I, once again, have not updated in a while. I need to post frequently because its the little things that yield the most poignant revelations, and when I go back and write about several days, I can only recall big events. I also can’t promise that these events occurred in this order either, but the general idea is still there.
I went to play basketball again early in the week; Tuesday or Wednesday, I believe. The way we played was different than last time. Once people noticed me playing, they would gather a team and call next on the court. I had not played where people were keeping score as of yet, and we were playing games to five. As I was playing, a crowd slowly developed. After about an hour, the entire half-court was completely surrounded. By this time, I had gotten the attention of a team of big guys. We were playing 4-on-4, and all of them were at least my height. My team was playing them, and the tallest guy decided that he was going to guard me. We went down a couple baskets early. Our team got the ball back, and I made a open jump shot from the wing about two feet inside the three point line. We got the ball back, and I made another jump shot from the same spot; this time the guy defending me actually tired to contest the shot. We got the ball back. My teammate passed it to me at the same spot. My defender backs up and lets me have the shot. I make it again. The crowd watching applauds. We get the ball back; I get it in the same spot; my defender backs off; I make it again; the crowd applauds. We get the ball back again; I get it in the same spot; my defender backs off; I make it; game over; everyone watching goes crazy. I was feeling pretty good. It was an experience that was a lot more fun than sitting on the bench for my high school basketball team.
That evening, I attempted to go downtown and run into some people I had met before like the day before. I got down there, and no one was around. I walked around looking for something I’d like to eat from the street vendors. I got some food, finished it, and started walking toward my bus stop. Then I ran into one of the Australians I had met before named Dane. He was going to meet a friend for dinner and invited me to come along. Given that I was more hungry for company to whom I could talk than food at this point, I agreed to come along but not eat. We met his friend, Dale, and headed out in search of a restaurant. Dane and Dale are part of a big group of eight Australians that are all from the same town. None of them went to college, and they just moved their entire group of friends to Harbin. They’re a friendly bunch, but they are definitely here to party. The two of them had a craving for Italian food. We found a Western restaurant, and they both got spaghetti, and we all shared bread, butter (which is a very rare commodity), and jelly. I enjoyed the conversation and watching them blissfully satisfy their cravings. After that we grabbed a beer at a corner store and went to McDonald’s for some fries. I also passed on the McDonald’s, but it was an odd experience being able to sit down in there and drink a beer.
We left from there to go to Blues. It was quiet because it was a weekday, but there were still a fair amount of foreigners there. I met two guys from the South, and it was very comforting. The first guy was named Jay; he’s from North Carolina. We got to talk about the Tabernacle and how great of a venue it is. The second guy was Oren from Texas. He has been in China for over two years, and he is planning on going home in December. I was very interested in what he had to say because he is on the tail end of his time here and he has a different perspective on Harbin because he has taught in rural areas in south China. One thing he said really stood out to me. He said that if he is in Harbin, he might as well be at home. In Harbin, they are trying to live an American life, and they don’t do it as well. It would be better to be at home than the poor man’s version of home. I definitely understood where he was coming from in terms of his frustration with the level of Westernization in Harbin, but it was also comforting to know that he had been elsewhere and seen places that retained their culture.
Thursday morning I had my first class. The department head of the Mechanical and Electronic Technology Department walked me to my class to show me where it was. When I walked into the door, the class began to applaud. I was stunned. The department head introduced me, and there I was. The class is about twenty-five students; only two of them are girls. One class is divided into two fifty minute sessions. For the first session, I told them about myself. I told them where I was from, what I had studied, how old I am, and the things I like to do. Then I explained how the class would be structured. The mid-term and the final would be worth forty percent each and participation and class work would be worth twenty percent. In other words, I get to arbitrarily choose their grade. I made them fill out an information card for me with their Chinese and English names, age, where they are from, future occupations, and hobbies. When I was in high school, my mother and I would sit together at the kitchen table. I would do my homework, and she would grade papers. Sometimes, I would stop my work to read what her second graders had written and share a laugh with her. I quickly gathered that the writing of my students will be similarly entertaining. I haven’t read all the cards but my favorite thing I have read was someone’s English name. Somewhere in their English education process, they get to choose a name. Someone chose “Robot”. I can’t wait to call on Robot in class. Caterpillar, the construction machinery company, heavily recruits students from my school, and my students are being trained to be factory workers for Caterpillar. The vast majority of students are from small towns in Heilongjiang province. Two students are from Harbin, and two students are from outside the province.
