner of the bridge, while the boy to my left, dressed in black from head to feet, talks energetically on a cell phone, and the man to the right leans against the railing, watching the street for someone he knows. This could hardly be China, but no matter how hard the matter sways, the facts lie bare against the night sky.

 

hard we sail! in the rain

from which night and dawn refuse to separate,

i hold my pen for lamp,

and call a dawn in blackest night,

to make the morning rooster rouse

silent China! that China may grow to grandeur!

on every inch of blood-drenched earth,

plough peaceful acres,

through every clod of tear-drenched soil,

lay tear-free furrows;

step by step, track joy down

through the face of darkness and sorrow.

 

Beside the river, time grows still. The brightness of day hangs onto the edge of the earth, while the darkness of night climbs up into the horizon, its glimmering eyes and sandy, brazen voice sweeping across the plains. The people are gathered in the night market, a throng of thousands. They eat pork, grilled sheep, handle socks and old shoes and silver watches. They buy popcorn in Dixie cups, play cards under a swarm of mosquitoes, and heave ribbons while dancing to the song of a golden trumpet and a boom of drums. I meander through the market, blinded by the dizziness of lamplights, crushed among the multitude of bare arms and little children. The puddles of last night’s rainstorm show an alternate world – of marching millions, being pulled along the string of the earth to their end, upside-down faces laughing, smiling, yelling, passion emblazoned into the bones, all unknowingly despaired into the latitude of their demise. Yet I am also pulled along, willingly or not. Ahead, past the night market is a square aptly named Stalin Park, with a tall statue of several soldiers raising their heads victoriously into the heavens. A rock concert is being held; about five hundred people gathered in front of a stage, while the crooner on the red carpet bows to his happy crowd, and mourns the loss of his lover.

 

and in these hundred years, our fathers

never once dreamed

they were waking lions, or dragons

dancing in the clouds!

a century of battlefires,

of uncleansed bloodstains,

a century of war-ashes

still lie about the irreparable ruins;

a century of foreign might

compacted, chewed, devoured us.

the one thing China has not known is light,

the fields were not tilled, but shrapnel fell to plough them,

the trees were not yet tall, but they grew guns.

 

Umbrellas gather, yet there is no rain. Only the battering sun with its crushing might. The Sophia Church of Harbin stands above the umbrellas, its own green umbrellas rising like the whipped topping of a cake. It is a festival of umbrellas today, perhaps. A stage has been set up beside the church, and a woman and a man dance to a high energy song. The woman wears a strip of tight white cloth around her body, while the man wears a see-through black shirt and dark black pants. In the blue sky, birds fly, while some land on the pinnacles of the church, puff out their feathers, and take a nap in the shade, others show delight in free-flight, curving around the church in a group of ten, breaking the wind, and then cutting down into the crowd for a brief moment, and rising back into the clouds. Through the doors of the church, people give the attendant their ticket, and walk into the museum. Pictures line the walls, and models of early Harbin set in the altar area (now empty) are built with precision and propaganda. The colors of the church depicted in the model is exactly the same color the church is now, that same painted color all of the churches in Harbin have. A tour group brushes past me, while my gaze in transfixed on a computer screen below a painting of St. Peter.

 

the impact of our fathers sustained

we can but surmise in silence,

reading our textbooks,

and chewing on the aftermath of the Opium War,

in this thick rain, drop upon drop,

falls the inexorable sorrow of modern China,

from the hands reaching for help

in the billows of the South China sea,

to the footprints running for refuge

on the borders of Laos and Vietnam;

from the upheavels and calamities of the old country,

to the homeless driftings abroad,

the bitter struggle of the diaspora.

in our papers, wherever we turn,

the pages brim with China,

sailing lonely in the rain.

 

The children are restless. They flicker back and forth from complacency to irregularity. On the stage, the two MCs are speaking to the crowd. Above them, the perfect steel beams of the Dragon Tower curve into the clouds. The lights of the observation tower at the top are lit, and people walk along the glass floor, staring down at the show beneath. The children, meanwhile, are restless. They are a group of girls from some mysterious kindergarten (not the one I’m with, who are scurrying like fireflies because they are overfilled with boredom, their energy spilling off the top into fist-fights and screaming matches), and they wear military uniforms, complete with camouflage mini-skirts and military hats, and little white knee boots with camouflage lace twirling around the boot. Suddenly the music begins, and they run out onto the red stage, under the heat of the spotlights. They dance, running in circles and doing splits, doing somersaults and little ground flips, lying on the stage with one leg in the air, and then turning on the other leg, finally ending in a triumphal finale of form and design, with their hands raised into the air. The whole audience bursts into cheerdom.

