Harbin in January
Tim Harper and his daghter Lizzie left on Jan. 5 to spend three weeks in and around Harbin, China, talking about American culture and teaching English classes at the language school run by Ji Chen Hao. Ji is a former Red Guard turned yuppie whom Tim met in 1985 in Shanghai. They’ve stayed in touch, and Ji has been inviting Tim to speak at his school for years. For Lizzie, the trip is independent study for her winter session at Oberlin.
In truth, Tim and Lizzie don’t know exactly what they will be doing or seeing, when or where they will be doing it. They don’t even know where they are staying.
We’ll try to post here as we go. Stay tuned…
Sunday Jan. 9.
We’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, Lizzie and me, in one of the dark little rooms off a long corridor in the basement of a big building, amid the clouds of cigarette smoke in an Internet cafe. The smoke is not bothering Lizzie as much as me on this trip; she says she’s used to it from college.
The trip was no problem. There was a Brooklyn Brewery beer garden opposite our gate at JFK when we left on Wednesday the 5th, so we did a little refueling before the trip started. The flight to Beijing was long but uneventful. When we got there, changing planes, I used a credit card to buy an orange for Lizzie since there were no bureaux de change nearby.
We got to Harbin late Thursday night, and were met by Ji and his wife Wong, both resplendent in mink. Driving in, we saw a few of the giant ice sculptures, lighted from the inside by colored lights, that the city is famous for in winter. It was a mild night — only five below. The taxi got lost a few times, and finally dropped us at a dead end amid a dark and forbidding area, what appeared to be warehouses, maybe abandoned. We roused a janitor at the hotel — a glorified dorm, I think — at the Harbin Sports College. Everything was cold and dark and dry. We went to sleep telling each other we could move to a fancy hotel.
I got up early the next morning, and pulled up the shade to see we were overlooking a huge sports field — and a bustling campus. The town had come to life. Shops, restaurants, lots of street life, from luxury cars to donkey carts. I walked a mile or so, and at the third bank changed some money. Two days later, we still haven’t spent a yuan. Our money’s literally no good here.
The first full day, Friday, Ji hosted a terrific banquet for us at a nice restaurant with several of his friends: a government official, a university administrator, the owner of a ski resort, and others. A dozen or more great dishes. Later, Lizzie and I couldn’t decide whether there had been more interruptions over the three hours from cell phone calls or toasts (with Harbin beer, partly owned by Anheuser Busch).
After lunch, rock star treatment: chauffeured in a Buick Regal up into the “mountains,” to the ski resort, which turned out to be a couple of bunny hills. Ji left us, and we had a quiet and uncertain evening, with no one to talk to, not knowing what was happening. But some kids who spoke English showed up with the ski resort owner (from the lunch the previous day) on Saturday. We had a good hike and then hung out, watching the local beginning skiers gently coast off the hills into bushes, trees, fences and each other. A number of unsteady skiers managed to plow into groups of three or four on the slope and pick up the spare. We didn’t ski, but Lizzie had a few innertube runs.
Another big lunch, a rest, and we were driven back to Harbin. I told Lizzie, here we are, in a van with a bunch of people we don’t know and can’t communicate with, driving we don’t know where. She just said, yeah, isn’t it great? We were eager for a quiet evening, still jet-lagged. Surprise! Another banquet. There was a 14-year-old kid there who spoke good English and just wanted to talk about the NBA. He thinks getting Vince Carter is good for the Nets. People seem surprised and pleased that we can use chopsticks. Believe me, we’re going to be a lot better at them by the time we get back.
Back at the sports college Saturday night, we agreed that we loved our room. This morning, Sunday, we made a cameo appearance for a big class of kids at Ji’s school, and then were shown to this Internet cafe. Apparently we’ll start working more tomorrow. Meanwhile, it’s 11:30 a.m., and Ji’s staffer has shown up to retrieve us. Time for another banquet.
Monday Jan. 10
It’s another perfect day in Harbin, with a pale sun glistening off the permafrost and the temperature at a relatively balmy 12 below on the way to an expected high this afternoon of minus 5. Too warm for the locals to cover their ears. Lizzie is getting so acclimated that she didn’t even wear a hat when we went out shopping with Ji in the old Russian part of town. Speaking of shopping, everybody knows Lizzie loves funky and cheap. Well, welcome to Funky Cheapland. After hanging out at Ji’s school yesterday, we made our first foray on our own out into the neighborhood around the sports college. The first street we turned onto turned out to be Cheap Funky Sneaker Street. It took us an hour to cover one block, and Lizzie scored two pairs of shoes, no doubt with more to come.
At Ji’s school yesterday we were trotted out in front of several classes — the students, 50 to a class, applauded as we entered — and we said a few words and then answered a few questions. The kids (these classes all seemed to be grade school or middle school) oohed and ahhed when we told them that American kids sleep til seven, go to school at 8:30 and are done at 3 p.m., with only an hour of homework. Apparently their school day is longer and work load much heavier. One mom in the back asked how America could be so advanced if the kids don’t work very hard.
We start teaching our own classes tomorrow, Tuesday. We each have a two-hour class every weekday afternoon over the next two weeks. Ji gave us some textbooks, but said we can add other stuff. It’s mostly going to be pronounciation. The students read “Is this your handbag?” in Chinese and English in the book, and look at the little cartoon of a lady holding up a handbag. We pronounce it, the students repeat it en masse a few times, and then we call on them to repeat it some more a few at a time, individually, en masse again, etc. Ji says we will have only 15 students in our classes. He added these classes to his regular schedule because this is winter holidays for the schools, and there’s a lot of demand. I suspected he might be charging extra for us but told him he should probably be charging less. He said he’s charging the usual — about $4 per student per class, which is big money when $100 a month is a good work-class wage and government bureaucrats with cushy jobs get maybe $200 a month.