Figuring out that most of the students were from small towns made my basketball experiences make much more sense. The only student I had met at this point was Susan who speaks great English and is very familiar with Americans and American culture, so I guess I generalized my knowledge of Susan to student body as a whole. I couldn’t understand why I was such a novelty to so many students. When I learned that most of my students were country kids who never leave the university and had probably seen less than a handful of white people in their lives, the crowds I drew at the basketball courts made much more sense.
The second half of class we had a question and answer session. I had planned on standing in the front of the class and just going down rows and make each student ask me a question, and then I would reply and ask them a question. When I gave a ten minute break, students started asking me questions. I told them to wait until class started again because that’s what we were going to do next, but eventually, I just sat down in the middle of the classroom and answered questions. Students coming back from break just gathered around. We had the whole second half of class in that format. Most of the questions I was asked I had already answered in the first session, but I guess I went too fast for them to understand. The most interesting question I was asked was if the education system in America is good. I said that its good if you have money. If you have money, you can live in a good place with good schools. If you go to a good school, you have a better chance of going to a good college, and if you go to a good college, you have a better chance of getting a good job. So, the education system is good if you have money, but no so good if you don’t, and this expands the general disparity in wealth by effecting the chance of finding a lucrative job. I asked if this was the case in China, and the class went silent. No one wanted to tackle that question. They all looked at each other afraid of what the other one’s would think about what they said. I asked the question again. Finally, one of the girls nodded that no, that was not the case. I really enjoyed my first class and thought it went really well for not having a clue about what I’m doing.
When I wrote information about myself on the board, I put my e-mail address and cell phone number on the board. I told them that I knew that none of them have English speaking friends and that I wanted to be available to them to practice their English or hang out. I also said that I would like to be friends with all of them outside class. Later that day I started receiving text messages.
First text message:
Hi, Ryan. I’m Arthur. The first paper is mine. I hope you will be happy everyday.
Thank you. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.
Second text message:
Hello techer I am your student wang zhi yu I have a question to ask you. Do you like Chinese food? Happy every day!
My reply: Yes, I like Chinese food. I will see you in class tomorrow.
Third text message from Crystal:
Hi! Ryan. I am your student. Welcome to you, you will enjoy staying China. I wish we become real friends.
Fourth text message from Wang Zhi Yu (now Dave):
Ok I like you very much. Welcome to our shool. What are you doing now? I have supper now.
I am downtown right now. We should have dinner together sometime.
Fifth text message from Wang Zhi Yu:
Oh thank you very much! Are you free tomorrow evening? My classmates want to have diner with you. Would you like to?
My reply: Sure, tomorrow we will eat dinner.
Sixth text message from Wang Zhi Yu:
Ok welcome! See you tomorrow.
Seventh text message from Arthur:
Ryan,It’s much colder in Harbin than that in USA,please wear more cloth. If it can,we’ll be very good friend
Eighth text message:
Hello Ryan.I’m your new student. I’m Robot.I’m very like you .your class is very interesting.I think you are a good teachdr.
Text messaging is probably my least favorite form of communication. It takes me far longer to send a text message than it does to just call and say what needs to be said. Furthermore, I have developed a phobia about text messaging after hearing how much my brother had to give my dad for too many text messages in one billing period. However, the Chinese only study English to pass written exams, so there isn’t much emphasis on speaking. They are far more comfortable with reading and writing than speaking and listening, so I guess I can suck it up for their sake. I am thankful for their efforts to try to get to know me and make me feel comfortable.
