High Fashion/Thanksgiving

I think I have the order of the events in this post mixed up. I’m pretty sure that the first story was something I forgot to put in my last post because I will still taking my Chinese class. Nonetheless, the first story fits better with this post with its “High Fashion” theme, and I don’t think the order detracts from these stories.

On one Sunday, Grace and I went to Carrefour. We were ogling at overpriced cereals when a Chinese man approached us. I would say he was about in his twenties. He asked me if I could speak Chinese. I said that I could speak a little. Since the ability to say, “I can speak a little” immediately qualifies me a fluent, he started talking to me at one hundred miles per hour. I kept some variety in the conversation by alternating between the three phrases I know for, “I don’t understand.” Finally, he said, “Model.” I thought, “Jackpot.” Johnny, one of my foreign friends that I have referenced several times in this blog, works as a model and told me about it. He said that you make eight hundred yuan for about two to four hours of work. It sounded like lots of easy money. (I’d like to make a side note about Johnny. Johnny is pretty well integrated into China. He has been in China for three years; his oral Mandarin is very strong; he has a Chinese wife. He eventually got tired of teaching, so now he just finds random jobs only available for foreigners to support himself. Modeling is one example. Another example is he was paid to record all the English announcements for all trains going to and from Harbin. When Marc and I went to Beijing, we were comforted by our friends voice telling us to have a good night. He is a good example that just about anything is possible for white people in Harbin if you have certain skills and connections. Back to the story at hand.) I told this guy in the supermarket that we would be interested. He asked for my name phone number. I told him, and he pulled a business card out of his fanny pack for me.

The next day while I was in Chinese class, the people from this modeling agency called me. One person started talking to me, and pace and vocabulary were beyond my comprehension. I guess he got frustrated and handed the phone to someone else. This other person wisely spoke simply and slowly. I made an appointment to go to their office the next day at three, and I was told to bring a Chinese friend with me. I came back and told Grace about it. I told her this would be a good way to make some extra money for traveling, and she agreed to go with me.

The following morning, I arranged for Chinese Mark to serve as our translator. We had a long bus ride to the agency’s office, but Mark made the ride a bit more informative. He is a tourism management student, and he wants to be an English tour guide in Harbin. He must have spent countless memorizing facts about the city. He was able to tell us the answers to our most pressing questions about Harbin such as how long Zhongyang Dajie is and how large the cobblestones are on the street. Some of the history lessons were nice though.

When we arrived, they gave us information forms to fill out. I was a bit surprised. I figured that we wouldn’t have to go through any formal process to get a job with them. I wondered if this was the same modeling agency that employed Johnny because he made it sound as though the agency really wanted white models. I kept telling Grace, “We are interviewing them; they are not interviewing us.” We filled out half the form and expected to see someone shortly. There office was on the top floor of a twenty-two story building in one of the nicer areas of Harbin. There was a big open room with wooden floors and a raised runway. This room had a wall that was entirely windows, and you could see out across the city. We sat on a couple of couches looking at Chinese fashion magazines. We had waited for far longer than we expected when Johnny and another foreigner, Boyd, walked in. They were there to attend one of their classes they had to complete before they started having to do shows. I was relieved to see that this was the same place that Johnny worked, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Johnny started telling me more about what they had to do. They had to complete ten classes before they started getting work. The classes were unpaid. They were supposed to go to three classes a week but had maybe only attended one class a week. We chatted with them for a minute, and when they found out they missed their class, they left to eat dinner.

We waited a little while longer. Because of my “we are interviewing them” mindset, I became agitated and told Marc to tell the receptionist that we were leaving in fifteen minutes. The receptionist ran back into one of the interview rooms to talk to one of the bosses. She came back and told us that someone would talk to us in a minute. We finally were lead back to one of the interview rooms.