After shopping this morning, we went to a really nice restaurant for a three-course lunch, including spring pancakes with different fillings and the Chinese equivalent of borscht. Total bill for three people: $3. I’m hoping to interview the woman who owns this Internet cafe — a huge place, three stories and nicer than the one yesterday — and then we’re going swimming. Ji swims every day, and had me doing laps within 12 hours of getting off the plane. Lizzie says she’s going along today. Dinner with a businessman tonight, a guy who tried for years to emigrate but is now staying put since things have opened up and he can make more money in China. Incidentally, if you’re keeping score at home, we’re 13 hours ahead of East Coast time. When it’s 4 p.m. in New York, it is 5 a.m. the next day in Harbin.
Wednesday Jan. 12
I’ll start where I left off, with the dinner Monday night with the businessman, who turned out to be an architect who does interior design and decoration. He’s in the process of buying his third car — nothin’ wrong with government contracts, he says — and has a house, or maybe two, in Shanghai. He’s planning to move to Shanghai, which is often called the New York City of China since it’s so big and there’s so much to do. Both sophisticated and full of work opportunities. That meal was memorable for several things, not least the food, which included silk worms wrapped in fried pork. I had three, over the course of yet another four-hour meal, before anyone happened to mention that each silkworm has the protein equivalent of three eggs. (Note to Nancy: re-order cholesterol medicine.) There was also a spectacular dish called Big Harvest, which included chunks of corn on the cob. We can now beat pretty much anybody back home in an eating-corn-on-the-cob-with-chopsticks contest.
During that dinner, while the Chinese were rattling on among themselves, probably about us, I told Lizzie I realized what I liked about Miss Wong, Ji’s wife. “I already know,” Lizzie said. “She reminds you of Mom.” True enough, like Nancy she’s trim, well-dressed, has short hair and glasses, makes a lot of jokes, has a nice laugh, and when she makes a suggestion that’s usually what ends up happening.
Miss Wong is pretty much the operational brains behind Ji’s language school, one of a number of young-to-middle-aged women we’ve met who are running businesses. For a country where the history of gender discrimination ranges from footbinding (I actually saw an old woman hobbling on bound feet when I was in China 20 years ago) to today’s bias against girl babies, it’s remarkable how much equality there seems to be between men and women in China’s business world, or at least in the world of Chinese entrepreneurs and other upwardly-mobile people that we seem to be moving in. You have to wonder how the discrimination against baby girls, a result of China’s “one child per family” population controls, is going to play out in the future. How are all those “little princes,” many of them in rural areas where it’s more important for families to have a son, going to manage as adults? It seems like city people are much more likely to welcome baby daughters. Is China facing a battle of the sexes: country boys vs. city girls? “I know who’ll win that,” Lizzie says.
Meanwhile, Lizzie made a couple of friends yesterday, one who said her name was Sunshine, and they — what else? — went shopping at a giant underground arcade full of clothing and shoe stalls. I think it was called Funky Cheap Mall. She came back pleased with several purchases, and flush with the victory of bargaining down the prices on everything. In honor of her visit, the Chinese government is thinking of renaming 2005 the Year of the Shopper.
We started teaching yesterday, and it was a kind of rocky start. Lizzie went first, and she was teaching the way we had seen Ji do it: going through the book, lots of repeat-after-me. Well, it turned out that Miss Wong had created special classes for us — this is the monthlong winter break for schools — and billed them as “conversation with foreigners,” which is kind of the holy grail of learning English for Chinese students. Some moms in the back started clucking, Ridgewood style, about where was the conversation with the foreigner. So during the 10-minute break in the middle of her two-hour class, Lizzie quickly retooled, regrouped and started teaching the same lessons but with spontaneous “conversations” with the students. I was proud of Lizzie. Her class of 15 is mostly grade school kids, and mine is mostly middle and high school. Two hours is exhausting because you’ve got to be so on and so focused, and you’ve got to keep things moving. A lot of my class was letting the kids ask me anything, and then we’d try to talk about that a little, one on one. One asked me if it was OK to ask me a personal question, and then wondered if the reason I am bald is because I am so clever. She got an A for the day.
Miss Wong took us out for dinner last night with her son Kevin, 23, a Cisco-certified software engineer and network designer who works for a Chinese computer company but would love to work for Cisco itself in the States some day. He’s personable, smart, curious, and has both a good sense of humor and a beautiful girlfriend. Cool guy. If he’s the future of China, and it seems like he is, China has a bright future indeed.
We slept late today, Wednesday, took a walk and had lunch, as usual, at the school. Miss Woo, the cook, served a big bowl of shredded vegetables and some big sticky cornflour buns. I took a big first bite of the vegetables and about died. It was actually horseradish with a little veg mixed in. The Chinese people got a good yuk out of that. Malkoviches.
Today after teaching we’re having dinner with Ji and Wong and she’s taking us to the famous Russian church in Harbin while Ji goes back to teach his evening class. If there are typos in this, please consider that I’m pecking away in the dark, amid plumes of smoke. Most of the little princes who use these Net cafes seem to be interested only in playing games online, and they like it dark.
Thursday Jan. 13
Nee how from Teem and Leezer, as we are sometimes known in this neck of the woods. Heat wave the last couple days, almost up to 10 F. Yesterday Ji told me there were no bars in Harbin where ordinary people sit around and drink beer. Only big hotels, he said. I considered that a challenge, but it turned out to be not much of one. I set off from our hotel — Lizzie was engrossed in a book and stayed behind — and within a few minutes had found a joint called Basqa, or something like that. The owner, a young guy who called himself Jacky Ming, was sitting at the bar drinking Jack on the rocks and yukking it up over a Sylvester cartoon I think I saw 50 years ago, while Edith Piaf played on the juke. There was Bud and Coors in bottles with Chinese writing, but I said I wanted a local beer. Jacky disappeared and came back about 20 minutes later with a pitcher of beer. He charged me $1.25. I reckon he ran down the alley to some other place that drew the beer for him for 50 cents. I asked him if Basqa is one of the few bars in Harbin, and he said no, the competition is killing him. I told Lizzie about the joint and she wants to go along next time.
Internet access is 25 cents an hour. It’s still too much. Today I am wedged between two young guys who are both smoking.