After class, I had plans to go swimming with Susan. The swim was nice. Afterwards she invited me to go with one of her friends to the “meeting square”. I accepted the offer even though I hadn’t planned my lesson for the next day. When I met with her later, she was by herself. She said that her friend had to study. We took a cab, and when we arrived, I realized we were at the same mall where Chris had taken me the day I arrived. Its called “Hongbo 2”, and I asked on the way there if that’s where we were going because we were taking the same route and I didn’t really care to go. She said that we weren’t, so I was in dismay when that was were we got out. I try my best to avoid malls at home, and I would probably rather gouge my eyes out with an icepick than going shopping with a girl. You can imagine my excitement. We got to spend considerable amounts of time in the best stores like the Mickey Mouse store and the Snoopy store. I found out what the most famous Chinese brands are. I did enjoy trying on the largest winter coats in the stores and having the sleeves come down to the middle of my forearm. I also enjoyed when she would try to tell me something was a famous American brand and I got to tell her it wasn’t.
We went into a store, and I was wandering around aimlessly. I was sifting through some jeans and to my surprise, found some in my size. I told Susan that they had jeans in my size. They weren’t expensive, 65 yuan (a little over $8); I had the money to pay for them on me. She asked if I was going to buy them. I said no; it was just good to know if I could if I needed to. I brought two pairs of jeans, and I think that is sufficient. However, one pair is an old favorite. A hole is developing in the knee and a fairly sizable ventilation system has formed in the crotch. If it spreads, I’ll get a new pair of jeans, but until then, there is no reason for me to spend money on jeans. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t buy them. They were in my size. I had the money. I said I didn’t need them. She said the same thing, but I had the money and they were in my size. I said I didn’t want them. We moved along.
We concluded our evening by going to the McDonald’s in the mall. She bought a milk shake; I didn’t get anything. I got to partake in another one of my favorite pastimes, listening to girls talk about their relationship problems. I got to hear about all the issues and fights between Susan and her boyfriend dramatically and in detail. I wasn’t interested.
I had to come back and wash clothes for the next day of class. Washing clothes with my equipment is quite the task. Just getting the washing machine working required the help of two people. I had tried to wash two days earlier, but I realized that my washing machine was not plugged in. There was no outlet near were it was either. Then next day Diana came by, and I asked her if she knew how to use my washing machine. She didn’t. She got one of the workers to come and explain how to use it to me. Diana translated. Ask the worker was demonstrating, she realized that the machine was broken. I had to help her carry a new one into my room and take the old one out. The way it works is I have to pick up the washing machine (its not big) and put it in the bathroom. The drain cover to the shower has to be removed, and I have to run a tube from the washing machine down the drain. The hot water heater has to be unplugged to provide an outlet. My washing machine has two chambers, one for washing and one for the spin cycle. I have to take sopping wet clothes out after 15 minutes in the wash and put them in the spin cycle. Usually after the wash cycle, all that happens is that everything takes on the smell of the smelliest thing in the washer, so a repeat wash is necessary. I’m going to start sorting clothes by smell rather than color that way I don’t have several “bad apples” ruining different loads. I don’t have a dryer, so I have things draped all over my room. Its the first time I’ve used the TV since I’ve been here. Its pretty labor intensive, unlike washing clothes back home. To top it all off, before the washing cycle ends, the washing machine plays the most horrible rendition of “Its a Small World”, an annoying song in itself.
I had asked my boss, Mr. Lu, if he knew of any Chinese classes I could take in the city. Since I knew I was only going to have eight teaching hours a week, I didn’t want to be bored, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time than learning the language. He inquired at a meeting he had with the international department heads of the other schools in the city. Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) and Harbin Engineering University both had introductory Chinese classes. I sent e-mails to both, and someone from HIT e-mailed me back. I went over there Friday morning, and I was delighted to find out that there was a class that would work with my schedule. I would only have to miss one day of class a week, and I would get sixteen hours of class time a week. I was told I could start class on Monday even though classes had already been meeting for a week.