Mark started translating what the boss was telling us. The boss gave us a run down of his company. He told us that he started this company from the ground up, and it was the first modeling agency in Harbin. He said they focused on runway modeling instead of photography, but he showed us a picture of their model in a magazine (or he at least showed us a picture of someone in a magazine that may or may not be affiliated with his company for all I know). Then he told us to stand against a wall so he could look at our posture. I was fine with this, so I stood up and put my back to a wall. After getting a good looking-over, he concluded that one of my shoulders is higher than the other. It was Grace’s turn next; she faired much better on the posture test. Then we were told to strike six poses. This was a stab to my “we are interviewing them” attitude, but I was tickled by the idea. I played along. Grace was much more self-conscious about this part, but I reassured her, “Remember, we are interviewing them; they are not interviewing us.” Once again, I had to be corrected in my poses, and Grace received no criticism. The final phase of our interview was the runway walk. The boss put on some music and told us to walk to the beat. I confidently strutted my stuff much to the liking of the boss. He was very complimentary of my walk. Grace was still feeling a bit uneasy about being examined, but she went for it. The boss critiqued her but also said she had a pretty walk.

After Grace and I proved to be sufficient models, we went back to the interview room to talk about a contract. First, we were told that if we signed a contract we would not be able to work for anyone else. We would be paid eight hundred yuan for each show, and the contract would last for one year. We would have to attend ten classes to prepare for shows, and we could go with Johnny and Boyd if we liked. The classes would be free, but we would not get paid to go to them. Then he told us that we would have to pay six hundred yuan to sign a contract. We said there was no way that we would pay to sign a contract. I assumed that there was no way Johnny would have paid to work there; he talked bad about himself for modeling and would not have paid money to do it. If he had paid anything, I’m sure he would have told me. Then the boss said that the money would be for the classes. We said that we thought the classes were free. He told us that we would have to make an investment if we wanted to become models. I figured at this point, even if he did say we didn’t have to pay anything to work there, I wouldn’t trust them. We weren’t looking to be the famous models of his sales pitch; we wanted easy money. We went home and left our shattered dreams of a modeling career behind us.

Here is what I think happened. They probably would make a lot of money having white models, so they certainly wanted us to work there and normally wouldn’t have requested money up front. However, Johnny and Boyd were wasting there time, and the agency wasn’t able to make any money on them. When we came, they figured that they should at least try to make money off of us in the front end, so if we never panned out like what appeared to be happening with Johnny and Boyd, they would have at least made some money. The interview process was all a show to make it seem like we were not in the level of demand we actually were in. When we said we wouldn’t pay, they couldn’t lose face and let us start without paying.

The next day, I didn’t have to teach or go to class, so I figured I would take Grace down to the river. I think it is by far the prettiest spot in the city, and it has certainly been my favorite place just to pass time and do some people-watching. We took a bus down to the river, and once we got past all of the buildings, we were hit in the face with a razor-sharp wind. The lack of trees or buildings let the wind pick up force over the river. It was not enjoyable in the least. Now that the weather has turned cold, it has left my favorite place in the city inaccessible, and now that I am no longer taking my class, it seems that Grace and I are bundled into our little section of the city for the rest of the winter for the most part.

In one of my tourism management classes, there is a student named Sino. He is one of the notorious Harbin gangsters. Harbin gangsters are rich kids that imitate American street culture. They listen to bad American rap music, wear baggy clothes, and some even break dance. During the our second class, he came up to me and asked me if I like rap music. I probably said something like, “Not really. Do you?” He said that he really likes street culture and music. At that time, he had his hair in cornrows. I asked him if he knew what his hairstyle was called. He said no, and it was harder than I though it would be to try to explain why they carry this name. After class one day, we played basketball together along with one of his classmates, Sam. After the next class, he invited me to go play pool. We agreed to eat dinner and play after class next week.