One of my students, who says her English name is Linda, came to our hotel this morning with her mom, collected us, and took us swimming. I have been to this pool three times without a swim cap, but today a guard made me get out. I had to go borrow a cap from the mop boy in the lockerroom. I tried to give him a Disney T-shirt afterward but he absolutely refused. There is no tipping of any kind for anything, as near as we can tell. Maybe it’s different in the tourist hotels. Later I told Ji about the swim cap, and he asked which guard it was, and said the guard knew I was his friend and was getting back at Ji through me because Ji had reported him smoking on duty. Sheesh. Anyway, I went and bought a swim cap.
Lots of students have English names. Most of them are ordinary, like Linda or Jessica or Richard. One of my students is Washington, though, and another — my favorite name of them all — says he is Fosdick. It’s interesting, when we learn a language it’s with the idea of traveling somewhere or doing business somewhere. The Chinese are learning English with the idea of being of service. Can I help you? That is the way to the train station. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. You should report that to the police. It’s concierge English. I toss the book aside every once in a while, which confused them at first but now they seem to like it. Yesterday we learned, “Wassup.” When I first started trying to high-five them, they ducked as if I was going to cuff them about the head and shoulders. They wanted to know how old I am so I had them each guess. Two kids said they thought I am in my thirties. They got A’s for the day.
Friday, Jan. 14
I just about got run down walking over to the Net cafe. Second time in three days I’ve almost been hit by a car, and both times I was on the sidewalk. The driving here is unbelievable. Red lights barely matter. In fact, right turn on red doesn’t mean come to a complete stop, it means lay on the horn to get those stupid pedestrians out of the way. Drivers cut in front of each other, do U-turns anywhere, and often cross the double yellow line, including on busy downtown streets, to pass. Several times our taxis have been in the wrong lane, with traffic bearing down on us. Honking every 30 seconds or so seems to be part of the driving test. On the other hand, it rarely takes more than a few seconds to flag down a taxi, usually a little old VW Jetta, and you can get pretty much anywhere in the business or tourist part of Harbin for less than a dollar.
We had dinner last night with “Tony,” one of Lizzie’s 11-year-old students, and his folks, who run a copy shop. I tried to get the dad interested in an InstaBook machine, but no sale. None of the adults spoke the other’s language, so the kid worked overtime trying to translate. The restaurant specialized in dumplings — you could see half a dozen people making them in the front window — so we had steamed and fried, both meat and vegetable. Plus soup, a whole fish, pork, and several other dishes. Can’t remember them all. Supposely in our honor but I think because the dad and the kid like them, we also had french fries and ice cream. The fries were thick and relatively lightly fried, compared to American, and served with a little powdered curry. You’d pick up the fry with your chopsticks, and then dip it into the curry. Nice. The ice cream came in a big bowl, a pyramid of scoops of vanilla. You should have seen Lizzie eating ice cream with chop sticks.
Lizzie and I were talking about the English names some of the kids have assumed. I told her about Fosdick and she told me one of her kids is “Bruce Baker.” Maybe we’ll help the kids who don’t have English names pick some out. Regis. Snoop Dogg. “Hello, my English name is the Risk Manager.”
Lizzie and I were talking about some of the moms — one sits behind her son, whispering to him throughout class, and when he was having trouble she stood behind him and massaged his temples — and Lizzie said it’s clear that some good things are coming out of the “one-child” policy. Not just that the population is growing more slowly — 1.3 billion, compared with the 1.5 or 1.6 billion originally forecast by now — but also because the kids are being so well taken care of. Health care, education, everything conceivable (sorry). Lizzie also pointed out that despite the discrimination against baby girls, in some ways the one-child policy may be good for girls because as only children they’re getting the same treatment and advantages as boys. Families don’t educate the boys and marry off the girls. The girls get educated, too.
I have been having a devil of a time getting my students to volunteer. Apparently that’s not done in class here. I have been making them do exercises in raising their hands. They think it’s funny and weird, but some of them are getting into it. They get nervous when I toss the lesson book aside, but they’re starting to get into that, too. Again, however, when we were studying opinions, it took a while for them to volunteer what they thought about anything, even the weather. So I went around the room, having them each say something. They had never heard of ancient Greece or mythology, so we had a little crash course on Zeus & Co., and I told them the myth of Persephone and the four seasons. A few of the younger kids couldn’t stay with me, but most of them seemed to get it. I might try some O. Henry today.
Aside from what may be the most chaotic driving conditions in the world, there is one other superlative that I think Harbin deserves: the best-looking people. Apologies to Parisiens and their sense of style, but I’ve never seen so many handsome, pretty and downright good-looking people. No doubt it’s an over-broad generalization, but in China, as in many other parts of the world, it seems like the people are taller and better proportioned, at least by our Western standards, the farther north you go. Most of the people here (in Manchuria, wedged in between North Korea and Mongolia and Siberia) have fair complexions and are trim, with few big butts or bellies. They have high smooth foreheads, far-apart eyes, thick black hair and symmetrical features. At the same time, as near as we can tell from TV and what we’ve read, looking more Western is a standard of beauty in Harbin and throughout much of China. Certainly many people we’ve met think Lizzie is beautiful, and often say so. Heads snap around and people stare whenever we walk down the street, especially when she’s not wearing a cap or hood. So far, though, the only guy who’s asked her for her phone number is one of her 11-year-old students.
We each had a good hard swim this morning, Friday, then checked out the old Russian church, now a museum. Then a “small” lunch with Ji, only five dishes, including pork sauteed with parsley, a mutton-and-goat soup, tofu and vegetables, and a giant bowl of vegetable noodle soup for each of us. What with swimming 1,000 meters and that big lunch, Lizzie said she could tell she was going to be really tired after her two hours of teaching, but we’re talking about going out to a bar or disco tonight if we have the energy.