When I got back from HIT, I prepared my lesson for later in the day. My second class also went well. By request, be talked about American sports for the first session. I focused on football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. They were most excited about learning basketball vocabulary. I was impressed by the number of NBA teams that they could name. In explaining a little bit about hockey, I mentioned that hockey was most popular in the North. That lead to me having explain the divisions of America into four regional cultures the North, South, Mid-West, and West and ideas associated with each region. I was shooting so much information at them; there were a lot of blank faces. For the second lesson, I taught about the Beatles. The day before I had been asked about Chinese and American bands (they said “music team” for band at first) that they knew and thought I would know. This lead to me talking about the Beatles, and for mostly selfish reasons, I decided that the second session would be about the Beatles. I gave them some background on the Beatles. I brought in my computer, so I played songs for them written by each of the band members. For the majority of the session, we did a listening exercise with Hey Jude. I played one line at a time until they figured out what the lyrics were. Once we had transcribed a verse, we would sing it together. We made it through three verses. Everyone seemed to enjoy the exercise.
On Friday night, I had dinner with the students who had text messaged me. Yu was the one who had sent me the message. Three of his classmates, friends, and roommates who were also my students also came. They’re named Bei, Feng, and the third already had an English name. I thought he said his name was Christa which I thought was an exotic name to choose. Later, I found out his English name is Crystal. I don’t have the heart to tell him that its a girls name.
We took a cab to a restaurant somewhere unbeknownst to me. All of the tables were equipped with gas ranges. We ate a dish called huo guo. Its like fondue. There is a boiling pot in the middle of the table. Our pot was divided down the middle; one side was spicy and the other mild. My students ordered a feast. There we plates full of beef, pork, lamb, squid, vegetables, and noodles. It was great. My students laughed at my ability (or lack thereof) to use chopsticks. They laughed at each other’s inability to speak English. Every time I would say something, they would huddle up, determine what I said, and decide who would be the best one to try and speak. The three students that didn’t have English names asked for one. I named Bei Brad, and Feng Fred, and I couldn’t think of a good name that started with Y for Yu. I named him Dave in honor of David Hume.
They ordered beer. For the first round, we all said cheers and downed our glasses. I thought that would be the end of it. Every time I would pick up my glass to drink, everyone would drink too. I’m probably twice their size, and they don’t go out and drink. I had to look up the word for drunk in my pocket dictionary before the end of the night.
They were always sure that my plate was full. Someone served me a squid. I knew I don’t like squid, but I was going to eat it to be polite. I said to Crystal that I didn’t know if I was going to like it. That got everyone’s attention. I ate the little squid and smiled and nodded while I was chewing to act like I liked it. Another one got put on my plate immediately. I waited a little while to eat it while no one was looking. Once I ate it, another one got put on my plate. I waited a long time to eat it, and when I did it was cold. I was not pleased and determined the next one I got I would eat immediately so it would still be hot. There were only about fifteen squid; I had met my quota and was hoping not to get any more. Sure enough, I got another one and ate it immediately. Another was put on my plate, and it stayed there.
The next morning I went to Carrefour. I decided to buy an iron because I don’t have a dryer. I needed to buy food too, but I didn’t bring enough money. I bought the cheapest ironing board and iron along with some good pens and a notebook for class on Monday. Its about a quarter of a mile or so to Carrefour, and it was awkward carrying an ironing board back home. I’m big and white enough; I don’t need to hold an ironing board on the street to stick out.
After looking around for our team’s jersey on the street without any luck, I ventured to the soccer game. We played a different Korean team this week, but the results were similar. We won 5-2, which means I got to play. It was fun to run around. My teammates gave me better instruction this time, so I didn’t feel so lost. They told me to mark this one guy and to be physical with him. Given that I was a foot taller and had fifty pounds on than him, it was really easy to keep him away from the ball.
