Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

small victories
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Well, despite the fact that I feel like I'm not getting far in my goals for being here, I do want to report a bit of progress.

Bed sheets

That's right, I bought bed sheets.


Pretty, aren't they? When I got the 4-piece set home, I discovered that I didn't have the usual American configuration of fitted sheet, flat sheet, two pillowcases. Instead, I got a flat sheet, two pillowcases, and a comforter cover. My single comforter kinda swims in the double cover, but it'll do.

To buy them, I tromped off to Carrefour yesterday on foot , where I knew I could find reasonably-priced sheets. (I just couldn't face the bus again, and besides, walking is good exercise.) The supermarket on campus stocks them, but they only carry single sheets and I have a double bed. (I think this is a change; I don't remember having this problem last year.)

So I made my way to the linens department. Imagine, if you will (if you can, I should say) three aisles of bed and bath ware, and at the end of each stands a uniformed salesperson. As I walked down the aisle, I was followed by one of them. This is one of the most disconcerting things about wandering alone in Chinese stores . . . I am inevitably followed by the employees. When we Americans travel in groups of two or three we become a "gang" (in the words of my African-American friend Brenda, who says that's how people think of her kids when they hang out with their friends) and we somehow intimidate the salespeople. But alone, I'm approachable.

It's not that they think I'm going to steal things. Rather, they perceive (correctly, most of the time) that I'm going to need some help. And this time was no exception. The saleswoman asked me if I wanted to buy something (a sentence I understood word-for-word, and I guess I should count that a victory, too), and as I was fortuitously standing next to the sheets, I could point at one and say, "That. That too small." So she trotted me down the next aisle, where there were a plethora of boxed full sheet sets. (Not surprisingly, they always try to steer you to the high-priced alternative first.) I then said "Size?" (but of course, since I was asking a question I made the tone of a question, and the chances of "size" actually taking that tone are one in four, so possibly I really said, "Big butt?" or some such thing . . . but context is my friend. We managed.) We found a suitable size, and when I looked at the price, I told her, "too expensive." She pointed out that they were having a sale, and indeed, I then did notice the big signs that said, "Textile Big Sale!" everywhere.

So I settled on a set, and the saleswoman very helpfully walked me to the appropriate register and explained to the clerk that I was buying the sheets on sale. They made me sign my name in a book. I have no idea why. (I am comforted by the fact that they can't read it.)

My bathing cap

This, friends, is the piece de resistance. (Sorry it's blurry.)


This is an HIT deep-water swimming cap. This cap certifies that I passed the swim test and I can swim in the deep end of the pool - with the bona fide lap swimmers, not the paddlers who clog up the lanes in the shallow end, scurrying willy-nilly across the pool with no regard for people who want Exercise . . . (some things are the same the world over). The top three characters say "Ha Gong Da," the pragmatic (but not semantic) equivalent of saying "HIT." The bottom character says "shen," which means "deep."

(See that? Not only can I swim, I can read the cap! Hoo, ha, that feels like a BIG victory, actually.)

Anyway, to get this thing, I first had to get my picture taken. I knew where to do that, and I even had a complete sentence to say, "I want to buy two pictures." (Two, because you never know when you might need them around here. I ended up with six. The clerk must have thought I meant "two" in that Chinese way where a specific number can mean "some" or "a lot.") The clerk replied, "Blah blah blah blah tomorrow blah blah blah right now?" So I said, "Right now," figuring that he was asking me if I wanted the pictures immediately . . . which turned out to be a good guess. I went into the "studio" (a room set up with lights and a backdrop) and the cameraman made me pose - I had to take my glasses off and straighten my back and put my chin just so - all for a mug shot. Cracks me up every time.

So then I took my picture and my swimming pass and other necessaries off to the pool. I'm pretty familiar with the drill by now, having swum as much as possible over here. In the summer, you go in, pay the entry fee to one person, give your ID to someone else who hands you a key and a receipt, and then you sit down and change out of your shoes and into flip-flops and proceed to the locker room.

Today, when I walked through the door, all three women behind the counter started speaking to me in highly agitated tones. (Boy, I get a real chuckle thinking about those guys you hear about who get Chinese mail-order brides and think they're getting docile young things . . . Hell hath no fury like a Chinese woman whose job it is to make you follow the rules.) I simply could not understand what they were saying to me at all. After a few minutes, someone behind me said, "Please change your shoes." In the winter, apparently, you have to take off your shoes in the entryway before you even come in the door. Since my winter boots can trap about a quart of ice and snow on each sole, I guess this is a sensible practice . . .

When I was allowed to approach the counter, I said, "test" and showed them my picture. They nodded in comprehension, and gave me a form to fill out. I figured out the "name" space (always way too small, because Chinese names don't exceed three characters), but then I was stumped. One of the women took my swim pass, took the form, and filled out lots of the requisite information from it. Then the three of them all surveyed me appraisingly, and chatted amongst themselves. My guess would be that they were estimating my height and weight, correctly surmising that asking me would do no good because I wouldn't understand. (And even if I did, I'd have the entirely wrong units of measurement, anyhow. I think in pounds and inches, not kilos and centimeters.) When the form was complete, I was asked to affix my photo to it (they handed me a glue stick. I don't know why they didn't just do it, since they'd done everything else. Maybe they wanted to empower me).

Then up to the locker room, where I gave my receipt to the locker-room attendant. You have to do this because when you pay for swimming, you only pay for a two-hour time block (including changing time) irrespective of the pool hours. It could be open from 6 am - 10 pm (and it might be), but you only get two hours. The first time I went swimming with my friend Fanlin, I couldn't figure out why he kept watching the clock.

Then to the pool area (through the shower that works sort of like a car wash - you walk through, and it "rains", and then you have to step in a shallow pool to get your feet clean). I waved my form at the first guard, and he gesticulated to the other side of the pool. So I went to the correct guard, who explained that I had to swim 4 lengths in some specified time period. (I know that's what he said because I'd been told this by someone else last summer.) So I swam. Then he was supposed to make me tread water for some period of time - but he just waved me off, probably figuring that he would never be able to explain that to me, and besides, I'm sure I didn't look in danger of drowning.

So then - and this is just so, so Chinese - he made me go to the shallow end, because although I had just passed the swim test right before his very eyes, I had not yet bought the deep water bathing cap and so I was not qualified to swim in the deep end.

Rather than get dressed and go buy the cap immediately, I spent 900 yards dodging paddlers. And then I got dressed and went downstairs and bought my cap on the way out.

So there you have it. Two simple victories. Nothing is easy for me in this country - everything involves new processes and confusion and moments of feeling like a total doofus. But that's what I signed on for, eh?

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about the problems I haven't managed to solve yet . . .

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