Monday Jan. 17
Hey from the Harpers of Harbin. Or should I say the ghosts of Harbin. When I was in China 20 years ago, Westerners were often called “foreign devils” or “big noses.” Now we’re called “ghosts.” It was a chockfull weekend. Saturday Lizzie slept late while I pored over our very unspecific but English-language guidebook map of Harbin, and a very detailed but Chinese-only big foldout map of the city. I carefully collated the two maps, and when we went out and caught a taxi I pointed confidently on the big Chinese map toward the Buddhist temples. The driver nodded as if he had taken lots of tourists there. Twenty minutes later he dropped us off, pointed across the street and drove away. I had sent us to the Harbin Amusement Park, sort of a smaller, downmarket version of Copenhagen’s Tivoli. All the rides and other amusements were shuttered and snowed in for the winter, but Lizzie and I still had a good time walking through the park, checking out the amusements and imagining the place in springtime. Back on the street, this time I showed a taxi driver the guidebook and the Chinese characters for the Buddhist temple. He nodded, waved us in, and cheerfully drove us 45 seconds around the corner to the temple.
It’s actually a complex of Buddhist temples and chapels attached to a working monastery, and it was very cool. And lots of Buddhas of many different sizes and demeanors, of course, but just as interesting were the hundreds of life-sized wooden carvings, all painted gold, of past monks. We walked along the shelves — the carvings were all elevated in marble hallways off chapels — and read the personalities of the long-dead monks based on the images they had chosen to leave behind: thoughtful, kind, scholarly, happy, a lover of children, a monk who liked to feed the pigeons, etc. We tried to stay out of the way of the worshipers as they prayed and bowed and lighted big bundles of incense in fireboxes that billowed pungent smoke. Lizzie initially doubted there could be a gift shop, but she found it and hit it hard. The clerks kept putting necklaces, incense, pins, statues and such on the counters for her to see, and then tried to put them back. But Lizzie kept saying, no, leave ’em out. It turned out that the clerks had to fill out a ticket for each item, on a piece of paper about the size of a movie ticket, using the same piece of carbon paper over and over. Then Lizzie took the tickets to the clerk, paid, and took the carbon copies back to the counter to collect the loot. Outside the walls of the Buddhist complex we walked along a promenade with dozens of ice sculptures, some on Buddhist themes and some just for fun, like the two 10-foot-tall slides made out of ice blocks. The ice was translucent, so you could see the little kids’ colorful coats flashing down the slides through the ice before they emerged at the bottom and kept skidding for another 20-30 feet. It was slick.
There were also dozens of small Buddhist supply shops nearby, and Lizzie sharpened her bargaining skills there. Lots more purchases, perhaps most notably a saffron robe and slippers that promise to become standard downtime wear in her room at Oberlin.
Saturday night we went out for a big dinner with a some wealthy business people who had heard about us. The next day they picked us up in a Mercedes-Benz with a V12 engine — this in a country where the vast majority of people never earn enough in their entire lifetimes to buy the cheapest Toyota. We drove over an hour northwest through the flat, snow-covered farmland, though villages that amounted to little more than a cluster of one-story brick or block homes, low flat roofs huddled together, with coal smoke rising lazily. At first I thought we were entering another village, it was so poor and ramshackle, but the last village just kept going and going. It was Lanxi, a city of 400,000, and home to the Sunshine Linen Co., where we had an interesting tour and discussion about China’s growing economic muscle. Sunshine imports raw flax from Belgium and France, and processes it into either yarn in big spools or linen fabric in big rolls. The linen is sold to clothing manufacturers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. The factory used to be a government operation, but it was so poorly run that the government closed it and sold it to the three Sunshine partners who were hosting us. They cut the workforce in half, raised salaries, increased training, instituted quality controls, invested in the infrastructure and more machinery, and hired four international sales people (one of them a former TV reporter who said he got tired of being able to report only what the Communist Party said was news). The 1,000 workers are mostly women, minimum age 20, and they earn at least 1,000 RMB (about $125) a month — which is enough to buy one of the small enclosed three-wheel vehicles, basically a motorized tricycle with a little cab around it, that is a sign of being well-off in the area. On the way home we stopped in one of the partners’ home village for some of the local cooking; the main feature seems to be a big and extremely thin pancake. We had a bunch of them, stuffed with sauteed vegetables and scrambled eggs. There were various other dishes, of course, notably a big bowl of chicken that seemed to use almost every part of the chicken — I never identified a beak for certain — and another big bowl with a school of small catfish. For all those dishes, you just reach in with your chopsticks, pick out what you want, and eat it. Very often we’re not given little plates in front of us, so there’s no staging. You eat straight from the bowl, and so does everybody else.
Back in Harbin Sunday afternoon, Lizzie and I went to the swim club and churned out some laps. Afterward she was tired of banquets and tired of talk about economics and business, so she had a quiet night in the room while I went out with the same crowd, with a few variations, for an incredible seafood banquet. It would take too long to describe the food here, but I must mention the drinking. Everybody got a glass or two of the local firewater, clear stuff that must be 80 proof, alongside a tall glass of sweet yogurt (they drink yogurt here, rather than eat it with a spoon). You’d take a sip of the booze — or more than a sip, if it was a toast — and then chase it with the yogurt. Waitresses kept both glasses filled. I bailed after a little while and asked for a beer. What a wimp. Leaving the restaurant, they noted the unseasonably warm temperatures — it must have been around 12 — and laughed at me for zipping up my jacket. Superwimp.
This morning, Monday, we went to the snow sculptures that Harbin is famous for, dozens of giant creations, from six feet high to 20 or 30 feet high, in a park on an island in the middle of the river. Lots of tourists there, plus folk dancers, souvenir stands and such. The sculptures were of elaborate design and finely detailed workmanship: dragons, unicorns, angels, and assorted heroes and scenes from Chinese legend. We’re looking forward to the other half of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival: the equally famous ice lanterns. They’re all around the city, ice sculptures with bright neon lights inside, but we haven’t been to the big display in a park yet.