Sino, Sam, Chinese Mark, who is good friends with Sam, and another person I hadn’t met named Terrence, Grace, and I all went to dinner the following week. We had jaozi. Terrence spoke with some sort of Chinglified British accent (Chinglified is a word I just made up and is derived from the term Chinglish which means Chinese English). I asked if he had a British English teacher. He said that he had studied in Australia and New Zealand. This is the only young Chinese person I have met that has left the country. I knew he would be are rare case, so I started asking him a bunch of questions. He is from Qiqihuar, the second largest city in Heilongjiang Province. I asked him what he studied when he was abroad; he said fashion design. I asked him if he had a job; he said no. Told me that money isn’t important; all he wants to do is be happy. I was taken aback by that answer. It was the first time I had heard a Chinese person denounce the importance of money, but I shortly found the reason why. He said that his father was very rich and told him that he would never have to work. His father somehow made his money selling apples. I didn’t gather what exactly he did to make selling apples so lucrative; the people selling apples on the street don’t seem too well off. He asked what I thought of Harbin. I said I didn’t think it was so bad, but I didn’t think it was so great either. He didn’t have any kind words for Harbin. Then he said that he wanted to know why I left America for Harbin. I told him that I thought China is one of the most important countries in the world and it is becoming more important extremely quickly as its economy develops. I wanted to learn Chinese and understand something about Chinese culture. I also wanted a chance to leave America and live a completely different life, and in China, I can do that without any expense. He replied that he couldn’t believe that I would leave America; you can get anything you want there. He followed that with a little tirade. “I love Prada; I love Prada. What? Yeah, I’m not joking.” Then a little later, “I love (insert some designer). I think he’s a genius. I’m not joking. He’s a genius. His clothes on women… so slim, and his clothes on men… so slim. What? I’m not joking.” I could only look at Grace and smile. I tried my best not to smile. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but smiling was all I could do to keep from laughing.

Playing pool in itself was quite fun. You pay one yuan per game, and after you are done, you call for the “boss” to rack the balls for you and mark another game on the chalkboard. The pockets on Chinese pool tables are rounded instead of having straight edges. This makes the game substantially more difficult. I keep hitting the inside of the pocket expecting it to bounce into the pocket, and the ball just rattles around the pocket and shoots out. The pool halls strike me as microcosms of the city. They are mostly bare and made of concrete. There are absolutely no frills. The one we went to that night had a cot in the corner where the owner sleeps. I assume that the pool hall is his home. I went to another pool hall this week, and it appeared to be a similar situation. There open doors off of the main room leading to small bed rooms. That night, the boss looked like he was about sixteen years old; he is probably the son of the owners. I expect to spend a fair amount of time playing pool this winter. Grace also enjoys it, it does not require much travel at all, it is really cheap, it is indoors, and it is a way to get out of my room.

My new classes started last week. I got a pretty warm reception. For the first class, I did the same thing I had done with my other classes. I introduced myself and the class, and then I gave them the rest of the time to ask me questions. My favorite question was, “You studied Philosophy and Religion. I think this is very boring. What else did you do for fun when you were in university?” The answer required an explanation of the finer points of mass beer dispensation. This past week I gave them my first real lessons, and they seemed to enjoy it. I felt they were both educational and entertaining. These classes have a book, and I really appreciate the book for some structure in planning lessons. It gives me a framework from which to take more fun tangents. I’ve found its really hard to plan a fun lesson that is completely original.

Grace has continued to struggle with Chinese food. There was a thirty minute period last week when she lamented the lack of ingredients for things she wanted to eat about ten times. We were just sitting there talking; then out of nowhere, she would say something about food. Each lamentation followed a particular pattern, “If we only had (insert impossible to find ingredient in China) and (insert another impossible ingredient), then we could make (insert food).” For example, “If we only had graham crackers and marshmallows, we could make s’mores.” To this particular statement I responded, “Grace, the only other ingredient in s’mores is chocolate. We only have a third of the ingredients to make this. We’re not even close.” This session of despair ended when I gave her a hug, and with her head buried in my chest, she said in a cute, little half-whine, unaware of what she was saying, “Why don’t you ever buy me a candy bar?” I just looked at her quizzically and laughed, and when she realized what she had said, she started laughing too. She has taken a lot of teasing for that lately; I’ll just ask her why she doesn’t buy me a candy bar every now and again. After that breakdown, she has been really good about eating Chinese food. We have found foods she likes, and she doesn’t complain. I think she is starting to give up the idea of always eating for pleasure and beginning to just eat for sustenance. Its really a shame because I enjoy the food here most of the time.