Afterwards, several players and I went out to one of the player’s apartment that is near the university where we play. Things were fine for a while, then the situation got volatile when other people came. I was sitting between two people that were about to come to blows. I kept looking around the room for someone to make eye contact with who thought the situation was ridiculous as well. One of the other players named Mark looked equally perplexed by the situation. When left the apartment, we all went to Hit Bar. I sought out Mark’s thoughts on the events of the evening and his experiences in Harbin in general. He has been in Harbin exactly the same amount of time I have been here almost to the hour, and it was interesting to find out that he had reached some of the same conclusions I had about the city. We had an interesting conversation over two BLTs. Hit Bar serves western food. Their BLT was the most delicious thing I have eaten since I have been here. The bacon was cooked on a grill in the same room, and the smell made me want to drool. The sandwich was dripping with mayonnaise. It has really spurred cravings for food from home. The conversation was good too. Mark is Dutch, so he had a different perspective on international politics. He isn’t a teacher; he’s a Chinese student at HIT. We agreed to go hang out the next day.
The next morning I went back to Carrefour. I had literally no food or water, and I was starving. Going to the grocery store that morning was probably the most excited I’ve been since I got here. Having my craving for Western food aroused the night before by the BLT, I scoured every aisle in Carrefour. I found cereal. Its like coco puffs; waking up has been a treat this week. I found the equivalent to Pringles and Little Debbies. I bought pounds of fruit and vegetables. I found sliced bread. I got chunky and creamy peanut butter to go with my apple and apricot jam. Finding all this food was a delight.
When I got back, I put up all my groceries and my purchases from the day before. My ironing board was wrapped in clear plastic. When I took it off, one of the legs fell off. The screws pulls straight out of the wood. I had bought the cheapest one without any thought of doing otherwise. I don’t need nice things. Everything that goes into my room is getting left behind. But what about the Chinese? Its more cost effective to buy something that’s going to last for a little bit more than to have to buy cheap products over and over. Maybe they want whole Pringles instead of the crushed up imitation Pringles that I bought. Maybe this explains their infatuation with brands. With certain brands, you can be assured of a certain level of quality when you buy it. I guess that’s the origin of brands being important. You buy a certain brand of hotdog because you think at that company they’re not scraping the meat off the ground to make the hotdog. I’m still very skeptical when it comes to clothes though. I doubt the five shirts you can buy at the market for the same price of the one name-brand shirt at the mall will all disintegrate before the name-brand shirt does. I’m in a new place and feeling generous with my interpretations of experiences, so I’m going to assume that they’re in a state where most products are shoddy and brands provide a certain level of quality rather than simply a status symbol.
Sunday afternoon, I went downtown to meet up with Mark and walk around. Neither of us has seen that much of the city, so we agreed to wander around together. Mark brought a friend who is enrolled in the Chinese program at HIT as well. His name is Sven; he’s Swiss. It was good to walk around and talk with them. They are here for some of the same reasons I’m here, and I don’t know if I can say the same about many of the English teachers.
We walked along the river; then we went to Zholin Park. Zholin Park is supposed to be one of the good tourist sites in Harbin. All the locals just walked in for free, but we were stopped and made to pay the two yuan entrance fee. It was very small and bizarre. In the winter, the ice sculpture festival is there, but it was set up like a small carnival for the summer. Everything in the carnival had something to do with guns. There was a little train for kids. It was a short track, probably on about 50 yards long. Instead of train cars, in the front of the train, they had monster trucks with toy guns mounted on the hood, and in the back of the train, the cars were two-seater anti-aircraft guns. An old woman gave a good pitch in sounds and hand motions to ride on these bumper hovercraft with guns mounted on the handbars, but we declined. All the carnival games had something to do with guns. The only things I didn’t see with guns were the paddle boats in the small pond, but I didn’t get a good look; maybe there were guns mounted on those too.