Lizzie is off teaching her class while I post this. She’s doing really well in every regard. Ji says she is getting better at teaching every day, and on Friday even the Ridgewood mom — who we think came to class without her kid — gave her the thumbs-up. Lizzie has been re-making our rather austere hotel room into a space of her own, decorating her corner of the room above her bed with photos, postcards, one of her drawings and some crayon art from an admiring student (“From your little Chinese sister…”). Lizzie is a wonderful traveling companion.
Tuesday Jan. 18
After class yesterday we ate dinner with Ji at the school and then went across town so I could talk with a judge about changes in China’s legal system and the long-range prospects for democracy — or, rather, for China’s “Third Way,” neither socialism nor capitalism but something that they hope combines the best elements of both. Lizzie tried to follow along, but was soon dozing. After a while she curled up on the couch next to me. The judge and Ji, who was interpreting, thought this was pretty funny and made me put my coat on her as a cover. Afterward we went to one of the many ice sculpture exhibitions in a big public square. It was spectacular. I wish I could figure out a way to post some pictures before we get home, but we might have to wait til we get back to a more friendly computer. We took as many pictures as we could before we were both frozen — the second time that day we got really cold, after going to the snow sculptures in the morning. Plus we had done a fair amount of walking around on the streets, which is not only cold but exhausting since you have to be so careful. The streets and sidewalks are covered with black ice, and snow on top of that. The safest places to walk, with the best footing, are where the ice is pocked and rough. It’s murder when you’re walking along and hit a patch of ice or, just as bad, a patch of bare marble — and there are patches of marble everywhere in the downtown sidewalks — that has been lightly covered by snow. It snows frequently, a hard, desiccated snow, little grains of snow, but rarely more than an inch or two — just enough to cover the ice and marble. We have seen some real zippity-do-dah moments, with people’s feet spinning and arms windmilling like cartoon characters, and we’ve seen a few falls but we haven’t bitten the marble ourselves yet.
We swam this morning, and met one of my students, Wei Lan, a.k.a. Linda, 11, and her dad, Wei Hong Guan. We met her mom, Wu Hong Yan, the other day. The parents, both pharmaceutical sales people, are both good looking and, of course, their daughter is above average. After swimming we had a quick lunch — smoked meat and fish, and some terrific dumplings, both pork and vegetable — and then Lizzie headed to Ji’s school to teach while I went back to the family’s apartment. It’s in a mews and then down a little alley between grim-looking buildings, and then a seven-story climb through a dank, dark, unpainted concrete stairway. Behind the big strong metal door is their apartment: cheerful, airy, clean and mostly new. It looks like it must have been redone — new appliances, new bathroom with modular shower, hardwood floors, bright white walls — before they bought it two years ago for $47,000. They reckon it’s probably worth close to $60,000 now. We looked through the kid’s old photo albums, including a couple with a series of professional “glamour” shots, like kids in the States would have done if they were doing to try to be models. Apparently this is pretty common, since we saw something similar for a teen-aged boy the other day. Parents here really love their kids. I mean their kid.
Wednesday Jan. 19
Just got a haircut, and I feel like a million yuan. The barber was a nice-looking woman, as usual. Her work probably wasn’t quite up to the standards of my weekly trim in the kitchen at home, but it only costs 60 cents and she didn’t seem to be expecting me to sleep with her tonight. Lizzie and I had a good dinner last night with Ms. Liu, the ski resort owner, and Ms. Wang, a history professor, and their teenaged daughters. Lizzie says I have to stop marveling at all the hot moms in China; it’s embarrassing her. Last evening Lizzie and I went out for a beer at Basqa, the little basement bar near the sports college where we’re staying. It was quiet — this is winter vacation for the students — but there were some Harbin hipsters in the corner: young women with makeup, long hair, leather trousers and bling; guys dressed in black trousers and black shirts with open collars. One of the guys kind of danced around behind Lizzie a little, but the only one who spoke to her was Jacky Ming, the owner, who said she was “prettiful.”
Lizzie slept in this morning and then went shopping in a big department store with yet another mom-and-daughter team. She bought a shirt and was happy to hear when she got to Ji’s school that this was payday. Ji paid me (Lizzie isn’t getting paid, since this is an Oberlin project) in RMB, and I told Lizzie we didn’t need to spend it all but I’m not sure she heard me. She’s been talking about areas of town where we haven’t been to the shops yet, and specific shops she’s visited and needs to return to. I went for a swim (1500m, almost a mile) and then Ji and I went to the provincial broadcasting center, a fabulous new complex overlooking the only golf course in Harbin. We met with a regional celebrity who is known for her on-air consumer affairs programs. I wanted to ask her about her job. She went off to ask her boss, and came back shaking her head no. She also does something with kids’ programming, apparently, and brought in a wispy 21-year-old guy — his on-air name is Little Secret — who hosts the nightly 10 o’clock call-in advice show for teens. He said most kids ask about problems with schoolwork and parents and friends. Nothing about sex, alcohol, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. An 11-year-old girl called in last week to say she had a crush on a boy in her class, and Little Secret seemed to think that was pretty racy. He told her she was too young to like anyone.
Oh, I want to get back to the streets and how hard it is to walk. “I feel like a little mountain goat, especially when I’m carrying the backpack,” Lizzie says. If we do an InstaBook from this trip, maybe we’ll call it Mincing in Harbin. But the real point is how tiring it is being out and about in the cold. Monday night, for example, after two extended sessions outdoors sightseeing, we were in our beds with the lights out by 9:30 p.m. Jet lag is all gone. The cold simply saps your stamina.
