Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Chim-chim-cheroo, Gifting, A Dog is for Life

Wednesday 27th December 2006
I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to learn that not only do we get Monday off for New Year, but also Thursday and Friday. I suspect that I am almost beginning to enjoy teaching, nonetheless a break will be very welcome. I still have to get up pretty early tomorrow because the 11th grade students have asked me to play a couple of tunes at their New Year’s Prom, and I agreed to head down there at 10am to run through ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and ‘Let It Be’ with one of the students who is a pretty good guitar player. I have now committed myself to running a Bluegrass jam at the school one or two nights in the week.

Last night was our parent corporation’s New Year do at the Grand Khan, and of course also my banjo picking debut there. I had been asked to come down at 7pm to play at the night’s “opening ceremony”: when I got there I found out that they had a whole slew of professional entertainers lined up for the night, and that they meant for me to play outside alongside an accordion player in a Santa outfit. I was dismayed at the notion that I was to be expected to freeze my fingers off as some kind of amusing hillbilly freakshow, while the real musicians would be playing in the pub’s luxurious and warm interior. A troupe of dancers were running through their routine for the chimney sweep song from ‘Mary Poppins’ as I sulked and Lhagvaa very generously said I could play a few tunes with a keyboard lounge jazz player. The old guy didn’t look massively thrilled at the honour of backing me up, but he gamely suggested ‘Country Roads’ as a song he knew, and of course picked up the ‘Worried Man Blues’ very easily.

Outside there’d been fireworks (and an accordion playing Santa), then the guests rolled in, in their tailored suits and flowing ball gowns. Tables for the serving of free booze were everywhere - a limitless supply of beer, wine, whisky and of course vodka - all the very best stuff. I did my best to pace myself and had a glass of beer then a bottle of Guinness before I played. Then a large Chivas Regal with plenty of ice as the lounge Jazz carried on and I hung around feeling very scruffy in my Wranglers, waiting to be called on to play, thinking that piano man had decided to just ignore me. The crowd were all elegantly dressed and suavely enjoying their wealth and privilege, and I couldn’t quite see “Now we’ll pick things up with a bit of Hillbilly music, folks!” going down too well. The professional dancers filled the floor and the PA blasted out Chim-chim-cheroo. Finally, just as I had decided that maybe I would have another whisky, the excitable announcer jumped up and let loose a string of showman talk and flung out his arm in my direction. There was a polite scatter of clapping, the keyboard player looked at me with world-weary reserve and I stepped up onto the stage.

Well it didn’t go down like a lead balloon, at least, and one guy shook my hand when I stepped of the stage, with what I felt was admiration - doubtless for my bravely giving it a go in spite of my obvious shortcomings. There was no rapturous applause, however, and kind of glad it was over, I settled down to some uninterrupted (except by amazing food) drinking. Let me assure any prospective future employers that there is no way that I would have allowed myself to drink excessively on a week night - but the principal and various big wigs from the school and the corporation behind it gave me every encouragement. I am sure that my extremely agile and energetic dancing later in the evening won me the many admirers that my banjo playing had failed to arouse; I am sure, but the memory is a bit hazy, so let’s just say it did.

Woke up this morning feeling considerably less than great, and then some. Sunlight was pouring into my bedroom - grabbed my watch: 9am. Got up and showered, brushed my teeth and gargled mouthwash. Did not really feel much better. Thinking that it might not be such a good idea to turn up in front of class drunk, I phoned the School. Someone answered in Mongolian, I said Good Morning and my name, they said something else in Mongolian and hung-up. I have spent so much time boasting to my employer that I never take a day off work that I realised that I would have no option but to go in, and catch my 10am lesson. This I did. The freezing walk didn’t really freshen me up any, but it certainly woke me up a bit more. I had three classes left to get through. Stayed sat down for them and didn’t write anything on the blackboard, which would have made me feel nauseous. Kept as far away from the students as possible, and found that, in all, the lessons went fine. Had a good chat with one of the best students in one of my worst classes after the lesson: she said that the previous teacher, an American who quit just before I arrived, had ranted at them on a regular basis about how much he hated teaching them. They aren’t bad kids, but this class simply do not understand the work that they are being shoved through - I need to go back over basic grammar with them, and hopefully some of it will stick.

Lunchtime I decided not to brave the canteen. Yuan Yuan, the Chinese teacher, arrived carrying a waste paper bin and a smile. In the bin she had a shivering puppy that she’d found out on the street. I guess it was a couple weeks old and in a sorry state, but didn’t look injured and its eyes weren’t glazed. I suggested she get a little rice and milk for it (my friend’s dog has just been ill, and the vet told them just to feed it that).

She came back shortly with a little bowl of the rice and milk, and the news that the school had told her that she must not keep the dog on the premises. “He’s so nice,” she said, “you take him, Jim. Yes, you like him.” “I can’t take a dog, Yuan, and I don’t know anybody here I could give him to.” “Yes, you take him, you like dog. He so lovely.”

I guess the drink still hadn’t quite worn off; I agreed to take the dog if she still had it after my next and final lesson. But I’d be taking him to the vet for an injection or finding someone with a gun. Yuan said it was no problem, I could just put him back out onto the street, and I was so very kind. “Please don’t ask me for any more favours, Yuan: you’ve used them all up.” She laughed.

We took the shivering dog back to my apartment (“Here your new home, dog! Very nice!”) and tipped the little feller into the bath. I showered him for about 20 minutes, until the water ran off him clear. He didn’t protest much and drank a bit of the water. I dried him a bit with a tea-towel and then carried him through to the kitchen, putting him down on a folded seat cover in a plastic basin. He lay curled up, and I shut the kitchen door and went for an hour or so to lie down.

