Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

So it begins . . .
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I'm in the free internet lounge at the airport in Seoul, waiting for the final leg of my journey to Harbin. I have about three hours until my flight departs - not enough time to sleep, really, becauase it's noisy here (flight announcements and such) and besides, I managed just enough sleep on the trans-Pacific leg to keep me functional (read: Keep track of my passport and boarding pass). I can't imagine I'm going to see 9 pm, though, which is my target time for staying awake when I travel like this. I'll get to Harbin at about 1:30. I expect to be tucked up in my dorm by about 4:00, and it could be curtains then . . .

Airports are transitional places, and Seoul Incheon is no exception. The terminal is lined with high-end shops (Coach and Gucci and Prada) and you can get food from both east and west - my last Starbucks encounter will take place in a few minutes when I make my way back to the gate. So it's not completely like being in a foreign land . . . but I am, nonetheless, in a foreign land. I'm reminded that I'm unusual here; I'm taller and heavier and my hair is not black. I noticed that there are a lot of people in the airport with glasses sort of like mine, and I thought, "Oh, great - these frames are a Korean fashion, not a Chinese one" . . . and for one jet-lagged moment I forgot that it doesn't matter what kind of glasses I wear here, I am not going to "fit in."

"Otherness" has its perks, of course, because you get a free pass in a lot of situations where people don't expect you to know the norms. But it's uncomfortable, too; I feel as if I have to pour my North American self into a shell of quiet reserve. In the US and Canada, we have a very adventurous spirit - a sense that the sky's the limit and there are few boundaries around individual optimism and enterprise - if something works, it was the right thing to do. I'm going to a place that has been civilized for so long that the rules are codified and amplified and they go on and on and on . . . when you toast someone senior to you, make sure you clink your glass low on their glass, not up at the rim, like equals. To pay respect and say thank you, make a fist with your right hand and put it in the palm of your left hand - but don't mix up left and right hands because instead of saying thank you, you'd be gesturing to the dead. My friends will feed me noodles when I arrive, because you should eat dumplings before a long journey and noodles when the journey is finished.

It's a veritable thicket of rules, customs and traditions over here. Of course, nobody expects me to know all of them, but they hang in the air nonetheless, like some color I can't see or a sound I can't hear. I wish I understood all of them. I don't know the effect of living in a civilization that's so old, but I think this business of customs and practices and rules is intimitely tied up in it. In the US, we have a frontier mentality. We know firsthand that customs and practices from the "old country" (most of us have an "old country") just don't translate seamlessly to another country; and all of us have the experience of standing a bit outside our culture even as we live in it, because we came from somewhere else.

Not so in China. For instance, the river that runs along the top of the province where I'm going is the Hei Long Jiang - the Black Dragon River. And it wasn't named by some quaint, nearly-extinct tribe of "native Chinese" - it was named by my friends' ancestors. Think of your favorite poetic America place name. I bet it wasn't named by your ancestors.

I have a lot more to say about that, but at the moment, I'm too tired . . . I better stagger off to Starbucks and tank up so I can keep track of my stuff for the final leg. I don't know when I'll have internet in my dorm, but there's a cafe around the corner if I have to wait too long, so you'll hear from me again when I get some decent sleep.

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