A brief word on language. Chinese has four “tones,” and it seems that Peorian is not one of them. I have a hard time picking up the subleties of the language eve to be able to repeat the simplest phrases, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. I think the Chinese appreciate my feeble efforts, though I sometimes hear them chuckling as I walk away after trying to say thank you. I reckon it sounds something like “sank goo” would sound to us. A complicating problem, though not very much in real terms, is that the Harbin accent is so different from the Mandarin in Beijing, which is what the phrasebooks are geared to. Our book says thank you is “shay-shay,” but nobody in Harbin understands that. They say something like “SEE-uh-SEE.” And the Shanghai accent is even more impenetrable. Ji, who is from Shanghai, says that when he and his wife want to talk without other Harbin Chinese understanding them, they switch to the Shanghai dialect. Lizzie hears and understands more Chinese than I, and sometimes interprets for me, but rarely speaks Chinese. Instead she says “thank you,” sweetly and smiles, and nobody laughs at her as she walks away. No matter. I reckon we’ll both be fluent in Chinese by the time we get home. (For the Chinese reading along, this would be an opportune time to look up the word “irony.” And I know there are some Chinese reading along, because every now and then someone will ask me “Teem, what means churn?” or, yesterday, “Teem, what means wimp?”
Thursday Jan. 20
Greetings from the Ghosts of Harbin. When the movie “Home Alone” came out here, it was dubbed “The Little Ghost Who Was Left Behind By Himself.”
My class of 20 teenagers was on fire yesterday when, as an exercise in talking about “choice” and “choose,” I got them talking about which one they would want, if they ever had the option: a U.S. dollar, an American T-shirt, an American baseball cap with a brewery logo on it, an I Heart NY pin or a book in English. Kids who are normally shy about speaking English were piping up on the relative merits of taking the dollar to buy several Chinese T-shirts versus taking the American T-shirt and perhaps selling it for several dollars versus wearing the pin as a keepsake versus will a hat last longer than a T-shirt? Nobody wanted a book. Everybody is going to get something tomorrow on the last day of class, but I think I’m going to withdraw the dollar. Hat, pin, T-shirt or book. We brought a bunch of those things to give away, and we’re leaving enough dollars in China as it is.
Chen Jingtai, the head of the international commerce department at Harbin Institute of Technology (a prestigious university in northern China), picked us up after class yesterday in a van. We had met him before on his own, but this time he brought along his daughter and some of her friends. A couple of them spoke English, including the 20-year-old daughter, Cheng Qi, and they made good tour guides as we walked through the Harbin Ice Festival on an island in the middle of the river. It was incredible. We will post pictures when we can, but in the meantime, the festival was a series of sculptures, some several stories tall: the Paris Opera, an onion-domed Russian church, horses pulling a chariot, and so on. The buildings were created out of big bricks of ice chain-sawed out of the river, and the bigger more artistic sculptures were carved out of giant blocks. The dozens of sculptures, large and small, were lighted by neon lamps inside, and the effect was spectacular. “All the bright lights and things that represent famous stuff somewhere else,” Lizzie mused. “It reminds me of Las Vegas.” There’s a lot to do at the Ice Festival, for the hardy: tubing or sliding on your butt down giant slides, grabbing a rope and climbing up a 30-foot ice wall, dogsleigh rides, camel rides, bumper ice-cars. We got cold fast, but that didn’t stop Lizzie from joining the Chinese girls in what is rapidly becoming one of her favorite Harbin treats: frozen (what else in these temperatures?) sugar-sprinkled fruit on a kebab-sized wooden skewer. Lizzie seems to think strawberries are the best. We were tingling pretty good within a half hour, especially since we were taking off our gloves to take pictures, so when Cheng ran into the architect/designer for the entire festival, we were happy to join him in the lightly heated dining/entertainment hall made of snow — it will all melt in the spring — where you can sit down at tables and have a cup of something warm. They put strong hot coffee in front of me, and I drank it — my second cup of coffee in 28 years. The coffee was delicious, and warming, and next time I’m that cold I’ll have another cup.
A Russian folk-dance troupe was just taking the stage as we split. We piled back into the van and went to a banquet that Cheng had arranged with several of his buddies who wanted to meet us. They couldn’t speak English, but one of the guys and I compared notes about having a 16-year-old son. The meal was a hot pot: a big boiling pot on a hot plate in the middle of the circular table. The pot is divided: half water, and half water with spicy chili oil. Plates come out with proscuitto-thin slices of mutton, rolled and stacked in pyramids, and you toss the meat into the hot pot. Plus vegetables, tofu, squid, whatever else is on the table. After it’s boiled a while, you reach into the water with your chopsticks, fish around, pull something out and eat it. It’s even more delicious than coffee in a snow hall. The private banquet room we were in, at the back of the restaurant, was like many others we’ve seen; it had a big TV and a serious karaoke machine. Cheng asked me a couple of times if I liked to sing, and at one point a waiter turned on the TV, but thankfully we got out of there without having to sing for our supper.
This morning we had a good swim and then went over to the home of one of my students. It was much smaller than anything most Americans would consider reasonable living space for three — the whole family sleeps in the combination living room/bedroom, with the 12-year-old boy on a foldup camp cot — but who knows, maybe living in such close quarters is one of the reasons so many Chinese families we’ve met seem so close and seem to get along so well.
Friday, Jan. 21
Ji’s wife, Miss Wong, tried to kill us last night. Not really, but we had several near-death experiences as we tried to follow her three blocks from the school to a restaurant. She took off, doing the Harbin Ice Shuffle through the rush-hour crowds, and we struggled to keep up. Then she crossed the six-lane street at a spot where there was no traffic light. In the dark. At rush hour. On black ice. Lizzie and I clutched each other, rationalizing that at least we would go together either when we slipped on the ice and fell or one of the cars bearing down on us slipped on the ice and couldn’t stop. Somehow we made it, and quickly found out why the Wong had crossed the road. The meal was one of the best we’ve had among many spectacular meals in Harbin. The restaurant, called Sun and Moon and Pond, is one of the best in the city, and Wong, by now knowing Lizzie’s taste for vegetables, ordered well. One of the big hits was a fried tofu ball with a lightly spicy bean paste inside. We also had our first sweet-and-sour on this trip (it’s more of a southern dish), with shrimp and pork and chicken bits piled high in the middle of a plate surrounded by thinly-sliced curlicues of cucumber and, on the outer edge of the plate, strawberries sliced in half, face down. “It’s food art,” one of the Chinese told us, and we agreed.
