Pinyin phonetics has "q" pronounced as "chi", and "c" as "ts". Cha (tea) is pronounced as tsa (not unfamiliar to local and regional dialects); Qiqihar is pronounced chee-chee-haar!
Moving out of Harbin just as it got dark, our jovial next-door company tour group turned rowdy as they delved deeper into their boxes of Blue Ribbon Pabst and Bud (amazing how American marketing has gotten them to completely forget that Qingdao and Harbin beers taste better!).
It appears that the elders in the group are teachers at the company’s attached university (Microsoft University offers degrees, and Apple U just got started to train CEOs how to think), and thereby revered as lao shi, teacher. At the graduate level of their beer consumption, they lit up their cigarettes in the air-conditioned berths. I do not think I was the only one who noticed but no one seemed to mind.
(Smoking in public places was banned at the onset of the Beijing Olympics, but the prohibition did not entail real teeth, nor were smokers deterred. After all, numerous tobacco companies are state-owned, and the local population is adept at skirting around prohibitions. Thus, restrooms/WCs are always tobacco smoke-laden, and in the case of the train, the connecting platform between cabooses is where one flicks one’s lighter.)
In the course of getting to know my neighbors, I asked one of the young ladies wearing a t-shirt that declared: "I am an easy prey to temptation" if she understood the writing, and, of course, I got a "ting bu dong" (I don’t know) answer, with an "I am sorry" follow up. I discovered a ChEnglish/EnglisCh speaker.
Later, a neighbor on the other side from Shanghai introduced herself when she heard me use the word "macroeconomics" (I guest lectured on the subject for a semester). She is a recent economics grad who now works for CITI group and was intrigued that one would actually be conversant in a field she considers esoteric. She had a very fair command of English.
With the neighboring onslaught of tobacco consumption, I first approached the t-shirt girl to see if the tour guide could advice the group about the smoking no-no. That’s when she told me of the lao shi bit and she could not possibly tell them to quit. So I got the Shanghai girl to translate to the conductor for me, and the train personnel immediately went to tell the group of the rail company’s prohibition on smoking.
Did that make a difference? Well, yes, save for two people who were either too inebriated to care, or were just too used to getting their own way. I fumed a little bit but if the other passengers were not going to do anything about it, I could make a big fuss, but then, I would be a bit on the hypocritical side.
Not too long ago, we reflected on my inability to resist the kretek sigaret that I had meant to throw away as it sat available for anyone to pick up in the faculty room. Not only did they not make the trash bin, I actually smoked all 12 sticks times six packs in the last three weeks. Though I cold turkey’d in ’84, it did not take long to get back to the addiction. Now I am struggling to keep my distance from the sticks of light and thin feminine Esse Korean cigarettes left behind by an Arizona teacher. I snip the filters off.
Saulus of Tarsus once wrote that of the things he knows he ought to do, he doesn’t, and what he knows he needs not do, does. In our case, we mused at what makes us turn into dark knights even if, or because of, we become lucid about the dark night of our soul?
We were struck by the case of James Holmes of Colorado who evidently plotted to perform the dastardly act he committed in Aurora, Colorado at the midnight screening of the new Batman movie. What demonic urges did he contend with?
We never got to see Qiqihar, the decidedly Muslim city of Heilongjiang, as we finally succumbed to slumber, perhaps because the whiff of tobacco from the neighboring berth was not altogether unpleasant to our own addiction to nicotine. We decided to stop and observe our ablution on our return trip back from Manzhouli to Mukden.
It is the other addictions that bedeviled our constitution in this night's passage into the Inner Mongolia of our soul, not so much to salve the lingering guilt from acts of omission and commission, but from the vantage point of seeking understanding for the nature of human behavior, most specifically our own, and the story we relate about it.
We grew up clear that there is no escape to "the devil made me do it" excuse. Even victims participate in their victimization since the external situation is never anyone’s real contradiction, as even Holocaust survivors attest. Still, Zimmermann of Florida is now claiming as his defense that the incidence of his shooting Treyton Martin was "the will of God." A Republican congressman from Texas now laments that the Colorado shooting was a result of the decline of Judeo-Christian virtues in human conduct.
I have a friend who cannot stop figuring out how he can divest someone else’s money into his side of the ledger, all in the name of free enterprise!
Whence cometh the meanness in our souls? Chee chee haar haar!
Jaime R. Vergara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang Aerospace University in China.