 

in the rain, we too are sailing,

repelling demons and roses of vanity,

roar of applause, spittle of curses.

we are neither lions dormant,

nor dragon from distant Cathay,

just Chinese,

and the Chinese soil is beneath our feet,

in our blood and tears.

warmly we tread the breadth of

the begonia leaf.

no need of dreams, we can take to our hearts

the winds and tides of five thousand years,

the myriad miles of home.

 

Russian buildings line the street, while Chinese signs adorn the buildings. A McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken can be seen in the distance past the jeweled green trees, crowds of people going in and out. The sky is scattered with clouds, while the sun rises at noontide on a Saturday. Down an alley, the faces of some old Russian buildings are rotting away, as if their teeth had been punched out by a great wind. The ground is ripped up, and workers dig into the mud. A green fence covers the construction, and people walk by without noticing. They carry shopping bags. They disappear into shopping malls, and disappear down stairs into the underground city. On the sides of the street, are tables filled with bottle after bottle of liquor. A man selling the liquor at one of the stands cries out, “La wai! La wai!” An old grandmother totters past me, carrying an umbrella in one of her hands, and a little grandchild in her other. I stand in the middle of the street, and the many become like a circus of sounds, colors, and being.

 

sweep away the mists of gloom,

let us grow!

in a wild and stormy night,

though leaves may fall,

more fruits will swell.

leaping from our dream,

let us take a walk on the rocky shore

of dignity and willful pride,

let us watch the vast universe of sea,

soon, the bright day will dawn,

but till then, in the thick rain, the inksplash rain,

in the bold raising of hands,

and the determined eyes,

let me take you sailing.

 

-Xiang Yang, 1980

 

***

 

A Memory

July 31, 2004

 

The streets are quiet, hushed. Like a patter of rain, the sounds of rolling wheels and a light breeze through the trees. The clack-clack of keyboards, the random sick cough, and the squeal of an old bus coming to a stop, the doors rattling open, and the sound of a paint chip falling to the ground.

The memories pass – across the mind, a wave of nausea at first, and then a song. In the memories, the sky is clear like glass, the sun and clouds above the thin sheet separating reality from fiction – and an old man with a cane totters beside a community park. He is wearing a blue hat, and he turns up from the ground and stares hard into my face. He is a wrinkled man, with cheeks burned by the fires of history and eyes that have tasted the grime of the earth. In my memory, I smile at him – a folded smile, as if it were a toll I had to pay, and his mouth opens into teeth and a broad grin. As I walk past him, his figure blurs into mist, and when I turn back I can still feel his happiness, as if it were a spirit hovering while the body has disappeared.

I see bikes outside the window. Wagon-bikes, sport bikes, motor bikes, garbage bikes, speed bikes, dirt bikes, police bikes, silver and black and red, smudged by spots of dry mud; they lean against curbsides, old bricks, white tiled walls, and light poles. The people walk by, the mother with one small bag of groceries, the man carrying a white sack of grapes, the pair of girls holding hands, and the older woman across the street selling socks, shoe fillings, and toy trinkets. I forget the memory, reclaim it, but decide that more will come and release it.

 

***

 

Rooftops

August 17, 2004

 

In the tiny capsule, we speak. The words echo from one window to the other, bouncing around the little, glass-walled cabin. Around us, the world shifts, a painting of such eloquence, that perhaps it may be called reality. The towers of the city grow and diminish as the capsule climbs up the edge of the giant, steel wheel; the sun pokes out from a splotch of clouds, as if they were caught in the grip of God, being squeezed like a bag of mist. There is air above and below us, and the cabin tilts nefariously, each screech like a mute chuckle from the devil in the machine.

The city grows into the horizon. Hives of busy bees fly below, low to the ground, their wings smoky trails, their feet touching the ground in a rush of tires. Dots constantly move, as if the world were a huge slate of coloring paper, and as the sun breaks free from the clouds, the grey becomes washed with rainbows.

It all looks the same to me. The city, like any other city, the people, like all other people. It is only when the cabin rumbles, shakes, and the door slides open, that I smell the change. Three fat Russians eat ice cream. Old grandmothers do dance steps to the beat of a disco synth. A national anthem plays in the backdrop of the picture, the music coming out of a speaker hoisted into green, flowering trees. An old man, perhaps seventy-five years old, stands by an ice cream wagon hawking his popsicles, and little babies with butt-slit pants hop alongside their parents, while in the sunlit strength, the mother holds up a purple umbrella to shield her family from the sun.