Thanksgiving is undoubtedly my favorite holiday. What could be better than not having to do anything for a few days, eating an inordinate amount of good food, and taking a nap? My favorite Thanksgiving memory is of a tradition that started a couple years ago when the first Lord of the Rings movie made it to video. My brother, Sean, his friend, Harry, and I all laid down to watch the movie after eating Thanksgiving dinner, fell asleep within the first thirty minutes, and woke up about seven hours later just in time to catch the ending. Every year after that, we have rented the newest Lord of the Rings release and followed the same pattern. The simplicity and laziness of the holiday combined with its lack of consumerism has made it a really carefree time in my mind. This Thanksgiving, I have felt the first tinge of homesickness I have ever felt in my life. It hasn’t been anything severe, but it is the first time I have ever wanted to be home rather than where ever I was at the present time.

In order to compensate for missing Thanksgiving at home, Grace and I decided to have our own Thanksgiving. We made an important discovery that made cooking possible. Our microwave doubles a quasi-toaster oven. We compiled a menu of foods and guest list. Our guest list included my closest Chinese and foreign friends, but in the end, the only people on the list that had ever celebrated Thanksgiving before were Grace and I. We planned as best we could what we thought we could get and where we could get it. We knew we weren’t going to be able to find turkey, so we knew chicken and duck would have to serve as the centerpiece of our feast. I had seen them pre-cooked at Carrefour, so we concluded that would be better than trying to cook meat in an oven that only had on and off settings. We bought everything we could from Carrefour, and everything else we though we could make we attempted to buy from a special western supermarket across town called Metro. At Metro, we had hoped they would have a special section for Thanksgiving foods, but they only had a section for Christmas. This forced us to eliminate stuffing and cranberries from our menu. Grace was sorely disappointed when she couldn’t find the cream of cheddar soup and sour cream for the tater tot casserole she desperately wanted to make. We made out of Metro with some extremely rare and expensive items in Harbin: olive oil, butter, and Parmesan cheese, and with these ingredients, we could make my mother’s fabled green bean artichoke casserole. I think in the end, the green been artichoke casserole served as some level of compensation for Grace missing out on tater tot casserole.

On the day before Thanksgiving, we started cooking and making preparations. Our guest list totaled fourteen people. We had to find a way to get sixteen people to sit and eat in a room that about the same size as my dorm room was at Russell Hall. Moving the furniture between the two rooms of the apartment was like the square puzzle where there are sixteen slots and fifteen tiles. You have to slide the tiles around with only one space to reveal the final picture when the tiles are properly arranged. In the end, we had two desks serving as a long banquet table. On one side, the bed and two chairs served as the seats; the other side had the couch and a small cabinet with pillows on top for seating. The green been artichoke casserole was made first, and it filled the apartment with the best smells I experienced in China. We cooked a massive casserole dish of mashed potatoes. We bought cooked sweet potatoes off the street, and whipped up them with some sugar, milk, butter, and walnuts into a sweet potato casserole.

The next day, we prepared some broccoli with cheese and some corn. After I was done teaching for the day, we made our final trip to Carrefour. We returned with two ducks (with heads still attached), three chickens, ice cream, cookies, cream puffs, and bread. Everything was cooked and ready to go. All the cooking and preparations had gone smoothly, and all we had to do was heat the food back up before everyone got back. It took a lot longer to heat things than we thought it would. We heated the potato dishes first because we assumed that they would stay warm the longest. This almost took right up until six o’clock. Our Chinese guests arrived promptly at five minutes until six. Then we put one duck and one chicken in the oven. The skins started burning before the meat was heated. I put the glass lid to our steamer on top to keep the outside from burning while the rest was heating. After a couple minutes, we began to smell burning. I looked into the microwave/oven, and the plastic handle was beginning to melt. I grabbed my two wool socks which we were using in the place of potholders, and placed it out in the hall. Then we determined that the meat was warm enough. Grace lifted the duck with our large knife to put in on one of our paper serving plates. When she was setting it down, the duck began to tumble for the floor. I reached for it and caught it, but Grace also reached with the hand holding the knife. The tip of the knife hit my thumb at the point where it meets my hand, and I yelled a choice explicative. When I looked down, I realized I had only been nicked, but the yell drew more commotion then the smell of burning from earlier. I began to sense condescension from Fred because he successfully prepared a large meal with the same facilities not long ago without any mishaps. The Chinese nearly revolted. Their dinner time is usually between four thirty and five, and it never ventures later than five thirty. On the verge of conflict from unrest with the natives, the foreigners arrived a little past seven, and by that time, all the food was heated, and we were ready to go.