Other guests included Miss Wong’s son Kevin, the 23-year-old computer whiz whom we met last week; Miss Wu, the school’s cook; Miss Wu’s son, a college senior, also majoring in computers, who asked us to call him Winston; and two moms with their daughters, both of whom are prize students at Ji’s school. One of the moms is the wife of the Harbin Sports College official who arranged for us to stay in the campus hotel. She also owns some restaurants, and invited us to go to one of them tonight for barbecued kebabs, a Harbin specialty. The two daughters spent about an hour at the table teaching Lizzie Chinese words and characters. About the only thing I can read are the signs for the men’s and women’s stalls in the restrooms but, being a big ugly American, I can freely ignore them when the men’s is occupied and the women’s isn’t. In truth, nobody seems to mind, and the Chinese themselves freely grab whichever stall is open. Incidentally, Western-style toilets are uncommon in public, including most restaurants. Restaurants often offer each diner tissues that can be used either at the table or down the hall.
The moms at dinner wanted to know about American education, and seemed to think the idea of give-and-take in the classroom is preferable to the Chinese system of lectures and learning by rote. They seemed intrigued by the idea that a teacher would ever say he or she is is wrong, or that a teacher might ask students what they think so that they can learn from each other. Both moms said they hope their daughters can study in America someday, and everybody at the table bemoaned the tougher U.S. restrictions on Chinese students since 9/11. The young computer guys wanted to talk about music and the Internet — Winston recorded a song, posted it, and is pleased with the way it is being downloaded — and answered some of my questions about the restrictions on the Web for most Chinese. The government tries to block pornography, and sites that are politically sensitive. I asked about Falun Gong, the health-based cult that has been at odds with the government in recent years, and the guys said they could be arrested merely for trying to go to the Falun Gong site. Once again there was a big karaoke machine in the private dining room. I think Winston and Kevin had been doing some crooning before we arrived, but when they asked us if we wanted to sing we said only if they could bring a shower into the room.
Lizzie slept in this morning, Friday, while I went for a swim — one of the pleasant surprises has been how much swimming I’ve been able to do — and then Ji and I got picked up by the Mercedes V12 and taken to the Harbin headquarters of the Sunshine group, the company that runs the linen factory we visited last weekend. It was another chance for me to shoot the breeze with the two top partners, Mr. Dun and Ms. Li. He said economic growth has gone too far for the government ever to roll back the personal and financial freedoms that have emerged gradually in China over the past 25 years. He owes his wealth and influence in part to position and privilege, but seems remarkably open to the notion of a Western-style democracy in China — but only maybe, and probably far in the future. He, like many others I’ve talked to, seem to think that China’s “third way” will not necessarily ever lead to a conflict between government control and popular demands for more freedom. After he acknowledged that corruption is a daily problem in Chinese private enterprise, I asked a hard Western-style journalism question about how much his companies have to pay in graft and bribes. Ji had to be persuaded to translate the question, but when he did Dun gave a classic Western-style business nonanswer: I am an honest businessman. My companies try to do everything legally and to avoid anything illegal. Remember, if you pay a bribe, you are commiting a crime, too.
Ms. Li, who is five-nine, has a good haircut and was sleek in a black sweater with black leather trousers and knee-high black boots, told me how she had been sent to the countryside to work the fields as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Afterward, she went to college and studied accounting. When she graduated in 1975, the government assigned her to a job with the Harbin trade bureau as an accountant. She worked her way up through a number of local and regional accounting management positions, acquiring a husband and having a child along the way. In 1998 she left government and joined Dun and the Sunshine group. She said government work is a lot easier than private enterprise, which is one reason many women prefer it; working for the government gives them more time, if they want, for home and family and other interests. She said women and men are completely equal in the Chinese workplace — but women are still expected to take care of the house. She didn’t seem surprised that it’s the same way in America. In some ways, however, it sounds like it might be easier for women to have a career in China. Kids don’t start school til age seven, usually, but there’s a vast network of good affordable day care, both public and private, that allows women to work if they want to or need to.
One thing I forgot to mention from yesterday when we visited my student’s home, the 300-square-foot apartment. His mom brought out a big yellow oblong-shaped fruit that turned out to be maybe the best grapefruit I ever tasted. She told us that she had purchased it at Wal-Mart, which opened recently in Harbin. Ji says it’s kind of an upscale place.
Monday Jan. 24
Last post from China. I’ll probably add a wrapup note after we get back, and some pictures, I hope, but this is probably my last time at the Net Cafe just off Dongja Jie. I told Lizzie I’m going to have to get someone to come up into my office and sit at my elbow, actually touching my elbow, and blow cigarette smoke at me; otherwise sitting at a computer won’t feel quite right.
We had a good and busy weekend, spending most of it just the two of us, with no Chinese people, getting around, shopping, seeing sights, eating out, etc. It was nice to be able to focus on each other instead of being the center of attention. We did some mighty fine shopping, including at an out-of-the-way arts and crafts factory I happened upon. I opened the door, walked into what seemed like a warehouse, really decrepit. Nobody there. I went upstairs, opened another door, and there was a showroom. It was closed — somebody was mopping the floor — but the mopper rounded up some ladies who started flipping on lights and pecking prices onto their calculators. That’s how we did a lot of negotiating: they would punch their price onto the calculator, show it to us, we would laugh and shake our heads, clear the calculator and punch in a much lower price, and then they would laugh at it and shake their heads.
We spent part of Sunday with Chen Qi, the cute 20-year-old college-junior daughter of the president of Harbin Institute of Technology. We went to a couple of Christian churches and to the provincial museum, where Lizzie dawdled among the tanks full of exotic fish. It was a quiet and calming respite from the chaos of noise and people on the downtown streets outside. We swam Sunday afternoon for the last time, and then Lizzie stayed in while I went to another big dinner with some people, this time in an “ecology” restaurant — a place the size of an airplane hangar, with thousands of trees, plants, bushes and shrubs. Very pretty and, as usual, terrific food. My host, for I think the third time, was Mr. Duan, the head of the provincial agency for the disabled, who is sending us home with several really cool gifts and then next month hopes to send us his son to show around New York, provided Young Duan gets his visa.
