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Harbin in January

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Timothy Harper : Harbin in January

Tim Harper  


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.

Click here for more on the second half of our China trip

Or go to our photos of the trip



Tim Harper -- Writer, Author, Ghost Writer, Collaborator, Consultant, Coach -- can help you write your book and get it published.

Home Page  |  About Tim Harper  |  Writing, Consulting, Editorial Services  |  Frequent Questions  |  Contact Tim  |  Tim's Books  |  Recent magazine articles  |  Some more of Tim's articles on the Web  |  License to Steal Reviews  |  Steal a Look: Read the first chapter of License to Steal  |  Go Mad: Read the first chapter of Moscow Madness  |  Good Reading: Chapter 1 of Doing Good  |  Is Paul dead? The story behind the notorious rumor  |  Harbin in January  |  Harbin, cont.  |  Harbin Photos  |  Tim & Jonny Hit the Road  |  Trip Journal  |  Pictures from the Road  |  Your Comments?

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