 

***

 

Midnight Dancing

August 15, 2004

 

I can hardly imagine the first day I came to China, straggling into a Beijing hotel, staring outside the window at the strange fog that permeated the whole city for miles and miles. The fog was so thick, that I could not even see across the street to the other hotel. So I turned on the television, and saw for the first time Chinese television, a thing foreign, alien, and altogether strange. Then I received that knock on my hotel room, from the little girl not much older than myself offering to give me a massage. Closing the door with a humble apology, I finally decided to empty my pockets of the fifty business cards travel agents had stuffed into my pockets as I walked along the street to the hotel. I could not read the cards, and had no idea how to call them even if I knew how to use a phone, which I didn’t. I turned off the television, fell into bed, and dreamt.

 

And now I have finally woken. I rub my eyes, trying to focus on the world that is disappearing, on the sights which have grown so familiar, yet are still so foreign. I am surrounded by an ancient world which has unwillingly been thrust into a new land, the walls broken down by powers greater than its own. It is reeling from the impact, changing, shifting into another being. From the smallest detail, the lips of an old woman, to the huge monolith towers reaching into the sky, the change is happening and changing China as if a rush of wind had shaken the leaves from a tree, and a new forest was being planted.

 

I have come to love China, something that I thought I would never do. You see, to love something, truly love something, you must both love and hate it. I hate China, for it is a nation filled with thieves, drunks, and gamblers, who constantly fight against one another, and fill their time being immersed in petty and inconsequential conflicts, choosing to be governed by tyrants and ruled by greed. However, I love China, for the people show an undying loyalty to both their friends and most important, their family, they are righteous people who believe in the highest qualities of men, and they are a joyful people, hospitable to the last breath, and their souls glitter with the ancient qualities of goodness that have been lost to a world changing too fast to remember its history. This is true love – the balance between love and hate. You know you love something, when you have seen its greatest evil, and yet you still believe in it.

 

There is still much that I do not understand in China. I do not understand why men choose to fight in the public streets, and the people stand by, watching and increasing their number, yet do nothing, but treat it as a spectacle of jazz and glamour, rather than a menace. I do not understand why old ladies are forced to beg in the streets, or why you must fight just to buy a peach. I do not understand why the buildings must wait, half-carved for months, until the building permit arrives so that it can be finished; meanwhile the building has already fallen apart. I do not understand why the people elect a government that makes a mandate to enforce suffering amongst its own people, and I do not understand why the people do not try to change this. And there are many more things.

 

My experiences have been glorious. Perhaps my best experience in China, in a strange irony, was being forced to sleep for twelve hours on the floor of a dirty, smoke-filled, spit-infested closet, aboard a night train from Beijing to Xi’an. Being five minutes late to the appropriate train, my companion and I were forced to board a train overfilled with passengers, with most of the passengers being forced to stand the entire ride. I found a bed on the hard metal seat of the smoking cabin, a tiny room perhaps about two feet wide, and I spent the entire night curled up on the floor, trying to sleep. After the train arrived in Xi’an, I spent the next two days trying to recuperate, my eyes dizzy from trying to sleep and being unable to, my body weak, but my soul enlarged.

 

My worst experience in China was spent in my room, alone, after digesting a bottle of carbonated red tea, along with rice crackers, malt balls, and processed sausage. The combination did not settle well, and I spent the entire night throwing the food out of me into bags. I must have filled ten bags that night, and my room smelled like a garbage bin the next morning. My skin opened into pores that night, and my eyes grew red as peppers. I spent the next three nights shaking in my bed, trying to settle my body back to balance.

 

And I have had many other experiences, from sitting in the middle of a waterfall while watching a cliff-diver leap from the bluffs to the lake below, running below the ancient wall of Xi’an while skipping stones in the moat that surrounds the entire city, traveling the miles and miles of underground tunnels in perhaps one of the longest and largest shopping malls to grace the planet, walking along the banks of the Mudan River during the dead of winter with my hood pulled over my ears to stop the icy winds and the fresh silence of the night, to standing below the tinkling bells of a Buddhist monastery while listening to the rain pat against the rooftops. And many, many more.

 

There is a curious tradition here in China. It was started during the cultural revolution of the 60s, when all things Western were outlawed, including ballroom dancing. So the people fought back, as all Chinese people do against corruption in their own, quiet, un-confronting way. In the black of night, when the sun fell below the horizon and when the only light came from a few stars in the sky, they danced softly to Mozart or Strauss. They continued for hours, holding each other as the moon rose and the sounds of daylight faded into sleep. And today, they continue this tradition. In nearly every community in China, as the night falls, you can find old and young, strong and weak, ugly and beautiful, all dancing to the tunes of a rolling river or the sound of a sweet wind.

 

A few months before my Grandfather Leach died, he told me that he believed life, in its entirety, was one long day. All the nights and all the days amounted to nothing, he said, for a night was only when the sun went away for a little while and the day, when it came back. All of life, he said, is only a day.

 

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