I felt better when I got up. Checked in on the dog, who I’d decided to call Jamsran, after the chief ‘Wrathful Deity’ in the Mongolian/Tibetan Buddhist canon. He looked considerably better, and was still curled up in the basket. I had to go back to the school for a teachers’ meeting. Would try and get some dog food on the way back. The meeting turned out to be about the Christmas ‘Secret Santa’ system that the school runs. We had been asked, last week, to pick a number and so a name of one of the sixty or so members of staff. That person we would secretly give a gift to during the week. The gift was typically a chocolate bar or piece of cake. On the staff room door was a list of the names of the staff, with a column along side it for each of the days of the last week in the year. Throughout the week, it was eventually explained to me, people put stars or smiley faces next to their name as they received a gift. I got a piece of cake one day and a coffee mug on another. Smiley faces on the chart. Some members of staff had dozens of smileys, and some none. There was a great deal of gleeful excitement amongst many of the teachers about the whole process. Well, tonight was the grand finale of the whole thing - which I had had no idea about. A teacher read through the names on the list and then revealed who that person’s ‘Secret’ Santa was. They then gave the person they’d received a chocolate bar or piece of cake from an extremely expensive looking gift (a lot of framed paintings, baskets with champagne bottles and chocolates in, etc.) out of gratitude. It took about an hour to go through the whole list. I was the only person who hadn’t bought a gift for my secret Santa. Myself, I received a plastic bag, containing the very same box of chocolates that I had given as a gift, and a bound notebook. Is there any meaning to the return of the original gift in Mongolian culture? Was this some kind of snub?

After the long, long process of sitting through the counter-gifting we then each had a gift to collect with a lottery ticket we had each been given. Some people had dozens of tickets, so I assume that the school had been selling additional tickets. I stood in front of the gift table, hungry, tired and hung-over, while a mad scramble of teachers pushed past me to get their gift or gifts. I got another mug.

I was starting to worry a bit about having left Jamsran so long, was mentally preparing myself for a torrent of abuse off Puru’s mother for keeping a stray dog in my apartment. One of the teachers had told me that you need a license for a pet, and also gone on about the various illnesses the stray would probably have. Thankfully, things were drawing to a close at the school. There was now a raffle for which our lottery tickets doubled. A dozen prizes of ascending spectacularness, each winner being accompanied by much cheering and jollity. Sadly, I didn’t win anything; finally, the humidifier and the (drumroll) deep fat fryer were triumphantly carried off and I was able to leave.

Stopped off at a small supermarket on the way home in hope of finding dog food, but no such luck. Would try the bigger supermarket further past the apartment. First though to drop off my gifts and check up on Jamsran.

He had certainly picked up his spirits. He’d knocked over the bin, figured out what I’d put the newspaper down for (Good boy!) and playfully chewed at my boots as I walked in. I left the kitchen to discard my coat and he started to yelp as though he was testing out his voice: it sounded like he would have the capacity to get a fair bit louder. Felt very paranoid about my neighbours complaining, and tired and hungry. Went back into the kitchen and cut small slices of smoked sausage, which I attempted to get Jamsran to sit down for. He wanted more; he scratched at fleas. I left the kitchen, and he again started barking.

I would have to take Jamsran to the vet tomorrow, and I was supposed to be going to the students’ prom for ten. Well, gentle reader, I thought it through. I could not house train a puppy and leave it alone in the apartment every day. He’d been washed, warmed up, fed some. It wouldn’t be fair to let him get any more used to the apartment. If I took him to the vet, it would be for injection, because I couldn’t look after a dog. Maybe if I let him out near some warm pipes somewhere he might survive the night. Maybe some other dogs would look after him, like the cheery bunch I’d seen peering out of a hole in the ground near the market. I cut a few more slivers of sausage and put some newspaper down in the bottom of my school bag, wrapped Jamsran up in a teatowel, gave him a couple of slices to chew, and placed him in the bag. He sat quietly as I zipped the bag up.

Puru and Mungun knocked on the door just as I was leaving - to give me a present of a 2007 calendar featuring the President of Mongolia or somebody. “Thank you, thank you, very nice. I’ve got to go out now, thank you.” Jamsran shifted in the bag, but didn’t bark. I did not want to let the kids see him. I did wonder why it is that you’re always smuggling puppies out of buildings to abandon them in the arctic cold when you’re hungover. Some kind of penance, I guess.

Jamsran kept quiet as I descended the six floors and left the building. It was some time after nine, and there were plenty of people about. I walked away from the tower blocks, hoping that I would get a chance to stop and let Jamsran out without anyone walking past. Maybe I should just unzip the bag and leave it somewhere.

As chance would have it, just round the corner from my building, I saw a homeless guy emerging from a manhole. I hurried over. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I tried. The guy, who was not too scarily drunk, looked a bit confused. “Please, I have a dog,” I continued, opening my bag like a kitchen appliance salesman. He called to someone else beneath the ground, and a young lad climbed up.

I have been warned very strictly to avoid the homeless people here: the manner of these two (luckily) seemed to be very gentle and understanding. The young man held Jamsran against his chest and stroked him. They didn’t seem to be expecting any payment so I quickly handed them a T10,000 note, for which they were very grateful. I hurried off, feeling a little sad, but immensely relieved. Maybe things will work out for Jamsran.

With a certain sense of irony, I walked to the Korean restaurant, and treated myself to dinner for my good deed. The meat in my Bi Biim Bap was very good, although I couldn’t decide if it was pork or beef.

London and Belfast residents: Lhagvaa and ‘Beer Band’ are flying over to Europe today and playing sometime somewhere in your town! Lhagvaa does not know the details, but the Mongolian Embassy may know as they have sponsored their trip. Go see them, and say hi. Oh and tell them how famous and well-respected I am as a musician in Europe