As for the dining experience itself, it was delightful. We were packed in pretty tight. I’m sure foreigners didn’t feel that it was much different than just a very big meal, but they appreciated the western food and the dining experience in a more comfortable and familiar sort of environment. On the other hand, it may have been the most meat the Chinese have eaten in a single sitting. I imagine that some of them had never had any western food before either, not even KFC or McDonald’s. We ate and drank late into the evening. The Chinese retired a little early; it was way past their bed times. After they left, we each said what we were thankful for. Another Dutchman, Steven, has arrived in Harbin, and since the Dutch recently had an election, a discussion of Dutch politics ensued. A little before midnight, everyone went home.

It was a really different Thanksgiving for Grace and I. Not having time off before and after the meal, scrambling all week for ingredients, and having to cook by ourselves made the entire experience much more intense. I bet it is equally intense at home for some mothers who have to prepare giant meals even with the time off. Also, eating at night was new; I am very accustomed to having the rest of the day (and the week for that matter) to do nothing. All in all, it was a great time, and it was a great way to spend Thanksgiving. It really took the edge off of not being at home for the holiday.

Clean up, on the other hand, was not so delightful. Grace and I had been a little sick for the past couple of days, and when Thanksgiving was finished, we were completely exhausted. Right afterwards, we put up all the leftovers and left the everything else in its current state. On Friday, we cleaned up all trash, plates, and pots, and I moved all the furniture pack into place on Saturday. We still need to mop the floors, but things are back a livable condition. Thanksgiving was fun the way we did it, but I’m lobbying for Pizza Hut on Christmas.

My boss, Mr. Lu, continues to impress me with his willingness to make my stay here as comfortable and convenient as possible. He is going to take an intern in the International Office. This intern wants to teach non-native speakers Mandarin as her career, and he is taking her on for the sole purpose of getting me a really good tutor in place of my class. I’m really excited. I’m going to get one-on-one lessons without having to travel at all. My independent study hasn’t gone that well as of late with most of my free time going toward Thanksgiving, but I expect this will renew my interest in my Chinese studies.

On Friday night, we got a nice snow. I had decreed that the next time it snows, we would go to the big Buddhist temple in the city to take pictures. It was very pretty, but it was absolutely freezing. I was still in my slightly under-dressed mode, and I think this trip cured me of that. I’m taking my clothing to the next level. I looked at the weather today, and I think the days where the temperature gets above the freezing point are long gone. The temperature when I woke up was minus four. Grace and I have resolved not to leave the room for the rest of the winter. We are going to stock up on nonperishable foods and barricade ourselves in from the cold. Really, I think I’ll be fine. I have much more warm clothes to wear that I haven’t tapped into yet. On the contrary, Grace is already pretty unhappy with the weather, and in January, there will probably be many days where the temperature doesn’t make it above zero. I have proposed a solution. Grace will wear whatever she wants to wear, jackets, shoes, and everything else; then, I will start putting my clothes and shoes on over her until she feels warm. It will be very stylish and practical.

Take a look at the pictures from Thanksgiving and the temple; they are up now on my picture site. I hope all of you had a good Thanksgiving. Stay in touch.

  • 任有为

    Happy belated Thanksgiving.

    I do love reading about your experiences. Please do tell Grace that I say hello.

    As for Mr. Lu’s support for you learning Chinese… that’s fantastic. I hope you and Grace winter in Harbin (just compare the verb use of “winter” to that of “summer” in “yuppies summer the Hamptons”… now juxtapose “winter in Harbin” to “summer in the Hamptons”…

    Best of luck.

  • Anonymous

    Happy Thanksgiving! Sounds like you had fun. If you had had marshmallows you could have caught them on fire like I always do. Glad you didn’t have to have any stitches without Mr. Gary there to hold your hand like old times. Stay warm if you can. Love, Miss Kim