Sorry for the delay in posting. It's been a pretty busy yet uneventful week, filled mostly with teaching and going to dinner with the faculty, who are all darlings. But every moment seems to be occupied either with teaching, planning lessons, or socializing with students and faculty (who are also students), so we don't have much time alone, and very little to get out and explore. I thought we would have some time today after the undergraduates performed several skits for us this morning then "let us go" for the day at 10:30, but it's either been thunderstorming, or drizzling all day. Not a good day for pics, though that's what I planned to do. I think that will have to wait until tomorrow or Sunday, or perhaps a little later in the week.
It's hard to believe I've been here more than two weeks already and there's only a week and half or so left. This is so unlike any other trip abroad I've taken that I'm not sure how to process it. There's a fair amount of frustration attached to it because my time is not my own, but I'm also grateful for the opportunity to be here. Chances are, I would not have come to China any other way, and I'm glad I did. Nor would I have had the opportunity to meet the number of people I have met here, and talk with them about their country, share their food and get glimpses into their lives.
Actually, now that I think about it, it wasn't an entirely uneventful week. Sunday night we got taken out to karaoke and dinner afterwards at a fantastic Korean restaurant. The karaoke was fun and is very popular in China. More so than in the US, I think. The faculty group who took us were completely uninhibited about getting up and singing, and most had beautiful voices. The word was already out that I could sing, so there was no squirming out of it. Most of the stuff we did, when it wasn't (shudder) John Denver, was old rock and roll or soul: "Superstition," "Proud Mary," "ABC," "First Cut is the Deepest" (although that was the Sheryl Crow version), etc. most of which are perfect for my range (except for ABC). Word also got out afterwards that we'd had a good time, and some of our other teachers got dragged off to karaoke again on a field trip later in the week. These folks really know how to enjoy themselves. Most of the songs they sang were love ballads, but about finding true love, where most of ours are sad or angry songs about losing it. Hmmmm, what up with that? Maybe that's more indicative of the time period the songs we were singing came out of than anything else. But I wonder.
The Korean food surprised me in not being so hot that it set my mouth on fire. And it was truly delicious. The place we were taken to is very popular, and huge: several stories tall with a number of private dining rooms, some of which have tatami in them. Ours didn't thankfully. I'm too damn old to be sittin' on the floor for dinner anymore.
On Monday, I took the field trip shift with Elliott, since Susan had bunged up her ankle and had a little adventure in the Chinese clinic (where there were no wheelchairs so she was piggybacked in on the back of one of our hosts; have I said how kind these people are?) the night before. It was a kind of crappy day so we suggested the museum as our destination. I want to go back there because we only saw a little since it closed at 3:30. There were displays from every dynasty and I got a crash course in Chinese history while looking at the artifacts. You go back far enough and all the artifacts look the same: a Bronze Age arrowhead is a Bronze Age arrowhead. We were hustled through by Mr. Miao, but it was very enjoyable anyway, though it's a small museum. There are several plans for a much larger and more modern one, since the current museum is housed in what used to be a Russian Bazaar, an historical building preserved the city's early history.
On Monday, we also had a power outage right after we all trooped off to class. Someone at a construction site cut a cable and a fairly big chunk of the HIT area near our dorm was out for most of the day. I climbed up 14 flights of stairs, not once but twice, five flights at a time. The bottom two floors were pitch black, which just boggled me. Where the hell are the emergency lights? There are so many building practices here that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in the US, which makes me think maybe those suits are not always such a bad thing, if they result in putting emergency lights in stairwells so people don't fall and break their necks in the dark. I was trying to use my cell phone for a little light, then some how got distracted when Peter hit his head, and put it down on a windowsill and forgot to pick it up. Didn't notice or think about it until later because I was talking to Peter and being amazed with myself for walking up 14 flights of stairs. By that time, it was gone. I'm glad it was mine, though, and not borrowed from one of the other faculty here. I'd have felt terrible. Cell phones are bikes are hot commodities here.
Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday were pretty ordinary: teach, eat, work on lessons, crash. But the weather has changed from the first week. It's been pretty hot, in the mid to upper 80's with 70% humidity or thereabouts, and we've been teaching in un-air-conditioned classrooms. I go through about a half a liter of water in three hours. The mornings start out sunny and beautiful, and relatively cool and then in the afternoon it turns grey and stormy. We've gotten at least one good shower a day, and a couple of corking storms, like we had today. It's also changed the air quality for the worse. I hadn't been taking any Claritan for the first week I was here, but I definitely need it now. And the inside of my nose is black.