We grabbed some food after leaving and spent the afternoon lounging in front of the St. Sophia Cathedral. There was a father and son pair of Chinese tourists that approached me and asked me to be in a picture. The dad took a picture of his son and I in front of the cathedral. Sven and Mark said I was the only one smiling in the picture. I was just flattered that I was the one selected for the picture instead of either of them.
My first day of Chinese class was Monday. I was thoroughly overwhelmed. The entire class was in Chinese, and I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t have my books yet either. Luckily there was a guy from Yemen sitting next to me who had started on the same day. He had his books, and we managed to figure out what was going on most of the time. That night when I went home to study, things got easier. I felt a lot better during the second class, and I feel like I’m going to really enjoy the class. I just need to spend some time with my students and have them tutor me a bit to catch up.
I have been having dinner with the same students with whom I went to dinner on Friday every night this week. We’ve been going to the cafeteria at school. I like the cafeteria food because its the dumbed-down version of real Chinese food; it tastes like the Chinese food at home. Its very convenient and inexpensive as well. They have become progressively more comfortable talking to me in English, and they have been very helpful in learning Chinese. Last night, they invited me to come to their room. All four of them live in the same room with two other roommates. Two rows of lofted beds line the walls of a long narrow room. Under each bed is a desk and a locker. That is all the “personal” space they have. They put on a cassette of bad 80s music that I had never heard before for me. We had a great conversation. I asked them about their hometowns and whether they considered themselves rich or poor. They all said that they come from poor families, and somehow we got back on the subject of wealth disparity from class. They said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and it is a big problem in China. They are all going to get jobs as factory workers for Caterpillar when they graduate, and that is a big step up in their eyes. They asked what I studied again, and there was a dictionary on hand, so they actually understood what I meant when I said that I studied philosophy. They immediately brought up Karl Marx. They had read Marx. I asked them if they thought the government was in line with Marxist thought with the growing disparity in wealth in China. They said no, and I told them that I agreed. They started asking about philosophers, and I made a list of them that I had read. They hadn’t read any of them besides Marx, but they knew of about half of the ones on the list. I offered them some of the philosophy they I brought with me even though it was in English.
After dinner today, I showed them my room. I was hesitant because my room is three times the size of their room, and I didn’t want to make them upset or discontent in their room. Crystal said I should have a girlfriend to put in my room. We talked about their families and their prospects working for Caterpillar. They will all work for Caterpillar, so I wondered if they would all work in the same factory. They told me that there are factories in Harbin, Beijing, and Hong Kong, and all of them hope that they will get placed in Beijing. They have no choice on where they will work though. They will graduate in the spring of 2008, and the Olympics will come to Beijing that summer. I really appreciate their company and the insight they give me into rural China even though I’m in a rich, Westernized city by Chinese standards. Plus, they don’t bring up Mickey Mouse.
Today after Chinese class, all the students and the teacher went out to lunch. Sunday was Teachers’ Day (which brought about some interesting text messages), and one of the Korean students arranged for everyone to chip in money for a gift. He invited her to lunch today, and we gave her the gift there. Lunch was delicious; it was some of the best Chinese food I’ve had since I’ve been here. The dynamic at lunch was funny. There were two tables. At the other table, they spoke Chinese as best the could because the teacher was sitting at that table, and she doesn’t speak any other languages. At our table, we spoke English because the English speakers don’t know Russian or Korean, but the Koreans and Russians knew a bit of English. We talked a lot about exchange rates and the cost of goods. Its twenty-seven rubles to the dollar, and it is 700,000 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. Zimbabwe has no currency right now; they are only using checks at the moment. The Russians were curious to know much certain cars cost. Everyone was extremely cordial, as they are in class as well. We also talked about the food and the girls from our countries. The Russians think that American food is bad, but American girls are beautiful. I had to confess that we had our share of ugly ones too.
Well, it has been a task getting this all down, as I’m sure that I was to read. I’ll try to do better with more frequent posts rather than long posts. I’ve been taking some pictures, and I’ll put them up soon. Thanks for staying in touch.