Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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T-minus 20 days and counting. The first few weeks are taking shape; I'll be joined by my friend Barb for a week in early February, and we'll be splitting our time between Beijing and Harbin. I've got the BJ segment planned, and I have feelers out for the Harbin part. I really want to show her a good time.

I'm also at the point where I'm physically packing my bags. It's interesting to think about what I'll need for seven months (there, I've said it - seven, count 'em, seven). When it comes to clothes, this is a trivial task because [a I've been there before and know what kind of clothes I'll want, and [b] I've gone on lots of trips and so I have what I need, and [c] as a child I practically memorized the Boy Scout Field Book, which has extensive information on lightweight travel, and [d] I camp by bicycle, and finally, [e], I never really unpacked from my return in September - I washed my clothes and re-packed them - so I'm halfway there already.

But packing other items poses interesting logistical dilemmas. I know, for instance, that getting a decent cup of coffee in Harbin in 2011 is about as likely as it was in Australia in 1973 - which is to say, as they would have said back then, not bloody likely, Mate. I can take a Melitta coffee filter thing (actually, I left one in Harbin, anticipating my return), I can take sufficient filters, and if I run out I can make them from paper towels. But the coffee itself poses a problem. I can get it in Harbin, but it's expensive - at least three times as much as it costs here. The cheapest, most satisfying thing to do is buy it here and schlep it over there. But how much coffee do I drink in seven months? I'd estimate that I drink seven pounds. Not sure I can devote 7% of my luggage to coffee. (Barb, on the other hand, is only coming for a week. I think she can devote about 50% of her luggage to that effort, don't you?) Exercise equipment creates a similar problem. For practical packing purposes, my default exercise is going to be swimming, because all I need for that is a Speedo, a pair of goggles and a cap. And speed skating, because I can rent skates at the rink. (Woo, hoo! How cool is that??)

And then there are a whole host of miscellaneous other items that I know from experience I better take because they'll be hard to get in China. There are the obvious ones, like books; it's hard to find English-language reading material there and I sure don't want to run out. (Thanks again for the Kindle, family!) I know I can get yarn but not the kind of knitting needles I like. Some things should be easy to get but I just haven't managed to find them there. Most curious to me in that category: Buttons. When I was there in September I searched as far as my limited knowledge would take me; I tried the yarn market, the tailor on campus (who's there to repair, not construct, garments), the campus supermarket, the ubiquitous street vendors, the Carrefour, the Wal-Mart. (Yes, the Wal-Mart.) Sometimes my friends can help me immediately, but often - as in the case of buying yarn - it takes a little while to find someone who can understand what I want, and then a bit longer to find someone who knows where to get it.

Of course, by the end of this adventure I'm sure I'll know a lot more about what's available in Harbin, and I'll have better language skills to get it , too. Some things I can wait for (like those buttons, now that I'm forewarned), and some things aren't worth the effort. For instance, I'm just going to pack a 7-month supply of dental floss because what the heck, it's small and light and why waste cognitive resources procuring dental floss (of all things) when I'll have much better fish to fry, both literally and metaphorically? Some things are worth a disproportionate amount of effort and space - like the portable printer and wand scanner and various other electronics (cameras, chargers, computers and the aforementioned Kindle) that will go in my carry-on. (Not surprisingly, the TSA people always end up unpacking my carry-on. )

The point is, it's just not like packing for any other place I've ever been. I suppose that goes hand in hand with the fact that living there is unlike living anywhere else, too. The contents of my suitcases represent the meeting of east and west in a way; I'm taking to the east what I need from the west. And it's also a meeting of high tech and low expectations; I can take computers and printers and scanners because I'll have terrific internet access, but I also need a flashlight because I feel confident that in 7 months the electricity in the dorm will go out at least once.

They're a curious mix of the two cultures, the contents of my bags. Time will tell if I packed appropriately, if I guessed right, if I took the things I need to live comfortably so that I can move on to the discomfort of learning the language and immersing myself in the culture.

I can't wait to find out.

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