I've been reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which is a really fascinating look at China by a guy who has been in Beijing for years, as a correspondent for the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. I ran across a couple of very descriptive paragraphs today that apply as much to Harbin as they do to Shenzhen, "The Overnight City" that he's writing about here:
This is true of much of the construction in Harbin, too. The apartment blocks are finished in concrete and most of it looks like it needs a good sandblasting and refinishing, or at least a good paint job. The windowframes are rusted and most of the construction seems slapdash. It makes the city look poorer than it is and there's a vast contrast to the new buildings that are going up, which are architecturally quite beautiful and modern. I think I described earlier how the interior finishing is like old New York walk-ups and tenements, even in new buildings. My room has an individual water heater suspended over the toilet. The water pipes, even the hot ones, run outside the walls. There's one electrical socket into which a surge protector is plugged in, then mounted on the wall. That's where the water heater and the washing machine plug in, as well as anything else you might want to plug in. And it's way over my head, even standing on the toilet.
For all that, the streets are beautiful, because they are so incredibly green. There are trees everywhere, mostly weeping willows, making even the narrow streets shady and beautiful in the summer. Little stores line most of the street level. Most of them seem very dark inside and remind me of the corner store I used to go to when I was a kid: Ron used call his store "The Biggest Little Store in the World," and it was. The stores in Harbin along the smaller side streets are just like that.
Today, the undergraduates, who have no money, put on a series of skits for their teachers, which were absolutely hilarious. They've been working on them for the past two days and they were full of singing and dancing and slapstick, and absurdity. My favorite was called "Love and Stinky Feet," about a young man from a region where everyone has fragrant feet. One day a beautiful witch who has the stinkiest feet the world exchanges their feet while he's asleep and he's driven out of his village. The crows can't stand his smelly feet; the flowers can't stand his smelly feet, even the local monsters can't stand his smelly feet. He wanders the countryside disconsolate until he comes to a kingdom where the king and queen's daughter can't sleep, no matter what they try: sleeping pills, counting sheep, hypnotism, magic. But the moment he sticks his foot in the Princess's face, she falls asleep and he gets to marry her. My face hurt from laughing.
We were free for the day at about 10:30 so I headed back to the dorm to drop some stuff off and check my email and let a colleague use my internet since Microsoft's Vista OS (useless piece of crap) keeps them from connecting through the University. By the time Mary was done, it had started to rain. And not just rain, but pour, with thunder and lightning. So I had some lunch, watched the rain with my neighbors, and got some photos posted. I realized it had cleared up when I heard someone down on the street hawking something very melodiously. I think it was a water seller on a trike, but I couldn't see because of all the trees. Usually they're just loud and obnoxious, but this one was practically singing, and in a beautiful voice. Then I went out for about an hour and found my way through the streets outside HIT's back gate, and got a clearer picture in my head of the layout. I'm still not sure what street we're on as far as the map goes, but I can find my way out and around a lot better now. I think I probably know an area about the size of my neighborhood now, from White Plains Road to Castle Hill Road, Tremont to Westchester Rd.
But I've teased you enough about the silk worms by now. Lest you think my title is a come-on, I really did eat silk worms tonight, and yes, I knew what they were when I ate them. There's really not much mistaking them. They're about the size of my thumb and the segmentations are clearly visible. I'm not sure how they were prepared, other than cut in half longitudinally, but I suspect frying of some kind. They're black when they're done this way and a little crunchy, and kind of nutty flavored. It's actually the pupae (from inside the unraveled cocoon) that's served, not the worms and these had had any of the adult body parts removed. What's left is a sort of tofu-like paste that fries up crispy. The texture is a bit like stuffed clams. They reminded both Peter and I of something else (no, not chicken!) that we couldn't put our fingers on. I ate about 6 of them. And though I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of them, they were not offensive at all. Not like that pig skin from last week. These had a nice texture and mild flavor. They're full of protein and very nutritious. That tops the list of Weird Things I Have Eaten. Do I get a prize?