Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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As the time before I leave grows shorter, I'm starting to feel like I've entered some kind of time warp or other dimension. I'm more or less going through my day doing the ordinary things as well as the extraordinary (like packing to spend half a year away). But my head feels far away as I try to imagine and remember the life I'm going to. I'm constantly thinking of things that have to be packed or done before I leave. I'm noticing upcoming events that will take place after I'm gone. This place will go on without me, and I will be gone, materially cut off from all of it.

And the place where I'm going is really, really different than where I am now. Right at the moment, I'm feeling relaxed, comfortable, and happy. There's a nice rhythm to my days and I'm accomplishing a lot. I'm enjoying my husband's (previously unplanned and unexpected) company and I know that if I stayed, we could fill our time quite happily. It's hard even for me to remember what it's like to live in China; I remember my friends and the good times we had, but there are a million subtle differences and nuances in behavior and thought that add up to a completely different lifestyle than I have in the US.

Here's one small example of something I do remember. Chinese people clearly have a different feeling about their bodies than Westerners do. They're a lot more casual than we are about personal space. Moving around in Harbin - going to the store, riding the bus, waiting in line to go through a turnstile - involves a lot of incidental physical contact. There are a lot of people in China, and in close circumstances, it's inevitable that you're going to bump into them. Plus, people casually touch each other a lot; it's not at all uncommon for one of my female friends to take my arm (or even my hand) as we're walking somewhere. (At first I was startled but I've worked hard on learning how to accept and reciprocate such touches. It's harder than you'd think. There's a whole body grammar going on here.) Undergraduate boys (they call themselves boys) walk with their arms over each others' shoulders or sit on each others' laps like puppies playing together. So strangers on a train or a bus might not even be aware of when they're touching you.

And you know, I really like that aspect of life in China. In my day-to-day life in the US, the only person I touch on a regular basis is my husband. And I know I'm lucky to have someone to cuddle with; when I think of the people around me, I'd say about half of them don't. What effect does this have on us? We all know about the studies with monkeys showing how the lack of physical contact affects their development; we know that infant humans can die without the warmth of human touch. But there's too dang much space on this continent. We don't have to get close enough to brush against each other. When we touch, it has to be a demonstration of something - a hug to say hi, a handshake, a clap on the shoulders - it's all an intentional contact with a discernible message. Here, physical touch is a rhetorical act.

There, physical touch is a byproduct of the fact that we all have bodies. Of course sometimes there's intentional contact, and of course, there's reserve where you might not expect it. But on the whole, when I'm there, what I call the "massage effect" begins to kick in after about two weeks. At first I'm annoyed by the crowds and overwhelmed by the sensory input. But soon, just the simple, unintentional contact that's part of daily life becomes calming and comforting.

But it's really different than here, that's for sure. So these last few days feel positively surreal. It feels more like getting ready to go through the Looking Glass than going on a trip . . .

Soon, more about packing.

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