The beluga whale show was so good that this man had traveled all the way from Singapore here, to Harbin, a desolate and frost-bitten city in the Northeastern-most corner of China, to see it. He convinced us that we couldn’t leave the city without catching the show, a beautiful encounter with nature. We were there to be marveled—our itinerary so far included massive snow sculptures, ice palaces, underground Russian clubs, and a tiger sanctuary with a literal herd of tigers (and one liger)—we felt it should be worked in, if possible.
We were a group of five friends, Allen, Mark, Sofia, Prerna, and me. We’d come from various parts of China, besides Prerna who lived in the U.S., and convened in this winter city, which hovers about 470 miles north of Pyongyang, to attend the Harbin Ice Festival. The festival runs for two months each winter and draws huge numbers of tourists, mostly from China and Russia.
On our last full day in town, we looked up the beluga show times before we left our apartment and then set out by cab. We could see the aquarium long before we were anywhere close to it. It rose off a stretch of flat, undeveloped land on the city limits, looking like an igloo mansion: several large white, circular structures with sloping roofs combined into one structure. As we joined the stream of taxis delivering visitors to the aquarium, we saw that the outside walls were covered with huge murals of killer whales and harp seals and penguins.
Large speakers flooded the parking lot and ticket area with ear-grinding, upbeat electro-pop. Allen, Prerna and Mark went over to the ticket stand that looked like some port of call ticketing booth. When they met Sofia and me by the entrance, they had news: the next beluga show wasn’t for an hour.
“So we’re seeing the sea-lions now,” said Allen, “and then the belugas!”
Inside there was no aquatic life in sight besides the stuffed dolphins and whales being sold by salesgirls with overdone make-up. Huge cartoony arrows led us through a maze of food we could buy, from fruit smoothies in plastic dolphin cups with crazy straws to meat dumplings or fish sticks.
We were ushered by the general flow of the crowd toward the auditorium where the show was about to start. I dipped out of the line to get a juice at the stand. “Oh, uh, I’ll wait with you,” said Sofia, stopping too. I mangled some Chinese fruit words and waited as the blender sounded off behind the counter. “Do you think this is going to be like Sea World shows?” she asked. I shrugged. I’d never been to Sea World.
By the time we got inside the auditorium, the host was already center stage, dressed in a toy soldier’s uniform, with oversized gold buttons and exaggerated epaulets. He was speaking emphatically into a headset, using sweeping hand gestures. The room was low-ceiled and packed, with people seated on tiered steps that surrounded the stage and the small in-ground pool that stretched in front of it. The whole place smelled like dank pool water.
By the time, Sofia and I had found our friends and sat, a tall, slender girl with a long blonde braid had also appeared onstage, and the ringleader was pointing the crowd’s attention over to her. She was wearing a girl-version of the cartoony soldier outfit and spoke a few words in Russian into her headset and waved to the audience.
Trumpets blared from somewhere off-stage and out of a back pool six black, leathery seals came bounding onto stage, one after the other. Techno-carnival music started and a wet-suited trainer came out from the wings and began tossing rings at the seals, who each caught them on their snouts and then dove into the front pool, becoming a black streak for a moment before peaking out of the water again, ready to catch another ring or bounce an inflatable beach ball. The ringleader didn’t seem to take a breath as he continued to talk and clap and wave his hands wildly. Mark, who was seated to my left was cheering loudly with the rest of the audience. Allen was laughing and grabbing swigs of the baijiu liquor that Mark had pulled out of his coat pocket.
I clapped for the seals, but found myself distracted by the pretty Russian girl, who stood watching the seals off to the side with a stiff smile. We’d met a lot of Russians the night before at a club. Like us, they’d left their country to soak up some of China’s excess. But this girl, getting lightly splattered by smelly aquarium water kicked up by seal flippers— Who had she been in Russia that this was better?
The seals were making their final lap, their black heads raised in synchrony out of the water. They hopped back up onto the stage with grace and slid back into the other pool. More trumpets sounded; the ringleader was practically screaming in excitement.
From the wings, the sea lion appeared, his blubber rippling as he shimmed his massive body across to center stage. The ringleader went over to him and they high-fived. The crowd burst with applause and laughter. Then, in a moment of surprising agility, the animal pulled himself upright, so nearly his entire body was erect, and his fleshy pink penis poked out from his blubber. “Oh my god, look at its cock,” Mark said loudly into my ear, laughing.
The ringleader let out a long groan into the microphone and then began shaking his head at the sea lion and pointing to the exposed organ. The lion bent his head down, like he was looking at his body and then raised his flippers up to cover his face in embarrassment. Waves of laughter were shaking the crowd.
Sofia made a slight movement next to me, and I looked over at her. There were tears streaming down her face. “Sofia?” I touched her arm. She shook me off and said she’d wait outside. She turned around and grabbed her jacket, stood up and walked out.
Mark was still cheering next to me. I sat there, unsure if I should follow her or just let her be. The rest of them hadn’t really noticed. The sea lion was in the pool now, doing a swim routine to a new track of pounding music.
Finally the intermission came. “Where’d Sofia go?” asked Allen. “She left,” I said. “I think she’s upset.” Nobody wondered why.
Outside we found her sitting in the closest seat to the exit. When she saw us coming she gave us a little, weak smile and stood up. We all walked out together, silent. Nobody mentioned the tickets in our pockets to the beluga show.