I should have done this much earlier, but here’s a little about our living arrangements and daily routine. I’ll start with the evening. After dinner we’re usually back in our room by 8 p.m., but sometimes as early as 7 p.m. Once in a while we’ll stay out late, til almost 10 o’clock, which is when the doors are locked at the hotel at the Harbin Sports College. (Though we’ve been assured that if we’re ever late, they would open the door for us.) Harbin is a city of nearly 10 million without a subway system. There are thousands of buses, but they stop running at 9:30 p.m. This is a very early-to-bed town; and why not, given that the temperatures start dipping sharply when the sun goes down around 4 p.m., and by 8 p.m. it’s often 20 below zero, or colder. When we come in, the little old gray-haired guy at the desk in an old full-length olive army coat waves at us and picks up the phone to call up to the third floor. We don’t have a key to our room, but nobody does. There are three pleasant women who share the floor-lady duty on our floor of the hotel, and they trot down to the end of the hall with us and open the door to 312.
Our room is pleasant and airy, but not fancy. The ceiling is 11 feet high, and the room is about 25 feet by 12 feet. There’s a wardrobe with a broken door as soon as you walk in to the left, and a small bathroom to the right. There’s a shower but no stall. You just pull the shower curtain on the wall over the wooden door — everything else in the bathroom is tile or ceramic — and have a shower standing next to the loo. There’s a drain in the floor. The air is so dry that all traces of the shower have usually evaporated within a couple of hours. The beds are side by side to the right, opposite the TV on the left. There’s a small desk and a few drawers for clothing on the left, and a couple of armchairs at the end of the room, beneath the big window — 5 feet by 7 feet — that looks out onto the soccer field, track and dorms.
We’ll spend an hour or two most evenings watching Chinese TV, reading, talking about the day, making notes in our respective notebooks, and preparing our lessons for the next day’s classes. We’ve turned out the lights over the twin beds as early as 9:15 p.m., but on a couple of occasions — usually movies in English or with English subtitles — we’ve stayed up til midnight. The beds are short, narrow and low: a wooden platform, a few inches off the floor, then a very hard boxspring, and then a matress that is just as hard as the boxspring. No kidding, I think I’ve slept on floors that were softer than my bed. But we have slept remarkably well throughout the trip. No complaints. I kid Lizzie that she is not going to be able to sleep in her supersoft bed back on Ridge Road. She seems to be willing to take that bet.
In the morning I get up, make tea, peel some fruit, open some juice or almond-nut milk or liquid yogurt, read, make notes, and eventually get Lizzie up. She usually eats some sort of cake or bread or combination of the two that we’ve picked up at the student quickie-mart near the hotel. A kind of french toast with a shelf life of weeks has been a particular favorite of Lizzie’s.
We often swim in the morning, a short cab ride away. (My piece of paper with three addresses in Chinese — the hotel, the pool, and Ji’s school — is tattered and falling apart.) Chinese people mostly are very sedate breast strokers, and they like to stand around at the end of the pool and talk between laps. I am sure they think I am a maniac, plowing back and forth doing a messy nonstop crawl. In truth, the shower is more important than the swim for many Chinese. They routinely spend a half hour in the shower, scrubbing everything enthusiastically from stem to stern, rinsing off and then doing it all over again. Some guys sit on the floor of the shower room, all lathered up, to really get between their toes. I find it hard to linger in the shower for more than 15 minutes, and I am sure some Chinese guys must think Americans are very dirty people. In the lockerroom, getting dressed takes a while, too, especially since everyone is wearing at least three layers. Everybody wears long underwear, of course, but many people wear pajama-type underclothes beneath the long underwear. Big thick snowpants seem to be the everyday trousers for many kids all winter. Most of the long underwear seems to be wool, and I haven’t seen anybody with the relatively sheer silk stuff that Nancy got me before I left. The people who work in the lockerrooms know us by now, and nod and smile or wave in acknowledgment. Some of the regular swimmers do, too. A few people try to talk to us, especially kids who shout, “Hello,” and then run and hide behind the lockers, laughing. Lizzie had a bare-naked conversation with a regular the other day. “I see you here almost every day,” the woman said. “Are you a student?” “No,” Lizzie said. “I’m a teacher.”
Wednesday Jan. 26
We’re back in Ridgewood after a long day of travel. With time changes and crossing the International Date Line, it took us 37 hours of real time to move from midnight Monday in Harbin to midnight Tuesday in New Jersey — including 26 hours of being on our way to airports, in airports or on airplanes. The trip was pretty much uneventful, except for Lizzie finding some good purchases at the Harbin and Beijing airports for the last of our yuan.
For my last class, I gave the kids T-shirts, basecall caps, NYC pins and books in English. I couldn’t figure out why the kids were reacting so negatively to a couple of the caps — they wouldn’t even try them on — until they told me that the problem was the caps were green. Turns out that wearing a green cap in China means that you (or your spouse; I got differing versions) are having an extramarital affair. Our last evening in Harbin was fun, as usual. We had dinner with Ji, Wong, and Mr. & Mrs. Duan. When I told the ladies about my students and the green caps, they confirmed what the students had told me — and then asked me for the caps. They put the caps on, much to the amusement of their husbands, and then stuffed them in their bags, presumably in case they ever need to make a public statement on fidelity. The ladies, who over the course of three weeks adopted Lizzie as their American daughter, also decided on our last evening that she needed a Chinese name. They christened her Hu Nu (pronounced Who knew?), which means “Tiger Girl.”
It was an incredible trip, a blast, and enriching for us in so many ways. Over the next couple of days as we catch up on sleep and laundry we’ll find some time to post photos. Meanwhile, in the absence of a “guest book” section — I now wish I’d put one up before we left — please feel free to get in touch with comments and questions. And we’d love to get together with anybody who wants to talk about China in general and our trip in particular. There’s so much more to tell…